Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 20, 2015

Digital Rebellion: the Birth of the Cyber Left

Filed under: computers,Counterpunch,Internet,journalism — louisproyect @ 1:49 pm
Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion”

Can the Net Drive Social Movements?

by LOUIS PROYECT

Largely through the writings and public addresses of David Graeber, Marina Sitrin, John Holloway and others, “horizontalism” became a buzzword to describe various movements over the past fifteen years or so that were inspired by the Seattle protests and marked by direct democracy, communications through the Internet, militant tactics, and a belief that occupations of public spaces could prefigure a future, more just world. Ideologically, anarchism and autonomist Marxism loomed large—understandably so since the “verticalism” of the old Left seemed to have run its course.

As is so often the case, movements and institutions that appear to contradict each other can often be resolved on a higher level. In this instance, given the exhaustion of “horizontalist” initiatives over the past couple of years, an analysis of the contested ideological terrain is more necessary than ever. As a major contribution to the debate, I cannot recommend Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left” highly enough. If you read an excerpt from the book’s introduction on last weekend’s CounterPunch, you will understand that the book is directed to the activist left and is not the typical academic work despite the author being a member of the Rutgers University faculty and the book being published by the University of Illinois Press.

Eminently readable, Digital Rebellion is a mixture of reporting and theory all designed to move beyond the horizontal-vertical duality and achieve a synthesis that draws from the best of both worlds. While the words Syriza and Podemos cannot be found in its pages (and of course Podemos was born after the book was published), their presence looms over its pages. As political parties, they were midwifed by the occupations of the horizontalist left–so much so that at least one well-known autonomist has broken ranks and come around to seeing the benefits of wielding state power, hitherto something seen as anathema. Jerome Roos of Roar Magazine, an autonomist stronghold, gave an interview to Syriza in which he said that “Syriza’s radical internationalism is uplifting and a positive contrast to the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of the business class.” These are welcome words indeed.

read full article

February 17, 2015

A dialectical approach to technology

Filed under: computers,Internet,technology — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

From Digital Rebellion:

This dialectical approach to technology avoids a techno-utopian outlook that imputes naturally given revolutionary character to the Internet. At the same time, this dynamic approach recognizes the critical and likely realist analysis of technology embodied in Dean’s work, while not seeing the capture of technology as complete or given. In this sense, as other research has shown, “if capital ‘interweaves technology and power, this weaving can be undone, and the threads can be used to make another pattern” (Dyer-Withford 1999).

This reweaving of technology is illustrated by Frantz Fanon in Studies of a Dying Colonialism (1965), when he famously described how the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) reappropriated the radio, changing it from a tool of French colonial domination to a fundamental weapon of resistance. As Fanon argues, “[T]he creation of a Voice of Fighting Algeria” (93) and the correspondent construction of an Algerian version of truth put the French truth, which for so long was unchallenged in Algeria, on the defensive. Thus, while in the hands of the French, the radio served to further French domination, obscuring social relations and isolating “natives” from one another, whereas the FLN’s reappropriation turned the radio into a tool of information, connection, and unification by creating a new language of Algerian resistance and nationhood. Thus, it was not radio alone that produced change; in fact, Algerians would not adopt the radio while it was a tool of French domination. It was the social use of radio by the FLN that made it a revolutionary tool in Algeria.

Fanon’s dialectical analysis of radio in Algeria offers an entry point into this complex discussion of technology and social movements. Along these lines, the birth of the Internet serves as a useful example of the dialectical interplay of technological tools and social relations. By all accounts, the development of the Internet as a communications tool was financed, and at times led, by the U.S. Department of Defense, through the Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). DARPA created the predecessor to the Internet, ARPANET, in order to decentralize command and control in case of nuclear attack.9 Developed at the height of the Cold War in response to the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957, the technology had a singular military purpose. Scholars have shown, however, that in the research and development process, the tech laborers working on ARPANET appropriated the system to create a social-communications network. Correspondingly, much of the original intent was supplanted by the aim of creating a democratic, egalitarian communications network. In this respect, a technology that emerged out of the U.S. Department of Defense became the backbone for a worldwide-unrestricted medium for information and communication. As Hafner and Lyon explain: “The romance of the Net came not from how it was built or how it worked but from how it was used. By 1980 the Net was far more than a collection of computers and leased lines. It was a place to share work and build friendships and a more open method of communications” (1996, 218). In another account, speaking of social networking and successive layers of social usage that engulfed the new technology, Peter Childers and Paul Delany (1994) exclaimed, “The parasites took over the host” (62).

More recently, however, as the Internet has emerged as a central tool of social life, the forces of capitalism have successfully worked to co-opt it and create a technology that prioritizes profit over information sharing. In Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet against Democracy (2013), Robert W. McChesney details how, for the last two decades, in every major fight that determined the direction of this new communication technology, the forces of capital have won: “The tremendous promise of the digital revolution has been compromised by capitalist appropriation and development of the Internet. . . . In the great conflict between openness and the closed sys-tem of corporate profitability, the forces of capital have triumphed whenever an issue mattered to them” (97). This appropriation of the Internet for the interests of capital is not complete, of course, as there are a host of struggles that will determine the character of this new technology for decades, yet it does offer the central window through which to understand the Web in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In a broader sense, however, the conflict over the Internet yet again illustrates that a dialectical approach to technology offers a framework for studying technological practices as they are tied to social relations and the mode of production, while leaving open conditions of possibility for contravening interests.

 

December 20, 2014

Obama’s hackers

Filed under: computers,cops/agent provocateurs,corruption,crime,Obama — louisproyect @ 9:29 pm

kim_obama

No matter how many years I have been monitoring crimes high and low in what co-authors Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein called “Washington Babylon”, there are those times that I can only do a double-take over something I read in the NY Times. Today was one of those days as I read an article titled innocently enough “Panel to Advise Against Penalty for C.I.A.’s Computer Search”. If you tried to guess what the article was about from the heading, you’d wonder why anybody would be penalized for a “computer search”. After all, I use Google 25 times a day and nobody ever had the need to penalize me, even IT management at Columbia University that probably figured out that if I was on Google, it was to find out who starred in Godard’s “Contempt” rather than how to do a recursive grep in Unix.

But the heading should have been “Panel to Advise Against Penalty for C.I.A.’s Computer Hack” since that is what actually happened:

A panel investigating the Central Intelligence Agency’s search of a computer network used by staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who were looking into the C.I.A.’s use of torture will recommend against punishing anyone involved in the episode, according to current and former government officials.

The panel will make that recommendation after the five C.I.A. officials who were singled out by the agency’s inspector general this year for improperly ordering and carrying out the computer searches staunchly defended their actions, saying that they were lawful and in some cases done at the behest of John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director.

If it was done at “the behest” of the CIA director and behind the backs of the Senate investigators, but seen as not worthy of punishment, there must have been mitigating circumstances that would have allowed that panel to act as it did. Like the possibility that Diane Feinstein was a secret al-Qaeda operative and it was necessary to check up on her. I mean, after all Obama is a Marxist, right? That’s what Glenn Beck says and who would gainsay him?

As it turns out, the panel is like one of those police department internal investigations that are conducted after some Black youth gets shot 37 times. Who would expect the cops to find themselves guilty? That’s basically what happened here. As the NY Times reports, the members were “appointed by Mr. Brennan and composed of three C.I.A. officers and two members from outside the agency.”

The CIA broke the law just as cops do when they shoot an unarmed Black youth. The Times article referred to “improperly” hacking the Senate computers. That is not quite the term that describes what took place. “Illegally” is more like it. When Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence committee, asked Brennan whether the CIA was subject to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – an anti-hacking law, Brennan said that he’d have to get back to him.

Those two members from outside the agency might as well have been career CIA officers for what it’s worth. One of them was panel chairman Evan Bayh and the other was Robert F. Bauer, Obama’s legal counsel during his first term.

