Philosophy

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

2021-03-12 Counterculture

Reading an interesting article. For now, just some quotes. It’s The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram, by Caroline Busta, for Document Journal.

On power:

Actual power keeps a low profile; actual power doesn’t need a social media presence, it owns social media.

On Internet and dissent:

Counterculture requires a group. Us against the world. And the internet is excellent at bringing groups together around collective dissent. But just like the internet, there is nothing inherently socially progressive about these tools. … QAnon, … Boogaloo Boys, … Reichsbürger …

On the post-apocalypse:

Central to this counter-future crafting is a strong belief in impending ecological collapse, rendering all the existing systems of control obsolete—which is a logical work-around for thinking about dissent in a time when the socially and ecologically corrosive systems are deemed too sprawling to effectively counter or boycott.

On the politics of radicalization:

And maybe here, we do have an aesthetic counter to the wallflower non-style of Big Tech: a raging messy semiotic meltdown of radicalizing (if absurdist) meme culture where the only ideological no-go zone is the liberal center.

On the belief that reform is impossible and abolishment the only option left:

Intuiting that any activity directly opposing the system will only make the system stronger, the next generation is instead opting for radical hyperstition: constructing alternative futures that abandon our current infrastructure entirely

On identity, anonymity and pseudonymity:

… the internet doesn’t suppress expression—it forces you to express and then holds you accountable for whatever you say for years.

On a bifurcation:

… the internet bifurcated into what became known as the “clearnet,” which includes all publicly indexed sites (i.e., big social media, commercial platforms, and anything crawled by major search engines) and the “darknet” or “deep web,” which is not publicly indexed … It is also interesting to keep in mind that the dark forest shares the same cables and satellite arrays as clearnet channels, is accessed via the same devices, and essentially all of its denizens continue to simultaneously participate in clearnet spaces …

On aspects that remind me of the smol net joy:

One forages for content or shares in what others in the community have retrieved rather than accepting whatever the platform algorithms happen to match to your data profile.

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2021-02-17 Fascism and AI

Sadly, I don’t have much. But this quote is worth remembering. Perhaps I’ll be able to expand on the idea in the future. Or have a link collection, at least.

“Extremist communities, especially in the social media era, bear a disturbing resemblance to what you might expect from a conversation held among similarly trained GPT-3s. A growing tide of cognitive distortion, rote repetition, incoherence and inability to parse facts and fantasies within the thoughts expressed in the extremist online landscape signals a dangerous contraction of understanding, one that leaves its users increasingly unable to explore, share and build an understanding of the real world with anyone outside of their online haven.” – The Thoughts The Civilized Keep, by Shannon Vallor, for Noëme

Something I called poetic reasoning in the past.

Association: Similar things can be used to make a point: This is beautiful and elegant, it must be good.

Wishes: Preferable conditions can be used to make a point: People are fundamentally peaceful creatures. That’s why nobody is going to vandalize our site.

Metaphors: Invoking unrelated strong imagery can be used to make a point: Like ants building their ant-hill, humans collaborate peacefully when sharing a common goal.

And then, just like in a dream, keep associating freely. People don’t ask for congruency or stringency of arguments.

Comments on 2021-02-17 Fascism and AI

I actually agree with the broader thrust of the essay, that understanding – a model of the world and not just a model of language – is necessary for useful intelligence. However, the quote you pulled is kind of self-congratulatory to centrists. You can find exactly the same kind of repetitive, stereotyped discourse in self-identified centrist communities. Look at Reddit’s /r/neoliberal for a good example, or anyone with a KHive pfp on Twitter. I’d suggest that the real trigger for this behavior or pattern of thought is a reliance on short-form writing rather than long-form, though I may have an incomplete picture.

GCU Prosthetic Conscience 2021-02-17 13:33 UTC


I think it reflects pretty well on how Switzerland is dealing with the pandemic, for example. Or how the right wing in Switzerland deals with foreigners. To me, so many things are clearly wrong: a sentence or two are correct, the next is a gross simplification, then a feel good ur-fascist statement, then something that contradicts what was said before but is offered as a counter argument to what I just said, then a distraction, something designed to feel good, something reusing the words we used to teach each other how to be scientists, like research, facts, or metaphors like safety regulations for cars, reused, repurposed for their exact opposite, in a free wheeling circle of association.

I’m not sure where the centrists come in, and I don’t feel like delving into Reddit, specially not with that subreddit name, and certainly not when you tell me that what I’m going to find there is all wrong. That’s a waste of time.

