Pages about slightly deeper thoughts. You know the ones. The meaning of life and all that.

2020-10-24 The Social Dilemma

OK, so I’ve seen “The Social Dilemma”. I felt I needed to watch it because I saw people caring about privacy and civil rights talking about it and saying it would be a good introduction to the problem we’re facing for friends and family – and recently I had friends recommend it to me and my wife, too! What a strange position to find myself in.

I agree with @cidney’s take:

Mixed feelings. I just saw the Social Dilemma last night. I didn’t learn anything new from it (this is old hat to anyone on fedi), but it’s aimed at a popular, nontechnical audience, and critiquing capitalism would have been out of scope and made it more polarizing.

It’s true. At multiple times I wondered: why isn’t anybody saying that the problem is capitalism? When they say the sector needs regulation, in a hand-waving kind of way, I wondered: why aren’t we simply breaking these companies apart? The US broke appart Standard Oil and the US broke appart AT&T. I got that idea from Cory Doctorow’s little booklet, “How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism.”

The idea that “if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product,” suggests the simplistic solution of just charging for everything. But the reality is that in a monopoly, you’re the product irrespective of whether you’re paying.

And more: we could force these companies to pay their taxes. We could force them to implementations the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and then we could make the GDPR better. There are options that don’t require Silicon Valley technology: they require state that isn’t coopted and divided by the big companies.

I got that from @aral who said, “Don’t ask me if I’ve watched The Social Dilemma if you haven’t read The Prodigal Tech Bro.” He was talking about an article by Maria Farrell criticising the fact, that the protagonists of this documentary are the very same people that gave us this shit!

The Prodigal Tech Bro is a similar story, about tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening. They suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found. They are warmly welcomed home to the center of our discourse with invitations to write opeds for major newspapers, for think tank funding, book deals and TED talks. These guys – and yes, they are all guys – are generally thoughtful and well-meaning, and I wish them well. But I question why they seize so much attention and are awarded scarce resources, and why they’re given not just a second chance, but also the mantle of moral and expert authority.

Previously, all I had read was Jonathan Cook’s summary of the situation, recommended to my by @LydiaConwell. Cook makes a good point: the solution to the problem isn’t simply censorship. I’m sure that’s one of the possible solutions to the problem, but I also don’t want to live behind the Chinese firewall with censors and snitches and police everywhere. We had fascism in Europe and it wasn’t pretty. We tried the censorship of books in the past and it wasn’t good, either. The idea that we can simply label what is true and what is not is a tricky one. Some things are easy to dispell, but we need more than that.

… it is easy to know that Flat Earthers are spreading misinformation, it is far harder to be sure what is true and what is false in many others areas of life. Recent history suggests our yardsticks cannot be simply what governments say is true … Technological digital breakthroughs allowed someone like Julian Assange to set up a site, Wikileaks, that offered us a window on the real political world – a window through we could see our leaders behaving more like psychopaths than humanitarians.

That is a good point. The solution is probably going to be multi-pronged: we want there to be more competition, we want the to be more points of view, less of a winner-takes-all system, less automatic bubble-forming, less algorithmic recommendations, and so on. All of these require legal backup. We need to break up the big companies, we need to hold them responsible for algorithms causing harm, and so on. I don’t have a program ready to share, but what I do know is that in The Social Dilemma, when they suggest that they need to do better, I’m thinking: perhaps there are solutions that don’t involve Silicon Valley and software engineers and we should make sure to try those, too.

The problem I see is “solutionism”. If the social media train wreck is a problem that only software engineers can solve, well then that’s perfect: a new market jumps into existence. Companies can write software to fix the problem, can sell the solution, and in the end the same people stay in power, the same market forces continue to pull us appart, and the fiasco is simply delayed.

And so we come to Jonathan Cook’s conclusion, which is spot on, for the long term:

The multiple ways in which we are damaging the planet – destroying forests and natural habitats, pushing species towards extinction, polluting the air and water, melting the ice-caps, generating a climate crisis – have been increasingly evident since our societies turned everything into a commodity that could be bought and sold in the marketplace. … It is an ideological conspiracy, of at least two centuries’ duration, by a tiny and ever more fabulously wealth elite to further enrich themselves and to maintain their power, their dominance, at all costs. … Its name is the ideology that has become a black box, a mental prison, in which we have become incapable of imagining any other way of organising our lives, any other future than the one we are destined for at the moment. That ideology’s name is capitalism.

The question is just: how do we deal with it?

The movie is a good starting point, but I’m going to involve people who watched it following my recommendation in a follow-up discussion! 😀


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2020-10-21 Saving friends and family

I was recently talking with @dredmorbius and @Sandra on Mastodon. It all started with the Sophistical Refutations by Aristotle.

With the pandemic I’ve seen elements of COVID-idiocy in society. Sadly, I’ve also seen elements of it amongst friends and family online. I’m not on Facebook anymore, but my wife is, and sometimes she shows me stuff people are posting, and I’m despairing.

It’s the the typical mix:

  • COVID-19 is just a flu
  • staying at home means giving up your civil rights
  • wearing masks makes you sub-human, a slave

But what’s next? The state is trying to enslave us? The WHO is trying to enslave us? Bill Gates is trying to implant us with a chip? Who is trying to control us: rich people? Bankers? Jews? When does it end? No, the problem is that the right-wing extremists are going to be our friends all the way, encouraging us every step of the way, until we’ll finally join their cause. We start out protesting the wearing of masks because we don’t like it, we’ll continue to protest our enslavement by the state, we’re angy because of the 1% exploiting us, and then we’ll put nazis in power that are going to enslave us, and exploit us, like they did in the 20th century. They haven’t stopped trying and they’ve seen an opening: the pandemic and our dislike of it.

