Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hacking, before the Internet

The term hack has existed for quite a long time in various forms. MIT uses the term to describe playful pranks some members of the community have played. These tricks are intended as benign although they have sometimes played out in unexpected ways. If you want some samples, you can find summaries around the net (for example, click here) or you can see the movie Real Genius, which is a lot more true to life in many respects than you might imagine.

When I arrived on the MIT computer scene in the latter part of the 1970's, the term “hack” had taken on an even more generic meaning than this prank sense. For all intents and purposes, a “hack” was simply a synonym for “do”, often with a sense of cleverness or inventiveness, though at MIT that aspect was so taken for granted that it was rarely spoken. Not surprisingly at an engineering school, it was all about doing things, leading someone later on to coin the phrase “hackito ergo sum”—that is, presumably, “I hack [or do], therefore I am.”

Note: The New Hacker's Dictionary will describe the meaning of the term slightly differently, but not in what I think is a material way. Even so, since I lived through the era, I'm exercising my right to describe things as I perceived them directly and not to be burdened by references written by others.

In that era, which was still that of an older, non-public network called the ARPANET that preceded the public Internet, someone might routinely be heard to ask, as a simple greeting and with no intent to challenge, “what are you hacking?” It meant, literally, “what are you doing?” but really in a more figurative and non-confrontational way, as if the speaker had asked just “what's up?”

A hacker, then, was just someone capable of doing something, and the term was often used with great reverence as in a doer of great deeds. Our online profiles on one of the computers contained the fill-in-the-blank “Hacking task-name for supervisor” where you would fill in the task-name and the supervisor, where mine might have said “Hacking the time/space continuum for the future of mankind.” (We weren't always very good about putting in actual supervisor names.)

Of course, as these things go, the computer community got bigger and not all deeds done (not all hacks hacked) were good. After a while, there were people doing bad things, too. I was around when this happened generally, but did not witness whatever event it was that caused the sudden shift of the use of the name. I've only managed to piece together what I think must have happened.

I imagine that one day someone finally did something bad with computers, and someone from outside the community asked who had done it, my bet is that a terminological confusion resulted from someone responding “probably one of those hackers,” leading the listener to believe that the purpose of being a hacker was to do something destructive, perhaps with a machete, rather than that the purpose of being a a hacker was merely to do things and that some things one might do are good and some things one might do are bad.

I do know that it was around the time of the movie Wargames and that I was working at the MIT AI Lab as a programmer. I had gone out for a walk around Boston, as I often did in the afternoons then. I returned to the lab and a bunch of people rallied around me and said, “Kent, Kent, Ted Koppel called. He wants to interview a hacker about the movie Wargames. We said they should talk to you.” (To this day, I don't know why in such a community of much more talented folks than I, they picked me, especially since I wasn't to be found, but so it goes.) I tried to call back, but we couldn't get them on the phone. I later figured out they'd gotten someone from Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) and so didn't need me any more. Ah, the chance for fame can be so fleeting.

But it was just as well because they were apparently operating under this new meaning of “hacker” and I would have been totally thrown by the questions they were asking, which seemed to presuppose that if I was a self-identified hacker, I was the sort who'd be breaking into computers or something. That wasn't what hackers I'd known did, and I didn't either. We had things to build. So they interviewed this guy from CMU. It was someone I knew of, I just don't now recall his name.

This is how we came to the belief they don't do those things live, because we saw he was logged in to his console in the interview and we all quickly scrambled during the broadcast (hackers came out at night, so we were all watching from the Lab) to try to send him a message (the equivalent of an instant message) hoping it would come out on his screen while he was on the air. But it didn't. Another chance at fame lost.

Fortunately for ABC News, this person seemed to know the new meaning of “hacker” and gave them a competent interview. But we were all saddened at the tarnishing such an important word had taken. It was part of our daily vocabulary and veritably wrenched from us for this stupid use.