I don’t know what “a KHive pfp on Twitter” is. Something about fake follower counts?

In any case, I’m not sure that the way the Swiss government is reacting to the pandemic is a consequence of how Twitter has shaped our writing, but rather that we’re seeing an age old mechanism at work, exploited on a different medium, but not different from the use of Radio by the Nazis, or the printing press by the reformation. Any kind of unhappiness, exploited, via the inability of the public to form a coherent position.

The contradictory picture I describe was not the result of tolerance but of political andideological discombobulation. But it was a rigid discombobulation, a structured confusion. Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations. – Umberto Eco, Ur-Fascism (1995)

I think to argue that a reliance on short-form writing might be involved is not enough, as the common denominator of all simple messaging is shortness of the messages themselves. But there is more to it, I think.

– Alex 2021-02-17 13:55 UTC


I see Sandra also wrote a blog post, Re: The Thoughts The Civilized Keep. 😄

– Alex 2021-02-17 17:31 UTC


I’m not sure where the centrists come in, and I don’t feel like delving into Reddit...

As well you shouldn’t. Centrists enter into it because the quote describes this kind of language as typical of “extremist” communities. But that subreddit is an example of that kind of circular/incoherent discourse in a “centrist” community – the name of the subreddit is unironic. The KHive are described here: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/kamala-harris-khive-toxic-side_n_5f4fa573c5b69eb5c037473e; they are often distinguished by a gold ring around their pfp (avatar). If you don’t want to look into it, the upshot is that they are vicious Twitter trolls who stan a centrist politician.

I think you’re right about simple messaging being the core, rather than short-form reading (social media) as such. But social media means people see much more simple messaging than ever before.

GCU Prosthetic Conscience 2021-02-17 20:01 UTC


I don’t like being part of a dogpile of criticism against any one particular writer, it easily gets redundant. I can’t in all honesty wash my hands of it, just own up to it. I shoulda held off on the essay and polished it so it was less about Vallor’s text and more about my own hangups around AI and AIP.

Sandra 2021-02-17 23:43 UTC


I miss when neoliberals and randroids where the enemy, they were more fun to talk to than climate deniers and social conservatives (including racists and sexists).

Sandra 2021-02-17 23:46 UTC


Re the bad KHivers I remember in 2016 (and I do think that Bernie was the best candidate in ’16) talking to some people who were saying there where no toxic Bernie Bros. Wait, that sounds like I’m saying they were “no true Scotsman”-ing the toxic members. That’s not quite right. Instead they denied the harassment outright. “That’s not true, that never happened, that’s just propaganda.” I’d see the harassment with my own eyes and the denial with my own eyes.

Now, this was in YouTube’s comment section so false flag on one or both of those seemingly contradictory things certainly possible, but, that’d leave us with the no true Scotsman again. The harassments happened (as in often) and made the Bernie faction a difficult place to be around.

Sandra 2021-02-17 23:56 UTC

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2021-02-02 Motivation and reward

Jeremy Friesen wrote about his ten year blog anniversary.

I loved two points in particular. The first one is about scheduling. I used to see many people deciding to write a blog and trying to commit to regular posts.

“When I first started blogging, one of the concerns I heard and internalized was that I should write to a schedule. I found that to be a path of misery. I don’t keep a schedule, nor publish at peak hours. Instead, I release what I write when I’m done with it.” – Jeremy Friesen

If you’re a writer and you want to change your habits, if you’re not a writer and you want to work on being a writer, then this seems like a good idea. Do a little of something every day until it becomes second nature. That’s how I started to run. Go for small runs on a regular basis, no matter how small. Just go. And one day you’ll be sitting inside and the weather is lousy and you’ll feel the urge to go for a run. You’ve successfully changed yourself! Congratulations. I know it isn’t easy. It’s work.

The second of Jeremy’s points I liked is about trying to be successful. It’s hard and there is a lot of luck involved. Not work. Luck. And Lady Luck is fickle. It’s hard to repeat a thing that depends on luck.

“To grow my readership, I thought I needed metrics. What I found was that I was prone to chasing that questing beast. I looked at posts that did well, and would wrack my brain to write something more about that; Or like that. Again, misery. I had ceded my muse to an algorithm.”

It’s so easy to fall into this. It happens wherever those small “like” buttons are, wherever those “comment” forms are. It happens on blogs, and on the fediverse! It’s why many people switch them off. Gopher people say the don’t miss comments. Mastodon offers a setting to hide notifications about likes and boosts. You just get the replies.

