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Jun. 29th, 2012


And a tangent ..

One aspect of mass-media communication that bears further discussion is the one-to-many (or in some cases, few-to-many) aspect of mass media, and the illusion of perception that it creates, and the illusion of legitimacy that it lends to what it presents to us on the screen.

Everything you see on TV, hear on the radio, read in a magazine, or receive any other way from commercial mass media is carefully filtered. You've been conditioned to perceive what you receive in all those ways as part of your extended reality, your view over the horizon, so to speak, in certain contexts, and that "events really happening a long distance away" perception is triggered by certain visual and/or aural cues that signal "news".

There's a trust built into that perception that leaves us extremely vulnerable to manipulation. Consider for a moment that you perceive a large part of the world through mass media communication channels that are run by corporate owners who are not impartial, and the bulk of the ownership is concentrated in a very small number of companies with their own agendas .. and you still perceive what they report as actually happening, somewhere in the world far outside your direct experience. You also tend to perceive things not reported through these channels as not really happening. Mass media, corporate-owned media, shape your perception of the world in ways that convince you they're reality or, by their absence, remove themselves from your perception completely. It's a subtle trick, and there are countless ways to exploit it. And it's been exploited, in a number of those ways.

How much of that shaping process is deliberate and by design? Probably very difficult to tell for sure, but given the concentrated ownership of most news outlets, and the agendas most if not all of them are pressured to follow, it's almost a certainty that it's being exploited in at least some ways. And it's a shaping process you're exposed to on a nearly constant basis, if you watch TV or listen to the radio at all during the day, or read magazines on a regular basis. It's a wicked bargain -- you gain the sense of being an informed citizen who's knowledgeable about current events, but your perception of those events is inevitably skewed and slanted in the direction the people who bring it to you want it to be, and you accept information as factual that is often incomplete if not outright misleading.

And that's one of many ways in which we're programmed to believe what we're supposed to, and accept a view of reality that's favorable to certain powerful interests in this society that have a vested interest in our beliefs about them -- and about ourselves -- not undergoing significant changes from the status quo. And those beliefs serve the people controlling our perceptions, not us, because their interests are entirely motivated by profit, and reinforcing devaluing perceptions of ourselves is a profitable angle to their business.

One reason there's any awareness of this process at all is the channel by which you're reading this: the Internet. For the first time in history, we have genuine many-to-many communication -- we can talk back to the TV, in a sense, and be heard. This one medium is a complete game-changer in this equation, and its true significance and the extent to which it will ultimately change our perception of the world and our interactions with others is still largely unknown. It's potentially as fundamental an innovation as the invention of printing itself, and has the potential to make one-to-many mass communication completely obsolete.

And challenge or even completely defeat the process by which we've been trained over the past decades to think the way we're supposed to.

And the major corporate media players have come late to the game, and for once, the democratic nature of many-to-many communication slipped in under their radar, and gave us a huge head start. We have the potential, still, to leverage that advantage into a true fair marketplace of ideas that allows us to gain a truer understanding of our world and of ourselves. The corporate players have definitely joined the game and begun putting strategies in place to monopolize our perception through this channel, as well, and have engaged in a number of legislative lobbying efforts to dilute the influence of many-to-many communication if not outright make it impossible, but in this instance, it's not at all clear whether or not they even can succeed. That question is one we have the power to answer, ourselves, by either asserting our ownership of the channel -- which we still have, for now -- or allowing them to take it over and turn it into just another kind of TV that tells us what we're supposed to think.

So, if it comes down to it, are you willing to fight for an unfiltered reality and the right to your own autonomy in it, or are you comfortable going back to being told what to think and how to perceive the world? It's up to you .. if you're reading this, you have the power to get involved, and there's a window of opportunity that may soon close ..

The dysfunctional society

I had a conversation the other day about relationships and other sorts of human interactions that put some things into perspective for me.

We are a social species. Our experience of our lives is shaped in large part by our connections and interactions with others, and almost every part of that experience exists in a social context. It's part of our perception to such an extent, both consciously and unconsciously, that our understanding of the universe we live in is inevitably shaped by our communications with others.

And that communication must be balanced and fair for that experience to be a healthy one. We have to have a sense of agency in those communications -- some aspect of them must represent our identities, desires, needs, some aspect of them must actualize our selves in some external way -- and we have to feel that the meaning we are communicating to others is respected at least in the most basic sense as fellow human beings, for those communications to feel nurturing and healthy.

Many aspects of our interaction with others outside of our immediate person-to-person connections (and in some cases, within that sphere as well) completely ignore this, and this starts in the schools when we are children, when we're taught to value obedience, and deference to authority, and acquiescence to challenges -- all the behaviors that condition us to be compliant employees and consumers, and condition us to be other-centered in our reasoning -- but not taught to value our own identities and our own selves in ways that strengthen our sense of agency. And it continues through our adult lives with a constant bombardment of advertising messages that train us to want what corporations and political candidates want to sell us in an almost infinite number of overt and covert ways. We're subjected to pressure to normalize our behavior every day, largely in the examples we're presented in mass media programming but often in the more immediate sense by partisan bullies who criticize us for deviating from their own concepts of conventional behavior.

