Sunday, December 29, 2013

Accidental fame

Fame has a way of sneaking up on you. Or, rather, of happening in relation to things you've long since stopped thinking about, and have to be reminded of in your day-to-day being in the world.

Such as in the phrase "hey, aren't you that guy/gal/pronoun that did that thing way back when?".

You probably are. And that thing way back when is what the questioner knows about you.

Fame. Sneaky bastard.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

This is what blogging is

Some things are reduced to their general categories. They are one thing and one thing only, and one can thus safely talk about them as the one singular thing they are.

Blogging is one example of this.

You know how the talk goes. "Blogging" is on the decline, fewer people blog, the whole thing had its day but the sun is fast setting - and so on and so forth. Oftentimes without any specific examples - it's just blogging, in general.

The funny thing about blogs, if you ever find yourself reading one, is that it's about something. Consistently. And that it tends to conform to certain formal and informal rules, which are somehow also followed by other bloggers. Not all of them, but a certain subsection of them. Enough of them that they form a genre.

There are, to be sure, lots of genres when it comes to blogs. Political blogs, fashion blogs, political fashion blogs, book blogs, parenting blogs, search engine optimization blogs, blogs about blogs... there are many genres, about many things.

This makes is rather silly to talk about "blogging". As if it was just the one genre, and could be summarized as one singular thing. Because it isn't.

Blogging is many things. But it's not a genre.

Speaking of things that are reduced to a genre. Women -

Saturday, December 21, 2013

On privilege

Being privileged is many things. Being privileged is also not many things. Both at the same time.

First things first: being privileged does not make you a bad person. It is just a statement of fact - you have something others don't. Whatever that might be.

It might be money.

It might be time.

It might be access.

It might be social recognition.

It might be available life choices.

It might be expectations.

It might be all of these things at once, intertangled in a complex web of interlocking mutually reinforcing causes and effects, transcribed into our cultural DNA and determining our fates like those old norns of yore -

It probably is. Only without the norns.

The way to read this non-exhaustive list is to see it as things that might be relevant to look at, either by themselves or in combination. The best advice is to start out with the one thing, and go from there.

So, one thing. Money. On the face of it, it is rather straightforward. The ultrarich are more privileged than the ultrapoor. The moderately rich more than the moderately poor. And so and so forth. Nothing strange going on here. And, to be sure, nothing interesting. Yet. Let's add complexity.

Now, two things. Money and time.

It is tempting to quote the old adage that time is money. And it is, in oh so many ways.  Most markedly if you happen to be employed by someone, and have to remain employed by this someone to keep yourself in money. Which, in most cases, mean you have to be at work all those hours, every day five days a week.

That's a lot of hours, all taken together.

It works in reverse, too. The one thing money is best at buying is time. In a direct sense, you buy other people's time when you buy things - whether it being indirect in the product of someone's labor, or the very immediate sense of making that labor happen. In whatever way, shape or form it might manifest itself.

Or, sideways: with enough money, you have time to do whatever it is you want to do. And, moreover, you don't ever have to spend time worrying about money - a big pastime among those who don't have it.

It is, of course, possible to flip this. I'm sadly enough privy to the details, but I hear that tax returns and financial instruments can get quite complicated and time-consuming really fast. Meaning that not all money is equally efficient time savers, and that sometimes you're better off timewise having no money at all.

And, in another reversal: debt.

Let's make things even more complicated. Three things. -

Or, well. I imagine you're getting the picture at this point. Privilege is not always a clear cut thing, obvious for the world to see. It is, sometimes (hello, fellow westerners), but in the hustle and bustle among the people you actually meet, it ain't. Some people are rich, but so bogged down by what they have to do to stay rich that it's not worth it in any rational sense. Some are poor, but also free from debt and social obligations that stand in the way of what they want to do. Some are part of marginalized minorities, discriminated against in every sense, yet have social bonds with and solidarity for each other that makes all of "my" problems into "our" problems. Some have to work their literal and metaphorical arses off to get what others get for free; sometimes, this comes back to haunt the latter in more ways than they'd ever know.

It's not easy. It's not fair, either, despite the above paragraph about how things sometimes balance themselves. Adaptation to injustices is not a justification for them, and it is a mistake to think so. Despite it being a comfortable option for those with the privilege to be able do so.

The biggest privilege, and thus the most hard to fathom for those who have it, is to not have to bother with shit. Which male white people are very privy to, and even more so in that they don't even have to think about it. This freedom from having to deal is a huge load of free(d) time, energy, effort, money and all other forms of resource one might care to mention. Whatever it is one might want to do, it gets easier with access to these resources. Add to this that they might be used to accrue more resources, and we get ourselves into a situation where some people are very comfortable in the boat, while others inevitably will rock it while trying to get in.

With the resources not spent on staying afloat.

Privilege. It's a thing. It's many things.

It's not all things, though. There's still room for freedom, change, and sharing.

I encourage you the privilege to use it.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

I know that feeling, and so do you

Imagine yourself at your angriest. The most angry you've ever been. The apex of rage, fury and utter will to krush, kill and destroy. Those moments where your whole being is turned into a solid, focused point of malign intentionality, where any and all thoughts are singularly directioned into the will to harm. Where no amount of retribution is enough, and the proper time and proper place to act on this cosmic injustice is right about this fist -

Imagine this anger. Feel it.

Now think it being directed. At you.

Empathy is not soft and squishy. Empathy is fucking scary.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A short story about religiosity

Protagonist A: Ach! Religious superstition is so stupid! People do the craziest things to appease someone who isn't there and don't care! They believe in stories about mystical powers that will punish them if they act the wrong way, and can't even think about not doing what these powers tell them to do. They're unfree, unhappy and unthinking - and they don't even know it!

