Sunday, 4 March 2012

Sanctorum 2012

“President Obama once said that he wants everybody in America to go to college.  What a snob.”

-- Rick Santorum - Troy, Michigan, Feb 25 2012

The Latin phrase sanctum sanctorum is a Latin translation of the biblical term: "Holy of Holies" .

-- Wikipedia

While President Obama speaks about the U.S. keeping pace in the global market, Richard 'Rick' Sanctorum uses God to ground his opposition to equal rights (for minorities) and equal access (to higher education).  Sanctorum's platform would lead to a terribly weakened America, unable to defend itself in the modern world.

The images were adapted from Creative Commons and public domain materials. Please use for any democratic purpose. -  copy, distribute, put it on t-shirts, get the message out:    A vote for Sanctorum is a vote for devolving a great nation.

-- cross posted to

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Johnny Hacktotum, 1955-2011

[Steve's] dad, Paul -- a machinist who had never
completed high school -- had set aside a section
of his workbench for Steve, and taught him how
to build things, disassemble them, and put them
together.  From neighbors who worked in the
electronics firm in the Valley, he learned about
that field -- and also understood that things like
television sets were not magical things that just
showed up in one's house, but designed objects
that human beings had painstakingly created.  

The anecdote above is my favorite from the recent gush of biographical material regarding Steve Jobs.  It gives us a picture of the young Jobs, encouraged by his adoptive dad to take gizmos apart and put them together again.  (It even raises the question:  If Jobs had grown up with his biological parents, would he have become a hacker?


Today, mainstream usage of 'hacker' mostly refers
to computer criminals, due to the mass media usage
of the word since the 1980s... This usage has become
so predominant that the general public is unaware that
different meanings exist....

So what are those other meanings?

My own dad used to tell the story of how, as a kid who aspired to hacking, he wanted to figure out what made a lightbulb work so, as a matter of course, or rather, as a matter of exploring its inner workings, he broke one.  Oops!  His mother was not pleased...

In that regard, Steve Jobs was lucky.  His dad not only encouraged him to get inside of gizmos, he gave him a space especially dedicated to doing so, and provided the tools as well.

On 'How to Become a Hacker,' Eric Steven Raymond writes:  "Hackers solve problems and build things, and they believe in freedom and voluntary mutual help," adding:

To behave like a hacker, you have to believe that
the thinking time of other hackers is precious, so
much so that it's almost a moral duty for you to share
information, solve problems and then give the
solutions away just so other hackers can solve new
problems instead of having to perpetually re-
address old ones.

To our working definition, we therefore need to add:  hackers are not only committed to the principle of getting inside of things.  They also have a natural antipathy to secrets, which they regard as a means of exercising coercive control over the common ownership of knowledge.


Paul Graham, in 'The Word Hacker,' expands on the history of the term:

Hacking predates computers.  When he was working
on the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman used to
amuse himself by breaking into safes containing secret

Okay, so what makes hackers different from criminals?

Graham goes on:

It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one
would want to do such things.  Another friend of mine
once got in trouble with the government for breaking 
into computers.  This had only recently been declared
a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative
technique didn't work.  Police investigation apparently
begins with a motive.  The usual motives are few:  drugs,
money, sex, revenge.  Intellectual curiosity was not one
of the motives on the FBI's list.  Indeed, the whole concept
seemed foreign to them.

B&E, where the police are concerned, comes with a motive.  People commit a crime when they transgress boundaries they're not supposed to in order to steal, rape, or otherwise take what doesn't belong to them.  But Graham raises the crucial question:  what does it mean to violate that boundary out of a spirit of inquiry?

Wherein lies th'offense, that man should thus attain to know?
Paradise Lost, Book 9, lines 725-6

Hacking sometimes means breaking a lightbulb to see what makes it work.  Hacking, as in the case of Byron Sonne in Toronto, involves hacking into security systems, not to advance terroristic acts, but to identify the flaws in those systems.  Lock-picking societies perform a valuable service, discovering weaknesses that manufacturers are unaware of in their own products.  Hacking invariably involves finding a way inside the system to understand how it works and--if possible--improve on the existing system.  And yes, that means figuring out how to get past the barriers to entry, whatever they might be.


