Freedom Theatre founder killed

Horrible: one of the founders of Palestine’s Freedom Theatre has been killed in Jenin, in the West Bank.

Juliano Mer Khamis, an Israeli of Arab and Jewish parentage, was shot dead by masked gunmen in Jenin. (NOTE: before you make an assumption, this almost certainly was nothing to do with Israel, and indeed a member of Hamas has apparently been arrested).

The Freedom Theatre is a great initiative, building peace through creative expression (and, crucially, giving young people something to pour energy into that isn’t the intifada). When Cal and I visited Palestine in 2004 we visited the Al Rowwad Theatre Society in Aida camp, which was affiliated with the Freedom Theatre. It was a very humble environment, but everyone we met was committed to using performance and creativity as building blocks to a greater peace. As a result of that visit I’ve been on the main Freedom Theatre mailing list for years, and in January got their announcement of their new show, an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Needless to say, this is a terrible event. From this distance I don’t expect to ever know or understand how it came to happen. It is clear however that the path to peace, difficult enough already, has just been made more challenging.

Mother Jones has a good article, covering Khamis’ acting and filmmaking as well.

On reptiles and taking action

Stephen Judd has commented a few times here in reference to his decision to get involved in an NZ political party. His experiences have been interesting and extremely encouraging. This may not be as much the case internationally, but in NZ at least access to political decisionmaking is there for the taking.

Now he has blogged about it, and there’s a lengthy digression involving secret lizardpeople.

Go read.

How to raise $60,000 for ChCh

After the quake in Christchurch, I started thinking about what I could do to help. I think most New Zealanders thought along the same lines. One of the first things I thought of was the OneBookShelf fundraiser bundles that had worked so well for Haiti and Pakistan.

It works like this. The tabletop role-playing game community, due to a range of factors, some years ago developed a marketplace where people pay for copies of books in PDF form. (The whole e-book revolution going on in traditional publishing? The TTRPG crowd have been there, done that and bought the ironic t-shirt.)

Due to another set of factors, the marketplace is heavily concentrated around one vendor, OneBookShelf, which has two linked storefronts, DriveThruRPG and RPGNow. This isn’t a huge commercial sphere – tabletop roleplaying is a hobby long past its cultural prominence. A side effect of this is that the RPG community does feel like a community – in some sense it is small and knowable.

Now all of those conditions mean that when the Haiti disaster arrived, the OneBookShelf team could launch a very effective fundraiser. Publishers donated books to a special bundle. About $1300 retail value of electronic books was sold as a charity bundle for just $20. The sale ran for about a week and raised $175,000 for Haiti.

It was an incredible success, and a lesson in how a marketplace of electronic products can make everyone win. The publishers got to help with a charity effort and got samples of their product into the hands of many, many people who might never have seen them otherwise. The purchasers got the genuine satisfaction of helping and also walked away with a huge stack of cool stuff. And the people of Haiti got a whole lot of money they would not have otherwise got. (I blogged about the Haiti effort a year ago, and talked a bit about what it means for electronic marketplaces.)

Walking down the Terrace I decided that it was time to check in with the NZ-linked RPG publishers I knew to see if they were keen in following the logic of the bundle to raise funds, either on our own or as part of a formal OneBookShelf bundle. I also decided to contact Gareth at Adamant, publisher of much RPG stuff with my name on, to ask for his support.

The Kiwis & expat Kiwis & Scottish honorary Kiwis were keen, with at least one of them already thinking along the same lines. Gareth, likewise, told me he was already investigating the possibility. Apart from my email conversations I saw someone online suggest a bundle fundraiser. So the idea was out there. Gregor Hutton contacted Matt McElroy at OneBookShelf, and Matt was totally on board – I don’t know, he might well have already had things in motion, but either way the bundle was launched. Publishers were invited to contribute and soon a bundle of ~$300 worth of cool stuff went on sale for $20. (A $5 donation option was also made available.) Every cent was destined for the Red Cross NZ appeal, chosen by Matt based on suggestion from me.

The sale just ended. US$46,125 was raised. That’s over $60,000 NZ. I’m astonished and delighted.