Protagonist B: Speaking of things. Why is it that you have a stuffed elk in your living room? It doesn't really fit the decor, and it's a bit of a squeeze to get to and fro.

Protagonist A: Well, you see, my insurance company sent me a letter, claiming that they won't cover it if I don't keep it in a dry and safe place. And I couldn't think of a safer and drier space than my living room!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The nerd that wouldn't get a job

You may or may not have heard about it, but it's a thing. People who are very into playing World of Warcraft forge strong social bonds. Strong, lasting and ever present social bonds. Bonds that, in a very real way, portrays getting a job as a bad thing. As you'll have less time to do the important things, like raiding.

There are two ways to look at this.

The one way is to go "aaaaw, nerds, cute".

Another way to go is "hey, that's quite a shift in social and cultural values; I wonder if there's more to this than meets the eye?".

There might very well be. As the notion of the steady, continuous, lifelong 9-5 job fades away as a past cultural memory (a fading actively aided by the practice of replacing what used to be 9-5 jobs with eternally temporary forms of employment, with ever more creative names), people search for solidarity and social cohesion elsewhere. And they take it where they can find it.

It's easy to laugh it off as just nerds being nerds. There might be something more to it, though, the first instance of a development that's about to unfold. It is not unthinkable that these communities of people, over time, form formal and informal networks of support that enables them to avoid such distractions as the fluctuating labor market. Turn their newfound social capital into means of social reproduction, as it were, and thus undermine the notion of being employed as norm even further. Turning getting a job into something that's not just a bad thing, but a socially hard to justify thing. Why expose yourself to that when you can do something else, something better?

It is not unthinkable. It has, in fact, already happened. If you're a Starcraft fan, you'll have heard of the professional E-sports teams that have emerged over the years. Evil Geniuses, Team Liquid and others are already established entities, and there's countless more out there. It's a thing.

Formal and informal social support networks.

It's a thing.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nothing is ever forgotten, nothing is ever new

Back in the olden days, the Bible was a mystery. Not a mystery in the "this passage is a tad unclear, and could use some sound expounding" sense, but rather in the "dude, it's written in bloody Latin, I can't read this" sense. As in literal Latin, the language of the Romans, a language that had long since gone its merry way to become French, Italian and all those romantic sounding languages.

In short, you were either a priest (and had gotten a solid education in Latin), or you weren't, and the Bible was an incomprehensible mystery. Unreadable, in all senses of the word.

This put enormous amounts of power in the hands of the (soon to be*) Catholic Church. Only its representatives could speak with any authority about the Word of God. And God, as you might remember, is a big deal - the creator of the world, the punisher of sinful, the justifier of monarchies, the foundation of all that is Good and Just and True.

You can do a lot of things with God on your side.

If you've stayed in a hotel recently, you might have noticed that there was a Bible there. And that it wasn't in Latin. And that there are, in fact, quite a number of bibles in quite a number of languages that's not Latin. Clearly, something has happened between now and then.

What happened between now and then?

Gutenberg happened. He didn't quite invent the printing press, but he made it commercially viable enough for the contemporary market. As in, you could build one, if you were mildly rich and put your will to it. And thus people did build them. And they used them to print books. Loads of them. Floods of them.

One of these books was the Bible. Not the old Latin version, but numerous localized versions, that ordinary people could read and understand. No longer did the (soon to be*) Catholic church have a monopoly on the Word of God - just about everyone who was somebody knew a guy with a strange contraption in his basement that churned out bibles at an ungodly pace.

And boy did they read. And boy were they righteously pissed off when they discovered that the (soon to be*) Catholic Church had, to put it mildly, embellished a little on the Words of God during the last thousand years or so.

Calamity ensued.

What changed with the improvement of the printing press wasn't just the means of production of written works. To be sure, that was part of it, but it was not the most important part of it. The most important part of it was that people got access to the Words of God, and with their own eyes could see what was what. And, in due course, become justifiably outraged by what they saw.

This is not without parallels in our contemporary society. There's this thing called the internet, that came into being a while back. We could say it's the same story all over again, only in a different setting, and with a less theological version of the Word of God. Though, to be honest, the intricacies of legislature could very well be written in church Latin, for all its readability to the common folk.

Until now.

There is a point to this ramble. More than one point. One of these is that my description about how Lutheranism came about is wrong, and that you can point out any number of errors if you know the details. Another point is that this doesn't matter, since the gist of it is right, and that it's right enough that one can make comparisons between then and now. Comparisons such as: hey, haven't we seen all this before somewhere?

(I am, in fact, so wrong that I've been corrected in this here blog post. Go read it. You'll learn actual things that are actually true.)

When people talk about the value of history, they don't talk about dates, facts and other things best left to Wikipedia. They talk about that "hey, I know this, this reminds me of..." feeling. It can be the vaguest, most general, least factually correct remembrance ever - it doesn't matter. As long as the general gist of it is correct, you can go from there, and find out the details and specifics and all that as you go along. And, more importantly, get a context from which to view whatever is going on at the moment.

Back in the days, the (soon to be*) Catholic Church had a monopoly on the Word of God. Then that changed.

Back in the days, you had to be an initiate of the highest order to gain access to the legal reasoning of the state. Or, indeed, to even know where and how to read them in order to make any sense out of it. Now, this has changed - as ACTA and TTP shows.

