Hey, stereotypically-enraged Internet mob! Pardon me, if you could put down your pitchforks and torches for a minute and direct your attention this way? I am about to write the first post on the Internet about CISPA that is not alarmist, panicky, sensationalist, or populist. Instead, we're going to take a look at what's really going on behind the scenes, examining the government not as some mythical hobgoblin, but the way it really works when people clock in in the morning.
Try it. I know you won't accept it, but try it just to give it a whirl.
TL;DR: I DO NOT SUPPORT CISPA. I DO NOT OPPOSE CISPA. It just DOESN'T MATTER.
What does CISPA do, exactly?
It would allow for the sharing of Internet traffic information between the U.S. government and technology and manufacturing companies. No, really, that's it in a nutshell! No new data will be collected. Corporations already have data about you. The government already has data about you. This would just open up a slightly wider pipe between the two.
Here's the PDF draft of the bill itself. Note that it only specifies classified intelligence. At the root, this will make it so that classified intelligence isn't so restricted on who can read it. It will not restrict Joe Public's access to web porn and LOLcats.
Why it doesn't make a difference: Washington Post peeks under the hood of government
Let me introduce you to a very important study and report by the Washington Post from a couple years back, which didn't get nearly the exposure it deserves: A hidden world, growing beyond control, about what an overwhelmed behemoth our security intelligence infrastructure is.
It's a 7-page article, a long read, and nobody has any business having an opinion about CISPA until they've read and fully absorbed every jot and tittle of it. If you don't have the time to read it, you don't have the time to scream about CISPA online.
Some choice quotes:
"Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate."
" The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn't include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs."
"Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work."
"Leiter spends much of his day flipping among four computer monitors lined up on his desk. Six hard drives sit at his feet. The data flow is enormous, with dozens of databases feeding separate computer networks that cannot interact with one another."
"When hired, a typical analyst knows very little about the priority countries - Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan - and is not fluent in their languages. Still, the number of intelligence reports they produce on these key countries is overwhelming, say current and former intelligence officials who try to cull them every day. The ODNI doesn't know exactly how many reports are issued each year, but in the process of trying to find out, the chief of analysis discovered 60 classified analytic Web sites still in operation that were supposed to have been closed down for lack of usefulness. 'Like a zombie, it keeps on living' is how one official describes the sites."
"Two years later, Custer, now head of the Army's intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., still gets red-faced recalling that day, which reminds him of his frustration with Washington's bureaucracy. "Who has the mission of reducing redundancy and ensuring everybody doesn't gravitate to the lowest-hanging fruit?" he said. "Who orchestrates what is produced so that everybody doesn't produce the same thing?"
He's hardly the only one irritated. In a secure office in Washington, a senior intelligence officer was dealing with his own frustration. Seated at his computer, he began scrolling through some of the classified information he is expected to read every day: CIA World Intelligence Review, WIRe-CIA, Spot Intelligence Report, Daily Intelligence Summary, Weekly Intelligence Forecast, Weekly Warning Forecast, IC Terrorist Threat Assessments, NCTC Terrorism Dispatch, NCTC Spotlight . . ."
Do you know what CISPA is going to actually do? I can tell you what CISPA is going to do. CISPA will put another email in that inbox. It will put another report on that desk. It will add another redundant redundancy into the redundant system.
What if CISPA had been in place? It probably wouldn't have helped much. Another stack of papers would have gotten shuffled around without getting read. Maybe it would have put the right dot on the right map. If it had, doubtless three other things that demanded attention would have been ignored instead.
Call it "Penguin Pete's Law of Surveillance": It doesn't matter how much data you collect. What matters is having the eyeballs to read that data.
Now in this case, doesn't it seem kind of freaky that the Department of Homeland Security knew about a threat, the FBI didn't, and neither organization acted on it anyway? Furthermore, there were restrictions in place between the FBI and the DHS being able to tell one another "Hey, here's a radical guy that may do something squirrely - keep an eye on him." Wouldn't you think they'd be able to just do that?
I've worked in government. Yes, it's that bad.
During my time in the California Conservation Corps, it was part of my contract to be loaned out to other state agencies. Lucky me, I got the warehouse spot for a state hospital. In that warehouse (which was the size of a Walmart by itself), at least two whole isles of shelving had nothing but forms on them. Yes, that was part of my job was to just issue forms.
There were actual scenarios where some state employee would have to fill out a form, take it to their department head, who would fill out a companion form and get it stamped and send two copies back to the first employee, who would then be granted permission to come to my warehouse and get... (*drum roll*) ANOTHER BOX OF FORMS! After they signed my form and I signed their form, of course. And this was just for the state hospital. There were no security clearances involved.
A small dive into United States intelligence agencies
Want to fully explore US intelligence agencies?
Sure thing. How many lifetimes do you have?
Here's the Wiki category, dive right in. Be sure to check out all the subcategories and the sub-subcategories.
There's the Bureau of Intelligence and Research... Wait, within that branch, there's the Office of Research, the External Research Staff, the Current Intelligence Staff, and the Publications Staff, which probably sends more stacks of reports to desks. There's offices for analysis of each major continent. There's the Office of Intelligence Operations, the Office of Intelligence Resources, and the Office of Intelligence Coordination, all headed by (say it in one breath) the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence Policy and Coordination.
