We can answer on question what is VPS? and what is cheap dedicated servers?

Non-technical

Net Neutrality: forcing companies to pay attention to their networks

When it comes to software licensing, I get annoyed at GPL critics. Mostly they argue that a permissive license is more hassle-free. But all licensing hassles come from proprietary licenses. All of them. Open source licenses are simple, well-understood, and if you are doing open source stuff you don’t need to negotiate, you don’t need lawyers. The deal is laid out and it’s more like technical machinery than a business deal. Open source has just a few deals, and we have names for them (BSD, GPL, etc); the alternative is the ever-expanding number of deals that proprietary licenses represent, always expanding, seldom clear, unnamed but still poised to mess things up.

But this is an introduction for a discussion of net neutrality! Net neutrality is one deal: simple, obvious, straight-forward. The opposite isn’t one deal, like proprietary licensing it is an ever-expanding complexity of deals, different pricing structures, opaque, and with salespeople using information-scarcity to manipulate sales at every opportunity.

There’s an absurd argument against net neutrality, that it would add regulatory complexity. This is absurd because neutrality is the default, regulation only comes into effect when someone messes with something, when some connectivity provider starts adding complexity to the system.

There are net neutrality advocates that ask: what if Fox gets preference over MSNBC? A poor argument, this kind of politically-motivated network bias seems implausible to me. The plausible result of not having network neutrality is all kinds of deals. Weird media deals. Deals with companies that have an influx of investment and want to bootstrap their audience. Providers that build their own content networks. How much will all this matter? Probably not much. Whatever the providers do will be just terrible, they seem to be inevitably bad at both idea and execution. For everyone else it will just be a competition tax, a way to turn money into a competitive advantage though with hints of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Mostly network bias just adds complexity to the system. It’s a whole new opportunity to make deals. Maybe different groups will come out ahead, but maybe not… my best guess is that implementing and justifying a biased network will be more trouble than its worth, and technology will make the issue moot before too long.

The people who will really get out ahead are the deal-mongers, the executives and lawyers and salespeople. These kinds of deals are opaque, complex, and it’s easier to manipulate analysis and perception than to actually provide a valuable agreement. But deal-making professionals come out ahead with every contract and every negotiation.

The companies providing infrastructure (Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, etc) can take two approaches to maximizing profit. One approach is to pursue engineering and operational excellence, to provide a great network, and compete strongly. Or they can get "creative". Network neutrality makes creativity hard — it doesn’t block any creativity in providing their core service, but the leadership of these companies provide only deal-making leadership, to them the core service is an afterthought. I wonder if this is the worst effect of consolidation — every corporate consolidation requires all kinds of negotiation and further exults the leadership of the deal-makers over the people that are good at managing operations.

For all the complaints (and we complain about these companies a lot), these companies actually do provide good service. Reliability and speed keep improving. It could be better, but there are also lots of people doing a good job keeping a complex system working well. Those are the people I want to see empowered, they are the ones that should be the stars in their companies. I think network neutrality will help do that, it will help focus infrastructure providers on providing infrastructure. And make an exception for wireless? They are the most in need of focus.

Non-technical
Politics

Comments (5)

Permalink

Surveillance, Security, Privacy, Politics

I hang around people who talk about security and privacy and activists quite a bit. When talking security beyond the typical attackers — people committing identity theft, simple vandals, spammers, etc. — there’s the topic of government surveillance and legal attacks, and privacy as a way to defend political activists against the powers-that-be. I want to talk about this security question in particular.

(Nothing I say here relates to China or Iran or other places with overtly oppressive political systems and without basic legal rights. I don’t think worth trying to generalize that far.)

I’m not sure we are getting this stuff right. I don’t think the political attacks that are imagined are serious risks, and the attacks that are taking place are far less sophisticated than we imagine.

Background

I’m taking these lessons primarily from the experiences of my sister, who along with 7 others is currently facing felony conspiracy charges in Minnesota (felony conspiracy to riot with a dangerous weapon and to commit property damage). These charges are specifically for organizing protests in the lead up to the 2008 RNC convention in St. Paul. It’s only one data point, but in these matters there’s only a handful of cases that inform the discussion.

The city of St. Paul and other local governments received over $50 million for security for the RNC, and some of that money was quickly put into hiring informants to infiltrate organizations, anarchist organizations in particular. My sister among others were part of an organization known as the RNC Welcoming Committee. In total three informants were highly involved in the organization, each of them attending literally hundreds of hours of meetings. The Committee primarily worked on things like promoting the protests against the RNC, acquiring meeting space and internet access for people, finding housing and food for people visiting for the protests, and distributing logistical information like where protests would occur.

"Anarchism" means "without rulers": in line with their anarchist principles they didn’t try to prescribe how people would protest, they felt people should make their own choices about how to protest. The choices people made were widespread, ranging from staying in a "free speech zone" to a few permitted marches, some unpermitted marches, some civil disobedience, some blockading, and in a very small number of cases some people committed property damage. The Welcoming Committee did not advocate any particular kind of protest, they would not be their brother’s keeper, nor did they want to disparage any kind of protest as too timid. Each person should act on their own conscience.

