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Name: Steven Rainwater
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Homepage: http://www.steevithak.com/

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I've been writing software for more than 20 years and have worked in most programming languages at one time or another including C, C++, Perl, Pascal, Modula-2, REXX, Python, PHP, JavaScript, even stuff like COBOL and Forth. I wrote and released a few long-forgotten shareware programs back in the early 80's before I discovered the concept of Free Software. At the time I was using OS/2, so I did the first OS/2 ports of libpng and zlib (well before either had reached version 1.0). These days I run GNU/Linux. I've created or contributed patches to a number of free software projects include libxml2 and Apache. For years, I maintained a fork of mod_virgule for one of my websites, robots.net. In 2006, I took over hosting and maintenance of Advogato and moved it to the same codebase.

I write web and Internet related software in my day job at NCC, a Dallas based company that does website design and software development.

In my spare time, I write software for embedded applications - robots! I'm a member of the Dallas Personal Robotics Group (their robotics mailing list is a great source of info on the subject). I get to play with all sorts of embedded computers ranging from 8 bit Motorola and Intel chips to full-blown PCs. I've got several perpetually unfinished robotics projects at any given time. On most Tuesday evenings, you'll find me at the DPRG Lab working on robots or debating philosophy with other robot builders. If the weather is nice, I can sometimes be found wandering around the First Saturday Sale here in Dallas, TX. Oh, and I also maintain the Robot Competition FAQ.

I'm a founding member of the first hackerspace in Dallas. We call it Dallas Makerspace. We have a public meeting every Thursday evening and host a variety of free software activities including the annual Software Freedom Day event for the Dallas / Fort Worth area.

I came of age in the 80's and it left me with an appreciation for classic arcade video games. As a member of VAPS, I restore vintage arcade games from time to time.

I'm also a photographer and have an interest in vintage gear. I shoot digital and film. I collect Vivitar lenses and I'm an editor for the free online camera encyclopedia: Camera-Wiki.org. Feel free to check out my flickr stream.

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Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

Leaves beneath the ice of Walden Pond. Photo by Flickr user Bemep, CC BY-NC 2.0

I usually review pulp science fiction books, science books, even the occasional graphic novel, so a review of a classic like Walden may seem a bit out of place here. But I do try to read a little of everything including the classics and Walden has been on my reading list for a long time. The edition I chose is Walden and Other Writings, 2000, Modern Library Paperback Edition; partly because I also wanted to read Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, which is in this volume, but also because I like the cover art depicting a winter scene near Walden Pond. I admit, I’ve bought more than one book based solely on the cover art.

I had vaguely thought that Walden was a work of philosophy resulting from Thoreau spending time alone pondering Life, The Universe, and Everything. It’s really nothing like that. It’s much more modern that I expected. Imagine reading a blog by someone who decides to give up television, WiFi, social media, modern technology and civilization in general as an experiment. Imagine this person finds some land by a lake and determines to live a DIY existence. They build their own tiny house from available materials, they eat only what they can find or grow, and make their own clothes. And they write weekly updates on their progress as they do all this. That’s basically what’s going on in Walden. It’s a DIY book mixed with some appreciation of nature.

Thoreau doesn’t completely leave the world behind. He walks to town periodically to give lectures, his writings are published, he has frequent visitors. A lot of the townsfolk think he’s a bit odd and keep their distance but he interacts with a wide range of other eccentric characters: hunters in the woods, fishermen on the pond, rail workers from the railroad that passes near his tiny house, transients who wander through. When he can, he invites these random people into his house and questions them about the nature of the human race and civilization. The bravest strangers even taste some of the weird foods Thoreau subsists on.

Some chapters are strictly DIY stuff like lists of materials used in building his tiny house and their costs. Or what he eats and how he obtains it. Other chapters are observations about nature – what animals he runs into, the sensory experience of the pond and woods in the different seasons. And there actually is a little bit of philosophy hidden away here and there; do humans really need to eat meat or would we be better off if we were all vegetarians? Should we be more self reliant? Why do we waste so much time and energy making money for things like clothes and homes that we could make ourselves much more simply?

