An ethicist considers the ramifications of using apps to improve our habits. And also whether willpower as we normally think about it even exists.

Digital Willpower.jpg

In article after article, one theme emerges from the media coverage of people’s relationships with our current set of technologies: Consumers want digital willpower. App designers in touch with the latest trends in behavioral modification–nudging, the quantified self, and gamification–and good old-fashioned financial incentive manipulation, are tackling weakness of will. They’re harnessing the power of payouts, cognitive biases, social networking, and biofeedback. The quantified self becomes the programmable self.

Skeptics might believe while this trend will grow as significant gains occur in developing wearable sensors and ambient intelligence, it doesn’t point to anything new. After all, humans have always found creative ways to manipulate behavior through technology–whips, chastity belts, speed bumps, and alarm clocks all spring to mind. So, whether or not we’re living in unprecedented times is a matter of debate, but nonetheless, the trend still has multiple interesting dimensions. 

Let’s start here: Individuals are turning ever more aspects of their lives into managerial problems that require technological solutions. We have access to an ever-increasing array of free and inexpensive technologies that harness incredible computational power that effectively allows us to self-police behavior everywhere we go. As pervasiveness expands, so does trust. Our willingness to delegate tasks to trusted software has increased significantly.

Individuals (and, as we’ll see, philosophers) are growing increasingly realistic about how limited their decision-making skills and resolve are. Moreover, we’re not ashamed to discuss these limits publicly. Some embrace networked, data-driven lives and are comfortable volunteering embarrassing, real time information about what we’re doing, whom we’re doing it with, and how we feel about our monitored activities.

Put it all together and we can see that our conception of what it means to be human has become “design space.” We’re now Humanity 2.0, primed for optimization through commercial upgrades. And today’s apps are more harbinger than endpoint.

Consider, for example, GymPact, an iPhone app that combines GPS tracking and financial rewards/penalties to motivate people to go the gym, is getting lots of attention. Fail to work out as regularly as you promised yourself, GymPact — which has users register their geographical location via a “check-in” button — can be configured so that funds transfer to participants with better resolve.

Or take myfitnesspal, which is geared towards folks who prefer the social networking route to exercise. My wife, Noreen, is thrilled with the ease by which it allows her and her iPhone-enabled sister to share caloric intake, fitness regimes, and encouraging notes. Before eating, Noreen consults the food index to determine the calories per serving of a given option. Having established a daily consumption goal, she can glance at the interface to check the number of calories she’s already taken in and burned through exercise. What once was a taxing decision about how to proceed has thus become a no brainer; the program takes all the guesswork out of knowing what to do to maintain a healthy weight.

What about hotheads who can’t resist sending flaming e-mails? There’s an app for that, too! ToneCheck is the emotional analogue to a spell checking tool. Applying connotative intelligence research, it “automatically detects the tone in your email” and, if a draft exceeds the threshold for negative emotions (e.g., anger or sadness), it offers the author a warning that can prompt revision.

Then, there is StayFocused, a motivational tool for “giving your will power a break.” Like fitness, minimizing online distraction is a popular resolution. The Chrome extension allows users to designate blocked sites that they want to limit their own access to. This self-imposed discipline resembles the strategy used by the mythical Odysseus who asked his crew to tie him to the mast because he knew he lacked the willpower to avoid succumbing to the sirens’ sweet but deadly songs. Similarly, folks who know they spend too much time on Facebook and Twitter but succumb to the addiction anyway can self-police by virtually binding their own hands.

The final example is a variation of the Stayfocused theme, but worth mentioning in its own right because the name perfectly captures the time we’re living in. Freedom is a productivity app that eliminates distraction for periods ranging from one minute to eight hours by disabling a computer’s capacity for networking–cutting off Facebook, Twitter, online shopping, e-mail, instant messaging, et cetera. That’s right, freedom now means the willful use of technology to limit one’s options!

Could these and similar motivating technologies solve humanity’s perennial willpower crisis? This would be especially welcoming if the tools proved useful against complex diseases, like drug addiction. But, what about the mundane cases just described?

Not surprisingly, philosophers have had much to say about the enticing and seemingly inevitable dispersion of technological mental prosthetic that promise to substitute or enhance some of our motivational powers.

Their comments suggest consuming digital willpower may not be as innocent or simple as it may first seem. However, an emerging strain of philosophical inquiry could upend these traditional criticisms and open the door to guilt-free willpower enhancement.