Let's hope we're not in for another session of ensuing calamity. -

*: a funny thing about the Catholic Church is that it only became Catholic after the Reformation. Before, it was simply the Church, the one and only. You only need to name things when there's a need to keep things apart, which you don't when there's only the one.**
**: the Orthodox Church doesn't count. It's far enough away for everyone to know that it's obvious to everyone that you can't really confuse apples and oranges.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Feminism made easy

It has been brought to my attention that it is hard to grasp what a feminist analysis is. That it is unclear what one is supposed to do. That there is no immediately available starting point, and that one has to work through layers of layers of academia to get anything done.

Fun fact: it's a lot easier than it looks.

Let's, for instance, look at a workplace. Let's look at how people behave in the break room. Let's look at how the men are gathered around the pinball machine that HR brought in to boost morale and creativity. Let's look at how the women are gathered in the kitchen, busily planning the next office party.

BOOM! Feminist analysis complete. Achievement unlocked.

It's that easy.

You can, of course, make things harder on yourself and add any numbers of  extra bells and whistles to your analysis. You don't really need to, but you can. If you really want to.

It would be nice if it was a hard thing to do a feminist analysis. If you had to dig through layers and layers of obscure and complicated theories in order to get anywhere. That would mean that patriarchy is just about gone, and that you'd have to work your genderbending arse in to shape in order to find the last vestiges of it. But, alas, you more often than not just have to look at a given situation to note how things are structured around gendered lines.

Feminist analysis is easy. Punching patriarchy where it hurts is not as easy. But worth it nevertheless.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The copyright that wronged your soul

Sometimes, discussing copyright is an outright surreal experience. It would seem that the difference between copyright issues and copyright law is one of the least understandable differences since the invention of sliced bread.

Which is not only a mixed metaphor, but also the reason why so many get stuck in their underfinanced trenches. Often without knowing that they are either in a trench or underfinanced.

It tends to go something like this: someone writes a long, comprehensive argument about the need for reform in copyright law, wherein they point to such things as the consequences of the ever more draconian punishments for everyday copyright infringements. Consequences such as a diminishing lack of respect for the institutions of the law; a youth generation that grows up taking for granted that they will be viewed as criminals (because they are); a private sector that actively avoids investing in anything digital due to fear of crossing the line between innovation and criminality; a stifled creativity among artists who put ever more effort into making sure they are not sued for making something that reminds of anything copyrighted; archivists who refrain from preserving unreplaceable works of art due to fear of copyright claims eating their ever diminishing budgets - and so on and so forth.

Whereby someone responds with the question: but how shall the artists get paid?

I'm sure you immediately notice two things here. Both the surrealism and the trench. Not least in the assumed premise that it somehow would stop being a problem that everyone younger than me have committed crimes on a daily basis (and assumed the mentality that follows from an unreflexive life of crime) - if artists got paid.

Yeah, right

A tragic aspect of this is that all these tougher measure against copyright crimes doesn't lead to these artists in question getting paid. Putting young people in prison won't make them put more of their non-existent budgets into buying more culture. Neither will the threat of putting them in prison or of giving them enormous fines increase their willingness to consume. And if we ask the artists themselves if their intent is that their productions are to be enjoyed under the thread of legal violence, they will think the question absurd. Because it is.

The problems for artists is not that people pirate things. Their problem is that they sign lousy contracts, and that those organizations that could collectively bargain for better working conditions are busy lobbying for harsher measures on piracy.

This does not have to be. There's no need for this nonsense. It can change. But only if those who pay lip service to working for the artists get their act together and put their money where their mouths are. If they get to work on ending the cynical exploitation of the artists by the corporations that have the loudest mouths regarding the importance of harsher measures against piracy.

Therein lies the difference between copyright issues and copyright law. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Originally posted August 11, 2013

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two disjointed thoughts

Reactions! Discussions! Interesting thoughts! New lines of flight! All these things have happened in response to my last post on European history. And before they escape and elude into the mists of time, I want to capture them. Two, in particular.

The first is the contrast to the American style of history writing. Or, rather, the stereotypical American style of writing history, characterized by such things as manifest destiny, military prowess and the eternal heroism of the free world. The good guy vs bad guy narrative, where John Wayne rides in on a white horse to save the day in the nick of time. The Hollywood way of viewing the world.

Now, to be sure, this is a stereotype, and an oversimplified one at that. Actual Americans don't think that simplemindedly, especially not those who think about history. But you can see the general outline of the differences from this short generalization - the difference between the "we went abroad to slay a foreign dragon, Hitler was his name" and the "and then millions died, again" narratives. It's not subtle.

There are many ways to go on about this difference. The most obvious one being the difference in mode and tone - in oh so many ways, the European outlook will resonate with the color gray. There is something dissonant in the cheerful, pragmatic, can do mentality of American individualism - the notion that everyone can get their slice of heaven on earth if they work hard enough for it. It jars. It screams of a lesson not learned: that everyone is created equal, and that everyone is equally capable of being crushed by the machinery of oppression once it gets in motion. That individual optimism is not translatable to societal optimism.

One has to mourn before moving on.

The second thought I want to capture (to slightly shift gears) is the value of history. Of learning what happened. Or, rather, the detours you will find yourself having to take while trying to learn what happened. Suddenly, you end up places where you wouldn't have ended up otherwise, and become all the wiser for it.

To take an unrelated example question: why did Napoleon lose at Waterloo? To answer this, one has to take account of the things that happened before that particular battle, and before long, one is reading up on how the revolutionary process led to France having an emperor in the first place, and from there it is a short step to thinking about the dynamics of social segmentation and stratification. Suddenly, your mind makes leaps of understanding it very likely wouldn't have done otherwise.