The book is laid out chronologically by seasons and takes the reader through the first year at Walden Pond. The first few chapters are the most interesting as they contain the parameters of his experiment and most of the details on how he builds his shelter and gathers his supplies. Later chapters tend to be his observations of nature once things have settled into a routine. Amusingly, the descriptive part of the book ends after the first year with the sentence, “Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it.” The book, while interesting and sometimes profound, is not a page-turner and you’re probably be as glad as I was that he decides not to chronicle his second year as well.

Thoreau doesn’t think everyone should give up on civilization and live as he did at Walden, of course. He clearly thinks of his two year adventure there as nothing more than an experiment to see what the minimum lifestyle could consist of. Just like modern writers who give up The Internet or some other modern convenience for a year, Thoreau fully intends to return to civilization when his experiment is done. Despite finding it a slow read and difficult to slog through at times, particularly in the second half, I still recommend it. There are more than enough interesting and enjoyable bits to make up for it.

Syndicated 2016-10-02 23:53:54 from Steevithak of the Internet

Morning After Dallas Sniper Attack

View from my office the morning after the Dallas sniper attack.

Wow, how to summarize the last 12 hours. Last night there was a peaceful protest march in downtown Dallas in response to the recent killings by police in other states. Towards the end of the march, snipers began shooting at police officers. The shooting was audible a half mile away at my office in Deep Ellum where I was working late. I thought at first it was fireworks, then I starting seeing events unfold on social media with posts from friends who were at the march. At least 14 people were shot, 12 of them officers. 5 officers died, 4 DPD and 1 DART officer. There appear to have been four suspects, 3 male and 1 female. One of the suspects holed up in a parking garage and was involved in a standoff with police that lasted for hours. When neogtiations with police broke down and the suspect started shooting again, the police killed the suspect using a bomb delivered by a DPD robot.

A lot of downtown was on lockdown most of the night, including the parking lot where most of the protesters parked. My friends in the march were unable to get back to their cars and had to spend most of the night in Union Station. Uber was providing complimentary rides to get some of them home. I stayed over night at my office in Deep Ellum. Everyone I know at the march and in downtown is safe. From early reports of what the deceased sniper said to police, the shooting was racially motivated but does not appear to be associated with the protest march aside from taking advantage of the police protection that DPD always offers to marches and protests downtown. The route of the march had been announced beforehand, so the shooters could easily have planned the best location for their attack.

It’s morning now and already the political spin is running full bore, try to turn this terrorist attack into rating points for one side or the other. Either we have to support all police, who are universally good and we must believe everyone they shoot to be evil thugs; or we have to assume that all cops are bad and corrupt and that everyone they shoot is innocent. This political effort to force all issues to be black and white is intentionally divisive and needs to be rejected. Reality is never that black and white. We need to support good cops while still calling out bad ones and peacefully protesting against injustices. There’s nothing inconsistent about marching in a protest against unjust police killings while still supporting our local police who are risking their lives to protect our right to free speech.

Syndicated 2016-07-08 14:18:31 from Steevithak of the Internet

Civic Republicanism by Iseult Honohan

The School of Athens by Raphael

The School of Athens by Raphael

In 2013, I wrote a review of the excellent book, Common as Air by Lewis Hyde, about the history of the commons. I became interested in learning more about the history of “Civic Republicanism” while reading that book, which touches on the relationship of republicanism to pursuit of the common good. In later correspondence with Lewis, I asked for a recommendation on a good general book on the concept. He recommended Civic Republicanism by Iseult Honohan. So I picked it up from Amazon and it sat in my reading queue until recently. Now I’ve read it and it’s time to write a review.

