Friday, June 19, 2009

The Eternal City

"Someone had to do something sometime. Every victim was a culprit, every culprit a victim, and somebody had to stand up sometime to try and break the lousy chain of inherited habit that was imperiling them all. In parts of Africa little boys were still stolen away by adult slave traders and sold for money to men who disembowled them. Yossarian marveled that children could suffer such barbaric sacrifice without evincing the slightest hint of fear or pain. He took it for granted that they did submit so stoically. If not, he reasoned, the custom would certainly have died, for no craving for wealth or immortality could be so great, he felt, as to subsist on the sorrow of children ...

Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up ...

What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute the same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best famalies were worse families and how many good people were bad people? When you added them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perphaps Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere ...

"Help!" he shrieked shrilly in a voice strangling in its own emotion, as the policemen carried him to the open doors in the rear of the ambulance and threw him inside. "Police! Help! Police!" The doors were shut and bolted, and the ambulance raced away. There was humorless irony in the ludicrous panic of the man screaming for help to the police while policemen were all around him. Yossarian smiled wryly at the futile and ridiculous cry for aid, then saw with a start that the words were ambiguous, realized with alarm that they were not, perhaps, intended as a call for police, but as a heroic warning from the grave by a doomed friend to everyone who was not a policeman with a club and a gun and a mob of other policemen with clubs and guns to back him up. "Help! Police!" the man had cried, and he could have been shouting of danger."

-Catch 22

Monday, June 8, 2009

Every Man's Tradegy

"How could he, with all his carefully calibrated goodness, have known that the stakes of living obediently were so high? Obedience is embraced to lower the stakes. A beautiful wife. A beautiful house. Runs his business like a charm . . . . This is how successful people live. They're good citizens. They feel lucky. They feel grateful. God is smiling down on them. There are problems, they adjust. And then everything changes and it becomes impossible. Nothing is smiling down on anybody. And who can adjust then? Here is someone not set up for life's working out poorly, let alone for the impossible. But who is set up for the impossible that is going to happen? Who is set up for tragedy and the incomprehensibility of suffering? Nobody. The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy -- that is every man's tragedy."

- Philip Roth, American Pastoral

Saturday, June 6, 2009

What Are We Worst at Covering?

So, I read a blog post whose prompt is this posts title, with We being journalists. I responded to the original post and I thought it would be nice to repost here.

As a side note, Kirstof is an amazing reporter. I usually love anything he writes and he often offers some great insights. Someone worth keeping up with.

The original article.

My comment:

“And public health is related to science, which traditionally has been a weakness in journalism, although coverage has improved dramatically over the last 25 years (and at the Times truly is splendid!).”

Being rather young, I can’t comment much on the improvement of science reporting over the past 25 years, but I can tell you that its definitely, in my opinion, easily the most underreported subject today. I don’t necessarily want to pick on the Times per se, but, other then when Swine Flu caused the big hysteria that it did, when was the last time a Science article made it to the frontpage?

In the above post you state that public health is journalisms biggest failing, and then you mention that most people don’t know what rotavirus is. I argue that public health policy, in terms of providing universal health coverage, is actually reported quite heavily (and rightly so), but that your specific example shows how poorly the science behind public health is snubbed.

Indeed, for something so important its suprising how little science reporting is emphasized in our biggest publications. Science has been solely responsible for our improved standards of living, which in turn has given us the luxury to treat eachother with the respect that human beings deserve. Civilization is a product of our science and I think you would be suprised how quickly it would disappear without our modern technological wonders.

I don’t want to be too harsh Mr. Kristof, because I think you do a beautiful job reporting on something else that is very much underrported as well, which is the plight of the developing world and the billions that live with proverty everyday. But even in this case, science holds the key to alleviating much of the suffering and pain that continues on this planet even today, in an age when it should have been eradicated long ago.

So please, I beg you and the Times, and other major publications, to grace your front pages with a science article or two a day. It has made so much possible for you and me and the rest of the civilized world and it can offer so much more.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Excerpt: Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

From the very end of the novel (don't worry, there aren't any "spoilers" in here), the protoganist and his mother are on the Staten Island Ferry and he describes the Manhatten skyline; definitely got chills up my spine when finished reading this.

