Thursday, July 31, 2008

Upcoming/Ongoing Travel

I'm perched next to a wall outlet charging my phone and using paid WiFi in Dulles international airport (Washington, DC). Tomorrow I'm speaking at RubyNation; next weekend I'm rocking out at Ruby Hoedown; weekend after that is eRubycon; and the minute I get back it's all about Burning Man.

All of this is about Archaeopteryx, except at eRubycon, where I'm doing a version of my code generation talk enhanced with a very practical enterprise use case. (Gasp! He said enterprise! It's true, Giles Fucking Bowkett isn't afraid of bad words.)

As if all this travel wasn't enough, I also just got back from driving all the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back, presenting at the Bay Area Computer Music Technology User Group, which was awesome, because there's a lot of excellent work in this field coming from guys who know more than me - open source Linux-based 64-/256-unit speaker controllers, Dutch computer music arts institutes, gorgeous Make-style interactive gadgetry - and some of them are going to be with me at Burning Man. Not just up at the event with me and 40,000 other people, in a coincidental way, but literally right up there with the same group I'm camping with, contributing magical musical widgets to the same project.

By the way, the Ruby Hoedown's organized by one of my new co-workers, Jeremy McAnally, and it's going to be awesome. Still a few tickets left, but not necessarily for long, hint hint hint.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Internet Fame: The Voyeuristic Ouroboros

What does it mean to be Internet famous?

David Heinemeier Hansson is Internet famous, and he uses it pretty sparingly. He uses it to draw contributors to his project, customers to his company, and - too infrequently - converts to his point of view. He achieved net-fame with the excellent marketing and excellent programming that powered the exponential Rails adoption curve. Once the ball got rolling with Rails, he stopped drawing attention to himself.

Paul Graham is Internet famous, and it ruined his writing. A few years ago he was the best programmer writing about programming. Today, he's lost the plot. Don't get me wrong - Y Combinator is a very cool thing. Paul Graham does great work. I know people with Y Combinator startups and I envy them. But if you were only interested in Paul Graham as a writer, you could say that his Internet fame ruined him.

He's got a Reddit-style forum/community news-filter site, and his net-fame guaranteed that site a community from the get-go. Participating in his site, he stays tuned into its zeitgeist. But that zeitgeist is actively harmful. Sites of that nature suffer a flaw inherent to their design which inevitably degrades their quality, and makes the zeitgeist dull and groupthinky. Reading uninteresting things for years and years doesn't prepare you well to write interesting things, and Paul Graham's once-mighty essays have collapsed into ramblings.

Masuimi Max is Internet famous, and charges people money to send her e-mail.

Tila Tequila turned net-fame via Myspace into magazine covers and a reality show.

Julia Allison did the same thing. Julia Allison is a lifecaster who uploads so much of her own life that some inspired Valleywag tattle-tale called her a voyeuristic ouroboros. She's famous for being famous, and she became famous for being famous by blogging about being a blogger.

Julia Allison's Wired cover aggravated some people, but it sold me - it's one of the only copies of Wired I've bought in years, and the only copy I've been glad about buying since 1997. I think Wired deteriorated into Discover meets BusinessWeek a long time ago, but in its glory days, Wired put sci-fi novelists on the front cover and even ran short stories like Omni.

This Wired cover story gets back to the old-school, bringing up a really strange and interesting part of the Internet that has strong cyberpunk roots. William Gibson wrote about famous characters existing for their own sake in Idoru. Greg Bear put a lifecaster in Slant. I think Gibson had a lifecaster in Mona Lisa Overdrive, too, but I don't have it with me and I can't find any verification; I know I read some kind of sci-fi with a lifecaster in it long before I ever worked in technology.

On the other hand, back in the day, Wired, bOINGbOING, Mondo and Fringeware all operated on the assumption that the growth of the Internet meant the death of celebrity culture. In the years since the Internet became mainstream, however, celebrities have obsessed America, and indeed the world, not less but more. The Internet is the best thing that ever happened for celebrities.