To start off, let’s clear up some terms. A “republic” is likely a form of government you remember from high school or college. We’re interested in a particular type of republic known as a “Civic Republic” – that is, a form of government in which citizens rule themselves either directly or through representative leaders. If you live in the United States, you are familiar with the basics of a civic republic because it’s the system on which our country is based. It’s also important to point out that the terms republican and republicanism have absolutely nothing to do with the modern American right-wing Republican political party. When founded in 1854 by anti-slavery activists, the political party took its name from the idea of republicanism and originally advocated principles of republicanism and classic liberalism. Over the years it abandoned those principles, shifting right towards conservatism as the Democratic party shifted left towards modern liberalism. Eventually, the two parties reversed their original positions. More recently, the Republican political party seems to have broken into factions that advocate theocracy, plutocracy, or authoritarian nationalism. Ironically, republicanism is anathema to modern Republicans. The author is not an American and the book doesn’t address this difference between republicans and Republicans, which can lead to some confusion if the reader is unaware of it.

I read Civic Republicanism shortly after reading Steven Pinker’s enjoyable book, The Sense of Style. Unfortunately, this made me more aware than I might otherwise have been that Civic Republicanism is rife with examples of the problems Pinker describes in academic writing including “highfalutin gobbledygook”, overly abstract metaconcepts, and the curse of knowledge. It’s a hard book to read and definitely not an enjoyable way to pass the time. I found myself having to re-read paragraphs and sometime single sentences several times to work out what the author was trying to say. Here are a couple of random sample sentences from an early section of the book describing Aristotle’s views:

Because people are naturally undetermined as wholly good or wholly bad, but develop their character through acting, the social and political relationships in which they live are crucial to their possibility of self-realisation

and another

Moreover, the hierarchical division of human nature means that the obligations of citizens to anyone outside the political community are very limited.

Decoding 300 pages of that sort of writing takes a bit of work! That’s the bad news about the book.

The good news is that it does provide an excellent survey of the major historical thinkers on republicanism including Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Harrington, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, and Madison (who designed our republic). It also covers modern political philosophers’ attempts to bring republicanism into the 21st century to compete with the currently more popular ideas of modern liberalism on the left (what we in the US might call “direct democracy” or “universal democracy”) and nationalism on the right (basically the modern Republican Party in the US – think flag waving, patriotism, belief in exceptionalism). The book is divided into two parts, the historical overview and the modern debates. The book does a good job of laying out the evolution of republicanism and points the way to all the original material if you have the time to pursue it.

The basics of a republic seem pretty simple. You get some people together, form a community, agree on rules for self-government and go to it. Generally, the goals are to maximize individual freedom while collectively pursuing common goods. If you want your republic to survive, it must have the qualities of civic virtue, political participation, personal and political freedom, equal political recognition, and equality of wealth. All the philosophers agree that a republic cannot survive long if there is corruption (a lack of civic virtue), lack of participation, or unequal distribution of wealth. So my earlier comment about the Republican political party having nothing to do with republicanism should be further clarified now. Their policy choices are a recipe for destroying a republic by maximizing wealth inequality and stamping out civic virtues.

Nothing is that simple of course and where our philosophers disagree is over the exact definitions of each of the desired qualities and the relative importance of each. For example, is freedom the complete lack of government coercion? To live in a community is to be interdependent on each other under the rule of law. But even if we make our own law, we must be subject to it. Does that limit our freedom or is the law an expression of our freedom? When Odysseus begs his crew to untie him as he listens to the siren song, does the crews’ lack of compliance indicate that Odysseus is not free? It was his own order that he be tied and that the crew refuse any plea to untie him until they are safely past the sirens. If citizens of a republic agree to jointly fund some common good through the collection of taxes, does being coerced later to fulfill that obligation represent a lack of freedom or an expression of the freedom?

Who should be counted as citizens of a republic? This was another question that evolved over time. Aristotle would have excluded women, slaves, young men, and many others. The circle of citizenship gradually expands with time. Eventually Wollstonecraft includes women, making republics encompass nearly everyone in time for Madison to pick up the idea and run with it.

What is the exact nature of civic virtue and corruption? Corruption as thought of in republicanism may seem non-intuitive to a modern reader. Today we think of corruption as a problem with politicians but in a republic, corruption is the problem of citizens who place their private interests above those of the common good or community interests, so political corruption is merely a subset of a larger problem. The citizen who avoids paying a fair share of taxes, who out of greed tries to influence politicians, citizens who avoid jury duty, voting, or participation in local government – those are the forms of corruption that will eventually destroy even the strongest republic.