Ethical Concerns About Digital Willpower

First, critics voice skepticism about the effectiveness of new media tools for enhancing willpower. Some say that there’s a “downside to taking your fitness resolutions online,” but beyond the practical issues lie a constellation of central ethical concerns.

These concerns aren’t directly primarily at the use of any particular software or hardware. Instead, they should cause us to pause as we think about a possible future that significantly increases the scale and effectiveness of willpower-enhancing apps. Let’s call this hypothetical future Digital Willpower World and characterize the ethical traps we’re about to discuss as potential general pitfalls. Whether they actually have teeth will depend on how technology and practice develop, details that are not considered here.

The first concern about Digital Willpower World is that it is antithetical to the ideal of ” resolute choice.” Some may find the norm overly perfectionist, Spartan, or puritanical. However, it is not uncommon for folks to defend the idea that mature adults should strive to develop internal willpower strong enough to avoid external temptations, whatever they are, and wherever they are encountered. These admirers of self-discipline believe that, for example, we should simply not be rude by ignoring those we are spending face-to-face time with, no matter how alluring it becomes to check email on our portable devices.

In part, resolute choosing is prized out of concern for consistency, as some worry that lapse of willpower in any context indicates a generally weak character. The person who can’t stop texting during dinner is presumed to lack self-control. He could be easily swayed by unruly desires and too readily disposed to avoid moderation or worse in other circumstances. In short, resolute choosers see themselves as strong in spirit and capable of consistently being virtuous. They construe backsliders as weak willed slaves to impulse and immediate gratification. If they wore a group t-shirt, the slogan would be: “Quit anything and you’re a quitter.”

The second and third concerns about Digital Willpower World can be extrapolated from ideas developed by Luc Bovens , a Professor of Philosophy at the London School of Economics. They are the problems of “fragmented selves” and “infantilism.”

Fragmented selves behave one way while under the influence of digital willpower, but another when making decisions without such assistance. In these instances, inconsistent preferences are exhibited and we risk underestimating the extent of our technological dependency. For example, under current conditions, we might eat healthy when using myfitnesspal, but poorly when we forget our smartphone at home. Acknowledging this risk does not entail denying that repeated exposure to willpower-enhancing technology can engender positive new habits and correlative preference shifts. It simply means that when it comes to digital willpower, we should be on our guard to avoid confusing situational with integrated behaviors.

In Digital Willpower World, the problem of fragmented selves doesn’t appear to be an issue. After all, inhabitants are constantly plugged in to willpower-enhancing devices. They no longer toggle between enhanced and unenhanced lives. Bracketing the question of what would happen to such folks if the support systems crashed–as that issue applies to so many things–the problem of inauthenticity, a staple of the neuroethics debates, might arise. People might start asking themselves: Has the problem of fragmentation gone away only because devices are choreographing our behavior so powerfully that we are no longer in touch with our so-called real selves — the selves who used to exist before Digital Willpower World was formed? Consider a contemporary analogue to this problem. Right now, people can use an app that automatically sends happy birthday wishes to Facebook friends. Although this service bypasses the problem of forgetfulness, its use raises questions about sincerity and thoughtfulness.

Infantalized subjects are morally lazy, quick to have others take responsibility for their welfare. They do not view the capacity to assume personal responsibility for selecting means and ends as a fundamental life goal that validates the effort required to remain committed to the ongoing project of maintaining willpower and self-control. Even positive reviews of Freedom are tinged with elements of concern over self-infantalization and the loss of resolute choosing. Some try to cope by pointing to social norms, convincing themselves that if others are doing it, it can’t be too bad: “Yes, the whole thing makes me feel infantile and weak. Like a tween whose parents have put some kind of monitoring software on my computer; except in this case I am both tween and parent. But I’m not alone. In other corners of the Internet universe, people are turning to programs like RescueTime and MeeTimer to monitor, track and limit the time they spend on Twitter, and something called LeechBlock to prevent themselves from even going to certain sites for certain times of the day.”

Yet another concern about Digital Willpower World comes from Michael Sandel’s Atlantic essay, “The Case Against Perfection.” He notes that technological enhancement can diminish people’s sense of achievement when their accomplishments become attributable to human-technology systems and not an individual’s use of human agency. If Noreen sticks to her ideal eating and exercise regime, who deserves praise? Can we still say she does, or does it make more sense to say it is a Noreen-myfitnesspal system? A critic might respond that this question is meaningless because when Noreen uses the app she has to exert much more willpower than if she had gastric bypass surgery. The surgery would eliminate agency by shrinking the stomach and causing food to bypass part of the small intestine. By contrast, Noreen enhanced by “myfitnesspal” still has to make many choices on her own. True enough! But this example only shifts the comparison. It doesn’t deal with the fundamental worry.

