Wednesday, October 27, 2010

There's no such thing as the "radical right"

This is a pedantic semantic post. But words mean things, and this is a case where in particular it is important not to confuse and equate two very different versions of the extreme.

It has become increasingly common to refer to crazy, xenophobic, homophobic, authoritarian, market-fundamentalist right-wing assholes as "radical." Nothing could be further from the truth.

For what does radical mean? At its core, radical politics has always been about a fundamental change in the basic assumptions underlying society and its functioning. Anarchists looking to demolish both capitalism and the state were radicals. Communists, looking to demolish capitalism by seizing the state were radicals. Even liberals and social democrats, in calling for fundamental changes to certain parts of the functioning of capitalism and government, could bleed into radicalism if given a push.

But there is nothing about right-wing objectives (of either the blatant fascist state-authoritarian or the closeted libertarian capital-authoritarian varieties) that challenges the current system. Rather, right-wing assholes want to magnify the basic assumptions of our presently-broken society. Don't challenge racism -- expand it! Don't temper capitalism -- strenghtn it! Don't liberate the gays from homophobia -- destroy them! Don't reduce imperialistic militarism -- send it to more places!

There are two general poles in politics, the democratic left and the authoritarian right. Nobody could claim that even the most radical leftist wants to invent a new society out of whole cloth. But the radical left really is radical, "striking at the root" of the problems of society, as the word originally meant. The "radical" right is deeply conservative and reactionary, built around change only insofar as it is more of the same. The left wants a change in quality, not quantity.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

I'm Breaking Up With Apple

For the last month or so I've had iPad Fever. It's a fairly common ailment from what I hear. I've long been a lover of Apple products, and the iPad exemplifies why. It's a masterpiece of industrial and user interface design. It does exactly what it needs to do and does it well. But I'm probably never going to buy an iPad.

That sound you hear is my wife sighing with relief.

Every relationship has to be judged, at some point, for its long-term potential. My growing problems with the iPhone and iPad are not the physical products, but the company and future. I don't really have any hesitation telling people they would love a MacBook. But the iPhone and iPad are not MacBooks, and the differences in this case make a difference. Let me illustrate with a small example.

One of the reasons for my iPad Fever was the idea of iBooks. I love books, but when I say that I mean I love the content of books. I am fairly indifferent to the form factor books come in. The idea of having my entire library with me at all times, with the ability to expand it instantly on demand, is terribly, terribly enticing. I would love to switch almost exclusively to digital books at this point.

But suppose I bought my iPad and started buying my books through the iBookstore and reading them in the iBooks app. A few years from now, I might have 500 books. Now suppose that I no longer want to use an iPad. Maybe Steve Jobs left Apple and the new CEO drove it into the ground. Maybe some hot new company becomes the "new Apple" and their line of tablets and smartphones is just plain better. So I buy my new device and want to read my books on it.

I can't.

Well, that's not strictly true. It's more accurate to say that I can't legally. I am forced to either continue using Apple products forever or break the law to read my books that I purchased. It would be like (and thanks to Cory Doctorow for this analogy) if I bought a special Barnes and Noble bookcase, and it was illegal to shelve any books bought from Barnes and Noble on an Ikea bookcase. Also, I have to read them in a Barnes and Noble recliner.

DRM is practically useless. If put in this position, I would almost certainly crack the DRM on my books and transfer them illegally, but I shouldn't have to make that choice. Sadly, this applies not only to books, but to movies and some music as well (and other devices, such as the Kindle or Nook, are just as guilty). The iPad is a great media consumption device, but committing any significant amount of media-buying effort to using the iPad makes you either an Apple user for life or a criminal.

Note that this is not at all the case if I were to do the reverse. That is, I could use any number of non-Apple products with DRM-free media and then, if I decide that I want to plug back into the Appleverse for good I can bring my books and movies and music with me without too much trouble.

Some might be comfortable with committing to Apple for life. They do, after all, make fantastic products. But we just don't know what the future holds. And for me, there is also just something fundamentally, philosophically wrong in not getting full control of what I buy. Apple's lockdown doesn't only include media. They also act as strict gatekeepers to what software they will allow users to install on their iPhones and iPads. You are, more literally than ever, a user of Apple products, not an owner -- despite paying for them.

