Monthly Archives: June 2009

Tab dump

I was considering writing a whole post about this, but I’ll sum up: if, impossibly, she were to get her way I’d want to be a corrupt gov’t official or amoral story thief. I could get out of front of any scoop newspapers ever had, just by spreading around my story under something like a CC license while theirs was in its new copyright prison. An information spreading source that thinks it will benefit by keeping its information locked up is very funny.

I might be able to give some insight into this question, but I choose not to.

Watching Chris Anderson and Malcolm Gladwell argue makes me dizzy in a way only reading something rigorously peer reviewed can help.

I’ve thought about it, and decided I can live with that. I’m a brave girl.

More anti-news about how our lack of single payer or state run healthcare is making us poor as well as sick. Given the global financial crisis, it’s making everyone else poor too.

I’ve always had a deep and abiding hate for my home state’s system of direct democracy. It’s ruined the schools, taken away civil rights, and is at this point bankrupting the state.

Yes, me too. Ok?

Regarding the senses, and a Northpaw update

There is no more powerful teacher about the nature of human senses than the migraine. Within the headache’s state senses are heightened to the point of vicious permeating pain. Light stabs you, smells choke you, sounds can hit you with the force of a shovel. It is an argument whether you are sensing more or filtering less- I am with the latter camp.

Once, about 30 minutes post Imitrex during the worst of my migraine seasons the pain passed enough for me to process the sensory data incoming. I was walking along a one-way street in Cambridge with Aaron. I started telling him what each type of car was as it came up behind us, based on the sound of its engine and suspension. I could have guessed that some people can distinguish cars by sound, people *really* into cars, but I had no idea I was one of them. I found my new ability unsettling, as much for wondering what other canons of knowledge my brain wasn’t telling me about as for the oppression of unexpected information. At dinner I heard all the adjacent conversations simultaneously. I repeated snippets back to Aaron. I wanted to convey how entirely strange this experience was, but that was hopeless- describing senses themselves, rather than their integrated gestalt, is nearly impossible.

I found this to be true as well with the magnet. To this day I have still never found a way of explaining what it was like: electrical, oscillatory, a pure sensation, ‘like putting your hand in an ultrasonic cleaner’, sharp but not painful, tangy, metallic, synthetic, fluctuating, warm, tugging. I feel that I’m a good writer, in particular I’ve been told more than once that I have a gift for explanation. Explaining a sense, just the sense, stumps me.

I have the least useful, most common, barely present, probably most boring form of synesthesia there is. Every so often I taste colors. I don’t taste something and see the color, I don’t taste and associate the color, I just taste the color. It’s useless to ask me what, say, red tastes like. It’s not hot or sweet or anything like that, it tastes like red. It’s an awareness of an element of red in my food, on parr with sweet or hot rather than suggestive of them. That’s what tasting a color means. It happens to me once a year at most. It used to happen more, but it’s declined as I’ve gotten older. It was so natural, so clearly part of the food, that for most of my life I didn’t believe it was synesthesia. Everyone had to taste those occasional colors, they were just there. Come on. It was finally a pharmacist friend in Las Vegas that pinned it down. I had a drink that was pink, and tasted pink. That was unusual, tasted colors rarely matched visual colors, and it amused me a great deal. I handed it to my friend and said “Taste this! It tastes pink!” He said “Ok…” dragging out the k long enough to make it a 15 cent word at least. He tasted it, and told me I was a synesthete.

I suspect all new senses are somewhat synesthetic. You are leveraging an existing sensory infrastructure, running something new on old roads into associative areas of the brain. I ‘felt’ electricity, right now I ‘feel’ north on the left of my left ankle. Feel is touch, but touch is not a state of awareness. When it’s working as a sense my awareness is not the buzzing, it’s the awareness of north from the buzzing Northpaw. I make it dance around by spinning my office chair. Sometimes it doesn’t keep up. I believe I get nauseous and dizzy much quicker wearing the Northpaw than I do spinning my office chair without it. Right now I can feel it buzzing, and I can feel north. The Northpaw gives you a recombinant sense.

