Marxism and Existentialism, the Made and the Born

Blade Runner, Pris and Roy Batty

In two brief epigrams, why Sartre had such a hard time in Critique of Dialectical Reason trying to reconcile his existentialism with Marxism:

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

~ Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)

“Freedom is existence, and in it existence precedes essence.”

~ Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (1946)

It is a wonder Sartre so hated psychoanalysis and the unconsciousness for the suggestion that freedom was anything other than absolute, but Marxism he could work with.

Through the Google Looking Glass

Back in 2008 I got really excited about life logging (“Life Logging: It’s All About the Metadata,” 11 September 2008; “The End of the Era of Orphanage,” 15 September 2008). I had all these exciting visions of all the things we could do if we were to dramatically increase capture. Now that Google Glass is close to bringing this geek fantasy to mass consumption, commentators are beginning to see the malign potential of such a technology. Mark Hurst of Creative Good imagines the transformation of the public that could result from such a degree of capture (The Google Glass Feature No One is Talking About, 28 February 2013):

The Google Glass feature that (almost) no one is talking about is the experience — not of the user, but of everyone other than the user. A tweet by David Yee introduces it well:

There is a kid wearing Google Glasses at this restaurant which, until just now, used to be my favorite spot.

The key experiential question of Google Glass isn’t what it’s like to wear them, it’s what it’s like to be around someone else who’s wearing them. I’ll give an easy example. Your one-on-one conversation with someone wearing Google Glass is likely to be annoying, because you’ll suspect that you don’t have their undivided attention. And you can’t comfortably ask them to take the glasses off (especially when, inevitably, the device is integrated into prescription lenses). Finally — here’s where the problems really start — you don’t know if they’re taking a video of you.

Now pretend you don’t know a single person who wears Google Glass … and take a walk outside. Anywhere you go in public — any store, any sidewalk, any bus or subway — you’re liable to be recorded: audio and video. Fifty people on the bus might be Glassless, but if a single person wearing Glass gets on, you — and all 49 other passengers — could be recorded. Not just for a temporary throwaway video buffer, like a security camera, but recorded, stored permanently, and shared to the world.

Now, I know the response: “I’m recorded by security cameras all day, it doesn’t bother me, what’s the difference?” Hear me out — I’m not done. What makes Glass so unique is that it’s a Google project. And Google has the capacity to combine Glass with other technologies it owns.

First, take the video feeds from every Google Glass headset, worn by users worldwide. Regardless of whether video is only recorded temporarily, as in the first version of Glass, or always-on, as is certainly possible in future versions, the video all streams into Google’s own cloud of servers. Now add in facial recognition and the identity database that Google is building within Google Plus (with an emphasis on people’s accurate, real-world names): Google’s servers can process video files, at their leisure, to attempt identification on every person appearing in every video. And if Google Plus doesn’t sound like much, note that Mark Zuckerberg has already pledged that Facebook will develop apps for Glass.

Finally, consider the speech-to-text software that Google already employs, both in its servers and on the Glass devices themselves. Any audio in a video could, technically speaking, be converted to text, tagged to the individual who spoke it, and made fully searchable within Google’s search index.

Now our stage is set: not for what will happen, necessarily, but what I just want to point out could technically happen, by combining tools already available within Google.

Let’s return to the bus ride. It’s not a stretch to imagine that you could immediately be identified by that Google Glass user who gets on the bus and turns the camera toward you. Anything you say within earshot could be recorded, associated with the text, and tagged to your online identity. And stored in Google’s search index. Permanently.

I’m still not done.

The really interesting aspect is that all of the indexing, tagging, and storage could happen without the Google Glass user even requesting it. Any video taken by any Google Glass, anywhere, is likely to be stored on Google servers, where any post-processing (facial recognition, speech-to-text, etc.) could happen at the later request of Google, or any other corporate or governmental body, at any point in the future.

Remember when people were kind of creeped out by that car Google drove around to take pictures of your house? Most people got over it, because they got a nice StreetView feature in Google Maps as a result.

Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device — every single day, everywhere they go — on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

And that, my friends, is the experience that Google Glass creates. That is the experience we should be thinking about. The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience — it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.

I guess I will temper my enthusiasm for life logging accordingly.

Lock 18, The C&O Canal

Lock 18, the C&O Canal at Great Falls, 27 April 2013

Lock 18, the C&O Canal at Great Falls, 27 April 2013

One of the most beautiful artifacts of old D.C. is the C&O Canal (National Park Service | Wikipedia). I spent the afternoon with S. walking along the stretch of it adjacent to Great Falls. Every time I visit it, I think of this, one of my favorite poems.

Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin
Patrick Kavanagh

O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water, preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges —
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb — just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

Inflation on the Gold Standard

Oh, hey, look, the U.S. post war gold bullion standard did not prevent inflation. It just meant that gold and the currency inflated together at the fixed rate. In fact, it was in part the high inflation of the late 1960s and early 1970s that forced the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971.

"Inflation's Stubborn Resistance," Time, Vol. 96, No. 24, 14 December 1970

Inflation’s Stubborn Resistance,” Time, Vol. 96, No. 24, 14 December 1970, pp. 102-112.

Via Neil Irwin, The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), p. 65.

Bad Vermouth and the Myth of the Dry Martini

Okay, look, the so called dry martini with all its apocryphal lore is a pernicious myth leftover from the dark intersection of the post-prohibition loss of cocktail knowledge and America’s post-war takeover by processed food. The dry martini is a product of the fact that for decades the only vermouth widely available in the U.S. was Martini & Rossi. And Martini & Rossi is undrinkable bitter shit. Martini & Rossi is the TV dinner of vermouth. It’s the Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup and Hamburger Helper casserole of vermouth. It’s the Velveeta processed cheese product of vermouth. That multiple generations of bartenders and patrons were taught to make martinis extra-dry was tacit recognition that Martini & Rossi vermouth is a good way to ruin a decent glass of gin.

Another indicator here would be the dominance of the brined olive as the martini garnish of choice. The use of a bitter wine shifted the drink toward the bitter end of the taste spectrum. The olive became the logical garnish. The dirty martini became the next logical evolution of the drink (perhaps I will make a follow-up post in praise of the bitter martini, but debunking it is my mission today). In recent years, the lemon twist has returned to the martini, in some establishments even becoming the default garnish. For years I found the lemon twist confusing, wrong, incongruent with the otherwise bitter cocktail and considered it a popularizing, pandering concession to the lemon drop, cosmopolitan, appletini crowd.

It’s only taken me fifteen years to figure this out, but the key to a good martini is not dry, but wet, just not the Martini & Rossi. Use a flavorful, aromatic vermouth such as Dolin and a martini ceases to be a bitter drink suitably garnished with olives and becomes a fragrant, effervescent drink more appropriate to citrus.

Across a number of domains America is rediscovering quality and undoing the damage of generations of public tastes being formed around the requirements of corporate mass-production. It’s time for Martini & Rossi and the dry martini to go the way of the TV dinner, the casserole, the Velveeta.

To be more general about the matter, a martini should be made with a good quantity of a flavorful, robust white aperitif wine. One way to understand the martini is to realize that it is part of a family of cocktails, one close relative being the Vesper, which uses Lillet Blanc where the vermouth would be. And once you see that substitutions of various aperitif wines is a way to make variations on the martini — Cocchi Americano would be another option — then you understand dry vermouth and its proper place in the martini. Another general rule here would be that vermouth shouldn’t be some miscreant liquor, stalking the outer reaches of your bar, in the little bottle, only there for the sake of the occasional drop in a martini. Generally, if you wouldn’t drink it on its own, you shouldn’t put it in a cocktail (a more distantly related principle is that you should at least occasionally have a glass of your various components on their own, at least for the sake of discerning their place in mixtures; but also, aperitif wines are yummy and worth the occasional sip or slug on their own terms). Another way to get an appreciation for the place of vermouth in a martini is to consider the renaissance of vermouth cocktails in recent years.

What’s the proper ratio? Depends. Somewhere in the neighborhood of three-to-one. Here’s the New York Times head-to-head gin review from a few years back that made Plymouth’s current reputation. They mix their martinis at a ratio of four-to-one — because they “wanted to make sure that the gin was featured prominently.” That’s right: a four-to-one ratio was a deviation meant to foreground the gin for the sake of a gin tasting (Asimov, Eric, “No, Really, It Was Tough: 4 People, 80 Martinis,” The New York Times, 2 May 2007).

And here’s Derek Brown, royalty of D.C.’s craft cocktail revival (Wikipedia | twitter), with Kojo Nnamdi mixing a martini at a 50/50 ratio. His preparation is too fastidious for my tastes, but you get the idea regarding ratios and ingredients.

Coda: keeping me honest with myself is one of the reasons for this blog. Three years ago I had a fairly different position on martinis (“How to Make a Mean Martini,” 6 May 2010), but over the course of maybe the last six months I’ve had a few experiences that have completely changed my opinion on this matter (here’s the tweet from 12 March 2013 that’s maybe the moment of realization). Well, I guess I stand by my opposition to the pretense of “mean martini” claims and all the dogmatic and wrong-headed shit-talk. So maybe I’ll stick by my previous point that “most of the important decisions about good cocktails are made at the liquor store.”