So, how are you fighting this disinformation? My own suspicion can be subsumed under the heading “these people need a friend, not an argument.” It includes the need for time and patience, but also the need to agree and bond on other things, first; to build trust; like student and teacher, like parents and children, moving through life together, at least for a while. In our society, we don’t often have time for it. Our loneliness destabilises us, makes us vulnerable – and unable to help.

I think what we can all agree on is that “more speech” seems unable to counter false news and conspiracies. The trouble is what concrete measures to draw from this. From what I’ve seen in the struggle for friends and family is that we react when it is too late. So now I make side channel emotional appeals: “Noooo, X, why did you share this on Facebook? I watched the clip and it’s not wrong but did you see who else comments on this guy’s messages? Reichsbürger and all sorts of other idiots! Don’t shares this, pleaaaaasse!!” It’s designed to make people laugh, and learn. Another example is to change the topic to something we share in common: “Nice pictures of a walk you’ve shared! Going for a walk is sooo much better than all the anger on Facebook. 🧘 🧘 🧘 Don’t focus on what makes you angry, X. Let’s meet one of these days and go for a walk. See the trees. See the river. See the birds. I’d love to do that.”

Increasingly, I’m starting to think that even this may not be enough. I don’t like making phone calls, but perhaps that’s what I need to do: to be a better friend.

I also suspect that replying to conspiracy posts with an argument is problematic for a different reason: the focus on single issues is a form of “solutionism”. If somebody believes Turkish immigrants are “bildungsfern” (Sarrazin) then I don’t think talking about the details of the situation is going to change their opinion. More information about the immigration, the social strata, the job situation, lack of accreditation of qualifications, language barriers, is not going to help. There is not easy “solution” to disinformation, there is no program to execute. What is required of us is a holistic approach to stronger interpersonal bonds, resilience building, working towards a healthier society.

Comments on 2020-10-21 Saving friends and family

And I’ve fallen into the trap again. Instead of calling somebody, I wrote a long reply, talking about the pandemic being something we all dislike but no amount of wishing is going to make it go away. Instead we must be responsible adults and deal with reality as it presents itself, that is: stay at home if we can, wear masks if we cannot; to let go of the belief that masks are there to enslave us because surgeons aren’t enslaved either; to not like or share such messages on Facebook because the algorithm is going to serve us more of the same, thinking that we like it, trying to maximise our attention; recommending that they watch The Social Dilemma, even if I disagree with the Silicon Valley boys now being asked for the solutions to the mess they have made instead of asking the critics that worked tirelessly in obscurity – and remain obscure because they’re no … Silicon Valley boys! But a good movie is better than no movie, I guess.

Anyway, what I’m trying to tell myself: Alex, pick up a phone every now and then for heaven’s sake and call your friends and family instead of writing a blog post. 😭

– Alex

The idea of reaching out to people and forming friendships to better convince them of something is always a good idea, but I think it’s especially important in the present circumstances. I don’t think most anti-mask people start off thinking Bill Gates is trying to microchip them, but rather that they get there because they keep looking for excuses not to wear a mask or worry about the pandemic. The more reasonable arguments (it interferes with breathing, it’s just an overhyped flu) are also the easiest to disprove, so gradually they shift to more and more ridiculous theories until... I don’t think they’re too far gone or anything like that, but it gets exponentially harder to convince them that they’re being fooled.

But I think the reason people feel that way about this pandemic is because the way we’re supposed to fight it is by staying at home. Washing our hands, wearing masks, and keeping our distance are all easy to do, but it’s the not going out with friends or to your grandkid’s birthday or to in-person classes or work that drains people’s energy. We’re social creatures. In the opening to the Decameron, Bocaccio describes the people who tried to isolate themselves during the Black Death as “[tending] to a very barbarous conclusion”. We know that it’s the best way to fight this, but it’s also the antithesis of one of our deepest desires - to be around other people. So when people can’t find a way to disprove the usefulness of such measures, they try to find a way to disprove the necessity of them at all, but that would require scientists to be lying about the disease being dangerous, which would require a grand conspiracy, which is where we get people thinking that it’s being spread by 5G.

So reaching out isn’t just a better way to convince someone they’re wrong through getting them to listen, it probably also helps by easing the problems that push them to hold such beliefs in the first place. Suddenly the measures being put in place aren’t as scary as they were before, and sober heads can prevail. That, and it’s just a good way to cope with the general anxiety everyone’s feeling now.

Malcolm 2020-10-21 17:50 UTC

Yes, all of that!

I did call the person in question, and we had a long chat about the weather, the job situation, eating in restaurants, wearing masks, the injustice of lock-down measures if the state is unwilling to foot the bill. Even here in Switzerland, some people had a hard time getting their compensation; and it’s much worse in poorer countries. We talked about leftist governments failing to help the people and how disappointing that is, about the iron framework of the European Union, the need for reform, the state of health care in the US, the numbers of new infections in Switzerland and in the US, the upcoming elections in the US, and of a great many other things. It was a good phone call.

– Alex 2020-10-21 19:41 UTC

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2020-09-18 Programming

I just had an interesting conversation with @alpine_thistle and @polyphonic regarding the Raspberry Pi and how it wasn’t as useful as some people claimed it would be. If somebody tells you, “you can do anything with it” – then that simply isn’t true. It’s hard to do anything with it. Sure, you can use it as a small computer. But if you want to do a project, you’ll soon find out that you need a plethora of skills and tools.

To be honest, I used my Raspberrry Pi as a small computer for a bit – as a mail server – and as soon as I knew that I wanted to discontinue the mail server I had no idea what to do with the thing. Something about pins and motors and a mechanical tentacle that can grab stuff was an idea I had. I did not know where to start. It seemed like such a huge problem. In the end, I gave it away. The recipient hasn’t done much with it, either, I think.