I believe that the majority of this is evolved, emergent social behavior that probably served us well as hunter-gatherers when divergent behavior had serious consequences for the survival of the tribe as a whole, and normative influences of various kinds ensured social cohesion in the face of a number of existential threats. The only fault in these mechanisms is the progressively accelerating rate at which our circumstances change, and will continue to change; the coerced normalization that used to ensure the social cohesion of small tribes at the mercy of an often dangerous environment, and in fact a generalized notion of the tribe itself, have been carried over largely intact into a modern world where they have mostly lost relevance and become liabilities, but are nonetheless still part of our collective psychology, and the behaviors they still tend to drive in us are largely just part of how we're wired and part of how we function in terms of interacting with each other.

But there are a number of elements in our society that have learned to exploit that wiring in a variety of ways. Some of them are organized, some are individuals, some are loosely organized groups who simply exchange information on what gets them what they want and what doesn't, but all of them in one way or another make some sort of use of our tendency to comply with normative pressures from others, whether through direct person-to-person interactions or through an increasingly broad range of mass-communication surrogates, and all of them in some way benefit from exploiting that tendency. Some are cynical and sophisticated, such as the complex and nearly ubiquitous campaigns of collective social programming run by major corporations that not only condition us to want to buy their products, but now more often than not condition us to vote in favor of comfortable legal environments for them and thus make them even wealthier. Some are very simple and individual indeed, such as bullying others for simple ego gratification, or the slightly more complex strategies of social and sexual predation that use coerced compliance for psychological advantage. And last but not least, there are religious extremist organizations that leverage both the tendency to bow to normative social pressure and the common (and somewhat inaccurate) perception of the norms being enforced as being of some cultural value in and of themselves simply due to tradition.

So on the one hand, we find it difficult to accept non-tribal social functioning even when its value to us as a species has been clearly demonstrated, and on top of that, appeals to that sort of non-tribal social functioning immediately attract active opposition from actors of various sorts who have a stake in maintaining the vulnerabilities that are part of their daily business of exploiting us.

But the single weakest point in all of this is that omission in our social conditioning that I mentioned above: self-value, self-actualization, and agency. It's not always a simple omission -- part of what many of us were taught as children was the profoundly stigmatized concept of selfishness, and its latter-day cousin, entitlement. Granted, there are selfish and entitled people, and they can be unpleasant and tedious to interact with, especially when one stands in between them and what they want, and entitlement at its worst can include aspects of bullying or even predation. But when we fear being selfish or showing entitled behavior, we risk throwing out something very important along with those -- we run the very real risk of defeating our own sense of self-value and agency along with those undesirable behaviors.

Agency is central to our self-actualization, and in many ways, it actually defines it. Almost every single positive interaction we have with other humans begins with ourselves -- you cannot respect others until you respect yourself, and you cannot love others or indeed have much hope of receiving love from others until you love yourself -- and agency is literally our ability to represent those basic needs and values. It is important to respect others and maintain a balance between that and our agency, but it's also important not to neglect our own agency and our own self-value.

And we don't teach that enough to our children, either in school or in many cases at home to our own kids. To some extent it's a convenience thing -- even the best behaved children can be trying, and it's always tempting to emphasize obedience and other-centeredness in what we teach to children simply to get them to settle down and exercise some self-control -- but to some extent, for some parents and teachers alike at least, it's more of an emphasis on control and obtaining obedience at all costs, which either accidentally or in some cases crushes the entire life out of their sense of self-value and trains them not only not to seek a sense of agency in their own lives, but to actively resist it on an often-unconscious basis .. and there are few things more solidly guaranteed to produce a hostile, malicious person who only relates to the world in ways that involve breaking or destroying every part that comes within reach than to plant a suggestion that seeking one's sense of agency is forbidden somehow. There is no deeper resentment than that, and no surprise -- it's a direct attack on one's own identity.

I think the single best thing we could do for this society is to ensure that every child grows up with a balanced sense of agency and respect for fellow human beings and has it well established throughout childhood and into early adulthood. Where that takes them from there should take care of itself. I think the entire dialogue on what constitutes traditionally undesirable behaviors such as selfishness, entitlement, bullying, and so on should be defined in that framework, and kids in school who show signs of being other-centered to their own detriment should be treated with the same level of concern as the ones who show signs of being self-centered to the detriment of others. Fix that one thing, and many other things fall into place .. maybe not all of them, but a lot of them, to be sure.

Jun. 24th, 2012


On agency, consent, respect, and identity ..

I've talked a lot about consent in the context of how one responds to, or reacts to, the actions and expressed intents and desires of others, and about choosing which of those expressed intents and desires one is and is not willing to participate in. Mostly in the context of sexuality, sex-related communication, and promoting sex-positive culture, but these concerns abstract much farther than that relatively limited area .. in fact, in an ideal world, they would reflect back into those things rather than be confined entirely to that territory.

I've also talked a lot about the principle that everything positive and empowering about the human experience begins with oneself -- that one must respect oneself in order to be able to respect others, honor oneself to be able to honor others, and love and care for oneself in order to be able to love and care for others, and so on -- and touched on the ways in which one's own treatment of oneself is mirrored in one's treatment of others and their behavior in return. And I've touched on the need to know oneself and be honest with oneself about one's own needs and desires, and express them without fear or shame.

The latter argument is about agency, which Wikipedia defines as "one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will." Consent is a passive thing -- it comes down to choosing what one accepts or refuses from the external social influences one can exert control over, either directly or indirectly -- but it's about choosing from what's on the menu, so to speak. Agency is a more active process of choosing which menu to order from, or if need be, going off the menu and creating choices on one's own, asserting one's own identity and autonomy.

