Saturday, December 20, 2014

Apply for the position as head of government

It's summer. It's vacation time. It is almost, but not quite, even warm outside.

For those who at last can enjoy a break from their hard work, these are good times. After many moons of sweat and toil, there's finally a slim chance for something as mythological as a sleep-in. A slow afternoon. An evening not haunted by the fast approaching workmorning after.'s that time of year. For those who work.

For those unemployed, on the other hand, it's business as usual. This time of year is like any other time of year: still unemployed. Vacation is, after all, defined in opposition to being at work, and just like any dichotomy it becomes brutally pointless to reduce it to one word. Without workdays no vacation days, and without vacation days no workdays.

There are only noworkdays.

In an ambition to give everyone the opportunity to enjoy going on vacation, unemployed are encouraged by unemployment agencies to apply for jobs. Not just the one job, but many, to increase the odds. Ideally as many as possible, for the same reason.

Which makes sense on an individual level. A person applying for one (1) job has half the chance compared to a person who applies for two (2) jobs. Even less of a chance compared to a person who applied for three (3). It becomes strange, however, when this same strategy is used by a large number of people, as the number of jobs don't increase at the same rate as the number of applications. Seen on a systemic level, this paradoxically leads to more work for those who are already employed, as more applications has to be administered. The more unemployed applying for more jobs they for reasons of pure arithmetics can't get, the more workhours wasted on wasted work applications.

Which, to be sure, is wasted effort on the part of everyone involved.

Since you are an attentive reader, you have already noticed the title of this post. you probably already know where this is going. It is wasteful to waste energy on nothing, after all, and it's even more wasteful to write applications that won't be read by anyone. It is, by definition, be better to do things that have effect than to do things than don't, and thus I encourage you to do just that:

Apply for the position as head of government.

Now, at this point you might want to object that it is impossible to get that job by applying for it, since it's not a job following the ordinary rules of employment, and that the social spheres from which potential heads of government are chosen are rather hard to get into. Two objections that are completely true. However, it's not about one individual here, but about many of them. It's a numbers game. One particular person applying for the job won't do any particular difference. But if many people do it many times, the sheer number of applications becomes a message hard to ignore. Whether or not if anyone actually reads them or not.

Which has a greater effect than writing an application for a job that is just as impossible to get.

Thus, if you are not enjoying your summer vacation this summer, and find yourself in the paradoxical situation of working very hard at being unemployed - apply for the position as head of government. One time, two times, three times - for as long as your are encouraged to write as many applications as possible.

It's never a bad thing to show initiative, forwardness and innovativeness in the competitive modern job market, after all. -

Originally published June 24, 2014

Friday, December 19, 2014

Emotional pylons

Recently, I've been thinking about the notion of emotional pylons. Partly because I like the words, but mostly because I like the notions. Emotional pylons. What is it? And what could it be?

The latter question is, as always, more interesting than the former.

They could be a great many things. Over at my other blog - you know, the one with strange standalone nonsensical pieces of almost-fiction - I imagine them being some sort of disembodied system that caters to a towns emotional needs. It's just metaphysical enough to almost be theological, and just technological enough to almost be magical. It's almost fiction.

Another imagining is that they are social spaces. Social spaces where people get together, share their stories and experiences, discuss current events and difficulties, build shared values and generally support each other in various ways. Including in the ever important but also ever invisible emotional dimension, the one that underlies all others due to the human conditions. We are all human beings, human feelers, and these feels need to be attended to from time to time. And place.

There's a marked lack of places where people go in order to feel genuinely better when they leave. Where people can recharge emotionally, both themselves and others.

Another image is of memetics/semiotics. Sort of like pictures of kittens, only more so. Pictures, sayings, phrases, gestures - small everyday things that confirm and reaffirm that you (yes, you) still have a place in the order of things, that you are an accepted part of this here group of people. The nods and grunts and elaborate rituals that marks members as members, and that marks you as such, embracing you as you reciprocate. Or don't, as the case might be, depending on just how tired you are.

Another image:

This could keep going for a while. I'm not too terribly interested in defining what an emotional pylon is. I am, however, deep into thinking about what they might be, and how they might be implemented in a world near us.

On a street near us, as it were. -

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Suddenly, identity politics

It is fashionable to argue against identity politics these days. Which is interesting, in that it is always interesting to see that certain issues tend to return at certain times, rather than at others. One cannot but ask: why now, and why with such unexpected intensity?

These questions will not be answered in this post. Instead, things will take a very liberal turn. Just like that.

One of the cornerstones of a liberal democracy is legal equality. Any one citizen is equal to any other citizen, and no one has greater status than any other. There are no estates (ie nobility, clergy and commoners), and no classes. That is to say, there is one set of laws that apply equally to everyone, and is applied equally on everyone. Crimes lead to the same punishment no matter who commits the deed; taxes are levied in the same ways no matter who's taxed; government agencies act and communicate in predictable and standardised ways - and so on and so forth. Everyone is equal before the law.

Everyone. No exceptions.

At this point, someone might object that this isn't true. An objection to which I respond both yes and no: yes, it is true that legal equality is a cornerstone of liberal democracy, and no, this is not true to the everyday experience of most people. It would not be hard to find examples of citizens being treated unequally, regardless if this is due to class, gender, ethnicity, ability or what have you. In fact, it would be far easier than it really ought to be.

If we, hypothetically, were to gather a sufficient amount of these examples to find systematic differences in how the law is applied, and that a specific group of citizens were thus systematically treated differently - what would happen if this group got together and formed some sort of organization in order to demand their rights as citizens? To, in the true spirit of liberal democracy, demand to be treated as full citizens of their polity?

Would that be identity politics?

That, too, is a question that will not be answered in this post. -

Originally published December 6, 2014

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The implications of #shirtstorm for space exploration

It is imperative to create robust incentive structures in order to secure continual innovation. Innovation is a gradual process, and it requires a constant effort from start to finish. Thus, it is important to keep people motivated for the long haul - to sustain the required levels of efforts for as long as it takes.

Even when it takes longer than planned.

This means that it is sometimes both appropriate and necessary to relax some of the traditional strictures of project management and workplace culture. Nothing kills creativity and innovation as effectively as rules and regulations, and many a project has failed due to participants becoming dispirited by what they perceive as arbitrary rules enforced for no reason. Keeping these key people motivated is of vital importance, and in the grander scheme of things the bottom line is the bottom line.

Getting things done is what matters.

Seen in this light, the shirt in the aforementioned #shirtstorm is easy to understand. Landing a robot on a comet is a hard thing, requiring massive attention to minute details and immense efforts to ensure that every decimal point is where is should be. Calculations have to be made, and then remade, and then remade, and then double checked, and then correlated, and then adjusted for new information. It's hard work, and it's repetitious hard work, and it's repetitious hard work sustained over a long period of time. Giving the workers a break is only fair - even if this break takes the form of relaxing the routines regarding workplace attire.

The comet does not care what you wear, so why should we?

To reiterate: getting things done is what matters.

There are signs, however, that this is not enough. That innovation is still unnecessarily stifled by workplace and social conventions. That we need to promote robuster incentive structures in order to secure further innovation. Thus, we have considered to propose this as a possible next step:

Let those who accomplish the next great feat of space exploration be as sexist as they want for a whole year, without comment or repercussions.

It is our belief that this will serve as a very palpable incentive to those innovators who feel constricted by the strictures of contemporary society, and that unleashing their creative potential would serve mankind in the years to come.

Innovation is hard work, and it is vital to keep it up.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

An economy of bottle caps

Copyright is confusing. So confusing, in fact, that the only way to explain it is to turn to the bottle.

Or, rather, the humble bottle opener.

If at this point you're slightly confused as to what kind of bottle opener I'm referring to, seeing as there's quite a variety of mechanisms that can be used in the process of bottle opening, therefore deserving the name "bottle opener" - you're on point. There's more than one way to open a bottle, and there's more than one way to construct a bottle opener. The general principle being that if it opens bottles, it's a bottle opener.

Enter copyright.

The prevailing paradigm when it comes to enforcing copyright is to ensure that everyone uses a particular kind of bottle opener. No matter that there are many kinds of openers, many ways of opening a bottle and many bottle standards across the world - one solution fits all. And you have to use this particular opener in order to open the bottles you want to open.

The prevailing paradigm is circumvented every day. As you might imagine.

The key to making this enforcement strategy work is to design bottles in such a way that they can only be opened by a particular opener. Which is as hard to do in regards to bottles as it is to anything else, be it physical or digital objects. But, hard or not, the design efforts continue. Those who have the know-how to find other means of opening the bottles do so; those who do not, are left with the hope that the bottle/opener works well together.