There was an attempt by a number of hackers to get the media to use the term “crackers” instead, but it failed. And the term was essentially lost. From time to time, you'll still see someone of my generation refer to themselves as a “hacker (original meaning)” in some wistful attempt to reclaim the memory of a time when hacking was just doing.

The moniker “netsettler” that I use in some discussion forums (such as Slashdot) harkens to that era. I often feel an empathy, even if the experience is only metaphorically equivalent, with the displacement Native Americans must have felt when the modern world moved in and took their land. The net, and indeed the whole world, was such a different place before it was the Internet. Most people see the arrival of the Internet as the beginning of something, but some of us saw it also as the ending of something.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

This article was originally published November 16, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman. A discussion thread is attached there which I did not port forward to here, but you can still read by clicking through to the version on the Internet Archive's “Wayback Machine.”

Tags (from Open Salon): hackito ergo sum, hackity-hack, hacks, hack, cracker, hacker, clever, programming, technical, prank, pacific tech, caltech, mit, history, linguistic evolution, linguistics, language, terminology, jargon

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Recycling Theater

I'm very worried about the environment and Climate Change, and am always trying to think of useful things we could do to effect useful change. This problem is getting worse as we speak, and we really need some serious public dialog on the matter.

Some suggestions about fixing the environment are technical in nature, some are social. It's in my nature to go meta once in a while, so here's a somewhat radical proposal to help break you out of your weekend stupor.

[hypothetical international symbol for: don't recycle]

Perhaps we should make it illegal to have places at which people can individually drive to drop off their recycling. That is, perhaps we should disallow personal recycling.

I'll skip right past whining about the whole notion of driving somewhere to be earth-friendly at the end-location. That's an issue, too, but it's “in the noise” for my purposes here. Let's cut straight to the chase:

It's really nice that there are scattered people who care about recycling, but their individual actions are not enough to save everyone. “Well, every little bit helps,” I hear you complain. Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

You see, I'm guessing that most of us are busy people who have only finite time. And in some cases that extra effort consumes the available free time one has. So if we told these very ambitious, very ecology-conscious people they were not allowed to solve problems only for themselves, it might leave them frustrated but I'm guessing they would vent that frustration trying to get the problem solved for everyone, like they should have originally. A town with 10% of its residents recycling is not really helping things. But the same town with 10% of its residents on the phone regularly to the city saying “why can't I recycle in this town?” might end up with 100% of its residents recycling.

Part of the reason we're in the ecological mess we're in is the failure of people to see the interrelationships between elements of the system. We reason about independent questions as if they do not relate to one another. In that light, personal recycling seems an unambiguous good because its cost on the rest of the system is not analyzed. But if the activity is taken in the context of a larger system, it isn't cost-free.

Yes, what I'm suggesting amounts to robbing the energetic, self-satisfied folks among us (which might sometimes include me, so don't get all huffy) of the smug satisfaction of doing it themselves and feeling superior to the ones who didn't. Tell them they're not allowed to do it that way in order to spur them to find better answers, a system that works for everyone, not just for themselves. We need answers that work for everyone, even busy or lazy or oblivious people. All of society has to be involved.

It's true that on this I don't really think anyone will take the part about making it a law seriously. But that doesn't mean I'm not serious when I suggest that it's a bad idea to rely on people to be super-ethical or super-energetic as the solution to a big problem like this. This is mostly just a thought exercise, to urge people to reconsider how they spend their time and to think differently about which actions are productive. The part about making it a law was just to wake you up and think maybe I was talking to you. Which I am. One oughtn't need a public law in order to ask oneself the question: “Does my spending my time doing cute little self-congratulatory things keep me from doing something that would have more impact?”

