Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Stand With Wendy

I hope you watched at least a few minutes of Wendy Davis and her epic filibuster. I appreciate the rhetorical force of the exercise more than anything else. At the end of the day, the strength of the filibuster is not really in what is said but that a person feels so strongly about an issue, sees it as so important, that she will literally not stand down in defense. I think having that exercise is important in a democracy where consensus must emerge from public discussion and rational persuasion. We all know that rhetoric is not entirely rational, but the emotional component is an important flag for reason. The investment of the speaker demonstrates a conviction that counts in favor of revisiting one’s own position on an issue, makes you look closer at why someone would feel so strongly. These are important considerations in shaping a community because we need to recognize the concerns of our fellows as just as important to them as ours are to us. Wendy Davis demonstrated that conviction today, and well done.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Since it's so much on my mind, I thought I would devote today's post to a brief round-up of three key Supreme Court decisions coming out this week. Each case has some serious civil rights implications, so taking a look at how these decisions go will give us a picture of the current state of various struggles for equality in the US. The three cases being decided this week are:

Fisher v University of Texas at Austin: on affirmative action

Shelby County v Holder: on the Voting Rights Act

Hollingsworth v Perry & United States v Windsor (together): on Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) respectively, both concern gay marriage

There are extensive analogies of all cases, so I won't go into deep detail. If you want more in-depth analysis, I point you to the ACLU ( or the SCOTUS blog itself ( Instead, I'll gesture at the general temperature of the rulings so far.

On Fisher, the Court returned the case to a lower court for further review. In brief, Fisher is about affirmative action policies at UT Austin. Fisher (and another plaintiff who has withdrawn from the suit) alleged that she was not admitted to UT because she is white. The Texas system has an admission system that considers a number of factors, including test scores, extracurricular activities, and race, for students who fall below the top 10% of their classes. (The top 10% is guaranteed admission, as you might expect). Fisher's charge is that she was discriminated against because she would have been admitted had she not been white.

Obviously, this case has broad implication for affirmative action as it echoes the charge that the traditionally privileged suffer discrimination at the hands of measures intended to establish equal rights. Since it seems clear (to me at least) that diminishing privilege is not the same as suffering discrimination, I would have liked to see a stronger ruling here. I often get the sense that jurists prefer technicalities to substance since substance can be very controversial. When the highest court succumbs to that impulse, I get the sense that an inevitable confrontation has just been delayed. As such, we wait for the next round.

Shelby brings us an even more disappointing result. In brief, Shelby County challenged provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, specifically provisions that require certain states with histories of discrimination to seek federal approval for changes in voting rules. The approval process was intended to eliminate things like literacy tests as requirements for voting, especially where literacy tests were used to disenfranchise African-Americans or other marginalized populations. Here, the court struck down those portions of the VRA, removing general federal oversight. As I understand it, the Attorney General will now have to address any instance of such practices on a case-by-case basis.

Here, I have to echo the disappointment you'll find on the ACLU's blog. Coming from Louisiana, I can attest that discrimination is still alive and well in the South. In New Orleans, you don't have to go farther than the school system to see it happen. The public school system has been allowed to steadily decline as white parents (and any others who can afford it) send their kids to Catholic schools. While the Catholic schools don't discriminate, historical disparities in wealth and economic status are still quite visible in neighborhood demographics. Poor white kids suffer it, too, showing that classism sometimes dominates over racism. Nevertheless classism in New Orleans has a very racist flavor, so that's really no help. Listen to my grandfather talk about society for fifteen minutes, and I assure you, you'll see that the VRA and affirmative action are far from obsolete. Now, the task will be to watch for changes in voting procedures, especially in small districts that may be overlooked.

Decisions in the last two cases will appear tomorrow. Of course, I'm hoping for something a bit more positive. Overall, I find it disconcerting that there is a conceit that we've moved beyond the prejudices of the past. It's not enough to claim that one is egalitarian and believes in equal rights and equal treatment. We all have to attend to the culture of privilege (in various forms) that persists long after equality is codified in law.

We also have to be careful to deride our imperfect solutions. Affirmative action may not be a perfect solution. It may not be ideal in the long run. On the other hand, it has been done some good, opened some doors, and made a real difference. When introduced, I will agree that it was necessary and suitable. It may cause some problems in addition to solving or ameliorating others, but I think it's important to look to the good done, especially when we think about what a perfect solution would look like. A perfect solution is simple to state: eliminate the prejudicial, small-minded, and hostile attitudes toward everyone. We can even state it positively: instill in every agent a belief that all sentient beings should be treated with the most full measure of respect due to oneself. While this is easy frame, it's hard to do. After years of education, activism, and awareness-raising, we still encounter discrimination and prejudice, people are still not treated equally, and people still suffer because of it.

