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December 25, 2015

On the spectrum

tambor-transparent.jpg"We can't be ourselves as long as there is even one man in the room," she said. The year was sometime around 1977, and the location was a women-only folk club, where I'd been booked to play. My instinctive reaction - unvoiced - was that given that the world's population is half men, they'd do better to figure out how to feel comfortable with men than to exclude them. Personally, I missed the lower tones in the sound of the audience singing along on the choruses.

I don't disagree with my former self even now, but I do recognize that the fact that I think that way probably makes me one of the lucky women who has known predominantly pleasant and honorable men and who has always been in a position to ignore or push back against the rest. Many women are not so fortunate, and who am I to deny them their "safe space"? (Plus, I've known some quite unpleasant bullying women whose presence in a space would not enhance its "safety".)

I remembered this incident while watching the episode (S2e09, "Man on the Land") of Jill Soloway's show Transparent in which two 30-something women - Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Ali (Gabby Hoffman) - take their trans parent, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), to a festival I read is modelled on the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. The episode fictionalizes (and satirizes) the real festival's highly contentious "intention" that anyone who isn't "womyn-born womyn" should stay away. I would be qualified to go, but would be far less comfortable than Maura is, at least at first. Shortly after arrival, Maura and Ali separately discover the festival policy.

For Maura, the welcoming, joyous, bare-breasted atmosphere suddenly turns sinister. Is that head turning to look at her? Is that giggling couple plotting to eject her? Is it safe to use the Porta-potty? Maura's increasingly hunted expression echoes two scenes from season 1, when she was just shedding Mort, her decades-old outward persona. In the first (S1e04, "Moppa"), those same daughters pull her into a swank department store ladies room, where she is challenged by a couple of mean girls and their mother. In the second, more resonant here, Maura and fellow closeted - we're not sure what - Mark/Marcy (Bradley Whitford) go to a weekend cross-dressing camp (S1e08, "Best New Girl). Like the music festival, Maura's first reaction is is giddiness at having come home to her tribe. And there, too, it all turns sour, when casual conversation reveals that hormone treatments and anything else that smacks of wanting to live as a woman as opposed to playing one for a weekend could get you banned. Or divorced, as Mort finds back home when he tells his wife, Shelly (Judith Light), where he's been, and shows her Maura. Shelly shakes her head, announces firmly, "I'm done", and goes off to marry the kind man who's been inviting her to dinner and just wants to make her happy.

In a piece about the scene, Hari Nef, who plays Maura's 1930s ancestor Gittel (birth name: Gershon), argues that penises are not the problem. Rather, Nef blames patriarchy for damaging all types of women, going on to make many of the same points as Laverne Cox did in an interview with Katie Couric. Trans people are disproportionately affected by unemployment, homelessness, and violence. The emergence of a few highly lauded trans actors and a TV series that breaks ground by treating trans characters as people with human problems does not fix that, though every step helps.

The thinking that treats gender as binary and physiologically determined is remarkably well-suited for digital thinking. In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, it was the "F" flag on bank accounts that allowed her dysfunctional society's males to seize control. Locking off access to women's accounts until a responsible male could be found to take them over was a simple matter of sorting on F. The ability to do this kind of sort-and-destroy operation doesn't change if you add more categories, as Facebook did last year for a total of 56 "custom" gender options. No matter how finely you slice it, it's still an attempt to impose digital steps onto an the most analog spectrum of all, human behavior. In most applications - recording audio, shooting video - you eventually reach a point where the grains are fine enough that further steps are beyond the limits of human perception. We can't be so cavalier about eliminating "insignificant noise" when what's left out is human beings rather than bits.

Most of the time, moving something onto computers means turning a fuzzy analog spectrum into digital steps. This is one case where the computers are merely mirroring existing human categories: gender must be the first and oldest attempt at sorting us all. It is one of the first two things we clock when we meet another human. No matter how enlightened parents think they are about letting their kid choose dolls or trucks, math or art, dress or pants, the reality is that the first question anyone asks whenever a baby is born is: Is it a girl or a boy?

So much is determined by the answer to that question. As George Bernard Shaw's Eliza Doolittle explains to Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated."