I’m not immune to this myself. I am happy when I see people liking and sharing pictures I took, for example. And I spend a little extra time on my prose, crafting it, spinning it. Does it work? Words have rhythm, sentences want to be read. I read these words in my head, writing and rewriting them until I’m happy. It’s the effect of the invisible audience. All acts of speech on social media are partly oratory, I think.

I want to come back to the question of blogging, of the motivation to write. To me, motivation is a big riddle. Why can I code hours on end at home but not at the office? What brings joy and what does not? Why is it that if I do a thing for money – for any extrinsic reward, probably! – I feel less intrinsically motivated? I heard that this effect can be shown in children. I still wonder about the reason, though. In the work place, I think part of it is that in capitalism, the things you enjoy so much you’ll do for free, so paid work is often joyless.

But the demotivation effect of extrinsic rewards is more than just a memory of work; I feel like it has to do with freedom in a personal, private way: the autonomy to decide if I want to do a thing now, or later, or not at all. If at any time I do a think now even though I don’t feel it, that’s joy wilting away. And thus I will happily accept a gift freely given but I don’t want to get paid. I don’t want to promise help in exchange for money even if I’m very likely to help for free.

I still remember the most fantastic gift I ever received for software I had written: some chocolate and a cook book, from Belgium, from net artist / sculptor / 3d artist / videogame designer Auriea (). I still think about that a lot.

Her site still uses my software, a version from 2004–2006. Amazing. ❤️

Links:

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2020-12-12 Computer Competency

Recently, @hisham_hm wrote: “We need dumb tech and smart users, and not the other way around.” He expanded on that on his blog: Smart tech — smart for whom? He talks about the distinction between smart devices and computers and picks game consoles as an example:

… they are not universal machines for you, the owner. For me, my Nintendo Switch is just a game console. For Nintendo, it is a computer: they can install any kind of software in it in their next software update. … From Nintendo’s perspective, the Switch is a universal machine, but not from mine.

At the time, I was more interested in the concept of smart users. @phoe asked: “Is there any industry standard for ensuring that we get smart users? Any best practices to follow?”

What do you think enables smart users? Good question! I’d say allowing people to use a tool without a simplified interface, and to share both data (files, URLs) and behavioural changes (Excel macros, configuration files, Emacs lisp files, and so on) are two examples for independent expertise growth. People can figure something out, add functionality in some way, and communicate this improvement to others without having to ask anybody for their blessing. You don’t have to recompile the tool, and the tool provides a way to extend itself in a shareable way. Expertise can develop, and the transfer from person to person means that domain-specific expertise can develop. You can adapt the editor for your team. You can write Excel sheets for your department.

@dredmorbius wrote something related about the minimal viable user on Reddit. It’s not the same thing, but it’s related. There, he explores the problems that arise in software development. One of them is complexity. A solution should be as simple as possible but no simpler. Conversely a complex problem requires a complex solution. You can cut every Gordian Knot. And yes, there are always places where complexity arises by necessity: whenever interfacing with complex domains: shells, editors, development environments, databases, emails.

Rereading that collection of thoughts brings back the OECD report. It’s devastating, and raises the question of what “smart users” might actually mean. The Nielsen Norman Group has a great summary. They count four levels of proficiency, if you know how to use a computer. This is important, because a full 26% of the adult population was unable to use a computer. A quarter! 14% are “below level 1”. They can perform a simple, straight forward tasks like “delete this email message.” That’s 40% of the adult population. 29% of the population are at level 1. They can use a widely used tool like email software or a web browser. They can perform straight forward tasks like “find all emails from John Smith.” That’s 69% of the adult population. Another 26% of the population are at level 2. They can perform multi-step tasks like “find a sustainability-related document that was sent to you by John Smith in October last year.” That’s 95% of the population. Only the remaining 5% can solve problems that involve setting sub-goals and assessing progress, evaluating relevance, reliability and so on. The example task provided is to determine “what percentage of the emails sent by John Smith last month were about sustainability.”

5%. This is underappreciated. I certainly did not appreciate this.

To me, this means that I’ve made peace with the fact that there will forever be different tech stacks, sadly. There is no point in getting people to use GNU/Linux and Emacs and all that, unless they’re extremely simplified. I’m not saying that Windows or macOS are specifically better because they’re also hard to use. These kinds of general machines are hard to use. All of them. These people are confused by the note-taking app on your phone because it magically involves your email account via IMAP. Even I find that confusing!