My 11-year old daughter spent part of the summer with her grandfather, who remains a hacker to this day.  Together, they repaired a broken ACER laptop.  The other night, my daughter and I took it out of its box for the first time, and she delighted in showing me where all the screws to open up the case were--especially the hidden ones--exulting in her ability to tell the difference between things that were really screws versus things that only resembled screws, in other words, ambiguous features that might throw a less expert hacker than herself off the scent. 

The long and short of it is that if you can't get inside of something, then you'll never really know how it works.

Years ago, I had the weird good fortune to attend a human dissection.  It was in the context of a class called The Body in Nineteenth-Century Literature.  A sign-up list for visits to the anatomy lab circulated but, because my friend Laura and I always sat at the back of the room (the better to compose lengthy criticisms of the professor's assumptions), we were the last to receive it.  The only remaining session was:  dissection of the human face.  Apparently no one else wanted to get quite that intimate with the corpse.  Laura and I were delighted.  In my free time, I had been reading Darwin's book on facial expressions in animals, while Laura was obsessed with the creation of life in Frankenstein.  At the dissection, we were given the job of spritzing water on the cadaver's face to keep it malleable.  As the pre-med students painstakingly stripped the skin away from the underlying nerve structure, I remember Laura exclaiming in awe:  "It's like watching an act of creation!"

That's what taking things apart amounts to, preparing to be a future Maker.


As my daughter said on October 6, with such truth, when she heard the morning news, "It's sad when anyone dies."  Yet, the reality is, politics swirl around Jobs' death and how it is received.  And it seems to me that his critics bear listening to as much as the people who honor his undeniable achievements.

As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt
former mayor Daley.  "I'm not glad he's dead, but I'm glad
he's gone."  Nobody deserves to die - not Jobs, not Mr. Bill,
not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs.  But we 
all deserve the end of Jobs' malign influence on people's 

Many people took offense at Stallman's insensitive remarks about the dead.  Kyle Wescott, among those who posted comments, went so far as to berate Stallman for being an upstart nobody:

What products has this guy brought to market that have
enhanced people's lives?  This guy sounds like an educated
idiot and idealistic to the point of foolishness.

What Wescott and many others don't know is that Stallman wrote GCC, the GNU Compiler Collection (remember:  if you're a hacker, it's almost a moral duty to share information, solve problems and then give the solutions away), which Jobs used gratis to compile the Mac OS X.  Stallman is also the nonsalaried president of FSF (Free Software Foundation), who "popularized... copyleft, a legal mechanism to protect the modification and redistribution rights for free software."


Apple's gizmos, with their sleek exteriors, their paper-thin interiors, have been described as fetish objects, as commodities that draw consumers like moths to the flame.  They are, however, to hacker sensibility, like garlic to vampires.  It's as if they say:  "If you use your home-made tools to pry me open, you'll be sorry...  I'll never be as beautiful again."  Add to the aesthetic deterrent, Apple's corporate policies that make it impossible for iPhone users to load anything onto their device without Apple's permission.  As put it:  "The internet allowed people around the world to express themselves more freely and more easily... Apple reversed that progress."

It's like the curse of Laius.  Remember that story?  The Oracle told Laius his son would grow up to kill him, so he abandoned his offspring on a mountain, with his ankles pinned together.  Which is why we have the Oedipus Complex today.

Raised as a hacker, Jobs sought to create devices that would be hacker-proof.

By all means, let's give the guy his due.  He was the 21st century's Hack-of-all-Trades, our culture's Johnny Hacktotum.  He hacked tech, he hacked advertising, he hacked design, he hacked corporate culture.  He cracked them wide open, figured out how they worked, and, in many cases, made them work better.

Personally, I am not waiting for the next Steve Jobs to lead the U.S. to new heights of innovation.  The Free Software Foundation is alive and well and every device I own runs like greased lightning on open source software.  (I'm literally richer for it.)  What I'm waiting for--with a wink to Kubrick--is for kids everywhere, in their garage or basement or somewhere, to hold a rock (or screwdriver or fingernail or magic spell) over an i-Product, seeking to crack or pry or seduce the thing open, plumb its workings, and make it run better--and more openly--for all of us in the future.