Evan Bayh was the Senator from Indiana between 1999 and 2011 and served as the Chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council from 2001 to 2005. The DLC embodies the sort of politics that the Clintons made infamous. Some people voted for Obama in 2008 under the assumption that being opposed by Hillary Clinton meant that he was not cut from the same DLC cloth. As it turned out, Obama was exactly like Bill Clinton, a loyal servant of Wall Street and a firm believer in the right of the US to rule the world. In 2002, Bayh stood at George W. Bush’s side in a ceremony announcing their joint support for an invasion of Iraq.

Since Barack Obama is strictly opposed to punishing John Brennan or any of his flunkies, you can expect his former lawyer to understand what his job is. After Robert F. Bauer stopped functioning as the White House shyster, Obama sent him off with the following encomium: “Bob was a critical member of the White House team, He has exceptional judgment, wisdom and intellect, and he will continue to be one of my close advisers.” With a White House that has clamped down on the press more than any administration in modern history and that has made secrecy its standard operating procedure, who would expect Bauer to do anything else except get the CIA off the hook?

Bauer wrote for the Huffington Post briefly. You can get a flavor of his worldview from a couple of articles. In one he makes “the progressive case” for pardoning Scooter Libby, the Bush aide who went to prison for perjured testimony in the Valerie Plame investigation. And here I am, stupid me, always thinking that progressive meant something like public works programs or single-payer health insurance. Golly, you really learn so much from the Huffington Post.

Bauer’s other article worth noting was a tribute to Richard Rorty on his passing. It demonstrates an understanding of the culture wars that I wouldn’t have expected from a shady lawyer in the corridors of power. He urged that the heirs of the New Left, the professors at places like Columbia University teaching cultural studies and standing up for diversity, would find common cause with the New Deal left that preceded it.

In making his case, Bauer referred to Rorty’s essay “The Last Intellectual In Europe — Orwell on Cruelty”. On the very first page of the essay, Rorty quotes Orwell’s opposition to practices that had become widespread in the 20th century. He referred to them in “1984”, those that “had long been abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years – imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations – not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.”

Such is the Orwellian state that we have finally arrived at that Robert F. Bauer can write such an article for Huffington Post honoring a man who opposed “torture to extract confessions” while at the same time covering up for a CIA that was guilty of such crimes.

 

October 20, 2014

The Hacker Wars

Filed under: computers,crime,Film — louisproyect @ 3:22 pm

The “Hacker Wars” opened at Village East Cinema last Friday and is playing through Thursday. This review is a bit belated but I do want to urge New Yorkers to check out the film since it puts a spotlight on figures in the Anonymous movement that were of some significance despite being obscure to many of us, including me. The film also hints at why the “Hacker Wars” were lost, an outcome that is in many ways parallel to the demise of the Occupy movement, its second cousin.

Let me start off by saying that it took me a while to warm up to this documentary since director Vivien Lesnik Weisman made the decision to adopt an MTV type aesthetic that made use of exceedingly short fragments of the various principals speaking about their experience as hackers that must have been calculated to appeal to a younger audience that ostensibly lacked the patience to hear someone speak for a lengthy period—like five minutes or so. When you superimpose a hip-hop soundtrack over the interviews, it becomes rather annoying to an old fogey like me.

That being said, there’s some important material in the film that must be considered by a left that has grown accustomed to the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing activists who made up the rank-and-file of both Anonymous and Occupy, many of whom were self-professed anarchists.

The film is basically a profile of three victims of the war on hactivism: Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer—aka “Weev”, Jeremy Hammond, and Barrett Brown. All have spent time or are spending time in prison for their role in Anonymous and its ancillary cabals. And all of them leave something to be desired as personalities and activists.

Weev was a member of Goatse Security (GoatSec), a small band of hackers that was part of the constellation of groups that were either part of Anonymous or “fellow travelers”. Considering the fact that Anonymous was not a membership organization as such, it is hard to pinpoint the various convergences between people like Weev and the network. His biggest hack was uncovering a flaw in AT&T security that made the e-mail addresses of iPad users easily accessible.

As a kind of black Kryptonite evil version of Abby Hoffman, Weev fancied himself as a joker, assuming the guise of Internet troll. When you come across the term in the film, it is important to note that this is not the same thing as, for example, a libertarian making himself a nuisance on Marxmail until he gets the boot. For Weev, trolling means harassing people mercilessly.

A lot of Weev’s shtick is badmouthing “Kikes”, “fags” and “niggers”, behavior that the film puts the best positive spin on, as a form of ironic social commentary on hypocrisy. But there’s probably an aspect of this that the film neglected, no doubt a function of its general affinity for hactivism.

While the film was obviously made some time ago, I wonder how director Weisman would have responded to Weev’s article this month on the neo-Nazi website “The Daily Stormer” titled “What I learned from my time in prison”.

I’ve been a long-time critic of Judaism, black culture, immigration to Western nations, and the media’s constant stream of anti-white propaganda. Judge Wigenton was as black as they come. The prosecutor, Zach Intrater, was a Brooklyn Jew from an old money New York family. The trial was a sham…The whole time a yarmulke-covered audience of Jewry stared at me from the pews of the courtroom. My prosecutor invited his whole synagogue to spectate.

Maybe there’s a joke there but I don’t get it.

The documentary gives equal time to Barrett Brown, who was not a hacker but rather a kind of journalist/advocate for the movement, with credits in Vanity Fair and other mainstream outlets. Brown is a serious journalist, having written on a wide variety of topics including creationism. (He is the co-author of “Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny”.) But he is also something of a provocateur, although not so nearly as toxic as Weev. He is a long-time junkie and styles himself as a latter-day Hunter Thompson, even though that is my take on him rather than his or the film’s. A press conference he gave while taking a bath, for example, was pure Gonzo.

Brown has had a host of legal problems, largely tied to his complicity—at least as charged by the government—with Anonymous hacks. He also had charges of threatening an FBI agent, mostly stemming from a rant he made against the agent and his family in a drug-induced haze. He is all in all a much more fetching personality than Weev.

Finally, there’s Jeremy Hammond, who worked closely with “Sabu”, the tag used by Hector Xavier Monsegur. Sabu was part of the hacking group Lulz Security, commonly known as LulzSec, another part of the loosely-knit Anonymous network. The group’s biggest assaults were on communications megacorporations such as Sony and Fox News—much of it very high-profile even though LulzSec only consisted of six members.

In 2011 Sabu became an FBI snitch within 24 hours of being arrested. In the raids that followed from his becoming a rat, both Hammond and Brown became victims. The FBI, the judiciary and rightwing TV and radio have all lauded Sabu.

In a fleeting moment in this documentary, you see a cadre of hactivists sitting around bemoaning the arrests and pretty much agreeing that it destroyed Anonymous. I suspect that as long as Anonymous refrains from targeting American corporate behemoths, it will be able to raise hell in foreign countries, particularly those that are not American favorites.

After watching the film, it occurred to me that the lack of transparency and accountability in Anonymous as well as the black block wing of Occupy pretty much guaranteed the demise of dead-end anarchist tactics. The Guy Fawkes masks probably belong in the attic just as tie-dyed t-shirts and Nehru jackets ended up there by the time of the Carter presidency.

One final word on director Vivien Lesnik Weisman. She is a Cuban-American with a somewhat famous dad, Max Lesnik who scandalized the gusano community in Miami by rejecting its terrorism and advocating rapprochement with the Cuban government. His daughter made a documentary about him titled “The Man of Two Havanas” that unfortunately appears not to be available anywhere. This is from a Democracy Now interview with Weisman and her father:

AMY GOODMAN: Vivien, why did you do this film about your dad?

VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Well, first I wanted to explore my relationship with my father. It’s a personal film, as well as a political film. But my dad is — he has one passion, and that’s Cuba. So in order to understand my father better, I had to understand his passion. So therefore I went to Cuba. I got to know my country, the Cuban people, and was immersed in all the information about the terrorist groups that had targeted him throughout my childhood.

AMY GOODMAN: Had you understood this through your life?

VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Well, I was aware when I was growing up that we were bombed and that there were drive-by shootings in our house, and I lived in a constant state of siege, like a war zone. And Orlando Bosch —

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re talking about here in the United States, when you lived in Florida.

VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Yes, that’s in Miami. And we were targeted by these people, the anti-Castro terrorists. And the two names, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know those names, because they were constantly being discussed. And one of the groups that targeted my father was under the umbrella terrorist group that Orlando Bosch headed.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Max Lesnik, as Vivien — in this film, The Man of Two Havanas, you, Little Havana in Miami and Havana, Cuba, as she tells the story, you were one of the revolutionaries with Fidel Castro. Describe your early years in Cuba before you split with Castro.

MAX LESNIK: I was a young leader of Ortodoxo Party.

AMY GOODMAN: Of the Orthodox Party?

MAX LESNIK: Orthodox Party, the same party that Fidel Castro belong at that time. I met Fidel in the University of Havana, year 1949, where I was only 18 years old. Fidel was maybe 20, 21. Both together fought — not the revolution, but in some way I started with the student movement fighting for reforms and going to all — the way the student at that time in Cuba did, fighting the police.

Then happened something incredible. At that time, Cuba was a democracy, but with defects, corruption, but democracy like your organization Democracy Now! But that system was overthrown by Batista. He was a sergeant in the ’33 revolution, and then he took power by arms in 1952. Then happened to Cuba the worst thing that can happen in a democracy: the overthrow of the system by a military group of — commanded by Batista, that was a senator at that time.

Then after that, the only way to change the situation is through the arms, because Batista don’t permit any play in democracy or something like free expression. Then Fidel went to hills in Oriente province, the most — the Oriental section of the island. I was related to the group that went to the center part of the island, the Escambray Mountains, and by that time we fought for two years as guerrillas, combatant. Then, the first of January, Batista left the country, and the revolution took power.

AMY GOODMAN: You were the first person in Havana of the group?

MAX LESNIK: I was one of the first —

AMY GOODMAN: Before Fidel Castro got there?

MAX LESNIK: Before Fidel. Fidel arrived to Havana in January the 8th, but I was in Havana the day that Batista left, because I was going forth from the Sierra to the city to organize the clandestine movement, and then Batista left the night of January the 1st, and then I go openly to the radio station and television station. I suppose I was the one of those who appear on television telling Batista left and we are here. In reality, only were a lot of people like milicianos in the city of Havana, but the rebel army was in Oriente and in Las Villas. I was alone fighting the government, because they was afraid that it’s true that I say that we have an army here, that it’s [inaudible] in a way functioned the joke.

April 5, 2014

Reed Elsevier sucks

Filed under: Academia,computers,Gay — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm

Yesterday I spent three hours on the phone with Apple tech support to resolve a problem that had nothing to do with our Mac’s. Out of the blue my wife was unable to print certain PDF’s  around a month ago. Not only would they fail to print either on our Brother laser or Epson inkjet, all other PDF’s would fail to print following a failure even though they had been printable in the past. The first tech support person I dealt with advised reinstalling the operating system on my wife’s IMac, which I did to no avail. On the second call I spoke to a senior technician who worked with me for over an hour to pinpoint the problem. I have to give Apple credit for working with me so patiently. It cost $19 for their support, a reasonable fee given the amount of time they spent. Finally, we discovered that the unprintable PDF’s had this in common. They all originated from Reed Elsevier’s ScienceDirect website. Oddly enough, I was able to print them from my Macbook but my wife’s IMac spit them up. We left it this—as long as we had this workaround, there was no need to investigate any further.

Curious to see if anybody else was having a problem that both Apple and I agreed was exceedingly obscure, I googled “Reed Elsevier ScienceDirect printing problem” and came up with this:

Screen shot 2014-04-05 at 11.41.30 AM

Now I have no idea if this is the same exact problem we ran into on my wife’s IMac but something tells me that the Reed Elsevier website is flakey, especially in light of the problems I have run into with the new release of Lexis-Nexis. This is the results set for a search on “Paul Buhle”, the radical historian.

Screen shot 2014-04-05 at 11.46.54 AM

The default sort order is newest to oldest, right? So how come 2008 and 2003 are the years for the first two results in the list followed by those for 2014? When I spotted this bug, I contacted Elsevier who told me that they needed to look into the problem. That was about a year ago. Their fucking sort is still broken. If the programmers at Columbia University produced a software release that was this flawed, they would be fired. Plain and simple.

That’s not the end of it. If you do a Boolean search on “Paul Buhle” and “culture”, you get a results set of 75 articles. But if you do a simple search on “Paul Buhle” that returns 354 articles and then do a “search within” for articles that refer to “culture”, you get 96 articles. This of course does not make sense. They should be identical.

On top of all this, even if the software was not bug-laden, the new interface is horrible. An old friend from academia who was doing research in NY blew his stack working in LexisNexis while he was here. In the past you were able to specify all articles within a one-year, five-year, ten-year range just by checking a box. Now you have to enter the specific dates, which is a royal pain in the ass if you are looking for a bunch of different articles. He wondered if the academic version of LexisNexis that he and I use was deliberately sabotaged in order to drive users to pay for the premium version. I have a feeling that the premium version has the same interface. The only difference between the two is that the academic version has a site license.

Reed Elsevier is the result of a 1992 merger between Reed International, a British trade book and magazine publisher, and the Dutch science publisher Elsevier. You may be aware that Reed Elsevier is he target of a boycott by scientists as the NY Times reported on February 13, 2012:

More than 5,700 researchers have joined a boycott of Elsevier, a leading publisher of science journals, in a growing furor over open access to the fruits of scientific research.

The protest grew out of a provocative blog post (http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall/) by the mathematician Timothy Gowers of Cambridge University, who announced on Jan. 21 that he would no longer publish papers in any of Elsevier’s journals or serve as a referee or editor for them.

Last week 34 mathematicians issued a statement denouncing “a system in which commercial publishers make profits based on the free labor of mathematicians and subscription fees from their institutions’ libraries, for a service that has become largely unnecessary.”

The signers included three Fields medalists — Dr. Gowers, Terence Tao and Wendelin Werner. The statement was also signed by Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union, who then resigned as one of the unpaid editors in chief at the Elsevier journal Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis.

“We feel that the social compact is broken at present by some publishing houses, of which we feel Elsevier is the most extreme,” Dr. Daubechies said. “We feel they are now making much larger profits at a time when a lot of the load they used to take has been taken over by us.”

Long before the boycott, there were signs that academia was becoming fed up with Reed Elsevier. The NY Times reported on “Concerns About an Aggressive Publishing Giant” on December 29, 1997:

It must have been an extraordinary scene: on Dec. 1, the president of an important subsidiary of the world’s biggest publisher of academic and trade journals, the purveyor of what it likes to call ”must have” information, was politely but firmly told by an important client that ”must have” had become ”can’t afford,” and ”don’t need.”

Russell White, president of Elsevier Science Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier P.L.C., the British-Dutch giant, told a group of professors from Purdue University that the prices of the 350 on-line publications that now supplement the company’s entire list of 1,200 scientific and technical journals could be locked in for three years at an annual increase of 9.5 percent.

What he heard in response could not have pleased him.

Purdue was unwilling and fiscally incapable of absorbing anything close to that sort of rate rise, the professors told him. Moreover, they said, the quality of what they were getting was not worth the money.

Even before Mr. White’s visit, Purdue, which spends more than $1 million a year on Reed Elsevier journals, had canceled 88 of the 803 titles it once received. Among those axed: Brain Research (an annual subscription costs $14,919), Mutation Research ($7,378) and Tetrahedron With Tetrahedron: Asymmetry ($8,506).

”Reed Elsevier journals tend to be second- and third-tier publications, which range from the acceptable to the terrible,” said G. Marc Loudon, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue who attended the meeting. ”None are in the top tier in chemistry, biology and biochemistry, the fields I read in. If we lose Elsevier journals in those fields we will be O.K.

”Why do we want to buy garbage at a 9.5 percent price increase?” he asked.

Erik Engstrom is the CEO of Reed Elsevier. I can’t say that I am surprised to discover that he was formerly the President and Chief Operating Officer of Random House, the publishing house that gave me a royal screwing over the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar. Random House, it should be noted, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bertelsmann Group in Germany that infamously used Jewish slave labor during WWII.