If we can't realize a perfect solution, the only solutions left to us are imperfect. As such, we have little choice but to embrace imperfection, do what we can where we are, when we. We need to revisit our measures, continue to develop our education, outreach, and awareness efforts, and generally continue to erode social injustice. It's a long, hard road, but it's the one we have to walk. There may be no real end state to a fully just society, just continued adjustments toward justice, compassion, and peace.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Value of Simplicity

Navigating information technology often means navigating through layers of competing platforms. For every choice in operating system, there are choices for word processors, browsers, chat applications, media players, etc. As a fan of GNU/Linux, I'm also a fan of choice, so I have no complaints about the options. As long as you know what you want or are willing to explore, you can find an operating system and software suite that at least mostly meets your needs. I find that most people are really not interested in doing so and as such just use whatever they first learn.

If all software were created equal, there would be no problem with taking applications as you find them. Unfortunately, there are merits and demerits to every choice, and, even worse, there is a cost to switching. A quirky application you know is better than a quirky application you don't know, especially when productivity is an issue. As such, it's often to a user's benefit to survey a few options. Of course, competition for users causes a bit of standardization, so trying out a new application (or even a new OS) is really not all that difficult. I had my students do just that with Ubuntu a few semesters ago, and I really enjoyed reading about what they learned when they tested the waters.

Having as much experience as I do, I've developed some pretty clear preferences on OS and application, and I keep an eye on new developments to test or revisit other options. Nevertheless, I've found that as I've learned more, I find I need less out of an application. Take word processing for an instance. I like LibreOffice, and I can use Word with about an equal level of proficiency, but nothing beats LaTeX for formatting control and (with BibTeX) citation management. While there is a somewhat steep learning curved to LaTeX (I recommend testing the waters with LyX, a more user-friendly presentation), one of the main benefits is that I can edit a document with nothing more fancy than a text editor. 

Converting documents from one format to another often creates artifacts or errors that have to been cleared up by hand. In general, it's best to stick with one application and one format, especially for a document in process. When without access to the preferred set of tools, compromises will have to be made, and sometimes compromises harm productivity. Furthermore, unless you've in the Apple-verse, mobile devices have made working cross platform even more important. As such, I really value the ability to open a file on any device and work with it.

In this process, I've gained a appreciation for simple text editors like Kate and gedit. When composing simple documents such as this post, I don't need tend to need italics or citations. Even less so when putting together reading notes or early drafts of longer articles. I do need a program that opens quickly (no splash screen), doesn't offer formatting assistance, and has inline spellcheck (negotiable). I get all of that with any text editor, including the one on my phone. No matter the platform, I can write, so I don't have to lose time just because I can't access my computer.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Imagining Digital Democracy

With all of the discussion about PRISM (including the EFF's excellent document breakdown, I'm doing a lot of thinking about how our technology shapes our political structures. Consider this two core feature of democracy: The Citizen as the State. This feature is usually what is meant by "a government of the people, by the people." The citizens as a collective compose the authority of the government. In other words, all citizens have a say in governing collective matters.

Typically, we see Citizen as State established through some form of representation. With  a large or dispersed population, the election of representatives was the only way to give citizens control over government. There are clear flaws in this system, as we can see looking at our own current situation. Representatives are not always as beholden to their constituents as one would like. Winning elections, meaning funding election campaigns, is most important for a representative's career. As long as the campaign is funded, and money buys visibility and access to the public ear, the candidate need only keep donors happy. Lawrence Lessig has done a good job of discussing this problem at length.

Of course, with the communication technology we have available now, there are new ways of solving the problem of giving every citizen a say in government. Social networks and discussion forums provide a good public space for rational discourse (and less rational discourse, but let's leave that aside for now). Nevertheless, there remains a need for specialists, people who have devoted the time and training to understanding a particular field. Lawyers to explain the law and policy debates, but also scientists and engineers who can speak clearly about technical matters, educators who can explain how best to serve students, and many others.

