Friday, August 31, 2012

A Nice Charade--Watching the RNC

Thanks to the invention of modern television, we got to witness the public relations horror show that was masquerading itself as the Republican National Convention.  In true modern form, I couldn't help but notice how great Mitt's hair looked--nice and thick, greying temples imparting experience and wisdom, but the makeup was a bit too pasty and funeral-esque for me.  His skin looked creepy, making his appearance a bit uncanny.  Ever since the Nixon and Kennedy debate, candidates cannot go on television without makeup, but tonight it was overdone.   Nuance can never be left for the unwashed masses.

Romney's speech was little style, no substance.  A career politician with no enduring principals, Romney uttered the usual platitudes about American ethnocentrism, oops, I mean, "American exceptionalism."  He talked about his experience as a "business guy," trying to make the connection that somehow this qualifies him to be an effective president.  Considering his business was acting as a casino capitalism financier who helped companies send jobs overseas, it is clear why the business community loves him--he would probably be more efficient at dismantling the middle class than Obama.  A man who can more quickly accelerate this country's decline into a two-tiered banana republic of rich and poor is just the kind of man who becomes the Republican nominee for president of the United States.

Then there's Paul Ryan.  While Romney is simply a careerist robot with no soul--kind of like Bill Clinton--Paul Ryan is actually evil.  When he's not busy lying--which is practically all the time--he is worshiping his hero, Ayn Rand.  Rand is the author of books proclaiming the benefits of sociopathic selfishness.  Hell bent on making sure that the elderly and disabled are denied the meager social safety net and health care benefits that might help them simply to survive, he is lauded as a "serious financial guy" by market fundamentalists.  The Ryan House "budget" actually increases the deficit by giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, eviscerates Medicare, and increases military spending.  Yet somehow, this guy is considered a "deficit hawk?"  Only in the final days of a decadent Empire can such foolishness be taken seriously.

The thing that keeps me up at night isn't the fact that corporate money keeps only the most soulless politicians on the payroll.  The fact that we are stupid enough to allow this to happen is the thing that bothers me.  After all, if we had any critical thinking skills at all, we would see through both Obama and Romney's bullshit.  We would see that they aren't serving our interests.  We would see through douchebags like Paul Ryan who want to deny health care to disabled people like my father.  Instead, we are gullible.  We listen to words instead of paying attention to the actions of our politicians.  The Wall Street bailouts and the handling of the financial crisis by both Bush and Obama were both intensely anti-middle class. 

Obama is better than Romney.  I intend on voting for him because I am afraid of the next Supreme Court nomination turning out to be a right wing radical like Justice Scalia.  We cannot afford to lose more freedoms at the hands of crypto-fascists like him.  But Obama is no saint.  He has been a disaster.  He could have been like FDR and turned the financial crisis into a real opportunity for change.  Instead he squandered his opportunity by kissing Republican ass and trying to accomodate the right.  He needed to have more backbone and a fighting spirit.  His foreign policy is largely a continuance of the repressive Bush drone attacks, indefinite detention, and extrajudicial killings.  He is very largely an Eisenhower Republican.  Only in a country as radically right wing as America would he be considered a "socialist."  This country is probably more right wing than Iran.

The problem with Romney isn't that he is a soulless, empty suit, who believes in nothing but financial gain at the expense of all else.  The problem is that he represents what America has become--a place where short term profit, careerism, superficial looks, and selfishness rule supreme.  In a country of millions of people, anyone could have been the Republican nominee. Romney didn't accidentally become the nominee.  Ron Paul, a man of integrity, was a real, viable choice who was rejected outright by the people.  We chose Romney because he is us--a piece of shit.  America is not the exceptional, shining city on the hill.  We are a nation of individualists who want to grab our share of the cash, fuck everybody else, because "I gots to gets mine," has become the new spirit of the age.

Obama is more or less the same thing, with a slightly more human touch.  He's a nice guy who kills people with attack drones, and he is willing to throw a few scraps to the poor so they won't revolt.  But he's no saint.  Just like Cornel West said, he is basically a black mascot for Wall Street promoted by the public relations industry.  He serves his corporate masters well, although this time they like Romney more, so they've decided to give him a bit more money.

The media coverage of the RNC has been absolutely shameful.  On ORA TV, they quite literally had a public relations expert as a panel member discussing the event.  As a society, we have become so contemptuous of democracy that we actually have PR guys commenting shamelessly about the event.  For supposed "balance," there were the faux-liberal guys and the supposedly right wing pundits like Ben Stein to utter their commentary.  We would have been better off listening to the old guys making wisecracks from the Muppets.  This kind of "balance" nicely keeps the "debate" within the proper ideological bounds.  There is no discussion of substance.  We focus on how Mitt's hair looked, the horse race between him and Obama, and whether or not Paul Ryan will bring in more votes.  No challenges to the system are mentioned.  In a time when the media constantly yammers on about a person's "brand," democracy becomes a commodity, bought and sold to the highest bidder.  This reflects a total disregard for democracy.