What makes is fundamentally impossible to solve this problem? Why is computing so much harder than driving a car? @yaaps said, “computer technologies have actively sabotaged the capacities of the user base.” And that is true. But that’s not the only problem. A computer is not a car. Many people know how to drive a car. Is it because of a grand unified user interface, good manuals, the ability to tinker with cars? Not at all.

In my experience, everything other than the pedals is random. Manual transmission or not, where the lights and the window wipes are, how to drive backwards, and so on. I remember sitting in a rental car with my wife in France and we couldn’t leave the parking lot. A certain sequence of actions was required to start it up and we didn’t know it. And yet, the number of controls of a car is minuscule compared to a computer.

The computer is more complex than a car, and people have much less experience. There is an “embodiment” in the car driving experience: here you are in the car. Turn a wheel, make a curve. Here’s the road. Here’s a car. Here’s a parking lot. All these things we know from walking around, from play, from life as kids. They relate through each other through space and physics, and we can observe their interactions. We can infer the rules of speed, of momentum, of breaking and turning, from experience, from our body reacting to physical forces. We all start without that on a computer. Or at least my generation did. And older people are worse – and I’m not convinced that people get better.

Turning back to the OECD report on computer skill levels. Even if computers are being designed like simple tools, dumbed down, how much more gain can we expect in computer skill levels by changing that design? 7% instead 5% would be a 40% gain! But what about all the people that don’t know how to use a computer. They aren’t being helped. How will they get the experience people have with roads and cars whether they want it or not? I don’t think there is a way. Not any more. These people have lives and jobs, families and responsibilities, and they don’t need computers, they don’t want computers, and they don’t benefit from computers.

Maybe if we made people fear computers for spying on them, if we forced them to use computers to partake in civil life, like they need a car to go shopping in some parts of the world. Sadly, we’re getting there, slowly, and I’m not liking it.

That is why I end up being OK with simple devices for people with other priorities in life and old style personal computers – universal machines – for people who want and need them.

And we can have all these elements at play, all at the same time. I love text. I love programming. That’s why I use a laptop with GNU/Linux and Emacs. I don’t love tinkering with graphic cards and I don’t like upgrading my computers. That’s why I buy a gaming console every one or two decades and use them to play games. I think I stopped gaming on the PC after … Wing Commander II or something like that! 😁

That reminds me of something @rafial recently posted:

「Random insight of the night: every couple years, someone stands up and bemoans the fact that programming is still primarily done through the medium of text. And surely with all the power of modern graphical systems there must be a better way. But consider:

  • the most powerful tool we have as humans for handling abstract concepts is language
  • our brains have several hundred millennia of optimizations for processing language
  • we have about 5 millennia of experimenting with ways to represent language outside our heads, using media (paper, parchment, clay, cave walls) that don’t prejudice any particular form of representation at least in two dimensions
  • the most wildly successful and enduring scheme we have stuck with over all that time is linear strings of symbols. Which is text.

So it is no great surprise that text is well adapted to our latest adventure in encoding and manipulating abstract concepts.」

So true! And it brings back the discussion of the limitations of graphical user interfaces in the essay about the “minimal viable user”. Interesting discussions all around!

Comments on 2020-12-12 Computer Competency

@dredmorbius added the following tidbit worth remembering regarding computer skills: they depend on literary skills, and those challenges are actually well understood. He writes:

「Most advanced countries have basic literacy rates of 95--100%. But basic literacy is simply the baseline. The US has a four-grade rating:

  • Proficient: 13%
  • Intermediate: 44%
  • Basic: 29%
  • Below Basic: 14%

Source: 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

One third of US adults are at or below “basic” prose literacy.

Mind: A fair portion of these are nonnative speakers of English. Some border regions especially in Texas have remarkably low English literacy, they may be proficient in other languages.

But that’s a third of the population with a major impediment to significant computer proficiency, on what is a principally text-and-language-based interface.

Keep in mind that secondary school graduation rates have been well above 90% since the 1950s. Educational access shouldn’t be a major driver.」

I agree, if people can’t read and write well enough, and we seem to be incapable of raising that number, that puts an upper limit on what we can expect in terms of computer literacy.

As for what is possible, @clacke has a different take on the numbers:

「What I’m seeing is that 60% have reasonable to amazing literacy and yet they aren’t capable of combining simple programs into slightly less simple programs.