Albert Borgmann, a pre-eminent philosopher of technology, has his own objection to DWW. In Real American Ethics, Borgmann does some forecasting of his own and considers a development that we can imagine would be central to Digital Willpower World: smart homes –dwellings designed to not only sense but, more importantly, to anticipate user desires. Such places would be stocked with smart appliances, including refrigerators that keep stock of depleted items and communicate directly with grocery stores to initiate purchase of replacements. Borgmann worries that this environment, which habituates us to be on auto-pilot and delegate deliberation, threatens to harm the powers of reason, the most central component of willpower (according to the rationalist tradition). In living here, Borgmann fears, “we will slide from housekeeping to being kept by our house.”

Borgmann articulates a final concern that applies to Digital Willpower World. In several books, including Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, he expresses concern about technologies that seem to enhance willpower but only do so through distraction. Borgmann’s paradigmatic example of the non-distracted, focally centered person is a serious runner. This person finds the practice of running maximally fulfilling, replete with the rewarding “flow” that can only comes when mind/body and means/ends are unified, while skill gets pushed to the limit.

Thinking about this example reminded me of a time a friend and I went for a long run. When I pound the pavement, I need to use music as an enhancement. Without a soundtrack containing the right number of beats per minute, I tire easily. But because Ann is running purist, we tried it her way. The result: I thought I was going to die.

Willpower Revisited

However these concerns strike you, there’s an important wrinkle that can be touched upon. Perhaps the very conception of a resolute self was flawed. What if, as psychologist Roy Baumeister suggests, willpower is more “staple of folk psychology” than real way of thinking about our brain processes?

I posed this question to Jesús Aguilar, a colleague who specializes in philosophy of action. He noted that we could make sense of Baumeister’s suggestion by considering some of the latest philosophical approaches to the will that are heavily indebted to ongoing empirical research. These novel approaches suggest the will is a flexible mesh of different capacities and cognitive mechanisms that can expand and contract, depending on the agent’s particular setting and needs. Contrary to the traditional view that identifies the unified and cognitively transparent self as the source of willed actions, the new picture embraces a rather diffused, extended, and opaque self who is often guided by irrational trains of thought. What actually keeps the self and its will together are the given boundaries offered by biology, a coherent self narrative created by shared memories and experiences, and society. If this view of the will as an expanding and contracting system with porous and dynamic boundaries is correct, then it might seem that the new motivating technologies and devices can only increase our reach and further empower our willing selves.

While Aguilar didn’t commit to this view, Shaun Gallagher, philosophy professor and editor of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, is sympathetic to viewing the will as contextually located. “It’s a mistake to think of the will as some interior faculty that belongs to an individual–the thing that pushes the motor control processes that cause my action,” Gallagher says. “Rather, the will is both embodied and embedded: social and physical environment enhance or impoverish our ability to decide and carry out our intentions; often our intentions themselves are shaped by social and physical aspects of the environment.”

Applying this logic to the cases at issue here, Gallagher notes:

It makes perfect sense to think of the will as something that can be supported or assisted by technology. Technologies, like environments and institutions can facilitate action or block it. Imagine I have the inclination to go to a concert. If I can get my ticket by pressing some buttons on my iPhone, I find myself going to the concert. If I have to fill out an application form and carry it to a location several miles away and wait in line to pick up my ticket, then forget it.

What should we make of Gallagher’s interpretation of willpower? I’m conflicted. While I worry about the ethical complications of digital-willpower enhancements, it’s clear that in the United States, traditional notions of willpower have failed in some key regards, especially in the health arena. New approaches to willpower, whatever their pitfalls, may provide a way forward. Perhaps the best way forward is to put a digital spin on the Socratic dictum of knowing myself and submit to the new freedom: the freedom of consuming digital willpower to guide me past the sirens.

Image: Shaun Foster.

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Sorry about not getting to this sooner, but all of this talk-talk-talk takes time to digest. Here are a bunch of observations about the past week, starting with my interview with POTUS and running right up to the present day!

1. Netanyahu won a crucial battle in Washington this past week. No one brought up the Palestinians (including, I should note, yours truly, in my interview with the President, who also didn’t mention the Palestinian issue). Netanyahu has quite masterfully shifted the conversation to the subject of Iran. This may be good for Israel in the short-term, but it’s bad for Israel in the long.