There's a balance, I think, and a very important one, to be struck between agency and respect of others' boundaries. We are social creatures and our lives are largely defined by the points where our lives intersect with those of others, but agency is crucial to using our fair share of the space we live in, both literally and figuratively, because without agency, we concede too much of ourselves to others and allow them to set their boundaries so close in to us that we have no room left to live in. It's certainly important not to do the reverse, to steamroller over other people's boundaries and force them into such a crisis, but it's equally important to assert our own and strike a fair balance.

This is kind of a new concept in western society at least, mainly because the majority religious traditions in this society have a history of downplaying individual agency as a concept and demonizing it as rebellious selfishness in all but the most limited cases. That's an inevitable consequence of living under religions that have been all about social control since the 4th century if not earlier, and one religion in particular that has the unique distinction of having conducted one of the most complete programs of cultural genocide in the history of our species, and one from whose shadow we are only now beginning to emerge. Agency is still a suspect idea, in many ways, because the vast majority of people in this society were taught as children that being too assertive about one's own desires, especially if one should have the temerity to desire things that differ slightly from what the collective considers "normal", is at least suspect if not an open invitation to corrective action either from the church or from other authorities, or even from extralegal social normative enforcers like the bullying institution still tacitly tolerated in many school systems. So there are a lot of forces working against this idea as a general concept, on outdated but still very much enforced moral principles.

But my vision of the society of the future, the one that has outgrown motivating people by fear and shame and has embraced positive and empowering human interactions, definitely includes agency as a core value, as much as it does a basic mutual respect for the people one interacts with, all in balance, but in a fair balance, one in which our respect for others flows from our respect for ourselves, and one in which none of us fears the judgments of others simply for speaking our minds and our hearts. Both of those, agency and respect, are core responsibilities, to ourselves and to those around us, and I believe that to be true about everything we do as a species. We're not there yet, but I believe we can get there if we try. And I for one plan to lead the charge.

Jun. 13th, 2012


Toward an affirmative sex-positive culture

I came across a comment in a sex-positive group the other day that kind of startled me in the way that it emphasized a "no means no" message within a context that was, overall, more or less sex-positive, but in that specific instance, seemed to be very focused on refusing undesired advances.

And the poster did have a point -- sex-positivity does have an obligation to empower people to refuse unwanted advances and promote an approach to doing so that does not shame or intimidate the subject of those advances, and if possible, educates the person making the advances to whatever extent is possible to keep the same situation from happening again, and handle both sides of that equation in a non-confrontational and non-blaming manner. And there is a need for the "no means no" message, because there are definitely people in our culture who haven't internalized that message yet for any number of reasons, from ignorance to denial to oppositional defiance/contrarianism to the (largely mistaken but still prevalent) belief that non-consensual approaches are the only ones that will succeed for them. That argument does have merit, I wouldn't think of claiming otherwise.

But it seems, to me, to miss the point of sex-positivity, or at least to focus on a rather negative and adversarial aspect of it, to the point that it almost feels to me like we're saying that we have an obligation to say no, that maybe there's pressure to say yes when we really should say no, and saying yes is compromising ourselves somehow. Which it may be, in certain coercive or manipulative circumstances .. but I think it misses a very important point.

Sex-positive culture, to me, is about owning our own attractions, our own desires, our own feelings, and our own sexuality, and feeling free to embrace those aspects of ourselves as meaningful parts of our identity and humanity and express them with pride rather than shame. To be human is to be a sexual being, however that manifests in each of us individually, but learning to embrace that aspect of being human runs counter to decades if not centuries of default-culture programming that teaches us from childhood to pretend to be socially asexual in many ways and only express sexual desire furtively out of sight, and feel guilty for having indulged in those expressions or acted on those desires in any way.

To me, I feel like the "no means no" message can be kind of a trap. For people whose experience of sexuality has been a constant bombardment of not-quite-rape, not-quite-assault violations of their trust and body and personal space in an atmosphere of hostility to any resistance against such abuses, being able to say "no" and have it respected is incredibly empowering .. but that's merely an indictment of the abusive and dysfunctional default society we're slowly shedding and crawling up from. Again, it definitely has its value, but we risk getting stuck there and not being able to make that next leap past rejecting what we don't want, into embracing what we do want and learning to own our own desires and our responsibility for our own experiences, which does (and for some time probably will) involve defending those experiences against people who don't respect the boundaries we set, but also involves becoming comfortable with ourselves as deserving happiness and intimacy and respect of what we do want.

And that's why I think we should spend as much time thinking about "yes means yes" and actually owning the positive side of sex-positivity, and learn to own those desires and talk freely and openly about them. Talking about them isn't a guarantee that they'll be met, but it does mean people who might be willing to participate in meeting them will at least know about them -- hiding in the darkness is not an effective communication strategy. Talking about our desires should also not be, in and of itself, a reason to feel threatened or pressured to accept those expressions as advances when all they are is open and honest communication, and while there is sex-negative-culture baggage that does still lead to a tendency to want to censor ourselves and avoid "dangerous" expressions for fear of offending others, as well as s tendency to hear expressions of attraction and/or desire as pressure to engage in unwanted activities, if we're really promoting a sex-positive culture, one of the first tasks of that promotion is laying that baggage to rest and speaking openly even if our voices shake at first. That baggage is the very fear and shame we're working to lay to rest for good and deal with once and for all, and to really do that, I think positive and affirmative language and expressions are an idea whose time has come. And I think that starts with learning to say yes as proudly as we've learned to say no.

May. 5th, 2012


A brief diversion into genius ..