I might be going out on a limb here, but maybe some of these departments and agencies and offices are starting to sound a little bit redundant?
We haven't started on the United States Department of Homeland Security, which, of course, has its own galaxy of sub-departments, including the Federal Protective Service, which deploys bomb-sniffing dogs - hey, we could have used some of those in Boston! The US DHS also now controls U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; now you would think that ICE would have no responsibilities beyond keeping people from jumping the fence and making sure nobody brings quarantined fruit through the airport, right? But they also have divisions for cyber-crimes and national security, too.
And don't forget, every branch of the US military has its OWN intelligence and counterterrorism departments as well!
It appears Obama is aware of the problem of intel-bloat; he recently cut 8% from US spy agency budgets. I'm sure he'll get blasted for it - I can hear it on FOX news now: "At a time when the Boston bombing shows we need more intelligence gathering, blah blah blah."
Honestly, if I were his adviser, I'd probably just shrug about now and say "What the hell, pass it. It might not hurt." That's the best you can hope for. It's redundant on top of half a zillion intelligence and surveillance acts and bills and laws we've already had. But it will not affect a damned, damned thing.
Around here, we Linux geeks tend to focus on technology, its place in society, and why monopolizing it into the iron fists of a few global corporations is a Bad Thing. The reasoning is that technology is central to all of our lives, cradle to grave, school to office, and we dare not allow a tiny oligarchy of billionaires to control everything that technology does.
What could be more dastardly than monopolizing the world's computers? Monopolizing the world's food.
Monsanto, in the emerging science of biotechnology, has become the Microsoft of food. Here in Iowa (a state with no small interest in agriculture) I get to witness the struggle firsthand; Monsanto commercials aimed at farmers dominate much of local television. Very few non-Monsanto companies manage to get equal billing.
The parallels between Microsoft and Monsanto are plain. Just the Wikipedia page on legal actions involving Monsanto reaps bold examples: Monsanto has filed patents on numerous genetically engineered specimens. They have filed suit against 145 individual U.S. farmers for violating those patents. The Public Patent Foundation has blown the whistle on some Monsanto patents. The U.S. Justice Department in 2009 has also opened investigations against Monsanto for anti-trust; that's still pending. And the legal battles outside North America are even more telling; stories abound of farmers being driven out of business, markets controlled, and even child labor. Oh, and Monsanto is a political lobbyist - a really, really big one - in the US, UK, and continental Europe. And corporate food patents, litigation, and fallout damage has been the subject of at least one documentary name of Food, Inc.
In battling for technology freedom, we are permitted to not take ourselves quite so seriously. At the most, renegade programmers battling corporate dictatorships brings to mind cyberpunk "hacker wars". But when it comes to food, all silliness ends. This is a world with 925 million starving people, and the last thing we need is billionaires suing people for planting corn and soy without their permission.
Now, don't get me wrong: Does this mean that GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) are a bad thing? Of course not! This isn't about resisting scientific progress in agriculture - I am in fact hugely enthusiastic about biotechnology and genetic research and think that, if anything, it's not progressing nearly fast enough. Genetic modification of an organism in a laboratory is simply the sped-up version of the same thing nature has been doing for millions of years. Just so we're clear, I'll be first in line for genetically engineered chow, medical treatments derived from gene therapy, or adopting a four-assed monkey.
It's the part where we put a barcode on every DNA strand and let a few corporate dictators literally control the building blocks of life and the necessities for survival that our troubles begin.
On the other hand, I'm also not signing up allegiance with the fruitbat conspiracy theory nuts. So when Googling Monsanto news, I'm careful to dodge Infowars and NaturalNews and other sites that are more about Illuminati conspiracies and "science = bad" reasoning than the actual problem. And of course, I'm trying to avoid OWS and TEDx moonie-loonies on sheer principle.
So, I'm trying my best to screen out the cornflakes. But the bottom line is that we should be as concerned, if not more concerned, for a Monsanto world monopoly as we should about a Microsoft world monopoly. Hopefully cornflake-free further reading:
I almost couldn't post this, because I've been in such an agonized tizzy, screaming myself to sleep at night as my white-knuckled fingers clench the sweat-stained bedsheets all about THE QUESTION.
THE QUESTION will not go away. It is front-paged on every news website, puked onto the table of every TV pundit debate, screamed from the headlines of every newspaper.
"ZOMG HOW DO WE GET MORE WOMEN INTO PROGRAMMING????????"
And science careers? And tech jobs? And STEM careers? And web development? And math? And database administration? And... and... where the wimmin at, dog?
None of these people realize that every time they ask this question, they drive women further away from programming. If there were a smidgen of interest in actually creating a balanced society, we would just make everything equally accessible and then let women make up their own minds what to do.
You know what question we never see? "How do we get more men into needlepoint?"
And nursing careers? And cake decorating? And ballet? Hey, guys, how would you feel if you had a mass of screaming harpies chasing you around with a camera and microphone demanding to know, right this minute, why you, sir, are not actively learning how to warp and weft a 10x20 penelope canvas? Would you be more open to getting into needlepoint then? Or would you be annoyed at being singled out for your gender? That's how women respond (and I know several myself) to "How do we get more women into programming?"