In retrospect it makes sense. The more direct contact you have with people in other places, the more common points of reference you need. Say you're developing open-source software with a dude in New Zealand who's telling you about his sister being an idiot. He can tell you she's a typical blonde idiot, but that's not very specific. Is she a Britney Spears idiot or a Paris Hilton idiot? Both these women owe a lot of their fame and fortune to the fact that people worldwide need sophisticated ways to differentiate between subtle shades of idiot.

A lot of people like to hammer the idea that celebrities are gods, and certainly, when Britney Spears backs up traffic, paralyzes my daily commute, and magically summons helicopters just by visiting a courtroom, it's possible to see her as some strange, demented goddess, just because of the tremendous power her whims and moods can exert over strangers. She gets sad and the traffic changes. But I think it's much more realistic to see celebrities as words. Their fame gives us common reference points all over the world. I might not see my cousins in Canada very often, but if I tell them the woman I'm dating is basically Elaine from Seinfeld and my boss is basically Beck, the signal/noise ratio is incredible. That's a very detailed picture of my life from a relatively small number of words.

Just for the mental exercise, flip it around. Imagine telling somebody you're dating Beck and your boss is Elaine from Seinfeld. Same characters, but you've just described an infinitely different life in a very small number of terms which anyone in the English-speaking world can understand.

Or, somebody asks you what your roommate's like, and you tell them he and his girlfriend act like Scully and Mulder.

(Because you know Fox Mulder's roommates got weirded out in college. "Dude, why is the sofa bleeding?" "Let me tell you my theory.")

If celebrities enable high-resolution conversation, micro-celebrities constitute words in domain-specific languages. The difference between DHH and Paul Graham matters to programmers, but it doesn't matter to anybody else (except maybe venture capitalists). Programmers need multiple programmer-celebrities for the same reason Eskimos allegedly have so many words for snow. There's a reason public awareness of specific celebrities fragments across groups the same way the use of words does.

There's two things going on when we talk about Internet fame - there are people who become famous only within their tribe, like Paul Graham and DHH, and there are people who become famous in the usual sense, but it starts on the Internet, sometimes without doing anything noteworthy. Soulja Boy and the Arctic Monkeys leveraged Internet fame to achieve conventional fame while actually doing something - in each case making music - but Tila Tequila and Julia Allison skipped the doing something and jumped straight to the fame. That makes them Paris Hiltons - not in the idiot sense of the word, but the paparazzi sense.

Lots of people want fame. This is why Julia Allison crashes TechCrunch parties and dated Kevin Rose. The Internet is a major engine driving fame today. Fame-seekers want to learn more about it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Me Looking Glamorous

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Images: S3 Down

If you're looking at this site and wondering where the hell the images are, they're on Amazon S3, and it's down.

Friday, July 18, 2008

William Gibson Is Back

Old news to some, no doubt, but this is Neuromancer good.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Funky Cold Medina

"Guantanamo Bay Is A Concentration Camp"

Said by the great Vanessa Redgrave, who I'm very proud to say is my very distant cousin.

Weird YouTube Trend: Dog Humping

People are making videos where their friends get humped by dogs.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

FCC Explains Obscenity Laws

Monday, July 14, 2008

Power Beyond All Reason: JavaScript & Ruby

Douglas Crockford says one of the neat things about JavaScript functions is that, being objects, they can have methods.

Ruby can do that too.


If you want to know why conscious political rap never sells the way gangsta rap does, consider that organized crime killed JFK and got away with it - and everybody in the world knows they did it.

Violent, organized groups of ethnically-similar criminals - criminal tribes, to be anthropological, or Mafias, to be colloquial - trump state governments every time.

To quote Sun Tzu, a tiger at the gates keeps a herd of deer at bay.

Humanity tried to create a system to replace inter-tribal warfare but ended up creating a system which only mitigates and contextualizes it.

