Monday, February 22, 2010

Jaron Lanier's "Manifesto": "You Are Not a Gadget" (and neither am I!)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
Author: Jaron Lanier
Title: "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto"
Publication: New York: 2009, Knopf. ISBN 978-0-307-26964-5, hardcover, 209 pages, indexed.

The author is known for founding VPL Research and popularizing the term “virtual reality” in the 1980s, during a time when people imagined purchasing body suits in order to experience it. Indeed, one can experience being a cuttlefish, with extra limbs, and a totally different self-concept, a notion that the author covers late in the book. That was long before the Net and Second Life. Lanier is also a music composer (and performing pianist) with definite ideas about what makes music human, and definite theories about how the computer age has sent it into retrograde. One could look at my “dramas blog” and look at the “young composers” label there for comparison.

But most of this “manifesto” (again, we have another writer posting “The Manifesto” as a pronouncement from “on high”, perhaps a perjorative) is a well-intended “devils advocate playing” exercise in questioning how the modern Internet is affecting our experience of self-concept in relation to others.

The bluntest statement occurs early: “I want to say: You have to be somebody before you can share yourself” (in Preface p ix – and I wish books didn’t use roman numerals for preface page numbers – they should count).

Of course, there follows the basic “concern”: companies and “institutions” (if Wikipedia is such) are mashing up snippets of content, erasing individuality in the process, and, perhaps not so intentionally, introducing a new mechanism to enforce social conformity. I’ve already covered this at great length on my blogs with all the concerns about “online reputation defense” (mentioned on p 70 in the book) that have grown ever since social networking sites started to evolve around 2004. Likewise, the whole concept of privacy has metamorphized into something unrecognizable to our parents.

Lanier likes the style of earlier contributions on the Web, which were less likely to be anonymous and more original, often based on books (as was my first website in 1997). Gradually, however, people have lost interest in experiencing entire works (that is, reading entire books or even watching three hour movies) and get their content piecemeal, as amalgamated by software service companies, and presented to advertisers. The context problem complicates online reputation, of course.

Part of the problem is that structures for computing architectures evolve, sometimes by chance, into fixed forms that determine how people will interact with them. Lanier says that the structure of today's Internet was determined by Tim Berners-Lee, but it could have been different.

He discusses the “free content” problem, and combines it with the digital rights management issue with a novel proposal: ISP’s charge people in “unbundled” fashion for all the content that they access, and then pay the content providers, through some new mechanism (fractions of a penny per item, perhaps). But he often sounds pessimistic that the “brave new world” of the Internet offers entrepreneurial artists any real chance to make a living. I would disagree somewhat: the best and most creative will still tend to prevail. One of the reasons that "free content" has lasted is the legal structure that limits downstream liability (Section 230 and DMCA safe harbor).

He does present his arguments in an esoteric, sometimes existential manner. He talks early about the “Singularity” as if it were the “group mind” moment at the end of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” (which still needs to become a movie, by the way). Perhaps it’s like a “Blackout” in the ABC series “Flash Forward”. Or maybe it’s like a dream that won’t stop in REM sleep – possibly a threat of life’s end if one can’t wake oneself up.

He discusses "trolls" (hiding behind anonymity) and the "Ideology of Violation" which attacks "security through obscurity" (akin to biodiversity in nature), where journalists or bloggers invent hypothetical threats and scare people into protecting against them (the media scare over bump keys and lock picking in 2007 makes a good example; but sometimes we really can harden ourselves against many of the threats, including cyberthreats).

He introduces many other theories, like “computationalism” which he says eventually becomes a kind of universal Turing Test. He also tells the tragic story of Alan Turing’s arrest in 1952 for homosexual acts in Britain (no longer a crime after 1967), his treatment by feminization and chemical castration, and his eventual suicide.

He also discusses the existential nature of information, as not having sentience (although the laws of thermodynamics and entropy makes one wonder; the whole subject gets us to the other unseen dimensions of cosmology).

All of this makes me ponder what it means to “become a person” in his mind. For decades we have thought that the work ethic could put us through: your work becomes a contribution for future generations, and it attracts the people you want, including spouses (straight or gay). The “mao-ism” of the Web (as he sees it) threatens that process, and brings up the socially conservative notion that one must be a social creature first to be a person, extending himself or herself to others based on need (personal socialism, call it), and able to start and keep a family (with progeny) through one’s proper socialization, none of which required a cyberspace. In fact, one can question whether “cyber friends” are that: one cannot reasonably have 700 friends in real space. Of course, without real relationships with others, when one talks too much, one can come across as a Pharisee!

The book is printed in scala, with some font changes to highlight sidebars.