It is telling that people care so little about the future of their country that the ratings for the convention were terrible.  This shouldn't be surprising, considering how few people even bother to vote.  They don't care enough to inform themselves and be engaged in the political process.  And it's not because they are cynical and believe their votes don't matter--it's because they don't care.  As a country, we are so misinformed that there are still a substantial number of people who believe that Obama was not born in America, that Obamacare was going to lead to "death panels" where the government was to decide whether granny would live or die, and morons like "Joe the Plumber' actually are actually considered serious political candidates--a man who shoots fruit with firearms while waxing poetic about Obama's "socialism."  The Internet is ubiquitous.  A world of knowledge is at our fingertips.  Such levels of ignorance are inexcusable.

The problem is that our politicians are us.  We elect them.  And the picture of America isn't pretty.  It's no surprise we are an atomized, selfish culture filled with people who idolize selfish pricks like Steve Jobs, a man who spent his life stealing handicap parking spaces, building sweatshops in China to sell overpriced devices which restrict our freedom, and getting us to build our hopes and dreams around iGadgets which are all style and no substance.  Only in America can a man who uses the likeness of Gandhi to sell iCrap at overpriced amounts be worshiped and glorified, while a man like Bradley Manning, who exposes the lies and misdeeds of government be reviled and hated.  We are too worried about Mitt's hair to fret over the fact that Manning has been locked up for over 850 days without a trial in solitary confinement, or that the President can now order robotic drones to kill American citizens who are suspected terrorists.

We have made our own bed.  Now is our time to lie in it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why Free Software Matters

In law school, I didn't focus my program based on IP or intellectual property law.  Many of my friends who had backgrounds in the sciences and engineering chose to do so and some of them are now patent attorneys.  Nevertheless, the subject does interest me.  Recently I've been learning more about the Free Software Foundation, run by Richard M. Stallman, founder of the GNU free software license, copyleft, and one of the founding fathers of the GNU/Linux operating system.  The areas of copyright, patent and trademark law are all critically important in the Information Age, because more and more of the economy is based on knowledge, not manufactured goods.  This means the laws governing how we regulate these areas will greatly affect human well being.  Instead of some arcane subject that has no relevance to non-geeks, this is an area that fundamentally affects who we are as citizens, creators, consumers, and workers.

Stallman is the founder of the GNU GPL license, which protects the freedom of the user of software against unfair power being exerted by the authors of software.  Usually, this means large corporations with large concentrations of wealth--i.e. Apple and Microsoft.

Here is the definition of free software coming from the Free Software Foundation:

When users don't control the program, the program controls the users. The developer controls the program, and through it controls the users. This nonfree or “proprietary” program is therefore an instrument of unjust power.
Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”.
A program is free software if the program's users have the four essential freedoms:
  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Stallman makes the argument that as the world becomes more digitized, we become more and more dependent upon our machines.  When those machines are locked down by the makers of those machines, we become more dependent upon the makers.  This reduces our freedom.  An analogy he makes is that of a recipe for great soup.  What if a chef made a terrific soup, and you wished to make your own.  But when you ask him for the recipe, he refuses to share it.  Instead, he says "I will make the soup any way you want it, but it will cost you $50,000."  After all, he does have a monopoly over how the soup is made (this is what copyright does).  "Maybe I will get to making the soup the way you want it in two years.  I have a convention to cater so I may or may not get around to it."  You would think this is absurd.  Yet locked down software code creates a black box that makes altering the software impossible.  This alienates you from the devices which affect an increasing share of your life.  For tablet and cell phone users, this is no small power.

One of Stallman's biggest concerns is the erosion of traditional freedoms at the hands of technology by so called DRM or "digital restrictions management" technologies.  E-books are a great example of this.  A normal book cannot be locked out.  You are free to share it with a friend, leave it to your heirs, sell it, or keep it indefinitely.  Yet places like Amazon and Apple sell you e-books with DRM that limits all of these freedoms.  In fact, a few years ago, Amazon reached out to the owners of the Orwellian novel "1984" and took the title off their Kindles after there was a Canadian copyright dispute.  How ironic.  

Calling sharing "pirating" and equating it with theft is something that erodes the civility of a society.  "Piracy", says Stallman, involves the violent raiding of ships at sea and the murdering of the crew.  Equating this with sharing is a diseased way to think.  It is immoral.  It puts you in the awkward position of either being a bad neighbor or not using a software program.  Given this dilemma, you are better off not using the software rather than being a bad neighbor.

The other issue is that the sharing of software is something that improves society.  Traditional theft involves depriving one person the use of an object to the benefit of another who does not have the right to possess that object.  But with digital goods, the sharing of software is more akin to the sharing of ideas, and shared knowledge enriches everyone at the expense of no one.  In fact, it is less efficient to arbitrarily deprive the poor of useful software that might help empower them when sharing such knowledge is virtually at no cost to the software author.

But won't people stop writing software if people share their software?  This makes the assumption that people only code because they are getting paid.  Yet, like art and running, coding is fun.  Working on projects, even for free, is rewarding in itself.  Just look at the success of the GNU/Linux operating system, which is free, open source, and created mainly by volunteers.  The same goes for Firefox, the amazing web browser, Libreoffice and Openoffice are two rivals to Microsoft Office that function beautifully.  Thunderbird is an alternative to Microsoft Outlook, and Imgburn is a DVD/Blu Ray authoring program that is much more stable and less bloated than Nero Burning ROM and other crash prone programs.  GIMP is an alternative to Photoshop that is very powerful and useful.