The chairman of the Reed Elsevier board is one Anthony Habgood, who is also the chairman of Whitbread plc, a British hospitality and food corporation. His work on the Whitbread board must have recommended him to Reed Elsevier:

http://news.sky.com/story/1057059/horsemeat-whitbread-shares-slide-on-new-tests

Horsemeat: Whitbread Shares Slide On New Tests

A leading pub chain sees its share price slide after saying it would impose new tests on all its processed meat products. The Whitbread pub chain, which found horsemeat in its food products, sees its share price fall after announcing a new test regime.

At the close of trading on the FTSE 100, Whitbread’s share price was one of the biggest fallers, losing 3.67%.

The slide occurred after the group said it would impose the new testing regime on all processed meats provided by suppliers and introduce a new system of certification.

Chief executive Andy Harrison said: “We have been dismayed by the recent discovery of equine DNA in two of our restaurant products.

One hopes that when Whitbread embarks on a new testing regime that they are careful not to rely on the guidelines advised by Reed Elsevier science journals that Purdue regards as “garbage”.

Back in 2007 Reed Elsevier finally dropped out of the arms show business after many of its affiliates, especially Lancet, a medical journal that had led the way in detailing civilian casualties during the Iraq war, organized a campaign to bring this lucrative business to a halt. While Reed Elsevier spoke piously about respecting the sensibilities of its mainly academic clients, it is likely that concerns about its bottom line made the big difference just as is the case with Israel and the BDS. The Guardian reported on February 12, 2007:

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust said today it had sold its £2m stake in Reed Elsevier because of concerns the publishing giant is stepping up its involvement in arms fairs.

According to the charity two Reed subsidiaries, Reed Exhibitions and Spearhead Exhibitions, have continued to organise arms exhibitions despite the charity’s three-year campaign to make Reed sever ties to the arms trade.

It said the subsidiaries’ arms fairs included Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi), held every two years in London and organised in association with the Ministry of Defence.

Finally, this article would not be complete without mentioning the scandal that developed around a homophobic “study” that appeared in Social Science Research, a Reed Elsevier journal. A University of Texas sociologist published an article there that claimed that same-sex marriages were bad for children raised in such an environment.

The article was not properly peer reviewed (Regnerus’s colleagues participated) and was marked by serious methodological flaws as Debra Umberson, a colleague of Regnerus at U. of Texas revealed:

The recent study by my colleague Mark Regnerus on gay parenting purports to show that young adults with a parent who ever had a same-sex relationship turn out worse than young adults with continuously married heterosexual parents (who are, in addition, biologically related to their children). He calls this latter group the “gold standard for parenting.”

But in making this claim, he has violated the “gold standard for research.” Regnerus’ study is bad science. Among other errors, he made egregious yet strategic decisions in selecting particular groups for comparison.

His definition of children raised by lesbian mothers and gay fathers is incredibly broad — anyone whose biological or adopted mother or father had a same-sex relationship that the respondent knew about by age 18. Most of these respondents did not even live with their parent’s same-sex partner; in fact, many did not even live with their gay or lesbian parent at all! Of the 175 adult children Regnerus claims were raised by “lesbian mothers,” only 40 actually lived with their mother and her same-sex partner for at least three years.

Regnerus was recruited to put together this study by an outfit called the Witherspoon Institute that paid him $785,000 for his bogus research. Witherspoon is a rightwing think-tank funded by all the usual suspects: the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, et al. One William Bradford Wilcox, a conservative sociologist at the U. of Virginia who was hired to do the statistical research, is an editorial board member of Social Science Research. Surprise, surprise.

Darren Sherkat, nother board member of Social Science Research, was asked to conduct an audit of the Regnerus “study”. The New Civil Rights Movement, a gay rights website, reported on Sherkat’s findings:

In his audit, Sherkat explains the role that parent company Reed Elsevier played in pushing greed to predominate over ethical science publishing in the Regnerus scandal.

The Regnerus publishing scandal actually is much broader than just the Regnerus and Marks papers. Three Regnerus study commentaries published alongside the Regnerus and Marks papers were done by three persons without same-sex-parenting science expertise, and with conflicts of interest in commenting on the study. Those three are 1) UT’s Dr. Cynthia Osborne, Regnerus’s co-researcher on the “study;” 2) Dr. Paul Amato, a paid Regnerus study consultant; and 3) David Eggebeen, a Witherspoon bigot crony who supports the continuation of sexual orientation apartheid.

Here is part of Sherkat’s explanation of how Reed Elsevier greed is driving the publication and promotions of the wide-scaled anti-gay Regnerus scandal:

“Controversy over sexuality sells and in only a week after publication these papers have already skyrocketed to the most downloaded papers published in Social Science Research.” (Bolding added). “But neither paper should have been published, in my opinion. Undoubtedly, any researcher doing work on same-sex parenting will now have to address the Regnerus paper, and these citations will inflate the all-important “impact factor” of the journal. It is easy to get caught up in the empirical measures of journal success, and I believe this overcame Wright in driving his decision to rush these into print. The fetishism of the journal impact factors comes from the top down, and all major publishers prod editors about the current state of their impact factor. Elsevier is particularly attentive to this and frequently inquires about what Wright is doing to improve the already admirable impact factor of Social Science Research. As social scientists, popularity should not be the end we seek, and rigorous independent evaluation of these manuscripts would have made Social Science Research a less popular but better journal.” (Bolding added).

In his CYA “audit,” Sherkat further wrote:

“once they were accepted there was an unseemly rush to publication.” He continues: “that was justified based on the attention that these studies would generate. The published responses were milquetoast critiques by scholars with ties to Regnerus and/or the Witherspoon Institute, and Elsevier assisted with the politicization by helping to publicize the study and by placing these papers in front of the pay wall.” (Bolding added).

So you have to wonder. Did Aaron Swartz die in vain? If this is the kind of junk behind the JSTOR paywall, maybe we are better off just dumping these journals. Or finding a way for scholars to share information without corporate pigs who organize arms shows and sell horsemeat getting into the act? Open Access journals have their problems as well, but at least they are not tainted by the almighty buck. Whatever solutions lie in store, let’s hope that Reed Elsevier is excluded since everything about them sucks.

October 13, 2013

Obamacare’s Achilles Heel

Filed under: computers,health and fitness,technology — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Signing up for Obamacare

My political career (for lack of a better word) began in 1967 just one year before my professional career as a programmer/analyst. The software career came to an end in August 2012 but I am still going strong politically. With such a background, I probably had a keener interest in the lead article in the NY Times today titled “From the Start, Signs of Trouble at Health Portal” than the average person. The lead paragraphs should give you an idea of the depth of the problem. While it is too soon to say if the technical flaws of the Obamacare website will doom a flawed policy, it cannot be ruled out.

In March, Henry Chao, the chief digital architect for the Obama administration’s new online insurance marketplace, told industry executives that he was deeply worried about the Web site’s debut. “Let’s just make sure it’s not a third-world experience,” he told them.

Two weeks after the rollout, few would say his hopes were realized.

For the past 12 days, a system costing more than $400 million and billed as a one-stop click-and-go hub for citizens seeking health insurance has thwarted the efforts of millions to simply log in. The growing national outcry has deeply embarrassed the White House, which has refused to say how many people have enrolled through the federal exchange.

Even some supporters of the Affordable Care Act worry that the flaws in the system, if not quickly fixed, could threaten the fiscal health of the insurance initiative, which depends on throngs of customers to spread the risk and keep prices low.

“These are not glitches,” said an insurance executive who has participated in many conference calls on the federal exchange. Like many people interviewed for this article, the executive spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he did not wish to alienate the federal officials with whom he works. “The extent of the problems is pretty enormous. At the end of our calls, people say, ‘It’s awful, just awful.’ ”

I got my first inkling of how screwed up the system was from my FB friend Ted Rall, the well-known leftist editorial page cartoonist who started off as an engineering student at Columbia University and who is technically proficient. You can find his scathingly witty account of trying to enroll here. I got a particular chuckle out of how the system responded when he entered his SS number:

Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 2.08.01 PM

Once he got past the SS number snafu and began the enrollment process he was shocked at the rates he would have to pay for “affordable” health care.