It was funny that many members of the crowd at OWS raised their iPhones and iPads like lighters at a Dead Concert to mark Jobs' passing.  'If not for Steve, we wouldn't be here'...  you know:  connected, wired, tweeting.  Indeed, without restrictions on open innovation and open source, without corporate censorship, who knows where we might be today?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

DIY: A Sex of One's Own

My generation came of age during Second-Wave Feminism.  By the time we reached 18, the country was already entering its 'post-feminist' phase.

In these final years before the discovery of the AIDS virus, we were the direct heirs of the most recent Sexual Revolution.  We enjoyed easy access to birth control and the knowledge that, if we did get pregnant, abortions were legal and affordable.  Our spiritual forebears were slightly older women who still looked and acted like hippies, who went bra-less, who hitchhiked and camped alone, who didn't give a rat's ass about makeup (unless it was body paint), who lived in communal homes, and slept with anyone they wanted to.

By 1982, most of us were more influenced by pictures of freedom-fighters in Latin America than fashion spreads in Vogue.  We had copies of Nancy Chodorow's Reproduction of Mothering and treated it like gospel.  Accordingly, the oppressor we sought to escape was not an abstract Patriarchy--the enforcer in Judith Butler-speak of 'regulatory norms'--but someone much closer to home:  a.k.a., our own mother, who, just as Chodorow said, was actively, energetically working to turn us into her.  Over Turkey preparation, she'd patiently endure our rants against Ronald Reagan, against his administration's gay-bashing, against U.S. intervention in El Salvador, before asking about that special boy, if he was possibly the one, and if we were taking necessary precautions--not to avoid an unwanted pregnancy--but to nail down our catch.

After turning 18, I and others of my generation fled our mothers in countless ways: even in winter, we went around in bare feet and rarely laundered hippie skirts; we traveled the country solo in Greyhound buses, took jobs as cashiers, copy editors, or bicycle couriers to cover rent for a room of our own; in short, pursued a life of uprooted movement, animated by the drive to defer husbands and households for as long as humanly possible, if not forever.


And then, in 1985, Wendy Cheek was murdered in San Francisco.

A lot of things came together in this incident.  Wendy went to the same College I did and, even though I only knew her from a distance, she was, to my mind, the embodiment of Free Spirit.  She wafted across campus in her diaphonous clothes, a sensuous, blond, California girl who made the rest of us, however hard we tried, feel like hard-bitten East Coast Calvinist prudes.  That's about all I knew of her until several years later when I moved to California for graduate school and read an article in the local newspaper describing how she's been raped, tortured, murdered, her body incinerated and abandoned under a heap of auto parts in San Mateo County.
Like I said, up until that point, sex had never been scary for me or my friends.  In the shelter of our Counter-Culture, it had never occurred to any of us that we could mortally offend anyone by being female.  Especially because, in our minds, we weren't really women at all, but a new breed.

A week before Wendy died, Robert Fairbank assaulted another woman.  After he'd hit her in the head several times, Arlene G, as she is named in the court records, pleaded with him to let her go, then, realizing that he was too drug-addled to reason with, sucked him off repeatedly while he phoned porn sites.  Afterward, he invited her out to dinner.  On the way to the restaurant, she successfully escaped and reported the incident to Police.
Thanks to the War on Drugs (Wiki:  "In the 1980s, while the number of arrests for all crimes was rising 28%, the number of arrests for drug offenses rose 126%"), the prisons had no vacancies.  The Judge let Fairbank out on parole and Fairbank killed Wendy one week later.  He took her to the same room where he assaulted Arlene G, made her put on the same red jumpsuit, called the same porn sites.  The autopsy showed that Wendy died of multiple stab and puncture wounds.  I can't get it out of my head that Fairbank was pissed at Arlene G for tricking him and took out his rage--against all women--on Wendy.  But even worse, Wendy died, forced to submit to a gender rite we'd grown up believing did not and should not define us.

