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Current Topic: Society

MemeStreams response to Georgia Senate Bill 59 - 2007
Topic: Society 6:45 pm EST, Feb  4, 2007

A bill has been proposed in the Georgia State Senate which would require social networking websites, possibly including MemeStreams, to verify that minors who create accounts have parental permission. In practice this would mean that any Georgia website, no matter how benign, which allows users to create profiles, would be required to implement as yet undefined age validation procedures for all new users.

We believe that this proposal is a bad idea for a number of different reasons. We composed the following open letter to the sponsors of the legislation in an attempt to articulate our concerns.

MemeStreams response to Georgia Senate Bill 59 - 2007

Worldmapper: The world as you've never seen it before
Topic: Society 2:13 pm EST, Jan 27, 2007

Worldmapper is a collection of world maps, where territories are re-sized on each map according to the subject of interest.

366 maps and PDF posters will be finished by February 2007. Use the menu above or click on a thumbnail image below to view a map.

Update: for a tour of this dataset, see P.J. O'Rourke's article in the latest Atlantic Monthly (subscription required), as reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Worldmapper: The world as you've never seen it before

Open Secrets | Malcolm Gladwell | The New Yorker
Topic: Society 9:14 pm EST, Jan  5, 2007

Jeff may be in jail, and Lay may rest (in peace?), but Enron is partly your fault, too.

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. The CIA had a position on what a post-invasion Iraq would look like, and so did the Pentagon and the State Department and Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and any number of political scientists and journalists and think-tank fellows. For that matter, so did every cabdriver in Baghdad.

The distinction is not trivial. If you consider the motivation and methods behind the attacks of September 11th to be mainly a puzzle, for instance, then the logical response is to increase the collection of intelligence, recruit more spies, add to the volume of information we have about Al Qaeda. If you consider September 11th a mystery, though, you’d have to wonder whether adding to the volume of information will only make things worse. You’d want to improve the analysis within the intelligence community; you’d want more thoughtful and skeptical people with the skills to look more closely at what we already know about Al Qaeda. You’d want to send the counterterrorism team from the CIA on a golfing trip twice a month with the counterterrorism teams from the FBI and the NSA and the Defense Department, so they could get to know one another and compare notes.

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.

Update: Joe Nocera says Gladwell is flat wrong:

A central defense argument — that Enron didn’t really do anything illegal — has been given new life by Malcolm Gladwell. And it isn’t remotely true.

Open Secrets | Malcolm Gladwell | The New Yorker

What About the Iraqis?
Topic: Society 4:14 pm EST, Dec 24, 2006

Perhaps not essential, but quite interesting, and not something you see daily in the papers.

What we know about the lives of individual Iraqis rarely goes beyond the fleeting opinion quote or the civilian casualty statistics. We have little impression of Iraqis as people trying to live lives that are larger and more complex than the war that engulfs them, and more often than not we end up viewing them merely as appendages of conflict.

As a recent editorial in The Washington Post observed, five years after September 11 the FBI still has a mere thirty-three experts who speak Arabic — and most of those are far from fluent. The CIA and the Pentagon are not much better off.

On the "hollowing out" that will make stabilization nearly impossible:

The Iraqi authorities have issued two million passports since August 2005. An estimated 40 percent of Iraq's professional classes have left the country. New elites are rising in their place, sometimes through the use of violence; needless to say, this is not the sort of civil society that the Americans were hoping to promote.

Terrorized by horrific acts of bloodshed and torture, and frequently forced to leave behind the businesses that once sustained them economically, they have only the mosques, and their associated political parties, to turn to.

You've seen this before, with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

As I listened to these Iraqi voices, I could not entirely shake the feeling that we Americans are already becoming irrelevant to the future of their country. While people in Washington continue to debate the next change in course, and the Baker report raises the possibility of gradual withdrawal, Iraqis are sizing up the coming apocalypse, and making their arrangements accordingly.

What happens when the Decider can't make up his mind? We wait until our actions, whether carrots or sticks or both, are merely ambient noise amidst the discordant mix of sectarian signals. Then the debates over withdrawals, troop levels, milestones, methods, etc. are rendered moot. The Iraqis neither wave goodbye nor run us out of town. Ten years later, no one will quite remember exactly when the Americans left -- only that they were irrelevant long before they were absent.

What About the Iraqis?

RE: The Vanishing
Topic: Society 2:01 pm EST, Dec 17, 2006

janelane wrote:

Bush is *not* the president we deserve.

I suspect the writer intended that sentence to provoke, and he seems to have succeeded. Your valid points about "what people deserve" notwithstanding, people look for many things in a President, and there are trade-offs all around. The contrast between Clinton and Bush made here is a case in point; some people liked Clinton because he listened, whereas other people reacted with "can't you form an opinion for yourself?" These Clinton-haters got in Bush a take-charge kind of guy who knew what he wanted and would go out and "get things done". Only later did they realize that occasionally the situation calls for a man of inaction, or at least one with a hint of hesitation, one who at least feels a moment of doubt at the crucial juncture, wondering whether it is better to shoot now or to wait and see. Such struggles tend not to trouble those with the presence of mind not to contemplate the consequences.

janelane wrote:

This editorial seems to me to be a perfect example of how out of touch NYT editors can be.