Immediately before the RNC started the 8 were arrested and held for the duration of the convention before being charged and released on bail. Their houses and cars were searched. Nothing interesting was found, though at the time the Sheriff misrepresented things like bike inner tubes as possible slingshot material, or that having paint thinner in the basement, rags in the laundry, and empty bottles in the pantry constituted Molotov cocktail ingredients.

The Evidence

The case has progressed very slowly, but with recent hearings more of the prosecution’s case has been coming out. It’s been over a year and a half and only now are we getting any indication of what the real claims are against the defendants, though the prosecution continues to avoid presenting any real case or plausible complaint.

From the hearings we’re also learning something about the form of the investigation. The FBI was closely involved with the case and recruited the most active informant, and the primary investigator was previously with the Secret Service (which somewhat oddly has a computer-related duties), and at the time there was a great deal of national attention on the convention. So presumably they had the resources to investigate seriously if they wished to do so.

From the perspective of online security the case is very boring. The defendants have been given all the evidence collected during the investigation (including benign or even helpful evidence). It’s a huge amount of evidence, and hard for them to understand or sort through, but some kinds of investigation aren’t there. No email accounts were subpoenaed. Their computers were all confiscated, and will no doubt be kept until after the trial, but there’s nothing high-tech about that. Some of them had whole-disk encryption, and there is no indication it was broken nor were they even asked to provide passwords. There’s also no evidence of sniffing internet connections, tapping phones, breaking into email… nothing fancy was done.

From what we can tell the evidence against them will be primarily from informants’ testimony about open meetings, widely distributed literature, a video posted on YouTube, a password-protected but essentially open wiki (the wiki provider was not subpoenaed, despite things like edit history being potentially interesting).

If they had been any more security-conscious it would have worked against them — it would have been out of line with their ideals and would have made them less effective and transparent in their organizing efforts. The biggest danger now is that they’ll be demonized, that they’ll be judged based on caricatures of their actual beliefs, privacy only makes this worse.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Perhaps one reason the surveillance was low-tech and subpoenaed evidence is not playing a large part in the case is that it’s just too hard. They used Riseup for many services, which is a set of online services for activists, who take privacy very seriously, log as little as possible, and try to host everything outside of the country so regardless of an activists locality it will be a bureaucratic challenge to get access to the servers.

Outside of the core group most people acted anonymously, so the prosecution would not be able to follow up on most of what they found anyway. Even if they got all the logs and email from everything the Welcoming Committee touched, I’m not sure they could make use of it. If they could somehow relate all that anonymous information, they’d still have to explain those techniques and convince a jury. Data mining and other data-driven techniques could be useful if they were trying to attach people who had done anything wrong. You can use surveillance to find the smoking gun, and once you’ve found it you don’t have to justify the techniques you used in the process. But only if there’s a smoking gun. It’s a peculiar situation where the prosecution doesn’t appear to actually believe they did anything demonstrably wrong; I fear they plan a case where they redefine "wrong".

Privacy

Besides the security issue there’s the privacy issue, and privacy is big on the internet these last few months. One of the oft-claimed benefits of privacy is to allow political dissent. And maybe that makes sense in China, but I don’t know how it relates to the things in the U.S. or Europe.

Political beliefs held in private don’t much matter. Complaining about politics in private situations is fine, because it just doesn’t matter. So sure, you are safe from political persecution if your privacy is maintained… but it’s because you are impotent not because privacy is some part of a political struggle.

This reminds me of a playground sense of privacy. On the playground you might say you like They Might Be Giants and the playground bully says that’s so gay, and you think I shouldn’t have said anything. But it doesn’t really matter how much you reveal in that situation, it doesn’t matter what you say you like — the bully isn’t making a pointed critique on your preferences, they are just trying to hurt you. The only way privacy will help you is if you are so quiet that the bully doesn’t notice you at all and picks on someone else instead. That’s a pathetic stance.

Ramsey County (where the RNC 8 are being charged) is a bully. They decided before the Welcoming Committee even existed that people were going to be arrested, charges were going to be made. The Welcoming Committee stuck their necks out further than anyone else. The problem isn’t that they made themselves vulnerable, the problem is that the Sheriff Fletcher is a bully and County Attorney Gaertner is some kind of automaton who doesn’t give a shit about justice.

And Lastly A Personal Plea

So… while there are general lessons, this case also specifically really sucks for my sister Monica, her significant other Eryn (another member of the Welcoming Committee) and the other six, all of whom I know and are really nice people who don’t deserve any of this shit. They have to spend their evenings reading through evidence or listening to the tapes of their meetings (which were boring enough to listen to the first time around). There’s a certain stigma to having pending felony charges, I know at least my sister has lost a job because of it. And they each have to have their own lawyer, and even though the lawyers aren’t charging them what would be the full rate it’s still a lot of money (like a quarter of a million dollars). Depressingly, in some sense this is all the government has to do; the trial is punishment enough to deter people from being activist organizers.

So I wish a donation was equivalent to Sticking It To The Man, but really it’s just adding some balance because The Man Is Already Sticking It To Them On Your Behalf.

Still, your support would be really helpful.

