April 25th, 2012 | guest informant

Dr Debbie Chachra is a materials scientist: an engineering professor at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering (Deb’s bio at Olin), and a prolific writer.  She also produces one of my favourite tumblrs, Daily Idioms.   Basically, I learn something every time Deb writes anything.  So I asked her to write to you about whatever was on her mind, and she said this:


Plasticity has its grand tradition and main stream, which happens to flow by way of du Pont and their famous employee Carothers, known as The Great Synthesist. His classic study of large molecules spanned the decade of the twenties and brought us directly to nylon, which not only is a delight to the fetishist and a convenience to the armed insurgent, but was also, at the time and well within the System, an announcement of Plasticity’s central canon: that chemists were no longer to be at the mercy of Nature. They could decide now what properties they wanted a molecule to have, and then go ahead and build it.
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

I’m a materials scientist by training, and that means that I spend a lot of time thinking about the stuff that makes up our physical environment. How plate glass is an unappreciated marvel, manufactured by floating infinite ribbons of optically-clear glass on canals of molten tin. Or how aluminium went from being a gift for kings to being, literally, disposable with the advent of large-scale electricity generation.

And one of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is peak plastic.

The use of oil for fuel is dominant, and there’s a reason for that. Oil is remarkable—not only does it have an insanely high energy density (energy stored per unit mass), but it also allows for a high energy flux. In about 90 seconds, I can fill the tank of my car—and that’s enough energy to move it at highway speeds for five hours—but my phone, which uses a tiny fraction of the energy, needs to be charged overnight. So we’ll need to replace what oil can do alone in two different ways: new sources of renewable energy, and also better batteries to store it in. And there’s no Moore’s Law for batteries. Getting something that’s even close to the energy density and flux of oil will require new materials chemistry, and researchers are working hard to create better batteries. But this combination of energy density and flux is valuable enough that we’ll likely still extract every drop of oil that we can, to use as fuel.

But if we’re running out of oil, that also means that we’re running out of plastic. Compared to fuel and agriculture, plastic is small potatoes. Even though plastics are made on a massive industrial scale, they still account for less than 10% of the world’s oil consumption. So recycling plastic saves plastic and reduces its impact on the environment, but it certainly isn’t going to save us from the end of oil. Peak oil means peak plastic. And that means that much of the physical world around us will have to change.

Plastic is more than just water bottles and Tupperware. If you’re indoors, look around. There’s a good bet that much of what’s in your field of view is made of plastic. Paint. Carpeting. Upholstery. The finish on a wood floor. Veneer on furniture. And that’s before you go into your kitchen, or bathroom, and never mind a subway car or a hospital (disposable, sterile medical supplies, anyone?). Plastic is so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible.

In the last century or so, chemists and chemical engineers have done as Pynchon described, and developed thousands of plastics for use in tens of thousands of applications, if not more. That means that we’ll need to find replacements for these oil-based plastics for every one of those uses, probably from previously unconsidered renewable sources. It’ll be a different world.

There’ll likely still be applications that really need petroplastic, so landfills will become goldmines. The characteristic drawback of plastic, its stubborn resistance to degradation (‘this plastic bag will still be around in ten thousand years!’) will become a virtue, as it sits unchanged in anaerobic landfills waiting for us to decide that it’s worth excavating and recycling. And one day we’ll do just that–there’ll come a point when the easy, albeit expensive, way to get a particular combination of properties (formability, degradation resistance, sterilisability) will be to dig up post-consumer plastics and reuse them.

And one day in the future, cool, slick petroplastics will become a repository of warm nostalgia. I like to imagine the Brooklyn-hipsters-of-the-future, on their rooftops, using vodka and bitter almond oil to make artisanal polyethylene.

Thanks to Clive, Tim, Tim, and Jamais for listening to my cocktail-fueled pedantry, and for their insight and feedback.

Thanks, Debbie, for taking the time to do this for me.  You can find her on twitter as @debcha.