Nearly all human societies today have given up the personal pursuit of justice in favor of impersonal systems operated by state governments—at least, on paper. Without state government, war between local groups is chronic; co√∂peration between local groups on projects bringing benefits to everyone—such as large-scale irrigation systems, free rights of travel, and long-distance trade—becomes much more difficult; and even the frequency of murder within a local group is higher. It’s true, of course, that twentieth-century state societies, having developed potent technologies of mass killing, have broken all historical records for violent deaths. But this is because they enjoy the advantage of having by far the largest populations of potential victims in human history; the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.

Daniel seemed to recognize this when he concluded that, despite his former passionate waging of war against Ombals, the Western state system of adjudicating disputes is preferable. Why, then, didn’t New Guineans give up a way of life that obviously made their lives miserable? A striking feature of New Guinea’s history is that New Guineans traditionally practiced unchecked violence against each other, yet they offered only limited resistance to the imposition of state government and the ending of that violence by European colonial powers. That wasn’t just because Europeans had guns and New Guineans didn’t; the number of armed Europeans involved in “pacification” was often absurdly few. Daniel’s view points to another reason: as more New Guineans were exposed to the benefits of state-administered justice, they saw that they were better off living without the constant fear of being killed, though, of course, no tribe could ever have followed that course of peaceful dispute adjudication unilaterally.

Criminal gangs are not the only "civilized" context where tribal behavior re-emerges.

The fact that psychedelic electronic music collectives in 2003 call themselves "tribes," then, is unsurprising. But it is something of a misnomer. Certain sects of the goth, punk rock, folk, and jam band subcultures all label themselves "tribes," as do niche groups of mountain bikers, rock climbers, Harley riders, and sports fans. These factors combined with the widespread popularity of branding, tribal tattoos and piercings, and the corporate co-opting of neo-primitivism and tribalism as a marketing trope for everything from soft-shell tacos to footwear has substantially diluted the meaning of the word.

"I think of things like the disco underground in New York in the '70s, or the various post-rave subcultures, as being like postmodern ethnicities, elective tribes," says Simon Reynolds, author of Generation Ecstasy and one of the world's foremost authorities on electronic music culture. "In other words, with real tribes you're born into them and [their] worldview is the total horizon of reality for you, whereas with elective tribes you choose to join them and it's a role you step into and then step out of when you go back to your normal work or family life."

Every "tribe" has its style of car.

What are programmer language wars but fights between tribes?

Who are your former co-workers, when they tell you, "we all work at Company X now, you should join us"?

What do social networking features do but enable ever-more-specific elective tribes?

Most smart sites encourage tribal self-government, empowering tribal elders and only interfering when they must.

This is the future of government.

Web Distraction Blocking: Temporary Extremism

This is a scorched-earth solution on a level with uninstalling Warcraft (my probable next move).

I'll probably remove this blocker later on.

Update: for some reason you have to name explicitly.

Glow Festival Santa Monica

I'm at RubyFringe next weekend, but if you're in Los Angeles instead, check this out.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Personal Journals Stay Personal; Discovered MP3

Milan Kundera wrote a book where a woman who'd escaped the Iron Curtain snuck back into the Soviet Empire to re-acquire some love letters she had left behind. She gets help from an American lover who refuses to believe the truth; finally, to secure his help, she tells him she was lying all along and makes up a spy story for him instead. But he gets in trouble with the law, spills the "beans" to the KGB, and she gets imprisoned and tortured.

I'm going to Canada soon, and BoingBoing's made me very paranoid about the post-Bush US "government" stealing my laptop. I recently travelled to and from Scotland and England with no problems, but to be safe, just now I made sure that there were no love letters or embarassing personal journals stored on my laptop. It took at least an hour, because I'm not that organized.

And during that process, I uncovered an amazing 12-minute mp3 about proof that the CIA is smuggling cocaine in 2008. There's something very Kundera-ish here. I had downloaded this and forgotten about it; in seeking to keep my personal stuff personal, I came across this controversial political thing which I wouldn't have wanted the border authorities to find, freedom being unprotected in the US today.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Hacker News: Paul Graham Backlash

It's not big but it's happening. The reason is Hacker News itself. He used to command great respect among hackers at large, but his writing's gone downhill since he started Hacker News.