I had a role in making this fundraising happen, but just a small one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally taking credit for the part I played! But the vast bulk of thanks must go to Matt and team at OneBookShelf for developing this fundraising model out of nothing a year ago – I think it’s an incredibly innovative approach, one that deserves a huge amount of attention from people working in the charity sphere. And of course huge thanks are due to the publishers who contributed to the bundle, and all the people who blogged and tweeted and above all purchased it.

It’s been an emotional week. The success of this bundle gives me cause to smile.

Not least because, man, there are some cool games in that bundle, and I hope a lot of people play the heck out of ’em.

RPG bundle for Christchurch

Nearly $350 of RPG stuff for $20

All proceeds to earthquake relief in Christchurch.

Helping get this up and running has been a significant preoccupation in the last couple days. I’ve written before about similar efforts to help Pakistan & Haiti. The Christchurch quake isn’t on the massive scale of those disasters, but it has hit our small country pretty damn hard.

If you’re into tabletop games, drop US$20 on this bundle. You will be rewarded with some incredibly cool bits of gaming genius, and you’ll be directly donating to a good cause. Everybody wins.

Thanks to all those who purchase, all those who contributed products, and all those who helped make it happen.

Wikileaks: Infowar

It feels like a long time since I posted about Wikileaks five days ago. Things have gotten pretty serious, pretty fast.

It’s a complex business, and unsurprisingly, the main media channels aren’t keeping up. That’s part of the point, actually – d3vo commented to me in email that what’s driving the Wikileaks furore is the failure of the media over the last two decades. I think it’s undeniable that he’s right. Wikileaks has the power it does because the fourth estate has become part of the power apparatus; it is the culmination of the idea that distributed communications technology itself forms a fifth estate to keep the other four in check. Dylan Horrocks wrote a powerful open letter to journalists imploring them to step up and cover this effectively – definitely worth a read.

From my perspective, the main line of the story is the U.S-led assault against Wikileaks. It is many-pronged and conducted through back-door pressure or through outright illegality. Assange and his team have been preparing for this for a while and are fully prepared to exploit the internet to make a laughing stock of these shutdown attempts. But still, the scope of the attacks is shocking.

Greenwald gives a good overview. In just a few days, private companies and banks have withdrawn Wikileaks’ DNS record, site and file hosting, and bank and payment accounts. All of these have cited breaches of “terms of use”, while giving other clients a pass for the same sins. All are the result of backroom pressure, whether imposed from without or conducted voluntarily in solidarity with the wishes of power.

As Greenwald points out: Wikileaks has broken no laws. It has done nothing illegal.

More: sex charges against the face of Wikileaks. Charlie Stross goes over the evidence and makes it seem like these are trumped-up, to say the least; certainly the fact that charges were levelled, then withdrawn, then levelled again is cause for doubt. [EDIT: subsequent post about this]

And of course prominent political voices in the US openly using the word “assassination” in respect of Assange, or alluding that way with phrases like “any means necessary”.

This is a taste of a new kind of war – an information war, conducted on two fronts: within the global infrastructure, and within the court of public opinion. There will be more of these. (Some might predict that we’re heading towards a state of perpetual infowar. Lets hope not.)

This war is happening RIGHT NOW. It will have huge consequences not just for Wikileaks but for every organization that speaks up against power. Right now, the USA and other govts are training themselves to control information dissent. These lessons will not be forgotten. The next organization to make itself a target is unlikely to have the resources or wide support of Wikileaks – and it will be hard-pressed to survive this kind of assault.

Here’s another aspect of that infowar: the botnet. Wikileaks was hit hard by a botnet, which is a global network of infected “zombie” computers. Ordinary home computers with a virus are secretly using their internet connections and computing time to serve the goals of the botnet; mom-and-pop at home just wonder why their computer runs a bit slow sometimes. Usually botnets just send spam, but this one has been trying to destroy Wikileaks by overloading it. In the linked article it says this botnet wasn’t particularly large, but the possibility is certainly there that it was deployed by a state actor, perhaps even the US itself, to shut down Wikileaks.

Think about that for a second. There is a distinct possibility that right now your mum’s computer has been secretly weaponized by the United States of America.