This wasn't always the case. While Apple has always bundled Mac OS exclusively with Mac hardware, once the computer was yours there were no substantial limitations on what you could and couldn't do with it. Nobody was stopping you from running any program you wanted, legally, nor was anybody stopping you from playing or viewing any media -- aside from that which was already DRM'ed, which wasn't really Apple's fault. But in the last few years there has been a steady and clear progression towards a closed ecosystem in which Apple products are no longer the user's, free to do with as she pleases. Apple products are increasingly focused on making an admittedly smooth and enjoyable experience at the expense of genuine ownership, freedom, and in many cases, creativity.

Equally troubling is the lockdown on development. What we get offered in the iPhone/iPad App Store is only an Apple-approved subset of the apps actually written. But we have no way to install any non-Apple programs without jailbreaking our devices, which is a never-ending cat-and-mouse game with Apple's official OS updates and, they claim, illegal as well. But worse still is the fact that Apple doesn't merely reject apps that are unstable or inferior, they also prohibit competition with their own apps and impose their particular moral vision on the selection. Apple can and does reject apps for any reason it wants, and in doing so, they restrict my choices in ways I'm not comfortable with.

Don't misread me. Apple is entitled to be a competitive, secretive company. Their vertical hardware-software integration strategy is one of the key reasons for the stability and sheer delightfulness of Apple products. Exercising full control of the experience virtually ensures that for the average user the experience is a great one. I don't think Apple is "evil," nor do I think anyone who wants an iPad or a MacBook is wrong for getting one.

As for me, I've decided that the Apple ecosystem is one I'm no longer going to be a part of. I will happily let my friends and family continue to use them unaccosted for as long as they are happy to use them. I'm not really going to evangelize on this point unless things get very, very bad. But when it comes time for me to buy a new personal computer just for myself, it's probably going to be a notebook running Linux. And when it comes time for me to buy a new phone (almost 2 years from now, thanks to AT&T's contract) it's probably going to run Android. And when it comes time to buy books, music, and movies online, I'm only going to if when I buy them they're really mine. That's just me.

So I'm sorry, Apple, I still love you dearly but we can no longer be together. If you get over your DRM addiction and open up a little, give me a call sometime. If I'm computationally single then, I'd love to take you back.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Skeptical Veganism

There are many schisms in the vegan/animal rights movement. Perhaps the one that gains the most attention these days is that between the self-styled "abolitionists" and, well, everyone else. However, there is a more fundamental split among the vegan ranks that doesn't seem to be acknowledged often at all.

Vegans can be divided into two groups: a priori vegans and skeptical vegans. A priori vegans take veganism as the starting point of any decision involving animals; a priori is the Latin for "prior to," a term routinely used in philosophy to describe knowledge one "just has" before observation and experience. One striking example of a priori veganism comes from Tom Regan, author of The Case for Animal Rights. Regan, attempting to dismantle the utilitarianism of Peter Singer, cites the fact that, depending on the actual consequences, utilitarianism might not provide a strong case for vegetarianism as one of several reasons to reject it as a moral theory. Regan has decided a priori that vegetarianism (which he uses to mean veganism as well) is correct. Veganism isn't merely the logical outcome of his moral theory; the theory is constructed to justify veganism.

Building a belief system out of one's conviction that veganism is right isn't the only manifestation of a priori veganism. More commonly, vegans will use the definition of veganism as sufficient reason to do or not do some particular thing. Take the anti-consumerist activity known as freeganism. So-called freegans never buy animal products, but will use them if they would otherwise go to waste. A lot of freegans will, for example, go dumpster diving and might eat edible food containing animal products that has been thrown out. An a priori vegan will state without equivocation that this is wrong because vegans don't eat animal products period. Something being "not vegan" is automatically enough to make it wrong. Perhaps it is wrong. But if it is, there is something that makes it so other than not conforming to a particular word's definition.

