Archive for May 2006
A terrific passage from Alan Liu’s The Laws of Cool:
Now, perhaps, we can understand the true meaning of the emancipation proclamation of the information age first uttered in 1984 by Stewart Brand, publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog: “information wants tot be free.” In the era of the Whole Earth Corporation, “information wants to be free” is ultimately how we are no longer allowed to say “we” want to be free. “We,” the subject and class of information culture, come fully to know our world only in the blinding moment of illumination when the world network routes around our knowledge – that is, the us in our knowledge that Fukuyama (in the other half of his thesis) terms “the struggle for recognition” and Castells (in the second volume of his Information Age trilogy) calls “the power of identity.” We do not even need the hyperbole of cyberpunk science fiction, with its unerring instinct for the mutilation of subjects (e.g., the silicon-punctured bodies and flat-lined subjectivities of Gibson’s Neuromancer), to grasp the intensity of our loss – nor the uncanny double of that intensity, the blurred anomie of it all. “X” marks the spot where the whole generation of incipient knowledge workers in the United States suceeding the baby boomers – the generation caught in the “pipeline” from education to the corporation – has been deleted from the network. Indeed, we may speculate that the purely generational identity of “Gen X” (and now “Gen Y” after them) looms large at this moment precisely because it is an empty solidarity reflecting – as if in cyberpunk “mirrorshades” – the hollow form of the corporate world’s own generational identity as “workforce 2000.” “We” are no more than this transient moment when we have nothing more in common – as Jean-Luc Nancy might say in his Inoperative Community – than our finitude, our extinction, our “death.” (69)
GREG PALAST: Yeah, that’s why I wrote a book, because it does link the whole thing together. I mean, I just got back from meeting with Chavez, as you know, and you showed our interview a few weeks ago. He’s offered the U.S. $50-a-barrel oil. That’s a third off of what we’re paying right now. Now, you would think our president would be down in Caracas kissing Hugo Chavez’s behind and saying, “Thank you, thank you for dropping the price of oil by a third, and let’s make a deal,” because Chavez wants a deal.
But he’s not doing that, our president, even though the high prices are costing about a million jobs right now. And the reason he’s not is that what Chavez will not do is that Chavez will not return the money. It’s not about petroleum, it’s about petrodollars, as I explain in the book. In other words, when George Bush rides around King Abdullah in his little golf cart on the Crawford ranch, he’s not trying to get Abdullah’s oil. Abdullah can’t drink the stuff. He’s got to sell it to us and Japan. But Abdullah takes the money back from the — when you fill up your SUV, you give your money to Saudi Arabia, the big oil companies, Saudi Arabia. But then he returns it the form of petrodollars, and that is what is funding George Bush’s mad spending spree.
We have a president who has racked up $2 trillion in extra debt, you know, stone sober, apparently. And someone’s got to pay for that. And basically we’re paying for it by effectively an oil tax, which is returned to us, because the Gulf states and our other trading partners are now buying up $2 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds and debt. So, in other words, they’re recycling the money back and paying for George Bush’s spending spree on ending inheritance taxes, you know, several wars, etc.
Now, Hugo Chavez says, “I’ll give you cheap oil, not only to the poor, but to everyone. But I’m not giving you back the money. That money is going to stay in Latin America to build our nations.” And he just withdrew $20 billion out of the U.S. Federal Reserve. You have to understand, this is a punch in the face of the U.S. administration, far more than withholding oil, withholding and withdrawing petrodollars, as I explain in the book, and that’s why you have that little nice floater from — balloon thrown out by Reverend Robertson, Pat Robertson, saying “Hugo Chavez thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, and I think we ought to just go and do it,” because they have got to get that — it’s not that they need that oil, they need that oil money. And if they can’t get it, they have to eliminate Hugo Chavez.
AMY GOODMAN: Is the war in Iraq a war for oil?
GREG PALAST: Is the war in Iraq for oil? Yes, it’s about the oil, but not for the oil. In my investigations for Armed Madhouse, I ended up with a story far more fascinating and difficult than I imagined. We didn’t go in to grab the oil. Just the opposite. We went in to control the oil and make sure we didn’t get it. It goes back to 1920, when the oil companies sat in a room in Brussels in a hotel room, drew a red line around Iraq and said, “There’ll be no oil coming out of that nation.” They have to suppress oil coming out of Iraq. Otherwise, the price of oil will collapse, and OPEC and Saudi Arabia will collapse.
