Category Archives: Writing

For Your Consideration: Laws of Life, Art of (Cyber)war, The Minecraft Generation, and Self or Selfie

Time to re-boot the newsletter. I’ve been meaning to start organizing it again for months but haven’t made the time. Not sure what interrupted the flow especially when I had a lot of encouragement from friends and family. One in particular who used to encourage me on this, to publish (or re-publish) the things that interested me, and to write even when I felt like it was an echo into the void. Miss you dude…

1. Jeremy England, the Man Who May One-Up Darwin

In town to give a lecture, the Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar speaks quickly, his voice rising a few pitches in tone, his long-fingered hands making sudden jerks when he’s excited. He’s skinny, with a long face, scraggly beard and carelessly groomed mop of sandy brown hair — what you might expect from a theoretical physicist. But then there’s the street-style Adidas on his feet and the kippah atop his head. And the fact that this scientist also talks a lot about God.

The 101 version of his big idea is this: Under the right conditions, a random group of atoms will self-organize, unbidden, to more effectively use energy. Over time and with just the right amount of, say, sunlight, a cluster of atoms could come remarkably close to what we call life. In fact, here’s a thought: Some things we consider inanimate actually may already be “alive.” It all depends on how we define life, something England’s work might prompt us to reconsider. “People think of the origin of life as being a rare process,” says Vijay Pande, a Stanford chemistry professor. “Jeremy’s proposal makes life a consequence of physical laws, not something random.”

England’s idea may sound strange, even incredible, but it’s drawn the attention of an impressive posse of high-level academics. After all, while Darwinism may explain evolution and the complex world we live in today, it doesn’t account for the onset of intelligent beings. England’s insistence on probing for the step that preceded all of our current assumptions about life is what makes him stand out, says Carl Franck, a Cornell physics professor, who’s been following England’s work closely. “Every 30 years or so we experience these gigantic steps forward,” Franck says. “We’re due for one. And this might be it.”

And all from a modern Orthodox Jew with fancy sneakers.

2. The New Art Of War: How trolls, hackers and spies are rewriting the rules of conflict

While there is no international law that directly refers to the ultra-modern concept of cyber warfare, there is plenty that applies. So CDCOE assembled a panel of international legal experts to go through this existing law and show how it applies to cyber warfare. This formed the basis of the Tallinn Manual and the 95 so-called ‘black letter rules’ it contains (so named because that’s how they appear in the text).

Through these rules the manual attempts to define some of the basics of cyber warfare. At the most fundamental level, the rules state that an online attack on a state can, in certain circumstances, be the equivalent of an armed attack. It also lays out that such an attack is against international law, and that a state attacked in such a way has the right to hit back.

Other rules the manual spells out: don’t target civilians or launch indiscriminate attacks that could cripple civilian infrastructure. While many of these sorts of rules are well understood when it comes to standard warfare, setting it out in the context of digital warfare was groundbreaking.

While the manual argues that a cyber attack can be considered to be the equivalent of an armed attack if it causes physical harm to people or property, other attacks can also be considered a use of force depending on their severity or impact. For example, breaking into a military system would be more likely to be seen as serious, as opposed to hacking into a small business. In contrast, cyber attacks that generate “mere inconvenience or irritation” would never be considered to be a use of force.
The manual also delves into some of the trickier questions of cyber war: would Country A be justified in launching a pre-emptive military strike against a Country B if it knew Country B planned to blow up Country A’s main oil pipeline by hacking the microcontrollers managing its pipeline pressure? (Answer: probably yes.)

The manual even considers the legality of some scenarios verging on the science-fictional.

If an army hacked into and took control of enemy drones, would those drones have to be grounded and marked with the capturers insignia before being allowed to carry out reconnaissance flights? (Answer: maybe.)

But what’s striking is that the Tallinn Manual sets the rules for a war that hasn’t been fought yet.