I blame mostly the programs and how we combine them.」

That goes back to a point @yaaps was making:

「 … computer technologies have actively sabotaged the capacities of the user base … People aren’t stupid and computing isn’t intrinsically hard. We’ve just created a computing environment hostile to learning … digital technology is hyper-fuckery struggling to achieve interplanetary scale」

Somewhere in here is our wriggling room.

– 2020-12-13 10:59 UTC

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2020-11-26 Narcissism

My wife is seeing a lot of narcissists at her job. Co-workers at the workplace are sometimes seeing narcissists working for their clients. When I talked about this with my younger team mates, I realised that they don’t yet see the gargantuan damage these sociopaths are doing in our workplace, on this planet, and they are singularly unprepared to deal with them, just as I was.

Here’s something I wrote a long time ago which is just as true today as it was back then.

Things to watch out for:

  • people being callous towards the other side in a conflict (no mercy, no understanding, no forgiving, no healing)
  • noticing how other people you like disappear (when they stop blogging, stop posting, stop commenting)
  • noticing the same feeling of caution, trepidation, or fear in yourself (when you hesitate to post or comment, fearing to get involved)
  • people being defended by others on purely rational grounds (like I did: sometimes we assume the others are simply socially awkward or inept and we hope that they actually mean well or just can’t help themselves; look out for emotional words that point in the other direction, like the words I used: “aggressive” and “angrily”)

Keep track of these things and use these as early warning signs.

Here’s what not to expect:

  • call-outs are super rare because of the anxiety and loyalty (a web of guilt and fear holds it together: you’ve seen other people put down, or you got help in the past)
  • confrontations and proof is hard to find (because they are smart: they keep records and the other side does not; they make sure to exert pressure where others cannot see)

Here’s what to do:

  • most of all: disengage (like somebody else once told me: “The first rule of responsible care is to not create a second patient”)
  • help the targeted (if your early warning signs went off, contact people in private and support each other – this is something I need to do, definitely)

Here’s what to expect:

  • all those people suffering in isolation, all those people quietly retreating – they remember! – and when the dam finally breaks, there’s a shit ton of resentment that has built up

This is true everywhere. Keep your eyes open. Notice the warning signs:

  • callous treatment of others
  • people you like are disappearing
  • notice the trepidation in yourself before getting involved
  • the defence of people on purely rational grounds

When I see a complaint like “they can be pretty rude” and the defence by others is “I’m thinking it’s not intentional”, or “they just mean to be straight and honest”, or “they just have an abrasive online persona”, or “they’re just socially awkward”, or whatever – then all my warning lights are set off.

Remember the asshole filter? If you tolerate assholes all the decent folks start to leave, and in the end you’re surrounded by assholes. We all need to fight back because sociopaths have no other goals in life: they can pour over their plans and machinations for all their waking hours, all they want is power, the admiration of others, and to have that increase at all times, no matter the cost. They’ll ruin teams, departments, companies, schools, IRC channels, newsgroups, mailing lists. They’ll make friends with the new people, they’ll see if they can easily do you a favour that they can leverage for a long time; they’ll make you feel welcome so you can join their fan club; they’ll tear you down if you disagree with them, as an example to others... and then the silence starts to spread like a cancer, and people start making excuses. Too much traffic on the mailing list... Not enough time to join the game tonight... Nobody is willing to confront them and so their power grows. Sometimes they are promoted because they wear everybody down. They don’t feel this pain. This is the struggle they are born to win. That’s why the only way to save our community is to network.

Together, we are strong. We support each other when we’re down. We build each other up when we’re weak. And when we’re strong, we step up and take one for the team. And we kick them out.

Don’t think that you can out-manoeuvrer them with a precise code of conduct, or other legalese. They have all the time in the world and no sense of shame. They will find the loopholes, the edge cases, and use them against you. Use your heart. Make broad guidelines and rely on humans to use their heart. If they’re acting like an asshole, then they are an asshole and you should rid your life of assholes. And the only way to do that is to network.

Don’t forget that they can be charming if they want something from you. As soon as they see that they’ve overstepped their bounds, they know what to say and do. They will apologize. They feel no shame, remember? To bend with the wind is their nature. Use your stubbornness to carry you through these periods. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, remember? Watch for the pattern and wait for repeats. Do not extend the benefit of doubt again and again. Notice it when decent people leave. Every time a decent person left, you lost a potential ally.

When it has blown over, they will start to organize, to plot the downfall of moderators, of whoever stepped on their toes. They have all the time in the world and no other goals. They keep notes of everything. Read the logs I kept, they say. Remember who else keeps notes: the secret service and organised crime keeps kompromat to blackmail you. Therefore, be forgiving – once or twice. People make mistakes. But when there’s a pattern in the other direction, when there are record keepers, realize that this is a warning.