Something was happening.  The original threat, of being dragged into domesticity and mothering, was matched on the other side by the hard reality of gender-based violence which it would also be--in numerous ways--our generation's lot to face.

Does anyone remember the story of the Peasant's Wise Daughter?  After being awarded a piece of land by the king, the peasant, in the course of digging up his field, finds a gold mortar and insists on returning it to his royal benefactor.  The daughter warns him that he should not do so, as the king will obviously demand the pestle that goes with it.  The daughter proves right.  The king, suspecting the peasant of withholding the pestle, throws him in prison.  "Alas, alas, if I had but listened to my daughter..." the peasant laments.  To which the king responds, "If you have a daughter who is as wise as that, let her come here."  In a way that definitely casts suspicion on the king's motives, he challenges the daughter to a test:  "[Come] to me not clothed, not naked, not riding, not walking... and if you can do that I will marry you."

   The wise daughter handily wins the bet by showing up naked in a fishing net dragged by an ass:
So she went away, put off everything she had on, and then she was not clothed, and took a great fishing net, and seated herself in it and wrapped it entirely round and round her, so that she was not naked, and she hired an ass, and tied the fisherman's net to its tail, so that it was forced to drag her along, and that was neither riding nor walking.

Being without boundaries was starting to make me nervous, as if it was dangerous to exist with so little definition.  But the boundaries other people threw up for protection, it seemed to me, made the problem worse.  Heavy duty security devices screamed out:  I'm valuable.  Steal me!
The paradox of the Peasant's Daughter:  How does one repel violation while dismantling the walls of self?  How do we win by kissing dirt?


From 18 on, I was happy to be confirmed in my androgyny, my defiance of set roles and gender types.  But, on turning 29, something told me I would be safer in general--my experience of the world less organized around fear and uncertainty--if I chose, against personal resistance, to claim some form of gender definition.  In a move that might seem strange--or not--to young women now, my answer was, rather than take self-defense classes, or get a gun, to buy my own high heels.

My first pair was not particularly high, but high enough to make walking feel unlike walking (another paradox).  Until that point, I had been padding around the world in the equivalent of bedroom slippers, trusting enough in circumstances and contingencies to think that nothing more stiff and upright was necessary.  The shoes were a revelation.

I wasn't dressed for 5th Avenue.  I didn't pair the heels with sleek designer suits or dresses.  My clothes did not say:  I dare you to fight me for them.  I did not give off a sense of entitlement.  I did reek, however, of definition.  Starting that day, I walked everywhere.  150 blocks/day through every part of town.  It didn't feel at the time like I was trying to conquer fear, so much as meditate on what drove it, contemplating where the fear came from, how much it has to do with what a person thinks they have to lose, what they perceive as belonging to them.  So I wasn't just learning to walk in heels, but learning to wear my own sexuality, not like a possession someone can steal, but like something bone-deep.  A source, not of gratuitous provocation, but inviolable power.  Far from feeling like a target, I had never felt more warmly welcomed.  I was regaled with hearty support:  'Great shoes, great gams,' which seriously altered the outlook--and sense of connectedness--of someone who, until then, had passed through the androgynous back-alleys of life, dodging the shackles, not only of definition, but define-ability.

Evolution of the Species


Evolution of Identity

Taking long walks that summer through the Bronx, through East and West Harlem, down Riverside Drive to 11th and 12th Avenues--stopping to talk to people at corner stores, to construction workers, to families barbecuing outside their homes, to people living on the street, to new mothers and crack dealers--the summer of '91 was my Debutante Ball.  I learned that the people of New York City respond to nothing more warmly than a frank declaration, the place where hard edges and personal openness meet.


Two years ago I was in a Toronto sex shop buying gear for Halloween.  The salesgirl, a Women's Studies major dressed as Wonder Woman, apologized repeatedly:  for her costume, for the fact that her boyfriend wanted her to wear it, and beyond that, for the fact that she had let her boyfriend persuade her to wear it, performing mea culpas as if I were, well, her mother or one of her Women's Studies profs.  I have to remind myself--at 49 now--that young women her age were, indeed, raised and taught by women my age.  Whereas my generation defied our mothers by rejecting heels (and everything we thought they represented), this generation apologizes to their mothers for succumbing to the lure of those symbols.