I guess that’s why I’m a programmer still: when things get physical, I just don’t have the skill. I blame it on one or two miserable model plane experiences as a kid. Nobody helped me out, it was just taking forever and looking bad, so I decided all of this stuff was not for me. And then when you’re no longer ten, it’s hard to change… that’s been my experience, in any case.

Sometimes I fear it’s the projects-within-projects aspect mentioned above: when programming leaves the computer, the gap is so damn wide that programmers like me never attempt it and non-programmers wonder why the programmed stuff never meets their real world expectations. I think that’s why the Raspberry Pi got popular: at last, here was something where at least a very small number of people could affect the real world! It’s just that for most people, the promise remains unfulfilled.

We also talked about maker culture. What I find annoying is the reinvention of hobbies as ‘making’, with conferences to attend, magazines to buy, a new target audience for ads… the invention of a new market, basically. And all the people knitting, cooking, baking, wood working, gardening are scratching their heads… Are we bread makers, now? Clothes makers? I guess not because where as we have the spirit, the independence, the culture, the tools, the traditions, we simply don’t belong into the target audience for the ads. Which is fine! I don’t want to go to a maker fair, and I won’t be buying a 3D printer anytime soon.

Perhaps I’m simply envious because I think I don’t have the time to expand my life into yet another direction.

I guess I’m with @Sandra when she says:

My life needs focus. So I’ve decided to focus on everything except physical. That’s why I’m an artist writer musician DM programmer designer teacher philosopher psychonaut prophet poet aesthete semiotician. Because I decided to set a humble and limited goal instead of trying to do everything, such as soldering and 3d printing and such.

It made me laugh. 😁

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2020-09-11 Authoritarian regimes are popular

Recently, @22 linked to “Life in authoritarian states is mostly boring and tolerable” by Thomas Pepinsky, arguing that “Americans have an overly dramatic view what the end of democracy looks like.” Then it goes on to say that people have the same problems as in a democracy, and that they are mostly happy. And I agree.

I’ve often said to friends that dictatorships work because most people benefit in some way. I’ve had a Brazilian friend tell me how they liked the dictatorship. It was safe to go to the public bath after sunset. Salazar and all the fascist leaders are still beloved by many. I think people underestimate how easy it is to slide into authoritarianism; what they ignore is how terrible the price to pay is for the minorities.

If you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, jewish, uighur, black, or if you own the plot of land a friend of the government wants, or if your business competes with a friend of the government, then you have a problem.

People often talk about Switzerland’s direct democracy as some form of “the majority is always right” and nothing could be farther from the truth (even if our right wing party wants it to be the truth). Protecting minorities and making sure they all have a say is the most important part and often not appreciated. If we can’t do that, then what’s the point, I wonder. Any authoritarian regime feels like a tyranny of the majority.

I often think about the motto on the Brazilian flag: Ordem e Progresso. Order and progress. Who doesn’t want order and progress? All the fascists are nodding. To talk about the drawbacks of rational authoritarian regimes is tricky and I find one of the easiest routes is the discussion of human rights.

Of course that same measuring stick can also be applied to many governments many consider to be democratic. If your government is democratic but human rights are being violated, what’s the point, I wonder? We need to change that.

To give you a simple example from Switzerland: we have about eight million people and of these about two million are foreigners. That’s because it takes so damn long for naturalisation to happen. Switzerland is criticised for it on a regular basis. A fourth of the population can’t vote in this country! I mean, that doesn’t mean that Switzerland is authoritarian, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s failing as a democracy on a different axis.

Comments on 2020-09-11 Authoritarian regimes are popular

The Vox link is currently truncated; the complete URL is

Alexis 2020-09-12 03:30 UTC

Thanks, fixed! – Alex

Uh, not really. I grew up in a dictatorship. The crime rate was sky-high (especially compared to what we have now: for a good while this century, Bucharest was the safest city in Europe). And part of that was due to poverty. There’s still a huge difference in crime rates between parts of the country, and the correlation with poverty is striking. But also, law enforcement in a dictatorship doesn’t protect people from anything. It protects the regime from people, and largely ignores everything else.

No, life in a dictatorship isn’t safe. It’s predictable: you get up in the morning, go to your government-imposed workplace (they’ll even make one up just for you if there’s no work otherwise), get your salary at the end of the month (always the same amount), drop by the nearly-empty grocery store to pick up your food rations, and head back home to turn on the TV and hear how the economy is booming.

Which, of course, it isn’t. Dictatorships are never prosperous. They’re horribly poor all over, except in a few places where they keep up the appearances so they can brag to foreigners. But people would rather have extreme poverty and crime everywhere if that spares them from having to feel responsible for anything.

Felix 2020-09-12 06:31 UTC

Thank you, Felix!

– Sandra 2020-09-12 06:57 UTC

Every dictatorship and authoritarian state is different. The Vox article was about the American delusion that “not democracy” is “full on apocalyptic dictatorship” which sounds a bit like what you’re describing, Felix. The Vox article then went on to describe another state in the spectrum of “not democracy”, Malaysia. I feel many of the systems that disappeared and still have people pining for them without having been part of the immediate upper echelons of the government fall somewhere along this line – Salazar’s Portugal, the Brazilian military dictatorship, the communist regime in Eastern Germany, the communist regime in China today.

For Salazar, for example: «In 2006 and 2007 two public opinion television shows aroused controversy. Salazar was elected the “Greatest Portuguese Ever” with 41 per cent of votes on the show Os Grandes Portugueses (”The Greatest Portuguese”) from the RTP1 channel»

A Romanian friend told me similar stories about hardship and poverty (and the family’s eventual flight to Switzerland). I don’t want to deny the misery of these communist dictatorships.

