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January 31, 2013
“Or the future of the Internet becomes something that is done to us.”
Posted by Patrick at 11:49 AM * 28 comments

Bruce Schneier, “Power and the Internet”:

All disruptive technologies upset traditional power balances, and the Internet is no exception. The standard story is that it empowers the powerless, but that’s only half the story. The Internet empowers everyone. Powerful institutions might be slow to make use of that new power, but since they are powerful, they can use it more effectively. Governments and corporations have woken up to the fact that not only can they use the Internet, they can control it for their interests. Unless we start deliberately debating the future we want to live in, and information technology in enabling that world, we will end up with an Internet that benefits existing power structures and not society in general.
This is the thing. Even in 2013, too many of us still believe, down deep, when we’re not forcing ourselves to think clearly, that there’s something magic about the internet that always works to the benefit of underdogs. That the fact that we now all carry more computing power in our pocket than was used in the spaceship that landed on the Moon means that somehow all these “disruptions” will amount to a net increase in the autonomy and power of individuals.

To a significant extent these delusions reflect the tremendous success of the narratives promulgated by modern libertarianism, the just-so stories of “free markets” and the “wisdom of crowds.” Even non-libertarians have spent a generation eating that stuff up. Faith in those ideas has led many of us into quietism and apathy. But in fact, in the words of the Kevin Maroney remark quoted on the colophon of Making Light, “a better future isn’t going to happen by itself.” While we dream our dreams of the wisdom of crowds, power works in silence.

You should read all of Bruce’s essay. But here’s the last paragraph anyway:

[I]f we’re not trying to understand how to shape the Internet so that its good effects outweigh the bad, powerful interests will do all the shaping. The Internet’s design isn’t fixed by natural laws. Its history is a fortuitous accident: an initial lack of commercial interests, governmental benign neglect, military requirements for survivability and resilience, and the natural inclination of computer engineers to build open systems that work simply and easily. This mix of forces that created yesterday’s Internet will not be trusted to create tomorrow’s. Battles over the future of the Internet are going on right now: in legislatures around the world, in international organizations like the International Telecommunications Union and the World Trade Organization, and in Internet standards bodies. The Internet is what we make it, and is constantly being recreated by organizations, companies, and countries with specific interests and agendas. Either we fight for a seat at the table, or the future of the Internet becomes something that is done to us.
Aaron Swartz knew this. We need to know it in our bones.

January 23, 2013
The kind of consumer information our readers need
Posted by Avram Grumer at 03:47 AM * 9 comments

Kyle Baker has made his comics available free on his website! (The ones he has the rights to, I mean. I’m not expecting to see those issues of The Shadow Baker drew for DC in 1988–89, or the infamous “Letitia Lerner” story.) You can read classics like Why I Hate Saturn, The Cowboy Wally Show, and You Are Here. There’s a Flash interface, so it won’t work on your iPad, but I also saw links at the bottom of the Cowboy Wally page for an app, and some kind of executable for Windows. Anyway, Baker’s got a real way with snappy gag-filled dialog and strong page design skills; if you haven’t seen these classic works before, you’ve been missing out.

He’s even got some non-comics material up there. There’s an animated series I hadn’t heard of with the title TNH, which apparently stands for “Tortoise and Hare”. (Haven’t watched it yet, but the initials caught my eye.)

In other comics news, I’ve been following some great new webcomics. Strong Female Protagonist (by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag) is about young woman with super-strength who’s trying to quit the super-heroing biz. Nimona (by Noelle Stevenson) is a hilarious fantasy strip about a shape-changing girl determined to be a villain’s sidekick.

Edited to add: Oh, hey, since this is a comics, post, I might as well piggy-back this bit on. I was looking through the Dysfunctional Families thread and saw some stuff about the cost of cleaning supplies, and costs of living in general, and thought — have I mentioned Poorcraft here? Written by C Spike Trotman (creator of Templar, Arizona), drawn by Diana Nock, Poorcraft is a guide to frugal living, in the form of a comic. It was the first project I ever backed on Kickstarter. It’s got advice on buying and cooking cheap food, making your own cleaning supplies, and picking a place to live in an inexpensive neighborhood. There’s a sequel in the works, too.

January 21, 2013
“Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall”
Posted by Patrick at 10:37 PM * 76 comments

Here’s how the New York Daily News covered Stonewall back in the day.

Pretty good Wikipedia entry here.

As Joanna Russ said: Homophobia isn’t primarily there to keep gay people in line. It’s there to keep everybody in line.

January 16, 2013
Open Thread 180
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 08:10 PM *

Australian Police Arrest Four Smurf Suspects for Crime Spree

Four men dressed as Smurfs were arrested after beating a man and attempting to steal a car in Melbourne, Australia.