April 20th, 2012 | guest informant

Or, perhaps, ex-Anonymous. This is an old contact of mine, who, for obvious reasons, would prefer to remain an anonymous Anonymous. I’m not making any claims that this person is speaking for Anonymous, and neither is the person.  My respect for Anonymous is on record.  This is one individual’s statement about their role in the Anonymous campaign against Scientology. I found it a fascinating and somewhat unsettling read. I hope you find it interesting too.

Colonel Gadaffi: my part in his downfall or how Anonymous pwned the media

Well, no, that’s incredibly misleading and although Anonymous did play a part in facilitating secure communication and Internet access for all of the rebel groups across the Arab Spring, I’m not going to even try to suggest I was involved in the Libyan uprising in any significant or meaningful way at all. It’s just that there’s a copy of Spike Milligan’s excellent war diaries ‘Adolf Hitler – my part in his downfall’ in the pile of books that are all that’s holding up the other piles of books next to it, next to me. Unlike me, Spike Milligan actually was drafted and sent around the world to fight and in my opinion, his diaries tell far more about the Second World War and how it affected the ordinary people involved than anything else written. His war diaries are both hilarious and tragic and as tales from the front line, they’re a vital piece of history.

Now, what I’m going to talk about isn’t really a tale from the front line, as there wasn’t one. Spike, in his foxhole, getting shelled, trying to stave off terror by finding a way to brew up some tea whilst drawing naked ladies on his copy of the standing orders would doubtless have been extremely envious at that way I could get involved from the comforts of home, or my workplace, or out on the streets of London or the idyllic countryside around East Grinstead, even if that bit did involve hiding up trees in the rain, trying not to laugh as serious looking security heavies beat the bushes below and didn’t think to look up. Despite the relative tameness of this tale in comparison to virtually any and all war stories, Spike Milligan’s books are an inspiration in terms of getting down some of the stories of events you (the generic, Royal ‘you’, that is) were involved in, so here’s the tale of how I played a part in changing the way Anonymous interacted with the media, and the ways in which it did make a difference to a couple of individuals, even if the international impact is much, much harder to assess.

First, well, not first, maybe, as we’re three paragraphs in already, but at this stage, I’d like to add a disclaimer. It’s to save time really. Although a few people who know me may be able to put two and two together and work out who I am from things included here, if you’re either involved in law enforcement or the Church of Scientology, I wouldn’t bother. I’m not involved in protests anymore and I’ve not done anything illegal. I’ve not been involved in hacking or DDOSing websites at any point. I don’t have any information on other people who have been involved in this that I’m going to mention. I don’t even know the real names of the people I was working with back in 2008/9, except for the few whose names are public anyway. Long before his penis got him into trouble and back when he was just some guy in Australia, I did exchange emails with Julian Assange on a couple of occasions to discuss potential future help with media issues affecting Wikileaks, but nothing came of it, and I had no involvement there at all. I keep half an eye on how things are going with Anonymous, Lulzsec and AntiSec, but was completely out of the scene before the latter two operations started.



April 16th, 2012 | guest informant

I’ve spoken about Laurie Penny here so many times before that I’m not sure she needs an introduction.  British firebrand journalist working in newspapers, books and television.  Currently, I believe, a regular reporter for The Independent after a long session at The New Stateman.  I wrote the foreword for her most recent book, PENNY RED: Notes From The New Age Of Dissent.  She’s in America right now, covering the dissent movement and election politics (and writing a book, and acting as a contributing editor to The New Inquiry, and several other things).  When I asked her to write you about whatever was in her head today, she said this:

A little over a year ago, before Occupy Wall Street began but well after the first wave of student riots had made political resistance more than a storybook fantasy in Britain, I found myself at a gathering of activists and anarchists. The occasion was the opening of a free university in an empty pub in central London, and journalists were strictly forbidden in the space. I had been let in on the condition that I hand in all my recording equipment before I was allowed to drink, which is a cruel thing to do to anyone who writes for a living.