I still agree with the author of the Vox piece, however: there’s a slow slide into authoritarianism and as the regime props up fake enemies, enemies to a religion, enemies to the economic order, enemies to the established societal order, and keeps up a basic working state, there’s no rebellion. People acquiesce and are distracted by daily life.

I also think an important part of the Vox article is to see these aspects in the countries that call themselves democracies today: if the system doesn’t change no matter who you vote for, if police and border patrols and other security elements have expansive powers, if widespread poverty and precariousness spread, then all of these are red flags.

– Alex 2020-09-12 11:11 UTC

Oh, red flags they are. As people have been pointing as of late: tanks in the street aren’t the first sign of a dictatorship in the making, but the last. And Americans don’t get it, as evidenced by their reaction to what’s been happening in Belarus. Which is exactly why they’re guaranteed victims in the upcoming elections.

Felix 2020-09-12 11:47 UTC

I’ve had a few depressing exchanges with @Shufei on the topic of the upcoming elections in the USA. 😱

Recently she linked to this thread by .

– Alex Schroeder 2020-09-12 13:22 UTC

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2020-08-12 Mozilla fires 250 engineers

In a blog post, Mozilla announced that it was firing 250 engineers: “Sadly, the changes also include a significant reduction in our workforce by approximately 250 people.” Ouch.

Then again, as @aral recently said:

We could fork Firefox and have an independent EU org develop it. No need for the rest of Mozilla.

The criticism stems from the fact that 90% of Mozilla’s revenue is paid for by… Google!

Or, as Katyanna Quach writes in The Register:

Mozilla gets the vast, vast majority of its funding from Google, Yandex, and Baidu, who pay to be the default search engine in Firefox in their regions. In 2018, Moz had a $451m cash pile, 95 per cent of which, some $430m, was provided by these web giants. Those deals will expire in November 2020 unless renewed or renegotiated.

With an ever decreasing market share, those deals are surely going to be renegotiated.

But, I guess what I’m more concerned about is this: think about how big Mozilla is. They had a thousand engineers!

What fascinates me about seemingly retro tech is the dream of having these tools be feasible in the human realm. People like us can use them and make them, without having to form a company, without business plans and lawyers and project managers. The web browser project is so big, so monstrous, it needs hundreds of people to get right, to implement all the features, because we kept adding them and adding them, letting corporations out-organize us.

This is what happened. We used to have so many browser engines. Now you need a thousand engineers to compete, apparently.

And yes, I know, this is never going to stop: people see business opportunities and jump in, and with venture capital it is possible to out-organize us, again and again. Welcome to capitalism. But there’s hope: the grim reaper that cuts down enterprises in a pandemic, in an economic crisis. When profits are gone, we’re still there. Gopher is still there. RSS is still there. Plan 9 is still there. Emacs is still there. (Vim, too.) Forth is still there. Email is still there.

True, a crisis is never the tabula rasa one might wish. Many companies are better off after the war. As @sqwishy reminded me:

Business are affected negatively but some few benefit; Zoom has almost become a household name for conference calls in the way that the word “Powerpoint” is used in place of “slideshow”. That is not better for tech.

And yet, remember IBM? There were huge. Huge! “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment.” And yet, here we are. IBM is a shadow of its former self. DB2 is still around. I can’t think of any other IBM product these days. The giants will come down one day.

The resistance is never big. In the movies, underdogs are the main characters. We never see the sea of people that’s going along with the system. The resistance is small. The resistance isn’t pure. I still use Firefox. I still use the web. But I use it less. I use text browsers when I can. I use simple Mastodon clients. I know IRC, Bitlbee, Brutaldon, Lynx and Gemini are not strictly “better” than the modern web; to my coworkers all these things seem very retro. But they’re my scale. I am not a thousand developers. I’m human scale.

Or, as @Shufei puts it:

Stepping back, I see I hardly go on the mainstream web anymore. Half of my Wikipedia reading is via Gopherpedia. Libgen. Git-tub. What else is there? The rest is corpo caca. And yet, that is what most people seem to like. Why else would they be on FB? I do think it’s time to recognize that what we have is a demimonde, a resistance, and invest energy in it accordingly. This is it.

Indeed. I still use Wikipedia on the web. But I also feel like I’m using less and less of the mainstream web. It’s all corpo caca.

If we’re the resistance, then we need to think in terms of propaganda. What are our posters? Our jokes? What new names do we give the things we like, the things we dislike? In German, we call this process “Wortschöpfung”, word creation.

Let’s not be coprophages, let’s not be dung eaters. We don’t want the corpo caca.

Comments on 2020-08-12 Mozilla fires 250 engineers

I’ve noticed this too! You know how with search engines you can filter out a word by putting a minus sign in front of it? Is there a way to filter out websites that have javascript from search results? Because that’d do the trick. Bye bye corporate top 10 lists of weird tricks, hello somebody’s weird passion project homepage.

– Anonymous 2020-08-13 02:25 UTC

I think that’s basically why Gemini is not simply HTTP1.0 with a simple HTML subset and no scripts: because you can never tell which links go back to the corpo caca web. Perhaps there’s an extension that unlinks the biggest corporate sites from all web pages? That would be interesting.

– Alex 2020-08-13 07:25 UTC

Sounds like is what you’re talking about.

– Anonymous 2020-08-13 08:18 UTC

Wiby sounds very interesting! Thanks.

– Alex 2020-08-13 09:17 UTC

Good comment regarding standards growing in complexity. Whenever a committee meets to talk about new developments, there’s the danger of capture. They start adding features because they can, and everybody adds them because they must. And over the years, the number of competitors starts to dwindle. How many C++ compilers are there?