If it gives you any satisfaction County Attorney Susan Gaertner’s run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination never went anywhere, I suspect in large part because she wasn’t brave enough to show her face at public events in the Twin Cities because she was consistently protested over this case. I doubt this has influenced the prosecution (at least in any positive way), but it’s satisfying.

Non-technical
Politics
Security

Comments (5)

Permalink

Joining Mozilla

As of last week, I am now an employee of Mozilla! Thanks to everyone who helped me out during my job search.

I’ll be working both with the Mozilla Web Development (webdev) team, and Mozilla Labs.

The first thing I’ll be working on is deployment. In part because I’ve been thinking about deployment lately, in part because streamlining deployment is just generally enabling of other work (and a personal itch to be scratched), and because I think there is the possibility to fit this work into Mozilla’s general mission, specifically Empowering people to do new and unanticipated things on the web. I think the way I’m approaching deployment has real potential to combine the discipline and benefits of good development practices with an accessible process that is more democratic and less professionalized. This is some of what PHP has provided over the years (and I think it’s been a genuinely positive influence on the web as a result); I’d like to see the same kind of easy entry using other platforms. I’m hoping Silver Lining will fit both Mozilla’s application deployment needs, as well as serving a general purpose.

Once I finish deployment and can move on (oh fuck what am I getting myself into) I’ll also be working with the web development group who has adopted Python for many of their new projects (e.g., Zamboni, a rewrite of the addons.mozilla.org site), and with Mozilla Labs on Weave or some of their other projects.

In addition my own Python open source work is in line with Mozilla’s mission and I will be able to continue spending time on those projects, as well as entirely new projects.

I’m pretty excited about this — it feels like there’s a really good match with Mozilla and what I’m good at, and what I care about, and how I care about it.

Mozilla
Non-technical
Programming
Python

Comments (32)

Permalink

Leaving TOPP

After three and a half years at The Open Planning Project, my time there is done.

For a while TOPP has been trying to find itself, to determine what it is that it can do best, and how to do that. I think TOPP has finally started really figuring that out, focusing on civic participation, revisiting "planning", and though it’s not fully developed there seems to be a strong potential for TOPP to serve as a point of collaboration for other more ad hoc open source government efforts: government workers and volunteers can provide substantial and well-informed development efforts, but the long-term shepherding of a project is difficult, and TOPP has the potential to provide that kind of long-term neutral guidance. At the same time, communities of people have been developing around these issues; people have gotten past simply calling for government to be inclusive or transparent and have started to do the real work of making that happen.

But… unfortunately I won’t be able to figure out their next steps with them. Mark Gorton has been very generous in his support of TOPP, and helped us get started. But while he has been patient, and even at times seemingly immune from the economic trends… well, he’s not immune, and he has had to cut back his support for TOPP before we were able to become self-sufficient. And so there have been layoffs, myself among them.

I suspect what I’ll do next will have a very different focus. This feels a bit weird, a kind of lost identity. Overall I’m feeling pretty optimistic about finding something new and interesting to do, but I’m still a bit melancholy about leaving things behind. That TOPP and the people I’ve worked with are far away in New York makes it feel like more of a loss because I don’t know when I’ll be back next. But onward and upward! Now to find out what is next…

Non-technical

Comments (21)

Permalink

Cultural Imperialism, Technology, and OLPC

A couple posts have got me thinking about cultural imperialism lately: a post by Guido van Rossum about "missionaries" and OLPC not about OLPC at all, a post by Chris Hardie and a speech by Wade Davis.

Some of the questions raised: are we destroying cultures? If so, what can we do about it? Must we be hands off? I will add these questions: is it patronizing to make these choices for other people, no matter how enlightened we try to be? How much change is inevitable? Can we help make the change positive instead of resisting change?

More specifically: what is the effect of OLPC on cultures where it is introduced? Especially small cultures, cultures that have been relatively isolated, cultures that are vulnerable. The internet Quechua community is pretty slim, for example. Introducing the internet into a community will lead the children to favor Spanish more strongly, and identify with that more dominant culture over their family and community culture.

Criticisms like Guido’s are common:

I’m not surprised that the pope is pleased by the OLPC program. The mentality from which it springs is the same mentality which in past centuries created the missionary programs. The idea is that we, the west, know what’s good for the rest of the world, and that we therefore must push our ideas onto the "third world" by means of the most advanced technology available. In past centuries, that was arguably the printing press, so we sent missionaries armed with stacks of bibles. These days, we have computers, so we send modern missionaries (of our western lifestyle, including consumerism, global warming, and credit default swaps) armed with computers.

This kind of criticism is easy, because it doesn’t have any counterproposal. It’s not saying much more than "you all suck" to the people involved.

Cultural imperialism is a genuine phenomena. In an attempt to subjugate or assimilate, the dominant culture may explicitly and cynically enforce its cultural norms, through its religion, requiring all schools to operate in the dominant language, even going as far as suggesting how we arrange ourselves during sex.

But it’s not clear to me that what’s happening now is cultural imperialism. It’s more market-oriented homogenization. Food manufacturers don’t use high-fructose corn syrup because they want to make us fat — they just give us what we want, and they are enabling our latent tendency to become obese. Similarly I think the way culture is spread currently encourages homogeneity, without explicit attempting to destroy culture.