3. The Minecraft Generation

Minecraft is an incredibly complex game, but it’s also — at first — inscrutable. When you begin, no pop-ups explain what to do; there isn’t even a “help” section. You just have to figure things out yourself. (The exceptions are the Xbox and Play­Station versions, which in December added tutorials.) This unwelcoming air contrasts with most large games these days, which tend to come with elaborate training sessions on how to move, how to aim, how to shoot. In Minecraft, nothing explains that skeletons will kill you, or that if you dig deep enough you might hit lava (which will also kill you), or even that you can craft a pickax.

This “you’re on your own” ethos resulted from early financial limitations: Working alone, Persson had no budget to design tutorials. That omission turned out be an inadvertent stroke of genius, however, because it engendered a significant feature of Minecraft culture, which is that new players have to learn how to play. Minecraft, as the novelist and technology writer Robin Sloan has observed, is “a game about secret knowledge.” So like many modern mysteries, it has inspired extensive information-­­sharing. Players excitedly pass along tips or strategies at school. They post their discoveries in forums and detail them on wikis. (The biggest one, hosted at the site Gamepedia, has nearly 5,000 articles; its entry on Minecraft’s “horses,” for instance, is about 3,600 words long.) Around 2011, publishers began issuing handbooks and strategy guides for the game, which became runaway best sellers; one book on redstone has outsold literary hits like “The Goldfinch,” by Donna Tartt.

“In Minecraft, knowledge becomes social currency,” says Michael Dezuanni, an associate professor of digital media at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. Dezuanni has studied how middle-­school girls play the game, watching as they engaged in nuanced, Talmudic breakdowns of a particular creation. This is, he realized, a significant part of the game’s draw: It offers many opportunities to display expertise, when you uncover a new technique or strategy and share it with peers.

The single biggest tool for learning Minecraft lore is YouTube. The site now has more than 70 million Minecraft videos, many of which are explicitly tutorial. To make a video, players use “screencasting” software (some of which is free, some not) that records what’s happening on-screen while they play; they usually narrate their activity in voice-­over. The problems and challenges you face in Minecraft are, as they tend to be in construction or architecture, visual and three-­dimensional. This means, as many players told me, that video demonstrations have a particularly powerful explanatory force: It’s easiest to learn something by seeing someone else do it. In this sense, the game points to the increasing role of video as a rhetorical tool. (“Minecraft” is the second-­most-­searched-­for term on YouTube, after “music.”)

4. Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie

Consider Erica, a full-time college student. The first thing she does when she wakes up in the morning is reach for her smartphone. She checks texts that came in while she slept. Then she scans Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter to see “what everybody else is doing.” At breakfast, she opens her laptop and goes to Spotify and her various email accounts. Once she gets to campus, Erica confronts more screen time: PowerPoints and online assignments, academic content to which she dutifully attends (she’s an A student). Throughout the day, she checks in with social media roughly every 10 minutes, even during class. “It’s a little overwhelming,” she says, “but you don’t want to feel left out.”

We’ve been worried about this type of situation for thousands of years. Socrates, for one, fretted that the written word would compromise our ability to retell stories. Such a radical shift in communication, he argued in Phaedrus, would favor cheap symbols over actual memories, ease of conveyance over inner depth. Philosophers have pondered the effect of information technology on human identity ever since. But perhaps the most trenchant modern expression of Socrates’ nascent technophobia comes from the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose essays on the subject—notably “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954)—established a framework for scrutinizing our present situation.

Heidegger’s take on technology was dire. He believed that it constricted our view of the world by reducing all experience to the raw material of its operation. To prevent “an oblivion of being,” Heidegger urged us to seek solace in nontechnological space. He never offered prescriptive examples of exactly how to do this, but as the scholar Howard Eiland explains, it required seeing the commonplace as alien, or finding “an essential strangeness in … familiarity.” Easier said than done. Hindering the effort in Heidegger’s time was the fact that technology was already, as the contemporary political philosopher Mark Blitz puts it, “an event to which we belong.” In this view, one that certainly befits today’s digital communication, technology infuses real-world experience the way water mixes with water, making it nearly impossible to separate the human and technological perspectives, to find weirdness in the familiar. Such a blending means that, according to Blitz, technology’s domination “makes us forget our understanding of ourselves.”