The answer is trumpeted to be, of course, that you must have this culture around needlepoint that is discouraging you from getting into it. Stigma. As soon as women find out you're a male needlepointer, they yell condescending remarks: "Oh, you petit-point pretty well for a man!" Flip that in reverse for women and programming. See how dumb that is? If women are only staying out of programming because of stigma, then men are likewise kept out of needlepoint. It's a female-dominated hobby, you see, so that would stop you from simply downloading patterns and buying thread at Hobby Lobby, because you'd be afraid of the clerks snickering at you behind their fist.
Not that it does. There are male needlepointers, there are female programmers. Ask either one of them what it's like in their culture, and they'll both respond that yes, the other gender does tend to dominate the industry, and yes, they do run into some sexism, but oh well, they deal with it and hope for a more enlightened tomorrow.
Yeah... but why? Why don't the genders show an even 50/50 split across all occupations and interests? Why are soap operas mainly watched by women; why are comic books mainly read by men? And yes, that last question is beginning to make the rounds; the media, endlessly helpless to distinguish one stereotypical pursuit from another, has leaped from asking why women aren't in STEM careers to why aren't there more women "geeks" and from there downhill to why aren't there more female Batman fans.
Oh, wait, they've tried to solve that one. Batman - boy-bits + girl-bits = Batgirl!
But wait, it didn't work. Women still don't read comic books!
Perhaps because they sensed that this "Batgirl" person (and Supergirl, Wonder Woman, etc.) was a shallow attempt at marketing to them by taking the same thing that's popular with boys and painting it pink. There's jillions of female superheros, and they are all male superhero spinoffs with a sex change. You may have Batgirl, but Batgirl drawn and written and sold by men. Oh no! Here it comes again! "How do we get more women to be comic artists?????"
No, really, guys, listen to this: What if we make needlepoint patterns available that picture monster trucks, football games, Playboy models, and Transformers robots? Will that get you into needlepoint?
Oh, it won't? Oh, you hurt my feelings.
(Sidebar: By the way, yes, there's female comic book and cartoon fans. In the manga and anime section, because in Japan, they have special categories of just manga and anime by females for females about females, and if there's male characters and more than two of them in one plot, you can bet the guys will be in each others' pants by issue #3. And if they aren't, the female slash fiction base will correct that oversight. Manga and anime enjoys a 50/50 gender appeal, because it started out from the first place being segregated into genres.)
Why aren't more women into programming?
I have the answer. My answer is so good, so definitive, that I should charge you for it.
The answer is "money."
No, not that the money is bad (although it is bad, but it's perceived as good). It's that every boy who grows up pursuing a tech career has dollar signs in his eyes. Because of Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Ellison, and Mark Zuckerberg. These guys are trumpeted from the front pages of Forbes, Time, and Business Week. The message is "there's big money in programming!" True, most of the programmers end up slinging Java in some god-forbidden corporate data warehouse for $12/hr. and end up getting laid off in five years when their job gets outsourced, but when they started out, they were aiming for Redmond.
(Another sidebar: Yeah, yeah, I know, there's one guy out there I have to address: You're only motivated to program because you enjoy making computers do nifty stuff. It's the love of the art. And that's why you have a job that has nothing to do with technology, do nothing to promote your success amongst your technology peers, and if somebody offered you fistfulls of cash to do anything computer-related, even consult or deliver a lecture at a conference, you'd push it away and be insulted, amiright? Yeah, you do it for the "love of the game" - you and every NFL player on their way to cash their 8-figure check.)
No, the question we should be asking is "How come there's so many guys in programming?" Because programming, even in 2013, is still seen as an at least stable and potentially lucrative career. And (WARNING: We have reached the part of this essay that will draw screams of "sexism":) guys feel more pressure to make money than gals. Because how many women want to date a broke man?
That's it. There are a lot of men in programming, because programming is seen as a potentially successful career, and men, naturally competitive, want those wads of cash very badly. You want more women in programming? Get rid of the money and the potential for success on a huge scale, men will abandon the field like toddlers fleeing the canned vegetable aisle, and Glamour, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan will start carrying ads: "Learn freelance programming at home! It's the perfect 'mommy-job'!"
Here, I'll prove it:
Presenting a book I've held dear on my shelves for a very long time, waiting for its day in the sun. The book is Introduction to Business Data Processing, by Lawrence S. Orilia, published McGraw Hill, copyright 1979. Important date to remember as we browse through it.
Sure, in 2013 you might think that there's a gulf between "data processing" and "programming", but in 1979, there wasn't one. The book is chock full of code in FORTRAN, COBOL, and BASIC. With flowcharts, endless fields of flowcharts, because that's how data processing was done back then. Check that link I made to Google books - while they don't have a scanned copy, note the keywords in "common terms and phrases". Yes, they go into line numbers and loops and statements. The students who learned from this textbook weren't modern data entry clerks. They would become programmers, because advanced software didn't exist at the time and it was expected that you would know coding in order to just use a computer.
Thirty years later, even Tim O'Reilly can't say "everybody who uses a computer should learn a little programming" without a lynch mob battering down his door.