2. When Obama says he has your back, he has your back in a kind of a general way. In my interview with the President, he was quite specific about “having Israel’s back.” Clearly, this unequivocal, and yet vague, formula, made someone in the White House a bit nervous, because the president walked this statement back a few days later, suggesting that having Israel’s back doesn’t mean endorsing an Israeli attack on Iran, but being friends with Israel, the way we are friends with Japan. The walk-back is understandable — the last thing the White House wants to do is to convey anything looking like a green, or even yellow, light to Netanyahu, and these words, I suppose, could have been misinterpreted. On the other hand, perhaps this walk-back could have been communicated privately, so as not create the impression the President was putting distance between America and Israel. Yossi Klein Halevi has some thoughts on this that are worth reading.

3. There is something quite specific about the AIPAC circus — 13,000 Israel supporters in a convention center — that saddens me, and it is this: the AIPAC gathering is now the largest gathering of Jews, as Jews, in America (outside of certain ultra-Orthodox conclaves), and they have gathered not to advance the cause of Judaism, but to advance the cause of a strong Israel-U.S. relationship. I’m for a strong Israel-U.S. relationship (I’m not for it precisely in the same way AIPAC is, which is to say, free of any criticism of any Israeli action), but this was a gathering about mere politics. Imagine 13,000 Jews gathering to discuss, in plenaries and panels and discussion groups, oh, the Torah and its meaning. That would be a good thing, and a lasting thing, too.
 
4. I try to be careful these days not to be overly critical of AIPAC, mainly because the people who hate AIPAC are not merely hating on AIPAC, but hating on what it stands for, or what they think it stands for (perfidious Jewish power, etc.). Speaking of which, I thought the anti-AIPAC protests outside the Washington Convention Center were fairly pathetic this time around –  mainly a combination of Neturei Karta, the ultraorthodox nutbags who argue that Israel cannot be created until God gives His express written consent, and members of Code Pink. Which gave me an idea: Imagine having the Satmar Hasidim stage a production of The Vagina Monologues outside next year’s AIPAC convention. That would be huge.
 
5. There’s been a lot of dumb things said about this issue over the past week, but one paragraph, from Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine, strikes me as the dumbest. This is from a full-page ad in The New York Times, published after President Obama ruled out containment of a nuclear Iran as a policy option:

Some of us believe that Israel could actually work out peaceful relations with Iran and enhance its own security and U.S. security by ending the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, helping the Palestinian people create an economically and politically viable state, taking generous steps to alleviate the humiliation and suffering of Palestinian refugees, and supporting Palestinian membership in the United Nations. Those steps, done with a spirit of openhearted generosity toward the Palestinian people and the people of all the surrounding states, is far more likely than military strikes against Iran or endless assaults on Hamas to provide a safe and secure future for Israel.

The Jewish capacity for self-delusion is one of the natural wonders of the world. I don’t believe the leaders of Iran are Nazis, but they certainly do talk like Nazis, and they’ve oriented their foreign and defense policies around the extermination of the Jewish state. But Michael Lerner thinks the Iranian leadership seeks the removal of settlements in the West Bank. Unbelievable.

6. Re: AIPAC, one reason the group leaves a bad taste in my mouth: This, from their media guide: “Press are to stand in the back of the room and are not invited to ask questions.” And also, to go fuck themselves.

7. One of the issues I’m most concerned about is the use of “crippling” sanctions that will hurt innocent Iranians while not altering the behavior of the few guilty Iranians (those in the leadership who are moving forward on the nuclear program). My friend Reuel Gerecht, in an e-mail to me, addresses this problem. It’s worth reading his whole letter:

“I am not sure there is perfect symmetry between the prime minister’s words and deeds, but (Defense Minister) Ehud Barak appears at least as determined.  Although I don’t think President Obama has any intention–at all–to launch a preemptive strike on Iran, his speech at AIPAC did cut new ground re Israel vs Iran. You are definitely right about that. If the Israelis strike, he has to stand in their corner more, not less. The Iranians will guarantee this, I suspect, since Khameneh’i is most unlikely to do the intelligent thing after an Israeli attack and just play dead and aggrieved.) The President will now be even more obliged to use sanctions as a devastating hammer against the country (I am not wild about this: one of the many reasons why I have been in favor of American preemption since 2004 is that it would be much less damaging to ordinary Iranians). An Israeli strike will also make it much, much more difficult for Obama to continue his (disastrous) defense cuts. The Middle East will not let go of us.”

I’m not with him on the defense cuts, necessarily (actually, I don’t know enough to say one way or the other), but a great deal of what he writes makes sense.