Some actions may feel productive and give us a sense of self-satisfaction while really doing little or nothing. In his book Beyond Fear, Bruce Schneier coined the term “security theater” to refer to “countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security.” When dealing with the ecology, let's not find ourselves needing a term like “Recycling Theater,” describing countermeasures to mounting environmental degradation intended to provide the feeling of having improved environmental quality while doing little or nothing to actually improve the environment.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published Nov 9, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, environment, recycling, recycle, public policy, environmental policy, suggestion, thought, law

If you don't want this post to go to waste,
please “share” it so it will be re-read by others.
It's the “green” thing to do.

Also, the logo above was intended to be a little attention-grabbing. But my wife said I would attract more attention at Open Salon with pictures of “doggies and kitties” so here's my alternative graphic:

[Dog (Cinnamon) with recycle symbol on her forehead]

Monday, November 3, 2008

Limiting Term Frequency

The notion of term limits comes up and people never seem to know what to do about that. On the one hand, having the same person in office for a long time risks that there's never a general housecleaning. It also may mean they have unfair power to abuse their office during the campaign. On the other hand, if there's a good person it's a shame to just tell them they can't contribute.

The idea I'm pondering is to split the difference: Limit term frequency rather than the number of terms. That is, prohibit incumbents from running for office—require them to “sit one out” before they run again. So people would be able to run for office a maximum of every other term.

The thought is that everyone should govern as if it might be their last chance. That is, not worry about re-election. Or, if you insist on thinking four years out, at least you're worrying about doing long-term good that would make voters, not next year, but down the road, think you've done well enough to bring back.

It would also mean you couldn't use the power of public office to directly assure your own re-election. Often, the person in power can call press conferences, can affect the focus of the public through attention to specific policies (snooping in files [Nixon/Watergate] [Clinton/Filegate (alleged)], changing the threat level [Bush/Cheney (Ridge allegations)] or even invading other countries [Clinton/Afghanistan/Sudan (alleged)] are examples some have alleged politicians to have done).

It would also mean that if people liked your party and wanted to re-elect it, they wouldn't have the very same people in. So at least some abuses of power, those that are not shared and adopted as party policy anyway, have a routine chance of being exposed on a regular basis, rather than having these things grow unchecked over longer spans of time as one set of office holders continues in office too long without oversight.

It might be that political parties would find creative techniques to get around this kind of rule. For example, they become suddenly very fond of having husband/wife teams alternate time in office, even taking advantage of spousal privileges not to incriminate their partner to assure procedural continuity of shakey practices. I could see that specific configuration needing to be prohibited. But I think these details could be worked out.

Something to ponder anyway.

Author's Note: Originally published November 3, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, elections, policy, election policy, term limits, reelection, term frequency, free speech

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Redistributing Burden

McCain's near-spastic surge of emotional hotbutton issues is hard to follow, but among the spread spectrum of ideas he's been frequently hopping between is his allegation that Obama is a “socialist” seeking to “redistribute wealth.”

A number of people are already doing a pretty good job of shedding sunlight on McCain's confused use, or cynical abuse, of the term “socialist.” For example, Stephen Colbert recently interviewed Brian Moore, socialist candidate for US President in the 2008 election. In the interview, he asks Brian Moore whether Obama could pass for a socialist.

I wanted to make a different point, though... that is, if you're done watching the video. Hello? Is this microphone still on? Ah, there you are. I thought for a moment I'd lost you. I should know not to put myself in deliberate competition with the likes of Colbert, especially to illustrate what I don't want to talk about!

What I really wanted to talk about is the notion of redistributing wealth. I want to suggest that's a bad paradigm for viewing the question, and suggest a way to reframe the discussion. I want to discuss “redistributing burden” instead.

To start, let's look for a moment at the process of summarization. There are a lot of ways to summarize an issue, even something that seems so simple you can just count it up. Depending on what you count or how you count it, the answer can be different. For example, we have a Senate and a House of Representatives in part because one of them counts up what states think, and one counts up what people think. It was believed by our founders, and I think they were right, that sometimes one of these is the right way to count, and sometimes the other. But the point is that they're different, even though they're at some level both counting up the same thing, that is, “how much will the nation has on an issue” or “how much need the nation has.”