What this book is also chock full of is women sitting at computer terminals. All the way through the book. Females operate the computers, men enjoy lofty positions in suits and ties striding around with clipboards, supervising the women.
You see, computing in this era was still largely seen as office-type work. Before computers it was all typewriters, adding machines, and filing cabinets, which mostly women did in the position of "secretary", so computers at the time were deemed to be glorified typewriters, adding machines, and filing cabinets combined - hence "women's work". Mostly it was the kind of work you wouldn't catch a guy dead doing. Remember, we're not talking the world of 3D rendered graphics and Internet entrepreneurs, we're talking punched cards and magnetic tape.
That's right, women were the first "hackers"!
His tie is wide enough to land a plane on, so he must be in charge. No way is he getting his hands dirty with this grubby computer stuff.
And yes, these queens of code could actually use a command line! You know, that thing I get screamed at all the time by the troll chorus for being an "elitist geek" for advocating?
Just look how confident and happy she is! Little did she know that in 30 years, plugging in your own external storage media correctly on the first try would be beyond 95% of either gender without a frantic call to tech support.
But modern macho men, your final humiliation is yet at hand. So only big, strong, logical men can handle all this computer stuff, ehhhh? Well back then, computer operation as an occupation had to be sold down, not up, so they had to include this charming anecdote:
It says on page 252: "A computer has become the means of communication between Lana, a four-year-old chimpanzee, and the rest of the world. Two years ago, she started to use the symbols on a computer keyboard to talk to her keepers."
"You see that, ladies?" said 1979 businessmen desperate for technicians, "These things are so simple, even a monkey can learn to use them, so you have no excuse!" A female monkey.
Remember this was 1979. Nobody had made billions of dollars in software yet. In hardware, yes, certainly, IBM, Honeywell, DEC, and whatnot, were very big deals. So the manufacture of computers was a male-dominated field, but just like typewriters, once we make 'em, let the women type on 'em. Also take note that the word "hacker" had yet to enter public parlance. There was no mythologized archetype of the cyberpunk anti-hero.
So if programming computers wasn't glamorous yet, and software tycoons who would become world-class billionaires were years in the future yet, and operating a computer was so easy that a monkey could do it, then what was there to attract men? Nothing. Yet the world needed programmers. So they had to hire women, and lo, there were the women running all the big, hot, dusty machines.
Now, I don't have time to write a whole book here and you don't have time to read it. I've laid out all the tools you need to build your own answers, because you're all bright people. Think about men, women, jobs and hobbies, and which ones are male-dominated, female-dominated, or 50/50. Think about history. Think about motivation, and the options people have in society.
I hope you have all learned something, not just about the history of computing, but about the genders, society, and the way the public perceptions relate to all of them.
But above all, most of all, more than my dear blood, I hope I never have to hear this stupid, stupid, stupid question ever again.
Follow-Up: I misplaced the bookmark when I was writing this, but I found it again. Here's Stanford research about how programming changed from a female to male profession. Now, sociologically, they cite our old boogey, gender-bias. Subtle gender-bias covered up by personality testing and prerequisite courses. Yes, but saying "we don't have female programmers because personalities are screened for introverts and college records are screened for math credits" does nothing but move the question out to "Where are all the introverted math geek women?" There are introverted math geek women out there. But anyway, it's another point of view worth sharing here.
Update 4/10/13: As I continue to get more responses to this, here's a link somebody found on Fogcreek from 2 years ago: “The Computer Girls” from the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. Once again, somebody else noticed that women used to dominate the computer field, but then answers "why did they leave?" with the knee-jerk "teh sexism!" Always, always, always.
It isn't often that I feel the need to amplify Stallman's words; he's usually a little extreme-left for my tastes. But this is one of those times when he reminds me why I still count him as a visionary - perhaps even still ahead of his time.
Wonderful, wonderful sense, it would fix just about every economic problem we have in this country. And you can hang your hopes on seeing unicorns fly before it actually happens.
See, all us geeks sat through all those science fiction epics and made it to the 2000s, and all that ended up coming true was the dystopian government, only that government is actually an oligarchy of corporations. We didn't get 1984, but we did get $1983.99.
There's a problem with this: We can't vote for corporations. We can't elect new CEOs and board of directors. We can vote all we want to for government, but when both the US and the UK can find a corporation guilty of antitrust and are together powerless to reign them in, then that government isn't a government anymore. Corporations have taken their place. When a corporation can recklessly and ruthlessly pillage the economy and then hold a nation hostage demanding that it be bailed out because it's too big to fail, what is left for us to control with our votes? When a corporation is legally considered a person and then we do not hold that entity to morals and the laws of the land, then what else have we created but a psychopath?
In Europe for many centuries, churches and governments together caused many problems when they got too rich and powerful for their own good at the same time they were getting too chummy together. We started the United States with the idea of abolishing kings and popes. But what do we do about CEOs who have riches and power beyond the dreams of even kings, melded with the government?
Aaron Swartz was a very nice fellow, and what happened to him was very sad. And now, here's a less-whitewashed version of his story:
Aaron Swartz was a bright young programmer who assisted in the authorship of the RSS specification, developed the web.py framework, worked on Internet archive projects, and started up a company called "Infogami" which was bought by the Y-Combinator-(and Hell)-spawned Reddit before immediately being snapped up by Conde-Nast Publications and almost as immediately firing Aaron Swartz. Swartz then turned most of the rest of his life to the misguided activity we call "hacktivism", in-between the odd Wikipedia edit.