"The structures clustered at its tip made a warm, familiar crowd, and as their surfaces brightened ever more fiercely with sunlight it was possible to imagine that vertical accumlations of humanity were gathering to greet our arrival. The day was darkening at the margins, but so what? A world was lighting up before us, its uprights putting me in mind, now that I'm adrift, of new pencils standing at attention in a Caran d' Ache box belonging in the deep of my childhood, in particular the purplish platoon of sticks that emerged by degrees form the reds and, turning bluer and bluer and bluer, faded out; a world concentrated most glamorously of all, it goes almost without saying, in the lilac acres of two amazingly high towers going up above all others, on one of which, as the boat drew us nearer, the sun began to make a brilliant yellow mess. To speculate about the meaning of such a moment would be a stained, suspect business; but there is, I think, no need to speculate. Factual assertions can be made. I can state that I wasn't the only person on that ferry who'd seen a pinky watery sunset in his time, and I can state that I wasn't the only one of us to make out and accept an extraordinary promise in what we saw -- the tall approaching cape, a people risen in light. You only had to look at our faces.
Which makes me remember my mother. I remember how I turned and caught her -- how could I have forgotten this until now? -- looking not at New York but at me, and smiling."

Saturday, February 28, 2009

FOWA Miami 2009

For the uninitiated FOWA stands for the Future of Web Apps, which is a series of conferences that take place to discuss ... the future of web apps. A few of the Grooveshark crew headed to Maimi to mingle with fellow techies, entrepanuars, and overall smart/ambitious fellow travelers. One thing I really would like to say is that it really is inspiring to see the level of activity at FOWA despite the economic troubles, as long as we're willing to keep innovating we'll all be able to help turn the economy around (now that we have saner partners in Washington).

Post FOWA activities mostly consisted of Barcamp, which is a totally seperate event, but was obviously timed to coincide with FOWA. Barcamp is basically an open forum for people to present their ideas, products, or whatever craziness they feel necessary to talk about. Anyone can signup for a spot and attendees get to choose which talks they decide to spend their limited time at. It really is a great forum that allows you to practice a presentation with little pressure and in a more collabarative environment. Although none of the Groovesharkers presented (the decision to attend FOWA happened really late, and hence nobody prepared anything) we were really excited by the idea and if we make it down to Barcamp Orlando we will definitely have some presentations going on.

After Barcamp came the main event was FOWA itself. The most notable speeches were done by Jason Fried, Joel Spolsky, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Francisco Rivera. I don't really want to get into much details about what they specifically talked about, because then this would get ridicously long, but we've been promised videos of the speeches will be posted online and I'll be posting those links on Facebook as soon as they come along. But, what I do want to briefly mention is Kristina Halvorson post speech Q&A on why she was the only women speaker there and on what can be done to change that.

The main reason I want to mention that speech is the huge amount of criticism I've heard about it, which is something that I unfortunately expected and proves the point of the male-centric attitude that still exists in tech. Its really hard to disagree on the facts, which are there are a) less women speakers at these type of events and less women in tech in general and b) its not directly a result of discrimination (I'm not saying it doesn't exist, but that its less of a factor) but that women are simply not signing up. Now, most people I've seen look at the issue assume that since b) is true there is no problem, which I think is being dishonest to the extreme. The main reason women don't sign up for these events as much is because of the culture and environment, they would feel uncomfortable if they did, and I think thats the main reason women are less inclined to get into tech overall. The attitude is slowly changing overtime, but we're obviously not where we need to be. My main point is there has to be a dialogue about these sort of things because it a) is a problem and b) is not going to fix itself, and when I hear the amount of cynism I do when its simply brought up, its really disheartening. Honestly what
Kristina Halvorson did was a brave thing, considering the type of hostility she knew she was going to meet, and I'm glad she did it.