That shouldn't be a surprise at all. The paradigm Hacker News follows turns every site that uses it into a groupthink factory, until there's so much groupthink nothing else can breathe. That's death for good writing. If your interest in speaking or discovering the truth is a serious one, you need to avoid stupid fucking bullshit for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers.

My advice: skip Hacker News, and skip the groupthink. Graham's newer stuff is fuzzy and time-wastey, but Hackers And Painters remains brilliant and essential. His Lisp books are good as well, and one of them's free.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Commodity Teledildonics Is Now Possible

BoingBoing Gadgets uncovers a vibrator attachment for the Wiimote.

A certain substratum of the geek subculture started salivating over the prospect of teledildonics in the late 80s or early 90s. I first learned of it through the zines that predated Wired in its first year - Fringeware Review, Mondo 2000, and the original (superior) bOINGbOING.

Side note: It dates back originally to the obscure but influential 1975 classic Computer Lib/Dream Machines. I found this out on Wikipedia, but I actually have a copy of this remarkable book.

Anyway, if you were one of that small but very remarkable group of people frustrated that the only bridge between cybersex and real sex up until today was a robot, now you can be all happy or whatever. The Wiimote is Bluetooth-controllable, which means it's now trivially easy for any reasonably competent hacker to control a vibrator via IM, SMS, or indeed the Web.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Throwaway Code Should Be Fun

Rails question: can I define a class inside a controller, and then use it in a view?

Turns out I can.

I know some people who are like, oooh, that's unprofessional, but there's actually a huge advantage here. You're not going to look at code like that and go, hmm, is that an important part of the application? If it ever gets accidentally included in a commit, somebody will notice quickly and fix it.

Plenty of projects have code accidentally committed for a long time before somebody spots the flaws. That won't happen here; the code sticks out like a sore thumb.

It's a lot better to look foolish than be foolish.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Spider Robots Roundup



burning man:

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Yurt With A Brain

The other night I did an interview for Mike Moore's Rubiverse podcast.

Unbeknownst to Mike, I was chowing down just before on some wickedly spicy bona fide New Mexico mole verde. I have some friends who complain about getting served gringo spicy instead of real spicy. Get yourself Chicano landlords and a houseguest from Santa Fe who knows some of the same people you do - the New Mexico professional music scene is tiny - and you won't have that problem. This mole verde was nowhere near gringo spicy.

There's really only two liquids that tame spiciness, one of which is milk and the other is alcohol. I didn't have any milk but I had some sweet and easy sangria that turned out to be a lot stronger than I realized. (I'm hoping when Mike releases the podcast that it won't be too obvious.) Either inspired by the sangria or just through the natural course of events, I got on a roll and started talking about some new ideas I might work on if I ever get Archaeopteryx finished - and if Archaeopteryx ever seems too normal a project for me.

The first of these ideas is the artificial-intelligence-enabled yurt. This idea can scale to full houses, but I want to start with a yurt. There's only one reason I can come up with: because I can. Fortunately, I've always felt that's one of the best reasons to do anything.

The first benefit of the AI yurt is that it is a cheap platform. You can pick up a nice little yurt for $5000 - that's a few months' rent in LA, NY, or SF. My parents have land in New Mexico where I can set up my yurt, and they also have a guest room, which will be useful if I fuck up my yurt. This makes the yurt not just a cheap platform, but a cheap platform I can freely experiment with. The more open your platform is to experimentation, the greater the chance you'll come up with some truly creative ideas.

And if it works, you get a nice home away from home in the mountains - something anyone can appreciate.

Obviously, if you're setting out to build a yurt with a brain, and you've already got the yurt, the next step is the brain. There's really only a few things you need for this step.

