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camps, of various kinds

i’m at podcamp boston (presenting tomorrow at 11am).

on nov 3 i will be at barcampmtl3.

BookReview: Henderson the Rain King

Henderson the Rain King

book by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow, who died in 2005, was one of the great American writers of the post-war period, among a group (including Mailer, Cheever, Vonnegut; later: Heller, Roth, Updike) who forged the American literary and cultural consciousness of the late 40s, 50s, and paved the way for the revolution that came in the 60s.

Henderson the Rain King, written in 1959, is very much a book to presage that revolution. Henderson is a loud, brash voice of a wealthy America unsatisfied (spiritually, socially, morally) with the position attained at the top of the global heap. He is a 50ish millionaire, a former WWII commando, a pig farmer, father, and the sort of smashing North American intent on fixing things, and afflicted by a constant voice in his head: I want I want I want. What he wants, as with so many of us, is not so clear, and so he heads to Africa to find an answer. There he travels, tells us the story of his life, wives, the time he tried to shoot a cat, and his daughter who brings a small black baby home, and hides her in the closet; he also finds frogs poisoning the well in an idyllic village in the middle of nowhere, and sets about solving the problem. Smasher that he is, he fails, despite his good intentions; does much dammage. He flees the village, and eventually lands under the wing of a philosopher king, former medical student, and lion affictionado, Dahfu. From Dahfu he tries to learn to be, rather than to become.

Bellows writes with a vigorous honesty, maybe unmatched in American letters (Roth called him, along with Faulkner, the backbone of 20th Century American writing). It’s hard to figure just what it is about his writing that is so powerful; he is not a pretty stylist, like, say, Nabokov, and his prose is almost raw, though that rawness has a beauty about it, the rough beauty of the market, maybe, with jarring jumps in language that work even though they probably shouldn’t; and his sentences contain so much, with such little artifice, no trickery, and again, an almost brutal honesty. Henderson says: “We hate death, we fear it. But there’s nothing like it.”

I keep thinking about how conservative we are these days, despite all our freedom and access. Perhaps it is just a matter of our place in history: in the West, we are rich, we are satisfied, and our relationship with things like hunger and war are filtered through media that keeps those problems abstract and far away, in time, space. As the son of Jewish immigrants (first in Montreal, then Chicago), Bellow knew what it was to stuggle to forge a place in an unsettled society, and he served in the Merchant Marines in WWII, so would have known something of fear and death. Not to mention the Holocaust. He, like most from that generation, was acquainted with the dangers and possibilities of humans, of life on the street in America, of the risks of living, and he wrote as if things mattered, because they did. Now in 2007, maybe, things are just too easy, too fixed: we don’t feel, as people did in the post-war era, that we are building things, we don’t feel as if our decisions matter the way they might have 50 years ago. But of course they should, they do, and reading Bellow reminds you of that.

My rating: 4.0 stars

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a friendly paypal for podcasts

Why do so many of my posts start with: Mike from ISF was talking about … anyway:

Mike from ISF was talking about micropayments, so I throw out this thought to the wind: PayPal’s sort of annoying and I don’t really trust them. I don’t know why. I just don’t. But having some form of super-easy, co-op micropayment scheme, geared to the diy net crowd, could be a really neat thing for podcasters and vidcasters, and musicians too. OK and bloggers.

Here’s how it would work:
-any website (podcast, blog, vidcast, music band) is allowed to join the micro-coop, which creates a free “account” and gives them a button for their site that says: “micro-pay-me!” or something.
-surfers can get a free account with micro-coop …
-it’s a pre-paid thing, or it could be linked to credit card like paypal, maybe
-so I put in say, $20 – which I can disperse as I wish to any member of the coop
-as I wander around the net, I listen to podcasts and watch vids, and say, wow I’d like to support podcastbob!
-I click on the “micro-pay-me” button on podcastbob’s site, and an easy dialog comes up
-I log in
-the system says: how much do you want to pay podcastbob?
-I put $0.02 or $0.25 or $5 or $100 or whatever I feel like paying
-the amount is transferred from my account to podcastbob
-podcastbob gets a monthly statement, which can be transferred to a bank account if/when he wishes – or transfered to his own micro-coop (paying) account.
-some percentage is taken from the transaction, to pay for server space & management etc.
-micro-coop could be a non-profit coop, (or a for-profit company?) – but not like paypal.