Nonetheless, just after midnight, a man with dreadlocks who I had never met before in my life started jabbing a less than entirely sober finger in my face, calling me scum, asking how I dared to speak on behalf of others, and attempting to assault me gently with a rusty bicycle. I was moved by the idiosyncracy of this attack, but far more perturbed by the fact that five or six comrades, people I had stood beside as police horses charged into lines of protesters in Parliament square, people I would have trusted if not with my life, then at least with my dignity – they turned away, and they pretended not to see.

I was bewildered, and heartbroken. More than any other print journalist working in the mainstream media in Britain at that point, I understood what these people were trying to do. I was the same age, I had read the same books, I went to the same meetings, I declined to name names when to do so might have endangered activists, I stepped outside my job description to report faithfully on protests and incidents of police violence that the rest of the press ignored. None of this, by the way required any special cookies for effort -  but I thought it might at least be enough to prevent me getting thrown out of a party by drunk hippies.

I thought wrong. The abrupt realisation that solidarity is not extended to members of the mainstream press was less upsetting than the realisation there are entirely good reasons for this. Some members of the collective who tossed me out of the pub had already had their names and personal histories dragged messily through the tabloids, and when I was informed that AJAB – all journalists are bastards – I was hardly in a position to plead for nuance.

I thought I got into journalism to tell truths and right wrongs and occasionally get into parties I wouldn’t normally be cool enough to go to. Right now though, with a few exceptions, professional journalism is rarely seen as an exercise in holding power to account. Justly or unjustly, the media, especially but not exclusively the mainstream, corporate-controlled press, has come to be seen as the enemy of the voiceless rather than their champion. Justly or unjustly, few people believe what they read in the papers or watch on the news anymore, because belief has long ceased to be quite as important as complicity when it comes to the Daily Mail, the Daily Post or News International. On the streets of Athens and Madrid as well as during the London riots of August 2011, journalists have been threatened and attacked by desperate young people making havoc in the streets. Why? Not because these young people don’t want to be seen, but because they don’t want to be seen through the half-closed eyes of privilege.

Journalists are losing any case we ever had for special pleading. For the younger generation of digital natives, there is no particular reason to be deferential towards anyone who happens to be at a protest with a phone that can get the internet and an audience of thousands: it’ll be you and a hundred others, and unless the police have given you special privileges to write precisely what they want and nothing else, your press pass is less and less likely to keep you safe from arrest.  As more and more ordinary men, women and children without degrees in journalism acquire the skills and technology to broadcast text and video, the media has become another cultural territory which is gradually being re-occupied. Those on the ground do not have to wait for the BBC and MSNBC to turn up with cameras: they make the news and the reporters follow. They have grown up in a world of branding and they know how to create a craze and set the agenda. They occupy the media. And the media is starting to worry.

Let’s not be naive, though: the professional press still has power, and lots of it. If it didn’t, activists wouldn’t be frantically writing press releases in one occupation and beating up Newsnight cameramen in another. The success or failure of any political action outside the ballot box depends on the participation of the press, and that’s a source of resentment as well as suspicion. Most journalists are employed to produce stories that will sell. If we write for tabloids, we are encouraged to feign a species of objectivity that often includes giving equal weight to the voices of the one percent of the population who believe that all billionaires were sent by Adam Smith to save the free world from socialism and should be rewarded with fruit baskets, tax exemptions and the comeliest of our firstborn children. The best I can do is what I always do: write what I see and believe to be true, and be prepared to take the consequences on either side.

The relationship between activism, journalism and truth-telling has always been complicated. If you do it honestly, you can expect to be attacked by almost everybody, since fearless political writing cannot co-exist with orthodoxy of any sort. George Orwell, caller of bullshit on left and right par excellence, made few friends in his day, and a passage from his essay The Prevention of Literature (1946) is worth quoting at length:

Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his (sic) integrity finds himself (sic) thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution. The sort of things that are working against him are the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books, making it necessary for nearly every writer to earn part of his living by hackwork, the encroachment of official bodies like the M.O.I. and the British Council, which help the writer to keep alive but also waste his time and dictate his opinions, and the continuous war atmosphere of the past ten years, whose distorting effects no one has been able to escape. Everything in our age conspires to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed down from above and never telling what seems to him the whole of the truth.