Now, I haven't even mentioned the parties and mixers. See, FOWA/Barcamp happened over three days, so there was obviously alot of time to do things in between, and of course this is a great event to meet people with similar interests and get the word out about whatever you're working on. Again, don't want to get too much into details, but in short it was awesome hearing the different things other people are working on and equally awesome sharing what Grooveshark is doing with everyone else. What was definitely uplifting was the number of people who already knew about the site and loved it. Several of us were assaulted directly by Grooveshark fans after seeing our T-Shirts, and its really great to get positive feedback from people using a product they really love and that we pour alot of effort into.

With that I digress, FOWA was great and I've barely scratched the surface. Good luck to everyone I met, and keep in touch.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Fiscally Understimullating

There was a lot of big economic news yesterday. One was the plan for the financial bailout announced by Geithner, which was interesting in the fact that it wasn't really a plan more then a statement that we'll most definitely be spending the other half of the bailout to give to bank CE ... I mean buy overvalued asse ... ugh, actually who knows what their going to do with the money but they'll do something. Aside from the utter lack of detail in the "plan", which by the way sent Wall Street all topsy turvy yesterday, there is a huge amount of criticism that it doesn't offer anything new in terms of what Bush was already doing (which was heavily criticized as well); mainly because if some of the banks are insolvent then buying bad assets isn't going to help much, unless of course we dupe the tax payer and take the losses for the banks.

If that wasn't enough, the Senate passed the stimulus package, but decided that the House bill wasn't bad enough and it needed to be made worse. I absolutely love this quote by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell: "But I do think it's important to focus on the larger question of: Where are we going to leave the country in two years if we take all of these steps? We will have made a dramatic move in the direction of, indeed, turning America into Western Europe." God forbid we all became Europeans! With their free university education, universal AND better healthcare, and their funny accents. Nothing stirs up a good American then like being compared to those stuck up Europeans.

Well, besides all the rhetoric and empty words that Congressman seem to love throwing around, what is the actual differences between the two bills? Well, you can get the jist of it by reading all the articles floating around, but for an actual complete breakdown without all the missleading quotes it seems that wikipedia is the only source capable of giving specifics (man, how sad is that? PLUS its well sourced). Of course, the general difference, which was easily predictable, is more tax cuts and less spending on health, energy, and infrastructure in the Senate version vs the House version of the bill. These aren't small differences, were talking about billions of billions of dollars being shifted around to get the two votes necessary to get the thing passed. My biggest gripes?
  1. The inclusion of the Alternative Minimum Tax adjustment. This adds $70 billion and is something that needs to be addressed seperately (and it usually is). Its inclusion is just a way to funnel funds away from the spending proposals.
  2. The whole energy spending portion, one of the most important parts that was already underfunded IMO, was completely gutted. It lost more then $20 billion in funding.
  3. Less spending on Medicaid for the unemployed. More and more people are losing their jobs, and there is going to be a huge increase in people without medical insurance as the recession deepens. If you thought it was a problem before, its only going to get worse.
  4. Less aid for states. With more unemployment checks being written and with many states already in the red there is going to be a big problem funding many of the local programs that people depend on directly. Plus, this is the most direct way to inject capital into the economy quickly, states have alot of infastructure projects just that are waiting to get funded.
Despite all this, even if Congress is eventually able to get a bill onto Obama's desk that resembles the House version more, I'm still deeply worried about how effective its going to be. Many economists say the bill doesn't do enough in terms of spending and making up for the shortfall in the economy and the consequences of not doing enough are far graver then those of doing too much. In the end, the success of the stimulus package and whether its able to guide the economy out of a depression is going to define Obamas presidency, much like the outcome of the Iraq war defined Bush's (though, unfortunately for Obama, he wasn't able to choose his battle).

And so far Obama's performance has been, underwhelming. He has allowed the Republican minority in Congress to dictate the tone of the debate, rather then leading it himself. Instead of forcefully pushing the idea that spending does far more then tax cuts in terms of stimulating the economy he has allowed conservatives to talk about how much money were going to be spending (none of which, I heard about when we started the Iraq war). My biggest fear is this was a wasted oppurtunity. Although Obama has funding for many areas he highlighted in his campaign, the most important of which is health care and energy, they're all funded by half measures in the bill. He expands Medicaid and provides funding for modernizing the health care system, but nothing else in terms of reorganizing our borken medical insurance system. There is funding for new energy research and incentives to use less energy, but falls far short of the "Man on the Moon" mentality that sparked the space race and which I think is necessary to really spark an renewable energy revolution.