For this 50-year-old nonsmoker, New York State’s healthcare plans range from Fidelis Care’s “Bronze” plan at $810.84 per month to $2554.71 per month. I didn’t bother to look up the $2554.71 one because if I had $2554.71 a month lying around, I’d buy a doctor.

$810.84 per month. $10,000 a year. After taxes. Where I live, you have to earn $15,000 to keep $10,000.

Not affordable. Did I mention that?

I was surprised to see that the primary consultant for the Obamacare website was CGI, a Montreal-based company that was one of the chief competitors of Automated Concepts Inc., the consulting group I worked for in the late 70s and early 80s. I have no idea when ACI went out of business but CGI has obviously become a major power. What I found most shocking was the late date at which programming began: “The biggest contractor, CGI Federal, was awarded its $94 million contract in December 2011. But the government was so slow in issuing specifications that the firm did not start writing software code until this spring, according to people familiar with the process.”

For a project of this size, it would be difficult to meet a target date of Fall 2013/Winter 2014 if it had started in Spring 2012 let along Spring 2013. I am amazed that it is even 70 percent complete, as the Times reports. My guess is that is probably only half-done.

There’s a lot of ass-covering going on now. Oracle, the company whose registration software gave Ted Rall such headaches, says, “Our software is running properly.” Oracle’s CEO is Larry Ellison, the third richest man in America whose yacht just won the America’s Cup in San Francisco. After 9/11 Ellison offered to supply a National Id card system to help weed out terrorists. With all of Ted Rall’s SS number woes, we can be thankful that his offer was turned down. Or else half the population would be in Guantanamo right now.

Like Bill Gates, Ellison got rich exploiting the intellectual breakthroughs made by others. Oracle was one of the first relational database systems marketed to corporations in the early 80s, along with Sybase, the proprietary software I supported for twenty years at Columbia University. Relational databases (basically a rows/columns approach similar to the spreadsheet concept) were invented by the mathematician E.J. Codd who made much more of a contribution intellectually than Ellison but never had ambitions to be a billionaire.

The Times has a graphic to illustrate the problems of the Obamacare website at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/10/13/us/how-the-federal-exchange-is-supposed-to-work-and-how-it-didnt.html.

This particular feature would seem to explain not only the technical challenges that make the system difficult to implement but also a fatal policy flaw:

Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 2.38.01 PMThe government is offering what is called a “many-to-many” relationship in database terms: many applicants choosing from many plans. This is historically a challenge to implement in financial systems such as the kind found typically in investment plans.

It would have been a lot easier to simply extend Medicare to the entire population. Not only would the private insurance companies be eliminated, the existing software would have only required a relatively minor change—eliminating the 65 year old criterion.

And going one step further, what is the purpose of having a bunch of different insurance companies competing with each other to provide the same service? Why not a single payer like in Canada that can be run on a nonprofit basis? And, then, to make it even more manageable why can’t we implement a public health system like in France with doctors functioning more as servants of the public rather than entrepreneurs? This sounds rather utopian, I realize, but only in terms of the resistance we would meet rather than the feasibility. Instead of policies that are economical and rational, we get jury-rigged, Rube Goldberg systems that can barely get off the ground like Howard Hughes’s plywood super-plane.

As long as we are talking in utopian terms, managing an economy would be a whole lot easier if we eliminated the profit motive that pits private enterprises against each other basically offering the same goods and services. I defy anybody to tell me why he or she picks one detergent against another. There will always be a need for small businesses such as restaurants (something the Cubans unfortunately did not realize until too late—not too late, one hopes) but the commanding heights of the economy?

If you think in terms of spreadsheets (or relational database systems), planning an economy is not that big a deal. You think in terms of resources, labor, and social needs that can be arranged in rows and columns. From that you allocate on a rational basis and according to the priorities a democratically elected government deems wise—such as spending more on public transportation than automobiles.

Of course, until an aroused population takes control of the economy and puts people like Larry Ellison and Barack Obama on a secluded island where they will be stripped of the power to exploit and to destroy, those hopes will remain utopian. For me, the need to defend such an orientation will remain with me with every living breath.

July 28, 2013

Spammers, don’t waste my time or yours

Filed under: commercialism,computers,crime — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

My readers may have noticed a post from the other day asking someone to stop posting what appeared to be legitimate comments from a page identified as spam in WordPress’s database. Since the comments did not have the usual “Excellent points you are make! I will definately bookmark you for future enjoyment” quality, I assumed that they were legitimate. As someone pointed out to me, the spammer took the trouble to find some text somewhere that plausibly corresponded to the content of my post. I should have taken WordPress at its word and simply deleted the bogus comment. Just now some other spammer has taken the same tack as evidenced by this comment being held in my spam queue:

Screen shot 2013-07-28 at 4.52.28 PMI googled the words highlighted above and discovered that they were first posted to Andy Newman’s blog. Some idiot spammer is taking the trouble to find some comment made elsewhere so that one of my readers will click his link. Doesn’t he understand that people who visit the Unrepentant Marxist are the most deeply suspicious people on earth, as likely to click such a link as they are to vote for Mitt Romney? I guess the url of the link indicates the level of desperation. Bodaideal.blogbyt.es comes from Spain. The unemployment there is over 50 percent for people in their early 20s. I would only advise my spammer to work for the overthrow of the capitalist system there. He will have much more success in that endeavor than tricking my readers into going to a website titled “Ideal Wedding”.

January 14, 2013

Thoughts on Aaron Swartz’s suicide

Filed under: computers,imperialism/globalization,intellectual property,Internet — louisproyect @ 8:02 pm

On January 9th my CounterPunch tribute to Sol Yurick concluded with this offer:

There are 13 articles by Sol Yurick listed in JSTOR, including the two I cited above. As most of you know, JSTOR has been a kind of battleground over the past several years with a 26 year old Stanford dropout named Aaron Swartz being arrested for downloading all of the JSTOR articles from MIT with the obvious intention of making them available to the hoi polloi—in other words, the opposite of the Athenian ruling class revered by Sophocles.

If there were any justice in the world, those articles above all should be accessible to the kinds of people who would have taken a class with Sol 30 years ago at the Brecht Forum or who are CounterPunch readers today. In the same defiant spirit as Aaron Swartz, but on a scaled-down level, I invite anybody who wants to read a Sol Yurick article without paying 15 dollars for the privilege to contact me at lnp3@panix.com and we’ll work something out. You can get a list of Sol Yurick’s articles doing a search on jstor.com without paying a penny and I encourage you to so without delay.

Two days later the world learned that Aaron Swartz had hung himself. Needless to say, I feel like I have lost a comrade even though I never met him. Like him, I have always believed in sharing JSTOR articles even though I never would have taken the kind of risk that he did. For me, it has amounted to passing along something like 200 JSTOR articles or so since I first gained access to the database as a Columbia University employee in 1991, including a dozen or so Sol Yurick articles in response to those who had accepted my invitation. One of the recipients was a fellow named Nicholas Levis, a Greek-American who chaired the protest against Golden Dawn in Astoria a while back. With his Hellenic ties, it was natural for him to request a copy of Sol’s article on Oedipus Rex. That, in my view, is exactly the kind of connection that Aaron Swartz sought to facilitate—even giving his life in the process. While the N.Y. Times obituary claims that it might have been depression, an illness he had been battling for many years, that caused the suicide, his family and partner thought differently:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, Aaron Swartz was a victim of a national-security state that is anxious to keep critical information out of the hands of its citizens. Since most of JSTOR consists of narrowly focused, if not pedantic, articles mostly designed to help academics survive the “publish or perish” ordeal, one might wonder if there is any connection between Wikileaks and JSTORLeaks.

In one of a number of memorable tributes to Swartz, Glenn Greenwald explained what was at stake in the persecution of Aaron Swartz:

Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”

I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times’ Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz’s case. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.

As I began collecting my thoughts on the meaning of Aaron Swartz’s death, it began to dawn on me that the stakes are even higher than those set down by Glenn Greenwald. If there was someone with the focus and the Marxist erudition of V.I. Lenin today, a primary task would be to analyze “the latest stage of capitalism” in terms of the evolving character of American imperialism and its cohorts in the advanced industrial countries, for whom intellectual property is beginning to assume the same critical function as a steel mill or a bank did in 1914.