(No, seriously. Here’s a 2008 article in the Air Force Journal saying that the USA should invest in a botnet. This response to that article says that if intelligence agencies don’t have botnets already, they really should. Google will reveal many more such discussions.)

If you’re only gonna read one thing about Wikileaks and related issues, then, make it this piece by Clay Shirky. Here’s the bit that both Dylan H and I identified as the money quote:

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want

What’s going on with this matters. It matters far more than the latest juicy revelations in the diplomatic cables – those are, and always were, a sideshow. Really at stake is the landscape for international information freedom.

So, even more than usual, don’t accept the mainstream media framing of the Wikileaks story. There’s more going on, and there’s far too much at stake.

Wikileaks: No thoughts

Jon wondered why I hadn’t commented on the new Wikileaks “cablegate” affair. A fair question, especially given the last Wikileaks thing turned this blog into a genuine internet sensation (for about 3 seconds) (and not due to any editorial effort on my part, I literally just cut and pasted from their twitter feed, go figure).

Answer is: I don’t know what to make of it. This is clearly a more complex action than previous Wikileaks releases. My instinctive feeling is that this is a good thing as a one-off targeted at a country that rationalises itself as a global policeman, but in general this is a dangerous precedent. Diplomacy needs to function out of public view, and losing that assurance of discretion is certain to have a limiting effect on positive as well as negative efforts.

But I find it hard to feel bad about this if it puts the UK govt’s handling of Iraq in the pooh. My fury over that whole affair remains undimmed, seven years on.

So ultimately – I don’t know what to say. I’ll wait to see how things shake out. Assange is clearly a tosser, and yes he may be a sex criminal too but that doesn’t mean he’s not doing good work.

Jon’s own post on the matter is well worth a read – a good summary I think.

Making Light do some good coverage of the issues, particularly the response of the US media.

Glenn Greenwald has been getting a lot of attention for this firebreathing attack on the US media coverage of Wikileaks and what it says about the state of the fourth estate in the USA.

But the most interesting thing I’ve read yet is this article that looks at Assange/Wikileaks’ motives. Short version: Assange’s stated view is that authoritarianism must inevitably rely on a conspiratorial approach. The contradictions between authoritarianism and conspiracy provide a vulnerability that can be exploited by wikileaks. So the point of the cablegate affair is not the cables themselves, but the response they force in the US government.

All these articles give me some interesting starting points but I don’t feel I’m anywhere near understanding the depth of what this affair means. Too complex, too soon, too something. I dunno. Opinions & interpretations welcome.

The Left, slain by Bilbo

Aftermath of The Hobbit affair continues to rumble through the blogs and real-world conversations. In an almost ridiculous turn of fate, the disagreements over this film have split a seam in “the Left” in NZ, with much heat (and occasionally, light) in evidence. Right-oriented commentators are rubbing their hands with glee, or at the very least, rolling their eyes. (For the Left does love to schism, does it not?)

I’m going to characterize the dispute like this (beware of my own self-serving narrative). Those who subscribe to a more class-focused view of the left argue that the Actors Equity action deserved support, even if it was wrongheaded, because public dispute only plays into the hands of the boss classes. Those who do not acknowledge the primacy of class see opposition to Actors Equity as entirely justified by an analysis of the consequences. In general, both sides see the concessions and changes extracted by the movie studio as opportunism, but they tend to locate responsibility with the other side.

There’s more to it, but that’ll do as a starting point. And to nail my colours to the mast (and clarify my own bias), I’m firmly in the second chunk, seeing opposition to Actor’s Equity as entirely appropriate. In my view, NZ Actor’s Equity launched a mistargeted, over-reaching action without gaining a mandate from its members, without linking with other workers, without communicating effectively, and without understanding the consequences of this action.

So I’ve found it strange and depressing to read impassioned and ferocious pieces by writers I both like and respect (and, of course, many I don’t) attacking those holding my perspective, especially because we both agree on some fundamental values – the need to protect workers from exploitation, for example.

I’m not going to try and unpick all that here. Lew at Kiwipolitico I think comes more or less from the same perspective as me, and has been doing a great job of digging through the rhetoric for sense. Instead, I want to talk about the bigger picture, the frame in which these conversations are taking place.