What are the common goods that a republic should seek? There’s more agreement on this one. Common goods include building infrastructure such as roads, maintaining military strength for defensive purposes, providing universal education, and any other long term goals that are the will of the citizens and from which all citizens benefit such as protecting the environment, scientific research, universal healthcare.

The problem of wealth distribution is particularly interesting given our modern situation in the United States. Historical republicans from Aristotle to Madison would not be surprised to see the Occupy Wall Street movement given that corruption has resulted in so much of our nation’s wealth becoming concentrated in a tiny percentage of the population, a condition which is fatal to republics. For a good explanation of how wealth inequality became so severe in the US, see the excellent documentary by the economist Robert Reich called Inequality for All.

The sheer size of the Unites States would have presented problems to the earliest republicans, but not Madison. His improvements included the idea of a multi-level government that broke citizen participation into local, state, and federal levels. He added the concept that “representation” could be a partial substitute for participation in government among those who were incompetent to participate or merely apathetic. He dropped an idea held by earlier theorists that a republic needed a common religion or a religious test for participation in government, thus allowing a republic with the added freedom that a citizen could choose any religion or none. With these improvements, Madison hoped the United States could defy the expectations of earlier republicans that all large republics were doomed to fail.

Finally, how about a personal anecdote to take this from theory to practice.

On 23 May, 1745, an ancestor of mine, John Rainwater, went to the Edgecomb County, North Carolina court in order to record a deed. He came home having been appointed by the court to provide room and board to a fellow named John Jones who was overseeing the construction of a road through the county. It’s likely John Rainwater was appointed merely because of his presence in the court that day. Being a citizen of a republic who strove to exhibit civic virtue, he fulfilled his obligation because it promoted a common good from which he and others in his community would benefit. Can you imagine being asked to contribute towards a modern road construction project by hosting a construction foreman? We have little civic virtue left in this country. I have some conservative friends who believe what was once known as civic virtue is “government intrusion” on their freedom. They believe paying taxes is equivalent to the government taking their money (or even “stealing” their money). They not only wouldn’t be willing to contribute their time or money to building a road that benefits the community, they often actively oppose the very concept of the government pursuing any common good (e.g. roads, public schools, protecting our common environment).

Civic virtue remains as an idealistic goal for many but often a goal they hope someone else will achieve for them. Aristotle, Cicero, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Madison agree – all citizens in a republic should participate directly. Paying taxes is essential but not enough. Citizens need to learn how their government works and take part in it. Run for public office; volunteer for military service; take a civil service job; volunteer for a community board; join a CERT team; become a civic hacker. Today there are an endless number of ways to participate on many different levels of government.

I was inspired to join an Advisory Board in my hometown of Irving, TX. Coming from the business world, I had to adjust to the slower pace of government. But having been involved for over a year now, I’m beginning to see that what I’m doing is really making a difference. Ideas I’ve initiated have wound their way through city government and slowly taken effect. Here’s one way to look at it. If you’re like me, you’ve probably wasted hours of your life arguing politics online. No real change ever comes from those arguments. Instead, devote that time to learning about and participating in your local government. It’s a simple reallocation of your time that will result in less stress and real changes for the better.

Syndicated 2016-05-30 16:06:08 from Steevithak of the Internet

Triumph of the Fail Whale

Fail Whale by Matthias Töpfer (CC-BY-NC)

Early social networks had status fields; little boxes where you posted a short status line about your current emotional state (“I’m bored”) and maybe an emoticon. As social networks proliferated, Twitter came along, based on the useful idea that you could enter your status one time and have it automatically sync to anywhere else you wanted. I adopted Twitter relatively early on and it was a great time saver.

It was also easy to generate tweets from programs. When I published a new blog post, like this one, WordPress generated a tweet; the tweet then appeared as my status on Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn, on my personal websites (even on Myspace back in the day). Flickr and other sites could generate tweets to reflect current activity and I often wrote programs for websites I developed that generated tweets. For example, I wrote a bot for Camera-Wiki.org that tabulated the number wiki edits each week and posted it as a tweet. Twitter was the universal plumbing of the social media universe.