– Alex 2020-08-13 18:01 UTC

I really enjoyed this post! I am absolutely enjoying the longform gemini posts lately 🙂

– elphermVSbpm 2020-08-14 09:44 UTC


– Alex Schroeder 2020-08-14 15:07 UTC

“As a non-profit open-source operation, Mozilla spends as much as it receives; its 2018 staffing bill was $286m with a headcount of about 1,000, or about $286,000 per person, on average.”

Well, they’re certainly making more money than I am. But so do the Google engineers, of course.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-08-14 15:08 UTC

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2020-08-03 The rich

Today I had an interesting conversation with @natecull on Mastodon. It all started with a comment of his:

“Most inherited wealth gets floundered.” Sounds fishy to me

I did hear something like that in a (German) newsletter of a fund manager friend of mine. Basically: where are the inheritances of the Fuggers, Medicis, Rothschilds, Astors, Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts? When 120 heirs of Cornelius Vanderbiltim met in 1973, they had not one millionaire among them. There are still some rich Rockefellers and Rothschilds but they don’t compare with the fortunes of their ancestors.

He cites Robert Arnott, William Bernstein and Lillian Wu who looked at the richest people since 1982 based on the Forbes 400 and a study by Kevin Phillips of the richest US families going back to 1918. A simple look at the richest 400 in 1982 shows that only 69 of them or their heirs remain in the list from 2014. The problem is that the newly rich are so much richer you cannot compete by simply keeping your inheritance intact. In 1982 you needed $75M to be in the list, in 2014 you needed $1.5B, corrected for inflation that is eight times as much. The newcomers are simply so much richer, and maintaining wealth with investments is hard, plus you get to split it up with every generation.

Not that any of this is of any import to all of us that aren’t wealthy. It’s an interesting side note, but also pretty irrelevant when it comes to politics. Tax those fuckers!

My main takeaway was this: we actually have two problems: in the mid-term, the children of rich people are still rich and have tons of unfair advantages; and even if these dynasties are not a problem in the long term, the shooting stars of the ultra-rich still are a problem, but combating them is (surprisingly) not simply solved by stiff inheritance tax.

There is an additional problem, unfortunately: the way capital (rich people and big companies) capture politics. If you look at Switzerland, for example, you’ll see that the health commission in our senate has 13 members, and most of them have connections to hospitals, insurances, etc. One the one hand, it’s obvious: if you have the know how, why not volunteer for such a commission? But at the same time: this is the industry using politics to shape legislation such as to drive profit.

Some people think politics enables these companies to flourish, but now they’re no longer competing, they’re using politics to shape the market. It is a corrupting influence.

So, as seen from the left, some people clamour for a revolution. How else are we going to get rid of these rich people and redistribute their wealth? We can’t even enact laws to bring back inheritance tax, here in Switzerland! In our collective race to the bottom, we got rid of it, as the cantons try to out-compete each other for the lowest taxes in order to attract the richest people, which then in turn threaten to capture local government.

But… revolutions are dangerous. Who’s to say that things are better after the revolution? When we point at the Soviet or Chinese revolution, people like me say: “that wasn’t true communism!” There’s also the historic comparison made by the Chinese and Soviet communists: perhaps those years were bad, but consider the slavery, the robber barons, the civil wars, the crop failures and the famines before we came to power! Those arguments seem to get less traction these days, however. In any case, I think calling for a revolution is simply a way to start the discussion. I don’t want a violent revolution. We need to argue for incremental change instead of a revolution. Who knows who’ll win the revolution roulette! Not me, that’s for sure.

My guess is that just like people on the left believe in some pure-hearted do-gooder humans who’ll share gladly, the right believes in some pure-hearted market full of fully knowledgeable humans who’ll always trade fairly… Or something! Idealists, wherever you look.

I think we need small changes, and part of that is higher taxes. Much higher taxes! And since people and capital moves around, trying to evade taxes, we need to make a global effort: go after tax havens, put political pressure on them, go after rich people trying to leave a country. Luckily many of the newly rich don’t know they’re going to make big bucks later in life so they make their fortune while still in a country where they can be taxed.

I know the edge cases are painful. It’s painful to pay taxes in both Switzerland and the United States. It’s painful to have lived and worked in Japan and owing them inheritance tax if you don’t live there anymore. Those solutions aren’t perfect. But capital and people flowing freely, extracting wealth in one country and then not sharing the burden according to your means is simply ripping people off.

And don’t come at me with “tax is theft” – who ever thought of such stupid slogan? If you read up on the history of the idea, you’ll see that it always seems to boil down to a philosophical dispute of natural rights, social contracts, and so on. The practicalities of a functioning society doesn’t seem to have a place in this discussion which is also why I don’t care for it.

Where does that leave us? I think the answer is the very constant struggle we’re experience now and have been experiencing since the dawn of democracy. Our enemies decry it as a weakness, but that is just because they have chosen Scylla or Charybdis, unable to maintain their course. And of course, both Scylla and Charybdis and their adherents scream the loudest. But we must stuff our ears with wax and struggle for that blissful compromise, of a free market but with rules, of private property but with taxes. We win!

Comments on 2020-08-03 The rich

Steuern sind ok. Ich würde versuchen, sie einfach zu halten, auch damit nicht viel „unproduktive Energie“ gebunden wird. Aber es gibt auch Argumente für sehr komplexe Steuern, die alle Spezialfälle abdecken.

Schön ist es natürlich, wenn einem der Staat/die Gemeinde soviel bietet, das man es als irgendwie angemessen empfindet. Steuern einer korrupten Behörde zu zahlen ist wohl ein zyklisches und schwer zu knackendes Problem.

