The Die is cast!!!

Last Friday I found myself driving through Lexington to run an errand on my way to work. A stone-grey January day, the Presidential inauguration was just commencing. I passed by the Battle Green in the center of town as I returned. Less than four miles from home, I had never really stopped to wander around.  I pulled the car over and parked.

The Revolutionary Monument, 1779

The Revolutionary Monument, 1779

Lexington is normally a busy suburb on a weekday, but by 10am, the rush hour traffic had abated.  Maybe it was the impending rain.

On the edge of the Battle Green is a monument to the Militiamen who were killed in the initial volleys of the Revolutionary War on April 19, 1775.  The monument was erected in 1799 – long before the Battle Green was established as a national historical landmark.

The Revolutionary Monument, 1779

The Revolutionary Monument, 1779

The Die was cast!!!

The Blood of these Martyr’s, in the cause of God & their Country, was the cement of the Union of these States then colonies & gave the spring to the spirit, firmness, and resolution of their fellow citizens.

More than a monument, this is a modest tomb for the soldiers killed in battle.  Their resting place is inside the small fence surrounding the obelisk.  A few small coins mark tourist’s visits.

I walked across the park — the only other person sharing the space was a woman walking her dog.  She traversed the wintry park without stopping.

A bronze Minuteman statue stands guard at the edge of the park, looking for any threat that might approach from the southeast.

A statue of a Minuteman, Lexington Battle Green

A statue of a Minuteman, Lexington Battle Green

The Minutemen did not know what was to come after their brief skirmish.  Their leader, John Parker, died a few short months later.  Some of them must have survived to the end of the war, and even to see Washington’s inauguration 14 years later.

Wars are always mile markers in the history of a nation, and regular touchstones for citizens to measure their identities against.  The Revolutionary War is the strongest of these, with World War II close behind.  One of the most compelling – the Civil War – whose conflict echoes unto this very today – is rarely regarded, and the repercussions of 9/11 are still to be seen.  Yet we always look back at the Revolutionary War, an event a now quarter of a millennia in the past – as our guiding star.

What would those Minutemen have thought about the election of 2016, and the inauguration that was taking place at that very moment?  That they had founded a nation and established freedom.  A later generation would fight against fascism and the far right in an even more epic conflict, and a generation beyond that stood to embrace it once again, spurning the progress made in 242 years.  At its best, a manic kleptocracy who will loot the people’s democracy established by the citizens on the Battle Green.  At worst – a drastic pivot to fascism that will shift the balance of power in the world, and shred progress that the Greeks could only dream of.

John Parker's quote, Lexington Battle Green

John Parker’s quote, Lexington Battle Green

The inauguration went as planned.  At least in theory, it was a swearing in and not a coronation.  What next?  What next?  What’s that?  Robert Munroe, Jonas Parker, Samuel Masey, Caleb Harrington, John Brown, Ishael Porter, and John Parker were whispering:

The Die is cast!

Stand your ground!

 

The Revolutionary Monument and First Parish Church

The Revolutionary Monument and First Parish Church

Where is privacy going?

Harvard’s Institute for Advanced Computational Sciences held their 4th annual symposium on the future of computation and science in engineering. This year’s theme was Privacy in a Networked World. The major attraction was a discussion between Edward Snowden, ex-NSA employee and source of the recent leaked internal NSA top secret documents, and Bruce Schneier, security and cryptography expert and Harvard Berkman fellow.

Edward Snowden and <a href=

While very exciting, the discussion didn’t yield much new information. Snowden has yielded judgments about publication of the leaked information to the press, and wouldn’t be drawn out by Schneider regarding any new revelations. There was a small amount of drama, as the second speaker of the day was John DeLong, former Director of Compliance at the NSA, and Harvard alum. DeLong deserves credit for being the designated javelin catcher of the day — probably the only one at the NSA at this point willing to go on the circuit — and took on the role with reasonable good humor. That being said, despite his theme of the need to engender a discussion about privacy, his talk was virtually content-free and came off as rather disingenuous. In reality, there probably wasn’t much he could say between issues of classification and the review process that his remarks would have to have gone through.  You can see Schneier interview Snowden here.

The most interesting facts came from the most prosaic and unexpected source: a presentation by Lee Rainie, Director of Internet, Science and Technology Research at the Pew Research Center. This recently completed study shows trends that push against the conventional wisdom that young internet-savvy people are willing to sell their privacy to the next service that comes along, and maintain a position of diffidence to privacy overall.

In the 18-to-29 age bracket, the majority think that the government has gone too far in restricting civil liberties, that the press is correct in reporting on government data collection efforts, and disapprove of overall government phone and internet data collection efforts. This breaks sharply with the 30-and-above cohorts (making me an outlier by most any measure!).

Rainie buries the lede in one more interesting way.  On slide 30, the study shows what things users actively try to avoid on the internet.  Leading the list is the obvious two: hackers and advertisers at 33% and 28% respectively.  To drive this home – the study is saying that a significant number of people have taken steps to conceal their actions from these classes of actors.  But more surprising is the next five categories, comprising 80% of users:  “Certain friends”, “People from your past”, “People who might harass you”, “Family members or romantic partners”, and “Employers, supervisors, or coworkers”.  The survey allows for multiple membership in the categories, but it is unlikely that these statistics represent one hyper-paranoid individual.  And it also shows that the adage that you only need privacy if you have something to hide is, ironically, true:  we all have something to hide, and attempt to hide it.

What this tells me, at least, is that on one front the news about the function of privacy on the internet – on all levels – is winning the PR war in the real world over those who say it is a non-issue.  Ironically, the same day this talk was taking place, another group of Harvard researchers were reclaiming the “Death of Privacy” at Davos in Switzerland. The Pew figures show that while this might be technically true in the short term, it may not be so in the long run.