I could not help but reminded of this every time I put a screener from The Weinstein Company, the Walt Disney Corporation, et al on my DVD player in November and December in order to help me nominate best picture, director, actor, etc. for NYFCO’s annual meeting. Every one of them starts with a warning that if I distribute the DVD to just about anybody, I face a 5 year prison term and a $250,000 fine. When I sit through something like “The Dark Knight Rises”, I feel like that is punishment enough.

In 2001 my colleague and friend Michael Perelman wrote a book titled Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity. You can read an article based on the primary thesis of the book in the January 2003 Monthly Review. Perelman states:

The dramatic expansion of intellectual property rights represents a new stage in commodification that threatens to make virtually everything bad about capitalism even worse. Stronger intellectual property rights will reinforce class differences, undermine science and technology, speed up the corporatization of the university, inundate society in legal disputes, and reduce personal freedoms.

We have no precise measure of the extent of intellectual property, but a rough calculation by Marjorie Kelly suggests the magnitude of intellectual property rights. At the end of 1995, the book value of the Standard and Poor (S&P) index of 500 companies accounted for only 26 percent of market value. Intangible assets were worth three times the value of tangible assets.1 Of course, not all intangible assets are intellectual property rights, but a substantial proportion certainly is.

While the legal protection of intellectual property might seem inseparable from contemporary global capitalism, until fairly recently capitalists were equivocal about such things. During the first six decades of the nineteenth century, corporations in the United States were not inclined to respect such intellectual property rights. For example, they often paid as little as possible, or nothing at all, to inventors. In addition, the United States did not even recognize international copyrights.

The free-marketeers of the nineteenth century vigorously opposed intellectual property rights as feudalistic monopolies. Their view of intellectual property rights mostly dominated political economic opinion in the United States until the massive depression of 1870s weakened faith in market forces. In the context of the economic crisis, business was desperate for anything that would return profits to what they considered to be an acceptable level.

At first, business owners tried forming cartels and trusts to hobble competitive forces. In response to vigorous protests, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act. However, corporations were able to use patents, which were perfectly legal, as a convenient loophole to evade the intent of that law. Through patent pools, they could divide up the market and exclude new competitors. In this way, intellectual property rights were important in establishing monopoly capitalism.

The strengthening of intellectual property rights accelerated once again as the bloom wore off the post-Second World War “Golden Age” and the United States’ export surplus disappeared. Behind closed doors, corporate leaders successfully lobbied the government to strengthen intellectual property rights that would give advantages to their industries. Just as in the late nineteenth century, business saw property rights as a means of increasing profits when economic conditions began to sour. The public never had a clue about the extent to which the government had given away important rights.

With its hold over the developing world becoming ever more tenuous and enforced nowadays more by Predator Drones than boots on the ground, American imperialism must do everything in its power to control information. That information can be the State Department cables that Bradley Manning turned over to Wikileaks. It can also be the JSTOR articles that are stockpiled behind a paywall as if they were gold bars at Fort Knox. Considering the fact that anybody can go to the N.Y. Public Library, take out a print journal, Xerox an article, take it home, scan it, and send it out to thousands of recipients, it shows how vulnerable corporations seeking to leverage their control over intellectual property can be. Since the true model for the Internet should be the Public Library, the powers-that-be have a big job on their hands. They want the Internet to be an open exchange of information since so much of commerce is based on this model, but they want to keep certain parts of it off-limits to the unwashed masses—the very people whose cause Aaron Swartz took up.

Speaking of Monthly Review, it is worth mentioning that John Bellamy Foster, its current editor, and former editor Robert McChesney had some very interesting things to say about the struggle to keep the Internet open and free along the lines of the public library. In a March 2011 article titled The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism, they wrote:

This economic context points to the paradox of the Internet as it has developed in a capitalist society. The Internet has been subjected, to a significant extent, to the capital accumulation process, which has a clear logic of its own, inimical to much of the democratic potential of digital communication, and that will be ever more so, going forward. What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets.

There are many distinct levels at which Internet activity takes place, and all of them are in the process of being commercialized. The second area where conventional microeconomics would raise eyebrows if not ring alarm bells is how capitalist development of Internet-related industries has quickly, inexorably, generated considerable market concentration at almost every level, often beyond that found in non-digital markets. What this means is that there are multiple areas where private interests can get a chokehold on the Internet and seize monopoly profits, and they are all being pursued. Google, for example, holds 70 percent of the search engine market, and its share is increasing. It is on pace to challenge the market share that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil had at its peak. Microsoft, Intel, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Cisco, and a handful of other giants enjoy considerable monopolistic power as well. The crucial Wi-Fi chipset market, for example, is a duopoly where two firms have 80 percent of the market between them. Apple, via iTunes, controls an estimated 87 percent market share in digital music downloads and 70 percent of the MP3 player market.

As should be obvious from the citation above, Foster and McChesney are obviously looking at “the latest stage of capitalism” even if they probably don’t see themselves as following in Lenin’s footsteps. In a way, this is the logical outcome of being disciples of Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy who could be described as continuing the tradition of Lenin’s classic treatise on imperialism.

As Facebook, blogs, YouTube, and email lists become increasingly more important in connecting the left globally, we can expect more and more efforts to hinder the efforts of those who constitute its vanguard—like the young people who stepped to the forefront in the Arab Spring. Like Mayor Bloomberg forcing antiwar or Occupy activists into penned areas, we can expect the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world to draw closer to those in power in order to keep the left on a tight leash. It is one thing to allow people to put a video of a cat playing with a ball of cotton on Youtube. It something else altogether to use the Internet to build a march on Washington demanding that the government step down. I strongly suspect that the moves against Swartz, Manning and Assange are designed with that future Armageddon in mind.

October 21, 2012

We are Legion

Filed under: computers,Film — louisproyect @ 11:26 pm

Like its name, and unlike Wikileaks that is known mostly through its founder Julian Assange, the hactivist group Anonymous is not easily tied to any particular individual. Operating in semi-clandestine conditions, its members have only made public appearances behind the famous V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks. Opening last Friday night at the Quad Cinema, Brian Knappenberger’s very fine documentary “We are Legion” not only interviews key figures associated with Anonymous but presents a fairly scholarly but riveting account of its origins, much of which should be of avid interest to the left. When so many gray-haired veterans of the left fret over when “fresh blood” will arrive, “We are Legion” makes it clear that help is on the way even if it does not exactly conform to past expectations.

Among the expert witnesses interviewed is Steven Levy, the author of “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution”. I was particularly interested to hear what he had to say since my review of his book was the very first article I ever posted on the Internet, long before blogs existed—and for that matter, when the Worldwide Web was still in its infancy. Here’s an excerpt from my piece that will give you a flavor of how the earliest generation of geeks tilted left:

Some of the key pioneers in the personal computing revolution were not driven by entrepreneurial greed. For example, the Community Memory project in Berkeley, California was launched in 1973 by Lee Felsenstein. The project allowed remote public access to a time-shared XDS mainframe in order to provide “a communication system which allows people to make contact with each other on the basis of mutually expressed interests, without having to cede judgement to third parties.” The Community Memory project served as a kind of bulletin board where people could post notes, information, etc., sort of like an embryonic version of the Interenet.

Felsenstein, born in 1945, was the son of a CP district organizer and got involved in civil rights struggles in the 1950’s. Eventually, he hooked up with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and became a committed radical. Lee’s other passion was electronics and he entered the UC as an electrical engineering major.

Felsenstein then hooked up with another left-of-center computer hacker by the name of Bob Halbrecht and the two went on to form a tabloid called PCC “People’s Computer Company”. Among the people drawn to the journal was Ted Nelson, a programmer who had bounced from one corporate job to another throughout the 60’s but who was always repelled by “the incredible bleakness of the place in these corridors.”

