January 31, 2006

Sensible News

Category: F/OSS,Politics — @ 7:42 pm

Mako Hill has written a short but important piece providing some clarity over the stakes and limits of revising the GPL.

The EFF is leading a class action suit against AT&T for helping the NSA spy on us (take note of clever AT&T logo redesign)

The Economist has a decent article, Desperate Measures that examines not only why the American system of health care is broken but is headed for even more perilous times (take note the usually pro-privitization, pro-consumer stance of the Economist at the end, actually and surprisingly gives way to a sensible claim:

The logic of consumer-driven health care assumes that unnecessary doctor visits and procedures lie at the heart of America’s health-care inflation. And it assumes that individual patients can become discerning consumers of health care. Both are questionable. Most American health-care spending is on people with chronic diseases, such as diabetics, whose health care costs many thousands of dollars a year, easily exceeding even high deductibles.)

January 28, 2006

Evvill and Corporate Accountabilty: The Google Case

Category: Ethics,Hackers,Politics — @ 9:25 pm

My friend over at Spam has been tracking and commenting on the “are google two-timing jerks, now doing ‘some evil’ debacle concerning China and censorship. I have a keen interest in the topic, less because of the human rights issues (which I find fascinating) but because this is the most visible test case that challenges, one may say painfully grinds against, Google’s “Do No Evil” Policy and reveals the depth and stakes of their little social experiment.

I was far from surprised that Google, when it went public, attempted to infuse the hacker ethical spirit into the corporation, which was built, garage on up, on the spirit and literally foundation of open source software. The fact that they were throwing around such talk, reminded me that one of the questions about hacker ethical discourse I have my students probe is: why are hackers and geek-types so quick to pronounce hacker ethical talk (and in such a clear and well-formulated way)?

There is no one answer to this (and I wrote a dissertation that addresses this question and perhaps only gets at small percentage of the answer because the answer is lies in multiple threads of analysis) but, I think, there is something about where they work, i.e., the corporation, that lends itself toward a heightened discussion of ethics. Hackers are bodies who labor, day in, and day out, in a context that is often, at some level (though not total) a threat to the hacker ethical imperative for technical sovereignty. These threats come in various forms, but the two most persistent and locally visible are the figure of the manager (conduits, though, for much larger corporate decisions) and the various bundles of rights (or restrictions, depending on your perspective) collected under the banner of intellectual property law. Within the a context of low -grade constant threat, hacker ethical discourse is pronounced, and omni-present, a sort of weak form of innoculation, that serves to remind them what is “right” and it is the not necessarily the road less traveled, but the road that leads to the best technical solution. And this ethical presence is marked in everything from modes of comportment, styles of dress, and of course joking.. (usually derisive jokes about managers, common in Dilbert).

But as Thorstein Veblen wrote so long ago, the corporate imperative for maximal profits can conflict with churning out the “best quality” technology or product and in fact can managers to “sabotage” the corporation’s material capacities, if this will in some fashion, render the corporation, ruled by absentee owners, more profitable. Veblen writes:

“But it is equally evident that the owner or manager of any given concern or section of this industrial system may be in a position to gain something for himself at the cost of the rest by obstructing, retarding or dislocating this working system at some critical point in such a way as will enable him to get the best of the bargain in his dealings with the rest (vested interest, p. 93). In the Vested Interests, and other books, Veblem champions an engineering ethic that holds many affinities with the hacker” (Oh how he would have simply loved free and open source production).

Decades letter Tracey Kidder, in his masterful account Soul of a New Machine tells the story of a team of computer engineers at Data General Corporation driven to make the best evah’ computer, but alas, there are problems littered due to management. He captures the tension between the mandates of sound engineering and the mandates of sound business practice. The book ends with a somewhat dramatic commentary on the tension:

“The day after the formal announcement, Data General’s famous sales force had been intrudiced to the computer in New York and elsewhere. At the end of the presentation for the samles personell in New York, the regional sales manager got up and give his troops a pep talk.
“What motivates people?” he asked.
He answered his own question, saying, “Ego and the money to buy things that they and
their families want.”
It was a different game now. Clearly, the machine no longer belonged to its makers.”

Thanks to things like open source, the Internet, and most importantly, legal insturments, the machine, in the form of code, does or can belong to its makers…

That aside, what is so interesting about Google’s “Do No Evil” Mantra, is that it is a reflexive regognition that things can go amiss in a corporation, that there is a tension, especially in a public company, between management and the technical comrades, between the stockholders and the employees. And with some understanding of tension, they crafted an ethical shield written that is well-known and even incorporated into their corporate charter.