In honor of our first real storm, and the eve of Burns Night

The wintry west extends his blast,
And hail and rain does blaw;
Or the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw:
While, tumbling brown, the burn comes down,
And roars frae bank to brae;
And bird and beast in covert rest,
And pass the heartless day.

“The sweeping blast, the sky o’ercast,”
The joyless winter day
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May:
The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!

Thou Power Supreme, whose mighty scheme
These woes of mine fulfil,
Here firm I rest; they must be best,
Because they are Thy will!
Then all I want-O do Thou grant
This one request of mine!-
Since to enjoy Thou dost deny,
Assist me to resign.

Winter: a Dirge
Robert Burns
1781

Returning to the Cosmos

Tonight at 9pm is the premier of the reboot of Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s been 33 years since the original Cosmos was aired on PBS.

That was quite a sequence of years for science: the year before, in 1979, the Voyager spacecrafts flew by Jupiter; in 1980 and 81 they flew by Saturn. In that low-tech pre-Internet age, an incredible thing happened: PBS stations across the US opened their doors to allow people to come in and view the live feed from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, hosted by Carl Sagan himself. After school, I took the bus to the Maine Public Broadcasting studios on the UMaine campus where my mother worked. The feeds from JPL were made available by direct satellite link, a feat which felt futuristic at the time.

In real time, 13-year-old me watched as the first images of the rings of Jupiter, and the moons of Saturn were returned to Earth at a speed roughly equivalent to the modems we would be using for dialup Internet access a decade later. How amazing that we could accomplish such a feat – never before had mankind been witness to acts of discovery such as this in real time across our solar system.

Jim Blinn's computer rendering of Saturn for the Cosmos TV Series.

Jim Blinn’s computer rendering of Saturn for the Cosmos TV Series — one of the first computer graphics ever produced for television.

There is no small amount of irony that the new Cosmos is airing on Fox Television. It is even perhaps a greater irony that in the 80s Cold War era, we were more focused on science than we are today. Today, members of the US Congress regularly espouse a disbelief in evolution and natural selection, and display scorn for the scientific process as a whole. But how are we going to advance as a species without science? Does it take the us-versus-them mentality to really make it happen?

Tyson was a student of Sagan’s, and will bring his own style to the show. But he is bringing back the Cosmic Calendar and the Spaceship of the Imagination, and for that I am grateful. I am hopeful that it will renew, if only for a moment, the sense of amazing discovery that the original series did when it first aired.

And if we need another sense of renewal, the entire original series is available on YouTube. It still stands the test of time.

Armistice Day

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

Kurt Vonnegut
Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Gin’n’Tonic

Gin'n'Tonic

It is a curious fact, and one to which no one knows quite how much importance to attach, that something like 85% of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynnan tonnyx, or gee-N’N-T’N-ix, or jinond-o-nicks, or any one of a thousand or more variations on the same phonetic theme. The drinks themselves are not the same, and vary between the Sivolvian ‘chinanto/mnigs’ which is ordinary water served at slightly above room temperature, and the Gagrakackan ‘tzjin-anthony-ks’ which kill cows at a hundred paces; and in fact the one common factor between all of them, beyond the fact that the names sound the same, is that they were all invented and named before the worlds concerned made contact with any other worlds.

What can be made of this fact? It exists in total isolation. As far as any theory of structural linguistics is concerned it is right off the graph, and yet it persists. Old structural linguists get very angry when young structural linguists go on about it. Young structural linguists get deeply excited about it and stay up late at night convinced that they are very close to something of profound importance, and end up becoming old structural linguists before their time, getting very angry with the young ones. Structural linguistics is a bitterly divided and unhappy discipline, and a large number of its practitioners spend too many nights drowning their problems in Ouisghian Zodahs.

–Douglas Adams — The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Searching for the perfect pub

When I was eight years old, I went to the UK with my parents.  My father was on sabbatical from the university he taught at;  we spent four months touring France, England, Scotland, and Wales.  France was a destination because my father was working on a book;  the UK was on the itinerary for a multitude of reasons, undoubtedly including a desire to introduce me to my cultural heritage.

I remember visiting a small rural pub in Cornwall after a long day’s journey touring through the countryside.  My parents ordered beer – I ordered an orange squash – essentially orange juice. But this being a British pub, and not altogether used to children, the pints arrived before the orange squash. The day had been hot, and long. I had tasted beer before, so my mother let me have a sip of her pint while we waited – something which would probably land her in prison if it occurred in 2013.

The beer was cold, and delicious, and I drank half of it before I could be stopped.

Pub culture in the UK is very different from bar culture in the US. Bars are apart from society, not an integral part of it – in keeping with our Puritan roots. Instead of an extension of the home, bars are more commonly depicted like Moe’s, Homer Simpson’s hangout. Yet this small pub in Cornwall had room for an American family with an 8-year old child, tired from a long day and looking to relax.

The UK has changed quite a bit since 1976.  On my last visit in 2009, the two Horse Guards outside Whitehall were a female soldier and a soldier of what in the UK would be considered Afro-Caribbean descent – a big change in the last 30 years.  But the best thing about societies is that they adapt – sometimes for the worse, occasionally for the better.

Paul Moody and Robin Turner’s The Search for the Perfect Pub paints a picture of Britain’s pubs of yesteryear through the lens of George Orwell’s Moon Under Water, and attempts to track its course in the 21st century. There is some rough sailing and heavy weather’ but some of the unique properties of the British pub will see it safe into the 21st century.