In short, I think this has been a wasted opportunity. At best the plan will allow the economy to hobble back to life, instead of roaring back like it should (and thats wishful thinking). Even if its a decent success its at all unclear whether Obama will be able to garner the political capital to deliver more forcefully on his other campaign promises. And far worse if he doesn't succeed, for the stimulus pakcage will be seen as a failure in general and not because it didn't do enough. Now was the time to seize the moment, to force through a strong package that would have delievered on a huge swath of his campaign promises and advanced a progressive agenda, because quite simply they would have been great for the economy as well. This was the time for strong leadership and bold action; I'm afraid we got neither.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Self Referential Concept

Conciousness is one of those funny words that every human being seems to have an innate concept of, but that fails to fall under any single definition. The idea itself seems to grandiose to be described in any one sentence, even if it was a huge run on sentence that recursed on itself ad infinitum, producing a wonderfully complex structure that even the brilliant among us couldn't understand (though, Douglas Hofstadter might argue that this sentence itself might be conscious). Poking fun aside, what is it with this bizarre looking word that befundles us simple minded creatures? Seriously, its a large word at 12 letters, is easy to misspell, and odd to pronounce. Only three letters in it occur once, with 3 s's, 2 c's, 2 o's, and 2 n's. For god's sake its only missing one vowel in the English alphabet! Well, its easy enough to pick apart the word letter by letter, but lets stop avoiding the actual difficult part, which is defining it, which is damn near impossible to do.

For example, look up the wikipedia page and you get this uncommital attempt of a definition: "Consciousness is a type of mental state, a way of perceiving, particularly the perception of a relationship between self and other ... Consciousness may involve thoughts, sensations, perceptions, moods, emotions, dreams, and self-awareness." What type of mental state? There is more then one way of perceiving? The perception of the relationship between self and other? I thought that was more then a perception, seemed pretty concrete to me. Consciouness may involve thoughts of blah, blah, blah? MAY? I think the word "may" shouldn't be in a definition of any word. You know, this word may mean this, or it may mean that, or; you know what, we really don't know what it means.

So, there is the crux of it, what does it really mean? Despite my ad nasuem assault at the above definition, its got the right words and character in it, but added a bunch of fluff in a misguided attempt to be complete. Part of the problem is we still don't know what conciousness physically is (if you enterntain any romantic dualistic notions, this might not be the best reading for you). Obviously if there was some concept of where conciousness comes from, or even if there is a only single physical explanation for it (and not many equally valid ones), then things might be easier to explain.

But in reality, whether we know the physical meaning behind conciousness or not is besides the point. We can obviously still define it as its something we live and breath everyday. Its what allows me to sit here late at night and type about all these crazy ideas that swim around my head endlessly, wishing that I was actually unconscious at this particular moment. Which then allows me to sit here even later in the night wondering why I decided to type the previous sentence about those crazy ideas that were swiming around my brain not that long ago (hmm, not so endless after all). Also allowing me to type another sentence wondering about why I typed the sentence beforehand about the sentence before it ... on and on and on. But thats it, a self referntial concept, an idea that inherently refers to itself no matter which way you look at it. Consciousness is simply the concept that allows me to think about myself as a conscious human being (pffft, and I criticized the wikipedia definition).

The idea of conciousness is inherently tied to the idea of self; in a sense its what allows us to examine out wants and desires, to control our extincts molded by millions of years of adaptation to our environment. This is intimately tied to free will, to the ability to prevent myself from acting on my immediate desires, not because its for or against my benefit, but simply because I can. Ultimately its the fact that I can control my thoughts, that I can thread them together and form them into some coherent conceptions of my reality, that qualifies me as conscious.

Well, thats a beginning anyway. My only real goal was to frame my idea of conciousness for further discussion, not really "define" it in any definitive manner (ugh, blash these subconsious word games!). What I really want to jot down is thoughts on things that go far beyond conciousness, but that certainly rest on it as a base. But I'll save that for later, my subconcious needs to digest some of these ideas.