Here is the thing about a new sense: calibration in a bitch, because experiencing it subjectively is kind of the point. That a new sense is unreliable goes with the territory – all your senses are unreliable. Senses not about accuracy, but they kind of require that you think they are about accuracy. Senses are integrative. They create the world that you inhabit- but it’s important to understand that they create a world you can inhabit rather than the whole of, or even a slice of, the objective truth of your environment. This is one of the many reasons people make terrible eye witnesses.

What lets you process a new sense isn’t that it’s right, wrong, precise, superpowerful, or pathological, it’s that integration. What you need from a new sense is consistency, or it becomes part of the noise you are filtering all the time. You need to train and force yourself to rely on it just enough that it gets plugged into the continual associative process of creating the useful fiction you spend your days wrapped in. Integration and consistency means far more to us than accuracy.

The Northpaw is not always, in fact not usually, integrated into my perception. That was never really a problem with the magnet, so this is a bit of uncharted territory for me. Admittedly it’s only been three weeks since I first put one on, so it might actually be coming along nicely thankyouverymuch. I can say it’s begun to uproot and reassemble DC in my mind, which I’m thankful for. The two spacial maps were distressing, and at one point got me lost more than I was without the Northpaw. That is past, though I can’t say I never get lost. It hasn’t done that for me. The experience is similar to the magnet in that it’s been more realigning of reality than useful. It tells me more about how the world works rather than giving me immediately practical information. Grids aren’t quite so griddy anymore. As a native of LA, that’s actually quite an insight into the nature of the city.

My Northpaw article is due soon, but I hope to keep on with my study and reporting on it. I think there is more to learn from this little thing. (No idea what I’m talking about? See all entries on the Northpaw.)

Northpaw, end of first week.

No problem getting it through TSA. I even had my story ready, and it turned out to be entirely unneeded.

The Northpaw doesn’t work well when tilted. It’s unstable while driving, or a few other similar conditions. This seems reasonable for a compass, but it can be disorienting. I have now worn it in two cities, DC and SF, and I hope to add NY to the mix. As soon as I figure out where I’m living. My DC house flooded while I was in SF, and my life is pretty disrupted at the moment.

Since returning to DC I have found out that my mental spacial map of DC swapped north for west. I have found out that my idea of north isn’t quite what I thought it was. My mental north seems to be less a cardinal direction as the dominant direction, the top, the most important thing. I wonder if north is simply, from any direction, where Ada or the Pacific Ocean are. The map I have of DC is pretty hard, and turns out to be difficult and disorienting to dislodge. Much of my experience of the Northpaw is more about disrupting a mythical sense than augmenting life with a new one. I am trying to let the Northpaw win, but it’s slow going.

The one part that is broadening my horizons is how the Northpaw corrects the extreme smoothing we do to get along. Straight things aren’t as straight as we perceive them. Skory told me that in the time he was wearing this Northpaw he found that hiking trails are much more twisted that he thought they were. I find roads, paths, and bit of buildings drift in ways usually too subtle to notice. Not always, but just enough to be unsettling. I am beginning to wonder how much maps are myths we tell ourselves about man’s mastery of nature.

The fact that it goes wrong quite a bit is making it hard to integrate as a sensory experience. Whatever is happening with plane of inclination or possible software or hardware glitches, there’s also those times when something is just mucking with the magnetic field. Riding on the subway, both the BART and the Metro, is very magnetically unstable. And it’s not the Northpaw- if I put my hand compass on the floor, it goes crazy as well. I plan to try re-calibrating it by circling the compass with a rare earth magnet and seeing if that helps me find the proper locations for the buzzers- a non trivial task.

In LeDroit Park a man on a moped stopped me while I was on my bike and asked me about the anklet. He was clearly interested. I explained the concept behind the Northpaw and my project, and his eyes and smile grew. I pointed to north. He was nearly giddy. People love this thing, though I occasionally get comments that it looks like I’m under house arrest. Still, this idea of widening perception consistently fascinates people.

Food, Inc. (So very full of spoilers.)

My problem with Food, Inc. (and Inconvenient Truth, with which it shares some pedigree) isn’t with its negatives. It’s with its positives. The portrayal of agri-business is possibly even too charitable at points, overlooking some issues, admittedly my pet peeves, about land use, soil erosion, the nitrogen cycle, and water and air safety. But for the most part it is honest and I think not overly gruesome look at factory farming. The the cow with a window into its stomach served no real purpose and was a bit of a gross out, but you can kind of see the producers saying “We have to put that bit in! Have to have to have to!” It has a kind of Baron Harkonnen’s pet cow feel to it, but it doesn’t really tell you anything.