So it is with wealth and burden. For some things where money is involved, wealth may seem an inverse measure of burden. That is, if you have a lot of wealth, you have less burden. But the problem with that is that it sounds like it's all proportional. Wealth uses words like “more” and “less.” People who claim they have no wealth at all are rarely sympathized with, even though the use of the word is probably correct, but rather they are quibbled with. “What are you talking about? You have a family. Isn't that a form of wealth? You live in the richest country in the world. Isn't that a form of wealth?” (Given our debt burden, I'm not sure I'd call this the richest country in the world, by the way, but you still hear people say it.)

Sometimes the word wealth is a relative measure. We cannot all be wealthy because we don't all live in Lake Wobegon (“all the children are above average”). It's a necessary fact of relative wealth that for some people to have it, others don't. Now, it's certainly true that there is another kind of wealth, an absolute kind, that says that if you have more than you need to survive, you're also wealthy. And that kind of wealth we could theoretically all have at the same time. We just don't. We have many people who have enough to survive, and more, while we have many others who don't have enough to survive, to care for their families, to address medical issues, etc.

So when it comes time to pay the nation's taxes, the question is what the burden is on them to give up a little of their money to help with that cause. The answer is pretty plainly right now that there are people who are barely getting by, if at all, who are being asked to pay money they don't have in order to help with that. For example, for Sally making $30,000 to pay $3000 in taxes while Bill making $1,000,000 pays $100,000 might seem a simple issue of scale. Both pay 10%. But the $3000 that the Sally is giving up might have been just enough to afford some critical expense, perhaps a health care plan. While at his income level, Bill is at no serious risk of not being covered by a health care plan. So it's not that there is a proportional burden. Sally's basic needs are not met and Bill's are. It might not even be the case that Sally's needs were met with no taxes at all. $30,000 is not much to scrape by on, especially if she has a family. But I'd argue Bill could still manage to raise a family even if he paid $103,000 dollars in taxes, so that Sally had to pay none. Or even if he paid $130,000 dollars in taxes, so that ten Sally's had to pay none.

I hear murmurs of “he's redistributing wealth” but that's my point. I'm not necessarily redistributing burden. At least, I'm not creating a burden on anyone that didn't have it; I'm just removing it from someone who did. If Sally pays no tax, so keeps all $30,000, she's not made rich, she just fails to be quite so impoverished. And if Bill pays only 3% more in taxes, which is $30,000, he's not impoverished by that. He's just slightly less rich. Before the change, 10 people might have been struggling and 1 surviving (well). After the change, 11 people might be surviving. That's a big benefit. The mathematics of burden redistribution are very different than the mathematics of wealth redistibution. Speaking in terms of wealth rather than burden can muddy things a lot by focusing on things that don't matter at the expense of things that do.

“But,” I hear you protest, “she doesn't have to pay taxes and he does.” Not so, I claim. She pays a tax. She is poor. Being poor is a tax. (On another day, I can perhaps even explain that might be quantifiable. But today you can just assume I mean that being poor is no fun, and that Bill won't trade places with her if he has the chance. So saying Bill is enduring an inequity in this arrangement is disingenuous.)

And yes, we can argue where the line is between rich and poor, but we should not argue that there is no such line. Surely there must be some amount of money beyond which if you have it, you're set. Just as surely is some amount of money below which if you don't have it, you're in bad shape. The precise amount may differ with time and geography and other factors, but we shouldn't let that uninteresting fact distract us from admitting that are real effects worthy of discussion.