Knowing what happened in and of itself won't get you to this place. But knowing that things happened and that they happened for a reason - a whole host of reasons, reasoning in unison - lets your mind take flight. Suddenly, a thing is not just a thing - it is as it is for a reason, and if you put enough contextual effort to it, you can understand this reason.

It is not that you're thinking back that's important. It's that you're thinking big.

Two thoughts. Two fragments. Captured before they ran away, as these things are wont to do. -

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Remember, remember, the ninth of November

It is very possible to get post-traumatic stress disorder from reading European history. The kind where you simply break down and withdraw from the world for a while, due to the sheer despair of it all.

The utter, total and brutal despair of it all. Made all the worse for also being utterly, totally and brutally meaningless.

One point to illustrate this is the beginning of the First World War. The Great War. At the start in 1914, the militaries looked pretty much as they did in 1814 - think cavalry, brightly colored uniforms, drill formations marching into battle. The prevailing notion was that of the glorious charge - the way to go about things military was to attack, and then to attack some more until there was nothing left to attack. It was simple, it was glorious, and it was a great honor to fight and die for your country.

War was a thing of glory, where boys were turned into heroes.

And then the Great War happened. And they attacked. And they died. And attacked. And died. And attacked. And died.

Human beings have a keen sense of situational awareness. No matter how glorious it is to die for your country in a heroic charge, the glorious heroism fades away rather quickly when hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands have died in a charge against an enemy line. One enemy line, unmoving, unchanging, remaining as intact after the first five thousand casualties as it was before it all started. With the one difference that you can now hide from enemy fire behind the fresh mounds of corpses of those who came before.

Heroism died in the trenches. Only to be replaced with the bureaucratic coldness that would send millions more to their deaths, written off as the expected quota of dead maintenance necessary in order to keep the status quo going a little longer.

There was no glory or honor in it. There was only death.

In the millions.

When the war ended, it left Europe with a generation scarred from the war. Literally and figuratively. Crippled war veterans lined the city streets, and the despair from the futility of the war left many demoralized. Or radicalized, as the case might be - those who were still able to fight had the idea that a communist revolution might be just the thing to move things along.

There was no glory to be found. But no peace, either. Demoralized by despair or rallied by revolution, life agonized forward. All under the now very modern bureaucratic administrations of the new governments put in place. The old monarchies were gone - no more Kaiser, no more Czar, no more Sultan. No more of the old world. The new order painted everything grey.

Those who planned the Great War thought it would be over in a couple of months, at the most. After that, things would go back to normality - the various nations would resume their scheming and plotting and political backstabbing and all the rest of it. As they had for centuries.

Needless to say, they didn't.

Instead, something else grew out of this. Where the old monarchies relied on glory and nationalism to legitimate their doings, the new bureaucracies relied on centralization, planning and efficiency. After the madness, there were to be method to things - central planning, coordinated policies, scientific management. From the ashes of the old world, something new would be built. And it would be built on time, within budget and according to plan.

This last part is the most horrific. If there is any one part that causes the most despair, that is it. We will get to that.

The title of this post mentions the ninth of November. The date this alludes to happened in 1938, twenty years after the end of the Great War. But in order to put the Kristallnacht and what followed it into perspective, the backdrop of the First World War is necessary. The pointless war, the demoralized populace, the increased bureaucratization of state power - they all coalesce into the horrors that were the Second World War and the Holocaust.

The Holocaust had administrators. There were bureaucrats working with tireless German efficiency to work out the most efficient ways to organize everything - in detail. From compiling census data on how many Jews there were, to calculating how many Jews could be fitted into a cargo train, to organizing the trains so that they could get from where they were to the concentration camps, to formulating the most efficient guidelines for how to kill them once they were there. It was all to be made on time, within budget and according to plan.

The Holocaust had a budget. It had a plan. It was all legal.

It was all legal.

And since it was all organized, it was divided up into different parts. Any one part was not important in and of itself, but taken together, they grinded the gears forward toward the end result. The division of labor was such that everyone did what they did as if they had ordinary jobs. Because that's what they had. It was all so organized that the totality of the operation fell outside the scope of everyday activity, and it became all the more efficient for it. Those who repaired trains repaired trains, those who pushed papers pushed papers, and so on. Honest people with honest jobs, getting paid for doing a good job - not knowing what they were contributing to.

The Holocaust was not just a couple of madmen who one day got an idea to kill all the Jews. It was the result of millions of people working in organized synergy toward that end goal, each one of them doing their small part to contribute to the whole. Whatever they did. As long as they followed the laws and kept the system operating at a stable pace, they helped keep the routine execution of the plan going. The very fact that they were law-abiding, ordinary and decent citizens gave legitimacy to what was going on.

To put it brutally: you either helped the Holocaust in some way, or you were out of a job.

The true horror was the scale of it. The inertia of it. Take out any one part of the system, and honest people would respond by sending job applications to the new openings. Honest people would do honest work, and millions would die as a result.

There was glory in war once. It died with the First World war.

There was glory in doing a decent day's labor once. It died in the Holocaust.

Alongside this, the Second World War raged. And contrary to what Hollywood movies likes to tell you, the brunt of the raging went on on the east front. Germany and the Soviet Union sent their armies clashing, the latter more so than the former. It is famous how the Soviets sent wave after wave of barely armed people at the Germans, pointing machine guns at their backs. The thought was simple: send enough cannon fodder, and the Germans would eventually run out of cannons. It didn't matter what this cannon fodder did or how it got there - as long as it soaked up bullets, it served its purpose. It didn't even matter who they were - a common practice was to empty the mental institutions and send the inmates toward the awaiting Germans. Sanity was not required in order to die for the cause.