This is where I think a protectionist stance — the idea we should just be hands-off — is patronizing. People aren’t abandoning their cultures because they are stupid and they are being manipulated. People make decisions, what they think is the best decision for themself and their families. These decisions lead them to leave rural areas, learn the dominant language, try to conform through education, and even just lead them to enjoy a dominant culture which is often far more entertaining than a smaller and more traditional culture.

The irony is that once they’ve done this they’ve traded their position for a place in the bottom rung of the dominant society. And it’s true that in many cases they’ve made these decisions because they’ve been forced out of their traditional life by political and legal systems they don’t understand. But to blame it all on oppression is to be blind to the many concrete benefits of our modern world. Corrugated metal roofs are simply superior to thatched roofs, and we can get all romantic about traditional building processes and material independence, but we do so from homes with roofs that don’t leak. Leaking roofs are just objectively unpleasant. And frankly people like TV, you don’t have to tell people to like TV, it just happens.

So I believe that assimilation pressure is natural and inevitable in our times.

What then of technology, of the internet and laptops?

I believe OLPC takes an important stance when it selects open source and open licensing for its content. It is valuing freedom, but more importantly encouraging self-determination, trying to build up a user base that can act as peers in this project, not as simply receivers of first-world largess. But it will be culturally disruptive. And I’m okay with that. In a patriarchal culture, giving girls access to this technology will be destructive to that power structure. Yay! I believe in the moral rightness of that one girl making her own choices, finding her own truths, more than I believe in the validity of the culture she was born into. If you believe people should be able to make their own choices (so long as they are aware of the real consequence of their choices), then you must allow for them to choose to abandon their own cultures for something they find more appealing. They might know better than you if that’s a good choice. I think we all hope that instead they transform their own cultures, but that’s not our choice to make.

What I find unpleasant is if they leave a true identity to find themselves in a place of cultural subservience. If they feel they can’t preserve the part of their culture they most value. Perhaps because of discrimination they feel they must hide their past, or they build up a sense of self-loathing. Perhaps they become isolated, unable to find peers that understand where they come from. And perhaps there is no higher culture at all that they can use to exalt their understanding of the world — do they have a literature? Do they have non-traditional music forms of their own? Do they have a forum where people who share their perspective can have serious discussions? Cultures aren’t destroyed so much as they are starved out of existence.


I think assimilation is inevitable, and can be positive. If we were all able to speak to each other, with some shared second or third language, I think the world would be a better place. I’m not a Christian, but I’m not afraid of anyone knowing The Bible. There’s no piece of culture that I would want to deny from anyone. Each new song, each new book, each new idea… I believe they will all make you a better person, if only in a small way.

And on the internet our culture is cumulative. There’s only so many hours of programming on TV or the radio, only so many pages in a newspaper. On the internet the presence of one kind of culture does not exclude any other. There’s room for a Quechua community as much of any other. But the online Quechua community won’t have exclusive rights to its members like a traditional culture claims — children will live between cultures.

Cumulative culture is not a promise that anyone will care. Languages can still die, cultures can still die, identities become forgotten. If these smaller cultures are going to be preserved, they must adapt to the partially-assimilated status of their members. There must be new art and new ideas and new identities. This is why I believe in the laptop project, because it can enable the creation and sharing of these new ideas. I think it will give smaller cultures a chance to survive — there’s no promises, literature doesn’t write itself, but maybe there is at least a chance.

This is also why I am more skeptical of mobile phones, audio devices, and any device that doesn’t actively enable content creation. Mobile phones are not how culture is made. It let’s people chat, consume information, communicate in a 12-key pidgin. But the mobile phone user is not a peer in a world wide web of information. The mobile phone user lives on a proprietary network, with a proprietary device, and while it perhaps it breaks down some hierarchies through disintermediation, it does so in a transient way. The uptake is certainly faster, but the potential seems so much lower.

I don’t know if OLPC will be successful. That’s as unclear now as ever. But it’s trying to do the right thing, and I think it’s a better chance than most for maintaining or improving the richness of the worlds’ culture.

Non-technical
OLPC
Politics

Comments (22)

Permalink

Modern Web Design, I Renounce Thee!

I’m not a designer, but I spend as much time looking at web pages as the next guy. So I took interest when I came upon this post on font size by Wilson Miner, which in turn is inspired by the 100e2r (100% easy to read) standard by Oliver Reichenstein.

The basic idea is simple: we should have fonts at the "default" size, about 16px, no smaller. This is about the size of text in print, read at a reasonable distance (typically closer up than a screen):

http://blog.ianbicking.org/wp-content/uploads/images/typesize_comparison2.jpg

Also it calls out low-contrast color schemes, which I think are mostly passe, and I will not insult you, my reader, by suggesting you don’t entirely agree. Because if you don’t agree, well, I’m afraid I’d have to use some strong words.

I think small fonts, low contrast, huge amounts of whitespace, are a side effect of the audience designers create for.