A lot has been written about Babbage's Difference Engine, and the method of divided differences it exploited to do its job, but having been exposed to the genius of it in ways I finally understand, I want to recognize it for the extraordinary clever idea it was.

The Difference Engine was not a computer, not in the formal sense. It was designed to implement a particular algorithm for generating values of a polynomial, but the method by which it actually *did* generate values required only serial iterated addition.

What the Difference Engine actually does is a very simple thing indeed: repeatedly add numbers to 31 decimal digit precision. Specifically, it increments each column by the number held in the next column over, with the last active column containing a constant. And it only adds -- negative values have to be entered in nine's complement format to allow the Engine to do subtraction. As a guard against transcription error, the output portion of the Engine transfers the value of the column at the end of the chain to positions of metal type bars, printing the value on a paper tape and simultaneously making an impression of the line of type in a tray of plaster, which at the end of a run is removed from the machine, allowed to cure, then filled with type metal to make an automatically typeset plate of type ready to set in a printing press.

The Difference Engine was literally the first direct-to-plate publishing device. Babbage knew the printing business too well to trust the average printer with the task of setting type for his tables.

But the genius is in the method, and in the tasks the method can be applied to. The method of divided differences is a means of reducing higher order polynomials to simple addition and subtraction, but in many ways it's the discrete equivalent of differentiation, and in fact, differentiation by the power rule (e.g. d/dx(x^2) = 2x, d/dx(x^3) = 3x^2, etc.). Polynomials of degree n have at most n degrees of differentiation, and the last nonzero derivative is always a constant. (This was one of the things that utterly fascinated me about differentiation of polynomials when I was first taught the trick back in 6th grade.)

And what the Difference Engine does, essentially, is reverse the process, integrating from that starting constant across up to 6 degrees of differential/integral relationships to the number that's finally printed on the page.

Why is this a blindingly brilliant idea?

Many non-polynomial functions can be closely approximated by polynomials.

So in one stroke, Babbage designed a machine that could generate extremely accurate tables of logarithms, trig functions, and other fundamental mathematical functions then only available in painstakingly hand-calculated (and notoriously error-ridden) traditionally printed books.

Why wasn't it built in the 1800's? Who knows. Babbage was an infamously trying person to work with, as was the engineer he worked with to work out fabrication details, and he suffered from the classic hacker's fault of being unable to resist launching new projects before completing existing ones, the latter most likely resulting in the British government giving up on the Difference Engine after spending £17,000 on a project initially bid at £1,700. There are plenty of theories.

But it's pretty clear that if even one Difference Engine had been built, and used to complete even one book of mathematical tables, it would have been a fundamental game-changer, and would have altered the Victorian-era concept of information technology in ways very difficult to imagine. (Although it's arguably been tried..) And that was a single-purpose system designed to do one very specialized job. Had a successful example of the Analytical Engine, a fully programmable computer in its own right, followed it, the computer revolution would have very likely begun in the late 1800's and early 1900's in England. Granted, perhaps it was inevitable that a man with Babbage's opinions about poetry would find a way to succeed at escaping success, but it's still tantalizing to imagine how different the world would have been otherwise ..

Mar. 31st, 2012


Oh, and about that naive assumption (http://lihan161051.livejournal.com/250016.html) ..

It's very naive. Unsupportably naive, in fact.

Which should be painfully obvious, given that we've collectively allowed our election process to become more of a show of democracy-like behavior than democracy in fact, but it's worth discussing at a little more length. And I've talked about it before, but it's something I keep coming back to because people seem to keep missing this message.

Many -- I'll be generous and diplomatic and not say "most", although it's quite likely -- people have very little understanding of their own country, or in some cases their own state, beyond the immediate circle of their neighborhood and beyond the immediate time frame of getting groceries home and dinner on the table that day. It's not their fault, because there are few if any institutions in this country left standing that would encourage them to have more distant horizons, but the immediate consequence of it is that things beyond those horizons become meaningless abstractions that have little meaning on the ground right there in their own lives.

Normally this wouldn't be a problem. But one aspect of this lack of direct understanding of the world is that when a partisan propaganda outlet comes along, especially one pretending to be a news outlet, that presents information in a manner designed to create a false understanding of the world, particularly one that gives people unused to the idea of themselves being smart and well-informed, it can create a large community of people who use that shared misunderstanding as a common bond, an echo chamber of mutual agreement based on skewed or even completely fabricated "knowledge" that gives them an empowered and informed feeling of self-fulfillment, which in turn makes them all too willing to accept the idea that anyone who disagrees with them (especially anyone who appears to have contrary knowledge!) is "misled and misinformed". (And with a dark subconscious undercurrent of existential threat to their feelings of security and empowerment, which only makes them fight for their "truth" even harder.)

Intelligent and critically-aware people generally don't fall for this trick. If anything, they learn early on to be suspicious of "knowledge" they haven't checked out, and they learn almost as early on not to be embarrassed by having invested too deeply in a misunderstanding of things, because we all do it, and sometimes we can make ourselves look rather silly by doing so. The thing is, such intelligent and critically-aware people are a comparative minority, and one of the ways in which they often fall short is in underestimating the ability of the people around them to be vulnerable to the kind of self-gratifying groupthink their fellow citizens are fully capable of, because it's very difficult for them to imagine the groupthinker perspective.