And so, what I found, what I discovered that they’re very unhappy about is a 323-page plan, which was written by big oil, which is the secret but official plan of the United States for Iraq’s oil, written by the big oil companies out of the James Baker Institute in coordination with a secret committee of the Council on Foreign Relations. I know it sounds very conspiratorial, but this is exactly how they do it. It’s quite wild. And it’s all about a plan to control Iraq’s oil and make sure that Iraq has a system, which, quote, “enhances its relationship with OPEC.” In other words, the whole idea is to maintain the power of OPEC, which means maintain the power of Saudi Arabia.
And this is one of the reasons they absolutely hate Hugo Chavez. As you’ll see in next week’s Harper’s coming out, which is basically an excerpt from the book, Hugo Chavez on June 1st is going to ask OPEC to officially recognize that he has more oil than Saudi Arabia. This is a geopolitical earthquake. And the inside documents from the U.S. Department of Energy, which we have in the book and in Harper’s, say, yeah, he’s got more oil than Saudi Arabia.
AMY GOODMAN: And is it accessible?
GREG PALAST: That’s the trick. It’s accessible, but the price of oil — it’s heavy oil, which means it costs about — you need oil to be about $30 a barrel, less than half of what it is now. Chavez says, “Cut a deal with me. Oil will never drop below a minimum price, but we’ll get off this insane world-destroying $75 a barrel. I’ll give you cheap oil, but you just put a floor under it.” He shook hands with Bill Clinton on the deal. And Bush came in and spit on his hand, to say the least. He had the guy kidnapped back in 2002. Bush does not — you have to remember, he doesn’t like cheap oil. When we talk about paying $3-a-gallon gasoline, Bush’s benefactors, donors and his own family collects the $3 a gallon.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
GREG PALAST: Well, we’re paying three bucks a gallon. ExxonMobil is collecting $3 a gallon. There’s a chapter called “Trillion-Dollar Babies.” When Bush came in, we had oil as low as $18 a barrel. It was like water. Bush has successfully built up the price of oil from 18 bucks a barrel to over $70 a barrel. That’s the “mission accomplished.” He didn’t make a mistake here. That’s the “mission accomplished.”
ExxonMobil, which after Enron is the biggest lifetime donor to the Bush campaigns, its value of its reserves, of its oil reserves, because of the Bush wars and Bush actions, has gone up by almost exactly $1 trillion in value. Just one company. A trillion-dollar windfall to a single company. That’s the Bush benefactors. And you have to look at where’s Bush make his money.
Go read the whole thing.
I am, quite happily, heading far afield from my usual paths of thought and research. Summer-time. Reading Charles Stross’s Accelerando, which you can read right this very minute via a download from Stross’s personal site.
This free ebook edition is made available by kind consent of my publishers, Ace and Orbit, under a Creative Commons license with certain restrictions attached. In particular, you may not create derivative works or use the work for commercial gain.
That’s putting your CC money where your CC mouth is.
In fact, the epigraph of the second section comes from John Von Neurmann, of the Von Neumann bottleneck below…
Life is a process which may be abstracted from other media.
– John Von Neumann
Anyway, I’m through the first section of the novel and will try to report a bit more as I get further in. But for now, a paragraph or two from wikipedia on Von Neumann’s economic work, and the minimax concept:
His first significant contribution was the minimax theorem of 1928. This theorem establishes that in certain so-called zero sum games (games in which the winnings of one player are equal and contrary to the losses of his opponent) involving perfect information (in which, that is, each player knows a priori both the strategies of their opponent as well as their consequences), there exists one strategy which allows both players to minimize their maximum losses (hence the name minimax). In particular, for every possible strategy of his own, a player must consider all the possible responses of his adversary and the maximum loss that he could derive. He then plays out the strategy which will result in the minimization of this maximum loss. Such a strategy, which minimizes the maximum loss, is called optimal for both players just in case their minimaxes are equal (in absolute value) and contrary (in sign). If the common value is zero, the game becomes pointless.
Von Neumann eventually improved and extended the minimax theorem to include games involving imperfect information and games with more than two players. This work culminated in the 1944 classic The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (written with Oskar Morgenstern).