Reading this seventy years later, it seems a wonder that fearless journalism has survived, that reports and commentary are not produced, as Orwell imagined in ’1984′ entirely by machine. Perhaps, though, it is not such a wonder. Human beings have a refreshing tendency to pursue truth and excellence in the face of staggering hurdles – and for every professional hack who resigns him or herself to a living as a greased gear in the corporate press factory, there is another for whom the challenge of carving out a space for honest, rigorous reportage and inspiring, imaginative wordcraft is a reason to get up and put the coffee on of a morning.

Not that it isn’t a bloody pain sometimes. Anyone can write, but to write well and often and for pay can be a hard and lonely job, because to do it honestly requires, at least at the beginning, a certain amount of boring self-analysis whereby professional and existential crisis feed exhaustingly off one another. To be an honest political writer or journalist today is constantly to negotiate and re-negotiate the complicated relationship between conviction and orthodoxy, between critical reportage and activism-as-journalism.

That relationship never been more fraught than it is now, because the line between activism and media production has become smudged to the point of irrelevance. Anyone with a camera-phone that does the internet can report from a protest; anyone with a blog can write commentary about mortgage foreclosure and financial feudalism. But there’s a line in the sand, and you cross it when you start making most of your living writing about politics. Because once you  have decided that you will always tell the truth you see in front of you, no matter what your bosses say, you have to decide what’s more important: your career or your conscience.

It is extremely hard to get into journalism. Even before the recession and the jerky transition to online publishing made new staff reporter jobs harder to get than an NYPD press pass, J-schools were consistently churning out several times as many talented, energetic, hopelessly indebted young people than there were salaried positions at even the smallest papers. So many people want to make a living writing that we are encouraged to accept tiny salaries and terrible working conditions, and breaking into the industry often involves years of underpaid or unpaid interning – closing off the most prestigious jobs to all but a wealthy few. We are expected to be grateful for any opportunities we are thrown, and encouraged to see ourselves as future members of a social elite rather than workers with a living to make and a job to do. In the United States, where healthcare coverage is contingent on salaried employment, it’s even harder to make a living as a freelance writer, and so more young people are under pressure to self-censor, to produce copy and footage that their bosses think will play to the prejudices of their readership.

You’ll have gathered by now that I hold no truck with the notion of ‘objective’ reporting – the idea that there is any such thing in a world where Fox News and the Daily Mail are considered serious press outlets seems to me too ridiculous to seriously countenance. To my mind the best one can ever do as a writer is be honest about your background and partialities and try to understand how they affect your outlook, to do violence to your own cliches, to practice compassion over caricature.

That’s what I’ve tried to do, whilst learning on the job, where practical skills – how to take quotes properly, how to wriggle around libel laws – count for no more or less than emotional skills, like scoring out a line between propaganda and cowardice that you can walk along in good conscience and then, whatever the insults and death threats and character assassinations thrown at you from either side, continuing to put one goddamned foot in front of the other. The best journalists I know have found a way to walk their own line. But for some of us that postion comes with a cost. My friend Natasha Lennard lost her job as a stringer at the New York times simply for being honest about her political affiliations, and responded bravely by declaring that she had no interest in producing that sort of objective journalism anyway.

So the question is: if all reporting is partial, if the mainstream press is hopelessly undermined by advertising, self-censorship and police complicity, if anyone with a camera phone can create a media sensation, then what is a journalist for? Why is it that in London, in New York, in California, in Egypt and across the world, it is young journalists who have come to be identified, in the absence of named leaders, as figureheads in these new movements? Why not orators, organisers, artists, musicians, singer-songwriters? Why journalists?