A digital democracy may dispense with representatives but still require various specialists to spearhead communication to general audiences, explain the relevance of particular issues and legislation, and outline the results or consequences of policy decisions. In many ways, such a system would be more egalitarian. Rather than have a ruling class composed of career politicians, authority would be context sensitive. To address the needs of the education system, we should want experienced educators to provide an accurate view of what is needed. We won't need their authority when evaluating a highway development project. Context changes, authority changes. Everyone will be in charge for 15 minutes, to mutilate an Andy Warhol quote.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Burden of Knowledge

This morning, I watched a Google Ideas Hangout on employing data analysis to stamp out human trafficking. The hangout itself was very informative, and I encourage everyone to give it a listen. Human trafficking is a major problem, partly due to movements across linguistic and political borders that hamper effort to identify victims and bring slavers to justice.

The discussion got me thinking about the moral burdens incurred by knowledge. If our increasingly networked world enables the creation of a global community, the problems of one region become everyone's problems. From the perspective of problem-solving, this is good because it means more people working on solving the problem. Without awareness of those problems, the work of solving them never gets off of the ground.

On the other hand, one of the problems we face is information overload as all of these new connections compete for our attention. When you consider that the CIA pays an entire staff of analysts to comb through the publicly available news from all over the world, it becomes clear that no one person can manage the glut of news, controversy, politics, and history that make our what it is at any given moment. In the face of that challenge, the easy thing to do is choose to manage the information most relevant to you and let the rest slide by unless it becomes more relevant.

Unfortunately, the easy thing is not always the ethical thing. We cannot form or maintain a global community if we turn away from suffering, even suffering that happens far away. The First Mindfulness Training of Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of Inter-Being is to discipline ourselves to turn toward the suffering of others. Once we make that contact, we activate our empathy and compassion such that, after a while, it is harder to turn away. More practically speaking, if we are not aware of the troubles and strife in the world, we are unlikely to do anything to ameliorate them.

If that's the case, there may be a moral obligation to manage our information sources to keep ourselves informed and engaged. Again, no one person can remain tuned into every atrocity, and there may be good psychological reasons not to try, but it does not seem like too much to ask of ourselves to make an effort to be more mindful in choosing our information sources. To seek out channels that will bring to light news and situations of which we were not aware, to listen to arguments and advocacy, and to pass these things along to those close to us - these three requests, if implemented, can make a person more informed, more sensitive, and more prone to act, even in some small way.

The human trafficking problem is an interesting example of how a little awareness can make a difference. During the Hangout, the initiative Truckers Against Trafficking was lauded as a success that needs to be repeated in other industries. Truckers and other transport workers are in a position where they occasionally encounter the victims of human trafficking. Truckers Against Trafficking provides truckers with information about how to identify potential victims and how to inform law enforcement and other relevant agencies. The point raised by TAT in their materials is that truckers do not have to go out of their way to sniff out the victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking comes to truckers, but without the knowledge about how to address the problem, these instances go unreported, or end up reported to an agency that doesn't have the standing or information to act.

A little awareness, a little information, and a little bit of passing it along goes a long way with Truckers Against Trafficking and for many of us. With just a little extra effort, really a bit of attention to being informed, anyone can make a difference.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Data in Confidence

Earlier today, I shared a CNN story detailing the reaction of major tech companies to the PRISM leak. I find it interesting that Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft have all gone a pretty long way toward asserting that they protect user privacy. There is an obvious attempt here to win (or win back) the trust of their various communities of users.

All of these companies provide a set of valuable services, and they do so at the cost of our information. Just thinking about Google, the general service they provide can be understood as information management to promote convenience. Google's various products make our information more accessible to us and more easy to share with others. Google also turns our information into action through appointment notifications, editing documents, and maintaining our contact lists. In exchange for these services, we have to provide Google with our data.

On the surface, the users are supposed to get enough convenience to offset any recoil about giving a third party a window into communications, interests, and behavior. Here, I have to admit that as much as I like to maintain a strong wall of privacy, I've found Google's services too convenient to pass up, especially when it comes to keeping a handful of devices in sync. Still, convenience loses value when the security of our information is compromised.

Continuing the focus on Google, we can see that maintaining user privacy has always been a concern. All tech companies work to maintain the security of the data they hold, and we have indication that there is not a policy of blanket compliance with government requests. With the PRISM leak, we have another vivid reminder of the vulnerability of our data, and what our information-management-service providers do to keep it safe.

What I find so interesting is that there is a clear market motive, entirely independent of ideological commitments, to establish trust. In the long run, convenience isn't enough to maintain a community of users. If that convenience incurs the cost of losing privacy, users will tend to migrate away to more secure service-providers or learn to do without. The only way for a service-provider like Google to maintain its userbase is to establish itself as a steward of user data. Acting in the interest of the user in this case means acting in the overall interests of Google.