Note: Amazing facts: Swartz did NOT invent the computer, hand down the GPL on stone tablets from Mount Sinai, kill his sensei in a duel, chop a snake into four pieces and throw it around the Earth to create the four corners, give birth to the Sun, destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, get bitten by a radioactive unicorn and develop superpowers, or travel back in time to kill Hitler. None of the bodily fluids from his remains have thus far been demonstrated to have supernatural restorative properties.
( You might want to print out the above paragraph, clip it, and save it in your wallet or purse in the months to come. Pull it out and re-read it quietly to yourself when everybody else is donning burquas and taking candlelight pilgrimages to his place of birth. It is the sole glint of level-headed reason you're going to see written on this issue. )
In a freak legal accident straight out of the movie Brazil, Swartz, amidst his hacktivism, managed to download a bunch of free academic articles from a freely accessible website, an act which inexplicably angered somebody in the academic sausage-grinder. Then, like so many hacktivists before him and so many hacktivists that will come after him, the government proceeded to pursue Swartz as their target as this decade's lottery-selected cybercrime scapegoat.
You've doubtless heard that Swartz was looking at life in prison or worse. What you haven't heard is that the latest plea-bargain round had Swartz's proposed sentence down to six months and some charges - and they were still haggling. Granted, the charges on his record would have sucked, but are you seriously telling me Swartz wouldn't have been able to get a job ever again with credentials like his? To say nothing of the possibility that he could have gone ahead through a trial and conceivably won.
Now, ignoring the rumors to the contrary, nobody killed Aaron Swartz but Aaron Swartz. Swartz suffered from severe depression. Long before his legal woes, Swartz already was sounding depressed and suicidal way back when he got sacked from Conde Nast - he was writing blog posts that were already raising alarm. It may yet come out that his mental state colored his judgment a couple of times, perhaps even when he was downloading academic papers.
Note: Amazing facts: He was not crucified on Galilee, nor was he buried in a stone tomb, nor was he secretly assassinated by the Illuminati. Carmen Ortiz, stupid character though she is, did not hire ninja assassins to put him away. Clip and save for future grounding against the waves of myths soon to pass.
I understand what it's like to be a grieving father. When I have unfortunately found myself in that role in the past, I, too, heard myself say some stupid, irrational things. Anger and denial are parts of the grieving process. We get through it, move on, and - usually - get to live down what we said. As long as it isn't reported in the media tweet by tweet.
Aaron Swartz did mostly good in the world, and certainly had his heart in the right place. I am sad that he is gone. A lot of people I agree with have said nice things about him. Good night, sweet prince.
I just don't happen to think that he turned water into wine. To paraphrase Pulp Fiction, What the rest of you witnessed was a miracle; what I witnessed was a freak occurrence.
UPDATE:Cory Doctorow is currently hosting a petition drive to have the Assistant U.S. Attorney fired. Why is it whenever I see a misguided online witch hunt, I follow the flame trail and find Doctorow at the end of it? OWS, SOPA-paranoia, Kiva.org... Cory Doctorow is an irresponsible cult leader with an online army of impressionable, alienated, brainwashed young kids ever-ready to shoot first and ask questions later. For somebody who used to just run a nice little website where he posted cool stuff, he sure is on an arrogant power trip now.
Here we are on the last day of 2012. Does it feel as if 2012 was discouraging?
In the US in the last few months, it feels like 2012 had it in for us. Hurricane Sandy, mass psycho shootings, and a government that gleefully accepted our votes and cheers over the supposed victories, and then went right back to being the stone-deaf bullshit factory it's always been.
Elsewhere in the world, 2012 was also grim. Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Gaza, Benghazi, Rustenburg, Congo, and South Africa in general have all seen their share of human-made atrocities and tragedies and the kind of civil-rights violations that lead to stories that typically begin with the phrase "Thousands took to the streets..." Greece and Spain have had economic crashes, also human-made. And can we even count the whack-job end-of-the-world predictions? It seems that humans can't go a day without making their own problems worse.
From a STEMmer or geek point of view, it's depressing. It's depressing because everybody around you just seems to get stupider and stupider every day. Make no mistake: In the United States of America, there IS an anti-intellectual movement going full-blast. Science and reason really ARE under attack, and will continue to be under attack for a long time yet. You're not imagining it.
If you're bitter and angry about the world's problems, chances are good that you have what they call "depressive realism". You have too clear a fix on reality and are too aware that the human condition is a giant ball of crap to really be optimistic about the future.
I know that depression.
And I know why it's not that bad.
The human race is simply too young yet. The frustration we all feel is with the growing pains of advancing from animal to human.