The only hope for preserving a non-technological haven—and it was and remains a distant hope—was to cultivate what Heidegger called “nearness.” Nearness is a mental island on which we can stand and affirm that the phenomena we experience both embody and transcend technology. Consider it a privileged ontological stance, a way of knowing the world through a special kind of wisdom or point of view. Heidegger’s implicit hope was that the human ability to draw a distinction between technological and nontechnological perception would release us from “the stultified compulsion to push on blindly with technology.”

 

 

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I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

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Digital Footprint – Digital Legacy

travels_antwerp

 

Here’s a question I’ve been spending some time on lately. What kind of a digital footprint do I want to leave when I pass? Consider it a legacy, an archive, a portion of the hive mind, or just a really convoluted and intricate scrapbook of thoughts and interests.

This blog will serve as one piece of it. This is my most articulate public thinking. However there are many other aspects of the Internet public and private record that I will want preserved so that my kids can peruse the things I was interested in or thought about and use them against me as I grow older.

The majority of my time, since the dawn of the Internet, has been focused on the issues of privacy, security, and risk. Combine that with being a fairly high self-monitor and it leads to a pretty conservative presence on the public Internet. Oh, don’t forget the pervasive irrational fear of being wrong or interpreted incorrectly, those will keep you from writing things down as well but I’ve written about that before.

Most of these tools I use to assist in mediating my information flow but, since Benjamin was born, I’ve taken a little more care to preserve more of my day to day thoughts and history. I would highly recommend all the tools here for use regardless off your parental status. Here are some of the tools I use:

WordPress: This blog http://peopleinpassing.com/

Goodreads: It’s my digital bookshelf. I’ve done my best to archive all the books I’ve owned and read at GoodReads and I use it to keep track of all the interesting books I’ve heard about but have yet to read as well. Depending on what condition my physical library is in later on in life, I think this will come in handy for all concerned.

Evernote: I use Evernote quite heavily for capturing the things that interest me on a day to day basis. I used to use Delicious.com pretty heavily but it pales in comparison to the utility of Evernote (and you can import all your old links.) I use tons of other services but Evernote is my aggregation point. It has lots of features to integrate with other services and for those that don’t natively integrate there’s “If-This-Then-That” (ifttt.com).

Facebook: I’m generally a terrible Facebook user. I don’t check it for days or weeks, don’t respond to messages or friend requests in a timely manner, rarely post to it and even more rarely post anything personal. Still, looking back at the activity log there are some interesting “likes” and comments in the feed.

Gmail:  The archive… mostly of subscription, Google alerts, distribution groups, etc… I’ve been writing letters to Benjamin since he was born. Not as many as I’d like of course. I’d like him to have more tidbits like “4/13/14 you combined “Daddy” and “Go” along with your finger pointed toward the door so you could play with your trucks by yourself.” I’ll continually try and be better about that.

Twitter:  I’m generally a worse Twitter user than Facebook user. Maybe this will change with time. Early on I had to ration my access to it. I generally only follow people who share information (ie. links) and there were limited ways to focus the firehose so I would end up with two dozen tabs of interesting things open to “read later” and I wouldn’t get anything done. I’m starting to use it more as a tool to reach out to people in fields I have no business dabbling in.

Flickr:  My photo archive. Once maintained and curated but that was long ago when I was heavily into photography and travelling (kind of like this blog). Maybe sometime in the future I will return to maintaining it but that will likely be years from now.

If at some point he’s interested in it, it will be there, time-stamped, tagged and waiting. If not I’m no worse for the effort. What tools do you use? What will you want your kids or the world to know about you? What kind of information legacy do you want to leave behind?

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Information Literacy for Kids

multi-media

 

I haven’t written for this blog in quite a while. I’ve been in keep-head-above-water mode recently between being a dad, a full work schedule, selling a house, buying a house, and moving. Busy busy, but better than being bored.