And have to trust the ever so helpful customer services when they don't.

One example of this is libraries and ebooks. Especially university libraries. If you're a student, you most likely have access to a large number of ebooks through your library card. However, to actually use this access, you have to jump through some hoops. One of them being to log in with whatever student login is required. Another being that you are limited to using whatever format they are providing. Regardless if those formats actually work on the devices you use. Or the software you use.

Things only working in Internet Explorer, not working on mobile devices, only working for a limited time - there's a lot of demands and limitations to take into account. And it is up to you to adapt yourself to these demands and limitations, rather than the other way around.

Copyright demands that you use the prescribed opener. Which, in the library case, means that things are not as accessible and readable as the library ethos would want them to be. But they have to use these systems, because otherwise they wouldn't have access to these ebooks at all.

Copyright demands. Copyright limits.

It could be as simple as the book being there, available to everyone who'd want to read it, the world being a richer place for people having read it. It could be. But it isn't.

That's the most confusing part.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Propahate this

There's a simple propaganda test. It can be used to test if someone has been subjected to propaganda. It is very simple. It is this statement:

If you feel allowed to hate someone, you've been subjected to propaganda.

That's the extent of it. There's nothing more to it. It's as simple as that, and it is an effective test because of that.

Why would such a test be effective?

Thing is, most readers have strong feelings about either propaganda or hate, or both. There's an immediate impetus to try to refute this statement, or modify it in some way. And it is in this very act of refutation that makes the test an effective one.

It gets people to talk. And they talk propaganda. Either by reaching for those justifications that allow them to hate some particular someones (this staple of propaganda), or by trying to invalidate the test in some other way. It doesn't really matter in what particular way - the act speaks for itself, as it were. However the response is phrased, it finds itself trying to justify hate in some form. Usually because at some level, there's some hate that is perceived to be in need of justification.

It's a simple test. It is also slightly unethical. And, to be sure, it is in itself a nice piece of propaganda.

Not unlike the propaganda that you are subjected to on a daily basis. -

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Let's play 20 questions

Some of the more vocal supporters of #gamergate have suggested that critical assessment of games are, in a word, colonialist. Which suggests that games are in some way a sacred space, whose sovereign integrity is not to be violated by outside interlopers.

This is a premise. Let's run with it.

Or, rather, let's gradually nibble at it. By asking this one question: how much assessment is too much?

It should be safe to assume that a critical analysis regarding how gender, ethnicity and ideology are represented and reproduced within the narrative framework of a game is clearly over the line. More so a discussion about which kind of subjectivity a particular game suggests and normalizes. There are lines of inquiry that can be safely assumed to be on the colonialist side of things.

This is a given.

One approach might be to gradually decrease the complexity of analysis until we reach a non-invasive form. At some point, even outsiders are allowed to witness sacred spaces, given that they are quiet enough.


That approach would take an inordinate amount of time, and include a lot of effort. To be sure, no efforts to reduce complexity are ever wasted, but there is a faster way. And that way is to approach it from the other side.

Start from something that is considered within the allowed bounds. Something that even the believers themselves claim to be on the right and proper side. And then slowly and gradually add analytical concepts to it, until we reach the limit. No leaps and bounds, just one nuance or aspect at a time, as incrementally as possible. Ever so slowly nibble our way to clarity.

Given enough subtle nibbling, the boundary should eventually make itself known. Some questions are allowed, others are not, and by carefully cataloging which is which a reasonable picture should emerge. Some questions are within the framework of the believers preexisting lifeworld, and others are imposed by outside colonialists. Knowing which is which should enable us to communicate with the believers in a non-confrontational way.

That was a premise. I've ran with it.

Possibly with scissors.

A cycle of trust

When learning to repair a bike, you do not only learn to repair a bike. You learn other things as well, while and by doing the repairwork.

One of these things is the notion of trust. In order to repair a bike, you have to trust it. And, more importantly, you have to trust it in order to get on it and roll with it. It's a bumpy ride if you don't.

This trust is not just a trust in that it won't break down right away. That's part of it, but it goes further. It goes into knowing how it will break down, and knowing that you know how to repair it when it does.

A trust born in familiarity.

Because it will break down. Again and again. Not because of lack of repair skill, but because it's a mechanical object put into action, wearing and tearing all along. Entropy isn't kind on things in motion.

You can trust entropy. You can trust things to break down predictably (most times). You can trust yourself with knowing what to do when that happens.

Learning by doing. It's a thing.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What every true gamer should know

Games are microcosms. They are small, self-contained worlds wherein you as the player are free to roam. The limits on just how much you can roam varies from game to game, but in general there are several ways to get things done. Which one you choose at any particular time might depend on your mood, intention, level of roleplaying or, indeed, skill level.

You are never free to roam as you wish. No game is ever without limits, and if you keep at it for long enough you will encounter these limits. In some games, such as tic-tac-toe, the limits are brutally visible: the 3x3 grid contains everything that will ever be. In more complex games, the limits might not be as visible, but they are still there. And you will encounter them, given time.

As your skill level grows, you will gradually become more and more hemmed in by these limits. What can reasonably be done has most likely already been done, and the temptation to go for the impossible grows with unreasonable speed.

When confronted with this unreasonable impossibility, there are two ways to keep on gaming. The one way is to impose certain limitations on what one can and cannot do during gameplay, in order to increase the difficulty level. These limitations include such things as not using healing items, not saving, never being hurt, not killing anyone, collecting every single gold star whilst doing all these other things, and so on and so forth. The more you selfimpose, the harder it gets, and the more impressive it becomes once it's done.

The other way is to go in the opposite direction. Ditch any pretense of limitations and abuse the underlying game mechanics until they break. Squeeze every single possible bit of utility out of the rules, and unleash it upon the gameworld. Find the edge conditions that give you unlimited money, then use this money to conquer the world. Find the loophole that lets you get all the super items, then get two of them. Find out where rule one and rule two combined produce strange results, then base your whole game around abusing these results.

One day, the island nation of Ryukyu shall rule the earth.

Here's the thing, though. It is very possible to frame a game in such a way that those who takes delight in pushing the limits and abusing the mechanics are every so subtly trained in the art of thinking in very particular ways. The limits are not so much limits as roadmaps, and pushing the limits leads not to freedom but to a very predetermined endpoint: to becoming a subject who thinks in certain terms, values certain things and sees certain things as both possible and necessary to do. The game games you as much as the other way around.

The game will not tell you this, of course. It will only ever give you the rewards it is programmed to give you: extra skill points, extra achievements, fancier armor, lemons, whatever. Extra trinkets to keep you playing along, happy that your progression is on the right path.

Looking for the ways in which you as a gamer is gamed requires you to think outside the sandbox. It requires you to ponder such things as whether or not the game you're playing actually makes sense - a question that is surprisingly often overlooked. What kind of character are you playing? Is the implied narrative actually relevant to anything you do? Is there some sort of meta-fictional context that would help explain why things are the way they are? Why is the graphics the way they are, and are there references to other visual arts to be found? Could the game be different?

These are not easy questions. They are also not the kind of questions that can be answered using the vocabulary of gaming. Mega Man might be able to navigate the world using the two all-encompassing actions of jumping and shooting, but if jumping and shooting are the only things you as a human being are capable of performing, then you are deficient in more ways than you know.

You could of course impose limitations upon yourself. Refuse to read about art, politics, ideology, feminism, psychology, history or anything else, and steadfastly keep trotting along the predetermined path. Or you could game the game as it tries to game you, and find that there is more than meets the eye.

Your move, player one.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Psychoanalytical muffins

There's a lot of psychoanalysis about. As in, wherever you look, there it is. Mostly it ignores you, but sometimes it looks back at you, with an unreadable smile and knowing eyes.

It's uncomfortable that way.

Now, I imagine that many of you are reacting to these words in a similar fashion as an atheist would react to someone mentioning the bible. "It's nonsense" and unscientific and bullshit and all the rest of it. Which, to be brutal, is utterly beside the point. The point being that an idea that has had significant impact on culture, art, criticism and just about everything worth mentioning is worthy of being understood for the very reason that things don't make sense without it.

No disrespect to power dynamics and geopolitics, but the Thirty Years' War needs a portion of theology to be understood. (Which, also, warrants me to say this: do not respond to this with comments like "psychoanalysis is wrong". Do point out that I'm wrong about psychoanalysis, however.)

Thing is, it's mostly not understood. It's taken at a surface level and left there. Which leaves everything in a strange state of things, with biological family dynamics as the place where it's at. A not unimportant place, to be sure, but not the whole story. The family is the metaphor, but it won't carry if you throw out the baby with the bath water.