January 13, 2013
A question regarding the prosecution of Aaron Swartz
Posted by Patrick at 08:01 PM * 16 comments

Why was the Secret Service involved?

January 12, 2013
Aaron Swartz
Posted by Patrick at 07:45 PM * 123 comments

I didn’t know him. Of course I knew who he was. I was startled to discover—today, after he died—that he followed me on Twitter. (I followed him, but in the same spirit that I follow a lot of interesting open-culture activists who I don’t expect to be aware of me.) For cripes’ sake, he lived in Brooklyn. Given the number of friends and associates we had in common, I could have made his acquaintance at any time. No longer. Life goes by so fast.

Our only point of near-contact was that he wrote an afterword for Cory Doctorow’s novel Homeland, the forthcoming (February 5) sequel to Little Brother. It’s a good afterword. It basically says, hi, this stuff is real, and not only that, but you can change the world just like Marcus. I did. Here’s how.

Over today, I’ve already linked—in the sidebar—to Cory’s heartfelt eulogy, to Henry Farrell’s memories and thoughts, to a very sensible post about depression and suicidal ideation by the comic Rob Delaney, and to the mourning tweet of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. (It is perhaps a morbid, inappropriate, and horridly geeky thought, but I cannot escape the idea that even if you die at 26 by your own hand, if you have lived so well that you are mourned by Tim Berners-Lee, you have in some deep sense won at life.)

I want to add a few more links. Rick Perlstein demonstrates, just by listing all the things Swartz did for him, what a piece of human internet infrastructure the man was. Writing on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “Deeplinks Blog,” Peter Eckersley talks about how Swartz “did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way.” Somebody who doesn’t post their name writes a terrific Tumblr post about depression, suicide, and the tendency of people who haven’t been near the latter to try to squeeze the shock into a narrative: “the compassionate genius who was a little too good, or the activist hounded down by the government, or why would such a promising and beloved young person do something like this, or gosh there seems to be a link between creativity and mental illness, or some other well-meaning script.” Point taken. On the other hand, his family and his partner seem pretty convinced that his suicide had to do with the fact that Federal prosecutors were trying their best to get him slammed into jail for upwards of 35 years. “Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.” And while families and partners can be mistaken, I think their views on the matter carry a certain amount of weight.

Just for perspective, here are the views of Alex Stamos, an expert in computer crime who was due to testify for the defense in Swartz’s upcoming trial, and who is now free to say what he thinks: “I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.”

If you click on one link from this post, click on this one: Lawrence Lessig. No, wait, I’m just going to reproduce two-thirds of Lessig’s post. It’s that true.

Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.

Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”

In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.

One word, and endless tears.

Remember yesterday, when we were all crowing about the wonderfully geeky White House response to the tongue-in-cheek “build a Death Star” petition? Just remember that the same people were in charge of the Federal prosecutors who destroyed Aaron Swartz.

January 11, 2013
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 02:17 PM * 225 comments

C: Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze (inside of the elbow works fine)
O: Only use your own utensils and glasses
U: Use proper hand-washing technique
G: Get immunized
H: Stay Home if you’re feeling sick.

What’s in today’s news? Flu Prompts Boston to Declare Public Health Emergency. Yeah, the flu is hitting hard and hitting early.

How hard? It’s met the CDC’s threshold for an epidemic. It’s been reported at high levels in forty-one states. Flu leads to Texas teen’s death. Eighteen dead in Massachusetts. Five dead and a hundred and fifty in intensive care in Illinois…. From Pennsylvania to Oregon some hospitals are putting up “flu tents” outside the ER to handle the surge in cases.

Referring back to older Making Light posts:

The USA flu season usually peaks in late January. It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccination to bring you up to full immunity. (Note: Flu vaccines are approximate at best; they may not prevent 100% of the flu that’s going around, but they can make the cases less severe.) So, today isn’t too late to get the stick. Go do it. I’ll wait.

When to go to the ER:

You have difficulty breathing or have pain in your chest
Some of the things that cause shortness of breath and chest pain can kill you in the next five minutes. Don’t screw around.
You can’t keep fluids down because of nausea and vomiting
Dehydration kills.
Your fever or cough gets better, then gets worse
That means that you’ve picked up a bacterial infection of some kind, and it’s the secondary bacterial infections that most often result in deaths from flu. (Numbered in the tens of thousands every year.)

January 04, 2013
Dysfunctional Families: Sitting and rising
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:02 PM *

I ran across a fascinating article in my Twitter stream the other day. It’s about a simple test—how easily someone can sit down on the floor and stand up again—and how much one can predict people’s subsequent mortality from the results.

The author of the study, Dr Claudio Gil Ara├║jo, says that the test works because it requires a variety of skills and characteristics that are generally associated with longer life. It is, in other words, a test of general health.