Symbols are collectively determined.  Judith Butler tries to play it both ways, saying what you can't escape you have to subvert.  Apologies to Judith, but, if you want to be an active participant in culture, you can't opt out and say:  I choose to parody the conventions, to exist tangential to definition.  The definitions will catch up with you, one way or another (R.I.P. Wendy).  Better, IMHO, to seize the reins and help re-shape the meaning.

My own high heels, far from signaling a caving in to convention, a buckling to societal expectation, proved a calling card, a declaration of being ready to play by a set of established rules.  Since I turned 18, no one has told me how to dress.  Certainly not my mother.  Especially not the media.  I dress for my partner (not because he makes me wear stuff I don't want to, but because I want to reciprocate the many things he does for me) and in ways I hope will set a sex-positive example for my daughter.  Today, I am active not only in making my own shoes, but in making my own sexual identity.  When I walk in the world, I am neither armored nor undefined.  I am connected and grounded, through a pair of heels and a sex to proudly call my own.

Cross posted to dagblog

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: A Liberal Anthem for Our Time

                     --  On the occasion of the mass shooting in Tucson, January 8, 2011

President John F. Kennedy defined the American liberal as  "... someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties" [cited by Eric Alterman, Why we're Liberals: a political handbook for post-Bush America,  2008]

Today, when only 22% of Americans identify themselves as liberals--up a substantial 4 points from a poll in 1992--the term has acquired a derogatory taint.  "There was a time when liberalism was, in Arthur Schlesinger's words 'a fighting faith'...  Over the last three decades, though, liberalism has become an object of ridicule, condemned for its misplaced idealism, vilified for its tendency to equivocate and compromise, and mocked for its embrace of political correctness.  Now even the most ardent reformers run from the label, fearing the damage it will inflict..." [Kevin Boyle, Political Science Quarterly, Winter 2008/09, cited Wikipedia, “Modern Liberalism in the U.S.”]

The other day my daughter received a message from a penpal in the United States asking:  “Do you have a crush?”  My daughter is only 10 and, unless there's something she's not telling me, I don't think she's started crushing on boys or girls at school yet, but she has begun the all-important process of crushing on heroes and heroines, both fictive and real.  She moons over mythologies.  At the moment her crushes are all liberal heroes like Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Julian Assange.  I think it's great that crushes are passed down genetically (!), while, at the same time, I want to protect her from a repeat of my own experience, the perils of crushing on Liberal good guys, which, in my lifetime anyway,  has ended in heartbreak and cynicism. 

I was 13 in 1975, the year Milos Forman's film adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel came out and sparked one of my first, formative crushes on the character of Randle McMurphy.  Of course I had to get the book and read it, which I did over and over every night at bedtime.  Somehow the world was a better, more reassuring place to grow up in thanks to the existence of characters like McMurphy.  For those of you too young to recognize the title, McMurphy was a free-spirited rebel convict who fakes mental illness to get out of a prison sentence.  He starts out with no greater ambition than to slack off, but ends up committed to a larger good.  Ken Kesey's novel was published in 1962, the beginning of the decade in which, according to our sources at Wikipedia, people started hating liberals.

At the same time, Cuckoo's Nest was, according to an interview with Jack Nicholson, who played McMurphy, the highest grossing film of its time, pre-CGI and special effects, which is curious, because it's also—and continues to be—a Liberal Anthem.  Given everything we've heard lately about the minority status of liberals and progressives in the United States, it's interesting that Cuckoo's Nest set audience records in the mid 1970s, and worth revisiting to see how the myth of badass, devil-may-care Liberalism has changed in the last 35 years.