The pun is the point.

To recap some of the basics: the psyche consists of three parts, the id, the ego and the superego. The id is the primal urges we all know and love - eating, sleeping, fucking, appreciation of bad action movies. The ego is the "you", if you will, the thing that thinks and ponders and suffers soulcrushing anxiety and all that jazz. The superego is the internalized norms and values, and is the prime source of what we call "conscience".

Now, these three parts all interrelate in different ways. For instance: the id might want something, but the superego might insist on that something being Morally Wrong, leaving the ego in a delicate state of wanting the forbidden. Possible wanting it even more because it's forbidden. Thing is, no matter what the ego does, there's bound to be repercussions from the id and superego: if the ego gives in and indulges, the superego will act by affecting a bad conscience. If the ego abstains, the id will keep wanting the thing it wants, and won't let the ego forget it.

Life is suffering, as the saying goes.

The thing to ponder here is that none of these parts are inherently good or evil. One might assume that the id is evil, but it isn't - it doesn't have sufficient underlying intentionality for that. It just wants to eat a muffin because it tastes good, and that's the whole line of reasoning. It's a beast, but it's a simple beast. Conversely, the superego is not good just because it's associated with conscience. In fact, it's positively anal and sadistic in what it punishes the ego for - even the slightest thing can provoke it into a guilt trip worthy a Christian saint. It only ever wants the ego to follow the rules, even if these rules border on the ridiculous. Any deviation is punished, and any remorse is outsourced to the ego.

The ego, thus, is ever in a bind. And will be until death does the parts apart.

The dynamic between the parts works as thus: giving in to either the id or the superego won't give the ego any long term advantages. The ego will want another muffin soon after the first one is consumed, and the superego will become ever more fine-grained in what it considers to be adherence and deviation the more you allow it to dictate your moves. Giving in won't make them go away - it will only make them go further, give them incentive to keep going.

There are things to be said about Freud's use of the notion of energy. There's an economy to what gets energy and what doesn't, and there's always a limited amount of it. Some of it is seized by the id (GIMME DAT MUFFIN), some of it is appropriated by the superego (in order to punish you better), and some of it is wrested by the ego in an effort to withstand it all. Or, indeed, to do anything in need of doing. Depending on what has the most energy, and in what proportions, the ego has lesser or greater scope of manifesting its will.

Much to the chagrin of the id, a person cannot eat muffins all the time. Not for lack of wanting, but due to the brutality of social existence. There's things that has to be done, and no slack is given. There's also things that are forbidden to be done, and anyone wanting to do these things will have to find other outlets for this wish.

Freud calls this "sublimation". The most widely used example is the horny artist who only ever wants to have sex, but due to lack of sexhavers has a whole lot of pent-up energy, and uses this to paint works of art instead. The energy must flow, and if it can't flow directly it will have to find some indirect way. What blocks the direct way might be the superego, societal norms or literally anything - if there's a will, there's an indirect way of manifesting it.

It's at this stage the family comes in. Freud uses the Father, Mother and Child as metaphors for the things that shape the dynamic between the parts. What actually happens in reality might involve the family, but it might as well not - it's not the point. Father as rulemaker stands in for any particular thing that creates the rules the superego proposes; Mother as caretaker stands in for any particular thing that comforts and provides; and Child is a subtle pun, making us remember that no one is as mature as they'd like to pretend to be.

To be sure, one's family (in whatever form it happens to have taken) is an important aspect of an individual's history, and knowing about it helps putting everything else into context. But what actually happened isn't as important as that which continues to happen, and more specifically as how a person treats what they remember. Memory is not passive retrieval, but active processing, and there's bound to be subtle clues and cues in how a person chooses (or is dynamically forced) to relate personal events.

The same goes for dreams: what happens in the dream isn't important in and of itself, but the way a person tells it and how they interact with the dream stuff is - pardon the pun - telling.

There's no way to actually know what happened in family history or dreamspace. What a person says could very well all be lies and on-the-fly inspirational improvisation. How the person says it, however, especially over extended conversational sessions, is harder to fake. It reveals things about the internal dynamics, and how id and superego makes life hard for the ego.

This is, as a sidenote, somewhat related to Freud's insistence that people promptly pay for their therapy sessions. Not only as a way to keep afloat economically, but to keep the conversations on the level. It ensures a certain dynamic to the conversation, as it were.

As you might have gathered, there's a subtle distinction between theory and practice here. On the one hand, there's the theory (superego and all that). On the other hand, there's practice, as in what to do when one has a living, breathing and (hopefully) talking person in the room. It is quite possible to understand the one without having a clue about the other. Theory is not praxis, and there's a reason many practitioners chose to deviate from being pure Freudians.

As with all things humans do, someone is bound to find a better way to go about it. And wonder why others don't see why it is better.

Enter Lacan, who paradoxically moved away from Freud by returning to his writings. To make a long story very short, he had misgivings about psychoanalytic orthodoxy as it had developed institutionally, and sought to return to basics. Which, as you might imagine, didn't go as well as he'd think, and he went off doing his own thing. The same thing, but his own, nevertheless.

Which replaces id/ego/superego - familiar as they are - with the more nebulous real/imaginary/symbolic. It's still a triad, and in many ways the same triad. The Real being, at its most basic, the existing world, and a person's experience of it, unfiltered through language. The symbolic is this language, and also the ideas and ideologies and structures that exist within it. The imaginary, being an analogue to the ego, is the attempt to merge these two: the idiosyncratic synthesis of experience and language into something, anything, that makes sense.

To illustrate: MUFFINS TASTE GOOD. This is the unmediated experience of the world, #nofilter as it is sometimes called. Thing is, humans filter just about everything we do, and nothing is ever just what it is. Thus, the eating of the muffin translates into discourses about fitness, diets, health and what it means to be a self-disciplined person. The Real morphs through the Symbolic, and the ego/imaginary is left to make sense of the amorphous mess that is left over.

This is, incidentally, a case for reading philosophy: it makes for a better imaginary experience.

The imaginary, like the ego, is where it is at. The mumbling, jostling confusion of experience and discourse, and fragments of both comingling into a traumatic experience that can only be described as endured. The muffin tastes good, but there's a lot of buts, but there's also other things to think about, distractions, other symbolic structures to go about experiencing. A muffin is only a muffin, but there's a lot to think about before and after nomming it.

The symbolic makes sense. It is sensemaking, in a sense. It's the order of things, the ordered world that mere mortals can only hope to one day comprehend. We might compare it to a Platonic ideal, if only for the connotations that brings: there is a way things are supposed to be.

This returns to the subject as the experience of the Big Other. There is an idea of how things are supposed to be, and this idea is watching you trying to do that very thing, judging you. The Big Other knows what you are doing, and it knows the thoughts leading you to do what you're doing, judging all the way. You might pass with flying colors, or you might be left with a feeling that you didn't do enough - either way, judgment is passed.

Or, put another way: What would people say?

To exemplify: "real [category] don't eat muffins". You know it, and the big other knows you know it. Your relation to the muffin, and the eating of said muffin, is colored by this. Whether you eat it or not won't change this dynamic - you're still in a situation where you know it knows. But it will affect your approach to this category. Whatever it might be.

If you've ever felt you're not really a part of something, this is it. Especially if that something is "academia".

If you've read a book or three, you might recognize some of these ideas. There's any number of parallels to Foucault, Butler and other social writers of the 20th century. Ideas never spring from nowhere, and there's always someone else who has done it before. There will, indeed, always ever be. The letter always arrives.

I want to end this post by mentioning that I've written most of this from memory and sudden inexplicable inspiration, and have become ever more aware of just how much I've forgotten about all of this. Thing is - it makes more sense as a blog post than as a general memory, and is more useful as something written than as something remembered. I am all too aware that the Big Other has objections, but it will always have. And thus, the choice:

Do it anyway, or let myself be symbolically unrealed?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

New media, old class

One of the things I've written least about is that I'm brutally conservative. As in, I don't think things have changed all that much the last decades. Or, rather, things have not changed as much as they'd seem when looking at what people have said about how much things have changed.

Let's take an example: crowdfunding.

Now, I'm the first to say that it's all well and good that people can create alternative ways of financially supporting good things. There are too many good ideas not realized due to the lack of funding, and too many ideas are subverted by crony corporate funding. Getting away from that is unequivocally a good thing.

However. There's a distribution as to which things gets funded and which does not. And this distribution has striking similarities to old lines of class, gender, ethnicity and all that jazz.

