Month: October 2018

Dept. of Wonkery: Why is Apple so Strong on Cybersecurity?

This morning, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook spoke at the 40th International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels, and he came out strongly against the exploitation of data by Apple’s Silicon Valley peers. According to Fortune, Cook said ‘“people’s personal data is being ‘weaponized’ with  ‘military efficiency,’ and technology is being used to deepen divisions and ‘undermine our sense of what is true and what is false.”’ Cook even warned of a “data-industrial complex,” in a reference to the “military-industrial complex,” a phrase coined by Eisenhower to describe a combination of interests he felt were hostile to democracy.

The salvo is in keeping with Cook’s previous statements on data privacy, most notably his justification of Apple’s refusal to let the FBI hack into the data on a phone owned by one of the shooters in the San Bernadino shooting of 2016.

Why is Apple so strong on protecting the data consumers store inside its devices?

One reason is that the position supports Apple’s business model. Unlike Google and Facebook, Apple does not sell your personal data to advertisers. They are a hardware company, with ambitions to become a media brand, a la Netflix and Amazon, a more mainstream and family-oriented one. In addition to associations with Pixar and Disney, Apple has also put its toe in the water of original content, having just licensed the rights to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. There is a utopianism to Apple’s media ambitions which recalls that of the early days of the telephone and radio, when benevolent, self-regulating monopolies like AT&T and NBC would own both hardware and the content it distributed, and preserve a standard of excellence in both.

It’s that utopianism that is the key to the deeper reason for Apple’s stance on cybersecurity. The data that resides on Apple devices in our pockets and on our wrists will someday reside on devices that are implanted inside our bodies, or will even be integrated with them. Some may shudder at the thought, but in countries like Sweden, the implantation of chips that allow the user to access their data, go through security, and pay for goods and services are already in demand. Consumers can’t wait to get them, and even mark their implantation with celebrations. Before smartphones, the idea of having a device with a camera and microphone with us at all times would’ve been horrifying, but in exchange for the conveniences they offer, such squeamishness was easily set aside.

Apple and Tim Cook are adamant about data privacy because they want to dominate the future market in voluntary cyborg implants. To violate the data privacy of our phones would set the precedent that we should someday violate the data privacy of our bodies. Whether in our brains or implanted devices, the memories under our skins should be inviolate.

Highlights from the Frankenstein exhibit at The Morgan

By a happy accident, the Morgan Library’s show on Frankenstein’s bicentennial opened the same week that my book club planned to meet and discuss the novel. So, having just read the novel, we were primed to appreciate the show.

Verdict: a stunning exhibit, not just for fans of the novel but for anybody interested in the Romantic period and the origins of horror as a genre.

My highlights:

A few artifacts revealing connections between the geniuses of the period that I hadn’t known about. When you walk in, the first thing you see is the original of Füseli’s famous painting, The Nightmare, which has appeared on the cover of multitudes of horror story collections and books abut witchcraft and the supernatural. What I hadn’t known was that Füseli was a lover of Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, and that the painting and others by the great Swiss master of the uncanny would’ve been known to Mary Shelly personally.

A few bits of Percy Shelley’s skull, supposedly snatched from his funeral pyre by a friend. And less than a foot from them are the fragmentary pages of a poem Shelley had with him on the sea voyage on which he drowned.

Percy Shelley’s own copy of Paradise Lost, which was displayed in a line-up of period copies of all the books Frankenstein’s monster reads in the course of his education.

Pages from the manuscript of Frankenstein itself, which contained memorable passages that you can just puzzle out, as well as what is unmistakably the marginal scribblings of Percy Shelly, offering up vivid phrases to enliven his wife’s book.

The portraits of Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft that you see on the covers of their books, which felt like being in the presence of the two women. More remarkable was a line in the description of Mary Wollstonecraft’s portrait that mentions her and her daughter’s friendship with Aaron Burr and his wife Theodosia. That puts fewer than two degrees of separation between all the American founding fathers and the seventeen-year-old girl whose genius would invent science fiction and change the world.

Go see the show! I haven’t described half the wonders you’ll see.

Turns Out My Comparison of the Kavanaugh Hearings to the Salem Witch Trials Was Actually Spot On

Earlier this autumn, I wrote a piece comparing our present political climate to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. It was an association I made because I happened to be in Salem the weekend that The Kavanaugh Affair was at its height. I was happy with the way the piece came out, but worried that my comparison might have been a bit strained.

Turns out I got it just right.

A Catholic priest in Washington recently performed a mass exorcism, meant to lift the hexes being put on Brett Kavanaugh by a coven of witches, mostly based in Brooklyn, using magic as a form of ritual protest against the patriarchy.