This makes me think of Modern Architecture:

http://blog.ianbicking.org/wp-content/uploads/images/300px-seagram.jpg

This is a form of architecture popular for skyscapers and other dramatic structures, with their soaring heights and other such dramatic adjectives. These are buildings designed for someone looking at the building from five hundred feet away. They are not designed for occupants. But that’s okay, because the design isn’t sold to occupants, it is sold to people who look at the sketches and want to feel very dramatic.

Similarly, I think the design pattern of small fonts is something meant to appeal to shallow observation. By deemphasizing the text itself, the design is accentuated. Low-contrast text is even more obviously the domination of design over content. And it may very well look more professional and visually pleasing. But web design isn’t for making sites visually pleasing, it is for making the experience of the content more pleasing. Sites exist for their content, not their design.

In 100e2r he also says let your text breathe. You need whitespace. If you view my site directly, you’ll notice I don’t have big white margins around my text. When you come to my site, it’s to see my words, and that’s what I’m going to give you! When I want to let my text breathe with lots of whitespace this is what I do:

http://blog.ianbicking.org/wp-content/uploads/images/500px-my-white-desktop.jpg

Is a huge block of text hard to read? It is. And yeah, I’ve written articles like that. But the solution?

WRITE BETTER

Similarly, it’s hard to read text if you don’t use paragraphs, but the solution isn’t to increase your line height until every line is like a paragraph of its own.

The solution to the drudgery of large swathes of text is:

  1. Make your blocks of text smaller.
  2. Use something other than paragraphs of text.

Throw in a list. Do some indentation. Toss in even a stupid picture. Personally I try to throw in code examples, because that’s how we roll on this blog.

That’s good writing, that’s content that is easy to read. It’s not easy to write, and I’m sure I miss the mark more often than not. But you can’t design your way to good content. If you want to write like this, if you want to let the flow of your text reflect the flow of your ideas, you need room. Huge margins don’t give you room. They are a crutch for poor writing, and not even a good crutch.

So in conclusion: modern design be damned!

HTML
Non-technical
Web

Comments (21)

Permalink

The Poverty Of Our National Debate

We had a debate party tonight for the Biden-Palin debate. It’s nice to watch it in a group of like-minded people. Taking the Democrat/Republican debate seriously is a bullshit game and I don’t have any desire to bring this farce into my normal life.

After the debate was over, I wanted to discuss the debate. After all, it’s weird to watch something for an hour and a half and then just ignore that we spent that time watching it. The problem is that I hate the punditry. No one actually said "did Palin do what she had to do?" (I probably would have screamed) but it’s just really hard not to talk about "what will people think of this debate?" And part of that is because we all know what we think. We saw through Palin deliberately ignoring the questions and reading her already-prepared speech. We all had a basic understanding of what is fact and what is a lie or misrepresentation. It’s nice to share little stories (like stories from the article about how McCain is a jerk). But it’s so damn hard not to fall into a discussion about the horserace, about what other people will think. Why is it so hard to talk about what we think? Not what we analyze, but what we actually believe? Instead of predicting something that will come to pass regardless of our predictions, shouldn’t we be developing our own beliefs? That seems far more relevant to our lives.

There’s probably a lot of reasons for that. It’s intimidating to be entirely genuine, to speak without irony. And all the news is about the horserace, so we are all well informed, it makes it easy to talk.

I think a large part of the problem is that the spectrum of opinions is so narrow (even if also bifurcated) that it’s hard to have an interesting discussion of political issues. Lacking anything of real substance to discuss, we discuss the discussion, we make predictions instead of forming real opinions. While I’m willing to blame many things on the Republicans, this is the product of both parties, of the narrow ignorance of "conventional wisdom." For instance, the debate about the economic bailout has been rich with rhetoric but starved of any real ideas. I didn’t even realize how limited the debate was until I listened to this interview where Steve Fraser kind of says, well, we can do whatever we want. That is to say, we can actually make collective decisions about the direction of our economy, instead of the impotent position that is assumed in all current debates, where we can only poke lightly at the economy (and it’s implied anything more would destroy it).

We can’t really talk about what kind of healthcare system we’d like, because the system nearly everyone wants is not an acceptable part of conventional wisdom. Socialized healthcare is the only reasonable option, but of course there’s lots of ways it could work, there’s lots of room for genuine and important discussion. But instead we have a staggeringly horrible proposal, and a merely not quite as bad as the current situation proposal. Given this set of options you can’t have real discussion.

In the end our own happiness is mostly in our own hands. The choices we make for ourselves are more significant than the choices made by the government (the choices we make collectively). But our collective choices do matter. We certainly haven’t figured out happiness. And maybe government does best when it has the least effect on our lives, but while that’s one end of the bifurcated conventional wisdom, as an idea it remains largely uninspected. When I consider many of the pleasant conveniences in my life, government is part of a lot of them. It doesn’t do much to make me more spiritually fulfilled, but the idea that government is a hopeless place to look for our collective happiness is a truism that lacks real consideration.