The net result is not the abolition of these factors, as some cyberutopians have suggested, but rather a slight shift as to the conditions under which they operate. Which is visible not least in the case of Sarkeesian, who indeed got funding, but also a whole slew of other things to go along with it. Things that are not explained (away) by the net, nor caused by it. Merely amplified by it, moving along the path of same old same old.

We might also assume that not everyone will get a $55k potato salad.

Now, to reiterate: it is a good thing that crowdfunding exists. But there's virtue in not overselling just how much of a difference it will make. The new world is still the old world in many respects, and even more so in its lack of respects. -

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The blog post the trolls don't want you to read

You have met them. The trolls. The persistent trolls. The trolls that absolutely just have to talk. With you. Constantly. A lot. About everything.

They come in waves. Sometimes they are very active, and want to say a great many things as fast as possible. Sometimes, they seem to have forgotten all about you. But, like so many tax-related issues, their return is preordained.

They are also wavelike. As in, they say just about the same things every time they wash over you, in the same manner, with the same underlying patterns. Which is good, since we during their downtime can describe and predict how their next wave is going to turn out. As in, say, a blog post such as this.

This is not an attempt to out those who suffer from the condition of being trolls. It aims at being useful for them and those in their close vicinity. Partly as a kind of self-test - are any of these things applicable to things I'm doing? And as a kind of manual to those who are at the receiving end of a troll wave - how can it be contextualized and understood? And, lastly, as a kind of reference point - it is always good to be able to point somewhere and exclaim "look, you are so predictable that there's even a blog post written about you and what you're doing, read it!".

But enough ado. Let's roll.

1. They are functionally illiterate when it comes to things they don't agree with

It might seem mean to call them functionally illiterate. But the alternative - that they are literate but actively choose not to understand even the simplest of texts -would be even meaner. Let's exemplify this: feminism.

The Wikipedia article about feminism has this to say: "Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women." Which seems straightforward enough - an umbrella term for various movements that strive for equality in various ways. Not one thing, but many things, united by a general tendency to strive in the same overall direction.

Show this to a troll, and what they read is this: "Feminism is a unified movement whose enslaved and hive-minded minions want to kill all men and mankind as we know it, and establish a matriarchy where the Ur-Mother has absolute authority."

Should you attempt to kindly point out that the text does not support such a reading, you'll wish you didn't. One might assume that a quick look at the table of contents, with its explicit mention of all the various kinds of feminisms, would be sufficient for the task. It should be sufficient to everyone with a modicum of literacy - but, alas, the troll will only get mad for being talked back at. And thus commences the troll rage.

Whereby feminism (or, indeed, any other phenomenon whatsoever) continues to be regarded as a unified object. Even though basic literacy would suggest otherwise.

2. Those who happen to be literate don't know about libraries, or how they work

It's one of the strangest things about libraries. They are free, they are loaded with books, and anyone can use them. Literally. If you're interested in something, you can just stroll over there and peruse the books to your heart's content. It is as strange as it is marvelous.

Yet, for these people, it would seem that even the most accessible library is situated on the top of a large mountain. Figuratively. The trolls can walk around for years and years and say the most outrageous things, things they would stop saying if they took the time to read just one singular book on the subject. Whatever the subject.

Now, you might object that they are not interested enough to do such a thing. Thing is, in order to become the subject of this post, they'll have to be trolls, which must be said to be interested in the things they are trolling about. They are interested, but they are not able to combine their interest with the notion of a library.

This, sadly enough, makes literary and academic references meaningless to them. The mountain is insurmountable. The libraries are free and open, yet impossible to reach.

Which is a shame. One book would have sufficed. And the libraries are legion.

3. They know that you are wrong. About everything

Quite literally everything. There is no room for compromise. There is no common ground. You are wrong, and they will neither cease nor desist until you have confessed this. In public. Repeatedly.

It goes without saying that it is hard to dialogue your way to a mutual understanding and a sharing of common ground between you and them. No matter how receptive, conciliatory and understanding you try to be, they won't reciprocate. Their only tactic is aptly named "scorched earth". And the only ground good enough to scorch is yours.

According to them, you are always wrong. You are never right. About anything. Ever.

4. Details are always more important than context

As a result of 3, you will be wrong ever when you're right. An ordinary way to assure this outcome is to zoom in on some detail you might not be absolutely 100% confident about, and exploit this lack of completeness to the fullest extent. They will at length point out how wrong you are about this one minor detail, and then force you to admit that you were wrong about it (with or without your participation). They will then zoom out and apply this admission to your whole argument, and/or your whole person. Without mercy.

5. They have acute difficulties with rhetorical figures, such as synecdoches, exemplifications and enumerations

A synecdoche is an expression where the part gets to represent the whole. Such as when "the crown" is used to represent a monarchy and its institutions. One might assume that a reader would understand such shorthands. but alas - you are wrong! Either literally, in such a way that a monarch has other regalia (spires and suchlike), or even more literally, in such a way to suggest that the crown as a physical object does not have any authority in and of itself, and that you are both foolish and wrong to say such a thing.

Trying to provide examples of general phenomena is received the same way. Whatever example you provide is not read as an example, but as all examples, the entirety of the phenomena (and, indeed, of discussion). Which immediately proceeds into a fine-grained discussion about cases where the things you mentioned are in fact not examples of the phenomena in question. Or that it is a bad example (see 4).

One might think that mentioning a whole host of examples might disarm this tactic. But no, you are still wrong, and your examples are either incomplete (as in, you forgot something, and must now explain why), or one of the things you mentioned was wrong in some other way, and you must now explain why you were wrong in this regard. No further discussion will be allowed until this wrongness is resolved.

The common theme for all these examples is the inability or unwillingness to assume anything for the sake of argument. That would be giving you the benefit of the doubt, and that won't do, since you are undoubtedly wrong about everything. Whatever you say, however you say it.

To exemplify: the sky is not blue. It's azure.

6. They will read everything you say in the absolutely most belligerent way anyone can ever read anything

Let us say you write something about kittens. It includes cute pictures of kittens. It is all about how cute these kittens are. You mention at one point that you want a kitten, due to cuteness.

One might assume it impossible to read this belligerently. But in their eyes, it becomes a declaration of war. Something evil. The evilest thing they have seen in years. A declaration of war against the many things that are hunted and eaten by cats. You have just told the world how much you hate cute small mice that never hurt anyone. And you have additionally told them that you plan to use your own home to breed and train predators whose only reason for being is the extermination of cute small mice. And every other innocent being that cats are wont to hunt.

You are a threat to the ecosystem, and if you had your way you would flood your surroundings with cats. You are evil and must be stopped. Without delay.

This might seem far-fetched, but all this follows from 3. You are never right, ever. Not even about kittens. No matter how cute.

7. They will have no qualms ascribing you attributes and intentions as it suits them

Did you know that you had full knowledge of the situation and knew exactly what you did before you did what you did? Did you also know that you did it with full knowledge of exactly what would happen, and intended things to happen just as they happened? Did you know that you, unlike the rest of humanity, have an uncannily complete knowledge of how complicated systems interact in order to accomplish maximal harm to everyone involved, and actively strives to accomplish this very harm?

Probably not. But the trolls know. And whenever something goes wrong in your vicinity, this wrongness can easily be expanded according to 6. Suddenly, you have superhuman superpowers, but abuse them. Because you are wrong. In every way.

Should things go your way, on the other hand, these superpowers are nowhere to be seen. Strangely enough. Things went your way despite of you, not because of you. And things would have gone even better had you not been there. Because you are wrong even when you're right, no ifs or buts.

8. They will point out that you abuse your position

It doesn't really matter what position it is. Or if it is a formal or informal one. If formal, then there's always something. If informal, then you're a bad role model. It doesn't really matter what you actually do - it becomes wrong, regardless. Whoever you are, this will be used against you.

9. They think you focus on the wrong things

But why are you not writing about this? Or this? Or this? And why nothing about this? But what about this?

That the answer is that you are a human being with limited amounts of time, energy and possibility to communicate coherently doesn't matter. The world is huge, and there's always lots and lots of other things than the one that you are actually doing that is both important and in need of doing. It doesn't help that no matter how thoroughly you do something, there will always be something you missed, some elaboration you didn't do.

There's always more. And the trolls will ever always remind you that it's your fault that you didn't manage to save the entire world all by yourself.

10. They think you have more important things to do

A variation of 9. If you ever do something that is not completely focused on the most important goal - something like, say, having fun - the trolls will immediately complain that you have more important things to do. You are after all a human being with limited amounts of time, energy and possibility to communicate coherently, and should prioritize accordingly. As in, doing what's important rather what isn't.

The words "vacation" or "rest" or "recuperation" means nothing. There are more important things to do.

11. They will forget the good things you've done.

See 3. If it can't be ignored, see 7.