8. On the bluff/not bluff question, I suggest you keep an eye of The Atlantic’s new Iran war clock. Dominic Tierney and J.J. Gould have put together a panel of all-star analysts, and Stephen Walt, to weigh in from time to time about the likelihood of war. Please bookmark this, it’s important. Right now, the panel puts the chance of an American and/or Israeli strike on Iran over the next year at 48 percent. I lean higher, but 48 percent is still frightening enough.

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Mar 102012
 

You’re unlikely to find the answers in the 17-minute campaign commercial he is set to release next week. 

Above is the trailer for President Obama’s 17-minute long campaign commercial. When an elected official starts using Tom Hanks’ comfortingly familiar voice in his sales pitch, seducing us as if we’re so many Meg Ryans, it’s as opportune a time as any for some tough questions to jar us back to reality.

So, President Obama:

  1. If waterboarding is immoral, illegal, and counterproductive, as you assert, why are you allowing the CIA to withhold information about the interrogation tactic’s use under your predecessor by claiming that it relates to “intelligence methods”? How do you respond to the ACLU’s argument that a practice the president prohibits is by definition not an intelligence method? If the practice is indeed in our past, why is there a compelling reason to keep what we did secret?
  2. Your administration claims the authority to order the extrajudicial killing of some American citizens abroad. And while you say that authority applies only to terrorists who represent an imminent threat of attack, it is also true that the executive branch alone is empowered in your view to decide — without any checks or balances from other branches — who in fact qualifies as a terrorist. Given the fact that President Bush accused dozens of people of terrorism who turned out to be innocent, why do you think an unchecked executive branch determination does enough to protect the innocent? Among Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Marco Rubio, how many of the 10 would you trust to order Americans killed without any judicial oversight?
  3. Why shouldn’t rich people pay out of pocket for their own contraception?
  4. In your first term your administration participated in bailouts of Wall Street banks and parts of the American auto industry. Are there any other industries you’d consider bailing out if they were hit hard during a second term? How would you differentiate between industries you’d bail out and industries where you’d let the market outcome stand?
  5. Should voters blame you for failing to keep your promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay?
  6. Do you think there are any circumstances in which someone should be incarcerated for the mere possession of narcotics? Should you have been arrested and jailed when you used drugs as a youth? Had that happened to you, President Bush, or President Clinton, do you think you’d still have made it to the White House?
  7. If the constitution confers a right to privacy that includes the right to pay a doctor to perform an abortion, why doesn’t the same right to privacy protect the ability of consenting individuals to buy or sell a kidney?
  8. According to Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden so alarmed Pakistanis that they responded by moving their nuclear weapons around on public highways in lightly guarded vehicles to prevent America from knowing their location. Are you sure the raid was worth it? Were one of those nukes stolen in transit next week would you change your mind? 
  9. If you fail to address America’s unsustainable deficit by the end of your first term, whether due to competing priorities or Republican intransigence or some other reason, why should we trust that you’d prioritize and solve our fiscal problems in a second term? In closing the deficit, what do you regard as the ideal ratio of tax hikes to spending cuts? 



 

From the Associated Press:

The New York Police Department kept secret files on businesses owned by second- and third-generation Americans specifically because they were Muslims, according to newly obtained documents that spell out in the clearest terms yet that police were monitoring people based on religion…. 
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended his department’s efforts, saying they have kept the city safe, were completely legal and were not based on religion. “We don’t stop to think about the religion,” Bloomberg said at a news conference in August after The Associated Press began revealing the spying. “We stop to think about the threats and focus our efforts there.” 
In late 2007, however, plainclothes officers in the department’s secretive Demographics Unit were assigned to investigate the region’s Syrian population. Police photographed businesses and eavesdropped at lunch counters and inside grocery stores and pastry shops. The resulting document listed no threat. And though most people of Syrian heritage living in the area were Jewish, Jews were excluded from the monitoring. 
“This report will focus on the smaller Muslim community,” the report said. Similarly, police excluded the city’s sizable Coptic Christian population when photographing, monitoring and eavesdropping on Egyptian businesses in 2007, according to the police files. “This report does not represent the Coptic Egyptian community and is merely an insight into the Muslim Egyptian community of New York City,” the NYPD wrote. 
Many of those under surveillance were American-born citizens whose families have been here for the better part of a century.
A year before this effort began, Ray Kelly was asked about profiling:
“You think that terrorists aren’t aware of how easy it is to be characterized by ethnicity?” Kelly said. “Look at the 9/11 hijackers. They came here. They shaved. They went to topless bars. They wanted to blend in. They wanted to look like they were part of the American dream. These are not dumb people.”
 Kelly went on to say, “Could a terrorist dress up as a Hasidic Jew and walk into the subway, and not be profiled? Yes. I think profiling is just nuts.”
I’d love to know how this isn’t profiling. 