There was method to the madness. It was cold, ruthless method, but method nonetheless.

The Germans advanced. As they did, the Russians retreated, and scorched the earth behind them, leaving nothing to eat. Those who happened to live along the way soon found that they didn't - if the Russians didn't recruit them, the lack of food didn't starve them, or the Germans outright killed them, the oncoming winter would.

The Russians have a traditional ally, commonly called General Winter. He stopped Napoleon when he tried to take Moscow, and he slowed down the Germans when they tried to do the same. He didn't stop them, though. But when they reached Moscow they discovered something: there was no food to be had there, either. Neither for them or the non-relocated locals. And it was cold. As in minus forty centigrade cold.

Cold enough that people died along the way. At night a soldier would fall asleep, and next morning he would be a frozen corpse. Another casualty of war. Another calculated loss.

And if the terrain turned out to be uncooperative, these corpses could be used to create paths for the supply train. Smooth out the terrain, make the going easier.

Between all these cold, ruthless methods, millions died. As the saying goes, it's statistics at this point.

Eventually the war ended. But the history of Europe didn't end, and neither did the despair. As meaningless as the First World War was, nothing broke the back of optimism as much as the fact that it happened again.

Adorno said it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz. He had reason to say so.

What followed was the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, and the DDR. Where the bureaucratic survivors of the war took the lessons learned to heart, and applied even more bureaucratic and administrative oversight in order to secure that the new world was built properly. On time, within budget and according to plan.

The result was the soul-crushing dystopia of applied modernity. On the east side of the Iron Curtain we got the communist version, and on the west side we got the capitalist version. Both of them equally capable and willing to trample corpses in order to achieve results. Especially when they tried to outdo each other in their respective capabilities to kill each and every human being alive.

Twice, thrice. Should it come to that.

The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union ceased, the Iron Curtain fell, the Berlin Wall did likewise. Yet the despair continues, as it is clear that the bastion of freedom in the west has taken upon itself the role of making extra sure that the modern project is built on time, within budget and according to plan. No matter how many new, noncold wars they'll have to fight to make it so.

And at home, there are those who say that the ideas that so many millions died so needlessly because of - are actually the way forward. And every year, there are ever more people that listen and nod in agreement. As if no one had learned anything.

There is no end to history. It just continues.

Call it despair. Call it post-traumatic stress. It's European.

Remember, remember, the ninth of November.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Be careful with that axe, Eugene!

Consider the accident.

The common way to think about it is to consider it something that happens despite all precautions of safety. You try to do everything right, but sometimes, out of statistical necessity, things just go wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.

This is a rather backward way of going about it.

Paul Virilio proposed we see accidents happening because, not despite. Train accidents don't happen because we failed to do those things that prevent train accidents; they happen because we're running a train system.

The accidents are built in to the system.

And so it goes for all other things. We have automobile accidents because we have automobiles. We have nuclear power plant accidents because we have nuclear power plants.

We have computer accidents because we have computers.

The power of this way of looking at things lies in its shifting of focus. It's very easy to fall into the thinking that things only work in the way they're supposed to work, and everything else is the exceptions that proves the rule. A limited number of uses are identified as legitimate, and the rest are illegitimate - accidents.

Needless to say, this limits one's analysis of things. For instance, file sharing becomes piracy. Those who designed the internet didn't envision the file sharing behaviors we see today, but as accidents would have it, it happens. And it won't go away, no matter how hard one tries, as it is inherent in the very nature of things.

Another computer accident: people gathering together spontaneously become a terrorist threat. As they suddenly move too fast to keep track of.

It has been said that the best ways to prepare for an accident is to do things that are good even if it doesn't happen.

There might be something to it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The elusive voters and virtues

Living in a democracy puts strange demands on a human being. One of the strangest of them is the regular imperative to vote - every few years, elections happen, and as a citizen you are expected to take part when they do.

One aspect of this is that the impact of one particular individual vote is negligible. It is very rare that an election ends with just the one vote making all the difference - most of the time, the difference tends to be measured in the hundreds of thousands. A vote either for or against tend to be swallowed up in the grey mass of other such votes. Votes and voters are legion, for they are many.

Yet, they are also one. Individual. Singular. And it is in every case up to the individual to arse themselves to their voting stations and make their vote happen.

This imperative is ethical in nature. Ethical as in virtue ethics. Virtue as in "you do it because it's good in and of itself, and that is all the incentive you need to do it".

The imperative to vote can thus be summed up like this: it makes virtually no difference whatsoever what you vote for, but it makes all the difference that you do.

Democracy is confusing.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Look who's talking, as if people like you have a voice!

There are two things you need to experience before moving further into this narrative. The first is this video interview (and the accompanying text), the second is this manifesto.

Go on. Experience. There is time.

You're all set? Good. Let's move on, then.

From these two things, we can construe two aspects of the word 'legitimacy'. Did you, for instance, note the emphasis on voting in the video?

Legitimacy, in this instance, is derived from formality. As in, adherence to forms - as long as the formal arrangements are respected and conducted in a proper fashion, legitimacy follows. I.e. the system is legit because and as long as people perform their due duties and vote. If they for whatever reason do not vote, the system would face a constitutional crisis (in more ways than one).

An unintended consequence of this is that those who do not vote are cast as illegitimate. The system is legit because people vote, thus voting is the legit way to affect the system, and if you denounce your right and sacred duty to adhere to formalia - then off with you, rabble. You had your chance, nay, duty, and your refusal to perform adequately disqualifies you from any claim to legitimacy you may feel you have.

Dies, votes and iron are not all cast the same way. Yet they all claim legitimacy.