There are political entities in this country who are fully aware of the groupthinkers and how their minds work, and exactly how to slow-pitch ideas to them to steer them into voting the way they want, and applying pressure the way they want, and any number of other things. And these people have ad agencies working for them who have invested whole decades in the science of planting emotional reactions to brands in people's minds. These people created the Tea Party (an organization rather uniquely remarkable for being made up of people who are almost all committed nearly to the death to ideas and policies almost diametrically opposed to their own interests!), as only one example. They then turn around and hijack their effectively hacked followers into voting however they tell them to.

There are other political entities in this country who are so invested in their increasingly extreme religious doctrine that they are both driving their own collective groupthink into increasingly destructive campaigns aimed at nothing less than tearing down the country's government and replacing it with one built around their own religion, and vulnerable to manipulation by the more professional politicians and ad agencies mentioned above (although in this case it's far from clear who's manipulating whom!) in support of partisan candidates who are simply set on the shortest path to power and have very little if any of the country's best interests at heart.

So even if we were in a universe where we had a perfectly transparent, fair, and utterly trustworthy election system, that alone wouldn't be enough.

And the solution to both is education, and not just in the schools. The need for people to have a more informed perspective and a greater critical awareness (and freedom from the fear of being embarrassed by having hitched their fortunes to the wrong horse in the heat of the moment) is far more urgent than will ever be satisfied by simply fixing the schools .. which is itself another complex subject for another time. The seeds for it need to be scattered far more widely, beginning with the understanding that the ones who most seem like our enemies are simply other victims of the same game .. and we are not chessmen to be laughed at while we fight amongst ourselves while the people most deserving of our attention hide on the sidelines and pull strings ..

This will never be allowed ..

Do you trust that the candidates elected to office in this country were legitimately elected?

Think about it. For purposes of argument, let's (naively!*) assume that everyone who voted in every election did so from a clear understanding of which candidate was better for the job and which ballot measure was better for their community/state/country, at least from a completely self-interested perspective (which in theory is supposed to drive viable decision-making by the collective voting population, and again this is more than a bit naive, but let's give it the benefit of a doubt).

How do we vote? In the past, we voted by making marks on pieces of paper that were then physically taken (under seal and subject to chain of custody requirements) to precinct, county, and in some cases, state election headquarters and physically counted and tallied at each location, and the tallies cross-checked and double-checked in various ways. A vote was a physically documented event that could be handled and counted, and recounted if need be, until it was clear to everyone involved, candidates' campaigns and the voting public included, that the election was a valid and fair count of all the votes cast.

And I deliberately mentioned the voting public in that equation. As strange as this may seem to some people these days, elections are no more to be taken for granted, or implicitly trusted, than the right we have to vote in the first place. As voters, as the ones making the literal hiring and firing decisions on the most influential government officials in our cities, states, and federal government, and the ones asked to give final approval to major financial decisions made by at least the local and state levels of that government, we are not only entitled to distrust the systems used to count our votes, it's actually our duty to distrust them and be suspicious of anything that doesn't pass the smell test in that process. We have the right to demand that our votes be counted in the most transparent manner possible, in front of us and accountable to us for every misstep or mishandling of our votes.

Fast forward to today. Most of our votes are now a finger tap or a scroll wheel selection on an electronic voting system, an ephemeral software event that (as documented in almost every electronic voting system I've seen data on, including the Hart Intercivic systems used in many parts of Texas, and the Premier (formerly Diebold) AccuVote system used in many other parts of the country) is at best only counted as an increment to a tally counter somewhere in the system, and not as a recorded and reproducible event of its own, never audited, never made a part of public record, just an uptick in a counter variable somewhere in the memory of the voting system. The vote tallies are handled in software and transmitted electronically (often over network connections) to election headquarters -- note that these are tallies, not individual votes! -- and aggregated, not counted, and reported simply as totals.

This is a several orders of magnitude weaker system. Virtually all of the intrinsic self-checks and redundancy built into the paper ballot system are missing in almost every implementation of electronic voting ever to see the light of day in voting booths in this country. One (the AccuVote TS) has in at least one version (hopefully not the current one) an elaborate double-bookkeeping scheme of vote totalling that can relatively easily be tampered with from the backend using Microsoft Access, and not only that, can be tampered with in ways that are not audited or traceable or otherwise detectable anywhere else, causing a whole precinct or even a whole county to report pretty much whatever vote totals the tamperer wishes, while showing to the tabulator operators exactly what they expect. This system was designed and programmed by a former convicted bank embezzler whose preferred modus operandi was double-bookkeeping.

Transparent? Just the description of the process above, working completely without tampering, is enough to say "no" to that. I'm enough of a programmer to know that unless the source code of the software used on these devices is opened up to public review and installed subject to at least the same software verification used on slot machines in Nevada. That would at least approach some degree of transparency. I'm also enough of a programmer to know that simply incrementing vote counters and not recording actual vote events (let alone with unique per-vote hashes and timestamps recorded with the votes) isn't enough redundancy for the known requirements of a vote counting system, because it makes recounts absolutely impossible. At a bare minimum, the system should record individual votes so that, if worst comes to worst and the election comes down to a full recount, the actual individual vote data can be printed out (if it wasn't, already, at the precincts, which would be even better) and hand recounted as a check against the machines and the software. That would be another step toward transparency.

Not like the incumbent government even tries. Citizens trying to watch the vote counting process in this country have been given the bum's rush from precinct and county election headquarters in almost every election from 2000 on, and threatened with terrorism charges if they dared to be too vocal about it. Terrorism, mind you, not just trespassing or other minor charges. Homeland Security and secret detention type charges. That should make anyone think at least a moment about what's happening. Our votes are counted in secret using proprietary software we're not allowed to evaluate, quite possibly tweaked here and there to flip a close precinct or county or two in a swing state that carries a lot of electoral votes, and we're not even allowed to watch, even through glass, and if we try, we're kicked out and threatened with secret detention if we protest too loudly.