Now why not paypal? Because no one likes it, and no one is inspired to use it. microcoop would be nicely-designed, easy to use, and really be targeted to this do it yourself internet media market, unlike the flashy e-commerce crap you usually see.

Anyone interested in hleping me build microcoop? I seem to be overflowing with ideas these days, unfortunately I have not the skills nor the time to implement them all.

free software, nozick, anarchy right & left

I have been thinking about Free Software as a uniquely successful anarchist project, and one which may well–through its success–have impacts beyond the tools we use on our computers.

By “anarchist” I mean of course the actual definition, rather than reference to black-masked Molotov-cocktail-throwers, namely: a project based on the voluntary cooperation of free individuals, without hierarchy or imposed authority.

What makes Free Software exciting is its ability to propagate itself: that is, if you intend to make use of Free Software, you must agree to play by the rules of Free Software. You may use it, change it, copy it and share it as you like… but whatever you do with it, you must provide to the world on the same terms. The rest of the world must be free to use, change, copy and share. This is the beauty of the GNU General Public License. The ideal of the Free Software (anarchist) project is spread each time it is used.

One of my most infuriating reads as an undergrad was Robert Nozick. His 1974 philosophical text, Anarchy, State and Utopia underpins much of the right-wing movement of the past 30 years, along with work by free-marketeering economist Milton Friedman and the political philosopher Leo Strauss. Nozick argued strenuously that redistribution of wealth (the basis of the welfare state) is fundamentally unjust: taxation and redistribution of wealth (through, for instance, social programs) is on par with forced slave labour. No one, he claimed, has the right to take from a person goods which they have acquired or produced justly through their own work.

Nozick’s main premise is that justice can be defined through three actions:

1. how things not previously possessed by anyone may be acquired;
2. how possession may be transferred from one person to another; and
3. what must be done to rectify injustices arising from violations of (1) and (2).

His argument is that as long as 1 happens justly, 2 can only be achieved justly if the owner agrees – so no forced redistribution can be just.

I was looking over some of Nozick’s work (not much is available online, by the way) for other purposes, but was struck by how pleased Nozick would have been (I think) to see the Free Software movement emerge. While I have been interested in FS mainly for reasons from the left (an alternate way of organizing innovation and collaboration, outside of the traditional commercial framework), I realized that the FS movement is classic Nozick in its definition, and provides a true, real-life “test” of the justice principle. (This is often a failing in political philosophies of distribution, since in many require thought experiments to “test” a moral hypothesis, such as Hobbes‘ imagining the “social contract” development, one must to postulate a time before any civic rigths and resposibilities existed, and see what reasonable ageements may have been made).

In any case, FS offers a starting point to watch as a free system, based on a set of ethical principles, develops in real-time. Ownership here is completely redefined, through the GPL, and one can only claim ownership of free software if one relinquishes the traditional rights associated with that ownership. No government is needed to redistribute, since FS ingeniously makes redistribution a necessary condition of any FS transaction between two “agents”: the commons, which “owns” in a sense Free Software, and someone who wants to use and or modify the FS. That is, if you wish to use FS to build something new, whatever you build, you must allow to be redistributed freely in the same way the original FS was.

Here is a commons that is unlimited, and so far looks to be very far from tragedy. The thing to watch is how nervous the big corporations get, and how our apparent freed trade-loving governments move when it becomes clear that the world of proprietary software is feeling real pressure from the proliferation of FS.

So proponents of FS must be vigilant to watch what our governments are doing to find unjust ways of limiting the growth of this most innovative, and so far enromously successful, social and technological experiment.