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Mar 102012
 
Bell was one of the chief proponents of Critical Race Theory, a radical doctrine that holds that American legal institutions–including our civil rights laws–perpetuate white supremacy. Bell’s ideas were not only radical, but bizarre.
This is only “bizarre” and “radical” to people who are willfully blind to American history. I don’t agree with it, and it’s far too sweeping for what I would argue. But white supremacy is actually in the Constitution, the whole Constitution, not the abbreviated one the Republican party read after taking the House in 2010. The laws of this country, until, the 1960s actively promoted white supremacy. 
Moreover, I suspect that a critical race theorist would argue that the criminal justice laws in the country — post-1960 — have themselves promoted white supremacy. I would not, mostly because I think their implications are much broader. But the point I’m driving at is that making such an argument is not hair tonic.
“Radical and bizarre” is a political movement which can’t face up to evolution; is campaigning for president while standing in front of a flag of treason; is “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior” and “a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists,” Asserting that white supremacy haunts our legal institutions is mainstream for anyone with a serious knowledge of our history.
I will leave it to an actual critical race scholar and someone more familiar with his work to make a full-throated defense. But this definition, even as rendered by Bell’s opponents, is firm ground and should be defended as legitimate. 
One way to address a smear campaign is to attack the allegation of association. We saw this in the 2008 election with Barack Obama was accused of being a Muslim. The reply was, sensibly, “he isn’t a Muslim.” In this case the reply (by me and others) has been to point out that a hug and deeply personal introduction do not constitute an endorsement. 
But it’s more important to address the bombshell itself. The finest portion of Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama was when he made that not only is Obama not a Muslim, so what if he were? This is important. The “Muslim” claim attempted to smear Obama–but Obama is more than capable of defending himself. But the millions of Muslims who are implictely smeared? Not so much.
Thus it’s worth noting, in the present business, that Derrick Bell is dead and can’t defend himself. Obama will be fine. 

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Le Cafe du Matin

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Mar 102012
 

The feeling of learning a new language is physical. My french class is only an hour and a half but I come out warn down, wanting to do little else but sleep on the train-ride home. 

The good thing about practicing journalism early in my writing career is that the craft (done right) is humbling. Implicit in the idea of reporting is the notion that the person you are talking to actually knows more than you. This is not always true; sometimes you just want to get people on the record. But in general the subject of your reporting has a knowledge which you would like to acquire, and that fact–often manifested in you posing embarrassingly basic questions–is humbling. They have power over you. And you must submit.
That’s French class for me. It is an hour and a half of being stupid. Even when you know the answer you can feel your brain creaking along trying to form the words, and then place them in the right order. Sometimes you actually think the right answer, and then your mind says something different–vous allez when you meant vous avez
The interesting part is how your brain begins to hunger for that feeling of stupidity. I should speak for myself, and my own want of mental masochism here. The first couple weeks were tiring. It’s still tiring. But I like the tiring, and not simply because the tiring means new knowledge, and new mental pathways, but because I consider it the accomplishment of my life to sit still for an hour and half and take it all in.
I have talked at length about my problems in school, and my general inability to stay in seat as young person. But I find myself faced with an old question: How bad do I really want it? It sounds simplistic but, for my life, I believe in it. I’d much rather learn by being dumped into a village where no one speaks English. That would be natural for me. But the closest thing I have is this. So then what? I don’t want to die having only seen through English eyes.
We learned Lundi Matin our third day in class. I memorized the words before I knew what it meant. Indeed, I still don’t know what it means. Something like “The Prince, The King and Queen came to see me, but I wasn’t home. The prince said; ‘We’ll come back tomorrow.” 
Roughly. I don’t know the words. Please don’t spoil the fun by telling me. I like how it all unfolds over time.