You may have noticed that the text that accompanies the interview has the word "revolution" in it. Quite often, in fact, and quite prominently. Not in the "the earth revolves around the sound" way, but in the "the current order is illegitimate and will/must be overthrown" way.

Iron can, as you well know, be cast into a great many things. So can dies, Rubicon or no.

This brings us to the manifesto. Since you've without a doubt been a good reader and experienced it, you know that it relies on a different notion of legitimacy. Rather than from form, legitimacy derives from what the system actually accomplishes. If it serves to strengthen the interests of a few while leaving the rest in the literal manifestation of hell on Earth - it has a legitimacy problem. If it, on the other hand, adapts itself to the restraints of a finite Earth and strives for as good an end state as is possible for as many people as possible - then it has a claim on legitimacy.

The revolution comes about when the notion of who is and isn't a legitimate subject changes. The storming of the Bastille may or may not happen alongside this redefinition, but it doesn't have to. In fact, it can be all the more dramatic for not occurring - suddenly, things have just changed, with no one the wiser. Suddenly, one order of things finds itself without the legitimacy it once had, and another one finds itself always-already implemented as the legitimate way of going about things.

Suddenly, voting is not the center of the legitimate order. Other things take priority. Other humans take priority. Preferably with their own hands and minds.

But we're not there yet. There's a span of time between now and then, and as it stands, we have a legitimacy gap. On the one hand, we have the formal order as it stands, with parties and state institutions and legitimate public discourse - those things (or, as the liberals would call them, freedoms) that stand as the bulwark against tyranny and injustice in all forms. On the other hand, we have the ever growing number of people who are not only not included within these things/freedoms, but actively excluded from them. Even more so with the advent of "austerity" - the coordinated and conscious effort to reduce the public sphere to as few legitimate subjects as possible. And, more to the point, as wealthy as possible.

Vote, don't vote - it doesn't matter, you're not part of legitimate society in any case. Tory, Labour, Republicans, Democrats, Left, Right - they won't give a shit about you, your troubles, your opinions, your concerns, or anything else that has to do with you. Especially if you happen to be young, poor, woman, colorful, disabled, odd, politically inappropriate, criminal, or in any other way not quite as legit as you ought to be.

Still. The Rubicon lies ahead of us. It presents us with three choices. We can cast our votes to ignore it all. We can cast iron in order to forge gates to prevent anyone from crossing - and in so doing cast a caste system beyond anything any standard of justice would call reasonable. Or we can cast the die and gracefully storm over to the other side.

Bastille or no Bastille? Only time will tell. Or, better yet - you tell me.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

It does not suit you to be a woman

Clothes are social things. They are used to communicate a wide range of things at a glance - everything from social status to occupation to political affiliation to any number of other things. You can tell a whole lot about a person based on the way they are dressed - clothes are social markers. More so than just simply means to remain warm in a cold climate.

This is not a controversial statement. I need not go on at length about how the Pope's clothes differ from a construction worker's - you already know all about that. You have the decoding skills needed to understand these social cues.

From this understanding, we can pose this question: how can a women dress in order to not be perceived as a woman?

One might imagine that, among the thousands upon thousands of social markers available in the language of clothing, there'd be some sort of universal marker that declares the bearer to be gender-neutral. That there's a way to dress that, in no uncertain terms, removes all aspects of sex and gender from the social equation. That states that this is a gender/sex free zone, and no two ways about it.

One might imagine such a thing. If this was about clothes.

This is not about clothes.

This is about the brutally problematic way we relate to women, and about the constant sexualization of everything that is a woman body. It doesn't matter how, when, where or why it is - it is still woman and it is still body, and as such it is a potential sex object. And it will be regarded as such.

Which, undoubtedly, makes things difficult for those who say that women only have themselves to blame if and when they dress in certain ways. That they provoked the sexual violence they are subjected to by dressing in these certain ways. Because it's not about clothes, at all - that's just the simple excuse one uses in order to avoid confronting the more difficult questions.

It makes it even more difficult for those women who are made to blame themselves. By virtue of their audacity - being women!

There is no "right" way to dress. There is, at present, no way for a women to do or be "right". Since all questions regarding autonomy and the right to not be a sexual object are constantly being sidetracked to and by questions that are impossible to answer. As if they had anything to do with clothes.

Though, to be sure, there is an ever present question, posed to all women with bodies: why are you not dressed sexier? -

Originally published October 3, 2013

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The internet is for porn

Much is said about internet and porn these days. Actually, much is always said about internet and porn, both individually and in various combinations of the two. It's in the nature of things: the internet is by its nature feminine (why else would so many young men swarm so longingly around it?), and porn - well, that goes without saying.

All too often, discussions about porn tend to get caught up in the negative connotations associated with the word. All it takes is for one (or two) persons to storm into the conversation, and suddenly it's all about decency and dignity and cultural qualities and other such what have yous - anything that diverts from the subject matter of sexually active images and pictures.

This is, of course, not the most optimal way to go about talking about it. It's not even that interesting, after the nth variation on theme. It's way more interesting to look at it it through the lens of history - in particular if we combine the porn with the internet and get internet porn. Did you, for example, know that porn sites had figured out how to monetize online content years and years before more conservative businesses started to wrap their heads around how to pronounce "www."?

If you want to insist on being a puritan about it, do consider that the systems you use to pay for things online more often than not were developed by entrepreneurial porn distributors.

All too often, discussions about startups, market creation and market innovation tends to ignore such embarrassing details. It ain't kosher, and moreover it's a drag when one wants to project an image of serious business. One would much rather retouch this aspect of one's ethos.