 

I’ve recently started acting on an idea I’ve been kicking around for about a decade: Teaching kids how to use the Internet. You might think “Teach kids how to use the Internet? They were born into the networked world, they’re Digital Natives! They don’t need lessons, they’ll teach us.” Granted, kids pick up new technologies faster than those who have had time to develop habits with old technologies. For example, fictitious person questioning me, I’d bet you’d run circles around a kid racing to find a book in a library based on it’s Dewey Decimal number (which was some pretty awesome tech when it was first developed). But the Digital Natives idea is simplistic and even somewhat dangerous.

 

Kids that were born into a world with Google, and other information services that provide access to the most abundant collection of information the human race has ever produced, need a different set of skills than previous generations to process that information. Unfortunately this is a set of skills that does not materialize conveniently with access to the Internet. It is also a set of skills that is not being taught anywhere early enough in my opinion, if at all. In the information age, or the age of information, being able to parse the mountains of available content with a critical eye is an incredibly important skill.

 

In the past few weeks a good friend has been helping me round out the ideas on what an education in Information Literacy would look like for the 5-7th grade cohort. His sons (10 and 13yrs old) have volunteered to be the first beta testers. We have had a few hours of pseudo-structured lesson time on what the Internet is, how Google goes about getting the information it provides when you ask it a question, how a basic web site works and ways to protect your privacy against unwanted tracking, etc… This has been just a baseline to find out what they already know, what interests them, what sticks, and how we can provide information that can make an immediate benefit.

 

We have a bunch of ideas for future lessons and projects but it all leads towards a better understanding of how to process information and to think critically about both the physical and digital worlds. Now, figuring out how to put it together and not bore them to death in the process…

 

I’ve also just finished reading Danah Boyd’s excellent new book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” and I’m even more motivated now than I was before. Anyone who is perplexed by the behavior of kids today, and how they use the technology available to them, should read it.

 

Here are a few great tidbits about the fallacy of the Digital Native and the work we have ahead of us:

 

“Familiarity with the latest gadgets or services is often less important than possessing the critical knowledge to engage productively with networked situations, including the ability to control how personal information flows and how to look for and interpret accessible information.”

 

“When we assume that youth will just absorb all things digital through exposure, we absolve ourselves of our responsibility to help teenagers develop necessary skills. Too often, we focus on limiting youth from accessing inaccurate or problematic information. This is a laudable goal, but alone it does teens a fundamental disservice.”

 

“In a networked world, in which fewer intermediaries control the flow of information and more information is flowing, the ability to critically question information or media narratives is increasingly important. Censorship of inaccurate or problematic content does not provide youth the skills they will one day need to evaluate information independently. They need to know how to grapple with the plethora of information that is easily accessible and rarely vetted. And given the uneven digital literacy skills of youth, we cannot abandon them to learn these lessons on their own.”

 

I will do my best to provide updates as we work through ideas and with any resources I come across in the process. Please feel free to provide any resources you like as well.

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Try Harder.

heavy

Try Harder” is something that often comes into my mind; often because I need to remind myself, less so that I feel the need to explain what it means to some unspecified listener.

Sometimes wisdom comes in tiny one or two-word packages that can take years to unpack and appreciate. Imagine struggling against a problem or goal, be it physical or academic, real or virtual, reaching the end of your wits, then turning to someone for a suggestion and receiving only “Try Harder” as advice. I can think of a few colorful two-word replies to that seemingly dismissive response. Let’s assume though that it’s not dismissive. Let’s assume it is what’s required.

tryharder_blog

The simple act of trying harder means focusing your effort. It’s not necessarily brute forcing your way through a problem or project, but being more mindful of the goal. Not all endeavors require an aggressive redoubling of effort.

Consider meditation, for example:

At it’s core meditation is a practice of calming the mind, and forcefully trying harder to meditate is obviously counterproductive. If an effort to calm the mind results in an internal shouting match consisting of you yelling at your mind to shut up, the point is lost. Mindfully trying harder means matching the appropriate method to the task at hand. In this case, trying harder to calm the mind may involve conjuring exceptional patience with yourself as you struggle to actually not do something.

