Monday, June 23, 2008

Once more, onto the beach

On June 28th, Irina and I'll be going to an odd little beach resort in Michigan to spend the week of July 4th with my Dad's family. We've (or at least I've) lost count over the years, but this will probably be close to the 20th year in a row we make this trip. There's very little in my life that I can say I've been doing consistently for the last two decades, so I thought I'd try and come up with a list of moments that I remember from the last 20 summers.

This list grows the longer I dwell on it; for now, I'm restricting it to what I remember best, or what had the strongest impact on me. But at some point, I'd like to expand it to include what other people in my family remember - I have a pretty bad and incomplete memory, and some of the most remarkable times I've had in South Haven have come when I learned something about my family that I didn't know.

*But I have to start with the one thing that will make this summer very different from the many that have come before. The whole reason that we ever went up to Sleepy Hollow in the first place was that Grandmother's paramour, Bob, had a summer house up there, and encouraged us to come. And now, for the first time since we began going there, he won't be with us. Bob was, as we all one day will be, of a different era: something inside him had literally been forged into a hard, unbending metal rod, even as his exterior became softer with age. He jogged, and repaired the house, and took care of the grounds, years after he should have stopped, and every once in a while I was able to catch a glimpse of the rebar, when he'd call Grandmother "Audie" and something in his face would shift.

But to me, he was always incredibly nice, immensely delighted by his jokes that weren't always that funny but were universally delivered with a sweetness and, I swear to God, a gleam in his eye. For a while, I think he thought I was going to become some sort of mathematician, and he constantly hounded after me to investigate a non-trivial geometric proof that he, earlier in life, had originated. I obviously never stayed on the mathematical track, and I'm sure some part of him was disappointed by that, but he never showed it. Months before he died, we were in some concert hall in Chicago, and I pressed him on his work on the Manhattan project at the U of C; he seemed genuinely glad to be telling me about his work on the chemical properties of nuclear materials.

I never got to know him better than when I saw him in South Haven, and the thought of no longer hearing the screen door slam on his sunporch, of no longer playing bocce on his lawn, of no longer almost falling into the comically deep gutters of Mount Pleasant, of no longer riding the funicular down to the beach that always smelled like dead fish, is a sad one. Of never again being asked, "Now Abraham, on a scale of 1 to 5..."

*Speaking of Bob's, one of my more unique memories of Sleepy Hollow comes from the playground near his house. Located in a subdivision of summer homes, there were usually a bunch of other families in the area when we were there, and particularly when I was a kid it seemed like getting a basketball game together wasn't too hard. I don't think it could be done now, but it was a semi-regular feature of those trips. I never played, but I still remember the pride I felt watching my family beat the living shit out of the neighbors at some roundball. The neighbors, as I recall, were actually pretty athletic, and I don't remember the scores, but I definitely remember the feeling of watching my cousins and uncle and dad kick some ass (even if it didn't happen entirely as I remember it now...)

*As for my own sporting memories, none stand out more than the delirious joy of a good long game of capture the flag in the afternoon with the other kids. There were, at the height, probably 20-30 of us, darting in and out of the trees and benches, forming jailbreak strategies, always on the lookout for the daring ones, occasionally breathlessly charging onto the other side, sliding into the flag area and scraping a knee with the utmost pride. I've always loved running all-out for a purpose, and other than running bases, capture the flag is probably the purest expression of that form. And when you can get a ton of willing kids together, for as long as your legs can hold out, on a big field with plenty of natural obstacles, literally steps away from both a pool and a lake...that's living the High Life, my friends.

*For a long time, one other aspect of the perfect Sleepy Hollow week eluded me. The running around with a dozen or two other screaming kids was never hard to get (Ghost in the Graveyard would satisfy our fix when the sun went down), but it took me a while to be able to share the experience with someone special. I felt some of my first romantic stirrings in Michigan, playing truth or dare with cute girls, making s'mores with them and watching them swim, and wondering about what would happen if we took things to the next level. Knowing that we'd be leaving in a few days, and that I wouldn't see them again for another year at best, for some reason always heightened the romantic tension that existed in my mind and nowhere else. But I never got anywhere. At all. No matter how many girls I crushed on, no matter how badly I wanted it to happen, it never did.