Because people are sick of being lied to. Because young people want to be told the truth – that’s why they became part of movements that are, more than anything, about finally speaking truth to power. Because in a world of 24-hour news cycles and instagram, good writing, and good, clear, original thinking, still matter, are still worth something. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself, because I’ve got a good fifty years of rent checks still to make.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know whether what I’m trying to do, and what some of the most audacious, inspiring young people I’ve had the privilege to meet over the past two years are trying to do is worth all that much in the long run. There’s always a chance, isn’t there, that my affection for my friends and colleagues makes the best efforts of our young lives loom larger in the heart than their ultimate significance deserves. Privately, though, I doubt it. I believe in fearless journalism, and I believe that it will continue, and I have seen it change the world in the most daring and intimate ways. I am still inspired by the brave reporters and polemicists who laid the path we run on, I still look to my peers to give me courage, and I still wake up in the night dreaming of the perfect paragraph – the one yet to be written. Some day, I will get old, but I don’t think honest writing ever will.

You can find Laurie in various places, most especially her blog and her twitter, and I want to thank her right here for taking so much time out of her insane writing and publishing schedule to produce the above epic.


April 3rd, 2012 | guest informant

Dr E Paul Zehr, Director of the Centre for Biomedical Research and head of the Rehabilitation Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Victoria, is a professor of kinesiology and neuroscience and also the author of INVENTING IRON MAN: The Possibility Of A Human Machine, for which I wrote the foreword.  I asked him to write to you about whatever was on his mind today, and he said:

Let’s build a better brain

Or should we first see if we can build any kind of brain at all? On the surface it seems like an almost trivial exercise. All you need to do is figure out how the brain functions, then run some computer simulations, use the outcomes of the simulations to create fully detailed models, test and retest the models with machine learning algorithms over many, many iterations, and then make a brain based on the successful outcomes.

So, pretty simple, then? There are some complications that make this idea, to borrow a bit of physics/engineering/mathematics jargon, a “non-trivial” problem. The main thing I want to talk about has to do with scope and size.

The cool thing about most of the body is that you can tell a lot about physiology (how it works) from the anatomy (how it looks). Function comes from form. In your cardiovascular system you’ve got a big muscular pump in the form of the heart that receives and pushes blood all around the body. Taking a good look at the heart along with all the piping coming in and out, allows a reasonable estimate of what it does and how blood flows in the body.

A real human brain contains about 100 billion neurons (the cells of the nervous system). Those 100 billion neurons might have on average ~5000 connections from other neurons making synaptic connections with it. That means about 100 trillion connections. A pretty big number. Far bigger than the estimated number of galaxies in the universe estimated to be between 200 to 500 billion. Overall this is a huge number of connections to model.

This is part of what allows the nervous system to present with a much broader scope. Not because the anatomy is impenetrable or that much more complicated within different areas of the brain. It is certainly complex, but the general features of the connections from those 100 billion neurons form into tracts and bands of connections within the brain that can be reasonably identified (mostly).

The real non-trivial problem comes from the fact that the function—the behaviour—of the brain cannot be directly predicted from anatomy. Enter those 100 trillion connections. The key thing is that the network activity in the brain emerges from the activity of whatever synaptic connections are active at any given time. It is a constantly shifting landscape of network activity.

A simple approximation is to imagine sitting in a boat that is rising and falling on the swells of the Atlantic ocean. Boats are all around you and you can see them rising and falling such that at any given moment you see different boats. Those boats all represent active connections between neurons that are expressed when you can see them and silenced when you cannot. To complete the metaphor, multiply by many trillions.

This is what makes building a brain such a daunting task. It’s not so much building something with brain-like connections, but rather a brain that functions like a real brain.

This is what makes the “Human Brain Project” such an interesting idea. This group is made up of institutions in Germany, the UK, France, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, Austria and Belgium and is one of the finalists for a new EU program to create a “simulation of the human brain – an achievement that promises to revolutionize not only neuroscience, medicine and the social sciences – but also information technology and robotics”.

