Friday, January 28, 2011

On Pseudonymity

I really wanted to like Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier is an interesting figure, something of a celebrity among computer nerds of a certain age. He was the sort of person who got profiled in Wired back in the days when that magazine was worth reading. An MIT hacker, in the mid-1980's he used profits from an early computer game to bankroll a startup company that developed virtual reality hardware, and for a while was the leading exponent of that technology.

There are a lot of things to not like about You Are Not a Gadget, but the one which perhaps irritated me the most is his attitude about anonymity and pseudonimity. Lanier blames online anonymity for a whole host of problems, but reserves most of his criticism for the boorishness of anonymous posters in blog comments and other online fora. I think it is fair to say that he believes people would be a lot more polite if their blog posts and other online interactions were linked to their real-world identities in some kind of publicly traceable way.

Lanier bemoans the fact that the current architecture of the net makes anonymous interactions easy and attributable ones difficult, and traces this to the tech culture of Silicon Valley in the '80s and '90s. Basically, he says that the people who wrote the first one-to-many communications software were a bunch of dopers (well, ex-dopers) who wanted to make sure that the cops wouldn't be able to use their software to track down users who talked about drugs and other counterculture topics. A fair sample of his argument was published here. The version of the argument in the book admits that there are some users in some places who rightly fear for their lives and freedom if they speak out in a way that attracts the attention of the authorities (though he has no suggestions about how anonymous speech is to be enabled for, say, Chinese dissidents and not slashdot trolls). (Another reason not to like this book, BTW, is that consists almost entirely of minimally-edited rehashes of his previously-published columns.)

Along the way, he commits this technical howler:
Why was drive-by anonymity supported by Usenet? You could argue that it was the easiest design to implement at the time, but I’m not sure that’s true. All those academic, corporate, and military users belonged to large, well-structured organizations, so the hooks were immediately available to create a nonanonymous design. If that had happened, today’s Web sites might not have inherited the drive-by design aesthetic.
Which "hooks" he is talking about are not at all obvious: the ease with which we create "anonymous designs" flows directly from the decentralized architecture of the net, which just a few sentences before he concedes to have been a fundamental goal in its design. But for me the most annoying part of his thinking is the assumption that the only legitimate excuse for wanting to remain anonymous is the threat of arrest:
Well, I had never been worried about being arrested in America! I suspect that all the others at the table had experienced that worry, though. Experimentation with illegal, mind-altering drugs was the rule, not the exception, in computer culture at the time. For some reason I was never interested in drugs, so that fear wasn’t something I knew directly. Many influential engineers were also a few years older than I was, the right age to have faced the draft to fight in Vietnam.
Well, I have no illusion that using a pseudonym will offer me any protection if the authorities ever want to find me, but that's not the point. Lanier is blinded by the advantages of his position: as a famous pioneer in technology, he will never want for a job. No prospective employer is ever going to google his name and circular-file his application on the basis of what turns up. I, on the other hand, work in the private sector in America, and I do not have the advantage of being a rock star among engineers. If history is any guide, I'll be looking for another job sometime in the next five years, and there is a good chance that some HR person will google the name on my resume and (if my web postings were not pseudonymous) conclude that his company doesn't need someone with my views on politics and the law, even before he looks at my technical qualifications.

So I'm going to remain pseudonymous, at least when I'm not writing about technology.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A visit to Teavana

One night not long ago I went to the mall near my office. I was hanging around waiting for $daughter to be done with her class at the campus that's also nearby and had a couple of hours to kill, and was tired of sitting around surfing the web. Also I am not sure how to arm the burglar alarm so I wanted to get out ahead of the cleaning guys.

It was awful. This is an upscale mall we're talking about, with a Saks and a Bloomingdale's as well as a Macy's. At 6:30 PM it was damned near deserted. There were many 10,000s of sq. ft. devoted to stores, with the names of famous designers, that sell only handbags. After encountering about the fourth one of those in a row I was really seriously disgusted. I do not know why I despise the whole Louis Vuitton phenomenon so much, but I cannot spend much time in such places without feeling that anyone who would shop in them probably deserves to be stood up against a wall and shot.

Eventually I stumbled into a Williams-Sonoma, where I reeled in dismay at the asking prices for pans. I've been thinking I should get another 4 qt. sauce pan, but for $200? Because there was no one else at the whole mall, I had to keep fighting off the helpful sales staff until I remembered that I'd been looking for a hamburger turner with a plastic blade and a metal shaft. Alas, apparently such things are no longer to be had. You can choose the flimsy plastic abortion, or the serious metal utensil that will ruin your nonstick pans, but not a tool that you can use to cook with in conjunction with the kinds of pans that most people actually own.

At length I found myself at Teavana, a boutique shop dedicated to tea. Or more accurately to teaware, mostly. I glanced at the wall covered with containers of bulk tea for sale, and saw that of the 6 dozen or so varieties on offer, most were flavored with something other than tea and therefore uninteresting. When I paused to inspect a Japanese cast-iron teapot, a helpful salesperson pounced. She must have been bored to desperation by the dearth of customers: until I escaped after about 10 minutes (rescued by a cell phone call) I was the target of the most unnerving barrage of nonsense I have experienced in a long time. First she regaled me with the breadth of her selections, assuring me that it was all "full-leaf" tea and being at pains to explain the difference between that and tea bags. Practically any health concern I might have, she intimated, could be addressed by some one of the exotic full-leaf teas offered at her shop. (Here I missed an opportunity to shut things down, perhaps by demanding something for erectile dysfunction, or premature ejaculation.) I was guided back to the tea wall, where one after another the cannisters were waved under my nose. I explained that I would not be interested in anything that contained coconut flakes, or bits of mango, or indeed anything other than tea leaves. 

To put things on a different track, I asked about something called "Snow Peaks Downy White." (A huge fraction, maybe 25%, of the teas were in white cannisters, which indicated a white tea. From being a practically unobtainable exotic rarity not too many years ago, white tea has become a vehicle for conveying peach extract.) This proved not to be what I was hoping for, but with a bit more description the helpful salesperson was able to locate the "Silver Needle" white tea, exclaiming that it was the most very precious item in her stock. She then entertained me with a story of how, once upon a time, this tea was reserved for the Emperor himself, and that it was harvested with golden scissors by white-clad virgins who wore gloves so that when the tea passed his lips it would never have been touched by a human hand! At this point I learned that the pricing on the cannisters was per 2 oz. and the flavored stuff was outrageously overpriced. But the cost for the "Silver Needles" was actually not too bad for Bai Hao Yin Zhen, and I might have purchased some in spite of the woo storm. But then she escorted me over to a carafe and poured me a sample of lukewarm Oolong in a plastic dish, exclaiming that it was another tea traditionally reserved for Emperors. Why, in the old days, this type of tea was actually harvested by trained monkeys, because it comes from the topmost leaves of very tall trees! At this point my phone rang, and I excused myself.

In fairness to the helpful salesperson, it should be noted that much of what she told me was probably gotten from reading her employer's web site. And I see there are a lot of places that repeat the story of tribute-grade Tie Guan Yin having once been picked by monkeys (as well as at least one huckster who claims that there's still a single remote village where the technique is still practiced, from which he obtains his wares). The tea shop does in fact have a few real teas at prices that are not utterly extortionate, and I may go back there for some soon. But I will talk to the staff as little as possible.