Of course, never say never. This is already going to be Irina's third trip to Sleepy Hollow (!), which is something else I'm really looking forward to. We've been exploring, we've taken long walks on the beach, and we've just hung out. She's seen the Eptons at our most Eptony, spending several days at a time with us, carving out a well-earned chunk for herself in our family tree.

*Sleepy Hollow is also where I first bore witness to truly Eptonic displays. Being my father's son, and not particularly nosy, meant that I never got involved in any of the debates, and never had the backstory. Even to this day, Sleepy Hollow usually means a chance to learn about some juicy aspect of the family history. I've spent many fascinating nights in Jeff and Marrianne's cabin, learning the ins and outs of who did what to whom and so forth. The kinds of insidery details that would be completely uninteresting to an outsider, and are fascinating when they concern one's own aunts and uncles and cousins.

*Not that it's related to the last paragraph, but Sleepy Hollow also saw one of my most advanced attempts at "learning" how to drive. Nate and I drove around in his car (or was it his pickup...?), on the back roads of Mt. Pleasant, and it was kind of fun. I felt like I was actually getting better, and as I haven't driven that many times in my life yet, I still remember most of the individual instances. Plus it was cool to hang out with Nate - a little QC with my tallest cuz (in other families, that would be a backhanded compliment, but in ours...)

*Reaching back a bit, there was this kid (I think his name was Jeremy?) that I hung out with pretty regularly, but only at Sleepy Hollow. We played Magic: The Gathering (back when Magic was cool (or at least, back when I was a huge(r) nerd)), hung out in his place, played sports with a bunch of other kids, and had really nerdy conversations about math and computers and stuff. This was back in the early 90s, when computers were just becoming what they are today, and they had a totally mystical aura to me. They were fascinatingly incomprehensible, and I never would have imagined that they'd be capable of anything like what they are now - the relentless march of technological progress wasn't anything I was aware of - but I did know that you could play some seriously awesome games on them, and they seemed to be almost winkingly more powerful than anything I'd done with them. Anyway, going back that far, I don't remember many details, just vague feelings - the joy of running around, the mystery the future held even then, the suspension of time that seemed to occur for that one week a year...

*There is one detail that I do remember, though. Jurassic Park came out in the summer of 1993, when I was 10. I was hugely into dinosaurs, and that movie of course thrilled me beyond anything I'd yet experienced in a movie theater; it was my first real filmic event, and it was awesome. But what really got me about Jurassic Park wasn't the dinosaurs. It was - and this was even more true about the book - the computers (GOD I'm a nerd :) At one point, in order to save the day, one of the little kids has to crack into a Unix system on an SGI terminal and restart the security systems. The scene is hilariously implausible for like a billion reasons, not least of which is that, in 1993, a Unix system (even one being run on an SGI terminal, which were known for their adva...ok, I'm done here.

*Of course, Sleepy Hollow offers more than just cinematic delights. It's also the place where I got high for the first time. Mike and I smoked, got milkshakes, and went down to the beach. So far, so TOTALLY AWESOME - it was incredible (and I'd waited for a while to get to this point; I think I was like 19). So we headed down to the beach, and met up with Nate and Julie and Jess, and got a little bit more baked, and everything was going great. I think I was a little surprised that my cousins got high - I'd never suspected a thing - but I wasn't as surprised as I would be at what came next. Two more family members came strolling along the beach, one a generation older than me, one a generation younger. "Oh shit!" I thought, and we all made an effort to hide what we were doing. They came up to us and the younger individual played with us for a bit, before heading off to the water. As soon as the youngster had left, the adult asked for a hit.

As high as I was at the time, I don't think I've ever been more blown away by anything in my entire existence. I hadn't even suspected my COUSINS indulged...this was a whole new level of amazement. That week, I came to learn that my family does a lot of things when we all get together. We argue, we reminisce, we drink, we make jokes, we enjoy each others' company, and some of us, contra Bill, do inhale.