The thing - the inescapable thing - is of course that this isn't specific to the internet. It goes for any and all new media. First someone invents it, and the very next thing that happens it that someone uses it to make porn. And a short moment later, the wheels of porn monetization are rolling.

About ten years later, the notion that maybe the porn distributors shouldn't be given a monopoly on this here new media thingy slowly starts to take root. Kind of like the notion of trickle-down economics, only in reverse: when the unmentionable dregs of society invents something profitable, it slowly emerges as a benefit to society as a whole over time.

Eventually. When the news that the media is not the message has done its eternal recurrence. Again.

Originally published June 17, 2011

Sunday, September 22, 2013

It's the aliens, stupid!

The world is ruled by aliens. And they demand things from us. A lot of things. And they are never satiated - they want ever more things. Always more.

They do not seem to care what these things are. Only that there's a lot of them, and that they are the end result of a long manufacturing process - the longer the better.

If we do not live up to this quota of massively manufactured mass productivity, these aliens will eat us. They will begin with the children, and then work their way up the age groups. Eventually, we will all be eaten by our alien overlords, a fate worse than death.

And certainly worse than you average workday. To be sure.

This is the one explanation I can find to why there is still a widespread insistence on everyone working at full capacity at all times. Should one look at the rate of productivity increase, one would conclude that we've already passed the point where we produce all we need and will ever need. Should one look at the increasing rates of unemployment, one would conclude that unemployment is a permanent feature of the modern economy (and cannot be otherwise, given the aforementioned productivity increases). And should one look at the ever more creative and sadistic ways of punishing those who happen to be unemployed in an economy that neither want, need or afford them - one would conclude that someone has a deep seated hate for their fellow human beings.

Given all this, aliens is the one reasonable explanation. They will eat our babies if we cut ourselves and the planet some slack, and it is indeed the very end of humanity if you don't show up to work eight hours a day five days a week forty years of your life.

It is the one explanation that makes sense.

You rarely get to say that about aliens. But given the state of the economy - why not?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Information underload

Every minute some forty-eight odd hours of video are uploaded to Youtube.

Every minute, hundreds of songs are written.

Ever minute, thousands of blog posts are posted.

Every minute, hundreds of thousands pictures are taken.

Every minute, millions of thoughts, ideas and opinions are exchanged.

With this in mind - how come we constantly see the same reruns on television, hear the same songs on the radio, read the same old recycled opinions in the newspapers, see the same stock photos everywhere, and on the whole fail to be confronted with all those things that were not always-already the default mode of the mainstream media?

How do the radio stations get away with playing the same playlist over and over and over again? How on earth does the mainstream media get away with limiting their repertoires to the ridiculously narrow array of repeated repeated repeated? How is it possible to maintain this information underload?

I do not understand this.

Originally published June 7, 2012

How do you translate authority?

You may or mat not have thought about it, but I have a category named "translations". As you might imagine, it contains things of a translated nature, written by the very translator that writes these very words.

I sure wrote a lot of things back in the days. As in, thousands of them.

Translating these things poses a quite interesting set of challenges. Not least among these are those relating to genre and context - how do you go about translating things that are part political pamphlets, part engaging in a very particular community of discourse, and part exploratory writings whose only motivation were the author's pleasure in spending time with a particular thought?

Needless to say, there are certain things lost in translations.

Another difficulty lies in the intertextual dimension. One text talks to, relies on and presumes familiarity with another, which in turn does the very same things to an other, and so on in a great chain of textual being. Which, in practical terms, means that you can't really just translate the one text and be done with it - you have to dig back in time to the one text that stands (or can be made to stand) on its own contextual feat (or feet), and then move forward from there. Until you reach the point where enough inter- has been suffixed to the text you initially wanted to translate.

There is an aspect of archeology and genealogy at work here.

Yet another difficulty lies in the notion of fidelity. Time has passed between the writing and the translating, after all. New things have been learned, new experiences had, and new patterns of writing adopted. The translator is (hopefully) always wiser than the author, and all those mistakes that were made at the time of writing are visible with the predictive clarity of hindsight. And there is the ever present temptation to learn from the past, correct the mistakes and improve upon the present.

As the author, I do profess to claim some authority of/on the text at hand. Changes were made. Fidelity be damned.

All this applies. And that without the added complexity of having to take into account the triple hermeneutics of translating something that is not of one's own writing.

The question is, indeed - how do you translate authority?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Don't preform me, bro! Perform, me!

Whenever someone mentions grammar, there is a tendency for eyes to glaze over. Or, equally likely, a general hostility on the basis of perceived imminent snobbery. Which is interesting, as there are few things in the world that are equally likely to cause indifference and hostility - this in and of itself tells us something.

It does not however go without saying. That would be the opposite of grammar.

Grammar never goes without saying. It is the saying.

The most common way to think about grammar is to think about rules, rules and more rules. A comprehensive set of rules that are imposed willy-nilly on you, mostly in an educational setting, where you are more often than not found to be in the wrong. Wrong in the sense of a red marker pointing out just how unruly you are, in an unequivocal display of the relationship between ruler and ruled.

This is what the education system drills into its pupils. It is also, quite ironically, wrong.

Grammar is not a system of rules. It is an applied skill, a mastery, a competence. A call to action, an agency. A way of navigating the world.

An art.

The art of knowing how to string words together in a way that makes social sense. When it makes social sense. Even and especially when the rules of formal grammar are broken.

Maybe it is better to say it in a slogan. The most brute force of all the grammatical maneuvers:

Grammar is a gateway drug to poetry.

Something else that doesn't go without saying.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Know, now!