– Chris 2020-08-10 20:24 UTC

Das stimmt. Wobei es ja für die Umverteilung um mehr geht, als den Staat und die Gemeinde für ihre Leistung angemessen zu entschädigen: selbst wenn Staat und Gemeinde nichts leisten würden, ist eine Umverteilung nötig um der Kapitalakkumulation entgegen zu wirken, und die einfachste Lösung hierfür ist eine progressive Steuer, die man in extremis sogar einfach im Rahmen eines Grundeinkommens umverteilen könnte. Selbst ohne eine korrupte Behörde nicht einfach durchzusetzen, aber die Alternative scheint mir noch unerträglicher: Elend und am Ende Revolution oder Krieg.

– Alex 2020-08-11 16:26 UTC

Ja, Umverteilung ist auch ein Element! Ich sehe hier einerseits die Staatsquote und anderseits, was man mit dem Geld macht. In vielen armen Ländern ist beides nicht so toll; es ist zum Weinen... (Bei reichen Länder gibt es natürlich auch zu tun.)

Ein vertracktes Problem scheint mir, dass Umverteilung aktuell fast nur national geschieht: Gewisse Wohlhabenden und gewisse „national Armen“ scheinen das gemeinsame, unausgesprochene, krude Ziel zu haben, die international Armen nicht zu beteiligen.

– Chris 2020-08-12 19:02 UTC

Absolut. Wir sehen ja schon in der Schweiz das Problem mit dem Finanzausgleich: die Kantone haben einen eigenen Steuerfuss, müssen sich dann aber unabhängig davon am Finanzausgleich beteiligen. Gibt Streit. In der europäischen Union wird es schon schwieriger. Und ausserhalb davon... gibt es nichts. Ein Elend!

– Alex 2020-08-12 20:36 UTC

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2020-07-04 Is Gemini from North Korea?

I was hanging out on the #gemini channel on and people noticed that Hacker News was talking about Gemini, and this got posted in a thread about a toffelblog post, A look at the Gemini protocol: a brutally simple alternative to the web.

lukee: another juicy quote from HN to entertain you “In a way Gemini could have been published by writer of European Union, North Korea or Soviet Union laws, I can’t belive this is a US products, as it contains too much to liberty constrain 😉 “

There’s more in that Hacker News thread. I don’t know what to say. How do you respond to somebody who says that there is something in common between the European Union, North Korea, the Soviet Union, and the Gemini protocol? It’s a waste of time. So how about something different... How about imagining this being a good response! How could we rephrase it and have an interesting conversation?

How about translating it into “Why is minimalism a thing? Why does it have to be mandated? Minimalism in the web has meaning because you can do otherwise. Brutalism in architecture because you could be hiding it all. The decision to show that concrete only has meaning because you could be hiding it. To mandate minimalism is simply to mandate poverty. It has no meaning.”

So, let’s imagine that; let’s reply to this imagined intelligent challenge, and hope for a good conversation.

I think the first question would be: who does the choosing? In a world where we all use the web, some authors can choose to use minimalism in web design: little CSS, simple HTML, no Javascript, no content from other domains, a focus on documents instead of imagining the web as a generic interface to all applications. It’s possible to do. The choice lies with the web author.

The choice does not lie with the reader, though! The reader who tries to surf the web with text browsers such as w3m, lynx, or eww, or with very limited browsers such as dillo, soon runs into problems. Sometimes the text itself can be read, but interaction is difficult. Headers and footers are often terrible. The list of links at the top of pages is terribly long and messy. It’s hard to find the text of a tweet if you visit the URL on Twitter. There’s too much garbage on that page! It’s also hard to find the beginning of that README if you visit a project’s page on GitHub. So many links!

The choice also does not lie with developers, surprisingly. The developer who tries to create a different browser, the developer who tries to extend HTML, the developer who tries to extend Javascript, all developers on the web soon realise that everything is fucking huge. The code base for Firefox is huge. The code base for Chromium is huge. The number of web standards is huge. The Javascript APIs are huge. The number of open issues in the bug trackers is huge. The Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) wiki is huge. Even the processes one has to follow to propose new things are huge. The hoops one has to jump through to propose new Emojis for Unicode.

And how much weight there is to all these things. How much business, money, capital, investments, jobs. Unicode is going to be forever and ever as long as we use text, I think. All those stupid pictures of technology that we no longer use are going to stay with us for the next ten thousand years. It boggles the mind.

Therefore, individual developers effectively have no choice. The number of people and the amount of capital required to create a new fully-featured web browser is unimaginable.

That’s why people like @alcinnz working on the Odysseus browser have very specific opinions on what to implement and what to drop.

That is why Gemini matters. Gemini allows many developers to write clients and servers. It gives users back choice.

I’d love to read your take on it.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

@solderpunk wrote Why not just use a subset of HTTP and HTML?

“… to create a clearly demarcated space where people can go to consume only that kind of content in only that kind of way, which is what I think we really want.”


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2020-06-15 Why Wiki‽

Indeed, why? I’m writing this because I want a wiki and I’m interested in Gemini and I’ve read some things on the mailing list that make me think other people don’t love wiki as much as I do. (Start with Sean Conner’s post if you’re interested. Some quotes from that thread can be found in the comments on 2020-06-04 Gemini Upload.)

Some people think that we should all self-host the things we write. This is a good idea. We don’t want to depend on faceless corporations that can take away our online presence on a whim.

At the same time, however, not all of us have the means to self-host. Some of us have no time, because system administration takes time to learn, takes time to practice, takes time to do. Some of us lack the know-how. We can write, and we want to write, but we can’t host. Perhaps we don’t have the money to pay for a host. Or we don’t have the energy or the time to look for the cheapest host out there. Perhaps we want to write but we feel comfortable with our phones and so we want to write on our phones. It’s like the best camera being the one you have on you. The best writing implement is the one you have on you. These days, it might be your phone.