Sounds almost like a materialist ethics, a morality of realism.
There’s got to be something to say about this. I’m going to save it away for future use, but it’s certainly a symptom of something, no?
What needs to be thought through, perhaps, is not so much the idea of some sort of collective consciousness, some sort of transindividual noosphere, as they have it, which surely exists on some level interesting or utterly banal, but what is at stake in materializing it? Why do we need it to exist “out there,” “in the air,” measurable at times of affect and panic like 9/11. What is it that we don’t or can’t believe about ourselves that he need nodes collecting data, mining out the possibility that we are all in it together?
In the worst case, perhaps it comes out like this:
The car had gone, but it had left a slight ripple which flowed through glove shops and hat shops and tailors’ shops on both sides of Bond Street. For thirty seconds all heads were inclined the same way–to the window. Choosing a pair of gloves–should they be to the elbow or above it, lemon or pale grey?–ladies stopped; when the sentence was finished something had happened. Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors’ shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire. In a public house in a back street a Colonial insulted the House of Windsor which led to words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy, which echoed strangely across the way in the ears of girls buying white underlinen threaded with pure white ribbon for their weddings. For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound.
The GCP people have a page on the “Poetic History” of their project (links funny – go look around. Or don’t.) And they totally miss all the good (complicating?) stuff like this…
Usually the Times reserves this sort of obnoxiousness for Latin American leftists who, say, spend oil money on schools for poor children, rather than what oil money is supposed to be spent on: bunker-busting nukes, hummers, and mexicans to tend to the gardens.
The problem with French universities, it seems, is that:
1) they lack the landscaping budget of Harvard or Stanford
2) Unlike in America, where we educate the whole student, and there is a bountiful basket of extracurricular activities to participate in, the French leave their students to their own devices after class is over.
There are 32,000 students at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris, but no student center, no bookstore, no student-run newspaper, no freshman orientation, no corporate recruiting system.
3) the f’ing soixiante-huitards made it so everyone can attend.
“Universities are factories,” said Christine le Forestier, 24, a 2005 graduate of Nanterre with a master’s degree who has not found a stable job. “They are machines to turn out thousands and thousands of students who have learned all about theory but nothing practical. A diploma is worth nothing in the real world.”
The problems stem in part from the student revolts of May 1968, which grew out of an unexceptional event at Nanterre the year before. One March evening, male students protesting the sexual segregation of the dormitories occupied the women’s dormitory and were evicted by the police.
A year later, Nanterre students protesting the war in Vietnam occupied the administration building, the first such action by students at a French university. The student revolt spread, turning into a mass movement aimed at transforming the authoritarian, elitist French system of governance. Ultimately 10 million workers left their jobs in a strike that came close to forcing de Gaulle from power.
One result was that the country’s university system guaranteed a free — or almost free — college education to every high school graduate who passed the baccalauréat exam. University enrollment soared. The value of a bachelor’s degree plummeted..
4) The university system is defined by a distinction between good schools and all the rest.
Compounding the problem, France is caught between its official promotion of the republican notion of equality and its commitment to the nurturing of an elite cadre of future leaders and entrepreneurs.
Only 4 percent of French students make it into the most competitive French universities — the public “grandes écoles.” But the grandes écoles, along with a swath of semiprivate preparatory schools, absorb 30 percent of the public budget.
Thank god we don’t have anything like that over here. Just ask my students last year – 12 a semester, who benefited from more than a page of comments on 8 separate writing assignments and several hours of individual meetings with me to discuss their writing. Or my students this year, at the state university (a rather “good,” if underfunded one), whose upper-level English class featured an enrollment of 45, no teaching assistants, and who received the all feedback on their work that it was possible for me to give… Not very much. No grandes écoles over here, praise be.
In America, educational resources are rationally distributed by the market so that each and every deserving student receives exactly the same slice of the pie, from Harvard down to the lowliest community college. What a country!
5) The students are morons, who fail to understand the glorious liberation that comes with a tiny bit of flexibilté
At Nanterre, Alexandre Frydlender, 19, a second-year student in law and history, complained about the lack of courses in English for students of international law. But asked whether he would be willing to pay a higher fee for better services, he replied: “The university is a public service. The state must pay.”
A poster that hangs throughout the campus halls echoed that sentiment: “To study is a right, not a privilege.”