Gradually, Twitter has stopped talking to most sites. One of the earliest ones I remember this happening with was LinkedIn. One day my tweets stopped appearing on my LinkedIn profile status. LinkedIn claimed Twitter had changed their policy and no longer allowed LinkedIn to display tweets. Twitter claimed LinkedIn changed their policy. Sometime later, Google Plus started blocking Twitter. Then Twitter dropped their RSS feeds and created a new system that allowed them to block usage on personal websites unless you gave them your mobile phone number for tracking and demographics purposes. The final straw for me is that Facebook, while still allowing me to sync my Facebook status from Twitter, considers tweets as second class posts. If I post a status update via Twitter maybe 1% of my Facebook followers will ever see it. If post directly or from other, non-Twitter services such as Instagram, a much larger percentage of my followers see it.

For me, the sole purpose of Twitter is syncing my status with other social networks, so Twitter is now next to useless. I recently turned off my Facebook to Twitter sync. I think it’s not just me. Twitter seems to be largely a wasteland of lost status postings these days; an endless stream of status messages flying into a vacuum with no humans left to read them. I’ll probably keep posting there out of habit for a while longer but I think Twitter’s 15 minutes of fame are winding down.

Syndicated 2015-10-26 21:39:54 from Steevithak of the Internet

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Barnstaple receives final instruction before his cross-time journey home. Portion of a George Bellows illustration from the 1923 edition of Men Like Gods.

Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells might be subtitled “Mr. Barnstaple takes a holiday” as that’s a pretty good summary of the basic plot. This 1922 book is partially intended as a Utopian novel and follows the usual convention of having an average, modern human transported into a Utopian world to represent the reader as he uncovers the workings and nature of Utopia. As might be expected of Wells, he goes the extra step to give the novel a science fiction wrapper and in the process, establishes not one but several new genres of science fiction. Just as all time travel novels trace their heritage back to Well’s book, The Time Machine, all parallel universe, multiverse, para-time, cross-time, and alternate history novels descend from Men Like Gods.

Let’s get the plot out of the way first as that’s the least interesting aspect of the book. Mr. Barnstaple is a down-trodden enlightenment liberal who writes for a leftist newspaper. He’s given up hope of changing the world. He’s depressed, hates his job, is annoyed by his family. He determines a solo holiday is the only thing that will save his sanity and sets out for no where in particular in the Yellow Peril, his little two seater car. Coming around a curve in the countryside, he and two other vehicles are suddenly swept out of this world and find themselves in a strange land near the smoking wreckage of a scientific experiment gone wrong. They soon meet some inhabitants of this new world and find it’s similar to Earth but a thousand years in the future. Needing a name for the place, they decide to refer to it as, wait for it, Utopia!

As Barnstaple learns about the amazing world, he realizes it embodies all the ideals he believes in. The others in his party, being more conservative, particularly a narrow minded priest, see the world as degenerate. They make nothing of the peace, prosperity and happiness all around them. Instead they see people who don’t wear enough clothing, don’t have religion, aren’t capitalists, and offend in numerous other ways. With the exception of Barnstaple, the Earthlings soon hatch an ill-conceived plot to take some Utopians hostage, thinking they can use that as a spring board to world-domination and remake Utopia in the image of Earth. I won’t give away too much but there’s never any doubt Barnstaple will survive the goings-on and soon enough is sent back to Earth all the wiser and now with a renewed sense of hope that Earth can someday become like Utopia if we all work hard at improving things.

What sets the book apart from other Utopian novels and gives it an honored place in the annals of science fiction is the first description of the multiverse, the first hint that multiple universes could be “parallel” to and even duplicates of our own; in this case only time-shifted some thousand years. Utopia is in a universe that is essentially an alternate time line of Earth’s universe. The book also postulates that while some universes are nearly identical, others may be wildly different. It’s also the first description of a technological method of cross-timeline travel between parallel universes. As if that’s not enough, there’s a description towards the end of the Utopian’s plans to leave their planet and explore the stars using space travel technology that allows them to bypass normal spatial distances by taking a shortcut; it’s essentially an early description of hyperspace, subspace, warp drive or something along those lines. And for his last trick, Wells explains away the ability of the Earthlings to communicate with the Utopians (who obviously are unlikely to speak English) by explaining that they evolved telepathic abilities. They speak using their minds and we hear them in whatever language we naturally understand, provided we know a word that fits the concept they’re thinking to us.