Also, let us not forget that not every service is rendered by a faceless corporation. We can get service from cooperatives, from neighbours, from family members, from friends, from schools, from libraries, from friends we’ve made online. To design solutions that make it hard for friends to help each other, we design for the cold alienation of modern capitalism. We need to grow networks and help each other. Sure, we can write to each other. But we can also host each other. Like all these pubnix systems out there, we’re sharing a resource. Why should sharing shell access be any different from sharing text hosting?

And finally, let’s not forget that self-hosting means self-writing. But what if you’re collaborating? Of course, we could pull in yet another dependency: use git, or some other distributed version control system! Or how about the systems we us allow us to collaborate naturally, because they are inherently designed to do so? I share Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision for a read-write web that Sean Conner dug up in RFC-1945, where we read that the POST method can be used for the “Annotation of existing resources” and for “Posting a message to a bulletin board, newsgroup, mailing list, or similar group of articles”, and that “the PUT method requests that the enclosed entity be stored” and that “the origin server can create the resource”. Yes! That’s exactly it.

And wikis were the big break through: we had browsers, we had forms, and that was it. But Ward Cunningham wrote the WikiWikiWeb, a website with pages that are quickly editable by users. The barrier to entry was extremely low.

Sure, it also attracted vandalism and spam, and like email, and like the fediverse, the technology is in a constant arms race to block and ban miscreants. But it still works and barriers to entry can still be low. We can all come together under a banner, be it the biggest encyclopedia known to humankind, or wikis on Star Wars, or the Malazan Empire of the Fallen, or Emacs, or any other kind of topic, really, and we can collaborate. It’s the simplest collaboration platform that works. You write some text. I fix mistakes. You make additions. I reorganise. You split it up. I link it. The hypertext grows without necessary “ownership” of pages.

The effort required to maintain a wiki is worth it, to me, because we have a viable alternative to the isolation of self-hosting, and the surrender to value-extracting corporations. Doing things together, achieving things together, is important to teach the new generation of people coming online, it is important to teach ourselves that resistance is not futile, resistance is not a struggle, resistance to the machine is the simple act of having fun and building things together.


Comments on 2020-06-15 Why Wiki‽

A vision for Gemini (that doesn’t focus on wikis) by Solderpunk.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-06-16 21:27 UTC

Dunno, nowadays even large, popular wikis I see are being overrun by spam, or at least spambot accounts. Edits become rare. Discussions even more so. The whole point of a wiki is to enable communities, otherwise there are much better ways; and the community spirit has largely been lost in most places.

But I wrote all that before. Possibly even here. And at least with wikis I experienced that community spirit for a while; with shell accounts, not so much. Got to try again sometime.

A better question may be what exactly you’re inviting people to build with you. Because they are still coming together often enough. But they’re doing that on software forges, and on Neocities, and on forums. And I think what makes all of those different is that you can fork a project and submit pull requests, or quote other people and link to their posts (you can do that on any ordinary blog farm, too – oh look, another form of online community), until ownership begins to blur... but in an organic way. You can still say, “okay, by now I’ve crossed from my backyard into my neighbor’s”.

Guess that would be a village, then.

Felix 2020-06-17 15:29 UTC

Sure, and I understand those activities as well. All the RPG blogging goes there. People post new ideas, other people comment on it, or pick up on it using their own blogs, incorporate ideas into their own products, it’s true. And yet... I see the problem in the Emacs World. I’m depending on somebody like Sacha Chua to understand what’s going on. There are so many packages being posted, blog posts, and on and on. I guess I miss that feeling when people used Emacs Wiki to drop their half-finished stuff. But now we have MELPA and it’s all git, and what can I say, I feel the isolation of capitalism. Everything belongs to somebody, everybody is the king of their garden, all the exchanges are carefully gatekept, transactional, I send you mail, you accept merge requests, and so on.

I might be alone in this, but I still want that fluidity. I still want that lack of ownership, that building together, that communal aspect.

And in really small ways, it works: Campaign Wiki is where RPG groups can create their own wikis, just for them, an audience of three or four or five, and that makes them happy. It makes me happy, even if my players don’t write a lot – hardly anything, to be honest. But this is how I can have a quick and easy website that works with the browser as it’s only interface.

I really like that aspect, too. I’m not sure how many of the other authors (few as there are) would remain if they had to register by requesting a client certificate and got shell access, or a sftp account, or whatever one uses these days for sites like Neocities.

To me, these are all inferior solutions to just using wikis.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-06-17 15:41 UTC

So people wanting credit for their work is capitalism now? Artists wanting attribution? Writers wanting to own their words (and others to own their words as well)? Sure, we have a bit of a problem with capitalism too, as another friend of mine pointed out some months ago: this idea that everything we do, and every waking moment we have, should be monetized. But that’s a different problem.

People need and want their own little corners, and the ability to set boundaries, however blurry and permeable. And they prove it by flocking to those kinds of online media that provide.

Felix 2020-06-17 16:19 UTC

Sure. But at the same time, I also want the alternative. Let those people do what they want. I also have this blog, which is “mine”, and the software I maintain, and so on. What I called the “isolation of capitalism” is something different. It’s the feeling when every commons is privatised, all the land is enclosed, and every project has one benevolent dictator. I want the alternatives, too. I want cooperatives, associations, gaming groups, spontaneous collaboration, anonymous contributions. I want them on top of everything else.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-06-17 20:45 UTC

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2020-05-27 The meaning of software

An interesting blog post by Jesse Li, Where Did Software Go Wrong? It starts with the disillusion many feel about software development (me included), continues on to talk about who writes software, whom they write it for, who benefits, and capitalism.