We can contrast a priori veganism with skeptical veganism. The word skeptical here refers not to skepticism about the goodness of being vegan, but to the traditional skeptical position of requiring evidence to support one's views. The skeptical vegan is a vegan because veganism is consistent with her considered moral beliefs; if, somehow, it became clear that non-vegan activity was consistent with those considered moral beliefs, the veganism would go, not the beliefs. Some a priori vegans may say this makes the skeptical vegan no vegan at all.

Another way of distinguishing these positions is to say that a priori vegans see veganism as an end itself, while skeptical vegans use veganism as a means to some other end. Skeptical veganism can arise very simply from common moral judgments: we ought not cause avoidable harm, animal products harm animals, we can avoid animal products, therefore we ought to be vegan and avoid animal products. Veganism is here the means to the end of not harming animals.

A priori vegans are naturally concerned with not harming animals as well, but they extend veganism to cover cases in which no harm could possibly result. Suppose a vegan comes across a recently dead animal in the deep country. This vegan decides on a whim to eat the animal then and there, and never tells anyone about it. He is clearly not directly causing harm, nor is he contributing to the pervasive belief that animals are property which allows others to cause harm. The skeptical vegan quite probably calls this harmless hypocrite disgusting and may hope he gets diarrhea for his trouble. The a priori vegan, in contrast, calls him immoral. The a priori vegan is perfectly right to say that the hypocrite is not a vegan, at least so long as he keeps such things up. The question is whether being vegan or not actually matters, morally, in cases such as these.

One suspects there are two reasons for the difference between a priori and skeptical veganisms. First is simply commitment. Anyone who devotes any significant time to a cause is subject to a consolidation and solidification of her beliefs. Most vegans begin from a position of compassion for animals, and likely take the simply steps outlined above to arrive at a position resembling skeptical veganism. But over time, veganism becomes so engrained in their behavior and psychology that it becomes easier to simply use whether or not something is vegan as a proxy for whether or not it actually harms animals, and from there it is a short leap to a priori veganism.

The other reason for this division applies more to the theories and theoreticians. The difference between a priori and skeptical vegans mirrors, but is not identical to, the difference between duty-based and consequentialist ethics. Duty-based, or deontological ethics proposes that there are specific moral rules that should constrain our behavior. Consequentialist ethics suggests that whether an act is right or wrong depends on how good or bad the outcome is. Consequentialist vegans are pretty much skeptical vegans by default. But duty-based vegans may or may not be a priori vegans. Those that believe that we simply have a duty not to cause unnecessary harm to animals could be skeptical vegans; there could be fringe cases involving animals that do not cause them harm. But those who believe we have a firm duty not to use animals as means to our ends are likely a priori vegans; even an utterly unharmed animal could thus be wronged if it is being used in some way.

It is probably clear by now that I am a skeptical vegan. I think there are plenty of non-harm-based reasons not to use animal products in most of the hypotheticals above, but "they aren't vegan" isn't one of those reasons. And I would never argue that people should do non-vegan things, merely that they are not always morally wrong if they do. I think taken to logical conclusions, a priori veganism has many silly implications. If using animal products is just wrong, no matter what, the a priori vegan can't use convenience or difficulty of avoidance or even self-defense as an excuse for using, for example, medicine that has been tested on animals. The a priori vegan who avoids certain product brands because they test on animals has no justification for ever shopping at stores that sell meat or leather, or eating at restaurants that serve meat. If the a priori vegan catches household pests and releases them, he can't consistently drive a car faster than five miles per hour for fear of killing insects. For that matter, if we cannot use animals as means to our ends, regardless of if it harms them, even nature photography is forbidden….

But these are absurd. Scratch an a priori vegan, and no matter her conviction, a subconsciously skeptical vegan lies below the surface. A priori veganism is a conscious belief, but rarely one that extends to its furthest implications. A priori vegans can respond by shifting the goalposts: the original definition of vegan, after all, included an "as far as is possible and practical" clause that can be used to justify essentially whatever the a priori vegan wants it to. But note that "as far as is possible and practical" presents a paradox; it's not practical to never take animal-tested medicine or buy from stores that sell animal products or travel in a bug-killing vehicle, but its certainly possible.