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

December 18, 2015


Anchorage-costaltrail.jpg"It's going to be a nice day today. Almost freezing." A minute later, the speaker is fretting about climate change and the unaccustomed mildness of a winter that has 20 degree Fahrenheit temperatures in mid-December. We are in Anchorage, Alaska, where the snow shouldn't melt until spring, there are fur stores everywhere, and the films are worth freezing for.

Actually, Anchorage isn't even particularly cold by Alaskan standards. You want cold, go to Fairbanks, where "20" as an answer to the current temperature means *minus* 20 Fahrenheit. And yet, this is an outdoor culture, where part of survival is embracing the cold and reveling in the sports the climate makes possible. There is a saying: "There is no such thing as bad weather - just bad gear."

The gear is expensive, but brands like Canada Goose, Mukluks, and Icebreaker come into their own here even among folks who are not rich because they're really needed. Cotton flannel, beloved New England winter wear, is more of a liability than an asset in this climate, where you want light, warm layers that keep moisture away from the body and that can be easily adapted as needed. Merino wool, silk long johns, windblocking outer layers, ear muffs, and shoes with extra room are the rule. Lacking the full range of equipment, I made do with layers of silk, merino wool, windblocking cycling pants, gaiters, slightly large Keen hiking shoes, and a borrowed Canada Goose coat - and was toasty warm on an hour-long hike through the area near Homer where Alaska: the Last Frontier is shot. (Don't be fooled by the series, folks - the locals have a real, if small, grocery store, and ready access to junk food if they want it.) So warm, in fact, that I removed my gloves and undid a few zippers. This stuff works, when correctly deployed.

Still, as all Alaskans know, you may be warm outdoors but you're not safe. alaska-child-fur-suit.jpgPart of the awe of visiting this state in winter is realizing that native peoples survived for thousands of years without the mod cons of high-tech fabrics, central heating, and running hot water. In the Anchorage Museum, I find a child's fur suit; the top is double-layer rabbit fur. Here, fur is politically perfectly correct.

"We wear fur," the Anchorage innkeeper agreed. In her view, it's still the warmest option and you can see why: fur insulates animals successfully, it sheds moisture, and, perhaps most important, its functionality doesn't change when the temperatures drop below minus 40. Below that - and Fairbanks has had temperatures down to minus 60 in the last few years - many materials change their physical properties. Metal gets brittle, plastic becomes friable like potato chips. Leather, textiles, and fur continue to function. Those traditional designs hold up.

Surviving your first winter - the cold, the lack of light, is still a milestone. In Fairbanks (4F) I was told that when you make it, you're a "sourdough". Local legend has it that arriving gold miners kept their sourdough starter within their clothing to keep it warm and functional so they could have bread. Yeah: frozen yeast aren't up to much.

Alaska is facing a lot of challenges. Climate change is real to people who live next to calving glaciers (see, for example, this year's astonishing documentary of an 800-mile trek through the Alaska wilderness, ), by Bjőrn Olson. The recent drop in oil prices has been a hard blow to the state, whose predominant source of revenue is oil. It's never faced a deficit before and has no experience solving one, a challenge made even greater by the fact that the state has neither sales tax nor income tax. The present governor, Bill Walker, has called for the latter, but it's a hard sell to people more used to being paid oil dividends than paying for public services.

One issue I had never thought about is access to fresh food other than meat - fish (especially halibut), reindeer, caribou, walrus, whale. But most fresh vegetables and fruit must be imported, also dairy. Efforts are underway to improve the situation by using high tunnels, but at present, they said in Homer, 95% of the food that's bought in Alaska - though not the food that's consumed - is imported.

The reality is that Alaska is an island - an island two and a half times the size of Texas. Bounded on one side by Canada, the rest by water, it remains its own place. "When people ask if you've been 'outside' this year," my Fairbanks contact said, "they mean if you've been outside the *state*." The nice part of this is the high percentage of locally owned businesses. One of the toughest parts is that homeless people, who typically lack the identification (or the money) for air travel or entry into Canada, are trapped in one of the world's most unforgiving climates. Most people who visit go in summer, and I'm sure it's beautiful and fun, then. But winter is when you see the real place, where the light is constantly changing and the locals take pride in their ability to survive.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter. We apologize that comments are turned off because of the high level of spambot hits on the server.