Comments on 2020-05-27 The meaning of software

The more I work in contact centre projects, where call centre agents make phone calls and answer e-mails, where they use scripts to guide the conversation, in an environment where I suspect that all the counter-arguments have been neatly assembled, where I imagine all responsibility is swiftly deflected, where I read that mistakes are only admitted in private and compensations are always tied to non-disclosure agreements, the more I wonder about the role of software in our society, the more I wonder about the role of programmers in our society. Are we arming corporations as they confront fellow humans, giving them longer lances, better tools? In the end we humans have but one choice, the one that I have made a long time ago: to minimize all contact. I don’t answer the phone for unknown numbers, I unsubscribe from all newsletters or send them straight to the Junk folder, I don’t send feedback, I block ads as much as I can. I try to live in a parallel universe where I don’t see them and they don’t see me because every second spent with corporations are seconds of my life lost. We are not cooperatives organising humans in order to improve our lot, together, and I’m feeling the alienation.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-28 11:44 UTC

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2020-05-09 Ethics and licensing

In 2018, I wrote about ethics in programming and today stumbled on a related thing when @decentral1se mentioned the Hippocratic License:

Politics and software are so tangled that they cannot be reasonably separated. … if those novel situations involve harming other people, we can and should feel responsible. … the Hippocratic License … specifically prohibits the use of software to violate universal standards of human rights

I understand the problem of interoperability, the difficulty of enforcement, the headaches of assembly… and yet! And yet. Remember Code is Law? Software is politics and programming is about making ethical choices. Why should the license be a technocratic decision? We fought proprietary software and while we haven’t won that’s not a reason to avoid a second battle. We are humans. We can juggle many things. Our opponents do, too. We can do this.

As humans, I feel that most of us do not want to be complicit in crimes. We don’t want to be working on weapons. We don’t want to be working for organizations that do evil. If we agree that people can have these goals while working, why should programming be different?

Sometimes a tool is like a shovel and we cannot prescribe what people do with their shovels. But when we can, and when we think this is fact necessary, we do add safety measures to physical tools in order to prevent their use as weapons. And where we cannot, we regulate their use: building regulations, traffic regulations, we have added safety standards everywhere so people don’t manufacture dangerous tools and so people don’t use tools in dangerous ways. Why should complex software be different?

As a human, you have the choice not to participate in crimes (I hope!), and you have the choice to design your products such that it is harder to commit a crime, and you can make contracts that forbid recipients to use products in certain ways – its all there, for good and for evil. Why should programmers relinquish this option which is at their disposal?

Free software activists have used free software licenses to fight back against proprietary software that is hard to audit, hard to study, hard to copy, hard to modify, hard to distribute. We have used copyright and license to guarantee freedom where the powers that be would have had us relinquish that freedom and let capital have its way. And we did it!

Sure, the fight for free software is not yet over but that is not an excuse. We can fight for ethical software at the same time. We can fight for it in politics, we can speak for it on our blogs, and we can push it using our licenses.

It might not be free software as we know it, but it will still be free software. There is no golden standard of freedom. Freedom is a balancing act that needs to be renegotiated again and again. And sometimes a freedom is curtailed for another freedom to flourish. In most democracies, for example, the constitution limits the laws that can be passed such that a simple majority in parliament cannot abuse a minority. This limitation is for the greater good: the consideration of legal interests is an ongoing process.

Here is what I’m talking about:

The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0). – Richard Stallman, The Free Software Definition

I consider the freedom to run the program as you wish to be an important freedom, but it is not an absolute freedom. It can and it must be weighed against other legal interests, other freedoms and other rights – rights like the ones listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As I said at the top, more licenses is always a problem, specially if these are more licenses trying to achieve the same thing in incompatible ways, like free software. But there will always be new goals, and therefore there will always be a need for new licenses. We are not going to spend the next millennium without new licenses, for sure. Might as well make it a license that puts Human Rights first.


Comments on 2020-05-09 Ethics and licensing

See also, A Six-Month Retrospective on Ethical Open Source by Coraline Ada Ehmke. Also, her other publications listed on Model View Culture.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-09 13:04 UTC

And interesting note by @sir, Thoughts on the subject of ethical licenses. He argues three points:

“Anyone who is prepared to violate human rights is going to have no problem ignoring your software license, too.” This is true. But I believe that it does send a message. Not all laws are necessary or enforced. We recently added sexual orientation to a list of things one may not discriminate against in Switzerland even though some people argued that it was already implicitly illegal due to some other law. Not sure whether the law was therefore unnecessary. I voted in favor of that change.

Sometimes interpretations vary by country. Many people in the US don’t consider water boarding to be torture, for example. And yet, this is having an effect outside of the US. We don’t like to send people wanted in the US to the US for fear of cruel and unusual punishment. Abroad, the US is now viewed as a country that may torture prisoners. So, even if human rights are ignored somewhere, highlighting this fact is going to have an effect. If ICE is violating human rights in the US a developer using a software is now both complicit in what is considered a crime abroad, and in violation of a license. I don’t think people will ignore this.

“It’s difficult to comply with” is a good argument. But that hasn’t stopped other laws from going into effect: enforcing GDPR is hard. Enforcing copyright and DRM is hard. Enforcing ethics is also hard. Perhaps it’s a good thing that we’re outgrowing the simple problems. Time to tackle the hard ones.

“It’s not open source.” I think already discussed this in the blog post. It’s true. Ethical software puts limits on freedom zero, the freedom to use the software for anything. There are limits.

– Alex Schroeder 2020-05-09 13:30 UTC

Not directly related, but you linked to a slideshow presented on a single HTML page that talked about how websites were overwritten and way too large, and the site had other interesting transcriptions... I remember making a copy of it, but it seems like I misplaced it 😟

Ynas Midgard 2020-06-28 14:49 UTC

Maybe in the comments of 2019-07-11 The breaking of the web?

– Alex Schroeder 2020-06-28 19:01 UTC

Ah, found it on an older device of mine: The Website Obesity Crisis!

Ynas Midgard 2020-06-29 10:06 UTC

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