The latest evidence shows that humans, in their earliest form, evolved around 5 to 7 million years ago (MYA) in eastern and central Africa. "Lucy", the earliest-known specimen of Australopithecus, lived about 3 MYA. Sometime during the next million years after Lucy, we started to make our earliest stone tools. First evidence of the ability to make fire has so far been pegged to about 1 MYA. So humans went some 6 millions years before they finally arrived at the ability to make fire at will - the trademark human advancement. About 350 to 200 thousand years ago (KYA), we saw the rise of the human prototype known as Neanderthals, the first type of human to show signs of social organization and hence, language. So humans took over 700 thousand years after they invented fire before they even communicated in anything but grunts and barks.
The first homo sapiens emerged between 200 and 100 KYA, again in East Africa. They demonstrated tool-making, social organization, and migration. What about agriculture? We didn't advance that far until just 12 KYA, with the Neolithic Revolution that happened spontaneously in various spots around the world. This is the first record of mankind willfully tending crops and herding livestock, transitioning from a nomadic hunter-gatherer species to creatures who, for the first time, had a reason to settle down in one place and call it "home". So humans were around 4 million, 88 thousand years before they could finally sustain themselves with a reliable food source and, for the first time, spend a few minutes of their day thinking about something besides how not to starve to death.
Earliest human writing is pegged to about 4000 BCE (6 KYA) in Mesopotamia. So humans lived another 6000 years after the advent of agriculture before the smartest of them figured out how to scratch down some kind of permanent record, and for the first time, gain the mere capability of handing down knowledge through the generations. The first true technology innovation, the wheel, shows up about this time, along with the earliest organized true cities. If you put fire and wheels together, you get cars, and if you logically extend writing, you get computers. So with transportation and information technology, you can see how those two disciplines alone still shape most of our society today. Pretty much all of human ability right now is confined within how fast and efficiently we can move either physical objects (including ourselves) or data, with a side order of how efficiently we can produce power (we still use fire a lot).
What we think of now as wonders of the "ancient" world, things like the pyramids and sphinx in Egypt, the Acropolis of Athens, the Great Wall of China, the founding of the Roman Empire, and so on, were all built within the last 6000 years. Even Stonehenge, just a damned circle of rocks planted with some notion of tracking the seasons, was only built between 3000 and 2000 BCE, just around 4,400 years ago. Rocks, the earliest computer, and it took us 6,990,000 years to dope that out.
Are you starting to understand why grandma can't cope with a tablet computer yet?
Stonehenge was only built during the most recent 1% of human history. Meanwhile, the human brain takes millions of years to have a slight change due to evolution.
As recently as only 500 years ago, average human life expectancy topped over 40 years for the first time. Up until that time of the 17th century, 2/3rds of all children born in northern Europe died before the age of four. So it's only been in the recent two millenniums that humans anywhere could expect as good as a 50/50 shot at living to see their own grandchildren. Even today, average life expectancy only runs between 40 and 60 years in most of Africa, and only reaches the peak 77-80 range in First-World countries (North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan). It's only been recently in the past few years that we are starting to see a spike in centenarians, humans living to see their 100th birthday, running from estimates of 23,000 centenarians worldwide in 1950 to 209,000 in the year 2000 and 455,000 in 2009. In just the last five centuries, average human lifespan worldwide has reached 67 years, just barely doubling. Think about how much intellectual value a human piles on in their later decades, and then consider that, barring a few historic individuals, it's only been the last five centuries that we're starting to get consistent access to that.
Meanwhile, electric engineering has only been around for just under two centuries. This marvel of modern science upon which we currently chat, the Internet, was not possible before the computer, which was not possible before the microprocessor, which was not possible before the invention of the integrated circuit, which first appeared in 1949, in a patent filed by Werner Jacobi. That's right, computers, and all of the wonders thereof, are only 63 years old! Only a couple of decades older than our very first visits to a non-Earth sphere.
In the United States, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, mandating the right of women to vote, is only 92 years old. The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery throughout all of the United States, is only 147 years old. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, finally mandating the concept of equal rights for all humans in the United States regardless of race, color, gender, or religion, is only 48 years old. The United States Federal Department of Education was only founded in 1867, meaning that the US was in business just under a full century before it attained, for the very first time, an organized method of ensuring that its citizens could simply read and write. And the idea that anyone could have the right to even a basic education goes back again to that Civil Rights Act. When was the last time we amended the Civil Rights Act? 1991, when we extended and strengthened the ability of employees to sue their employer for discrimination. Bush, Sr., vetoed the previous version of the act but had to buckle on that one.
Universal health care and gay marriage and pot legalization? It will happen. It's just that, you have to understand, it takes more than a few weeks wearing stupid costumes and waving stupid signs and getting stoned in Zuccotti Park.
Now, then: You are upset because the human race is not progressing faster? Sweetheart, we are just barely out of tails and flinging poo. WE ARE STILL ANIMALS! There is no escaping that we are animals, and we will remain animals for many, many millenniums to come. Yes, it is frustrating now feeling like you were born trapped in a primitive world without the wonderful societies that we dream about for the future.
I'm sorry, but you were born too soon for flying cars and colonizing space.
But at least you weren't one of the billions and billions of people who lived and died back there without ever having seen electronics... or machines... or tools... or reliable sources of food... or writing... or even speech! Pause a moment and bow your head for the Australopithecus Einsteins, who had to be content with chewing grubs out of bark and hooting at each other, maddened with the idea that they should be able to live more comfortably if only they could teach the others the value of sharpening a stick to use to dig out more food. Millions of them lived and died and lost in time back there, too discouraged to even write in the mud with their finger, because who the hell would come along who was smart enough to read it?
