Link roundup: Unbalanced exchanges, extroverted tyrants, and biology’s dark matter

Poetry Daily: “Engagement,” by Adam Sol
I admire how the title and the last line take this political poem to a higher plane.

The explosion will exceed the necessity of the occasion.
The exchange of fire will be unbalanced.
The response will be disproportionate.
The reporter is factually incorrect, theoretically misinformed, morally reprehensible. “Where have all the bats gone?”
An update on white-nose syndrome in Pennsylvania (and throughout the east). It seems that while colony-living bats in North America are all going to become endangered if not extinct, the more solitary bats will probably be fine.

The Christian Science Monitor: “Reports: Lax oversight, ‘greed’ preceded Japan nuclear crisis”
No real surprise here, but sad nonetheless.

I am: A Twitter Poem by Pär Thörn
Not a set text, but a constantly updating scroll of new Twitter posts beginning with the words “I am” — rather mesmerizing to watch. Here’s a sample I just collected before it disappeared back into the ether:

i am truly blessed
I am nothing to be played with
I am excited to start.
I am so glad he will get voted
i am on i post something den dipset
I am crazy.

NewScientist: “Biology’s ‘dark matter’ hints at fourth domain of life”

The facts are that there is lots of genetic diversity, and unquestionably most of it is unknown to us. It’s legitimate to consider that there’s genuinely new stuff out there.

The Australian: “Japan syndrome shows why we need WikiLeaks”

Unfortunately, all this information, including the original cables, was released only this week, through The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian newspapers in Britain. If publicised earlier it might have increased public pressure on the Japanese government to do more to ensure the safety of reactors.

But without WikiLeaks most of it probably never would have seen the light of day. One of the justifications governments use for not releasing information is to avoid “unnecessary” fears.

Allen B. Downey: “The Tyranny of the Extroverts”
An old essay that an contact just linked to on his microblog. (Side note for all you Twitter fanboys and girls: This is what you can do on a federated microblogging system, subscribe to someone on one service while using another service. Pretty nifty, eh?) It links to another, similar piece from the Atlantic, but this one’s more quotable, e.g.:

If “interpersonal skills” really means skills, then I can’t object, but I’m afraid that in the wrong hands it means something more like “interpersonal style”, and in particular it means the style of extroverts. I have the same concern about “communication skills.” People have different styles; if my style isn’t the same as yours, does that mean I lack skills?

As for teamwork, well, I’m sure there are some problems that are best solved with collaborative, active learning, but I am equally sure that there are problems you can’t solve with your mouth open. “Japan Proves Truly ‘A Friend Indeed’ After Hurricane Katrina
Now it’s our turn.

Poetry Daily: Two Poems by Elaine Equi
There is a right way to write didactic poems, and Equi shows how.

Work to abolish
the most abject poverty of all—

that of knowing
only one world.

Link roundup: Blog carnivals, revolutions, and remnants from the Ice Age

tasting rhubarb: >Language >Place Blog Carnival – Edition 4
I don’t know why it took me so long to participate in this blog carnival, founded by the indefatigable web publisher Dorothee Lang, but better late than never, I guess. How could I refuse when I knew one of my favorite bloggers was hosting this edition? And a very graceful collection of links and quotes it is. (See the coordinating site for more about the carnival.)

Rebecca in the Woods: Festival of the Trees #57
Thirty-six links this time! And just a year ago we were wondering if it might not be time to fold up the tents for good. Clearly, the FOTT is alive and well. Highlights for me this time included a post on the 500-year-old Sully trees of France, with a portrait of one of the survivors; an illustrated tutorial from a Dutch artist on how to weave living sculptures out of willows; and a fascinating and learned essay on “A Linguistic Permaculture of the Oak.” (See also the call for submissions to #58.)

DiscoveryNews: “The Iceman Mummy: Finally Face to Face”
It turns out that Ötzi was a hippie burn-out.

Al Jazeera: “In search of an African revolution
Azad Essa wonders why the international news media are turning a blind eye to protests in Ivory Coast, Gabon, Khartoum and Djibouti, and acting as if the current wave of unrest stops at the Sahara.

Office Buddha: “My first trip to a buddhist temple”
One of the best “first time meditating” essays I’ve read, in part because of this line: “Meditation wasn’t like praying, it was more like defragging a hard drive.”

Marcia Bonta: “Talus Slope Life
This month in her Naturalist’s Eye column for the Pennsylvania Game News, Mom writes about one of the most unique and characteristic habitats of the central Appalachians — one largely unchanged since the last Ice Age. “Bradley Manning could face death: for what?
Glenn Greenwald writes,

Thus do we have the strange spectacle of Americans cheering on the democratic uprisings in the Middle East and empathizing with the protesters, all while revering American political leaders who for years helped sustain the dictatorships which oppressed them and disdaining those (Manning) who may have played a role in sparking the protests.

New York Times: “Libya’s Patient Revolutionaries
By Libyan novelist Mohammad al-Asfar, translated by Ghenwa Hayek. Best thing I’ve read on the Libyan revolution so far.

PBS NewsHour: “Benghazi-Born Poet Mattawa Reflects on Growing up Under Gadhafi
Good follow-up to the previous story.