My problem is the lack of examination into the heros of the story. Many of its suggestions are likely to be ineffective, and in same cases so easy to game they are likely to make the situation worse. Most of their answers require a middle class or better income, which also attracts corruption. We are told to buy organic. We are never told why organic is better, or what the organic standard is. In fact, it’s not always better, and you can slide in under the wire with the standard while violating the spirit utterly. Free range chickens and eggs can basically mean there’s a catdoor-like thing the chickens never use. Organic farming can be more destructive in some cases than conventional farming, but it varies by crop, location, climate conditions… etc. It’s nuanced and complex and doesn’t fit into a sound bite or slogan.

We are told to buy local. This is a tremendously dubious claim. Economies of scale can be better for the environment and our health, when food is produced where it wants to grow and then shipped. I once found a grown in California banana – whatever you have to do to grow a banana in California cannot be good for anyone. Buying local is something that should go with buying in season- you have to know the foods, and do it when it makes sense to do it. Again, nuanced, and not a general prescription for saving anything.

While Food, Inc. didn’t come out and say GMO = bad it certainly implied it. GMO, once again, equals complex. Not all genetic modifications are equal, and Round Up Ready soy beans is a far cry from Golden Rice- a strain engineered with enhanced vitamin A and iron for poor populations where deficiencies are a blight. GMO crops are something that should be examined rather than accepted wholesale or rejected outright. They may have the greatest potential to save the environment in the end. Is that the way current genetic engineering in food is going? Hell no. It’s largely being misused in ways that abuse human rights as well as potentially make food more poisonous. But it’s a technology, and technologies are inherently neutral. We figure out what to make of them.

We are shown meat washed with ammonia, but not told why that is bad. We are shown terrible labor conditions for undocumented workers in meat packing, but not the terrible conditions for fruit pickers, whether the farms are organic or not. We are introduced to Stonyfield Farms as an organic business that proves better methods can make money, but we’re never told what those better methods are, or what makes them better. We are simply left to trust CEO Gary Hirshberg while he goes on at length about how great their product is, and how responsible you are for buying it, even at Walmart.

It gets to be a bit of an ad for a while, but like most ads, it’s largely free of substance. But it’s great exposure, so much that Stonyfield is marketing the movie heavily on their own.

Food, Inc. lacks journalistic investigations of its own answers- it doesn’t ask those questions. Perhaps this is because when you do, the simple actions you can take listed at the end of the movie stop being so simple. None of them are wholly wrong, but none of them are wholly right either, with the possible exception of telling your congress person to pay more attention to food safety legislation. I can’t really see a problem with that. As for Kevin’s law, I hate laws named for dead children. They make me suspicious that someone is trying to short circuit my ability to reason. And that doesn’t entirely fail to work on me only makes me more suspicious.

Nevertheless, I do want to show this movie to a lot of people. Despite its flaws and omissions it at least opens a conversation about food people aren’t having. We do need to understand our foods better and make more informed choices- and this is a first step. At the very least I could use this to explain part of why I am vegetarian. I dislike its easy answers, but I love to hear people talking about the subject. While possibly sinfully incomplete, it doesn’t seem to be actually wrong very much.

One more pet peeve: the film claimed it was carbon neutral because of carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are generally an indulgence sold to people to let them feel better about doing things they are going to do anyway. It’s a system totally without certification based on things like planting monocultures of trees- not exactly helpful. We don’t know how much the trees will sequester, we don’t know how much they will put back into the environment when they die. Alternate energy production as a carbon offset is also plagued with problems. It needs to hit a market and take the place of carbon based fuel, which is not as straight forward as you might think.

Mostly I am just being the bearer of the bad news that the world is complex. Food, Inc. is a movie with very discrete good guys and bad guys and a list of simple things you can do to save [insert cause here]. Most of the easy things in this world have been done, and good guys and bad guys almost never turn out to stay safely in their black and white boxes when you look closer. Go see Food, Inc. But caveat spectator.

The Northpaw, Day 1: A new sense I didn’t know I didn’t have.