But whether such a shield is made from paper puff pastries or something more hefty, like steel is now under test. But I really don’t think this is a question about Google’s fortitude. It may be that the structure, the force-field of a publicly trade company, leaves little wiggle room (or perhaps only wiggle room) to apply, abide, much less expand on ethical committments.

That said, I think that this case is more intersting than a situation of “can Google live up to its word.” Instead I laud Google for even trying to infuse an ethical sentiment into the corporate way of life. It is an interesting experiment that is worth bearing out, that if nothing else, will help clarify once again, the limits and possiblities for corporate accountability.

January 26, 2006

No Need to Throw Them Out, Really

Category: Politics — @ 8:20 am

Ok, does the ending of this article on the dangers of teflon just strike a little (no, a lot) odd?

Teflon in the Womb and Whales’

“It would be hard to imagine a chemical that is more widespread in our environment,” said Kenneth Cook, the president and founder of the watchdog organization Environmental Working Group. “It is found everywhere from babies in the womb to whales in the ocean. And beyond that, it is indestructible in the environment. It lasts forever.”

Federal officials say the agreement also applies to a variety of Teflon consumer products — including carpeting and clothing, food packing, as well as Teflon pots and pans.

“This program calls on virtually eliminating those uses in those products and substituting with other materials that aren’t displaying any levels of concern,” Hazen said.

DuPont has already paid more than $100 million to settle lawsuits brought by residents who live near a Teflon plant in West Virginia.

Sue Bailey, a former DuPont plant worker, blames the chemical for birth defects suffered by her son, Bucky, 25 years ago. He was born with only one nostril and a deformed right eye.

Today they called the action long overdue.

DuPont says, as it stands now, it cannot make Teflon without this chemical, and it is looking for a substitute. As for all those pots and pans in the homes of Americans, both DuPont and the federal government say there is no need to throw them out.

The funny, ok not so funny, thing is I threw out my mom’s teflon this winter break.

January 24, 2006


Category: Hackers — @ 4:16 pm

Hope 6 is sort of around the corner.

January 19, 2006


Category: F/OSS,Politics — @ 6:48 am

I recently returned from the 1st GPLv3 conference held January 16th and 17th at MIT University. It was not so much a conference that unveiled a license, but was used to kick-start the process for the collective revisioning of the draft.

It was impressive along many fronts. This is the first major revision of the license in 15 years and the time is ripe for such changes given the many transformations in intellectual property law, the software industry, and F/OSS development in the last decade. The current GPL is slated to be clarified (especially related to linking and compatibility with other open source licenses) and new conditions, such as the appearance of DRM and the explosion of software patents, have garnered explicit response in the new draft.

It seemed like much of the new material or, at least talk about the license, dealt with patents, although patent retaliation and restrictions were not as strong or present as some had feared. Here is the basic clause: If a GPL “licensee brings a patent infringement lawsuit against anyone for activities relating to a work based on the program,” then one loses the privilege to modify the software.

Another clause, related to web-based applications, was met with great relief among the business-types many of whom were in attendance. As currently drafted, the GPL will not treat web-based applications as distributed, and thus code can remain closed. Now, however, one has the right to choose whether to keep their server application code open, one permission of a few others that will based on personal choice if retained in the final license.

There are many more techno-legal details that I won’t go into here, in part because they are nicely summarized elsewhere and I am more interested in other elements, notably the process of modification that awaits the draft in the coming year. Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen and others at the FSF are clearly well positioned to make the most significant and sound recommendations for the new license. And they have. And in the end, they, and in specific, RMS, will have ultimate authority to decide what stays in and what stays out. But they have opened up the process of revisioning to everyone who is willing and able to contribute, knowing that this is the right way to go, for pragmatic and ethical reasons.

As it currently stands, for revisioning the FSF has devised a related, two-pronged process. One entails a website where the document is currently housed. There, anyone can create an account, and add their comments, and more significant, is that one can read the commentary others have left for that section also and craft a response to others. As Eben stated during one of the speeches, they prefer comments that are hinged to one or two of small sections of the text instead of comments on large chunks or large multiple chunks.