*Which is quite nice. But what really makes Sleepy Hollow so pleasant is the series of little moments it provides. Every year, without fail, even if the weather doesn't cooperate, at some point I make it out to the sandbar a dozen or two yards off the beach. Sometimes I'm on a raft, sometimes I'm swimming. Sometimes I'm alone, sometimes I'm with my Dad or Irina or anyone else. And I just sit there, bobbing up and down, gazing at the tall, iconic staircase leading up from the beach, surrounded by sand and trees and grass, and even though I'm only two hours away from the place I spent most of my life, I might as well be on another world. And that's one hell of a vacation.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Dammit, Barack

This is pretty annoying. The FISA fight in general is one of those pretty clear instances where there's a right answer, and a corrupt answer, and there really isn't much in-between. And for Obama to take the position he did is, to say the very least, unfortunate.

I'm not a huge fan of Glenn Greenwald - I think he only met Subtlety once, so he could stab it in the face with an icepick - but I totally sympathize with his anger here. And much of what he says is true.

But. I think a couple points are worth making here.

1) It's not clear to me that Obama could have won this fight, at least in the House. He would have needed to flip 83 Members, and even for St. Barack F. Roosevelt Christ, that's a lot. Maybe if he'd spent the last month or so going all-out on this, he could've done it, but even then it's pretty questionable. And it makes a lot of political sense for a candidate in Obama's position - having just clinched the Democratic nomination, getting a shit-ton of good press and polling numbers that are just. fucking. insane. - to not pick a fight he knows he's going to lose badly. (And of course, the more capital he invests in that losing fight, the worse off he'll be.)

2) He hasn't actually given up on the fight, it would appear. The statement he put out notes that he plans to try to strip telco immunity from the bill, which is by far the worst part of it (more on why in a second.) And if Reid is serious about trying to hold a separate vote on that provision, Obama could still pull this one out for the good guys. (Of course, Greenwald pretty strenuously disagrees with this interpretation, but if the votes aren't there to just strip immunity, I don't know why he thinks they might be there to stop the whole bill. Obama's team is smart enough to pick fights they think they can win, and they're a little more aggressive than most Dems, so if they thought they could pull this out, I bet they'd be trying harder.)

So why is immunity the worst part of the bill? Because it's the only part that couldn't be reversed once Barack's in office. I'm pretty confident that, once he's President and has more comfortable majorities in Congress, and a mandate to roll back a lot of Bush Administration damage, the most objectionable parts of this legislation will go away - I really don't think Obama's serious about needing this for the long term. And while it's not exactly a great idea to give Bush even more executive authority than he already has, he won't be President for much longer, and as I said above, there may not be any other choice.

But immunity is different from everything else in this bill because, unlike everything else, it can't be rolled back once it's signed into law: the telcos will be permanently immune from lawsuits. So the damage here wouldn't be reversible.

3) All of the above said, there absolutely needs to be a political price for this kind of bullshit, or it'll just keep happening. So I'm probably going to hold off on contributing to Barack for awhile, and if you care about this issue you should too. If the campaign sees a substantial drop in contribs over the next month or so, or if the amount is short of what they're expecting (since Clinton just conceded, so even with a significant protest movement they'll still raise a lot more this month than last) I think that'll send a pretty strong message about not doing this shit again.

Friday, June 20, 2008

This is awesome

Requiem for a Day Off - I think Kronos can make almost anything sound creepy. But now I want to watch this movie again...

David Brooks Sucks

I do have a hard time getting it up for David Brooks. As a writer whose output covers the whole range from blandly unintelligent, all the way over to simply bland, I'm sure that, were he to return to whatever Ivy League school he surely graduated from (he's simply too uninspiring to be worth a quick trip to wikipedia), most of his columns would probably not be rejected outright from the school newspaper. But for a decidedly non-shitty outfit like the New York Times to give him a regular forum is pretty annoying.

Especially when he turns in moronic bullshit like this. Jesus Christ, David, how lazy can you fucking be? "Fast Eddie" Obama? God in heaven, that's terrible.

Not to mention that, on the substance, you got pretty much everything wrong. I can't believe I'm about to do this, because you really don't deserve my lunch break, but your column recycles a lot of arguments currently making the anti-Obama rotation, so I guess I might as well.