But more importantly, a priori veganism is intellectually lazy. Perhaps that's part of its appeal, but it requires no thought and there is no context to consider. Skeptical veganism requires consideration and context. Skeptical vegans avoid animal products where it will probably avoid harming animals or contribute to a reduction in harming animals. Skeptical vegans could go on doing so even if a priori vegans decided to kick them out of the vegan club. And a priori vegans can go on claiming the moral high ground even when it matters not at all.

At least where it does matter, in actual fact, both sides agree.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Switching to Free Software (Sometimes)

It's no secret that I'm an Apple fanboy. I bought the iPhone when it was brand new and silly expensive; still sporting that first-generation now. The last two computers I bought were Macs, a final-generation and now defunct iBook and an iMac. We have three iPods in the house. Hell, I lined up for Leopard. That's right: I stood in line for an operating system.

But lately I've been playing with Linux (dual-booting on the iMac) and other free and open source software. See, as much as I love Mac build quality and user interface design, there's still a nagging problem, and it's not one limited to Macs: most of the software simply isn't mine.

Proprietary software (including DRMed media like music and movies) isn't owned by you at all, it is licensed to you, with terms and conditions. Technically, when you spend money on proprietary software you're buying a license to use something someone else owns.

Imagine if you went to the hardware store to buy a hammer. The guy behind the counter rings you up. "This hammer is licensed to you and may be used on five projects. You may not loan it to anybody, nor may you disassemble it. If you violate the terms if this license, we'll sue you for $25,000."

Unlike any other form of sale in the world, software companies decided that even when you buy stuff from them, they still own it. They call it "intellectual property," but unlike actual property it can't be transferred. Every form of publishing that converts to digital distribution seems to get this same bright idea. First music, then movies, now books and even fonts! They all tell the buyer: "Give us money for our product, but then only use it how we say you can."

There are alternatives. The term "free software" means free as in speech, not free as in beer. Free software can be bought and sold, but once it's yours it's yours, to do with as you please, down to the source code itself. A lot of high-quality free software is free as in beer, too, from whole operating systems (like the flavors of GNU/Linux) to word processors and web browsers.

Nobody would claim most free software is always as polished and friendly as Mac software, and Apple still makes some of the best-built hardware around. But when you get free software it's all yours, and that's worth more than all the eye-candy in the world.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Blogging Is Dead

Blogging is dead. In a lot of ways, it really is. Yet, at the same time, more people are blogging then ever, in both the traditional sense and with the rise of microblogging platforms like Twitter and Facebook status updates.

But the old-fashioned blogging died the instant blogging became profitable, or at least helped make other things profitable. In the ancient era prior to 2007 or so, blogs had something special that no other media had. Nobodies were somebody. Blogging was a hobby, not a career, and you were paid in respect, admiration, and influence.

The problem, if it is a problem, is not that nobody does the good old-fashioned blogging anymore. The problem is that nobody cares. I'm being slightly facetious here; of course some people care. Even the lowliest blog with semi-regular updates has a few dozen followers. But this is all lost beneath the influence of the blogging industry. If Technorati still means anything, look at the top ten blogs: all are professional, and most are corporate, with the sole exception of Boing Boing at the time of this post. Boing Boing remains one of my favorite blogs, but even it isn't quite good old-fashioned anymore. It's a business that makes a substantial revenue for its bloggers through advertising. It's still good old-fashioned in spirit, but certainly not in operation.

All is far from lost, however. I am certain that in terms of actual numbers, far more people blog today than ever did in the good old days, especially outside the US and Europe. I confess freely to reading and enjoying large numbers of professional and/or corporate blogs, and I follow celebrities of Twitter (of both "real" famous and "net" famous varieties). But I also go out of my way to read the obscure stuff, and it's all still there. People are still plugging away, sharing new ideas and viewpoints, if you dig past the first page of Google results or down the Twitter lists past the top hits.

We had a taste, from about 2000-07, of a world where the average person's opinion could be as important and disseminated as any news anchor, columnist, or author. The only way to keep that magic alive is to do it. Maybe its harder to rise above the corporate money today, but if you keep saying what needs to be said, someone will hear it. At least I hope so.