The website is accompanied by 4 discussion committees who more or less are collectors and organizers of the data, but also offer their own input as this unfolds. They are going to wade through the many comments, track patterns, and transform comments into issues and release documents to the public (I think related to their recommendaitons).

Currently, the discussion committees exist in some state of ambiguity and are not explicitly categorized aside from carrying an alphabetical number. But they can be divided more or less into into (A) Foundation stakeholders [Richard Fontana and Eben Moglen will switch facilitating] (B): Corporate and Patent Intrests [Eben Moglen facilitating] (C): Laywers and Commercial Users [RMS facilitaing] and finally (D): Community, which includes many hackers from various development projects [Dave Turner facilitating].

So far, the organization and purpose of these groups is loose, but one gets the sense that this is exactly what the FSF intended. Since they (and much less anyone else), has ever carried out this sort of open and global legal endeavor, I suspect they are letting the role of committees congeal more organically, cementing into something more definitive as they figure out what that should be.

I attended committee D meetings as an observer because I am interested in documenting how the process plays out, and in specific understanding the role of the Debian developers (Mako Hill, Don Armstrong, and Branden Robinson are the Debian participants thus far). And hope to say more as this all unfolds in the next year.

Here are a few pictures from the conference. I did not take many because I was actually shooting video (which I have never really done) but have yet to figure out how to get it off my video camera and onto my computer! As soon as I do, I will post some clips of the talk too.

January 17, 2006

Testimony from Coalition against Psychiatric Assault

Category: Politics,Psychiatry — @ 8:38 pm

Transcripts from the Inquiry into psychiatry 2005″ Historic Public Hearingheld in Toronto, Canada.


Category: Politics — @ 8:32 pm

You see Detroit is not so bad after all. Well, actually, due to the Super Bowl and other maniacal powers that be, the stellar window paintings were erased, giving view instead to the drabbness that is unoriginal urban management. But Detroit is still cool for other reasons, especially the massive
urban green
renewal efforts.

Radical Politcs and the Ethics of Life

Category: Politics — @ 7:17 pm

This one-day conference on Radical Politics and the Ethics of Life is being held at Columbia University this Friday. Here is some more information about it:

Urban guerrilla groups have brought into focus key political and ethical questions about the relationships between violence and humanism, violence and politics, and violence and the ethics of life that have been raised and remain unanswered since the October Revolution.

This one day event will stage a series of encounters between activists, theorists, and students in order to bring to light and to explore the political aporias erected by the praxis of urban guerrilla groups in Europe and the United States from the 1960s to the1980s. Up for discussion will be the relationships between pedagogy and activism; law and resistance; race and the struggles of black and white worker’s movements; and the relationship of the individual to law, aesthetics, ecology…and an ethical commitment to peace. What recourse to resistance do we, as citizens of liberal democratic states, have when we observe those states disregard and break the law and engage in actions and tactics for which they have no mandate?

Join Bill Ayers (University if Illinois), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Columbia University), Bernadine Dohrn (Northwestern University), Georgy Katsiaficas (Wentworth Institute of Technology), Panama Alba (Revson Fellow, Columbia University), Sally Bermanzohn (Brooklyn College), Felicity Scott (University of California, Irvine), Robin Kelley (Columbia University), Ritty Lukose (University of Pennsylvania), Elizabeth Povinelli (Columbia University), Maria Koundoura (Emerson College), Stathis Gourgouris (UCLA), Eleni Varikas (Paris VIII), Jeremy Varon (Drew University) and students for a day of dialogic interventions on this important question.

January 11, 2006

Pics from PR

Category: Uncategorized — @ 4:46 pm

Here are a few pictures from Puerto Rico

The Return

Category: Alzheimers — @ 3:29 pm

I have returned back to New Jersey. I would not exactly call this a return home either. Since I have been here for only 3 months and in all likelihood will leave in another 6-9 months, this place for me is transitory and transitional. I did return, however, from a place that in many respects feels like some type of home, Puerto Rico. And I usually get that sense of visceral familiarity when I fly there because the last 6 minutes of the flight serve up one of the most familiar landscapes of my life. During the descent into the airport I recognize nearly everything. If I fly during the brightness of the day, the green explodes amid a concrete jungle bordered by the most beautiful of blues: ocean blue. I know neighborhoods, stadiums, streets, and even buildings well. At night, the architecture is a little harder to decipher but I can still make out some of the larger landmarks that are surrounded this time not by billowing green but are bathed in glittering yellow. And for those who may not know, San Juan is an incredibly populated city so the lights are simply stunning for such a small Caribbean island.