12. Nothing from your past is too old to be resurrected, as long as it is bad. Which it is

A popular pastime among trolls is to dig up dirt on you from times long long ago. So long ago that it is wholeheartedly behind you, either by process of forgetting or convalescence. So long ago that it really doesn't matter any more, other than when someone actively remind you of it.

Guess which troll will actively remind you of it. Do not guess whether they will add their own spin to it or not. They will.

13.  They think you were better back in the olden days, before you deteriorated

If you've been around for a while, then people have known you for a while. And since people grow and change, you grow and change. You learn things, realize your mistakes, and generally get better at what you do. Such is the human condition.

Change can also be read as deterioration. And when someone wants to read you in a belligerent manner, the words change and deterioration become synonymous. You haven't learnt anything, you've only gotten worse. You could become a better person if you turned back time and became your own self again. Maybe. Unless it's too late for that.

The people saying this are your biggest fans. They never tire of reminding you of it.

14. They agree, but

But they don't. Since you're wrong. They won't put it in those terms, though. They will instead put it in such a way that they agree with some minor thing, and they proceed to but everything else into a discursive pulp. Without any possibility of a common ground. It might seem like an indirect approach, but you'll know it when you see it. Such as when republicans agree with democrats, and then proceed to say they should become republicans instead.

15. They think you do too much

Congratulations, you made it all the way to the end! May the trolls fear to tread under the bridges you frequent!

Originally published May 1, 2014

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Boombox politics

Politics is a game of possibilities. It's more about what someone might say or is likely to have said, than what they're actually saying. Even more so, it's about what people can say without losing face.

As the ancient saying goes: it is very possible to paint oneself into a corner.

This might all sound fancy and highbrow, but it works like this: a politician can't say that it would be a good idea to slaughter every existing baby seals and burn their baby fat in enormous bonfires. Somewhere between these bonfires and the statement that kittens are cute, there's a boundary between proper and improper. It's all about keeping oneself on the right side of this boundary.

Another limit to what one can say is what has been said before. If your position for a hundred years has been that lowered taxes are the best thing since politics was invented, it's a hard sell to suddenly propose higher taxes. There are expectations to fulfill. Being true to your (public) self is one of them.

Between what is proper to say and what is expected to be said, there's what's possible to say. You gotta be true to your public self, and you gotta avoid slaughtering baby seals.

This range of possibilities is rather limited. It is, to a certain extent, possible to predict what's going to be said, and it takes considerable time to widen the scope of possibilities. Which is good for voters (since they know, to a certain extent, what they can expect), and for the working environment of those doing the communicating (being creative at all times takes its toll, and that cheat sheet works wonders). Continuity is predictability.


This range of possibilities also contains things that one would rather prefer not to say. They conform to what has been said before, they are not about baby seals, but they are uncomfortable. Since they are things one very well might say, and are thus very hard to backpedal. (There's that famous corner again.)

The Yes Men are experts at exploiting these possibilities. They act as if they speak for organizations with reputations of being less than saintly in their actions, and say things that these organizations would never say on their own. But very well could say, and thus cannot easily backpedal from.

Such as when they pretended to be Dow Chemical (of Bhopal chemical spill fame), and proclaimed that the company would provide substantial aid to the hundreds of thousands of people afflicted by the accident. Which was cause for rejoice when the word got out, and cause for anger when the real Dow backpedaled by saying that they were, in fact, not going to provide any aid at all.

Politics is more about what's possible to say, than about what's actually said.

Which takes us to the real subject of this post. The latest, mostest and everest bid from the (Swedish) Moderate party. They pulled no punches and spared no efforts when it came to this one. They went all in, with a big


It's a stroke of genius. They have expanded their range of possibilities enormously. There's almost nothing they can't say after this. All they ever have to do is say


followed by whatever. Whatever the subject, wherever they are, whenever something needs to be said.

But they can't say everything. They will, for example, have a hard time time insisting that they are more fit to rule than the opposition, and that they are the Serious Alternative. Because boom. [The picture says: BOOM! Our opponents will actively seek to sabotage our defensive capabilities if they win. We rule.] And it's hard to backpedal from this, just like it was hard for Dow to backpedal with a rhetorical "eh, guys, we were just kidding."

But. Being a pirate, I cannot but offer to help them along. Thus, you are very likely watching this very large, very inspired picture, which was made possible only because of their boomboxing politics:

Originally published August 14, 2014

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The biggest leak

Sometimes, I'm asked about what I think about Assange. Julian Assange. To avoid any confusion on the subject.

Let me make myself as clear as possible, without any preambling or disclaiming:

Let him rot.

In the grander scheme of things, what matters is the possibility of people whistleblowing again. Not that any one singular person is able to whistleblow, but the institutional possibility of anyone at all to do it again.

It's nothing personal. In fact, it is the explicit opposite of personal.

Let's reverse it. Let's make it personal. What if there was only one hero? What if there's only one person (or a few persons) that possess the ability to get information moving? What if our hope lives and dies with a defined cast of characters?

Then the defenders of the status quo have an easy task ahead of them. Just find these people and make them disappear. All close up and personal.

Game over.

Thing is, though, that it isn't personal. It's the opposite. Anyone can become a whistleblower. It's not a ting based on virtue and predestination, but of the institutional order of things. If one whistleblower disappears, there's thousands more, by virtue of how organizations need to document their actions and reactions. Documents that can, indeed, be leaked. By anyone.

Game on.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Let those who are without sin buy the first debt

Debt has become a strange thing these last few decades. While the concept of debt is as old as social relations themselves, the new conception of debt isn't. And it is as new as it is strange.

It used to be a rather straightforward thing. Someone gave you a sum of money, and until you returned it (and a little extra for the hassle), you were in debt. For the longest time, this was the gist of it. A relation where one part owed the other some amount of money. With the implicit social understanding that this amount should be returned sooner rather than later.

A two-party system, if you will.

Then it expanded into a three-party system. As capitalism became a thing, and as regular people were expected to buy ever more expensive things, a system arose for the facilitation of purchases where the buyer couldn't actually afford the thing sold. Which might sound strange, until you remember that houses are both expensive and rather useless if no one actually lives in them.

Thus, home mortgaging arose.

Now, people had bought houses since the dawn of buying and houses. What happened (mostly in the US, but also elsewhere) was that the notion of owning your home became a propaganda hit. Everyone should own their place of residence, the proclamation went, and this sparked a great surge in market demand. The demand was, in fact, greater than the amount of people who could actually afford to buy.

Which, to be sure, is good if you want to sell the one singular house. But everyone wanted to buy one, and soon the supply of people who had enough money to buy one outright diminished. And it takes a long time to earn such amounts of money with honest work. Longer than anyone - buyers and sellers both - had the patience to wait. Especially the sellers - unsold homes are the opposite of profitable.

Thus, the three party debt system.

The one part is the buyer. The other is the seller. The third a bank. The bank lends the amount of money required to buy the house to the buyer, who then buys the house. The seller gets the money, and the buyer is indebted. Not to the seller, but to the bank.

The advantage of this is that it speeds up the buying/selling process. Profits happen faster for those who sell, and housing happens faster for those who buy. The latter will, of course, have to pay off this debt over time, but they will at least have somewhere to live during the process.

This does two things. First, it speeds up the rate of consumption. Buy now, pay later! - whatever the bought thing might be, and how long "later" might be.

Second, it transforms debt from a social to a legal relation. It's still debt, but it's also something stranger than it used to be. You still have to pay it, but you're not paying it to someone. You're paying it to something. Mostly a bank, but it might be hard to tell at times.

Being (re)paid a sum of money each month is a stable way to make a profit. Stable, but slow, and predictable. And being predictably slow is something you do not want to be these days. So banks got their institutional thinking caps on and started to ponder - how can we speed up the moneymaking process, and thus avoid being predictable, slow and boring?

At some point, the notion of selling the debts emerged. There might, after all, be someone else out there who wanted slow predictable, and if they could be persuaded to buy these debts from us, why not? We might not get as much money, but we'll get more money to use now, and more money now means faster profits - which is the same thing as more profits.

Thus, there are mortgages for sale. Buy now, payments later!

No longer do we see the three-party system we've grown used to, but rather a confusing polypoly party system where it can actually be quite tricky to find out just who you're actually paying your debt to. It might be the bank you once went to to get a loan, but it might also be someone or something else entirely.

Again, it's not a social relation. It's a legal relation. Which enables you, with a bit of bureaucratic legwork, to do something very strange: to buy your own debt.

There might be some implicit social understanding that frowns upon this maneuver. Something about the inherent value of paying one's debts. But, and this might sound strange:

Why not?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The power of two

Jews are cool.