Sometimes, however, Try Harder is exactly that. Bear down and push, go beyond your comfort zone, go to that place you’re afraid of. There’s rest at the end, but you have to get there first. In physical fitness, it could be lifting more than you ever have by focusing on technique, or it might be running faster than your best time by not giving in to that internal voice saying “It’s okay to quit.

Try Harder means discipline, progressions, perseverance. Ten minutes of focus today, eleven tomorrow, fourteen the day after; 100lbs overhead today, 120 next week, 175 five weeks later. Even when there are setbacks you keep trying harder, you keep fighting to keep or gain ground.

Tracking progress and effort is key to growth. If you don’t know where you’re at or where you’ve been, how can you have any clear idea of where you’re going?

This all takes effort. None of this is easy. All of this requires you to Try Harder.

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Letters to Benjamin

Tastes like baby
Not too long after Benjamin was born I came across this video [http://bit.ly/kNGhOy]. I think it was around fathers day. Anyway, I loved the idea and immediately set up a Gmail account for our little guy. Since then, Summer and I have been sending him emails with letters, pictures, video, etc…Sometimes we tell him about his day, sometimes we tell him about things that are important to us, sometimes we just say hi. It’s a digital time capsule and we hope it will be interesting to him at some point in his life.

 

Here is a letter I sent him recently about writing:

 

Benjamin,

I love you SO much! Just wanted to get that said before I started saying other things.

 

You are an amazing little guy and it is such a joy to be able to watch you grow into your own person.

 

Writing. I haven’t written you nearly enough. I have years to write you before you will even have a chance to read these, but I still would like to be better about telling you things about yourself as you grow up and about me as I grow up. Note: You are always growing up. All your life experiences add up to make you who you are at any given moment. So it’s never done. You are never fully “grown up”.

 

Writing. I will let you know that I plan to put emphasis on writing while you’re “growing up”. You will likely grow up in a world of 10 Billion people. With that many people it is hard to have your voice heard. Writing is one of the best possible ways to communicate your ideas. No matter what you choose to do with your life, no matter what interest or field of endeavor you decide to spend your time on. Learning to write well, to communicate well, will help you beyond measure.

 

I once read in a Stephen King book about writing that “writing is the closest thing we have to telepathy”. One mind speaking directly to another across time and space. Writing is an art and words have power. The right words in the right order and at the right time, stronger still.

 

Writing causes you to organize your thoughts, arguments, ideas. I’m attempting to do this now. You can learn a great deal about yourself from writing. Sometimes until you truly spend time explaining why you feel a certain way (even if just to yourself) you won’t understand the reason. Knowing why you believe what you believe is important. You may start out a writing project believing one thing, and finish convinced of another. When writing stories you may be surprised to find characters and themes that draw themselves out on the page. Characters you never expected to meet can assume critical roles. This happens in life as well but that is for another email.

 

Before this gets too wordy (I do that, explain too much. I’m sure you’ve probably noticed by now. My father did it too.) I will summarize with this final thought. You are now almost 15 months old. You are sleeping soundly in your crib upstairs. It’s well past midnight and because of writing I’m able to send my thoughts to you through time and space. You will be different when you read them and so will I, but you’ll always know your Daddy was up late talking to you before you could speak, because he loves you. (sappy ending but true).

 

Love,
Dad.

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Yoda was wrong

yodado

“Do, or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda

 

I don’t believe that’s true. Do or do not implies knowledge or skill already established. A binary choice that requires little effort. There is always “try”. Especially in the doing. It would almost be better said “Try, or do not” period. For without “try” there is no “do”. Do or do not is trite and absolutist. In all efforts there is effort, the trying makes it so. You can “do” with little effort or enthusiasm or skill and can say you have “done”. To what degree you have “done” is not measured or established.

 

To try is to strive, to push, to endeavor. To try is to be bad at something and know that if you make the effort, you will improve. Trying is what life is made of. Whether it is starting something new, getting better at something established, or brushing up on something old. Trying is the essence of making life worthwhile.


“Do or do not” is for bungee jumping and skydiving. It is for knowing that once you cross the threshold that there is only one result to whatever degree of success. While that total commitment is admirable. There is a lot of try that goes into that one moment.

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