Nelson was the author of “Computer Lib” and announced in its pages that “I want to see computers useful to individuals, and the sooner the better, without necessary complication or human servility being required.” Community Memory flourished for a year and a half until the XDS started breaking down too often The group disbanded in 1975.

Defying the stereotype of adolescent boys sitting behind a keyboard in the parents’ basement, many Anonymous members are female. One of them is Mercedes Haefer who is facing a 15-year sentence for a “denial of service” type attack on Paypal after it stopped processing donations to Wikileaks. At the time Haefer was a 20-year-old student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the home of the “Running Rebels” basketball team, and a cashier at a Sony store. This is not exactly the typical profile of a Left Forum attendee but maybe it should be.

Haefer’s attorney Sidney Cohen, who works with the Center for Constitutional Rights, presented his legal strategy by comparing Haefer and her comrades to the civil rights activists who sat in at lunch counters in the South in the early 60s. While I wouldn’t dream of giving Cohen legal advice, I would remind him that the ruling class in the U.S. was divided over segregation back then. Today there are no such divisions, especially over the right of financial institutions to carry out their business unimpeded and especially the right to carry out their own “denial of service” to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Even when hackers are capable of paralyzing the website of a major financial institution or some government agency for only a day, the authorities consider such actions an act of espionage deserving the harshest punishment.

Anonymous’s history is really fascinating. They started out as totally disconnected and anonymous posters to a bulletin board called www.4chan.org, bent mostly on what amounted to trolling just for the hell of it. Somewhere along the line a creep by the name of Hal Turner showed up there and got under everybody’s skin, particularly the “anonymous” regulars. Turner was a neo-Nazi who ran a webcast radio show from his home in North Bergen, New Jersey. Spontaneously, the opposition to Turner made his life hell on and off the Internet, hacking his website and subscribing to all sorts of magazines in his name. This step up from trolling ultimately led to a victory over Turner and a sense of empowerment.

Once those involved developed the sense that they had common social and political goals, they began to work together on a fairly organized basis. The next big campaign was against Scientology that had filed copyright infringement injunctions against the posting of a totally embarrassing Tom Cruise interview on Youtube or elsewhere. This got their dander up and they launched a drive to get the video up all over the Internet (maybe I should contact them about my comic book memoir.)

This led to a pitched battle with Scientology and its lawyers employing the techniques that would make Anonymous famous (or infamous if you are against the left), taking their websites offline, jamming their phones, etc. If flooding a switchboard is a crime that carries a 15-year sentence, you can bet that Obama or some other big-time politician will have little to worry about when they invite you to do the same thing to his opponents.

The arrests of Haefer and company has undoubtedly had a dampening effect on hactivism or what the ruling class calls cyberterrorism. Given the nature of Anonymous, it is not surprising to see that their views on what Marxists call strategy are not to be found. This, of course, is the same issue with the black bloc. When you get into the business of challenging bourgeois legality, you have to expect the full might of the state to be used against you.

When I joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, I was told that I had to stop using illegal drugs. Since I had grown bored with pot, this was not that much of a sacrifice. Even if this kept our numbers smaller, it made a lot of sense especially in places like Houston, Texas where we had a branch. It was not unusual for an activist to face a stiff prison sentence when they were caught with a small amount of pot. Since we knew that there were informers in our movement, we had to be extra careful.

After the Scientology war ended, Anonymous turned to more and more political issues such as working with Wikileaks and giving technical support to fellow hactivists in the Middle East during the Arab Spring.

While most of what they do is commendable, there are some disturbing signs that the same kind of unaccountability that has characterized black bloc activism threatens to erode the good will that has been built up in the recent past.

While the ties between LulzSec and Anonymous were never clearly established, it can at least be said that most people regard them as part of the broader hactivist movement, including the people who made “We are Legion”. While engaging in political protest, LulzSec’s more overarching goal was to create mayhem. Their manifesto was an exercise in nihilism:

This is the lulz lizard era, where we do things just because we find it entertaining. Watching someone’s Facebook picture turn into a penis and seeing their sister’s shocked response is priceless. Receiving angry emails from the man you just sent 10 dildos to because he can’t secure his Amazon password is priceless. You find it funny to watch havoc unfold, and we find it funny to cause it. We release personal data so that equally evil people can entertain us with what they do with it.

Eventually the group’s leader was unveiled as an FBI informant who had entrapped a number of his comrades, who like Mercedes Haefer are facing stiff prison terms.

Recently Anonymous decided to break with Wikileaks after it began what Anonymous regarded as an intrusive fundraising:

Since yesterday visitors of the Wikileaks site are presented a red overlay page that demands they donate money. This page cannot be closed, and unless a donation is made – the content like GI Files are not displayed.

While they have promised not to attack the Wikileaks website, it is not good to see the two stalwarts of hactivism divided in this fashion.

Frankly, I have some trouble coming to grips with hactivism even though I spent nearly 5 years promoting leftwing computer programming efforts in the late 80s to early 90s through the auspices of Tecnica. Tecnica’s goal was just as radical as Anonymous’s but focused on supporting a government rather than challenging it. We sent hundreds of computer programmers to Nicaragua in order to train its citizens how to use spreadsheets, electronic publishing, databases, etc. as part of an effort to modernize the country and make socialism feasible.

Denial of service attacks on the Pentagon, the CIA and shitty financial institutions is obviously something I sympathize with but I am not exactly sure how the broader goals of the left and those of Anonymous can properly mesh. The closer I look at the left today, the more convinced I become that accountability and transparency are urgently needed. At the risk of sounding hackneyed, I suppose that the premium must be on worker’s democracy both in how we are organized and in our ultimate goal of transforming society.

If you have wrestled with these questions yourself, I strongly urge you to take a look at “We are Legion”, a film that sheds light on one of the more important developments in the past half-decade or so.

July 3, 2012

After programming computers for 44 years, I am finally retiring

Filed under: computers — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

I should add that of those 44 years about half have been spent at Columbia University. While the university is most certainly a capitalist institution, it was a much better place than some of the truly scumbag institutions that have employed me over the years including Metropolitan Life, the First National Bank of Boston, Texas Commerce Bank, Salomon Brothers, and Goldman-Sachs.

A recent article in the NY Times by Ben Ratliff captured my feelings about working here:

The heat comes quickly in the summer. By early June, working at home with no air-conditioning, I have no concentration. Everything feels close and impolite and loud.

So I go to Butler Library, on the southern end of Columbia’s campus in Morningside Heights. What began as a diversion has become a self-preserving summer thing: not just Butler, but the Butler stacks, the stillness capital of my imagination…

Butler is a 1930s neo-Classical hulk. At the front, above 14 columns, runs a list of writers and thinkers; the last is Vergil, and I like that someone long ago took a stand and chose to spell it in the Anglicization closer to his real name, not the more common “Virgil.” It announces: nonsense not spoken here.

In the late ’80s, I’d been there a lot, studying and working as a summer employee. When I turned up at the Library Information office last year, there was much clucking about how I’d graduated so very long ago that they needed a whole other database to find my information. But that’s cool: I am from another time. Pre-air-conditioning.

I had come to work but also to tune myself up. So I split the day. Some for my bosses, some for me. After I met my deadline, writing in the reference room, I walked behind the main desk into the stacks. The Columbia library system owns over 10 million volumes; 1.5 million, humanities and history, live here. I moved around for a few hours in the stillness, looking things up, standing up or crouching the whole time, purely and almost dopily happy.

I’d forgotten. The Butler stacks are in a different sensory category, starting from the threshold: If you’re tall, you bow your head as you pass through the low door frame. They form an enclosed rectangular prism at the center of Butler — no windows, a bit cooler than the rest of the building. Two or three levels of the inner stacks can correspond to one floor of the outer library. All this reinforces the feeling that the stacks are something special: a separate province or a vital inner organ.

Inside there is the deep quiet of protection and near-abandonment. You hear the hum of the lights, turned on as needed; that’s it. There’s a phone to make outgoing calls on the fifth floor. To me the stacks are the most sacred space in the library, yet here nobody’s telling you not to talk. You’re on your own. It’s a situation for adults.