Do not be so vain, young and smart people, as to be discouraged for the human race because you could not fix it in one month. Quit feeling so sorry for yourself, and devote your life to aiding as much of human progress as you can. Live for the future, when more advanced humans will be able to appreciate what you were living with now.
Allow me to put on my freelancer's hat for a minute and talk about something not only relevant to technology, but to my business as an online content creator...
A little while back, Forbes took notice of the tech entrepreneur world with an article on the "death" of SEO.
Every word in that article is spot-on, dead accurate, worthy of being proclaimed from the rooftops. Except the title. Because, contrary to all common sense, SEO, like a Lovecraft Eldritch multi-dimensional horror, will never die.
I've pointed out many times that the very premise of SEO is to game search engines, and search engines exist to find genuine content, not "optimized" content. So the very minute you start thinking of SEO for your website, you're beginning a war with the Internet, trying to steal their time redirecting them from the content they wanted to the sales-pages you want them to see. There is no such thing as "white hat SEO". It's like saying you're practicing "legal tax evasion".
"Common sense, but not common practice" indeed. Note the footer of that article where a hundred SEO cranks post flames back at the author and he caves a little, because Forbes is still a business with face to save, after all.
But I stand by every word of that article as originally envisioned, even if he doesn't. There are no "bad parts" to SEO. It is all bad, 100.1% of it. The Venn diagram is shaped like a circle.
That's why I never take any job offer for producing content for anybody who so much as mentions SEO or any of the associated buzzwords: "keywords", "SERP", "density", "meta tags", "backlinks", "landing page", and so on. Not for any amount of money, not for sexual favors from Hollywood starlets, would I do this. I'm too stinking proud, and besides, the kind of wingnut crank who blathers on about this meta-tag voodoo and keyword-density astrology is the kind of person of low morals and little sense who will attempt to cheat me out of pay, argue with me about every little detail, and expect a thousand times the effort of what they'd be paying me.
What I will do is produce organic content that I think actual humans beings at least might want to read. And then if that content has a business link next to it for an associated product or service, well, so be it, that's how the web should work.
SEO is the belief that you can reverse-engineer and "hack" a search engine using only the text on your webpage, causing said engine to magically send all the visitors to you no matter what they type. It's a kind of irrecoverable brain damage. There's a whole cult of it out there. Everybody wants one thing: To be the first result on Google. Now, how many people want that? How many number-one spots on Google are there? What does common sense tell you will happen to the 999,000 people who didn't make page one?
Now, let's logically ask ourselves, "Why do people come back to a search engine?" Why, because it gives them RELEVANT, USEFUL CONTENT, does it not? So what if you "win" your SEO game and redirect Google traffic to your one-page sales-letter full of boilerplate marketing copy? Users will quit using Google and switch to a different search engine. After all, any search engine which was so easily gamed would be a poor quality search engine and users would abandon it. So, the objective, the true, root goal of all SEO is to put Google out of business. You, with your $3/month GoDaddy domain and pirated 1996 copy of FrontPage Express.
What could possibly go wrong with your simple business plan?
Let's take a famously iconic contested keyword: "mesothelioma". It's an incurable lung disease caused by inhaling hazardous substances on the job (I've worked construction jobs and at a power plant so I have a touch of it myself, cough cough cough), which leads to a lot of top-dollar workman's comp cases and legal settlements. Hence, it's a cash cow for ambulance chasers. SEO wonks have been trying to rank #1 for this word ever since 1997 when Google first launched.
So, after 15 years of "progress" in the SEO industry, where does the search result page for this coveted keyword stand right now?
The #1 spot is the Wikipedia entry.
The #2 spot is a domain with the same name, a commercial enterprise.
The #3 spot is the US government's own National Institute of Health site.
The #4 spot is the Mayo clinic.
None of these are the result of SEO tactics, but genuine content produced to inform first. Two of them are even non-profit public services. What does this tell you about the effectiveness of SEO vs. being an actual credible source on the subject? But go to any freelance job-posting site on the web and search for that keyword. Pages and pages of keyword-crankers, all offering the lordly sum of about $2 if only someone will help them get their spam site to come out on top of Wikipedia, the Mayo clinic, and the US government.
You'll find this over and over again. These idiots clog the web with their search-spam, never winning, and never learning. It's a brain disease. Just like with any superstition, you can't drive any common sense into their heads about how search engines actually work. They have charts! They have keyword density formulas! They have magic meta-tag spells! "If we jack these secondary-related search phrases into our keyword probability matrix times our nofollow-tag formula and our backlink farm sends stealth links from the dark web, we get a 2.3657680012% keyword density substrate for our article-spinner."
These cranks will never die. They will never learn. They're flakes. Not just some of them or the "black hat" ones, but all of them.
Anybody out there thinking of using a website as part of a business strategy? Stay away from SEO. Google hates it. Forbes hates it. Internet users, your presumed customers, hate it the most of all. SEO, like alchemy and Orgone and flying saucers, is every kind of wrong it can be. It's broken, it's stupid, and it doesn't work.