Political discussion is stuck in a terrible intellectual rut. Blame falls equally on both parties. They hold on greedily to their monopoly of political thought. It’s like religious doctrine, something to which politicians must submit before being allowed to progress, a sign of submission to a larger system of power. I have this hope that Obama is going through the rites with discipline but without true belief, that he is being subversive, diving straight to the belly of the beast. But this is only speculation, perhaps a naive dream, a desire to project my hopes onto a figure of vague and general hope.

I don’t really want to spend too much time discussing all the things that are wrong. This is the depressing comfort zone of the left. I want to talk about how things could be right, about how we can make a world that isn’t just less unjust but a world that is more beautiful, more wonderful, more full of life and freedom and passion. I want to exult in the potential of the future.

Non-technical
Politics

Comments (10)

Permalink

On the RNC, Monica Bicking, Eryn Trimmer, and Protest

Saturday morning my sister, Monica Bicking, and her boyfriend, Eryn Trimmer, were arrested in Minneapolis. Monica was released on Sunday, but Eryn and others are still in custody, and the police will try to keep them detained as long as possible. update: the two of them and six others from the Welcoming Committee are charged with felonies, including "furtherance of terrorism". A website has been set up in support of them, and to keep people informed about ongoing events in the case: rnc8.org

They were arrested for "conspiracy to incite a riot". This is the same charge used against the Chicago 8 (or 7) at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Perhaps the police have a sense of tradition?

But more directly she and Eryn were arrested in an attempt to preemptively suppress the protests at the Republican National Convention. They were both very active with the RNC Welcoming Committee, which is a group coordinating and supporting some of the people coming to the Twin Cities for the convention.

Obviously I’m very concerned by the arrests and charges. But there’s been a huge outpouring of support from the community — both from activist in the Twin Cities, and from their neighbors. In Chicago I’m a little unsure about what to do.

Reading articles about the incidents (Glenn Greenwald’s post on Salon is a good one) I find myself mostly avoiding the comment sections. The comments fall into two categories: mean comments against the protesters, and reactionary comments with no real substance ("this is proof this country is a police state!") Activists generally understand what’s going on, and people of a right-wing/authoritarian bend are hardly going to be convinced of anything, but there’s a lot of progressive people out there who’ve never really been involved in any activism like this. There’s very little explaining the protests, the role of activists like my sister, and the philosophies they hold. Certainly the news makes no attempt, and unfortunately the activists themselves often speak from an unexplained perspective.

So I’d like to use this as an opportunity to explain my understanding of the role of protest, what’s going on at the RNC specifically, and what an "anarchist" really is. At the moment I can’t do a lot to help Eryn and Monica directly, but at least I can talk about her personally instead of another story about a named but otherwise anonymous "protester".

The Role Of Protest

It’s challenging to explain and justify protest, at least in this country and at this moment. Probably the biggest blow for protest as a useful form of political expression was the February 15, 2003 protests against the Iraq War. I say this because those were the largest protests the world has ever seen, estimated around 10 million people, and yet they did so little to stop the war.

That war is still with us, and is still the most significant motivation for the RNC protests. The war has gone through many phases since then — purported success, then clear failure by just about anyone’s definition, then ongoing failure labelled as success because of dramatically lowered expectations (the surge). Public opinion has moved several times, but is constrained by what is considered the reasonable options. These "reasonable" options are defined by the Democratic and Republican elite. Balance in news means inviting participation from partisans from those two parties. In this context the Democratic party had a practical landslide in 2006, driven primarily by anti-war sentiments, and then proceeded to do almost nothing to stop the war. If protest has failed, then so has electoral politics.

I don’t have any third path to offer, but I just want to make it clear: none of us know what is best to do, none of us have figured out the way to effect change. People complain protest doesn’t work. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but frankly most things don’t work. Doing nothing definitely doesn’t work, and frankly that’s what most of us are doing. It’s hard to take criticisms seriously when they are made from a stance of inaction.

What might the RNC protests accomplish?

First, it is an attempt to break out of a politics restricted to two perspectives. I believe, quite firmly, that "radical left" opinions are actually quite mainstream. This was also the goal of the DNC protests. This goal has become quite difficult to achieve. News stations generally ignore protest, and when they do cover protest they seldom talk about the actual issues.

Second, protests can attempt to disrupt normal activity. To be fair, this is probably better termed "civil disobedience", and I’m sure there will be civil disobedience in response to the RNC. One possible goal of civil disobedience is to make news — to be so disruptive that you simply can’t be ignored. And even if the news won’t say why you won’t be ignored, at least one message that can be made clear: everything is not okay. Another goals is simply to disrupt the RNC. This is a bringing together of many of the architects and profiteers of war. This is a convention that includes many people advocating torture.

It’s also a convention of people who buy the lines about the Republican party being "conservative" and supporting "family values" and whatever other bullshit. One argument goes: oh, these poor dullards and simpletons! Do not interrupt their harmless partying! Do not interrupt their absurd views! They deserve their delusions as much as anyone! I say: this stuff is too important to defer to the bullshit of this political grandstanding.

Are We In A Time Of War?