Israel is not cool.

These two statements are, in the minds of some people, mutually exclusive. The one is the other, and vice versa - as inseparable as can be.

Thing is, though, they are separable. And it is important to separate them.

The recent and historical atrocities committed by the state of Israel can be understood by recent and historical atrocities committed by other states. They follow the same patterns, no matter who happens to be in charge; there is a systemic slide into barbarity inherent in states as such.

If you look at the history of Europe, you'll see it action over and over and over again. Sometimes against jews. Sometimes against each other. Mostly against defenseless innocents who happened to be in the wrong place.

Statehood does that to people. Decides who's in the right and wrong places. And removes those who are in the wrong.

So. There's jews all over the world. They are cool.

The state of Israel is in one place. It is uncool.

Now there's two thoughts to think at the same time.

Silences never end

After writing about digital archives and the importance of sharing things in order to better keep (preserve) them, I suddenly remembered all the backup CDs I have in this place.

Yes, compact discs. From the days of Windows 98 and modems, and the Y2K bug. In order to avoid the imminent collapse (and/or the threat of having to download things again - an expensive proposition when paid by the minute), I backed things up. On compactly stacked discs. And promptly forgot all about them.

Until I remembered them. Which I did every once in a while, in a fit of nostalgia. Most recently, last night.

As with so many other things, I made it into a social event. The world needed to know what I thought during the "insert disc 5 of 17" process, and thus tweets happened about it. En masse.

While I went on doing my thing, two other things happened. The one was the nth happening of the Superb Owl, in all its incomprehensible oversizedness.

I ignored that.

The other thing was the desperate cries for help from the people of Syria, where the military unleashed every weapon of war they had. Literally.

That was harder to ignore.

How can one do archiving while reports of people dying are screaming at you, in real time? All the time?

How can one do anything at all, for that matter?

That is the dark side of the statement "the whole world is watching". You are a part of it. And there's a lot going on in it, impossible to ignore and more so to unfeel. Specially when it happens at you.

There are voices who won't voice anything after tonight. Friends lost.

At the same time, life. Things still needs to be done, schedules followed. While the world contains more sorrow than anyone can fathom, it is somehow also too small to contain time for grief.

So I keep going. Disc 6 of 17. Tweeting. Doing all those things that needs to be done, and that won't be done unless I do them.

That is the one thing one can do. Keep going.

Stay strong.

Originally published February 6, 2012

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Remember unthank

It is nice to be thanked. It is even nicer to be thanked. Especially when it is deserved, and even more so when it is unexpected.

Therefore, it would be nice of you to make it a point to thank those in your vicinity. To thank those who do the emotional lifting. Those who picks up the slack when you don't. Whose default mode is to do everything everyone else don't. Who, in ordinary and crisis situations alike, are the ones to keep tempers and group cohesion both from crashing into the dust-free floor.

It takes a lot of effort and energy to keep a situation where nothing happens going. And most of it happens in the dark, unthanked underbelly of the everyday bore- and choredom.

So. Do make it a point to seek out those who effort, and thank them.

It's the little things.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Over my dead cold propaganda

One of the biggest lures of the left/right divide is that there's a very contemporary historical war to relate it to. A huge, epic war between two clearly defined actors, each embodying a particular side.

The cold war.

It isn't hard to understand why. On the one side we have the US, the staunch defenders of capitalism and liberty. On the other side we have Soviet, the staunch defenders of communism and the proletariat. Between these two sides, war. You don't need to exercise great mental agility to see this as a war between right and left.

The biggest problem with seeing the world in the light of twentieth century propaganda is that things get murky. Especially when what actually happened is a much more complicated than a good vs evil narrative, and even more so when the belligerents over time grew to resemble each other more and more.

Such is the nature of things, whenever a coin wars with itself over which side is heads or tails.

The cold war was, to a large extent, modernity's war against itself.

Modernity is, to put it simply, the way the modern world has tended to develop. It has developed towards greater centralization, more standardization, an ever increasing bureaucratization, brutal increases in exploitative productivity, and on the whole towards greater and larger systems in general. A development that might seem abstract, but which becomes that much clearer when the present is compared with the past.

Not long ago, migration wasn't a complicated issue. There weren't any central authorities keeping track of who was a citizen and who wasn't, and if you ventured far enough away, you could generally outrun the reach of any authority worth running from. If you could get your physical body to some place and survive there, you lived there now. No matter if it was a village or continent away. If you could get there, you could move there. All you needed to do was to stay put. If the locals could be bothered to accept or tolerate you as a person, that is.

These days, it's a different story. You need to pay rent even if you're not physically close to your place of residence, and should you not pay, the debt will hunt you down wherever you go. It will even accumulate for as long as the contract lasts. And wherever you go, you're gonna have to give an account for where you've come from. In the form of a passport. Those who check your documentation will then look up your name in their systems, and ask your home country for confirmation that you really are who you say you are. If your passport picture and your bureaucratic alter ego looks somewhat similar, you'll eventually be let through the checkpoint by a salaried clerk who's one and only mission is to see that the rules are followed. Nothing personal.

The difference between these two scenarios is, in short, modernity. With all the centralization, standardization, bureaucratization and streamlining that goes with it.

Both the US and Soviet adopted these developments. Not least in the building and maintaining of enormous military machines. You can't, after all, just give people guns and tell them to be ready for battle. You need a system of bureaucracy and logistics to keep things running. Bureaucrats need to administrate such things like salaries, procurements, real estate, warehousing, distribution channels, construction projects, local municipal legal concerns - the list is longer than the Berlin wall. Neither soldiers, orders or ammunition gets to the front on their own, and you need a robust social and physical infrastructure in place to keep them getting to the front according to schedule.

Over time, these systems became more complicated and specialized. More and more tasks were delegated to people possessing specific skill sets, and this bureaucratized into academic requirements. Administering supply chains required one kind of specialized education. repairing tank engines required another, building bridges that could withstand military activity required another.

There is a pattern to this. Centralization, bureaucratization, standardization. The systems are getting larger, more complex.

The US and Soviet were indeed different. But fundamentally, they were two possible outcomes of the same process. Two sides of the same coin. Which, to be sure, is more visible today than ever, with the NSA going all in on becoming the most centralized and specialized organization in history. Just about everyone has a file in their archives. Modernity won the cold war.

It is, to be sure, tempting to see the right/left divide in the context of the cold war. Simple images are easy to understand, and that's why they're used so frequently as propaganda tools.

Both the right and the left relate themselves to modernity. The difference between them is what they intend to do with it.

The right are all about making the systems as efficient as possible, in order to reap their benefits. Adapt education to labor markets, make the labor market more efficient at maximizing exploitation of resources, remove barriers to the flow of capital - make it so that nothing stands between potential and actual efficiency, and use the excess profits that is generated from this to make things happen.

The left is all about resisting modernity. Not dismantle it, mind, but using it for things that are not inherently efficient. Or to soften the negative side effects that comes from the more brutal sides of modernity. Work safety and health regulations, for instance, might make workplaces less profitable, but they also makes it that much more likely that workers survive being efficiently exploited. As below, so above: the general gist is to make the systems work for the people, not the other way around.

This is, to be sure, harder to make propaganda out of. Both the right and the left want to use the benefits of a centralized, bureaucratized state apparatus to achieve their political goals. The difference being in how they want to use it. One way or the other - both ways are modernity. Modernity wins this round as well.

Which makes the Cold War framework that much more appealing. The right can keep on asking the brutally irrelevant question "do you really want to return to the Soviet days, leftie?", while the left can point to the fact that those days are over and that learning has happened since then. Neither confronting the question of why we need to become even more efficient at exploiting people, and why we are exploiting them at all.

History might have moved on, but why let a good propaganda narrative go to waste?

Originally published July 12, 2014

[A translator's note: right/left means different things in different national contexts. In case of confusion, the 'right' here roughly corresponds to the liberal tradition following John Locke and his ilk, whilst the 'left' roughly corresponds to socialism after Marx, and/or the Scandinavian models.]

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Freeriding the dark train of anxiety

When I was younger, I used to travel. A lot. Not to anywhere exotic or far away, but to places nearby. Stockholm, Gothenburg, most of the larger cities in the south of Sweden. On occasion to Oslo and Finland, just because they were there.

Thing is, I didn't go to all these places to do anything specific. I went there for the most everyday things. To visit friends, to pick up books at libraries, to breathe the air of someplace that is not home. On occasion, even to help out with everyday chores - because why not?

You might be wondering - just how much is a lot? Once a month? Twice?