Which leads to my point. Elections are everything. If we can't trust our votes to count the way we mean them to, we don't have a democracy, we have an authoritarian police state posing as a democracy, and putting on a show of democracy theater every few years just to keep us distracted. And we have no way of knowing we can trust our votes to be counted. And every time we demand that this be addressed, the people running the show conveniently "misunderstand" it as a call for more onerous measures to prevent (virtually nonexistent) individual voter fraud to make it look like something is being done, but do nothing about the possibility of official election fraud.

So we need to cut the election process out of the government that's currently (and entirely possibly fraudulently) running it, and make it a self-contained entity of its own, with its own constitutionally mandated budget (which doesn't have to be all that large, but should be immune from budget cuts incumbents could otherwise use to blackmail it into collusion with them) and its own constitutionally mandated functionality to test and certify election systems, and if necessary, require paper-ballot re-votes in contested counties or states at the very least. It should be absolutely independent and accountable directly to the people, and tasked with enforcing transparency and accountability standards at the state and local level.

And this will never be allowed. Because there's far too much invested in keeping things the way they are and letting us go through the motions of "voting" when our votes are at the mercy of the people counting them. There was once a name for that: Tammany Hall..

* * *

(*And it is a naive assumption, given the sophistication of current advertising practice in bypassing rational thought and positioning products (and candidates) based on purely emotional reactions, as well as the large segment of the voting population conditioned to trust only FOX News as their source of information and opinions. But that's a story for another time, and one I've ranted about before.)

Feb. 21st, 2012


Why do we keep enabling this insanity?

Over the past month or so, I've been watching Rick Santorum make long strides into extremist-theocratic territory, first with his extreme position on abortion, then with his increasingly bizarre pronouncements on contraception, public school education, and prenatal testing. There is little doubt anywhere that he is one of the most extreme right-wing authoritarian, dominion-theology, pro-theocratic candidates ever to hit the campaign trail, as any of these positions alone would more than prove. As a whole, they paint a picture of an angry, disturbed (and disturbing), privileged WASP male would-be patriarch who leaves no doubt as to what he would do with (and to) this country if he were ever in charge of it. (And I have few if any doubts that this will be his last such escalation, although death by stoning for blasphemy or having sex outside of his idea of a conventional male-female Christian marriage may be too extreme for even Santorum to admit to within earshot of any but his own hardcore extremist followers, but anything is possible given how much time is left before the GOP convention, so I wouldn't bet against it before it's all over.)

In any sane world, any one of these statements would end his political career. Any actual legislation passed on any of these positions would be so obviously offensive to the First Amendment that it would cry out to be ruled unconstitutional, and the tone of Santorum's speeches hints rather unsubtly at his distaste, to put it very diplomatically, for the very idea that the First Amendment represents. He has all but said out loud that he would end the era of secular government in the USA if he had power to do so, and strip away virtually every form of civil liberty in existence in this country if he had the power to do so. And he seems to have a strange blindness to the fact that the presidency is in fact not an absolute monarchy that would enable him to rule the country by fiat according to his personal whims, or at least he speaks to followers who seem to believe it would. Any candidate saying any of these things should, in the process, be exposing himself as someone who has no business coming anywhere near a position of power in this country.

So why doesn't it? Why is he still being followed in the news as a legitimate candidate? Why do people listen to him?

Because Rick Santorum is not alone in believing what he does, and because in fact many people in this country believe these things, and have believed them for decades at least. He is able to run for office because there are people who are willing to go bankrupt, almost, to give him every bit of money they can because he is the very essence of what they consider a true Christian, and because his extreme positions on almost everything he's said anything about are the very essence of what they want the most in this country -- the elimination of any semblance of power or rights for an entire gender, the undoing of every single advance we have made toward an egalitarian and secular society that lives up to the principles of our Constitution, and the enshrinement of the most hateful and intolerant values ever to exist in this country in its laws of the land .. and not only the creation of a sectarian, coercive, abusive, and intrusive state religion that invades every minute of our waking lives in our out of our homes, but the denial that that church was ever not the ultimate authority over us. They believe it, and they've been plotting for decades to make that belief reality.

The paradox of democracy is that it is vulnerable to defeat from within. Santorum and his followers -- and fellow-traveller candidates at almost every other level of government from Congress, to state legislatures, to city councils and school boards -- give lip service to democracy when it suits their agendas, but they are gaming the system for the purpose of gaining enough power to dismantle it so they no longer need to pretend to adhere to the principles the country was founded on. The USA as Santorum envisions it would give power and influence only to people like him, denying all rights to any who defy the theology he champions. It doesn't take a lot of analysis to envision the nightmare future this would become -- jail or stoning for being caught outside and not in church on Sunday, harsh penalties for women caught driving cars or working for pay, criminal penalties for being found in possession of birth control devices or books or media that even hint at anything un-biblical, and death penalties for a broad range of activities that the church strongly disapproves of. They believe it. They've been working to put it in place for most of their lives and very often as second or third generation followers. They never stop.