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Mar 102012
 

Here’s something interesting form A.O. Scott’s review of John Carter:

That would be John Carter himself (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate veteran with a knack for mortal combat and a gloomy aversion to same. But the fight finds him, first in a box canyon on loan from a John Ford picture and then — nonspoiler alert! — on Mars. The red planet resembles the Old West both geologically (a lot of dusty red rocks) and thematically. 
A Civil War rages between two factions of Red Men, though it is actually the green, four-armed humanoids known as Tharks who serve the traditional western function of Indians, Noble Savages trying to fight back against a technologically superior foe. The war between the city-states of Helium and Zodanga is more like something out of “Star Trek,” but with elements of the sword-and-sandals epics of the 1950s, what with the togas and the armor, the pillars and the pageantry and the ripely histrionic dialogue.
A quick disclosure–bad-ass writer and friend of the room Michael Chabon co-wrote the script (though of course not the source material, penned before his time).
With that said, it’s worth noting how a myth can penetrate a national imagination. It even reaches into the science fiction. Once you understand how thoroughly The Lost Cause version of history was accepted by the larger country–and even actual historians–none of this surprising.
What we now need is new stories, and new narratives, that not only refuse to revel in historical escapism, but also resist the lure of blaxploitation. People like James McPherson and Benjamin Quarles have gifted us with a new history. What we need now, is a new mythology.
You can’t beat this thing by simply citing facts. You need a root-work. You need a deep cleaning.

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Mar 102012
 

bob woodward.jpgLast year, I ran into the Washington Post‘s veteran President watcher Bob Woodward over at National Airport and chatted with him about Libya and the choices and perspectives swarming around President Obama at the time.  I can’t compromise our conversation other than to say that we thought that we ought to create some sort of two-week foreign policy boot camp that we got every White House aspirant to agree to go through before running for the presidency — not only about important national security case studies but how to manage divergent factions around him or her.

After watching the recent reckless calls of Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman for direct US military involvement in Syria — I feel that the pool of foreign policy boot camp students should be expanded to everyone who runs for the US Senate.  Maybe in a year or two we could add the House of Representatives candidates.

default-jim-webb.jpgAfter he retires at the end of this Congress in 2012, Senator James Webb would make the ideal teacher — maybe even the headmaster — at this Foreign Policy Boot Camp.  Woodward and I could be adjuncts.

On Wednesday, Jim Webb went down and said what needed to be said about America’s limited options in the worsening crisis in Syria — and also stated that Libya was an anomaly when it came to US military action, not a rule. 

From a press release that the Senator’s office released:

Senator Webb reiterated his concerns about the precedent set by the President’s unilateral decision to use force in Libya, where historical definitions of national security interest were not clearly met. “I have a great deal of concern when you look at the Libya model where the basic justification has been humanitarian assistance, which is very vague and is not under the historical precepts that we have otherwise used,” said Senator Webb.

Webb’s comments about Syria were constructive and, in my view, indirectly chided those Senators in the Chamber chomping at the bit for yet another deployment of US military force abroad. 

Webb stated:

When people are talking about the need for leadership, we need to have a little sense of history. Leadership is not always taking precipitant action when the emotions are going. It is in achieving results that will bring about long-term objectives. . .Probably the greatest strategic victory in our lifetime was the Cold War. That was a conscious, decades-long, application of strategy with the right signals with respect to our national security apparatus.

What Senator Webb is saying is that emotional impulses may feel good at the time but they rarely achieve intended results.  Americans may feel sympathy for and the pain of those Syrians being ruthlessly attacked by security forces of their own government — but to lash out emotionally, to commit to bombing campaigns, to arm the apparent rebels with US weapons may not achieve neither an outcome that stabilizes Syria or one that protects American interests in the long run.

I think Webb is impressively resisting the sweeping currents of passion about Syria in the right way — and calling for sensible strategy.  Syria and Libya are vastly different in the way that government forces and those trying to rebel are standing off.  In the 1990s, Turkey moved hundreds of thousands of troops to the Syrian border during unrest then because of fears that Syrian-based Kurds would move across the border into Turkey.  Arab fighters could decide to flood into Syria if the fighting there turns into a sectarian Civil War.

Graham, McCain, and Lieberman need to realize that there are other powers with equities in the Syria situation — and that they can also apply pressure and operate in ways that the US cannot.  But a near term, large scale US military intervention, or bombing campaign, in Syria will not stabilize Syria.

I would like to see the victims of and those standing against Assad’s thuggery prevail — but it’s important for those watching these uprisings to remember that revolutions are mostly domestic affairs — and that sometimes it takes the horrors of conflicts like the one we are seeing in Syria to galvanize the people enough to throw off their government and to select another one.  The role of outside powers is usually and should be minimal — and if a nation like the US deeply intervenes, which is what McCain, Lieberman and Graham want — then the legitimacy of the successor government could be undermined.