December 11, 2015

The collaborative society

One of the fundamental omissions in our general discourse about privacy is to cast it solely as an individual right. It is that, but it is also a social compact. James-Disconnected.jpgThis orientation matters, as Carrie James points out in her 2014 book, Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, because as a result the primary lesson we teach kids about privacy is that they should protect their own: "Don't get caught on camera doing something stupid that someone else may post online, where it will eventually cause trouble for you." We spend much less time saying to them, "Everyone does something stupid sometimes. Before you post a picture of your friends embarrassing themselves, think about how someone who doesn't know them will view that picture and what might happen to them as a result." We also don't say, "You know that picture of you where you look so stupid? Well, you know that isn't a complete representation of yourself and your abilities, so when you grow up and get a job in Human Resources, remember that before you eliminate a good prospective employee on the basis that they were caught on film smoking a cigarette when they were 14." Both of these things would make equally reasonable lessons to teach.

In a talk for the Safer Internet conference in October, I noted that the best educational opportunity provided by the "Internet of Toys" (a marketing term for "smart" toys like Hello Barbie is to sit down with your kid and review the privacy policy and what it actually means in practice.

In the same vein, we don't have very good language for data that does not have a single creator. My medical records are mine, of course - but they are not *solely* mine; significant portions are the doctor's interpretations of both information I give her and test results, put together with her own hard-won knowledge. Probably if you conducted a test where the same patient presented the same symptoms to a series of doctors no two sets of notes would be exactly the same, even though, one hopes, they all reached the same diagnosis. The same is true of things like phone records. Are they really mine? They're about me, but they're also about my correspondents, and they wouldn't exist at all without the phone company's involvement in generating and compiling the list.

The Open Data Institute has a Venn diagram they like to promulgate, that shows the overlaps between three types of data: open, personal, and big.

Medical data is shared in a different way. wilkie-book.jpgAll the way back in his 1988 book Perilous Knowledge, the science writer Tom Wilkie pointed out that one of the implications of sequencing the human genome was the consequences for personal medical privacy: whenever you decode someone's genome you inevitably expose personal details about close relatives. Some of those relatives may not want others to know those details; others may not want to know themselves if they're carrying a gene for Alzheimer's or breast cancer. Handling the first is easy enough unless you're one of those people who likes to blog intensively about your life. The second is harder: are you going to spend the rest of your life remembering what not to say at every family party?

This is all leading up to noting that not only do we fail to understand privacy as collaborative, but we do the same thing with data. A database typically is deemed to have a single owner, as is my medical record. Yet as soon as you think about the latter the problem is obvious. I say "my medical record". My GP may say "your patient record", but many GP think nonetheless that they own that information.

We can't talk about property rights in personal data without acknowledging the reality that often multiple parties have a reasonable claim to ownership but we have no reasonable way of allocating shares. Do we try to calculate a numeric value and allocate percentages? Or distribute rights based on who suffers the most if the data is disclosed? In a well-researched piece this week on medical privacy, Pro Publica's Charles Ornstein argues that the worst medical breaches are the small-scale ones that expose just a few people's intimate information. It is very hard for victims to get redress: the information can't be unleaked, and there's no good way to assign a monetary value on the resulting ditress.

The spread of the Internet of Things will complicate things further: every service will rely on multiple providers who collect and aggregate multiple data streams. A municipal system that that provides an app to let car drivers find open spaces might use sensors implanted in the street that detect the presence of a car along with GPS data locating everyone looking for spots to blank the meter when a car pulls away. This would be truly multi-party: probably the municipality maintains an open database of all legal parking spots, one company provides and interprets the output of pavement sensors, another makes the app, a third provides wireless infrastructure, a fourth makes and manages the parking meters, and each user has their own choice of mobile device and network operator. Who owns "my parking spot" in such a scenario?