Essentially, my point of dissent from the class-based analysis is that I am no longer convinced by the appropriateness of their metaphors. Starting with class itself – class is a metaphor, a symbolic way of talking about a large set of individuals who share certain circumstances to a greater or lesser degree. It doesn’t exist in isolation, but draws on a whole set of contingencies: capitalism of a particular kind, industry of a certain nature, normative social rules derived from these. When you talk about class, the word brings along a great deal of additional baggage.

I’m far from convinced the class metaphor makes sense in the 21st century western context of NZ. Many on the class-analysis left are disgusted that Labour Day, our day of celebrating worker’s rights and the successes of collective resistance to exploitation, saw protests nationwide supporting a multinational company’s will over that of Kiwi workers. But surely Occam’s Razor points away from this as evidence of a mass betrayal of the labour movement, or a lack of understanding of worker’s rights; surely the simplest and best explanation is that the metaphor of class no longer applies?

Consider the position of the independent contractor. Some on the class-analysis left see an employment relation as the only acceptable one, thanks to the hard-won rights to fair conditions and protections for employees in this country. I hope that most sensible analyses will see that an independent contractor relationship has a role to play as well, providing a freedom to engage that can suit both parties beautifully. The challenge, then, is where the distinction between the two is unclear and a worker under independent contract is treated poorly while deprived of the benefits and safety of employment.

None of this fits easily within the class metaphor. The vast majority of independent contractors seem to be quite happy with their status, or even feel quite privileged, all without any cost to employees. Empirical evidence makes it clear that these two separate models of worker-boss relations can run in parallel in a society quite happily. Yet the furore over The Hobbit dispute positioned independent contractors as the useful idiots, if not the outright enemy, of the workers. Isn’t this analysis ridiculous just on its face?

Consider the nature of industry and capital. The class metaphor, and all the worker-boss relationships embedded within it, evisages a certain kind of industry – archetypally, the factory worker, with a large investment in plant and every incentive to exploit workers to generate more widgets more cheaply. Yet many things have changed. The globalisation of capital is well-known; capital flight happens when those factories get moved overseas, and it has been a threat levied against striking workers for decades. And yet that isn’t enough to make sense of the hyper-mobile short-term project that is a major Hollywood production. A better metaphor, and an appropriate one given the film, is that the project is like a dragon. It is huge, and wealthy, and incredibly selfish; and also temperamental, and even the spillage from its hoard is worth a fortune. If it decides it doesn’t like the conditions wherever it sits, it can easily leap up, and fly across to a different, more favorable land. The industry of making movies is very like coaxing a dragon to stay, and the question is how much you offer it before the wealth it will give stops being worthwhile. You don’t want to go so far as sacrificing your local virgins in tribute (because the dragon’ll take that if it gets offered), but you need to offer something juicy or the dragon won’t even land in the first place. Big-movie industry is about supplicating dragons. How does this metaphor fit within the class metaphor and all the baggage it contains? Short answer: it doesn’t. The dragon flies away.

Consider the notion of critical support that has been turning up in a lot of the class-analysis left discussions. One huge source of fury in this argument is that many voices on the left criticized the actors union for their actions, without embedding that criticism in support for their goals; many writers shorthand it to something like “criticism in private, solidarity in public”. But how can this approach survive in an environment where the difference between public and private conversations is massively eroded, and where engagement with ideas is a massive free-for-all? Of course people are going to criticise every aspect of a union action, including its goal; of course support is going to be withheld if the action doesn’t hold up. To do otherwise would be to abandon one’s own ability to think critically. How can a class metaphor account for a massive multiplicity of semi-public voices, except by excluding all those that do not come to the same conclusions as itself? How is that a strategy for any kind of success?

I’m in no way stepping away from the left here. I believe that a social analysis that starts with worker-boss relations contains profound truths that call to action. However, I also believe that received knowledge has accreted around these truths as a barrier, in some cases obscuring or distorting them.