Peter Norvig AI/Lisp book(s)
Judea Pearl Bayes nets book(s)
Clark Glymour Bayes nets book(s)
Mac Mini
lots of spare time

Bayesian networks give you the ability to mathematically infer probabilistic relationships, including 100%-probability probabilistic relationships, which a non-Bayesian would identify as cause-effect relationships. (Chris Anderson recently generated a ton of hoopla for Wired by inaccurately describing this centuries-old idea as Google's bold discovery.) This means, for instance, that if you have a Bayesian network observing a clock, and observing the on and off switches for every light in a house, it can infer that every time you turn on the bedroom light after 3am, you turn on the bathroom light soon after, and based on that inference simply decide to turn the bathroom light on for you.

But that's kind of cheating, because it's not just the brain - you also need a central nervous system. You need to link the light switches to the brain. This means you need programmatic control over your light switches, and a user interface that routes all light switch activation through the brain's pathways of perception. As long as you have programmatic control over the light switches, though, building a user interface is easy; just run it as a Web app over WiFi and use an iPhone or iPod Touch as a universal remote. Similarly, implementing Bayesian networks is much easier than most people think. Once you get the programmatic control, everything is easy.

So it all revolves around establishing programmatic control over the lights in your yurt. There are a couple ways to do this.

I know one smart programmer who built a central nervous system for his home entertainment gear. Where most Americans have a gazillion remotes in their TV room, he has just one. Instead of buying a universal remote, he uses an IR remote mapper and an RF remote. The Handy Switch (As Seen On TV!) puts what looks like an IR base station between your outlets and the appliances they power. Control that with an IR mapper, link up the IR mapper to your yurt's brain, and boom! You're done.

Alternatively, boom! Your yurt's on fire. This information is provided for entertainment and self-aggrandizement purposes only. You are an adult. If you set your yurt on fire, it's your fault for listening to me in the first place. Do not try these experiments without alternative shelter options close at hand.

Another alternative: X10. Still another: USB relay boards. I honestly don't understand how it works but I've seen it in Make magazine and it looked cool. Again, you gate your AC power outlets and control the gate with your computer. As long as you have programmatic access to USB, you're good to go.

Taking Pictures Is Against The Cops

Check out this video.

There's a very strong trend on BoingBoing of stories where cops or rent-a-cops shut down photographers in public places despite the fact that in every case there is no law against photography in public places.

Meanwhile, cops in Philadelphia harassed privacy activists to an extent which appears very illegal, after the activists circulated a petition against law enforcement cameras; cops in England use crime prevention cameras to get closeups of your girlfriend's breasts; AT&T breaks the law wiretapping innocent people and gets away with it, even joking about it in public with no shame; and cops in England, the most surveilled country on earth, have seen no improvement in crime prevention from their cameras, because over-surveillance makes it harder to fight crime, since it destroys your signal-to-noise ratio.

To recap, cops are consistently harassing photographers incorrectly, and in some cases illegally, while undertaking extremely pervasive surveillance which is consistently ineffectual and often also illegal.

The moral of this story is that reading BoingBoing can make you paranoid. But the bigger question is: Why? Incompetent legislation governing new technology is nothing new, but why are cops and wannabe cops consistently telling people that legal things are illegal? Why are lawmakers condoning illegal surveillance? Why are cops and lawmakers consistently spending money on cameras which bring them no results?

I think the answer is that taking pictures is not against the law, but it is against the cops. Consider the Rodney King trial, which only happened after a citizen journalist got amateur video to a professional distribution system, i.e., the evening news. A huge crowd of cops stood by while a beating occurred; only the four cops who did the beating were prosecuted, and all received less punishment than popular opinion desired.

When the justice system endorsed the violence these police committed - violence which did not appear justifiable or legal at all in the citizen journalist's video - this news resulted in riots. Los Angeles was burning for days.