Let me add, I disagree with the popular impression out there that this book maintains that the Internet is "destroying society."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

David M. Walker (Peter G. Peterson Foundation): "Comeback America"

Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility
Author: David M. Walker
Title: "Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility"
Publication: New York: Random House, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4000-6860-9. 212 pages, hardcover. Prologue, 11 Chapters, Epilogue.

Fareed Zakaria recommended this book as a brisk read at the end of a recent Sunday Global Public Square program on CNN.

The author served as the seventh Comptroller General of the United States (under Reagan and the first president Bush) and headed the Government Accountability Office from 1998- to 2008. Today he is president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, with link here.

The author presents his theme of bringing our nation back to living within its means with a tone of compassionate conservatism, and sometimes shows recognition even a limited government must help people share some responsibilities for each other.

The most “radical” part of the book is probably the last chapter (“Fixing our Dysfunctional Democracy”), where he suggests using the second (so far never used) method for initiating a constitutional convention to amend the constitution, with 2/3 of state legislators calling for a convention. He makes some flexible proposals dealing with the Electoral College besides just doing away with it. He also addresses term limits and campaign finance reform and partisanship and overuse of lobbying. (I can recommend the book Vile, John R. "Contemporary Questions Surrounding the Constitutional Amending Process" (1993) from British publisher Praeger.)

But probably the most challenging portions of the book are his middle chapters with specifics on Social Security and health care. He describes how Social Security is “balanced” it a hidden accounting trick involving “off the books” IOUs locked up in West Virginia (I hope not at the Greenbrier!). Besides gradually raising retirement ages, he does suggest some means testing of benefits, especially against current outside income. (In fact, Social Security has an Annual Earnings Test for early retirement until full retirement age is reached, but he would apparently extend that concept.) Now, I personally experience Social Security benefits as a legally-driven annuity, related more or less to my FICA tax contributions over more than enough qualifying quarters. (Let me recommend Tomkiel, Stanley A., III "The Social Security Handbook": 4th Edition (2004, Sphinx). However, Social Security was originally invented (during the FDR years) as a quasi-welfare program intended to protect less fortunate aged people from poverty; there was always an element of wealth redistribution in the concept, so that early beneficiaries during the 1930s and 1940s never had to contribute. Social Security is often depicted as a promised "entitlement" (as is Medicare coverage); I still tend to see it as significantly covered by my own contributions. Yes, I personally would like to see a switch-over to a privatized lifetime annuity savings system.

Walker also has a comprehensive recommendation for health care reform. He supports limited catastrophic insurance coverage as universal coverage, and then offering supplementary coverage on an exchange, across state lines (pretty much along GOP lines), but with care not to allow the supplementaries penalize people for pre-existing conditions. But he does also recommend emphasis on healthful lifestyles and prevention (on smoking and obesity; he doesn’t mention STD’s). He recommends a “Medical Fed” separated from the political process to make decisions about appropriate care, and gradually disbanding the “fee for service” system which he correctly says enormously runs up the cost of health care for even relatively minor problems. He thinks that pharmaceutical companies should not be allowed to advertise in the media.

On tax reform, he suggests increasing consumption and VAT taxes, and argues that they do not have to be regressive. He is a bit equivocal on inheritance taxes, and perhaps even on the social "morality" of inherited wealth.

On defense, he suggests that America should operate overseas only when Congress declares war (not practical with clandestine Special Forces operations), and that Congress should levy a surtax to pay for the war (as LBJ did during Vietnam). He believes that the 2001 operation in Afghanistan was an appropriate reaction to 9/11, but that the war in Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein was not. He discusses the inequality of sacrifice during war, but never comes out to call for resumption of the draft. I think he would privately support an almost mandatory national service requirement, and would probably agree that “don’t ask don’t tell” should go, although he never specifically get to that issue.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Carley: "Asperger's from the Inside Out" (2008): now timely due to a possible APA change

Asperger's From the Inside Out: A Supportive and Practical Guide for Anyone with Asperger's Syndrome
Author: Michael John Carley
Title: "Asperger’s from the Inside Out: A Supportive and Practical Guide for Anyone with Asperger’s Syndrome"
Publication: Perigree, 2008. 252 pages, paper. ISBN 978-0-399-53397-6; Introduction and 7 chapters.

The author is Executive Director of GRASP, the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrone Partnership.

The author has led an adventurous life, as he relates in his Introduction when he relates a brief account of his work in Iraq on a water project, and how a particular incident would lead to his evaluation and diagnosis.

The book may attract some attention now since the American Psychiatric Association is considering formally placing Asperger’s Syndrome within the Autism Spectrum Disorders.