Given that established privacy law is still catching up to email let alone Google, there is a clear policy gap with regard to this kind of data-stewardship. I think this gap could be filled with by a confidentiality relationship similar to doctor-patient or legal counsel. At present, a firm like Google can build privacy guarantees into their user policies, but those policies are not consistent and not recognized beyond their nature as contracts. Instead, there should be an understanding that data handed over to a service-provider like Google maintains a reasonable expectation of privacy, just like anything you tell your doctor.

With a recognized Data Stewardship relation, users could have an increased trust in the privacy of their information and maintain the convenience of using services like Google. The standards for this relationship can be drawn from both established confidentiality relationships, industry standards in privacy polices, and privacy practices in Europe (where privacy issues are a big deal). Users would then know what to expect in terms of privacy and how their information will be used.

As we continue to move our lives online, these issues will only become more important.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Speech Under Surveillance

As the discussion of the NSA's surveillance program continues, it's important to reflect on the role privacy plays in a free society. As analysts and experts debate the scope and degree of access, the PRISM leak shows us that our communications and personal information are vulnerable. Even if no one is in fact listening, reading, or tracking, someone might be, so we cannot assume that any information transmitted over any communication network or held by any third party is safe from scrutiny.

Why does this level of scrutiny make us feel less free? For one, with the loss of privacy comes the loss of a little bit of autonomy. Agree or disagree with prevailing social norms, when in public there is a clear pressure to conform to them. In private, a person can shrug off that pressure and act solely on his or her own judgment. Privacy theorists from John Stuart Mill to Tim Scanlon emphasize the freedom of the private sphere as an important proving ground for developing a sense of autonomy, an important ingredient of freedom.

I find the autonomy argument interesting, but I don't think it stops there. Considering the current situation, the principal concern is not the fully private domain, but the domain of information shared between individuals. Free speech and free association entails the ability to share what we want with whom we want. I can share my opinions on a political candidate with a sympathetic friend but not with a colleague I don't want to antagonize. This kind of discretion is important both for protecting ourselves from other people's biases and for providing a safe space for discussion and exchange.

When all of our communications are subject to eavesdropping, we lose that safe space. I no longer feel secure in disclosing my opinions even to trusted friends. As a society, we stop speaking to each other about anything of substance, anything that might invite suspicion, investigation, or persecution. Each person becomes an isolate island of opinion, a seemingly tiny mote of dissent in an ocean of uneasy acquiescence. A democratic society is only healthy if citizens are talking to one another, debating law and policy, and recognizing their important role as constituents of the state.

As third-party service providers like Google have increasing control and custody of our information, we need to focus on how to keep maintain privacy of our personal information and our communications. In current policy, third party custodians present a vulnerability because there is an assumption that without some explicit or established confidentiality agreement, any information we turn over to a third party does not carry a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Since it doesn't seem like we're going to stop using Google anytime soon, it will become increasingly important to demand that our information-management services carry strong privacy or confidentiality guarantees. Google's call for transparency in the PRISM debate has been a good sign. While lots of our data runs through Google's hands, they seem to have a sense of stewardship over that information. Of course, if the NSA has back doors or is intercepting information during transmission, Google's policies may serve as only a thin protection.

The Dharma of Problem-Hacking

In the previous installment, I said that Buddhist philosophy has a very technical understanding of suffering. This is no understatement. While "dukkha" just means something like unease, discomfort, or dissatisfaction, the Dharma allows for a great deal of nuance. Examples are most useful here.

If you make a list of five things that are bothering you right now, you would likely be able to group the list items into "big" problems and "small" problems. In other words, there is stress about complex and multifaceted problems like finding a job, writing a book, paying a mortgage, and then there is stress about simple, immediate problems like aching wrists, hunger, or sore muscles. With regard to the Dharma, we would understand both as dukkha, but as different kinds of dukkha.

For our purposes, what is important is that the simple, immediate problems are actually more pervasive than we typically realize. When we stop and ask ourselves what is bothering us, the big issues tend to gather a good bit of attention because they are so complex, so influential or connected to other concerns we have. Nevertheless, when we let our attention on the big concerns recede, we find tons and tons of very simple little discomforts and dissatisfaction that slip beneath our notice most of the time. These little sufferings form the bulk of our suffering. All of the big sufferings decompose into the little ones, so it's important to focus on how those little sufferings are triggered and how to alleviate them.

We begin problem-hacking Dharma style when we look at our big problems in terms of the little problems that compose them and focus in on how those little problems manifest in the present moment. The thing about little problems is that they're usually easier to solve or at least ameliorate by something you can do just do. If you have a big problem, it's easy to feel powerless. If you have a set of little problems, you should be able to do something about at least one of them. If you can't, it's no good wasting time worrying about it, so jut distract yourself with something you can do.