I'm going to be bold on election day and pretend it's a couple days from now when the results are in. I would even post my expected election outcome in the 'prophecies' section, but come on - how barrels-and-fish can you get? We all know what's going to happen, and then a bunch of pundits on the TV will ask each other "Where did the GOP lose its way?" So I'll answer the question everybody will be asking by this time next week.
1. They're falling apart.
Neocons, "social conservative" vs. "fiscal conservative", Tea Party, Randroids, Dittoheads, "Christian right" vs. "Mormon right" - the party has fractured into bits, all pulling in opposite directions. Did you hear about the buyer's remorse over picking Paul Ryan for VP? That's the six-months-ago GOP saying "I know, we'll unite the Randroid / Tea-Partyers with the GOP base!" followed by the today GOP saying "Heh heh heh, oops, that didn't work."
2. They're based on hate.
Has there ever been a Republican politician's speech that did not devolve into a hate rant? Who are we oppressing today? Shall we restrict women's rights, gay's rights, atheists' rights, non-white's rights, or poor people's rights? Hey, I know, let's just stomp all over a bunch of foreign countries, and then we'll shoot Big Bird, and then we'll burn everybody who disagrees with us at the stake for being a heretic. Oh, wait, I was so busy shooting down hurricane disaster relief that I almost forgot to ridicule scientists!
Look, I've heard plenty of catcalls at the Democrats and other parties, but only the GOP gets called the Party of HATE. When you're about nothing but making other groups of people pissed off, always standing against something and never standing for, you're going to make enemies. And here's the bad news, GOP: There is no cavalry coming, but as you wait here, more enemies will accumulate.
3. All of their spokespeople are sneering villains.
Maybe I've watched too many old movies, but aren't politicians supposed to, you know, kiss babies and shake hands and pet doggies and promise a chicken in every pot when they want to get elected? Even Reagan and Bush, hated as they were by their critics, managed to muster some country-western charm in front of a camera once in a while. Babies cry by reflex when they look at a GOP supporter now.
Gee. Republicans, you let these guys speak for you unchallenged, and then wonder why nobody likes you anymore?
4. Nearly all the people who get in trouble are on their side.
Quick, think of the last Democrat who got busted for something! You probably thought of Rob Blagojevich, and as of this writing, he has 12 years left to go on good behavior. Before that, you have to think of a certain intern with the initials M.L., sorry to bring her up.
Think I'm being hyperbolic? Here's a nice big list. OK, maybe I'm still being hyperbolic - but why do so many GOPs seem to have so much trouble with the law?
5. The rest of the world hates them too.
As this Slate poll shows. If I even have to explain to you why other countries favor Obama over Romney, you're reading the wrong blog and possibly even engaging in the wrong activity entirely. Nearly every country in the world is currently more progressive than the United States, and they're just sick and tired of breathing our smog.
6. Speaking of which, the US is behind other countries on practically everything.
The US is just getting smashed on every international ranking you can name. And the more Republicans deadlocking us in Congress, the worse it gets. Bellow about "socialism" until you're blue in the face, but the United States government had better start doing something for its people pretty soon, or the people are bound to eventually wonder why they have a government at all.
7. How far can you get denying science year after year?
Evolution, global climate change, stem cells, alternative energy, ecology, conservation, and even simple reproductive mechanics - hardly any fan of any of the above is left in the GOP. No one is even questioning it anymore, it's a given. If you're pro-GOP, it's assumed that you're automatically anti-science, as if they're mutually incompatible (even though I just pointed out a couple posts back that that isn't always the case, it's still the accepted norm). If science was a superhero, its arch-nemesis would be a big bully elephant with "GOP" on its chest. Really, we're all living in the 21st century swimming in the wonderful bounty of the products of science, having even used science to win a few wars, I might add, and we have these Luddites being the only ones screaming "science is a really, really BAD thing!" Even Santorum had to complain about these gosh-darned colleges "indoctrinating" (aka "educating") people not to be conservatives.
Oops, forgot to add that to the "enemies of the GOP" list back there: Education. How long can a country go being led by people who oppose education? Don't laugh, it's happened before - it's called Khmer Rouge. Cambodia, by example, shows us what not to do.
Now, I'm sure we'll see the usual charges from the right: The media has a left-wing bias, don't lump this group here in with that "extremist" group over there, etc. And I'm sure there's plenty to point out about the faults of the Democratic party; I, in the majority for a change, identify as 'independent' as well. I know the Democrats aren't the solution to everything. But they are the fabled "lesser of two evils" by a long shot, and if you want to get rid of a two-party system where you're stuck voting for the lesser of two evils, the first thing you have to do is get rid of the consistently worse evil, and then work from the lesser evil to formulate a new party that will be an even lesser evil.
Gallup assures me that at least 63% of you should see it that way, too. If 40% of Americans identify as 'independent', then four out of ten of you are currently wandering the aisles without a party. And it's that majority that now has a chance, like never before, to get its act together and form a truly progressive party that drags the USA kicking and screaming into the 21st century. That new party will have to stand to the far left of our current two right wings.
I'll happily grant that the media has a left-wing bias. Because the media is reflecting the attitude of the United States, which is also showing a strong left-wing bias.
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