And I write this lengthy ramble not as a cogent argument – it would take me much more time and energy than I wish to spend to interrogate all of this. Rather, this is an expression of unease with the whole foundation of the current disagreement. It seems to me that the heart of the matter is sitting unexamined and unexpressed. So I hope this points at least in the direction of that heart, despite whatever flaws and misrepresentations can be found in the paragraphs above. (No doubt there are plenty.)

The film-as-dragon metaphor, though – I’m quite pleased with that one.

Pakistan Relief RPG bundle

US$700+ worth of RPG stuff, for $25

In a successor to February’s bundle for Haiti, this is a fundraiser for Pakistan flood relief.

Includes ICONS which has my name on it, friend-of-FTM Malc’s Hot War, and heaps of other goodies (Starblazer Adventures! Fear Itself! Wild Talents 2E! Contenders! Dragon Warriors! Exalted 2E! Covenant! Don’t Rest Your Head!)

Simply incredible amount of game creativity for a tiny price – and all for a worthy cause. What’s not to love?

Check it out here

This is Kaibosh

My friends George and Robyn have been hard at work the last few years on starting a charity. I think it’s pretty amazing. They are behind Kaibosh, and what they do is collect surplus food from retailers (so it doesn’t get chucked into landfill) and deliver it to charities working with people who could do with a bonus meal.

That’s pretty much the whole deal – there is leftover food at place A, and hungry peeps at place B, so they make the connection. Simple premise, but (as always) a complex mission in the real world.

George sez:

We wrangled a few friends to become members of our board of trustees and have spent the last 18-months trying to raise funding to increase the scale of our efforts. Our main support has come from Wellington City Council and the Lotteries Commission. With their help we’ve leased an office on Holland Street and hired a part-time Operations Manager. We’re now able to step up our operations (to date we only pick up food from Simply Paris and Wishbone) and hopefully expand our volunteer base (currently sits at six non-trustees).

That is how you walk the walk in this world. I give this whole enterprise one mighty double-rainbow-all-the-way thumbs up. Kaibosh is having a launch party at their HQ tonight at 6pm – come along if you’re in W-town, and eat some of the food, which is of course donated from local businesses.

Kaibosh website
Kaibosh on Facebook

Emissions Trading Begins

The NZ emissions trading scheme launches in NZ today. It’s a market-based mechanism putting a price on carbon emissions as a means of holding back climate change, or more correctly, a step towards full-cost accounting in the environmental arena.

It’s a good thing. The ETS is riddled with holes and problems, according to sources I trust (e.g. this book co-authored by the very smart economist and all-around good egg Geoff Bertram), but fundamentally I’m pleased that we’ve managed to get a price of some kind on at least some of the carbon emissions generated out of NZ. There has been a fair bit of shouting about the ETS, including a protest at Parliament and lots of letters to the editor, but my impression is that these objections didn’t run deep – the public perception is in support of an ETS (c.f. Now We Have Won).

The Key government has delivered something worthwhile here, for all their many flaws. Yes, it is a full six months after the deadline Key set for imposition of the ETS, but it’s still 2010 – not too late to get changes rolling. So Key, in the end, wasn’t a Rodney – well, not as much of one as I feared. I suspect Nick Smith deserves some kudos for this, because you can be certain he was talked to about backing down from the ETS plenty of times but he has withstood this pressure. Well done that man.

The international effects of this will not be small, either. We are another country putting our markets where our mouths are, and even if we’re not nearly at the level the science calls for, we’re part of a growing consensus that action is needed and needed now. Our ETS will influence our trade partner nations and others besides. It’s a worthy and important position in which to be.

It’s important to note, however, that this isn’t the end of the story, but rather the long-delayed beginning. As Bertram & co’s book notes, our ETS needs to be improved, made more fair and comprehensive and convincing. Ordinary households are going to feel the bite at the petrol pump and the power bill, with corporations relatively insulated from the new costs – that needs to change. Popular support for the ETS needs to continue at the current level despite the extra costs starting to pinch. Indeed, popular support for the ETS needs to grow. It’s a massive communications challenge and one the current government will think twice about working on, especially if it starts to hurt their electability. Once again, the responsibility falls at the feet of ordinary people like me and you to think about the scheme, judge the costs worthwhile, and spread that message around.

Anyway. It’s a good day. I’m happy.