The Los Angeles riots were terrible; innocent people were badly hurt. You could say that cops take away cameras because they don't want that to happen again. So far so good. But this whole thing happened because cops badly hurt an innocent man, and then got away with it, all in plain view of the entire world. It would be pretty cool if the rise of citizen journalism resulted in an end to cops badly hurting innocent people, but most authorities are working to ensure it means an end to putting things in plain view of the entire world.

A cynic would say that cops won't take away cameras if they're planning to do something they're proud of. It's widely known that TV coverage of dead bodies in Vietnam helped end that terrible war.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations ranging from al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may question the accounts by al-Jazeera, they should pay attention to the accounts of reporters such as the BBC's Kate Adie. In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the Associated Press in Iraq had staff members seized by the US military and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations were unable to see the evidence against their staffers.

[Hitler's propaganda specialist] Joseph Goebbels pioneered the 'embedding' of reporters with military troops as a way to support favorable coverage; William Shirer was embedded with German troops in the invasion of France and Nazi filmmaker Leni von Riefenstahl was embedded with German troops in Poland.

Cops want to be the only ones with cameras for the same reason they're the only ones with guns. But it's not going to happen. Cameras don't shoot bullets, and genies don't go back in bottles.

Check out this video. I found it on BoingBoing one morning, and in the hour between finding it and blogging it, it was removed from MetaCafe. The BoingBoing window was still open, so I was able to video-capture it. It explains how to thwart camera identification with cheap electronics.

No doubt MetaCafe took it down because of its antiauthoritarian implications, but if you doubt such a technology could have uses that are legal, honest, and even righteous, think again. You might want to wear a pair of these yourself if you ever protest the war in Iraq. Police have taken to photographing and identifying activists at entirely legal political protests - and using that information as intimidation - even though the activists break no laws.

Feb 11, 2004 | The undercover cop introduced herself to the activists from the Colorado Coalition Against the War in Iraq as Chris Hoffman, but her real name was Chris Hurley. Last March, she arrived at a nonviolence training session in Denver, along with another undercover officer, Brad Wanchisen, whom she introduced as her boyfriend. The session, held at the Escuela Tlatelolco, a Denver private school, was organized to prepare activists for a sit-in at the Buckley Air National Guard Base the next day, March 15. Hurley said she wanted to participate. She said she was willing to get arrested for the cause of peace. In fact, she did get arrested. She was just never charged. The activists she protested with wouldn't find out why for months.

Chris Hurley was just one of many cops all over the country who went undercover to spy on antiwar protesters last year. Nonviolent antiwar groups in Fresno, Calif., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Albuquerque, N.M., have all been infiltrated or surveilled by undercover police officers. Shortly after the Buckley protest, the Boulder group was infiltrated a second time, by another pair of police posing as an activist couple.

Meanwhile, protesters arrested at antiwar demonstrations in New York last spring were extensively questioned about their political associations, and their answers were entered into databases. And last week, a federal prosecutor in Des Moines, Iowa, obtained a subpoena demanding that Drake University turn over records from an antiwar conference called "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!" that the school's chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a civil libertarian legal group, hosted on Nov. 15 of last year, the day before a protest at the Iowa National Guard headquarters. Among the information the government sought was the names of the leaders of the Drake University Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, its records dating back to January of 2002, and the names of everyone who attended the "Stop the Occupation!" conference. Four antiwar activists also received subpoenas in the investigation.

On Tuesday, after a national outcry, the U.S. Attorney's Office canceled the subpoenas. Still, says Bruce Nestor, a former president of the National Lawyers Guild who is serving as the Drake chapter's attorney, "We're concerned that some type of investigation is ongoing."

The role of ubiquitous cameras is an important topic. It might seem appropriate for a debate. It depends whether you believe debate exists to clarify the obvious or to explore a question worth thinking about - because the reality is, although this is an important topic, it's not an important question, because it's not a question at all. Universal surveillance is fundamentally ineffectual. It just doesn't work. It will never produce any useful result, for entirely technical reasons. It is an authoritarian fantasy.

