Life on the conference trail, future shock, and rule of law.

Aug 20, 2012

For man years I'd always looked somewhat askance at Terrence McKenna's talks about the year 2012, his hypothesis of time having a fractal nature, and Everything Changing in the year 2012 of the common era. That I've taken for myself the name of a certain British science fiction hero (and have a certain interest in Time) aside, it never seemed, well, plausible, to put not too fine a point on it. I even went so far as to ruminate about it a couple of years back to get it out of my system. Then, earlier this year I conceeded that, yeah, stuff's changing really fast, just take a deep breath and everything'll be fine.

I must now reluctantly admit to living in a state of future shock for the past couple of weeks, with no signs that it's going to abate. I must also concede that taking a deep breath is not sufficient to handle this peculiar state. I'm not sure what is, but unplugging for varying periods of time seems to help only slightly. Cutting back on coffee drinking doesn't seem to help much, nor does increasing it. Not a pleasant sensation.

Oh, and that bit about Time being self-similar at every level of complexity (i.e., the macro scale of Time, all the way down to our personal perceptions of Time)? I'm inclined to treat that notion as if it has relevance to my personal timeline, given the events of the past couple of weeks. It seems like most everyone I know is undergoing periods of great personal change in some way, shape, or form right now. Speaking personally, I never expected to wind up on the conference circuit and consequently be as busy as I am now, writing papers and generally doing the stuff that professionals do. I'm not in position to talk about much of it right now (some of it's work-related, and the other stuff... well, I'm a bit superstitious about talking about things before the ink's dry on the paperwork...) None of us expected Lyssa's contract for her day job to not be renewed, either. She's looking for a new job at this moment, and I'm doing what I can to fill in the blanks. I don't think that it's going to pose too much of a problem, but it certainly came out of left field.

And now, some other stuff going on, both in my life and not.

A couple of weeks ago Lyssa and I flew to Kentucky to stay with extended family (read: the inlaws) for a weekend visit. This included going through the backscatter X-ray scanners at Reagan International to pose for the TSA (which are now mandatory - if you plan on exercising your right to opt-out, pack light because all of your stuff is going to be left sitting unattended on the x-ray machine's conveyer belt) and flying on a plane sufficiently not-large that I was unable to stand upright. After landing and recovering our luggage we were whisked away on a tour of Churchill Downs. While it was nice to see something new while out and about, I'm not particularly interested in horse racing so I didn't get a whole lot out of it. It was nice to get up and walk around after such a cramped flight, though that's about it. I'm not particularly a fan of mint juleps, either. Still, I got a few good pictures on the tour that I'll get around to posting in the relatively near future.

The next day was spent with the whole extended family touring the Bourbon Trail of Kentucky, which included stops at and tours of a couple of bourbon distilleries. Again, it was nice to get out a little bit and see something I've never seen before (or really looked into, truth be told) but not so much my thing. It was nice to visit the place where one of my favorite libations, Woodford Reserve is distilled. The afternoon and evening were spent at an amazing restaurant, sipping one of my favourite bourbons (Four Roses single barrel) and reading through commits at Github, on the other hand... as Gibson said so very long ago, if God made anything better, he kept it for Himself.

Lyssa and I caught our second redeye flight back early on Monday morning after getting up at 0330 hours Kentucky time to finish packing, drive to the airport, and run the gauntlet once again. This airport has millimeter wave scanners installed in lieu of the x-ray backscatter devices. As before, bear in mind that opting out in favor of the personal touch means that all of your stuff on the x-ray machine's conveyor belt will be left there unwatched and unguarded, so pick your battles and insurance coverage carefully. Laurelindel picked us up at the airport, and after reacquiring our baggage we headed for home, whereupon I promptly threw my stuff into the TARDIS and headed for nothern Virginia. In the days prior to the Kentucky trip, my vehicle began exhibiting problems with the electrical system (most notably, a couple of "Oh, shit, the engine isn't turning over" moments that left me wondering if I was actually going to make it home) and I'd made an appointment to get it looked at. Two days and $1400us later the electrical system was fixed, the battery was replaced, the rear brakes were redone, and the transmission cleaned out. Ouch.