I guess we can start by noting that, even as Brooks calls Obama "the most split-personality politician in the country today," John McCain is giving opposite speeches on immigration depending on the crowd; demonstrating his commitment to the environment by calling for offshore drilling and a gas tax holiday; seeking to make permanent the Bush tax cuts that he earlier "[could not] in good conscience support"; seeking (and defending) the endorsements of people he called "agents of intolerance" just a few short years ago; and flip-flopping on the windfall profits tax for oil companies, the legality of warrantless wiretaps, social security privatization, the estate tax, judicial litmus tests, habeas corpus and torture for terrorists...and on and on and on. So it's pretty comical to call Obama "the most split-personality politician in the country today;" he's not even the most schizophrenic politician about to be a major party's nominee for President!

You have to go five paragraphs into Brooks' piece before he even makes an argument, and when you do, it's telling in its stupidity. He goes after Obama for the 130 "present" abortion votes in the IL State Senate. Boy, thanks for breaking that story, David! It's not like this wasn't discussed and dismissed ad nauseam in the primary, and it's sure not as if those present votes were actually common legislative strategy, at times cooked up by the Illinois pro-choice movement itself!

Moving on, Brooks cites the Jeremiah Wright defense-and-then-sacrifice. Fair enough, I guess, though most observers were surprised Obama held out in defense of his former pastor for as long as he did. But ok, I guess he did say one thing and then, when the circumstances changed, said something different. Gee whiz!

Brooks makes a few other points so ineffectual even he realizes it, and moves on to the main event: the campaign finance debate! It's here where his effervescent moronicity, so ferocious and unabated it could wash the dirt off of a million dentures, really takes center stage.

Now yes, it is true that Obama has defended the public financing system in the past (although to call it "the primary cause of his life," as Brooks does, is beyond hyperbole.) Unfortunately for Brooks, no other argument that he goes on to make is true or relevant, so this is pretty much his only leg to stand on. And it's not an especially compelling one; so what if he's defended the system in the past? Why does that obligate him to enter into it now?

Brooks mostly hammers Obama for going back on a pledge he made to accept public funding if his Republican opponent did the same. However, what Obama always pledged, as a Washington Post Fact Checker post makes clear, was to "pursue an pursue a publicly financed general election". Maybe two or three election cycles ago, that would have been a pretty straightforward pledge: you accept public funding, and so will I. However, that's not what Obama's "pledge" actually says, and for good reason: today's presidential campaigns see substantial financial activity from outside groups, so any agreement that ignores those activities isn't really doing the public financing system any favors.

And of course, McCain, who will benefit substantially from the activities of outside groups (i.e., 527s) had no intention of suppressing them. After all, if they stopped producing blatantly offensive commercials and distributing them virally, the McCain campaign itself would have to do that, and that would be...awkward.

Brooks tries, and fails, to address this concern, writing "Obama blamed the (so far marginal) Republican 527s." That's it - his only acknowledgement of the core concern the Obama folks had with a public financing agreement.

First of all, even if the 527s had so far been a marginal factor, that's no reason not to be concerned about their future activity - the primaries just ended! OF COURSE the REPUBLICAN 527s haven't yet become a major force!

Second, this sentence ignores the incredible impact 527s of both parties had in 2004 - that election season was filled with articles like this one, decrying their anti-reformist and shady influence on the election, being able to raise large amounts of money with few controls and spend it directly on the election. One of the most famous groups was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose devastating and long-unanswered (and, of course, factually incoherent) attacks most observers concede tipped the election in favor of Bush. So in other words, we're only talking about the tiny little issue of the type of activity that DETERMINED THE COURSE OF THE ELECTION.

Third, by staying out of the public system, Obama gains the leverage over his donors, and the financial freedom, to discourage them from giving to the 527s - in effect, shutting them down, as is now doing. Meanwhile, because he's opting in, McCain has no ability (or frankly, desire) to control the 527s on his side. In other words, by staying out Obama's doing more to support the cause of public finance than McCain is by staying in.

Finally, it's pretty hard to call Obama's fundraising "private" in any historical sense of the word. With 1.5 million donors making 3 million contributions, and an average contribution (by April) of $96, Obama's not raising historic amounts of money because he's hosting elaborate fundraisers for rich people, a la McCain. He's doing it because ordinary people are giving what they can.