The problem with authoritarian fantasies, of course, is that authorities frequently indulge in them. Consider the War on Drugs. The authorities' delusion is that drugs are all dangerous and have no value; the authoritarian fantasy is that drugs can be banned. The War on Drugs hasn't ended drug use. Instead it's amped up the intensity of drug smuggling. I read a fascinating book by a hippie who used to smuggle marijuana into the States in the 60s. It was cute; they hid their drugs under blankets and got through the border by smiling and lying. It was Han Solo, all charming rascal style.

Drug smuggling in 2008 is not cute or charming. Drug smugglers in 2008 build their own submarines. I'm not even fucking kidding. I know it's insane, but in a world where George Bush still holds the Oval Office after losing two elections in a row, and the United States decided to follow up Vietnam with Iraq, it doesn't have to be sane to be true.

Check this out. Colombian drug-runners and their submarines:

Henao's cartel built on this and other prior technology initiatives, in part by creating what amounts to a narco research and development program. One early fruit of that effort, intelligence officials say, was an advanced version of a cheap boat called a semisubmersible. Shaped like the Civil War-era Monitor, the small craft cruises below the waterline, except for a conning tower where one of its two-man crew pilots the boat. The vessel has underwater propulsion, radar, and short-band radio towers. And it's virtually invisible to even the most sophisticated spy gear. "You basically need a visual sighting to detect one, because you're not going to pick them up in a radar sweep," says Hensley, the former U.S. Customs enforcement chief.

Semisubmersibles, however, are unstable, and narcotics officials think the cartels have lost several at sea -- one reason that the traffickers upgraded to submarines. According to the head of the Colombian navy, Adm. Mauricio Soto, the North Valley Cartel and other organizations have used real subs for years. Authorities believe that the Cali Cartel purchased a Soviet sub in the early '90s, and that its crew accidentally sank it off Colombia's Pacific coast during its first smuggling run, probably because they lacked the 10 skilled people needed to operate it.

More recently, the cartels have built their own subs, with help, Soto suspects, from Italian engineers who stayed in Colombia after overseeing the construction of the navy's own fleet of commando submarines two decades ago. Henao, for instance, is believed by military and intelligence officials to have a small fleet of mini-subs - used for, among other things, hauling dope to those toxic waste freighters. So far, Colombian authorities have found only two drug subs, both of which were under construction. The most recent one, discovered 21 months ago outside Bogot√°, was a 78-foot craft that cost an estimated $10 million. Intelligence sources say it belonged to Henao's North Valley Cartel. A Colombian official says Henao wanted a vessel that could carry several more tons than the Buenaventura mini-subs and travel as far as 2,000 miles - say, to the coast of Mexico or Southern California.

Authoritarianism is dangerous not just because it is immoral but also because it is ineffective. When governments worldwide asserted inappropriate and intrusive control over their citizens' individual neurochemistries, they artificially constrained the supply of recreational drugs, without affecting demand, which pushed prices through the roof. If the United States government was serious about free trade, and allowed their citizens to practice it, murderous Colombian mafiosos would not own their own submarines. Demand would meet supply somewhere sane and rational, and we wouldn't have to deal with violent, dangerous cartels buying mansions and weaponry with profits from artificially inflated prices.

Something similar happened in England. Once gun crime was unheard of in England; a weird thing that only happened in the US. Gun crime happens in England much more today than it did ten or twenty years ago. The reason: the ban on Ecstasy.

Ecstasy became incredibly popular in England in the late 80s and early 90s, the time of the fall of the Soviet empire, during which time a great number of Eastern European mafias expanded into Western Europe, using former Soviet chemical labs to manufacture Ecstasy and developing extensive smuggling networks to bring it into the West. Problem is, eventually Ecstasy became unfashionable, that lame thing those old people used to do when they were our age.

So you have these gigantic smuggling networks and these mafiosos very accustomed to living well on the profits of these smuggling networks, and suddenly the volume of trade in the smuggling network drops by half, so the profits disappear. What do the mafiosos do? They don't give up their life of crime and get a job at Taco Bell. They look for a way to fill in the gap, some other product with similar profit margins, which they can also obtain from the wreckage of the Soviet empire. In a word, guns.