It is well known that aerobic fitness is strongly related to survival, but our study also shows that maintaining high levels of body flexibility, muscle strength, power-to-body weight ratio and co-ordination are not only good for performing daily activities but have a favourable influence on life expectancy.

The study was performed in Brazil; it would be interesting to see how it correlates across cultures and medical systems (for instance, joint replacements can lower someone’s score but improve their wider mobility, and thus their general health). But it actually intrigued me mostly because it bounced off of a conversation I was having with my mother the other day.

We were talking about some of the challenges that our own family has faced over the years, in the context of this community. Some of the stories I was telling about the DF threads made her uncomfortable, because they often started with situations that we ourselves had been in. But I pointed out that the difference between a functional family and a dysfunctional one is not that nothing bad ever happens to a functional one; it’s that a dysfunctional one doesn’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with what arises. The same event can be trivial in a family with working collaboration skills and conflict resolution methods, or a gateway to hell for one without them.

Imagine that there were a simple test for familial dysfunction, as simple as the sitting-rising test for general physical health. What would such a test look like? I picture some kind of an observed problem-solving exercise: navigating to an unfamiliar location, playing a board game, making a meal. Even if everyone is on their best behavior and not actively blowing up, would it be possible to detect the absence of a healthy toolkit for working together? Would such a test be useful? Would the (ironically misplaced) fear that many good parents have that they’re doing it all wrong interfere with its creation and adoption?

What would a world where we had such a test—a reliable one—look like?

This is part of the sequence of Dysfunctional Families discussions. We have a few special rules, specific to the needs and nature of the conversations we have here.

  1. If you want to participate but don’t want your posts linked to your contributions to the rest of Making Light, feel free to choose a pseudonym. But please keep it consistent within these threads, because people do care. You can create a separate (view all by) history for your pseudonym by changing your email address. And if you blow it and cross identities, give me a shout and I’ll come along and tidy it up.
  2. On a related note, please respect the people’s choice to use a pseudonym, unless they make it clear that they are willing to let the identities bleed over in people’s minds.
  3. If you’re not from a dysfunctional background, be aware that your realities and base expectations are not the default in this conversation. In particular, please don’t do the “they’re the only family you have” thing. Black is white, up is down, and your addressee’s mother may very well be their nemesis.
  4. Be even more careful, charitable, and gentle than you would elsewhere on Making Light. Try to avoid “hlepiness” (those comments which look helpful, but really aren’t). Apologize readily and sincerely if you tread on toes, even unintentionally. This kind of conversation only works because people have their defenses down.
  5. Never underestimate the value of a good witness. If you want to be supportive but don’t have anything specific to say, people do value knowing that they are heard.

Previous posts (note that comments are closed on them to keep the conversation in one place):

January 02, 2013
If It Weren’t For the Cat….
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 09:17 PM * 133 comments

So…. tonight, while clearing the table after supper, Doyle said, “If it weren’t for the cat we could leave the cheese out.”

Alex (our younger son) said, “If it weren’t for the cat, the funeral would have been open casket.”

Doyle said, “If it weren’t for the cat, we would never have known the bishop wears a toupee.”

“If it weren’t for the cat I would have had the whiskey all to myself.”

“If it weren’t for the cat no one would have heard of Schrodinger.”

“If it weren’t for the cat the noise would have had no earthly explanation.”

And so it went. Another typical night at Madhouse Manor.

Jon Singer’s problems are not like your problems
Posted by Patrick at 06:06 PM * 85 comments

But if you’ve been wondering if someone out there has a full-sized traditional Javanese gamelan they’d like to provide to a good home, you can become part of the solution to at least one of Jon’s problems.

As some of you are aware, the small non-profit research institute that has employed Jon Singer for the past thirteen years is folding its tents, and he’s looking for a new situation. With luck he’ll find something that will make good use of his famously wide-ranging and eccentric talents.

Meanwhile, for reasons too complicated to explain—and yet perfectly Jon Singerish—he is currently spending over $200 a month to store a full-size gamelan, which is to say, a complete set of the instruments played by a traditional Javanese ensemble in both scales. Essentially, we’re talking about a ton and a half of bronze, plus various wooden bits and parts.

Fond though he is of traditional Indonesian music, Jon does not actually foresee having a constant need for this assemblage, and he would like it to find a good home. Interested parties should be prepared to either pick it up in person (Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC) or arrange for its carting and shipping. Inquiries should go to Jon Singer at

(Pictured: Part of Emory University’s gamelan, near-twin to Jon’s. Not pictured: Jon Singer’s friends’ complete lack of surprise upon hearing that his current logistical problem entails having become responsible for the storage of a one-and-a-half-ton set of highly specialized musical instruments.)

January 01, 2013
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Dire legal notice
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