Keep each other’s back and kick them out. Good luck.

And if you can’t take it any more, disengage. There is no other way.

“characterized by persistent grandiosity, excessive need for admiration, and a personal disdain and lack of empathy for others … arrogance and a distorted sense of superiority, and they seek to establish abusive power and control over others … … typically value themselves over others to the extent that they openly disregard the feelings and wishes of others, and expect to be treated as superior, regardless of their actual status or achievements … intolerance of criticism, and a tendency to belittle others in order to validate their own superiority”

Comments on 2020-11-26 Narcissism

Good article, thanks for sharing!

– v 2020-11-27 08:23 UTC


A reply that points at free software in particular.

– 2020-11-28 22:24 UTC


A web page by Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD, was recently recommended on Mastodon: «DARVO refers to a reaction perpetrators of wrong doing, particularly sexual offenders, may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior. DARVO stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim – or the whistle blower – into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance, when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused” and attacks the accuser’s credibility and blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation.»

– Alex 2021-02-12 13:50 UTC

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2020-11-26 Between this life and the next

Case has been writing about the passage of time, and depression, and how one feels about the waves of life, and wonders about the final reckoning. It was a good post.

I don’t suffer from depression. There’s a strange melancholy in some of my days, and I guess many people share that, too. Perhaps there’s a simple biochemical explanation for it. Something about vitamin D and the sun, movement and exercise, alienation at work, but it’s hard to separate this from how I feel about it. The idea that the soul and the body are two separate things is a construction. The experience is that the two are one. When I hurt myself, I fear for myself. I am my body.

And so when my body lacks vitamin D or some other thing, it is I who is sad. There’s a physical explanation and yet there’s no psychological difference. Perhaps in that we are one with the world. I feel like there’s some sort of revelation hiding around some corner, here.

When I feel sad, I want to listen to music that goes to the same places as my heart. I used to listen a lot to Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem nach Worten der Heiligen Schrift, op. 45. I listened to it a lot while working. People are talking all around me and I put on my headphones and look at the leaves of a tree outside and feel wave after wave of sadness wash over me. “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” (“For all flesh is as grass”). I often say, if I ever turn religious, it will be because of the music.

The Latvian Radio Choir is singing Rachmaninov’s All-night Vigil, op. 37 “Vespers”. The best music for crying and programming, both at the same time. Here I am, tears streaming down my face, thinking about getting data into a Postgres database. And I keep thinking: this is the time we live in. Crying, chagrined, as the world slowly turns into a swamp. And yet. Music is going to turn me into a believer, yet. “For his mercy endureth for ever. Alleluia.” We are all in desperate need of it.

I’m playing Pärt’s Miserere and drifting through clouds of compute, fingers moving, only to have my soul blown to bits after five minutes. And then, back to the disorienting world of cyberspace, poorly reflected on the flat screen, poorly interacted with using that laptop keyboard, soulless flow of programming for money. What did just happen? What am I doing here? I just want to shout: “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers!”

It’s Sunday, it’s grey outside. We call it Hochnebel: the high fog. It covers the earth beneath 1000m and is light as mist and yet it weighs down our souls like lead. And softly, I hear music playing from the kitchen: The Song of the Sibyl, Montserrat Figueras, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Jordi Savall. I think I’m melting. 😭

My thoughts return to Brahms’ Requiem and I hear the voices sing: “Herr, lehre doch mich, / daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß. / und mein Leben ein Ziel hat, / und ich davon muß.” (“Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am.”)

In his post, Case asks: “Between this world and the next, do you think there’s a kind of accounting?” I find the eternal machine of the world fascinating and distracting, and I think I must like it the way it is, for I’m not sure there’s a next life to go to. There is no inherent meaning, and no supernatural voices are guiding me. And so, where as I used to be fascinated by Zen and aestheticism, now I think to dedicate my life to this while I can lead a fuller life, a life where I am one with the world, integrated with it – to ignore all that without knowing what comes next – that is something I don’t want to do. To live and to be alive is all there is. To feel joy while you do it is all there is. The sublime happiness of the virtuous life is all there is.

Here’s to hoping that we can all share in that happiness, that we can all keep our heads above the water.

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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! 😀

References:

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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 https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/1/9/14207302/authoritarian-states-boring-tolerable-fascism-trump

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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