The thing that scares me about Santorum isn't that he pronounces these things -- it's that he doesn't see coming out openly in favor of them as a political liability. Because the thought strikes me that he may in fact not be going through a delusional breakdown on the campaign trail .. he may have advance knowledge of other things that aren't making the news cycle, and his boldness may in fact be a dire warning of much more sinister things that haven't become public yet. I can only hope that he's simply gone around the bend on his own, believing his own mythology, and become a loose cannon that the church just hasn't been able to corral yet.

But my question remains: why is his race to the extreme right not political suicide? What has happened to this country that someone like him is still taken seriously as a candidate? Why do we keep giving him news coverage and discussing his positions like they're merely the views of a very devout "Christian" who speaks for .. well, anyone with any sanity?

Because we've been far too gentle with these people in the name of civility and decorum, and we've been far too tolerant of their hyperbolic posturing and counting coup, is why.

Santorum and his ilk are bullies, triumphalist authoritarians who have only escaped ridicule by wrapping themselves in the flag and shouting words from the Bible to play us through our blind spot centered on the country's dominant religion. They will only ever abuse every kindness offered them, and they will only ever interpret tolerance, decorum, and civility as signs of weakness and invitations to go for the jugular. They need to be shown the limits of our patience and given the public humiliation they deserve, now, before they manifest their delusional belief in their divinely-ordained authority and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Feb. 14th, 2012


The fascinating story of the humble LED [GEEK]

Some thoughts from the ride in to work today, was figuring out how to explain my fascination with LED's and where to begin the story, and feeling like writing it down ..

The story really starts with the difference between metals and nonmetals, and why the former conduct electricity and the latter don't. If you look closely at the periodic table, it's fairly obvious that the metals all cluster in the right side of the table (at least in the "traditional" format) and the nonmetals dominate the center and left sides of the table. So what's the difference between the two?

Metals turn out to have a metallic appearance and conduct electricity for the same reason -- they have a "gas" of mobile electrons in their crystal structure that can move freely throughout the entire crystal and relatively easily between crystals, so if you put electrons into one end of a piece of metal and take them out of the other end, the mobile electrons inside can move in the metal to replace the ones taken out, and a current will flow. (The "metallic" appearance of a metal is a quantum mechanical effect that also depends on the fact that there are mobile electrons that can move around freely when light hits the surface of the metal, causing photons to mostly be reflected. Some metal elements absorb higher energy photons and only reflect lower energy ones, gold and copper being notable examples.)

Nonmetals, on the other hand, have all their electrons bound to atoms in their molecules, so there are no mobile electrons in them -- adding electrons in one place and taking them away in others simply causes local positive or negative static electric charges -- and the mechanism that allows metals to reflect light is not present in them, so they generally tend to be transparent.

But along that metal/nonmetal boundary are some interesting elements that aren't quite conductors or insulators, and have somewhat variable characteristics. Two of these, silicon and germanium, don't conduct very well, but do have some conductive characteristics. And to explain that, I have to take a detour into molecular orbital theory.

Electrons in isolated atoms have very discrete quantum energy states (known in chemistry as the s, p, d, and f orbitals) that follow very consistent rules of behavior. But when they combine into molecules, those energy states begin to merge into more complex structures (two of which are known in chemistry as sigma and pi orbitals) that have progressively finer divisions of energy state the larger the molecules become.

So what's a crystal? Essentially an extremely large molecule. Any crystal large enough for you to see, even through a microscope, contains so many atoms that they no longer have any kind of measurable difference between energy levels, except for one part of remaining structure -- the levels blend (usually) into two bands, which are known as "conduction" (mobile) and "valence" (attached) bands. It turns out that in metals, the conduction and valence bands touch or overlap, so it's very easy for electrons to get into and out of the conduction band and move around to follow whatever emf is acting on them, and in nonmetals, the bands are widely separated and electrons can't get into the conduction band at all.

And here's where it gets a bit more interesting. Semiconductors like silicon, germanium, and some crystalline compounds like gallium arsenide and gallium nitride have their conduction and valence bands very close together but not quite touching, forming what's called a "band gap", which electrons can jump due to quantum mechanical effects but gain or lose energy doing so. Pure semiconductor materials conduct energy very poorly because electrons are constantly having to jump the band gap to get into and out of the conduction band.

Note I said "pure".

It turns out that if you add impurities to otherwise pure semiconductor materials, some of them make those materials conduct a lot better. In silicon's case, we'll pick boron and phosphorus as examples. Boron tends to take electrons away from the otherwise balanced structure of the silicon, which creates gaps or "holes" in the valence band, whereas phosphorus tends to add electrons to the crystal, which spill over into the conduction band. Boron-doped silicon is thus a "P-type" semiconductor, whereas phosphorus-doped silicon is conversely an "N-type" semiconductor.

Both types conduct relatively well, in proportion to how heavily doped they are. N-type semiconductor has electrons in the conduction band that are always free to move around, whereas P-type has holes in the not-quite-full valence band that effectively act like positive charge carriers of their own, so the valence band electrons can flow slowly in the opposite direction.

So what happens if you put P-type and N-type next to each other? You form what's called a "junction". Junctions have some really interesting properties.

Imagine if you start adding electrons to the N-type side and taking electrons away from the P-type side. The electrons you're adding on the N side go right into the conduction band of the crystal, flowing along nicely through it. But the electrons you're taking away from the P side are leaving gaps behind -- you're creating holes on that side, and as electrons flow into the wire on that side, holes are streaming rapidly away from it. When the holes and electrons meet at the junction, they combine and cancel each other out. So current flows, from the steady stream of electrons and holes arriving from their own directions.