It's probably also worth pointing out that the only reason McCain hasn't been found to be in violation of the campaign finance laws he helped to write is that the Federal Elections Commission hasn't been able to field a quorum of commissioners to decide the matter. But it's pretty obvious that McCain's doing a lot more damage than Obama is to the cause of campaign finance reform.

Guess we can add that to the long, and growing, list of politically expedient reversals McCain's engaged in. And Obama's the two-faced one?

Where this is all going

There are a lot of things you won't have twenty years from now. You won't have anything you'd recognize as a computer: it won't have a monitor, it won't have a hard drive, it probably won't have a recognizable CPU. It won't have any familiar input devices - no mouse, no keyboard.

You won't have much software that's all that similar to what you have today, but the changes there will be somewhat less dramatic. You'll still have a web browser, it just won't look like any you're currently using. But that "browser" will essentially be your operating system, a layer between your hardware - what hardware you'll still have - and your files (though you won't really think of them as discrete files) and the Internet at large.

You won't have a website, because there won't be a Web (it'll still exist, but mostly as a repository of dead content, kind of like Geocities.)

You won't have a phone. You won't have a TV, nor will you have any type of media player - because you won't have any physical media.

So what will you have? Essentially, a modem with one or two projectors attached to it. One projector will be the display - in 3D if we're lucky, but we probably won't be, so it'll have to be on some kind of surface, or at the very least be 2D. The other will project a context-aware input scheme, some combination of multitouch (currently seen on the iPhone) and a keypad.

Such a device will have many remarkable properties. It'll be small and extremely portable. It'll have no moving parts. It'll be equally well-suited to the office, the home and the road. It'll be cheap (a modem and two small projectors, all mass-produced, won't be very expensive). It could easily be made to replace coin and paper currency as a payment mechanism.

Everything you need will live, to use the current metaphor, "in the cloud." Your data will all be there, making your actual physical device inconsequential. All processing will take place there, except for the small number of tasks (largely related to control of the input device) that are more efficiently performed locally.

The concept of the filesystem will have advanced to the point where files will no longer appear, to the user, to exist. They'll be replaced by chunks of data that exist in more or less discrete ways.

Consider photos - when you access an album, instead of looking at a list of filenames, you'll look at a wall of images similar to CoolIris' piclens. They'll be so easy to manipulate, rearrange and Photoshop that the server you store them on may consider it just as efficient to build out the scene depicted in the photos, in some cases, as to actually display them.

For example, if you take several photos of a party, the server will know who was there; where it took place; and a great deal about the conditions at the time of the photographs. Through a combination of facial and scene recognition, and metadata, this information will be available - the photos, when taken, will (as they do already) contain the GPS coordinates of their origin, and the server (since it'll be storing millions of other, similarly-tagged photos) will know even more about how the room looks, and how the other people in the scene look. If you want to reposition the camera to get a better shot, or adjust the lighting conditions, this will be trivial.

If this seems extreme, keep in mind that, twenty years before this piece was written, the year was 1988. Most of what you're familiar with, as far as computers, either didn't exist or was completely unknown to most people at the time. And since then, the pace of innovation has increased dramatically - just a few years ago, video on the web was a promised future that would have to await what seemed like drastic infrastructure upgrades; today, YouTube alone serves billions of videos a month, and 10 more hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute.

Also keep in mind that these are old ideas. The concept of the "thin client," around which this essay is based, is not new to computer scientists, who have long been interested in the idea.

Finally, to address the inevitable privacy concerns. It should be noted that our concept of what privacy means, and how important it is, is all a cultural construction. In twenty years, the culture will have changed, so our standards and norms will inevitably be radically different.

However, storing all your data on one or (more likely) several extremely interconnected servers doesn't have to mean an abrogation of all personal privacy. The simple reason for this is encryption - crypto strong enough to safeguard anything you want for an extremely long time, and easy enough to use that you'll be able to merely point at what you want to protect and have it safeguarded, is already basically here. Although computers will continue to get faster and faster, there will remain some problems that they'll be unable to solve in a time shorter than (say) the whole existence of the universe, from the Big Bang to today. Taking advantage of these problems to protect your data will only get easier, and once it's easy enough, you'll be able to protect anything you want, no matter where it is.