In the mid 70s, I think it's fair to say, the average moviegoer identified with McMurphy, whose passion for life was indomitable, who thumbed his nose at supercilious authorities like Nurse Ratched, figures who could find no better place to exercise power than the dead-end corridors of a psychiatric ward.  The mistake McMurphy makes is to underestimate how fantatical these folk are about hanging onto power, to the point where even an oddball freak—a bon vivant, rabble-rouser like himself--poses a threat significant enough ultimately to cost him his life. 

I wonder now, in 2011, why I never crushed on 'Chief' Bromden, the half-Indian inmate who, every bit as much as McMurphy, was doing a Hamlet act, faking madness or, in his case, deaf and dumbness, the better to fly below the radar; why, in other words, back then, I never went for the brawny guys, the ones who had the physical power to back up their point-of-view.  Maybe it had to do with my upbringing.  On the one hand, I was taught to trust in forebearance, because virtue triumphs in the end.  On the other hand,  my peers and I loved irreverence, as if you could deflate the bogey-people with laughter alone.

Ironically, the iconic character for those of us currently on the Left is no longer the grinning, maverick, and unabashed McMurphy, but has become the 'Chief' who stands stone mute with his broom in the corridor, listening to, bearing witness to the craziness, and failing to speak or act.

The most erosive thing Kesey's novel exposed was how, living among cuckoos, the 'Chief'—labeled with that derisive moniker--lost sight of real, factual truths.  Despite being physically strong and towering over guys like McMurphy and the aids on the ward, Bromden had bought into the delusion that he was small and powerless. When you lose perspective on personal strength, as First Nations people then and American Liberals now have, it is a rare day when you trust the strength of your own convictions enough, like Sheriff Dupnik did in Tucson, to speak first and refuse to retract later.

In the wake of the recent assassination attempt on Representative Giffords in Arizona, in particular the fierce resistance on the part of gun activists to entertain renewed limits on the Second Amendment, such as a ban on high-capacity magazines, prommie, responding to a forum on wrote:

  “I understand that the Arizona legislature, in response to this tragedy, is considering legislation that would require a hunting license before you could go hunting Democrats, and would impose a daily limit of 2 Democrats per hunter.  They are hoping this measure will conserve a sufficient number of Democrats for the enjoyment of the sports-hunters, it's the same thing they do with deer, elk, and bear licenses.... it's in the hunters' interest to preserve a breeding population”

I can't help but note the characteristic use of wit to defuse the gravity of the charge, but prommie's humor is as dark as it gets at a time when Tea Party activists brazenly declare open-season on government, recommending “Second Amendment remedies” to remove popularly elected Democrats from office.

If the American Liberal starts off his/her run in the 60s with a swagger, a grin, a Jack Nicholson appetite for mischief and upsetting expectation, 50 years later we are the mongrel 'Chief' in the corner, tentative about our roots, for whom the original meaning of American democracy is a faraway myth, who has been reduced to biting his tongue and staying clear of the fray.  Poked, prodded, called names, he remains stoic and silent, playing deaf and dumb.

Rob Harvie—a conservative blogger at Salon--observing events in Tucson, calls for cooler heads to prevail.  Cooler heads, Mr. Harvie, don't return to the ward under cover of 'relaxing music' to line up for medication.  They wake up from their delusions and seize on fact, viz, that they have the strength necessary, as Bromden does, to pull that motherfucker of a hydrotherapy unit off its foundations, recognizing that, empirically speaking, it is just big and heavy enough to shatter the walls of the cuckoo's nest.

I can only hope for my daughter's future that she crushes on characters—and real people--who aren't as easily intimidated, as my generation has been, by untruths and false characterizations.

The not-so-funny joke of it is that the American Liberal is grand and powerful and rooted in American traditions worth preserving.  As President Kennedy said:  “if that is what they mean by a 'Liberal', then I’m proud to say I’m a 'Liberal.'  Currently the Cuckoo's Nest is the United States, whose nest is in the process of being taken over by corporate, right-wing interests.

Mr. President, it's 2011.  You were elected with a majority mandate. Show the lucidity you are capable of: make use of fact, leave the squabble behind, and fly over the damn cuckoo's nest. Far from open season, it should be open sky.

Cross posted to dagblog