However, the author opens Chapter 1 by writing “Asperger’s syndrome is a neurological condition. It is one of five diagnoses that comprise what’s called “the autism spectrum”. (“Comprise” should be “constitute”.) Other sources list the Big Five as “pervasive developmental disorders.” The classification will be controversial, because it would define as autistic some individuals who would not view themselves as sick or disabled. The author also uses the abbreviation “NT” for “neuro-typicals”, or “normal” (I hate to use the word) people.

The main point, however, is to understand what, in biological terms, an autism spectrum “disorder” is. I think one way to see it is to consider how other familiar mammals behave. We all know that most cats are very different from most dogs in that cats are “selfish” or independent, whereas dogs are sociable and loyal to masters and packs. (In fact, there is a booklet by Kathy Hoopman, “All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome”, just 72 pages, from Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006). That is to say, our brains seem to have wiring both for our abilities to perceive ourselves as and act as individuals, and to share identities with a group (especially a nuclear and extended family) and act primarily as a member of a group in a manner appropriate for the role in the group. We know that elsewhere in biology this concept is even more hard-wired: look at social insects (ants and bees). Given the environment, both “selfishness” and “sociability” may give the animal a reproductive advantage and be passed on as hard-wired neurological traits in genes.

In a sense, “full-blown” autism sounds like “hyper selfishness” – to the point that the individual cannot communicate and may not want to. This may sound judgmental, but it is not; it helps us understand what we are dealing with for individuals who do function reasonably or very well, but who are “different” socially. At one end of the “increased selfishness” spectrum there is increased intellectual focus or other artistic focus, sometimes found with “creative” artists (music composers, painters, poets, novelists) or particularly scientists and mathematicians, and probably many grand master chess players. An individual who merely manages his “social” life adequately makes a living off his ability and does well in life. But quickly the prospect deteriorates; the individual is unable to understand non-verbal communications, then grasp the norms of expected behavior, and then further down, communicate in an acceptable manner at all.

The author gives a useful chart of Asperger-related behaviors, and shows how they can usually have positive as well as negative interpretations. Some that I relate to include interrupting others (a big problem in grade school starting mysteriously in third grade), a tendency to monopolize things on one subject, sometimes a tendency to make insensitive remarks because of an overly literal interpretation of circumstances, and a tendency toward absent-mindedness (which is really not the same thing as a short-term memory deficit). The latter is interesting: on my first job at National Bureau of Standards in 1963, by boss thought I had a “bad memory” but the problem was not keeping my mind on what I was doing. But the individual learns, even from an individualistic perspective, that some accommodation to social norms is required. The “rights of others” (to consent) demands, for example, that we not make unwelcome advances. A civil workplace requires that we not make certain kinds of remarks, and the barrier has gotten higher as times have changed, partly because of our social history over the past few decades. Other social norms (such as those against nudity) may have a more collective meaning, which may be hard to grasp from an individualistic perspective without specific learning.

Carley talks about getting evaluated and then “coming out” (one chapter is called “Disclosure”). My own take would be, if you are doing all right as an adult, there is no need for a formal evaluation or disclosure. But sometimes the outside world comes knocking at the door and demands things of a person that it had not demanded before. That is somewhat an issue in my own life.

I remember sitting down to dinner with an independent film producer at a Friday’s in Providence, R.I. in 2003, when he noticed by subnormal body language and blurted out to me that I have Asperger’s Syndrome (too). At age 60, that was my first diagnosis.

It's possible that Asperger's might develop because some motor facilities in the central nervous system just run too slow, like a slow computer chip. That would allow contemplative abilities to become dominant. Or maybe it's the other way around.

I wonder what the relation of Asperger’s is to “schizoid personality disorder” (which was my official diagnosis at NIH in 1962), which, again, is defined relative to society’s expectations to fit into the group. (Narcissistic personality disorder and sociopathy are much more problematic. I do experience a reluctance to share the gratuitous emotions of a group, whether in a “fellowship” or in a family – I see all this concern over lineage and family as the “soap opera syndrome” (“Days of our Lives” – aka Sami’s story – is the worst offender.) I am sometimes perceived as both unsympathetic and unempathetic – these are different concepts, as the author points out. I do have my own personal access to emotion – in short, it is through the gateway of music. The lack of “social emotion” or the ability to “love people as people” can become problematic as families get smaller and the demands for eldercare or care for people with other disabilities (besides ASD) increase because of changes in medical practice, in short, because of “demographic winter”.