I don't have a specific set of proposals for solving this. But first, as they say, we need to acknowledge there's a problem.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

.We apologize that comments have been turned off on this blog due to overactive spambots.

December 4, 2015

The need to know


"How wonderful," Antony Jay said in 1994, according to William Heath (R), when he was shown the internet for the first time. "I wonder what the government will do to ruin it." Arguably, we're finding out.

Jay is one of the two people net.wars quotes most often, the other being his collaborator, Jonathan Lynn. Together, they wrote Yes, Minister, the classic 1980-1988 BBC sitcom that taught the UK how its government really worked. Margaret Thatcher, whom Jay admired, loved the show so much she tried writing a scene for it, and many other politicians have called it simply "a documentary".

"Most comedy writers come from a different world," Jay says by way of explaining its success. "They don't really know much about politics." Jay, however, was the early 1960s editor of the BBC current affairs program Tonight. "I'd had a long career in the political world. I knew what went on a bit - I knew a lot of politicians, so we wrote from knowing something about the world, rather than just writing about an idea of things."

In addition, "I'd had quite a lot to do with civil servants in various things I'd done with politics." The difficulty was their endemic discretion. "They wouldn't tell you anything they didn't think you knew anyway. But if you made a good guess they would then unveil things." By contrast, "Politicians told you the lot, so we got a lot from them and because what we got from them was helpful we could then sort of use that with civil servants to get them to tell us." . Then as now, buying lunch and laying on good booze was helpful in encouraging disclosures. "The more they drank, the more they told you."

Jay got the idea in 1977, but it took until 1979 for Lynn to find the time to begin writing. "I'd written a lot of comedy," Jay says, "but training films for business." The reference is to Video Arts, the company he founded in 1972 for which he wrote scripts that used humor to teach subjects such as how to run meetings. Many of these were performed by John Cleese and are fun to watch even if you don't want to run a company. Cleese, whose own Fawlty Towers was broadcast in 1975 and 1979, was, it transpires, the other person Jay asked to be his co-writer. Cleese was too busy.

"It just happened that [the idea for the show] was completely new," he says. "Politicians had been fairly common, but civil servants - not just pouring out the tea but running the country - were not." The show's audience wasn't huge, but, "The people who did like it, *really* liked it."

As topical as Yes, Minister seems - episodes like "Big Brother" or "The Death List" episodes are as freshly relevant now as in the early 1980s - it's actually based on timeless themes that don't date. Similarly, Jay's books, such as 1996's Management and Machiavelli, use historical analogues to explain business power structures, whose rules are as old as humanity.

ym23_all1.jpgIn some ways Jay found writing television comedy simpler than writing business scripts. "Business programs always show the right way to do it as well as the wrong way. On television, you don't have to do that. You just show the wrong way, and everybody laughs."

That's the other reason Yes, Minister has dated so little: the main situation hasn't changed much. Many people claim that both politicians and civil servants have wised up and adapted their tactics after imbibing the show's lessons. Yet a personal straw poll of a few civil servants indicates that they still see getting things past the minister without their noticing as a usefully efficient strategy. The show seems clearly still relevant, even to those inside government today. Making something of that significance - "That was the fun."

It's usually pointless to ask a fiction writer how to fix something in the real world. Jay's background makes him the exception, so we had to ask: is there any way to change the push for surveillance. Sir Humphrey says (Yes, Prime Minister, Season 2, episode 1, "Man Overboard) "I need to know *everything*. How else can I judge whether or not I need to know it?" Is that it?

"If you get into a bureaucracy," Jay says, "control becomes a very important thing. They don't think of it like that, they just think of doing it right. But actually what they're doing is keeping out the things they don't want and pushing the things that they do." He is unsurprised at the suggestion that recent legislative moves have sought to legalize things that Edward Snowden's revelations showed were already happening.

"Control is the great thing for government - they want to control what happens, control what information gets out, and they're powerful and they have money, and the rest of us are not organized and so the government kind of does it." From their point of view, he says, "They don't see it as anything other than good government, but actually it's control government, which is what they want."

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.We apologize for having to turn off comments on this blog, which was getting hammered by spambots.