6) The nation as a whole has failed to understand just how great things are going over here
But flexibility is not at all the tradition in France, where students are put on fixed career tracks at an early age.
“We are caught in a world of limits where there’s no such thing as the self-made man,” said Claire de la Vigne, a graduate of Nanterre who is now doing graduate work at the much more prestigious Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris. “We are never taught the idea of the American dream, where everything is possible. Our guide is fear.”
Von Neumann bottleneck
The separation between the CPU and memory leads to what is known as the von Neumann bottleneck. The throughput (data transfer rate) between the CPU and memory is very small in comparison with the amount of memory. In modern machines, throughput is very small in comparison with the rate at which the CPU itself can work. Under some circumstances (when the CPU is required to perform minimal processing on large amounts of data), this gives rise to a serious limitation in overall effective processing speed. The CPU is continuously forced to wait for vital data to be transferred to or from memory. As CPU speed and memory size have increased much faster than the throughput between the two, the bottleneck has become more and more of a problem.
The term “von Neumann bottleneck” was coined by John Backus in his 1977 ACM Turing award lecture. According to Backus:
“Surely there must be a less primitive way of making big changes in the store than by pushing vast numbers of words back and forth through the von Neumann bottleneck. Not only is this tube a literal bottleneck for the data traffic of a problem, but, more importantly, it is an intellectual bottleneck that has kept us tied to word-at-a-time thinking instead of encouraging us to think in terms of the larger conceptual units of the task at hand. Thus programming is basically planning and detailing the enormous traffic of words through the von Neumann bottleneck, and much of that traffic concerns not significant data itself, but where to find it.”
And now Woolf in To the Lighthouse:
How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all? Standing now, apparently transfixed, by the pear tree, impressions poured in upon her of those two men, and to follow her thought was like following a voice which speaks too quickly to be taken down by one’s pencil, and the voice was her own voice saying without prompting undeniable, everlasting, contradictory things, so that even the fissures and humps on the bark of the pear tree were irrevocably fixed there for eternity.
Thinking about literary modernism – “stream of consciousness” narration and the like – as a problem of bandwidth or “data transfer rate,” just as, in a sense, consciousness itself is during this period, for Freud and Bergson and others, an issue that boils down to how many sense impressions / repressed memories can fit through the very narrow pipe. Woolf struggles in To the Lighthouse to get it all down, chokes the text with data, so that across (despite) all the abundance of detail we feel all that is being left out, all that can’t make it into the text.
(I’m not going to bring it all into this post, but searching for the word “word” in the text is, well, very revealing…)
And something else – thinking about this bit from the quote above:
Not only is this tube a literal bottleneck for the data traffic of a problem, but, more importantly, it is an intellectual bottleneck that has kept us tied to word-at-a-time thinking instead of encouraging us to think in terms of the larger conceptual units of the task at hand.
And this, from Lukács:
The greatest discrepancy between idea and reality [in the novel of romantic disillusionment] is time: the process of time as duration. The most profound and most humiliating impotence of subjectivity consists not so much in its hopeless struggle against the lack of idea in social forms and their human representatives, as in the fact that it cannot resist the sluggish, yet constant process of time; that it must slip down, slowly yet inexorably, from the peaks it has laboriously scaled; that time – that ungraspable, invisibly moving substance – gradually robs subjectivity of all its possessions and imperceptibly forces alien contents into it. That is why only the novel, the literary form of the transcendent homelessness of the idea, includes real time – Bergson’s durée – among its constitutive principles.
The novel – or really, literature in general – now as the materialization of the human inability to think/say/write more than one word at a time. Only now, with machines that promise/threaten/already do “think” or “process” everything all at once, once and for all, can we see the secret pathos that lives within the form.
As of now, the computer retains its romanesque form, its all too human handicap (from Wikipedia again):
Cache between CPU and main memory helps to alleviate some of the performance issues of the von Neumann bottleneck. Additionally, the developement of branch prediction algorithms has helped to mitigate this problem. It is less clear whether the intellectual bottleneck that Backus criticized has changed much since 1977. Backus’s proposed solution has not had a major influence. Modern functional programming and object-oriented programming are much less geared towards pushing vast numbers of words back and forth than earlier languages like Fortran, but internally, that is still what computers spend much of their time doing.