This year, though, I returned under slightly different conditions. After a fairly intense week, I flew home at 11:00 p.m. and landed later than I ever had, pulling in a little short of 3 a.m. Instead of encountering a familiar explosion of glittering lights, I instead viewed a subdued geography. There was still a grid of lights but now there were discernable patches of darkness. The island and her many inhabitants were in slumber, the usual life of the city dimmed.

I had just been in Puerto Rico in September but during this short time much has changed for my mother who is ill with a peculiar form of Alzheimers, commonly known as Benson’s Syndrome. The most noticeable symptom is visual disturbance due to the atrophying of her visual cortex. Though not blind, she does not see the world as you and I do.

Much in the same way I saw PR that same night of my return, dimmed, my mother’s spirit has also dimmed. She has always been quite fiery and well into her illness, she was asserting her independence, in every which way and often in ways that put her life in daily and direct danger. Notable among these was walking every day to an open air market, by herself even though she had to cross these busy streets. There was nothing I could do to stop her so I just sort of hoped that she did not die a horrible death on the road. Miraculously, she was never hit by a car but about 2 weeks before I came home, in one week she did get lost 3 times and finally gave up her daily sojourns that asserted as much that she is still an independent human being as much as it was a simple trip to the market. I was shocked that she stopped.

She is now living betwixt and between, sometimes edging closer to childhood and other times acting like the adult I am more familiar with, giving me sound advice about this or that. More so than times past, she was frustrated and on some days it took little to no effort to say or do something “wrong” which would send her spiraling into one of her intensely bad moods. At the same time, it also did not take all that much to send her in the other direction, reeling in such a state of laughter that tears were running down her face.

She lives in a state of volatility. She is a little like a semi-broken & unpredictable machine that sometimes completes its job and other times careens out of control, a flurry of sparks and smoke billowing out of the otherwise calm hunk of metal. And this volatility is in part follows from having to react to a world that seems so volatile. One day she may be able to see things relatively normal, the other day, nothing is where she thinks it is and worse, I may look like my sister, dog, or her priest. At times, this is funny for her, other times it is depressingly frightful. It would take one hell of a lot of zen-like patience to battle against her visual environment, especially since she suffers from other ailments like memory loss and aphasia. Everyday must be lived day-to-day and it will always likely be at least tinged but often deeply seeped in struggle.

More often than not during our conversations my mom returned to the subject of the past. Her parents, living in Venezuela, losing her baby. One day when I was in the mall with her, an older woman pulled me away from the clothing rack and said “she is talking about her past, isn’t she? My mom was just like that too.” I guess this is common and have heard such. Perhaps when you know that your future is so bleak, you return to more sure and comforting places, like the past.

And this is where she seems to be heading, back into a state of dependence and infancy, where she will soon have to rely on others for all her needs. Going from dependence to independence, she now will return back to another state of dependence. It is of course not a return to the same place because we never can go back to the same place twice. And this is in part because she and I and many others are so painfully aware of this shift in a way that a child rarely is. It is rougher transition, because in essence, one has to relinquish the forms of freedom one has carved out for oneself. Once you have it and taste it and as my mother did, relish in it, freedom, whatever that may mean, becomes extraordinarily difficult to let go of.

My last day of my visit, my mom and I usually are not donning our best moods. I am terribly sad, tears wetting my face, which luckily my mom can’t discern. My mom usually starts to rebel against the woman, Milagro, who normally takes care of her. On this particular day, my mom was sitting on the couch, unusually quiet. Then out of the blue, she starts to semi-apologize for how she treats Milagro but explains to me why she no longer wants anyone, especially her, to cook for her. She asks me “Do you know what it means to be free??” And went on to explain that she always always lived “free as a bird” and she should not be forced to eat someone else’s food.

I had never heard her talk before about her freedom, or even admit that she did things, like refuse food, as an assertion of freedom. And it makes one wonder about the line between self and body. Her body is failing her, trapping her self into a state that does not feel right, that robs her of freedom of being and movement. Now, her freedom to choose, even if it seems against her interest, comes to be the only freedom she seems to have.

I am not sure what I will find when I return but I am sure things will change so as to shift the balance between her independece and dependencem, between her adulthood and her childhood, between her sadness and happiness…