That might be considered a lot. I went twice or thrice a week. Because why not? What are friends for, after all? And why buy a particular book when it's easier and faster to pick it up at some local library?

You might also be wondering - just how much did all this galavanting and skedaddling cost?

Nothing. Or, given the scope of things, the next best thing.

At this point, you just might be wondering what sort of privileged past I'm hailing from. What is up with all this going hither and dither for next to nothing? Who paid for all of that?

Here's the deal: no one did. I went anyway. Because why not?

There are many names for this practice. Free-riding, fare dodging, fraud. Depending on circumstances, you'd want to use different terms for it. But the general gist of it is this: getting from here to there on public transit without going through the hassle and hustle of having the proper ticket to ride.

Not the one singular time. Not two times. Three times. A week.

I still remember the first time doing it. I was to meet a friend in a city not far from where I lived, and got to the train station without quite enough time to buy a ticket. The choice was this: either get on the train without buying one, or buy one and miss the train during the time it'd take to complete the purchase. So I thought: hey, better to get there than to not get there. They'll probably let me buy one on board anyway.

I got on board. Sans proper travel documents.

As circumstances would have it, this particular train was slightly overcrowded. Not quite over capacity, but still more people than there really ought to be. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. On the one hand, I had to stand, as there were no seats available. On the other hand, we were quite a few bystanders. I found a standable spot and claimed it as mine, as a body occupying space does.

I heard the conductor approach in the distance. Quietly, I braced myself for the question that is also a demand: tickets please.

Only, the question never came. The conductor did, but only to then pass my by, not bothering to validate my anxiety. Or tickethaving. People around me got asked, showed their various travel documents, bought tickets, all the things that go into the consumer finance of modern train travel. Me? I just stood there, trying to keep my emotions in check (and, I hoped, invisible), until the moment had passed.

Somehow, I apparently looked travel weary enough to not warrant further inspection.

The next station came and went, and the next. The overcrowding situation didn't improve, as those who got off seemed to be replaced by newcomers who were faster on their feet than me. Aside from being mildly inconvenienced by standing around, I didn't mind, though. The experience was new enough to block any such sensations, and I was haunted by an anxiety that came to me in the form of thoughts like "what if I get caught?".

I didn't get caught, but I thought about it the whole way.

It was pretty much the same story on the return trip. Slight overcrowding, standing, looking as if I was bored with standing, not being asked, anxiety running through me the whole way. But, and this is key, at a slightly less rampant pace as the first time. The first time is always the hardest; the second time you have the luxury of looking back at the first time.

The third time is the charm. Not to mention the thirteenth.

As my galavanting became more and more of an everyday occurrence, I aged. I enrolled at the local university, gained new friends, did all the things that goes with being a young Scandinavian without any particular plan or direction. And as a part of this - to this day I'm not sure if my friends or the university played the bigger role - I started to read certain authors. One, in particular, is more critical than the others:


If you've read Foucault, you'll most likely have picked up on the word 'anxiety' above. It is one of the key things he writes about in his works. And, more specifically, the sources of it. One of these sources is the fear of not passing inspection, of whatever kind you might imagine. Ticket inspection is one particular kind of this. Passing tests (such as those encountered in schools) is another. Looking good yet another. Job interviews. Across many particular examples, the general principle boils down to this:

The fear of being looked upon by someone else, and to be found wanting.

It will come as no surprise that being on a train, ticketless, is very translatable to this line of thinking. There are those who are to be inspected (passengers) and those who are to do the inspecting (the conductors). The rules of the inspecting are easy to understand - you either have a ticket, or you don't. Getting a ticket is a predictable action - you can generally figure out how to buy them if you need to.

In short, the rules are simple, and you know what to do to follow them. To pass inspection.

Even when you do follow all the rules, though, there is still room for anxiety. Something could go wrong - you could accidentally buy the wrong ticket, there might be some sort of misunderstanding, a situation might arise where the rules and you don't agree with each other. And when that happens, it is usually on your head.

The fear is built in to the system. Even if the rules are easy to understand, there is always that underlying element of fear. What if I don't pass this time? What if something goes wrong?

As I gestured at earlier, this isn't just something that happens on trains. It happens everywhere, at all times. Whenever we feel that there's some standard that we have to live up to, and that there might be some risk of us not doing it - there be anxiety. There be the fear that we will be exposed as the frauds that we are, not good enough to pass muster. Not good enough to be a true member of the social order.

Be it in small or large circumstances.

Knowing this - doing it in practice - is one of the things that has shaped me the most as a human being. There will, in any given situation, be anxiety, but there will always be the option to not give a fuck about it. Following the rules is no guarantee for safety, breaking them is not an automatic failure. Life happens in this state of uncertainty, and knowing this helps.

It will not, by any means, abolish anxiety. But it will make it that much more livable.

The most important part of this generalized understanding of anxiety is that it is not a thing that happens to you and you alone. Everyone has to pass inspection, and everyone has to face the risk of failing. Everyone. You're not alone.

This is a foundation of solidarity.

As the years went by, I expanded my criminal activities to other transport systems. Not because I needed it, but because it could be done. The general principle was the same: all I needed to do was to fit in just enough to avoid suspicion, and thus inspection. Keep up appearances and carry on as if you belong, and in most cases you'll get along. Looking the part is at times better than being the real deal.

Thing is, though. It is taxing. Emotionally. Humans are not built to not belong, and merely keeping up appearances leaves you tired to your invisible bones. You don't ever relax, and the anxiety never really goes away. Especially if you actively seek these situations out.

I did a lot of that.

Eventually two things happened. The one thing is that I lost the urge to skedaddle and galavant. Been there, done that and so forth. The other thing is that I got the local Pirate Party to pay me to go places, which overall reduced my need to do my thing. If only to replace one form of inspection with another, writ larger.

Surveillance society is a thing, you know.

The reason for me writing this is not to glorify my younger days. The reason is to bring these experiences to you in a form that doesn't require you to muddle through Foucault or get yourself on a train without a ticket. (Both risky propositions, to be sure.) To give you something to point to, in order to be able to say: fuck, it's just not me. Everyone's doing it, trying to measure up for (real or imaginary) inspections, going through the required motions. No matter how ridiculous or ridiculously hard these motions might be.

Anxiety follows from this. It's not a thing that happen to you, specifically; it's what happens to humans, in general, put in the situation you're in.

Don't beat yourself up over it.

(If you've read this far, you'll probably be pleased to know that there is a part 2. Do freeride over to it.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I have read and agree with YOU'RE WRONG

If you've spent any time whatsoever on the social part of the interwebs, you have without a doubt stumbled across this truth about human nature:

People suck at agreeing.

You've seen it happen. I'd even wager that you've seen it happen several times. It goes like this: someone writes something, and someone else disagrees with it. Or, rather, they agree with 96% of it, and disagree with this one particular detail. And they proceed to tell the world that they, in fact, disagree with these 4%, and will fight anyone who challenges them. Including the original author.

Now, if you get into a fight with someone you agree 96% with, you're doing it wrong.

The reason for this happening is that only the disagreement is communicated. All that other stuff is simply understood as going without saying, and is thus left unsaid. And is thus not a part of the conversation, leading to the interaction being all about those four lousy percent.

People suck at agreeing. This is why.

In order to avoid getting in to this same situation ourselves (or, at least, to mitigate the risk of getting in to them), it is advisable to communicate this ratio between agreeing and disagreeing. Which can be done with something as simple as saying "I agree with just about everything you've said, and appreciate you've taken the time to say it, but I wonder about this one aspect" or something to the same effect. Whatever wordage is appropriate to communicate that the disagreement is a minor one, and that this is not an invitation to a fight.

If it is a subtle point, you might find that it takes quite the wordage to expound the disagreement over it. Which might lead you to calculate this extra reaffirment of agreement as an unnecessary expense of energy. To which I reply: it might be. It might also be less energy that getting in to a fight. It might, moreover, also be an indication that it is a proper moment to just say "+1" and move on to other things.

 Agreeing is harder than it looks. Don't you agree?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The window of opportunity

The Johari window is, quite unironically and quite without brand marketing, a foursquare field. That is, a two by two grid, where the rows and columns (both of them) interact with each other. It is a metaphor used to explain a knower's relation to the self - each of the four squares representing a mode of knowledge about the self.

The first square, top left, consists of what the knower and the people in the general vicinity both know. The second square, top right, consists of what the knower doesn't know, but the people nearby knows. The third square, bottom left, consists of what the knower knows but the others don't. And the fourth square, bottom right, consists of what no one knows.

Confusing? I know, right!

This window is usually used by psychologists and human resources people in order to clarify the epistemic truth that there are things we do not know about ourselves. And, moreover, that we can get to know these things by being social with others - they know things we don't. By interacting with others, we get a window into ourselves, and so on and so forth.