The author is married with two sons. But some people with Asperger’s do not marry and do not desire an intense relationship. It’s logical to wonder if there is any connection to homosexuality, at least on theory; but plenty of people with Asperger’s express heterosexual interest. Conversely, many, maybe most, male homosexuals are “neurotypical”. For example, in Hollywood there are many gay actors, and they probably could not succeed without relatively “normal” social instincts and even charisma. On the other hand, artists and computer nerds (gay or straight) may not need the same kind of social ease. But the question is interesting: since there is so much evidence that sexual orientation also has roots in biological wiring and perhaps both genetic and prenatal hormonal influences, is there any cross-connection with autism-spectrum disorders at the biological wiring level?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Book publishers gain leverage in e-book royalties, search policies


The arrival of Steven Jobs’s Apple iPad, and Amazon.com’s furious activity is giving traditional book publishers a little more leverage, according to a story in the New York Times Tuesday Feb. 9 by Motoko Rich, “Publishers Win a Bout in the E-Book Price Fight”, link here.

According to the story, Google Editions will have to offer publishers a bigger cut. Book publishers have resisted arrangements that would allow e-book publishers to print and cut-and-paste, with business model fears that resembled those of the music industry and that undergird the copy protection technology supported by the DMCA.

The story reports that Google had originally intended that any book sold as a e-copy through the Google Editions program be available to customary global searches. However, Google now will not require this. iUniverse has a similar practice with print-on-demand, whereas some of the publishing contracts with authors are interpreted as authorizing searches. This practice could become controversial, as people mentioned in books previously available only in print (and in practice not easily found in “reputation background checks”) could suddenly pop up after years. I placed my own 1997 “Do Ask Do Tell” book online in 1998, and in one occasion an individual was concerned about an obscure footnote reference that popped up eight years later. Of course, an HTML copy can be edited, but an original book cannot.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

"The Trouble with Boys" by Peg Tyre (review)

The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do
Author: Peg Tyre

Title: "The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do"

Publication: Three Rivers Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-307-38129-3, 311 pages, paper, indexed, 20 chapters


I could have fun with the title of the book, because it reminds me of “The Trouble with Harry”. An reviewing a book on these blogs is a bit like watching a really independent film, and the subject matter of this book would make great material for a PBS Frontline show, I think.

I worked as a substitute teacher in northern Virginia for a while, doing about 240 assignments, and I can certainly say that some boys do succeed spectacularly, at everything: sports, academics, arts. I think back over my own piano lessons in the 50s, and more girls took piano than boys, but as I look at what goes on today, it seems there are more male composers than female, still, and some music and acting, in different ways, seem to make demands on “real men” – they always seem fit and strong (as long as they stay away from the bottle or drugs). A few weeks ago, Taylor Lautner, still 17, hosted Saturday Night Live. Yes, it’s quite remarkable that a young man, not yet a legal adult, is talented and mature enough to host a show like that. So some boys do very well. They always have.

In my senior year of high school, I joined the Science Honor Society (that was 1960-1961), and there was only one girl. In tournament chess, men have dominated, but in recent years women’s chess has grown and women write many columns in the USCF publications.

All of this loops back to a basic point: men and women are different, and the educational system of the 50s really did take that into account. Boys were allowed to be boys long enough to be ready for school, by and large, in middle class America. Through a series of changes related to gender equality and abstract educational theories, as well as some changes in the family itself (fewer stay-at-home moms, fewer and later kids) the early years of the educational system became harder on some boys, particularly some minorities and those whose parents have lower incomes.

Kindergarten, she pointed out, became the new first grade, and pre-schools and grade school alike placed unreasonable expectations on some boys, setting up a vicious cycle that sets them up for lifetime failure (after attempts at special education). The harder we try, it seems, the worse it gets.

Boys do play differently. Apart from competitive roughhousing, they like to set up domains in which there are places to go and things to happen. (Model railroading is still popular with many boys, and the attraction of many talented boys to computers is explained partly by the fact that computing gives them a world that they can manipulate. Yes, kids learn to code java in middle school; once, when I was subbing, an eleven year old sixth grader got me past a “blue screen” error with a complete safe mode reboot.)

The author does provide discussion of the biological differences between boys and girls (p. 182 is particularly interesting), even in starting in utero. She covers controversies like boys-only classes and the lack of male teachers in lower grades (because of income and "fear" of cultural stereotypes, about which she doesn't mince words). What I noticed is that participation in performing arts, whether music or standard drama (very different experiences in some ways) really seems to help boys develop cognitively. I don’t know what the scientific explanation is, but it seems very real to me.

Sometimes boys fall behind for other reasons; being behind physically can make some boys over-cautious and fearful of risks, leading to paradoxes. On p 252 she discusses the "double standards" we have for boys: we want them to be in charge and be independent, but we expect them to sacrifice themselves in war or serve the interests of the community. All of this was all too real to me.