Here’s the actual description of the multiverse:

Serpentine proceeded to explain that just as it would be possible for any number of practically two-dimensional universes to lie side by side, like sheets of paper, in three dimensional space, so in the many dimensional space about which the ill equipped human mind is still slowly and painfully acquiring knowledge, it is possible for an enumerable quantity of practically three dimensional universes to lie, as it were, side by side and to undergo a roughly parallel movement through time.

Travel between parallel universes is accomplished using a machine that takes a cube-shaped chunk of the universe you’re in and “rotates” it through a higher dimension, causing it to come into contact with some nearby universe. The first test of the technology works but the machine explodes killing the operators. By the end of the book, the machine is not only rebuilt but improved, made portable and, as an added bonus, can even control which Universe it connects with, conveniently allowing Barnstaple to be sent home. Interestingly, because Barnstaple arrived accidentally in moving car and the Utopians wish to return him the same way, they set up an arrangement reminiscent of Back to the Future in which Barnstaple must drive along a segment of roadway, hitting a trip wire strung across the road, triggering the cross-time machine at precisely the right instant to transport his moving car.

Wells make a variety of political observations about the failings of our own world including his complaints with the capitalism, Marxism, and socialism of his day. He describes an economic system in which each Utopian citizen lives a government-funded life up to the completion of a very elaborate and detailed education, after which they must choose a path in life that contributes to the world’s economy. They can choose to do anything they like, ranging from a required minimum that allows them to spend most of their life goofing off, to pursuing any career or endeavor, even acquiring wealth and using it as they choose. The Utopians lack any formal government or rulers. Much of the world operates on the “do-ocracy” principle common in hackerspaces. If you see something in the world that needs improvement, it’s up to you to do it, organizing the doing of it, or pay someone to do it. At one point Crystal, a Utopian student who befriends Barnstaple, explains that society is based on The Five Principles of Liberty:

  1. Privacy – All individual personal facts are private between the citizen and the public organization to which he entrusts them, and can be used only for his convenience and with his sanction (and anonymously for statistical purposes only)
  2. Free Movement – A citizen, subject to discharge of his public obligations, may go without permission or explanation to any part of the planet.
  3. Unlimited Knowledge – All that is known, except individual personal facts about living people, is on record and easily available to everyone. Nothing may be kept from a citizen nor misrepresented to him.
  4. Lying is the Blackest Crime – Where there are lies there cannot be freedom. Facts may not be suppressed nor stated inexactly
  5. Free Discussion and Criticism – Any citizen is free to criticize and discuss anything in the whole universe provided he tells no lies either directly or indirectly. A citizen may discuss respectfully or disrespectfully, with any intent, however subversive. A citizen may express ideas in any literary or artistic form desired.

Before Barnstaple leaves, he makes one appeal to stay, speaking to a wise, old Utopian who explains that he must go back and that Earth will eventually follow the same course of history to become Utopian in it’s own time. He warns Barnstaple against attempting premature contact between the two universes until Earth has gotten its house in order:

What could Utopians do with the men of Earth? … You would be too numerous for us to teach … Your stupidities would get in our way, your quarrels and jealousies and traditions, your flags and religions, and all your embodied spites and suppressions, would hamper us in everything we should want to do. We should be impatient with you, unjust and overbearing. You are too like us for us to be patient with your failures … We might end by exterminating you.

Given the way their economy works, it’s fairly clear that it would fall apart pretty quickly if flooded with citizens who have the typical nature of modern humans. In the end, Men like Gods presents a Utopia that needs better humans to be workable, but at least it recognizes that, a fact that sets it above much of the Utopian literature that preceded it.

Syndicated 2015-02-28 18:52:57 from Steevithak of the Internet

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