The magnetic implant had a magical quality to it. A long journey ending in a moment of bloodletting in a ritualistic setting, surrounded by cryptically ornamented people, and suddenly I had the full force of an entirely new sensation. I could see a new thing in the world. I practiced, but there was still something of the etherial to the situation, enhanced by the ritual with which it all began. The loss was just as otherworldly. One day without an apparent precipitating event my finger grew swollen and angry. It turned black and painful and I developed a fever, and as quickly as it had come, the new sense was gone. All I had left was the apparent the anger of the gods at my hubristic magic, to be satisfied only by a weeklong course of Cipro.

I was very sad. A dear friend gave me a hug and said “There, there. We’ll get you another new sense.”

The Northpaw feels a lot more like technology than magic. It’s based on the Feelspace, a project by the Cognitive Psychology department of Universität Osnabrück in Germany. It works by a series of mild buzzers hooked to an electronic compass and arrayed along a belt. the buzzers signal north to the wearer. The wearer gets used to it. They just begin to always know where they are, and have perfect direction sense. The Northpaw, a kit under development by some friends at Noisebridge, does this in an anklet.

I am an extremely alpha tester of the Northpaw. We’ve run into some hardware problems, software problems, and problems caused by the size of my ankle and the direction of the zipper on my strap. We’ve fiddled, by which I mean Adam Skory has fiddled, while I watched and offered to make tea. I have served my universal purpose though- exposing flaws by suddenly having everything fall apart the second I touch it. (This is no criticism of Skory’s work. This happens with major corporations and large governmental computer systems as well. I’m just amazing at breaking things.)

After some trial I figured it was almost working right, good enough to take home and try to calibrate later. Calibration in this case is moving the motors slightly on the strip to make sure that they are actually in the right place for north on the small circumference offered by my ankle. I’ve always had a good native sense of direction, so I felt I could tell when the Northpaw was off.

I got out my compass and wandered around. Yes, I have a great sense of direction. It’s just wrong most of the time. I get around by what I have realized is extreme smoothing. It wanders well off the cardinal directions, and then gets yanked back by points of reference. I also hold an independent compass in my head for buildings I know that defines north as whatever I think of as the top of the building and has not much relationship to the cardinal directions.

The Northpaw isn’t perfect, but so far it’s better than I turn out to be. I am still in the alarming newness phase of awareness, figuring out how much I was wrong about things I didn’t know I thought about.

I will blog the experience as I go, and will be writing an article for h+ magazine summing up my time of augmentation.

A remarkable speech and political progress

I was quite moved and impressed with Obama’s Cairo speech. Quoting the Qur’an four times, and the Talmud alongside the Bible, invoking Cordoba, and confessing publicly our role in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s peacefully democratically elected and legitimate government- it was all such a departure from the ideology of the last administration, and so much more courageous than even many before that. I think the significance of acknowledging the past may be lost on many of the listeners, both here and in the Middle East, where the past is so well known, but it represents a willingness to speak with candor that I believe will make a huge amount of difference. Before reconciliation comes truth. Now is the moment where the world reacts to the speech. That reactions seem to be largely positive- and even when it’s not in some of the Middle Eastern blogs I’ve perused it seems like there is as much avoidance of hope for fear of being disappointed as actual criticism. But the brilliance of the speech was how it enfranchised so many subtle points of view without taking away from others.

What struck me most in the post-speech commentary was this comment in an Al Jazeera story:

Ahmad Yousuf, a senior Hamas official, told Al Jazeera that Obama’s speech reminded him of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech”.

About Obama stressing on the legitimacy of Israel, he said the Palestinians must have a state of their own before being asked to recognise another.

I don’t believe one gets rid of a Hamas by driving them into the sea, by bombing them or starving them, or by threats, or even education or propaganda. One gets rid of a Hamas by giving it political legitimacy, putting it in charge of some roads, and saddling it with a bureaucracy. Yousuf is here framing that end to Hamas as it is- admitting the possibility of political compromise where none should be ideologically possible. ‘Let us have our nation,’ he seems to be saying, ‘and we’ll let you have yours.’ That the possibility of the promise being broken exists doesn’t matter- then it’s just politicians lying. They are one good asphalt trade negotiation away from doing it anyhow.

More Perfect Union still stands to me as the greatest political speech of my lifetime, but this could have been one of the more brilliant moves in psychohistory I’ve seen in a while.