The New Yorker: “On the Square: Were the Egyptian protesters right to trust the military?
The kind of in-depth reporting for which the New Yorker is famous. Wendell Steavenson booked a hotel room overlooking Tahrir Square and spent a good deal of time with the revolutionaries and soldiers. I loved the descriptions of ordinary people transformed by extraordinary events, and of course I’m a sucker for the whole, idealistic utopian thing that Liberation Square embodied. But the role of the military in all this, and the way the protesters were able to co-opt it, is one of the most unique and fascinating aspects of Egypt’s Gandhian revolution.

Al Jazeera: “The Middle East feminist revolution
Naomi Wolf points out that, among other factors, the role of social media such as Facebook in organizing protests has allowed women to side-step the hierarchical leadership structures of more traditional revolutionary movements. I can’t help wondering whether, in decades to come, Egytians will have a Marianne to symbolize their post-revolutionary society. (Probably not. Seems un-Islamic.)

WikiLeaks and the problem of too much information

It doesn’t seem that long ago — around 2000, maybe? — that I first heard someone say “TMI” and had to ask what it meant. This morning, as news breaks that the anarchistic, world-wide non-organization of geeks known as Anonymous have launched DDoS attacks against the websites of MasterCard, Swedish prosecutors, and others they consider to be unfairly targeting WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, it occurs to me that the problem or scandal of “too much information” is very much at the heart of what’s shaping up to be the first global information war — call it WIW I, or perhaps WWWW I (World Wide Web War I).

What was it I’d said that prompted one of my New Jersey cousins to say, laughingly, “TMI, Dave!” that first time? Knowing me, probably a reference to gross bodily functions. It’s interesting how often our concerns for privacy and secrecy boil down to the desire for a figurative fig-leaf over our private parts. By a curious accident, the U.S. government’s furious reaction to the so-called Cablegate leaks immediately follows the furor in the press about the new “security” measures in American airports requiring all passengers to submit to complete physical transparency via scanner, or else endure invasive pat-downs many liken to sexual assault. Now it is Assange, the public face of the otherwise secretive Wikileaks organization, being accused of sexual assault, and once again, it is right-wing libertarians and left-wing anti-imperialists who are loudest in the defense of what we see as a civil rights or human rights issue. But while mainstream conservatives were happy to fan the flames of public discontent over Airport Gategate, on Cablegate they’ve joined with mainstream liberals in echoing or amplifying the government’s propaganda.

As regular Via Negativa readers know, I rarely post about political issues directly — this is only the 19th time I’ve assigned a post to the Rants category, as opposed to 187 posts with a more personal or elliptical approach to politics in the Personal/Political category. But as a web publisher, I do take the persecution of WikiLeaks personally, and as a U.S. citizen, I am embarrassed and appalled by the government’s hypocrisy in attempting exactly the sort of extra-judicial suppression of information-sharing that they have chastised other countries for. And as a writer, I’ve grown dependent on the Internet for information of all kinds — not only for blog posts like this, but even while writing poems. Threats to Internet freedom scare the hell out of me.

My horror at being on the wrong side of the public drumbeat against Wikileaks — a kind of isolation I haven’t felt since October 2001 and the lead-up to our bombing and invasion of Afghanistan — is combined with fascination at the manifold ways in which Cablegate illuminates the problem of TMI.

  1. The size of the leaked cache of diplomatic cables has become a sort of talisman for both sides in the emerging war. Like almost everyone, I rely on the cooperating journalists at The Guardian, The New York Times, and other cooperating newspapers to sort and analyze it, even though I realize that these filters are far from neutral. As the Wikileaks organization itself realizes, the size of an information cache presents both unique opportunities and unique challenges.
  2. The official propaganda line characterizes the information — both the few cables already released and those still pending — as too much in the specific sense that they serve a supposedly warped and dangerous vision of total transparency. This is genius because it suggests a covert connection with the immediately preceding crisis, Airport Gategate, turning the ever-potent paranoia of the more politically engaged segment of the American public, otherwise predisposed to distrust the government, against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange instead.
  3. Propaganda itself is perhaps the original TMI: blanketing the airwaves and newspapers with a few false charges (e.g. that Wikileaks did nothing to redact the names of persons who might be injured by the release, that it is a terrorist organization with blood on its hands, that Assange is a criminal mastermind and monster) can easily overwhelm and smother the truth. This is philosophically interesting because in this instance it’s actually too little that we have too much of. And information that may contain a grain of truth is exaggerated to support the propaganda, partaking in the too-muchness of hyperbole.
  4. Information differs from knowledge — a word I much prefer — in one important respect: false information is still information. The diplomatic cables at the center of the war are of course highly biased, and in many cases illuminate the extent to which high-level government employees believe their own propaganda. Volume is essential to organizational self-duplicity, as members actively work to convince each other of the lies they serve. I think something similar happens when new religions are born. The more patently absurd the “truth,” the more strident and verbose its adherents must become.
  5. According to the popular proverb, knowledge is power. A more accurate if less catchy saying might be that secrecy is a key to power. The selective withholding of information creates a privileged class of people, and more than anything, the State Department cable leaks show the extent to which this power is now routinely abused as the cognoscenti expand their ranks. This is a dilemma inherent to power itself: the more it is shared, the more it is dissipated. And eventually it is shared with someone who does not buy into the group-think: a whistleblower. Too much information was classified by too many people with too little justification.
  6. Data and information aren’t quite synonymous, but they’re pretty close. Isn’t a distributed denial-of-service attack itself a potent example of, or at least analogy for, the power of too much information flooding a given processing system in too short a time?

Update: John Miedema, whose past blogging on the subject of information overload informed my thinking here, has new post about this: World Information War I: It’s Not Being Fought on the Web.