It is hard to explain what having access to Butler meant to someone like me. (As a retiree, I will continue to have access.) At one point, when I was researching the Marxist analysis of Reconstruction, I went over to Butler with the call letter for an Eric Foner book. Once I got to the shelf it resided on, I found another 5 or 6 books that were closely related. In some ways, it is a lot like following hyperlinks through Google except the connections in this case are “brick and mortar”. Being able to pick up the books in your own hands and browse through them is a mind-expanding experience.

The same thing with the library’s online resources like JSTOR, a database of scholarly journal articles that I have relied on over the years. Or Lexis-Nexis, a database of newspaper articles as well as television and radio transcripts. As I told the manager of applications development in Information Technology in a brief informal exit interview, access to such material has been more important to me than medical benefits.

Working at Columbia has also been different from other places on a human level as well. The average age on my project is over 50. Some people came here as a kind of escape from the Wall Street grind while for others it was the only employment opportunity available for the older job hunter. I interviewed here in the summer of 1991 when I was 46 years old and unemployed. I had solid skills but a downsizing financial industry was aggressively pursuing age discrimination policies that made it practically impossible to get a new job.

I got through the interviews with flying colors but was dismayed to discover in the final interview with the IT director that the salary would be about $20,000 less than I was making at Goldman-Sachs. I decided to take the job anyhow because my professional goals had changed. I simply wanted shelter from the storm. At the time there was a term to describe what motivated me: “downshifting”. From Wikipedia:

Downshifting is a social behavior or trend in which individuals live simpler lives to escape from the rat race of obsessive materialism and to reduce the “stress, overtime, and psychological expense that may accompany it.” It emphasizes finding an improved balance between leisure and work and focusing life goals on personal fulfillment and relationship building instead of the all-consuming pursuit of economic success.

Downshifting, as a concept, shares many characteristics with Simple living, but is distinguished, as an alternative form, by its focus on moderate change and concentration on an individual comfort level, a “dip your toes in gently” approach. In the 1990s this new form of Simple living began appearing in the mainstream media and has continually grown in popularity among populations living in industrial societies especially the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.

Just about everybody on my project team that I have had the good fortune to work with over the years are here for reasons like mine, although none of them spends much time in Butler Library or reading JSTOR articles. They are all over 40 and quite “mellow” in their attitudes. Over the past 10 years at least there has not been a single defection to the financial industry. They all put a premium on a work environment where you are not surrounded by ambitious young fucks wearing pinstripe suits, male or female. Since it is almost impossible to get a promotion here, people are content to do their job and go home in the evening without obsessing over whether they will become a manager or how big their year-end bonus will be.

Although Karl Marx never worked in an office, he obviously had a handle on my world when he wrote the following in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “…the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.”

One guy is fairly typical. He is Bill Thompson who has never worked anywhere except Columbia. He is responsible for the financial systems that reside on the IBM mainframe and I interact with him on a daily basis since files from that system are downloaded to a client-server application that I have supported for most of my time here. But Bill is also a passionate Japan scholar with a particular interest in film. Years ago he was the Asian film curator at Bleecker Street Cinema, one of the city’s outstanding art houses in the 60s and 70s. (Bill was acknowledged in the introduction to Michael Hoover’s “City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema”, a Marxist film study from Verso.)

This morning Bill approached me to discuss a problem we had with a reconciliation process between the mainframe and the Unix server I support but I told him that I needed to talk to him about something far more important before we troubleshot the reconciliation problem. That was John Woo’s “Red Cliff”, an outstanding costume drama that I will be writing about in a few days. That’s what makes my job interesting. There are people who care about other things than Mammon, not that you are likely to find altars to it at the university outside the Business School.

But the best thing people-wise has been my boss Joan who is a no-nonsense Jamaican-American who came to Columbia around the same time as me and also out of the financial industry. Joan has cut me a lot of slack over the years, never saying a word about my obvious forays into JSTOR or Lexis-Nexis during working hours, let alone blogging as the Unrepentant Marxist. She learned early on that when I have something to do, I do it promptly and without errors. That was the implicit deal I cut with Columbia. They got someone with tons of experience who was being paid a lot less than his market value in the financial industry but who was not trying to set the world on fire. At least she was assured that I was not after her job! I managed to spend 44 years as a programmer without ever becoming a manager, thank god.

As it turned out, the work experience at Columbia was also far more interesting than I had any reason to expect. I was hired as a development methodology coordinator in 1991, a job that reflected the school’s determination to explore new technologies. I had worked with leading-edge systems on Wall Street and they expected me to provide insights into how to use databases, etc.

My responsibilities for most of my time here have been to support the Sybase database underlying the school’s financial system, as well as the Unix environment that the application runs in. There are more specialized groups to support Sybase and Unix but within my application team, I am the first line of support and liaison to the specialists. I also have written hundreds of perl scripts, a language that I have a great affection for unlike Java, an object-oriented language that I spent about three years using and hating every minute of.

If you read the trade press, Java is depicted at the greatest thing since sliced bread (an apt metaphor since sliced bread is actually pretty shitty) but I have always found it perplexing. For example, here’s a description of polymorphism from http://www.artima.com:

There are two good reasons to learn the meaning of polymorphism. First, using such a fancy word in casual conversation makes you sound intelligent. Second, polymorphism provides one of the most useful programming techniques of the object-oriented paradigm. Polymorphism, which etymologically means “many forms,” is the ability to treat an object of any subclass of a base class as if it were an object of the base class. A base class has, therefore, many forms: the base class itself, and any of its subclasses.

If you need to write code that deals with a family of types, the code can ignore type-specific details and just interact with the base type of the family. Even though the code thinks it is sending messages to an object of the base class, the object’s class could actually be the base class or any one of its subclasses. This makes your code easier for you to write and easier for others to understand. It also makes your code extensible, because other subclasses could be added later to the family of types, and objects of those new subclasses would also work with the existing code.

Huh?

The only word that hits home whenever I read something like this is polymorphism but not in the sense intended by the author.

Polymorphous perversity is a psychoanalytic term for human ability to gain sexual gratification outside socially normative sexual behaviors. Sigmund Freud used this term to describe the normal sexual disposition of humans from infancy to about age five.

Yeah! That’s the kind of polymorphism I’m for, what happens in bed not in IT.

I blame Java for my eye troubles in fact. Around 8 years ago when I was in a training class for Java and feeling all sorts of stress over my inability to grasp polymorphism, overloading, etc., I noticed spots in front of my left eye. It turned out to be a floater, the first episode in a continuing battle with eye diseases. It was the fucking Java, I tell you.

Perl, Sybase and Unix are much more my métier. Perl has adopted object-orientation in the past decade or so but I have been lucky enough to avoid it. I have been blessed by being able to work in a profession that is as much fun most of the time as playing chess.

Computer programming is essentially a game. You write instructions in order to get something to work, even if it as mundane as preparing budgets for Columbia’s financial officers. Like chess, you have to operate within the logic of the game. Getting your program to work gives you the same kind of satisfaction as checkmating your opponent, a pleasure I suppose that is only open to those of us a bit on the anal retentive side.

The other nice thing is that you are constantly learning things. Since technologies are always changing, your mind gets challenged. Most of the time when there’s something I am having trouble figuring out, I go to Google and search for an answer. 99 percent of the time, I come up with the answer. In the old days, before the Internet and when I was working with Cobol mainframe applications, I would ask a co-worker for some advice—an admission that I was not omniscient and not something useful for career advancement at a place like Goldman. Fortunately, by the time I got to Goldman I was a seasoned pro and usually being asked by more junior people how to solve a problem.

The other day I was stymied trying to get a handle on identifying larger files on a given file system on the AIX server I work on. No matter how much digging I did in Google, nothing came up. So I turned to Eric, the Unix specialist who I have relied on over the years, for an answer. I wanted to know what the ten largest files were for a given file system and this was his answer:

find . -xdev -type f -ls | sort -k7nr,7 | head -n 10

You can try this on your Mac when you get home!

I should add that over the next month or so I will be blogging about jobs I have had over the years, starting with my first one at Met Life in 1968. Lots of yucks and valuable insights about my day job as a combination of Dilbert and Bartleby the Scrivener.

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