It is all too easy to fall into "protesting for the right to protest". Lest I fall into this, I want to make it clear: protest itself is not the goal. 600,000 Iraqis dead. And to what ends? No ends at all? Unlikely! There is a purpose. It is a purpose architected by people who would throw away hundreds of thousands of lives. People may argue about whether war is valid. I don’t believe it is, nor do Monica or Eryn, but whatever your feelings: this is not an abstract war. This is a specific war. And this specific war is a war made by liars, by people who treat human life lightly, by people whose primary ambition seems focused on power itself.

600,000 dead, and what’s so different in America? Do you feel this war? If you didn’t turn on the TV or listen to the news, what would remind you that we are at war? What would remind you of all that’s happened? We are a nation at war, and yet there is nothing to show us this, it has no presence. Our nation is so large, our institutions so abstracted, our military so partitioned from most of society… we are numb to war. Moving around while numbed is dangerous. You can’t feel what you are doing. A cut doesn’t hurt, a bruise is just a faint sensation. We are a numbed nation and this is dangerous.

If I was to give one reason for civil disobedience, it would be this: to acknowledge this war is real. This isn’t just a difference of opinion, this isn’t just a debate. This is about how we exercise our collective power, the power that is exercised in the form of the state. This is our war, whether we feel it or not.

One of the criticisms of civil disobedience is to say it deprives the Republicans of their free speech. First, this is absurd. No form of civil disobedience deprives them of free speech. No one is taping their mouths shut. No journalists are being detained by activists. No debate is stifled. The RNC’s request: we want to speak our lies without interruption, without distraction. The Republicans have through decades of whining managed to frame the debate, to redefine "common sense" and "conventional thinking", to move the Overton Window far to the right. Free speech does not mean they should not be challenged. Protest challenges the content of their speech, it doesn’t deny them of the ability to speak.

This is an aside, but for all the effort put into limiting the bounds of debate I don’t think the Republicans, or Bush, have really changed the country as much as they are given credit for. I don’t think people are as easily manipulated as that. I think our core values are not so easily affected. If we were not so numb I think it would all come rushing back.

On "Anarchism"

If you read the articles you will see Monica and Eryn called "self-described anarchists". This is true, they are anarchists. I will attempt, briefly and probably inaccurately, to describe what anarchism is.

Anarchism is, at its core, a belief in the individual, and a belief that good flows uniquely from the individual. Conversely, it believes that bad comes from institutions, from the abstractions we build between people. Anarchism is a belief in the power of empathy instead of laws. Instead of leading our lives according to principles that are passed down to us, anarchism says we should live our lives based on our personal reflections and decisions. We should be deliberate, we should not be obedient.

The RNC Welcoming Committee (the name is ironic) is a "anarchist/anti-authoritarian" organization. Ha ha you say, isn’t an anarchist organization an oxymoron? If you meet an anarchist this is the most tedious joke you could possibly make. Anarchism is, of course, a somewhat chaotic philosophy. And any anarchist should be a human first, and an anarchist second — anything else would be contrary to the very principles of anarchism! More practically, they form groups based on shared understandings and motivations, and there is nothing at all inconsistent about individuals working together — indeed it is interpersonal cooperation that is at the heart of anarchist traditions.

Do anarchists want to tear down all institutions? I guess some flavors of anarchist rhetoric make this claim. Looking in from the outside, it feels like some kind of phase adolescent male anarchists go through. There is an underlying lack of respect for institutions and authority, and this is genuine. But though they see nothing wrong with disrupting institutions, violence against people is not considered acceptable. Some would like to categorize property damage as violence, but I find this rather disrespectful of genuine violence. Things don’t feel pain or fear.

Discussions of anarchism tend to degrade very quickly because people are overly obsessed with self-consistency. For instance: how could an entire society run without laws, governments, police, taxes? There are answers and speculations, but we would all do better to make the world we want now and here. This is what actual anarchists do — running whole societies might be fun to theorize about, but building a community is actually attainable, and among progressive groups anarchists are probably the most enthusiastic community builders.

Lastly: why the term "anarchism"? It’s a scary term, though it’s derivation is simply from the term "without rulers". It’s been a term used to scare people for so long that it’s hard to separate the idea from the myth. People at time suggest alternative terms. But anarchism isn’t just a philosophy, it’s a tradition and culture and shared understanding, one that goes back over a hundred years. And anarchists don’t want to disassociate themselves from that tradition. And usually, what does it matter what other people think of the name? It is however awkward when the police are trying to label you as a dangerous extremist.

Violence?

Reports have come out about violent protest. Update: There were reports of "violent protesters". Now police report that "one or two windows were broken" during the entire RNC. In other words, there was almost no violence at all by protesters, and almost no property damage. Frankly I feel stupid for ever believing there were even small groups of "violent protesters". There was simply no violence (under any definition of "violence") of any note by the protesters. (I’m actually surprised there weren’t more windows broken by stray police munitions.) Again police lack basic credibility in their statements. end update

Actual incidents are often exaggerated or fabricated. For instance, in the case of the home raids things like paint, bottles, and rags were labeled as "the ingredients for making Molotov cocktails". I’m sure every reader of this post has sufficient ingredients to make a Molotov cocktail. Also, many people have hatchets, bricks, and other materials. Buckets of urine were particularly attention-grabbing, but the only reason for these was that one of the houses had a broken toilet. The police interpretation of the confiscated material is not credible.