To clarify, this article is in the Sunday Magazine, not on the op-ed pages. The writer is an editor at the The Weekly Standard.

-janelane, I deserve better

Most definitely!

The classic irony on display is that the people (on all sides) seem not to know what they want, because even when they get what they asked for, the reality tends to disappoint them. Unintended consequences and all that.

After a challenging but successful engagement with Google, I would like to refer back to a bona fide Decius classic:

I've come to the conclusion that you actually want shifty, dishonest politicians elected by an apathetic populace. This means that things are working.

There are two reasons that people act: Carrots and Sticks. Lowering the barrier to entry might be a carrot, but the sticks are much more effective and come when the political situation makes it impossible for people to go about their lives without acting.

I'm confident that technology has improved the resources available to people if/when they choose to act. So far they don't need to, largely. Don't wish for times when they do. When people are involved and committed and political leaders are honest and have clear vision; that usually happens when things are really, really fucked up. Who are the U.S. Presidents we most admire? What was going on during their presidencies?

That was part of a discussion in a thread about an op-ed by Robert Wright, Creating a New Picture of War, Pixel by Pixel.

One wonders whether, in the two and a half years since that post, we have arrived at "those times" when the people choose to act.

From a recent Paul Krugman piece, in which he cherrypicks pithy, prescient soundbites from the pre-invasion era:

Like the proverbial dog chasing the car down the road, we must consider what we would do after we caught it.

So how long will the dogs now circle the car before they decide whether to kill it, keep it, or release it?

RE: The Vanishing

Kofi Annan - What I've Learned
Topic: Society 6:26 am EST, Dec 13, 2006

All my life since has been a learning experience. Now I want to pass on five lessons I have learned during 10 years as secretary general of the United Nations that I believe the community of nations needs to learn as it confronts the challenges of the 21st century.

These seem true but obvious, although history has borne out the cost of learning these lessons one at a time (and time and time, again).

Kofi Annan - What I've Learned

In Praise of Chain Stores, by Virginia Postrel | The Atlantic Monthly
Topic: Society 9:22 pm EST, Dec 10, 2006

They aren’t destroying local flavor—they’re providing variety and comfort

This is a short piece, worth reading.

The contempt for chains represents a brand-obsessed view of place, as if store names were all that mattered to a city’s character.

I wonder what Steven Johnson is saying about this?

In Praise of Chain Stores, by Virginia Postrel | The Atlantic Monthly

The Year in Ideas, 2006 | The New York Times Magazine
Topic: Society 11:04 am EST, Dec 10, 2006

This month, as in the past five Decembers, the magazine looks back on the passing year from a distinctive vantage point: that of ideas. Our editors and writers have located the peaks and valleys of ingenuity — the human cognitive faculty deployed with intentions good and bad, purposes serious and silly, consequences momentous and morbid. The resulting intellectual mountain range extends across a wide territory. Now it’s yours for the traversing in a compendium of 74 ideas arranged from A to Z.

Included below are some external links for those wanting further information on the various ideas.

They call it reverse graffiti; oh, yeah; contrast with "graffiti without consequences", and traffic calming art ... Hamdan v. Rumsfeld ... Dmitri Medvedev controls one-fifth of the world’s natural gas reserves ... Rods from God, "rediscovered" in the Transformation Flight Plan -- look for "Hypervelocity Rod Bundles"; Aerotropolis: "Access, access, access is replacing location, location, location" ... and now we have traffic management for buildings ... traffic begets more traffic ... in real life, they say you can never escape 1) death or 2) taxes, but for the time being, Second Life has killed the second one.

"He had a penchant for pinks. He was always trying to sneak pinks ... Ambient Addition consists of two headphones with transparent earpieces, each equipped with a microphone and a speaker. The microphones sample the background noise in the immediate vicinity — wind blowing through the trees, traffic, a cellphone conversation. Then, with the help of a small digital signal-processing chip, the headphones make music from these sounds.

Considering all of the eyes in the MemeStreams logo, you'd think the site would get more donations ... The city of Atlanta purchased Bellwood Quarry, which will be transformed into a 300-acre park ... ... [ Read More (0.7k in body) ]

The Year in Ideas, 2006 | The New York Times Magazine

The Real Problem | Technology Review
Topic: Society 8:21 am EST, Nov 28, 2006

This thought also occurred to me over the weekend, listening to homeland security announcements.

I think the real problem is that we are in a permanent state of emergency, grasping at straws to get our work done. We perform many minor miracles through trial and error, excessive use of brute force, and lots and lots of testing, but -- so often -- it's not enough.

Who is that, and what is the subject? Click through.

The Real Problem | Technology Review

Things That Go Bump in the Flight
Topic: Society 11:19 am EST, Nov 23, 2006

The turbulence intensifies. The overhead luggage racks begin to rattle. “This is nominal,” I think, and I am amazed once again at how skillfully humans normalize the lives they find themselves living. It is really what explains the success of our species, our ability to absorb experience, to engulf it with our minds and accommodate it, in conditions infinitely more grievous than a bumpy flight. A couple of times a year I find myself at cruising altitude wondering what could possibly induce me to board a plane again. How do we manage to take this for granted? I wonder. But then we land and my mind turns to other things, and before we have parked at the gate, I’m ready to make my connecting flight.

There is something about Verlyn Klinkenborg.

Things That Go Bump in the Flight

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