Since returning from Kentucky I've had precious little time to sit and rest, let alone relax. Days at work have been long and busy, evenings full of things to do, chores to accomplish, calls to make, e-mails to send, and few hours in which to sleep.

I probably mentioned a few weeks ago that Project Byzantium was invited to present at F/OSScon in Philadelphia. So, we drove up the night before, checked into our hotel and reworked our presentation slides a bit in the hotel bar (which we shared with a soccer team that had flown to the States, a somewhat random encounter I must admit). We wrapped up the edits around midnight and headed upstairs to catch a few hours of sleep. The next morning Haxwithaxe, Sitwon, and I had on our schedule breakfast with HipGnosis and his partner, colleagues-in-arms from the Philadelphia Zero State PoP. We eventually met up at Honey's Sit and Eat, a small diner-type place a couple of blocks away from both F/OSScon and our hotel; I say 'eventually' because the wait for a table of five was between thirty and forty minutes because the diner was packed. Let me tell you, the wait was more than worth it. Practically everything at Honey's is stop shelf, incredibly fresh, and just like the Platonic Mom used to make. If you find yourself in Philadelphia, budget some extra time to go to Honey's for breakfast, you won't be sorry.

We didn't get to see a lot of stuff at F/OSScon while we were there. This was partially due to there not being much going on there that was related to Project Byzantium. This was also partially due to the fact that we were the HacDC representatives at F/OSScon and were behind our table for most of the day doing representative-type stuff, like handing out flyers and Byzantium CDs and talking about HacDC's other projects. We weren't as diversely equipped as we were at, say, the Science and Engineering Festival but we also weren't the only hackerspace there, Hive 76 had a workshop not too far away from our table and just down the hall from the Ubuntu Linux folks. Just after lunch we did a hands-on workshop at which we walked a classroom full of people through the process of booting and configuring Byzantium Linux to set up a mesh network at F/OSScon. I'm happy to report that we got roughly a 50% success rate on a bunch of laptops that we've never seen before; we've also got some new bug tickets that we're going to be addressing this weekend at the development sprint. Later that day was our presentation at the conference; it was pretty much the same presentation that we gave at HOPE a few weeks ago, only to a smaller audience. Afterward we gave away a couple of dozen disks and recieved an invitation to attend Security B-Sides Delaware in a couple of weeks, which we submitted a paper to last night.

After packing up at the end of F/OSScon the five of us set forth for the Prohibition Taproom a few blocks away to get dinner and figure out what to do next. As it turns out, HipGnosis, Christy, and I run in some of the same circles and know some of the same people, so we have rather a lot in common. It was worth the drive to Philadelphia just to hang out with them. The return trip was remarkably uneventful, and we returned to DC shortly before midnight local time.

The next night Lyssa, Laurelindel, and I drove downtown to attend a teleplay of a stage production of Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch (best known for playing the titular role in Sherlock by the BBC) as Victor and Jonny Lee Miller (who seems to have been in rather a lot of television series lately (including a USian take on Sherlock which a lot of people think is going to suck) but many of you no doubt remember him from Trainspotting and, of course, Hackers) as the Creature. This was something of a big to-do in the UK last year and we're just now getting to see it in the States (they were actually showing a recording of it on the big screen, we didn't get to see it live though it would have been awesome to do so). Interestingly, Cumberbatch and Miller switched roles with every performance; we had tickets for only one of the two showings that weekend. They showed a short documentary/news piece on the production prior to the play, and in it the actors discussed how they approached the role of the Creature. Miller's performance was inspired in part by observing people who'd had strokes or other head injuries recover, as well as watching his baby daughter learn how to move and interact with the world. You have to admit, when considering a character that was pieced together out of human parts in varying states of disrepair and violently brought to life chances are things aren't going to work right.

All I can say is this: Wow.