Martin van Creveld’s Simulacra and Simulation

Here is Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War (1991) essentially agreeing with Jean Baudrillard, that not just the Gulf War, but nearly every conflict of the post-nuclear era, did not take place:

One factor affecting conventional war as waged by both the super-powers and, increasingly, by other countries, is that nuclear weapons make their dampening effect felt in such wars even when nobody threatens their use. As a result, the United States for one has only been able to employ its conventional armed forces in cases where its vital interests were not at stake. The war fought in Korea, a small appendix of Asia several thousands of miles away, provides an excellent case in point. The American Chiefs of Staff recognized this even at that time, emphasizing the fact that the really significant areas were Japan and the Philippines. The same also applied to Lebanon (1958), Vietnam (1964-72), the Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1972-75), Lebanon (1983), and the Persian Gulf (1987-88). Looking back, so microscopic were the stakes for which GI’s were supposed to shed their blood that most of the cases could hardly even be explained to the American people. On occasions such as the Mayaguez Affair (1975) and Grenada (1983), so puny were the opponents against which American forces pitted themselves that hostilities took on a comic-opera character. (p. 14)

In the convoluted logic of the post-nuclear world, if a state goes to war, it is prima facie because it is an objective not a vital national interest. Any interest that is actually vital would involve levels of determination that are simply too dangerous to test. Vital national interests are those interests for which states were willing to pay prices in other ages that can no longer be afforded in an era of total annihilation.

Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps, Part II: Thank God for Economic Destitution

A few months ago I pointed out that while more mainstream evangelicals may know better how to couch their statements so as not to be so vulgar, there is really little difference between their widespread beliefs and those of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church (“Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?, 31 July 2012). Adding to this litany, Reverend Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, had the following to say shortly after the reelection of President Obama (Beamon, Todd and Kathleen Walter, “Franklin Graham to Newsmax: ‘We Have Turned Our Backs on God’“, Newsmax, 15 November 2012):

Maybe God will have to bring our nation down to our knees — to where you just have a complete economic collapse. And maybe at that point, maybe people will again begin to call upon the name of almighty God.

In Christian apocalyptic fantasies, ten percent unemployment, diminished lifetime earnings, lost homes, trillion dollar deficits and worse aren’t economic happenstance or the work of the greedy and short-sighted on Wall Street. They are the just deserts that a jealous god reigns down on those who would create a pluralistic society. One can almost see the Reverend Graham with one of those brightly colored signs outside the house of a poor family being evicted: “Thank God for Foreclosures.”

Is Every Christian Down Deep Really Fred Phelps?

What makes the recent comments of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan T. Cathy regarding homosexuality, as well as Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert regarding the Aurora shootings particularly galling is just how close they are to the sentiments of Pastor Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Consider: here is Mr. Cathy’s remark:

I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, “We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”

And here is Rep. Gohmert’s assessment of the mass shooting in Aurora:

We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country and … what really gets me as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs and then a senseless, crazy act of terror like this takes place.

You know, when people say, where was God in all of this? … where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present.

In Rep. Gohmert’s mind, mass shootings aren’t chance, or human actuated events, but specific, willful, malicious omissions on the part of God.

How else are we to interpret this than as saying that God will indiscriminately strike down your fellows should a nation defy his will? And how is this anything other than the unavoidable opposite of the notion that God takes favor on those who obey him? But insidiously, how far is it from statements such as these to Pastor Phelps’s “Thank God for IEDs”?

For the remainder of this argument I defer to a thousand years of disputation over the incompatable triad.

New Aesthetic, 1975-1979

The aim of all these conferences is to be like the Broad Street water pump: a hub where everyone gets infected. The cholera outbreak of South by Southwest 2012 is New Aesthetic.

A morning sessions on day four of the conference was dedicated to the subject and James Bridle, the prime mover of the theory, wrote up some notes of his talk in what is now the text of reference (“#sxaesthetic“, booktwo.org, 15 March 2012). The basis for Mr. Bridle’s talk is the material he has been collecting for nearly a year now via his New Aesthetic tumblr. Bruce Sterling attended the session and wrote it up in an effusive post for Wired (“An Essay on the New Aesthetic“, 2 April 2012). A significant conversation has broken out on twitter. Julia Kaganskiy at The Creators Project has collected up a number of responses (“In Response To Bruce Sterling’s ‘Essay On The New Aesthetic’“, 6 April 2012). Ian Bogost has responded in The Atlantic Monthly (“The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder“, 13 April 2012).

U.S. Navy MARPAT digital camouflage

In the military, where the people are tessellated.