When governments do inappropriate things, lots of people suffer. Ban Ecstasy and you've got a gun problem. Ban cocaine and the coke dealers get submarines. But the inverse is true as well. Just as authoritarian moves consistently produce counter-productive results, because authoritarianism doesn't work, authoritarian programs consistently pursue unattainable objectives, because authoritarianism doesn't work. When you've dedicated time and money to achieving an impossible goal with an unworkable method, you're not going to be deterred by the fact that the individual steps to achieve the goal are all impossible too.

And this answers the second half of our question. We know why cops feel threatened by cameras - for some crazy reason, a few of them are still beating unarmed, innocent people in the streets in the middle of the night, doing their own personal historical re-enactments of the worst moments of the 1960s. Once in a while they get caught, they suffer some inconsequential "punishment," and Los Angeles catches fire. They want to prevent that from happening, but they don't want to give up their late-night psychotic episodes. That part makes sense, or at least, that part has a logic we can observe. But why do they want surveillance everywhere, when their own analysis shows that it doesn't actually work?

There's only one reason that makes any sense: because they don't know any better. They're so ignorant about technology that they wouldn't recognize a needle/haystack problem if it bit them on the ass - which, under the circumstances, it seems very likely this particular needle/haystack problem will sooner or later do. The problem is, when it bites them on the ass, it'll probably bite us on the ass too. Plenty of innocent people got killed or badly hurt in the LA riots. And plenty of rappers warned us it would happen, years ahead of time.

Today computers go everywhere. Anything you do, you do with computers. Governments do not understand computers. This means we are fast approaching an event horizon where soon governments will literally not understand a single thing they do. Programmers need to find a way to spread technical literacy, because an illiterate government is a dangerous thing.

Or maybe programmers should be glad governments are illiterate. Think how much more trouble they would cause if they knew what they were doing.

All these surveillance-happy would-be tyrants, camera-hating rent-a-cops, drug-banning puritans, underwater drug-lords, and oil-thieving war criminals should be in jails or insane asylums. But who would put them in jail? It all goes back to Juvenal's question, who will watch the watchmen?

The answer, of course, is we will; that cameras are an essential part of free speech, and anonymity is an essential part of free speech as well.

The Supreme Court validated, affirmed, and protected anonymity's importance to preserving a free society 50 years ago. Cameras should receive the same explicit protection.

By definition, anyone who watches the watchmen - anyone who keeps the cops honest - is against the cops and on the side of the law. Remember, they're not the law - they just enforce it, sometimes, and break it, sometimes.

The law has a long history, while cops are a recent invention. It's possible that in the distant future, cops may have no place in our society. That may sound crazy, but cops didn't exist in the United States until 1838. Photography first emerged around the same time.

From a technical perspective, what is the problem you need to solve if you wish to enable universal surveillance? You have information-gathering machines - cameras and microphones. You have a centralized information aggregator - an intelligence agency or surveillance organization. Does that sound familiar? It should. It's the Encyclopedia Britannica - and citizen journalism is Wikipedia. It's widely known that Wikipedia is slightly more accurate than Britannica, and covers many, many more subjects. That's because decentralized information gathering works better than centralized information gathering.

Universal surveillance is an information-gathering problem well beyond the capacity of any centralized system. It is an encyclopedia with many, many subjects. Purely in terms of what we know about efficiency and social software, it's impossible to have everybody under surveillance unless you also have everybody performing surveillance.

Does anyone doubt that Encyclopedia Britannica will shut down before Wikipedia?

Like everybody else fighting against new technologies, cops and lawmakers are struggling to preserve an ancient monopoly they no longer have any way to maintain.

From a short-term perspective, we are witnessing an assault on individual freedom. But from a long-term perspective, we are witnessing the fiery dying spasms of a mighty dragon.

Good riddance.