As teaching tools go, it's a classic.

The first three squares tend to be rather straightforward. Things we all know about me, things others know but I don't, things I know but others don't. Got it. But what about that last one? The things no one knows? What gives?

Here, the space for ideology opens. And, to be sure, for interpellation - for creating a subject that might or might not exist.

For instance: taxes. I don't know how much I'm supposed to pay, they don't know how much I'm supposed to pay. Nobody knows. But by imposing various forms of structural violence, knowledge about who I am are forced into being. In essence, they say this: You will find out how much money you are supposed to pay, and you will tell us, and then we will both know.

Suddenly, you are a taxpayer, regardless of whatever you and your peers knows you to be.

Ideology doesn't give too much of a care about what you think. It knows your mind, before it even knows about you. And it knows just what to do, should you happen to think otherwise. -

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Unsubtle subtleties

A culture clash happened.

Such things happen all the time, mind, but by saying that a particular one happened, I give myself permission to talk about a particular one. Because general things always take place in the particular.

So. Culture clash. Swedes are, by comparative standards, brutally informal when it comes to the use of titles. When referring to someone, the word 'you' or their name is usually both sufficient and appropriate. The one exception being - as always - the king and members of the royal family. Everyone else, except when put on trial or mocked in some way, will have to settle for a you or a name.

But, as it happens, a professor from Canada was teaching at a local university. The students, not used to formalities yet still wanting to go the extra distance to make the professor feel at home, acted on the general principle that a title was more formal than no title.

They called her "miss".

As you might imagine, this did not go as well as their intentions would suggest. There is a non-subtle difference between 'miss' and 'professor' in the English language, after all, and such things matter.

If you know about them.

Fortunately, for everyone involved, the professor understood what the students were trying to do, and took it as an opportunity to reflect upon the cultural differences between here and there. And, to be sure, those students will never again not know the difference between miss, Mrs, doctor, professor and a simple 'you'.

Long live the professor. But may the king live forever.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Endless wonder, endless mysteries

In just a few hours, Warehouse 13 comes to an end, as the last episode is aired. It is the end of an era, and -

Wait, what?

I've already seen the last episode? Before the end? What is this magic?

It is a question I often ask myself. Not because the last episode is available out there if you know how to procure it (no help from me), but because it doesn't happen all that often. Somehow, the last episodes of things - indeed, all episodes of things- are strictly kept under wraps until they are aired. And then they leap out, available to everyone who knows how to procure them (still no help from me).

Why is this? What's the secret of this strict discipline?

In theory, episodes of television series could and/or should appear long before they officially air. This is because they are recorded long before they officially air (Lost does not count). Since copying files is as easy as opening a newspaper, it stands to reason that someone should happen to get a hold of a file that will soon become an early release.

It's basic computer security. And human nature. If and when secrets are kept, someone will eventually unkeep it, and then it is loose upon the world. For all to see, as it were.

"All" being people like me. Who know how to procure such things.

And yet, it rarely happens. It happened this once, but I can scarcely remember it happening at any other times.

What's the secret? How do they do it? What sorcery is this?

Do you know?

Btw: the last episode is a good last one. Do enjoy it.  It is one of the defining moments of the series. All of it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Academic mortality

The notion of academic mortality is an interesting one. The general gist of the notion goes like this: the further along any given educational path an individual travel, the higher the probability that zhe will die academically and do something else. Like, say, get a job. Or, to be blunt, anything else that is not more education.

At higher levels, this is to be expected. People get their degrees and are done. A few will remain and get even more degrees, and ever fewer will persevere and become professors. Which is not terribly interesting, as this is how it's supposed to work. The interesting part of this pyramid, though, is that it begins at the top and then continues downwards. All the way down, in fact.

Some people die even before they reach third grade.

If you have a mind for statistics, you can browse the mortality rates for different populations. As you might imagine, they vary along the usual suspected lines: rich white kids live longer than poor minority kids.

To keep up the bluntness: this too is to be expected.

The interesting things, as always, appear when you ask the question why. (Always ask the question of why. Never take the expected for granted.) Why is it that some populations die off faster than others? Why is it that, systematically and continually over time, the same patterns reemerge? What gives?

You could cite individual performance. This would, however, lead us into dangerous territories, as the systematic and continuous differences over time clearly can't be due to the same individuals underperforming all these years. You'd have to invoke some sort of explanation that expounds that some groups (hint: rich whities) are better than others, and that the statistics only reflect this. Scientifically.

Let's not go there.

Let's instead turn our eyes to the scene of the crime. Academia. Or, more interestingly, schools. What is it about them that makes certain populations live longer than others? What in them makes these patterns reemerge?

On the surface level, the school system appears to be an equal opportunity opportunity. You enter on the one end, perform, get the grades you deserve based on your performance, and resurface on the other end an educated person. It's the ultimate meritocracy: work and ye shall be rewarded, unwork and ye shall remain unrewarded. And ye shall be rewarded in accordance with this standard document, the Curriculum.

Too bad it's not like that.

While curricula might be written in a unified language, and the educational standards be publicly available as readable documents, portraying what pupils need to live up to get any given grade - these goals are not equal. They all share the same finishing line, to be sure, but the starting point is anything but shared.

The goal, the standards, the points of comparison are not class neutral. They are not neutral in any regard you'd like to mention. And it is not neutral in such a way that those who conform to these standards before even getting to their first day of school have it a lot easier than those who have to learn the ropes alongside everything else. Who have to learn both the basic skills the school is supposed to teach them, and the proper way to be a school attendee. Who, in no uncertain terms, have to do twice as much as the rest.

As you might imagine, this impacts mortality rates.

A clear example of this are children who grow up in [what I'll for the sake of brevity call] ebonic speaking families. When they interact with their peers, they speak ebonics - when they get to school, they'll get an instant F if they write the same way they speak. Which, in effect, means they not only have to learn how to write, but also a whole new language on top of that, with different grammar, vocabulary and all the rest of it.

The fact that this new language also is the dominant language of the region doesn't help. In fact, it might be a direct detriment - especially in those places where ebonics [or any other variant, dialect, language or communicative praxis] isn't recognized as anything other than substandard English. That is to say, not proper English, but not so different that the kids cannot be judged as if they spoke proper English from day one.

The same thing goes not only for language, but for just about anything worth mentioning. And, more importantly, those things deemed worthy of not mentioning.

It usually isn't mentioned in the grades. Or in the documentation that declares any gives person academically dead.

Therein, the story of individual performance lives on strong. Its death count untold. -

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Degrees of achievement

I just performed an achievement.

To understand this, you need to know two things. What's an achievement, and how do you perform one?

An achievement is, in short, a written record that you have done something. In this case, it is written here. As you can see, it is a list of things done, and below that (as of writing) another list of things yet to do. You do something, you get the achievement. You don't do that something, and it stares at you from the undone section like a challenge waiting to be accepted.

The point of these lists is to be able to point to them and say - aha! I did it! I am this awesome! And I can prove it!

The appointed list being the proof.

Achievements come in different flavors - meaning you have to do different things in order to get them. Some are awards for doing things you'd do anyway as a part of normal gameplay. Others, you have to go way out of your way to achieve - and this is where we come to the performance part.

The achievement I just performed (master criminal) requires that you are wanted all over the known world. As in Billy the Kid wanted. Everywhere. Meaning you have to go everywhere, commit some crime and run away before the long arm of the law gets to you.

There's no in-game reason to do this. In fact, it is a stupid thing to do, as you might imagine. Especially if we take into account that if you happen to fail at something, you can (without shame) reload and try again. And again. And again. Until you don't fail. Meaning that if you play your cards right, your eventual criminal activities won't be noticed at all, and no one will be the wiser.

There might be something to be said about the difference between 'games' and 'sports' here. I'm not saying any such thing, though.

The performance in question was me running up to a town, kill exactly one guard (the minimum crime needed), run to the next town, kill one guard, run to the next town - and so on until the achievement happened. And then I reloaded a save from before this killing spree, and went on doing more productive things.

Which begs the question - why?

Because there's an achievement for it. And I accepted the challenge.

This raises some interesting questions. Such as: how much effort are people willing to exert on getting these marks on a list? What is it that makes players look at a list of possible challenges and go - you know, I'm gonna prove I can best this particular one? How outlandish do you have to make an achievement before most players think "no way"?

What makes people forego common sense in favor of getting a notation on a document?

Now, the one thing that would make these questions more interesting is to apply them to other, more real world settings. So let's do that. Let us talk about grades, degrees and other achievements of the academic world. -