And Mr. Bridle isn’t making this up. There is the example of New Aesthetic with which most people are probably most familiar, namely military’s new generation BDU, the ACUPAT / MARPAT digital camouflage, consisting of complex, non-repeating pattern generated by fractal equations. But before starting this post I decided to go out and walk around my neighborhood to see how much stuff I could find in half-an-hour with a vaguely New Aesthetic sensibility. The street that I live on is only five blocks long, boxed in by a school, sports fields and parks department superblock to the east and Rock Creek Park to the west. At the east end of my street, the local library is undergoing an expansion. Here is the new wing under construction:

New wing of the Mount Pleasant Public Library under construction, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

At the west end of my street, this guy finished a repurposing of his off street parking into an outdoor area just in time for the best weather of the year:

Repurposed neighborhood back parking stall, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

That’s two independent projects within five blocks of each other in my sleepy spur neighborhood. New Aesthetic is obviously real as a popular practice, not just a theory.

I’m sympathetic but skeptical for a number of reasons. I will detail what are my two major reasons for skepticism here.

Bricks: pixilated clay, Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C., 13 April 2012

Bricks: pixilated clay

First, as Nathan Jurgenson has said, an oddity of New Aesthetic is that “many of the images rely on the techno-nostalgia of the near past.” New Aesthetic is technologically eclectic in its inspiration, with some of its images reliant on the most advanced scientific visualizations, but a significant portion of its most outstanding images rely on pixilation, low resolution, interpolation, false color, reduced data sets or the selectivity of only machine-decisive elements. So we end up with things like pixilated crayons and umbrellas.

But this isn’t representative of the influence of technology on contemporary technology. It is an anachronism, a recreation of an already superseded era of computer capability. To illustrate by reference to the development of stealth technology.

Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk

New Aesthetic, circa 1979

The first of the modern stealth airplanes was the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. In response to the effectiveness of surface-to-air missiles in the Vietnam and Yom Kippur Wars, and to significant improvements in the Soviet air defense system, in 1974 DARPA requested that contractors begin investigating the application of advances in theories of radiation deflection into the construction of low radar cross-section (RCS) aircraft. The problem that designers faced was the need to come up with shapes that balanced the requirements of both aerodynamics and radiation-deflection. The prototype that Lockheed Skunk Works developed came to be known as Have Blue. Aeronautical engineer Bill Schroeder worked with software engineer Dennis Overholser to write a program called ECHO-1, run on a Cray supercomputer, that would search a design space for an optimum tradeoff of aerodynamics and radar cross-section. The problem was the limited computational power at their disposal. Searching over the variability of smooth shapes would have resulted in an intolerably long run-time. The way around this problem was to limit the variability of the surfaces by what came to be termed within Lockheed Skunk Works as “faceting”: the larger the facets, the shorter the run-time. What determined the facet resolution of the plane that would become the F-117 Stealth Fighter was the desired run-time of the computer program to optimize its design trade-offs. In essence, the facets of F-117 are the resolution of the simulation used to select the optimum design. The F-117 is the Atari of fighter planes.

(Even having so optimized the design, the aerodynamics were sufficiently compromised by the demands of a minimal radar cross-section that the plane had to be fly-by-wire, with an onboard computer system making constant minor adjustments to engine thrust and control surfaces to stabilize the plane.)

B-2 "Spirit" stealth bomber

The new New Aesthetic.

But only a few years later the New Aesthetic moment has already passed. By the time that DARPA began contracting in 1979 for a stealth strategic bomber to replace the B-52, the availability of computer power had already improved markedly, to the point where the smooth surfaces of the Northrop Grumman B-2 “Spirit” stealth bomber are specified to such exacting precisions that most of the pieces for the stealth skin of the plane are cut and assembled by machines. A scant four years later the pixilated faceting of the F-117 had been superseded by organic shapes of the B-2, the Jurassic Park of airframes. At the high-end of computing, 1979 was already the end of New Aesthetic. Through consumer products like Atari, NES and VGA, the computational and engineering practice of New Aesthetic would persist into the early 1990s, but much beyond that New Aesthetic becomes “shock of the old”.

Taraxacum officinale: A 30 million year old network cluster diagram

A 30 million year old network cluster diagram.

My second cause for skepticism can also be construed as an extension of Mr. Jurgenson’s question, “why reduce ontological, epistemological & phenomenological points to aesthetics?” To identify the aesthetic as the interesting feature of these phenomena is to really diminish the significance of what it is that is happening in the most unusual of these situations. What is more interesting than the surface appearance of the end products is the fact that the limits of our computational capability, the limits of information, the limits that exist in the ideal realm are pushing out to become the limits of the material world as well. What is interesting about things like the F-117 stealth fighter or buildings designed with AutoDesk is not that they look computer-y, but that they are interfaces, sights of interaction between the ideal and the material — and more important, places where the ideal has assumed the superior position, determining the contours of the material.