 

Developer Kurt Bieg, whose new app Circadia is out on the App Store right now, is a former New York City musician. That scene didn’t appeal to him, however, so he decided to try building games. “The way that I write music is arranging things for an experience,” Bieg told me at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) this week, “and I do that in all my games.”

Circadia is quite an experience. After making a physical card game featuring then almost-president Obama, Bieg got a degree in design and technology, and Circadia is his first release as a professional developer. The basic idea of the game is built around the ripples that appear when you toss a stone into a pond, for example. “What if you tried to do multiple ripples at the same time to try and converge on one spot?” Bieg asked himself. In the game, you’re presented with a series of colored dots on the screen, and the goal is to tap the dots in such a way that the musical rings that emanate from them all cross a certain point at the same moment. It’s a system that, as Bieg says, shows off “simple things that create a larger pattern.”

The game is quite beautiful. I’s very minimalistic, and the sparse music and graphics really bring the music that you create while playing the game to the forefront. As you play along and touch the various dots to send out their musical ripples, you eventually start to get a sense of Bieg’s musical composition, and then you get to hear the real thing when all of the touches and dots finally line up.

The title wasn’t always so quiet, says Bieg — the game started out with what he calls “atrocious skin that was all about cheering someone up. The dots were faces, and everyone was smiling except for the one dot which was frowning.” But he eventually went with something much more simple and clear. He describes one level he created that had two dots moving back and forth with a target dot in the center, and once he finally solved that puzzle for himself, that’s when he “sat up in my desk,” he remembers, “and just freaked out because I was like, I could do 100 levels of this.”

The full game is 99 cents, and it’s definitely worth a download to play through those 100 puzzles. In the future, Bieg is planning to add 25-50 new levels in an update, along with a zen mode, which would allow for an infinite number of generated levels to play with. He’s also thinking of adding more features, like possible some background music, which he first saw as an accident in a trailer for the game. “I felt like it didn’t interfere with the game,” says Bieg. “It just gave context to the notes. I was kind of a fan of that.”

Additionally, Bieg is working on some other titles with other developers that he says we’ll see soon.

Daily iPad App: Circadia hits the right notes originally appeared on TUAW – The Unofficial Apple Weblog on Fri, 09 Mar 2012 20:00:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

Source | Permalink | Email this | Comments



 

Developer Kurt Bieg, whose new app Circadia is out on the App Store right now, is a former New York City musician. That scene didn’t appeal to him, however, so he decided to try building games. “The way that I write music is arranging things for an experience,” Bieg told me at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) this week, “and I do that in all my games.”

Circadia is quite an experience. After making a physical card game featuring then almost-president Obama, Bieg got a degree in design and technology, and Circadia is his first release as a professional developer. The basic idea of the game is built around the ripples that appear when you toss a stone into a pond, for example. “What if you tried to do multiple ripples at the same time to try and converge on one spot?” Bieg asked himself. In the game, you’re presented with a series of colored dots on the screen, and the goal is to tap the dots in such a way that the musical rings that emanate from them all cross a certain point at the same moment. It’s a system that, as Bieg says, shows off “simple things that create a larger pattern.”

The game is quite beautiful. I’s very minimalistic, and the sparse music and graphics really bring the music that you create while playing the game to the forefront. As you play along and touch the various dots to send out their musical ripples, you eventually start to get a sense of Bieg’s musical composition, and then you get to hear the real thing when all of the touches and dots finally line up.

The title wasn’t always so quiet, says Bieg — the game started out with what he calls “atrocious skin that was all about cheering someone up. The dots were faces, and everyone was smiling except for the one dot which was frowning.” But he eventually went with something much more simple and clear. He describes one level he created that had two dots moving back and forth with a target dot in the center, and once he finally solved that puzzle for himself, that’s when he “sat up in my desk,” he remembers, “and just freaked out because I was like, I could do 100 levels of this.”

The full game is 99 cents, and it’s definitely worth a download to play through those 100 puzzles. In the future, Bieg is planning to add 25-50 new levels in an update, along with a zen mode, which would allow for an infinite number of generated levels to play with. He’s also thinking of adding more features, like possible some background music, which he first saw as an accident in a trailer for the game. “I felt like it didn’t interfere with the game,” says Bieg. “It just gave context to the notes. I was kind of a fan of that.”

Additionally, Bieg is working on some other titles with other developers that he says we’ll see soon.

Daily iPad App: Circadia hits the right notes originally appeared on TUAW – The Unofficial Apple Weblog on Fri, 09 Mar 2012 20:00:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

Source | Permalink | Email this | Comments



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