If you ever - and I mean EVER - have a chance to watch a recording of this production, do it. Sit down and watch it all the way through. Buy tickets if you have to. Both actors were superb in their roles, the adaptation was both gripping and faithful to the original story, and once it began it simply did not stop. The story told is most definitely the Creature's, though some of Victor's side of the story is also told. Interestingly, the Creature comes across as more human than Victor did in the story (which I suppose is the hallmark of a good retelling of Frankenstein). So, once again, if you have an opportunity to see this, do it.

And now for the bit that still has my head spinning...

As you might have heard (no sarcasm implied, news outlets are running hot or cold on this matter), two months ago Julian Assange of Wikileaks escaped in the dead of night from house arrest and was taken in by the Ecuadorian embassy, where he's been hiding out for the last two months. He formally applied to the government of Ecuador for political asylum. On Saturday afternoon it was announced that his request for political asylum had been granted. Almost immediately all hell broke loose. Both the United States (PDF mirror of article) and the United Kingdom (PDF mirror of article) went on the record as stating that they do not recognize political asylum.

I'm certain that this came to the surprise of Chinese human rights activist Chen Guang Chen, who holed up in the US embassy in Beijing, China after escaping from extrajudicial detention (sound familiar?) Chen only left the US embassy when Chinese officials began threatening his family. I'll bet the dozen Olympic athletes who requested political asylum from the UK government after sneaking out of the Olympic village are looking over their shoulders now, even moreso because four of them have been granted asylum! Somebody should also notify the webmaster of this helpful site for travelers and get them to replace it with the text "GO AWAY!" While I dislike linking to Wikipedia on matters like this, I think the lists of sources for these articles will be highly revealing to you as well, gentle reader. That also attempts to retcon all of this history.

Even more frightening is that two days prior to this dramatic announcement UK diplomatic police showed up on the front doorstep of the Ecuadorian embassy. Richard Patino, Foreign Minister of Ecuador went on the record as saying that they had recieved a written threat from the UK government stating that they were going to raid the embassy if they did not hand Assange over. This would be in direct contravention of Article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which is the international manual for how dipomatic missions operate. This is Article 22, the relevant passage from the Vienna Convention:

1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
2. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.
3. The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.

That would have constituted an international incident. Just in case that sounds like something that a state dinner and some face time on CNN would fix, just remember that wars have been started over less. Lest this sound like hyperbole Craig Murray, former ambassador for the United Kingdom confirmed that the UK was thinking about raiding the embassy, and that the US government was pressuring them to do so (PDF mirror of article). As for the news articles that stated that there was no way Assange could be granted political asylum, I'm sorry to inform you that they are incorrect. The official announcement from the Ecuadorian government (PDF mirror) outlines sixteen reasons for why they are well within their ability to do so.

So, why does this concern us? We're not Julian Assange. Most of us barely register on Google let alone the radar of world superpowers.

The reason this concerns us is because it is proof positive that the powers that be are no longer playing by any rules. It is a basic assumption that we can know, roughly, how things are going to play out. Get caught stealing or killing, get brought up on charges, get a jury trial, probably do jail time. Speak out about how things are going or what's going on, some number of people will hear you, some will pay attention, but usually nothing will actually happen to you. Nobody will come after you. By and large you can reasonably expect to not be hauled out of bed in the middle of the night by men in tactical armor who make you vanish without a trace. This is no longer the case. If They decide that they want you, they're going to get you and they'll do anything in their power to do it, and they don't seem to care about the possible repercussions anymore. Whether or not they realize it (or more likely, whether or not they care), their words have shattered the trust many placed in them. I'd be surprised if much of the global community of people who've requested and been granted political asylum for their work, their beliefs, and their attempts to change the world over the years are now wondering whether or not the words of the US and UK governments were empty, and whether or not they could be thrown under the bus just so one or both of those countries can get their hands on the one person they can't get any other way. Were I such a person who was living under political asylum, I'd be wondering if the people I had run from would take that as their cue to come after me simply because the accepted rules no longer applied.

I know I should somehow bring the arrest of Garry Kasparov by Moscow police (local copy) at the sentencing of Pussy Riot in Russia into this as another example, but frankly my wrists aren't up to the task right now. Suffice it to say that even a political career can't save you anymore.