And please note well—I'm not saying that the wealthy need to just give all their money to the poor. The capitalist system is about the hope that the opportunity to get rich will cause people to work hard for that goal so that others will benefit. But we need to watch that in fact the others do benefit. If we allow the one person (or a small number of people) to get rich at the expense of the others, then capitalism hasn't done what it set out to do. Those who have succeeded under our system need to remember that this is a society in which the populace, by majority vote, chooses how we run things. And if that group gets things to the place where a majority of voters think they're not doing well, they should expect that such an unhappy majority has good reason to start pulling plugs on the process. That's what I think is in play right now, and what will continue to be in play until a basic fairness to the original premise that we should all benefit to a reasonable degree from the success of the few.

A bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the rich would go a long way just now. Holding firm to the “it's mine and you can't have it” line is not going to serve the rich well when talking to people headed for the ballot box.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published October 30, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, economy, wealth, burden, needs, basic needs, health care, food, redistribution, redistribution of wealth, redistribution of burden, income redistribution, tax, taxes, taxation, regressive tax, tax fairness

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The “Two Unprincipled Parties” System

A lot of noise is made from time about how our so-called two-party system is what makes America strong. That might be so. But I wonder if it works the way people think.

The first thing I notice as I think about this issue is that we don't have two parties. We have a number of them. But it's true that there aren't a lot of people voting for these other parties, and voters pretty quickly learn that under the present rules (I'll blog about the virtues of preference-order voting another day), a vote for a third-party candidate is just a wasted vote. If you do vote for such a third-party candidate, you'd better be happy with the most popular of the big two candidates because you're throwing away your right to vote for the other of those two.

But my personal theory is that what's really useful about our system is not that it's about two parties, but that it's two unprincipled parties. Ok, perhaps I'm slightly stretching the meaning of the term “unprincipled” because I really don't mean “without any principles” and I'm not even meaning to say they're “hypocrites.” But I do mean “without specific and unchanging principles.”

I hear murmuring out there in the audience, but you can spare me. The Republicans are not the party of fiscal conservatism, small non-invasive government, patriotism, etc. I might have been a Republican myself long ago if something as simplistic and reliable as that described that crowd.

And before you get too comfortable, because I know this forum is mostly full of Democrats, the Democrats have their share of deviations from alleged principle, too. I don't see Obama talking about how he wants to give all gays the right to marry, for example.

What people will say or refuse to say is market driven on both sides. At any given time, both parties usually have an articulated platform, but over long periods of time, that platform shifts. And I claim that's mostly a good thing.

In fact, the opinion of Rush Limbaugh and the Rightwing Talk Media to the contrary, changing one's mind as one gains experience can be good. It's called learning, and it's good for us.

[Picture of scales]

So I think it's no accident that the two parties enjoy almost exactly the same coverage and that some elections are right around 50%. I think what happens in many elections is that the party that perceives itself as being behind gives up just enough ground in terms of its' alleged principles in order to get people to cross the aisles. They don't want to give up more than they have to because they each perceive themselves as principled and they perceive shifts like this as being done somewhat under duress, in order to save the party from being permanently locked out.

I used to listen to Rush until I decided I was just tired of him and couldn't bear it any more. It wasn't his ideology that drove me away—I enjoy hearing people who think differently than me. It was his attitude and tactics that drove me away. The same with O'Reilly, Hannity and Colmes, and the rest of the Fox line-up. It's just re-runs after a while, with nothing new to learn, so I gave up.

One thing I remember Rush saying was that people who are middle of the road in their politics are without principle—in effect, that “moderate” is not a substantively meaningful description of a political position, that it represents unprincipled compromises between legitimate political positions. Cynically, I think he said this because he wants to drive his opposition to the far Left, or even just wants to pretend his opposition is already to the far Left, because it's just easier to make a case against extremists than against moderates. So it serves him to believe that that's all there are in the world: extremists, who are either himself (on the correct end), bad guys (on the wrong end), and people who have no legitimate positino at all.

I don't buy that there aren't legitimate positions in the middle; I think they're just not well characterized. It's more like the question asked Dorothy early in the Wizard of Oz, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” It may indeed be that there is no legitimate other kind of witch, but that fact doesn't mean there isn't some third position for Dorothy to take, it just means the choices are not offered in a very useful way.