Welcome back to 1692, everybody!

From the Commonplace Book: C. S. Lewis on His Idea of Fun

As I get more comfortable in my early middle age–I will be 40 in 2019–I am more honest about the pleasures that suit me. I feel less obligation to conform to what other people think of as fun, like loud music, loud movies, television, dancing, heavy foods, or artificially altered states of mind. If my deepest pleasures resemble those of an old lady or a frumpy British writer of the last century, I don’t care. Like a long soak in a hot bath, another activity which I no longer blush to devote whole afternoons to, giving into the sensation is a deep relief.

This quote pretty much sums up my ideal Saturday and Sunday. And I fully intend to follow through on it, as much as my work and social obligations will allow.

Have a great weekend everybody. I hope you do what pleases you.

Short Story Review: Miao Dao by Joyce Carol Oates

Since a friend read aloud the entirety of The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood while we were sitting in Central Park at dusk, I have been on a short story binge.

The Wendigo took about two hours to get through and produced in me a sense of strangeness, horror, and wonder I have not quite experienced before.

I’ve mostly ignored short stories as an adult reader. Why take just a bite of an alternate world when you can have the full meal of a novel? But The Wendigo reminded me that there are certain mental states that only short writing can induce. Blackwood’s story depends on the evocation of an atmosphere, which a novel length work would attenuate to the point of inefficacy. Much of odd or uncanny fiction has been disserved by the modern literary market place, which makes novels the sole focus for anybody but the few people who read literary magazines.

But short stories, as Michael Chabon says in one of his essays, were at one time synonymous with the odd and uncanny, so much so that all short stories may be descended from ghost stories, depending as they do on the single unexpected turn or the use of brief atmospheric effects, like a magic trick or a poem. To avoid short stories is to miss out on just how weird and enchanting writing can be.

Kindle Singles, which is designed to showcase short fiction, has a number of great stories on offer this October in their Dark Corners series. They are perfect for a single sitting, to be read on whatever screen is at hand. It’s probably most similar to the way the Victorians, the first great market for short writing, would’ve consumed short fiction. They were published in newspapers and magazines to be read in the spare moments of a busy life. And they were somehow of the moment, more like news reports than novels.

I recommend Miao Dao, by Joyce Carol Oates. Before ascending to literary recognition, Oates wrote mysteries and the kind of Gothic novels popular in the 1970s. Think of a lurid cover with a woman in a dress fleeing from a castle with a single light on in the window, and you know the type. Miao Dao has that easy readability of pop fiction. But it’s also nearly perfect in its craftsmanship.

It’s about Mia, a young girl who is going through puberty and doing a bad job of coping. Assailed by bullies at school, domestic upheaval at home, and strangely attracted to the feral freedom of an empty lot infested by stray cats, Mia is a narrator who is more interesting after every page.

I don’t know how Oates does it, but there is a horror about this story that seems like it could only explode from a much longer fuse. Like the terror that can emerge from the sterilized corners of suburbia, where Miao Dao is set, the mental disturbance of this story comes out of nowhere, but strikes like an avenging devil. Spend 45 minutes with Mia, and you’ll have a chill that’s far deeper than any spooky film or TV show I can remember.

When our devices don’t let us forget, we can’t move on.

As the record of our daily written communication is fused with our phones, something sinister is happening to our memories of other people, especially those who have died.

William Gibson has described information technology as a form of prosthetic memory, and I agree with him. Written language exists as much to store the past as it does to communicate the present. Accounting records may actually have been the first use of written language, which would make extending human memory writing’s primal function.  Inscriptions to memorialize the glory of the powerful dead followed soon after.

Luke O’Neil recently recounted the strangeness of living with his late father’s last text messages. They record banalities, but also invite him to further communication with the dead every day, hovering just at the edge of his attention, like an advertisement. What he and his father tapped out without a thought have, by proximity alone, been asked to bear the weight of mourning, and they are doing a poor job of it.

We have always used written communication to remember the dead. We have had letters and books and tombstone inscriptions, but these are all deliberately chosen and set aside from daily life. Before digital communication, we could choose to remember our dead in a way that was true and relevant. In contrast, our accidental digital memorials are shoved at us every day by the grim mechanics of our technology. We live forever in the horror of Emily Dickinson’s vision of banality at the last moment: “I heard a fly buzz when I died.”

I have written elsewhere about the need to relieve ourselves from the burden of perfect digital memory, and how Marshall McLuhan got it right when he said:

“The future will be an electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”

Our prosthetic memory is attached to us at too many nerve endings. When we can remember everything, memory is simply noise. We burn out on memory and, by extension, the present moment, which is no less than life itself.