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Showing posts from June, 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 demonstrate…

SCOTUS Round-Up

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 (http://www.aclu.org/blog) or the SCOTUS blog itself (http://www.scotusblog.com/). Instead, I'll gesture at the general temperature of the rulings so far.

On Fisher, the Court returned the case to a lower cour…

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 c…

Imagining Digital Democracy

With all of the discussion about PRISM (including the EFF's excellent document breakdown https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/06/depth-review-new-nsa-documents-expose-how-americans-can-be-spied-without-warrant), 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 li…

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 …

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 gi…

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 au…

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 …

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 …