Believe it or not, that process is the beginning of the end of suffering. It takes practice and effort, but it works.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Buddhism as Lifehacking

Buddhist philosophy (the Dharma) is very subtle, so there are many ways to understand it and put it into practice. Here, I will argue for what I have found to be a powerful perspective: the Dharma as a guide to lifehacking.

Lifehacking is exactly what it sounds like: finding new, more efficient, and more clever ways to handle day to day life. Just because you do something every day doesn't mean you're good at it, especially if you've never put the time or effort into thinking about what you're doing, how it's done, and how it could be done better. The best thing about lifehacking is that you can begin right now, just by stopping and thinking about the next task you have to perform and whether there is a way to  perform it that you haven't thought of before. Remember, the real point of lifehacking is to avoid becoming settling into patterns of activity or problem-solving, so just because you try one new way doesn't mean you stop trying. Keep refining, keep trying new things, just keep thinking and evaluating and you'll be an excellent lifehacker.

Now, the stated purpose of the Dharma is to achieve freedom from suffering. If we want to get technical, we'd want to talk more specifically about what "suffering" means, what conditions would constitute freedom from it, along with a list of technical definitions and demonstrative arguments. Seriously, I could teach a semester-long class on just those formal points and still not cover everything. For our purposes, we can think of the Dharma as having a very simple success-condition: if you are living in a moment without suffering or stress, you have achieved the Dharma in that moment.

That condition may sound too simple. After all, we experience many moments of resting and taking a break where we don't feel any particular suffering but nevertheless feel no particular liberating accomplishment. It's important that we know we've achieved something or else we can't evaluate effectiveness or progress. We need a lifehacker's success condition, so let's try this one:

The Lifehacker Dharma is successful when the hacker experiences the diminishing or elimination of stress or suffering in a situation where stress or suffering is known to manifest.

First Important Buddhist Point: You, the hacker, are the judge of your success. Since you are the one experiencing suffering, you are in the best position to evaluate its presence or absence in yourself. On the one hand, this is the good news because you are not beholden to any authority on how to live your life and whether what you are doing is right or wrong. On the other hand, this is bad news because you are beholden to yourself. Practicing this evaluation requires a discipline to be honest with oneself, brutally so in many cases. The standard is so simple, so foolproof, that the only way to misapply it is to deny it, If you feel suffering but excuse it or rationalize it, you've lied to yourself (well, tried to, anyway). The appropriate response to feeling stress or suffering is to look at its causes or triggers, bringing us to a the Second Important Buddhist Point...

Second Important Buddhist Point: Everything that happens has a cause. There is no true spontaneity. Randomness is conditioned, "free will" is conditioned, events occur because other events have already occurred, etc. Likewise, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and attitudes are conditioned; they can be triggered by external events or internal events, and they can be diminished or eliminated in the same way. There is no downside here because anything that manifests in dependence on some cause will cease when its depending condition ceases. Stress is a feeling, so it occurs when triggered. When another feeling is triggered, it can overwhelm the feeling of stress, depending on the relative strength of particular instances of feeling (which depends on the strength of the triggers, which depends on...well you get the idea). So, to confront feelings of stress, you begin by looking around for causes and triggers and figuring out what do about them. Here, we have to add one more important point.

Third Important Buddhist Point: There is nothing spooky about causation. We may not be able to observe every cause or condition directly, we may not have specific knowledge about the fine details of every situation, but relations between events are nevertheless knowable. We can look at an immediate feeling, find its proximate trigger or depending condition, and address that trigger or condition. Doing this well takes practice and discipline. We have to be willing to look, habituated to paying attention, and honest about our observations. When we have a clear idea of what feeling is in focus and how it came to be in focus, we know more about our emotional lives. Knowing more about relevant causes and conditions (including which are relevant) gives us more power to influence our lives and feelings.

For the rest of Buddhist lifehacking, just put these points into practice. Practice self-reflection and evaluation, being honest with yourself. Reflect on your perceptions and observations, noticing the triggers and changing conditions that yield pleasant and unpleasant results. Finally, remember that the conditions most important to notice are the ones that are present and available to immediate perception, not the unseen or mysterious. It's a process of continual reevaluation, assessment, and reflection. If you're not happy, start looking at how you are feeling, and what triggers those feelings. Look for triggers that turn your emotions around, and do what you need to do. Don't accept unhappiness. It's a problem in need of a solution, not a necessary state of being.