Now reverse the current, taking electrons away from the N side, and adding them to the P side. The electrons you take away on the N side flow out of the conduction band, and the ones you add to the P side fill up holes, effectively taking holes away from that side, and the electrons and holes at the junction are flowing away from each other .. which can't go on for long because the junction isn't making any new electrons or holes to maintain the flow, so you create a depletion zone at the junction and current flow stops.

That's a diode. It conducts electricity one way, and doesn't conduct it the other way. (There are more complex devices with two, three, and sometimes even four junctions, but those are left to study for another time.)

When the diode conducts, it's in a state known as "forward biased". Electrons and holes are meeting at the junction and cancelling each other out, which allows current to flow. So what's happening when they meet up at the junction?

Electrons moving through N-type material are in the conduction band, which is a higher energy band than the valence band. When they combine, they're dropping to a lower energy state to fill holes in the P-type material's valence band. And what happens when an electron loses energy? That energy has to go somewhere.

It turns out that in direct-bandgap semiconductors, that energy is released as light. This wasn't noticed for quite some time due to the fact that the most popular direct-bandgap material, silicon, happens to be opaque, and the bandgap is small enough that the emitted photons were extremely long-wavelength infrared and difficult to detect, and only the ones along the edge of the diode escaped. It also wasn't seen in germanium diodes because germanium is an indirect-bandgap material which allows electrons to lose energy via phonons, which are quantum vibrations of the crystal, rather than light.

But remember those other materials, the gallium compounds?

Gallium arsenide is mostly transparent, and it's a direct-bandgap material. This forces the electrons dropping across the band gap to emit light, and allows the light to (more or less, more on this below) escape the crystal to where it can be detected. A plain gallium-arsenide diode will emit medium wave infrared (almost all of the early generation LED's were infrared), but with modifications to increase the bandgap, can emit visible light of various colors, up to a yellowish green which is about the shortest wavelength that chemistry can produce.

So why were the early 1970's/1980's LED's so dim? One reason is that GaAs is a transparent crystal but it has an extremely high index of refraction, which typically means that most of the light generated inside the crystal is internally reflected and never gets out. 50-60 years later, we're getting better at packaging them in graded index plastics that help with that, and making the crystals out of aluminum gallium arsenide to greatly increase the amount of light that's generated at the junction (witness those eye-searingly-bright LED's in police light bars!), but the shortest wavelength those can generate is still only green.

That's why those 470-450nm blue LED's are still so popular. They're relatively new, and based on the other of those two compounds -- gallium nitride -- and either aluminum or indium, both of which have much wider bandgaps than GaAs and thus generate light of far shorter wavelengths. These are also sometimes used to make white LED's by coating the blue-emitting LED chip and reflector with a broadband yellow-emitting phosphor, which supplies the rest of the spectrum to make a bluish-white color, or, with a much heavier coating, a yellowish "warm white" color (IKEA uses these a lot).

But the bandgap makes another difference that's crucial to electronic designers like me -- the forward voltage drop of an LED is directly proportional to its bandgap and thus directly related to the color it emits. Green and yellow GaAs LED's have a higher voltage drop than red ones, and blue AlGaN or InGaN LED's have a considerably higher voltage drop than green .. and it's all related to the energy drop between the conduction and valence bands.

Fascinating, eh? ;)

Feb. 12th, 2012


Culture war .. in sheep's clothing

Let there be no doubt that there is a culture war in this society.

The scope may be debatable, and the exact identities of the aggressors shady and shifting and difficult to trace at times, but a culture war exists. The only controversy lies in who started it -- the ones attacking the most earnestly claim they are the defenders and not the aggressors, however much their actions might speak otherwise -- and the only questions left to answer are how long it will last and who will prevail.

I wish I had been wrong years ago with my prediction that the anti-abortion elements of the "Christian" extremist movement would soon be joined by an equally strong anti-contraception faction, This now seems to be happening, and in fact, is happening more or less on the schedule I'd expect if anti-abortion and anti-gay campaigning were only opening moves in a larger game of attacking the most vulnerable targets first. And this, to me, proves that all of these are part of a larger effort that will only escalate as it gains more ground and more hearts and minds with its constant appeals to loaded concepts like "morality" and "decency".

And the culture warriors of the right wing deflect criticism and defuse fear of their agenda by claiming with each step that it's their only goal, when the truth is these are only incremental targets of opportunity and potentially everything in the entire society that is the least bit contrary to their doctrine will come under similar attack at some point or another as they gain ground. I was curious when the anti-gay campaigning began back in the 80's, and the anti-abortion agitation not long after that, but if contraception is under attack, that's enough for me to be sure that even that is only the beginning and it's a safe bet that many other aspects of "progressive" society, some of which we may even take for granted, are somewhere or other on the target list.

So how did we get here?

To some extent, we've allowed ourselves a huge cultural blind spot when it comes to the dominant/majority religion of that culture. We tend to accept its assertions of morality/ethics unchallenged, even to the extent of accepting such absurdities as assuming it cannot act unethically or immorally, and so when extremists wearing the clothes and speaking the language of that majority religion come along, they naturally exploit that uncritical acceptance as a means of manipulating us into accepting their intolerance as merely a stricter interpretation of ethics or morality, and making us unwitting accomplices and supporters of their agenda, and lending an air of plausibility to their excuses that it's only this one thing this one time.

And the war is definitely covert and under disguise, and there are plenty of legitimate-sounding reasons to believe it's far less than what it is. But don't believe for a moment that it will stop even here .. it's only begun ..

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