The focus of this project, clearly named to draw on the cachet of the first biological megaproject in the Human Genome Project, aims to bring together data and databases on brain study, figure out organizational principles and then build models with as much detail as possible.

It’s important to realize that the scope and extent of this project has never been attempted before. That doesn’t mean it will be successful—lots of thing never attempted before fail when somebody tries it out. What it does mean is there’s a reason to be cautiously optimistic that some major new advances in our understanding of how we can understand may be just around the corner.

This brings me to close with one of my favourite neuroscience quotes. The South African zoologist Lyall Watson (1939-2008) wrote: “If the brain were so simple we could easily understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” But we are going to give it our best shot. I look forward with great anticipation to the undiscovered country that will be revealed by this endeavour.

You can find out more about INVENTING IRON MAN at this page.  He is also the author of BECOMING BATMAN, a similar study testing fiction against the sciences of extreme training.


March 26th, 2012 | guest informant

This is the place where I ask my friends, who are all cleverer than I am, to write to you about… well, whatever’s on their minds today.  Today, the aerialist and adult performer Stoya sent this to you from darkest Russia, where, she says, “They serve vodka here at dinner like it’s water. My beaten and pickled liver may be affecting my brain, so I might be completely off my rocker here, but…”


During my years as an adult performer, I’ve spent more time talking to press and interacting with people on the internet than I’ve spent actually having sex. It was, for me, one of the unexpected parts of being a contract star. Most of the porn industry interviews are pretty standard. They want to know what our favorite positions are, how long we’ve been in the business, what turns us on, and who we’d like to work with next.

The interactions with the mainstream press are where it gets interesting. Radio personalities, reporters from newspapers and magazines sold without plastic shielding their covers – they ask more complicated questions. They want to know why we have sex on camera for a living. They want to know how our parents feel, what we think about the effect of our jobs on society’s view of women, whether we believe we’re setting feminism back or moving it forward (the answer is neither). They want to discuss the issues people get worked up about.  They want to talk about condoms vs. testing, the idea that porn molds sexual behavior in a way that reaches beyond the consumers of it and the people they have sex with.

All I ever have for them is an opinion. Usually my opinion is a bit different than the opinion of someone who hasn’t spent time with sex workers. After this opinion has been given the reporter wants to discuss it. Debate it. Play a metaphorical volleyball game where this opinion is tossed back and forth until one side is convinced that the other is speaking truth. I had to fake knowledge of volleyball during the filming of a xxx remake of Top Gun last year. I wasn’t so convincing with the sports, but when it comes to debating the case for a healthy place for porn in sexuality I’ve had a pretty decent success rate.

Perception equals truth. Before the 18th century, people knew that everything revolved around the Earth. Galileo couldn’t argue convincingly enough against the Catholic Church and if you stand outside without the benefit of what we consider basic scientific education it really does look like our planet is the center of everything. One viewpoint might be scientifically wrong, but both beliefs are true to the people who believe them. Galileo went down historically as right because he doggedly presented evidence that corroborated his beliefs on heliocentrism until the day he died.

Sometimes people quote things I said at the beginning of my career and I wonder what I could possibly have been thinking. In retrospect I think some of the statements I’ve made were over simplified or just incorrect, based on bad information and faulty logic. Somewhere out there are people who started out disagreeing with me and ended up agreeing. It doesn’t seem like it matters whether I’m right or wrong. What matters is how convincingly I can defend my position.

In politics, there is actually a campaign tactic referred to as the ‘charm offensive.’ It’s not about whether you’re right or wrong, it’s about how charming, personable, and stubborn you can be when someone sticks a microphone in your face.

Which brings me to something resembling a point: Question… vocally. Question the things I say, question your newspapers, television reporters and favorite blog. Question the things you thought and the things you think now. It’s the only way any of us are going to grow…

…or maybe I’m wrong.


You can find Stoya at her tumblr, and on the twitters at @stoya.  Thanks, Stoya, for being kind enough to do this while on the road (and swimming in vodka).