One of the reasons I think Nature has been so successful with Evolution over so many years is that I don't think it worries a lot about labeling itself. It just goes with what's working and doesn't fuss about how an animal or whole species is named. Survival is what counts, not labeling. And I think that while the Democrats and Republicans try to impose a lot of naming as a matter of tactic, the engine driving the political system as a whole, and the two major parties in particular, is more organic than is commonly acknowledged, and is interested more in surviving than in adhering to any fixed set of principles.

In fact, if you look around the globe at other countries that have more parties, you'll see there are serious obstacles to any of those parties growing substantially. The problem isn't the number of parties, it's the principled nature of the parties. Being principled holds them back. Because to change parties, the people within them have to give up their principles! And who wants to do that? Whereas since being Republican or Democrat really doesn't mean anything, it may be difficult but it's not impossible for at least those people who view themselves as living comfortably in the middle to wander back and forth, creating the market stresses that force the parties to change from time to time.

The situation right now is a perfect example. A lot of people who thought themselves Republicans realize they are not well-served so have crossed the line. For someone who grew up self-identifying as a Republican, it may be weird or annoying to be called a Democrat. But it doesn't mean saying “Ok, I'll be a liar.” or “Ok, I'll stop caring about fiscal responsibility.” Indeed, part of what they're doing is realizing these parties are capable of shifting and that theirs has shifted out from underneath them. But things will shift back toward the middle, or even sharply back to the Republican field, if the Republican party changes to be more like what is needed to woo voters back or if the Democratic party fails to offer what people are seeking. Each party represents room for change, and a vacuum won't last long there.

So three cheers for people having the principles and political parties not having them. It's what keeps things working.

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

These ideas are something I've thought about for quite some time. The decision to write about this today was by a desire to respond to Greg Randolph's article The Implosion of the Republican Party. Thanks, Greg.

The public domain graphic came from

Originally published October 28, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): planks, plank, platform, unprincipled, principled, principles, third-party, political parties, two political parties, two-party system, 2008 election, politics

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The URLs of the Mind

I moved a lot growing up,
so I didn't like throwing things away.
I liked collecting things—until finally
they made things stamped “COLLECTIBLE.”
The day of collecting was past.

I still collected things, but
I came to seize those days where
I caught myself throwing something out
that I hadn't expected to.
Dropping everything,
I'd furiously rush to throw away more,
before the packratishness returned.

Some things I couldn't get rid of, though.
They were reminders of times past,
pointers into a tangled web of human memory,
the URLs of the mind.

To lose them would be to lose the memory,
or perhaps just to lose the opportunity
to accidentally click through—
revisiting times past.

It's why we're all so confused when someone dies.

Their things seemed so important the day before.
Now we want to treat them reverently,
but we can't.
There's nothing left to access.

The value was within the person,
a human being,
human experiences.
Once open for service,
now finally closed forever to visitors.

These artifacts of experience
performed their function
only for the one (or the few) who participated
in the memory's creation,
and to whom it had been entrusted.

Gone the site of our memory,
the possessions we amass
are but 404 URLs.

Packrat that I am,
it's sometimes been
that I could let the thing go,
keeping just the picture.
A tinyurl.

So after traveling on business for years,
I felt sure that I was destined
to open up a little shop
to sell all those little hotel soaps
and little hotel shampoos.

I finally had to let go of that idea.
They were taking up too much space!
But first, I took a snapshot
to remember.

Such images,
though sometimes art themselves,
as keys are ephemeral.

Only I
have the password
to the protected site
where the memory lingers.

Table full of hotel soaps and shampoos

Author's Note: If you got value from this post, please “Share” it.

Originally published October 7, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): poem, poetry, memory, remembering, photos, photographs, death, net, internet, url, tinyurl, 404, hotel soap, hotel shampoo

Friday, May 23, 2008