My Digital Life

I started blogging in 2004. In internet years, that dates back to prehistory. When I started blogging I wanted it to be easy to find me. My blog was eponymous. I blogged about whatever was on my mind. Things that happened to me, movies I saw, news, politics. It was fun to blog.

Then I got a job in a traditionally conservative field in a traditionally conservative state and I came to realize that I couldn't say what I wanted anymore. It was just too risky. For all my ideological views that I wouldn't want to work for someone who would fire me for being an atheist, or a socialist, or whatever else objectionable I am, the fact is that I needed that job more than I needed to stick it to them.

Enthusiasm waned. Eventually, I started a new blog with a new name, so that I could feel free to say whatever I wanted. Two things killed that blog. First, I found that anonymity is hard. It didn't take terribly long before googling my real name brought up my allegedly anonymous blog. Second, I didn't feel free to write whatever I wanted about certain topics, I felt compelled to write about certain topics. I felt like having a blog with a political reference as the title meant I had to be a political blogger.

This is my third blog. When I set it up a few months ago, I imported all the old entries from my old blogs, and posting has been sporadic at best since then. It's the same old story. I felt like since I was anonymous it wasn't personal, but I didn't feel like I had anything fresh, or even clever, to say about the subjects I'm interested in talking about.

Well, fuck it.

It's a new year, and I've decided that anonymity makes this blog more personal. I'm as free as I've ever been to write about whatever I want. My Twitter and Facebook are all locked to maximum privacy, so even if I link to posts here it stays there. If you google me this blog doesn't come up. If you know me personally you can read this and get a look at what I'm thinking. If you're an employer, there's no way to connect it to my name. I am going to use this blog, damn it, and often. I have thoughts, opinions, things to say, and if you've read six paragraphs of me bitching you might be interested enough to read them, too.

My problem before was that I not only wrote like I had an audience, I wrote like I had to entertain that audience. I'd love an audience, but I want them to be reading what I write because they want to read it, not because I tailored it to get them. Not that I lied or anything; it's more that I didn't say things I was thinking because I didn't want to alienate readers, or because I felt like I was just repeating what they could read, better said, elsewhere.

So my 2010 resolution to you, whoever you are, why ever you are reading this, is that you will actually have something to read here again. Resubscribe to my RSS feed. Comment on what I have to say, and often. I'm back.

Until I get bored.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Just some shit I made up

Rights. I love rights. Civil rights, human rights, animal rights. Gay rights, women's rights, patients' rights, consumers' rights. Rights are useful tools. But let's be honest: rights are just some shit we made up. Rights are an easy, deliberation-free way to trump potentially disastrous decisions, like, say, enslaving people. We made them up because they're useful to achieve something good.

But a lot of us think rights are real. People (and sometimes animals) have natural dignity, or inherent value, or some other shit we make up, just by being people (or animals) and we have to respect that magical feature of their existence. But the Universe doesn't care. Absent sentient beings to value themselves and other sentient beings there is no value, and absent people to take offense there is no dignity. Saying a person has inherent value just means we really don't like to hurt people. It isn't a metaphysical fact, a biological fact, another statistic like mass or density. The only measure of value is how valuable it is for someone.

Rights aren't the only shit we made up. Just about any exceptionless rule is a good candidate for made-up magical shit. "Lying is wrong." Sure, I can get behind that. You shouldn't usually lie. But why? Did we make that shit up? Either lying is just plain wrong and you'd better be honest when the Nazi asks you where the Jews are, or lying is only wrong for some reason. A reason like: because it usually hurts people. And if that's the case, it is the hurting people part that's bad — the lying is just how it happens sometimes. Which means that if lying, in a given case, actually helps people (like, say, those being targeted for genocide) it isn't, in fact, bad.

In the end, just about any moral rule boils down to if you do this, people usually get hurt. And that's great, we don't like to hurt people, so we should avoid it. But dogmatic adherence to these rules, this shit we make up to remind ourselves not to do the hurting thing that's actually bad, sometimes causes more bad stuff to happen. Personally, I think it is more important not to hurt people (or animals) than to let them get hurt because we thought the rules were more important than their reason.

But maybe I just made that shit up, too.