While there may be an initial reduction in the amount of software due to programs being free, in the long run the additional collaboration, working out of bugs, and efficiencies built into the free software model will make up the difference.  

It is important to note, that Stallman is referring to "free" to mean "free as in freedom" not as in "free beer."  Programmers can still be paid for their work.  In fact, he envisions a future where programmers are still paid to code, making customized software for private enterprise and providing support for software products.  Unlike the Soviet Union where the ability to copy software and documents was heavily restricted and sharers of software were sent to Siberia, or in the United States, where recording industry trade associations send the police in riot gear to raid the homes of teenagers for making copies of Greenday albums, the free software movement is actually more pro-capitalist because it encourages openness, freedom, and customization because the source code can be viewed and modified.  It is pro-market and pro-capitalism.  It, however, anti-mega corporation.  It causes people to become less dependent on the corporation.

This is one of the reasons why I hate Apple so much.  Apple is the embodiment of anti-free.  The products themselves are locked down so you can't even change the battery without relying on the big brother Apple to do the work for you.  You can't change the software because the source code is hidden.  On the iPhone, you can't use apps that haven't been censored by Apple.  If they don't like something, you don't even get to see it.  You don't control the programs.  The programs control you.  And Apple controls the programs.

Stallman makes the important point that to lose your freedom in the name of convenience ultimately causes the user and society overall to lose.  Having your freedom is more important than having a new shiny gadget that is being used to maximize you as an economic commodity, not as a human being.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Simple Things, aka Slowing Down A Bit

Yesterday, my wife and I had a modest dinner.  For an appetizer, we split a garden fresh tomato.  It was perfectly red, ripe, and naturally sweet.  With a little salt and pepper, each bite was delectable.  The main course was farm fresh Italian sausage, made on the grill with garden zucchini and summer squash.  The entire meal came from our neighbor's farm.  Sometimes, simplicity is the best sauce.  What surprised the both of us was how quickly we became full from just the tomato.  Ordinarily, splitting a medium sized tomato wouldn't have this affect.  It's almost as if nature had packed it with so many vitamins and fiber, it filled us up in a deeper way.  Instead of just taking up stomach space, it actually provided nourishment, and the body could feel it.  In response, the appetite felt satiated because the body had finally gotten what it needed.

In a similar way, slowing down helps us to take in the spiritual vitamins and minerals we need.  In a time when people are busily running from this scheduled event to that, it is easy to get caught up in the anticipation and not savor the moment.  It's a form of spiritual fast food--you can gorge yourself with activity and be starving for meaning.  In my own life, I find myself harried on a frequent basis.  Running to the post office, the bank, filing things, drafting documents and meeting with clients, it is easy to forget to slow down sometimes.  I was looking out the window yesterday and noticing that summer is rapidly drawing to an end.  There won't be many more days of the leaves on the trees, and it will be cold here in Ohio.  There will be plenty of time for indoor activities.

A friend of mine was the postmaster of a small post office.  I used to see him every day.  We would chat about this and that.  He always took the time to be friendly and make the visit an authentic experience.  He was never in a hurry, and the pace of the post office was perfect in this way.  It is the little things like this that helps make life more flavorful.  He recently retired, and I am going to miss him.  In the big push to increase "efficiency", older postal workers are being encouraged to retire while many of the smaller offices are being closed.  The lucky ones are only having their hours cut back.  It's unfortunate, because these small offices and these seasoned workers in rural areas are like garden vegetables--they taste just a little more sweet because they are closer to home.  They aren't rushed, they aren't plucked early and shipped from afar--they are personal and thoroughly human.  The same goes for chatting with your local carrier and Saturday delivery.  In an increasingly atomized society, the mail carrier is sometimes the only human interaction some folks have all day.  As it stands now, we are encouraged to live more and more of our lives interacting with screens--computer monitors, television screens, smartphone screens, and iPad screens.  Going to the county fair, I saw more teenagers looking at their phones receiving text messages than the lonely animals and rides begging for attention.

The whole notion of modern "efficiency" is perplexing.  Somehow, we have become convinced that it is more efficient to ship jobs halfway across the planet so we can have the Chinese make things.  From a bottom line cost perspective, it may be cheaper to make goods this way, but it certainly isn't more efficient, not when you have people needing jobs in the U.S., and not when we used to have factories and an infrastructure designed to manufacture goods and ship them around the U.S.  But efficiency in the U.S. is only measured by cost, not by real-impact cost.  Externalities don't count.  So if I pollute a river to make a pair of shoes and then sell those shoes at a profit but don't have to pay for the environmental cleanup, I am acting "efficiently."  Never mind if this costs the community more in medical costs because more children get leukemia.  This doesn't count.

In a mad world, obsessed with profit and always running, it is nice to take the time to slow down a bit, enjoy a tasty tomato, and open one's mail--while the postal system still exists.