There have also been reports of violence at the protests themselves. First it should be noted that there are no reports of police or bystanders being injured. I personally find it is hard to classify property damage as "violence". If you don’t include property damage then there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of violence.

Protest is confrontational. Some will suggest that protesters should obey police in all situations. They suggest that protesters should obey all laws and only protest where permitted. They suggest protesters should not be disruptive of anyone else. The result would not be protest. In cases like the RNC, where extensive planning was in place to counter protest, non-confrontational protest means protesting according to someone else’s plans, someone who has no desire for the protest to succeed in any way. Once you confront the police, there will be violence — usually by the police. And sure, you can stand with a flower in your hand and get a face full of pepper spray, and of course many people choose that course. It’s a noble choice, but I can’t fault people for making other tactical decisions.

Another protesting tactic is the "black bloq", typically a group of people who try to attract the attention of the police, often through property damage. If the police have nothing better to do, then why not pin down the peaceful protesters and direct them where they can make the least impact? People in the black bloq will try to keep this from happening. It’s unlikely they were at all successful at the RNC as it was so thoroughly militarized. You could debate whether this is a good strategy (and there is lots of debate about this), but probably few people outside activists have any idea that there even is any underlying strategy.

Also, if you wonder why protesters, especially the anarchists, dress the way they do, it is primarily defensive. If you are going to get teargassed and peppersprayed does wearing a handkerchief seem so odd? And if they are tracking people to preemptively arrest, all the more reason to be as anonymous as possible.

Monica and Eryn

I’d like to speak specifically of Monica and Eryn. Talking to Monica about the RNC protests, she was never actually that excited. The RNC isn’t what she wanted to focus on. Why focus on the thing you dislike? Why focus on a political process you don’t believe in? Why focus on the workings of institutions you wish didn’t exist? She would have preferred to work on the scale she felt was valid — to build a community of individuals. But of course events are larger than us, and by whatever coincidence the RNC was coming to the Twin Cities. This is not the sort of thing you can just ignore. And of course it wasn’t up to her whether there would be protests.

Monica and Eryn are competent and diligent, so of course they would become important to the organizing process. It seems that there were infiltrators in many of the organizations, so it’s unsurprising that the police knew who to find when they were getting ready to suppress the protests. The two of them had expected informants from early on. Monica herself worked for a year for the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker charity and peace advocacy organization) at a time when they were being spied on because of purported fears of violent protest. If you are not aware of Quakerism, it is a quite strictly passivist faith, and the pretense for the spying was exceptionally absurd. So Monica was not particularly shocked that there would be spying in the lead up to the RNC.

The RNC Welcoming Committee is itself a coordinating organization. It was inevitable that many, many groups would want to protest at the RNC. There’s no lack of people who are angry. The Welcoming Committee served as a local resource for all those people — so visitors could find a place to stay in the city, so people could coordinate with each other, so people could perform their chosen form of protest in as well-informed a manner as possible. That it is being painted as an organization with criminal intent is a complete misrepresentation; the Welcoming Committee specifically has no intention of direct action.

The preemptive arrest was surprising to everyone. It is normal in the course of civil disobedience that some people expect to be arrested. Civil disobedience is confrontational. You have to go into it knowing that there will be certain consequences. Those are the consequences of the confrontation. They are not the consequences of the possibility of future confrontation. As organizers I know Monica and Eryn weren’t planning on being arrested.

But I haven’t written this essay in anger over their arrest. Protest is conflict. The lines of conflict move, and I find this move to preemptive arrest quite troubling, but I’m also optimistic that they won’t ultimately be charged with anything. I also don’t want to slip into the protest-to-protest mode, more obsessed with the form of protest than the function of this protest. This is a frustrating turn of events, and I’m sure no one is more frustrated than the two of them — one sequestered in a jail, the other in legal limbo, at the culmination of all their work over the last year. But I didn’t write this essay out of anger but because I wanted to recognize what they’ve been doing and do my best to explain it to other people, because I’m proud of them. They are exactly the model of an engaged, ethically driven citizenry.

I see lots of comments like "this country is a fascist state!" and "this is just like Nazi Germany!" But of course this country is not those things. That’s what happens when the citizenry of a country stands down, when they look away from what’s happening right in front of them, when they ignore justice and discard empathy. This country is not those things because of Monica and Eryn and the thousands of people who will be present and paying attention when the RNC lands from on high.

To support Monica, Eryn, and the other charged members of the RNC Welcoming Committee, and also to get updates on the case and news coverage of the case, please visit rnc8.org

Non-technical
Politics

Comments (71)

Permalink

Happy Birthday PotteryBlog

A happy 4th Birthday Emily’s Blog!

Non-technical

Comments Off

Permalink

Me In Berlin & Amsterdam

I’m going on vacation in a couple weeks to Berlin and Amsterdam, flying to Berlin on August 12, leaving from Amsterdam on August 27, and transitioning between the two sometime in between. Things Emily and I should see or do? Care to meet up? On vacations my evenings tend to be underscheduled.

Non-technical

Comments (15)

Permalink