August has just ended, and we have entered into the venerable month of September. Summer is slowly fading away, and Autumn is gracefully flowing into the lives of those so fortunate as to breathe the outside air.

This is fortunate, as it means that August is over, and I can focus on something that is not written exams.

It is a strange feature that emerges from the bureaucracy of universities. There's a lot of exams going on, and there's a lot of people not quite getting it right the first time. Or the second time. Which gives rise to the occasion of third times, and thus to the need to administrate all these times all the time. A need fulfilled by the month of August, wherein every and all accumulated third times are discharged all at once. One after the other, in something akin to an academic orgy. All the answers are given to all the questions, and as the Autumn gracefully flows in, the administrators can put to rest the ghosts of Spring.

Written exams are strange that way.

The strangest thing about them is that you pass or fail them by how you answer them. Not by what is in your answer, or if that is in fact the correct answer, but by how that answer is.

Discourse is a performance, and the way to pass an exam is to perform adequately. Which sometimes leads you to the strange situation where you know what the answer is, but not how to perform it. You know that the answer is x, but you will not pass if you simply write x - you have to make the right noises, invoke the right authorities and nudge the right nudges. Otherwise, it won't count.

In the end, it comes down to this: do you fit in with the community of discourse?

Whenever someone says that knowledge is socially constructed, this is what they mean. Just knowing something in and of itself won't cut it - you have to perform it, knowingly. Otherwise, it won't count.

As in the case of the gay refugee that had to prove his homosexuality by naming five songs by Madonna.

As you might imagine, this is not a local issue. It is not specific to the month of August, it is not specific to the life of the university, and it is not specific to any one discourse. It is a feature of discourse as such. Of what it means to be a person who knows something, someone who can be said to know something.

It is something that makes itself known every day to those who go about life knowing things without knowing how to perform. Those who will never be privy to the obscure inner workings of the university as an institution, or indeed the often illuminated interior decor of the university as a building.

They don't count. In any number of ways.

This is not the Winter of our discontent. We're still a few short months away from that.

Monday, August 26, 2013

You can't buy this party boat for money

So now I have something more like six euros left. That's 6, for those of you that are bots and can't read numbers as letters. Or letters as numbers, as the case might be.

This poorness leads me to ask certain questions. One of them being: what would I do should I suddenly have boatloads of money?

After thinking about it, I've realized that the answer is not to buy a party boat, get high on vast amount of drugs, and do the vast amounts of debauchery that money seems to bring with it. Not that party boats, drugs and debauchery ain't fun, but - what's the point?

There's things to do, right? Important things to take care of, a world to save and so on. Right?


The thing about being poor is that things are unselected  for money reasons. Things that ought to be done aren't, things that should be done are postponed indefinitely, and things that want to be done are shoved aside by those things that can be done with the means at hand. Corners are cut, shoes that are not entirely whole are lived with, and those things that would be considered broken are continually used because the only other alternative is to not use them.

This makes it a natural thing to uncut these corners. Do those things that ought to be done, should be done and want to be done.

Having shoes that won't get my feet wet. Yeah. I can go with that. And eating something that is not cooked on the principle of getting a lot of food for no money. And all those other small things that never see the light of day, by virtue of being the expensive things that can't be afforded this month either.

The party boat will have to wait.

But after that, you ask?


Would it be utopian to think that I could transpose my cheap living way into the future, enjoying the (comparatively) good life I'm living now, only without the constant worries about money?

What would you do if you suddenly had boatloads of money?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

I caused the economic crisis

I have a total of twelve euros to my name.

That's twelve. As in 12.

That's more awesome than it sounds.

Somehow, by not spending these twelve euros, I've managed to wreak severe economic havoc across a wide spectrum of economic sectors. Developers, distributors, studios, associations, - the whole gamut of copyright industries and related businesses. They have all been wrought upon, and the havoc has been severe.

That's quite the bang for the bucks. All twelve of them.

The logic I'm applying here is the old doctrine that one illegal download is one lost sale. And that my criminal self has inflicted great damage upon a great many commercial actors by not spending my money on those things so downloaded.

All twelve of them.

One might object that twelve euros is not much, and that spending it on anything at all in the first world wouldn't change anything in the grander scheme of things. That it is impossible to lose a sale to someone who never could afford it in the first place. That poor people make poor consumers. That it might be proper to rethink the old doctrine.

One might.

But I quite like the thought of causing great imaginary economic havoc with my imaginary money. It is, after all, the most bang I'll ever get for my bucks. The highest return on investment I'll ever see. In any category.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

I was Bradley Manning

Let's start off at the obvious point: Bradley Manning was a hero. Chelsea Manning is a hero. Let there be no doubt about this, either in a grammatical or any other sense.

Was, is. Powerful words.

This tense grammar seems to be causing all kinds of confusion all around the world right now. On the one hand, those who most avidly supported Bradley have no real reason not to support Chelsea. It's the same person, the same act of heroism and the same overly harsh sentence for the crime of telling the truth. Nothing has changed, and she is as worthy of our continual support as she ever was.

On the other hand, some people are equipped with brains that automagically shuts down at the very mention of gender. These people are, at this very moment, very confused as to what to think. The hero, the gender, the mental breakdown -

Poor fellows.

Let there be no doubt about the hero status of Chelsea Manning. In any sense. Not even the grammatical one.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

There is no such thing as too fast, too efficient or too lean

The concept of a speed run is both simple and complex at the same time. It's easy to grasp what it is, yet defining it makes for a challenge.

The essence of a speed run is this: getting from the start to the end of a computer game as fast as humanly possible. As in, as fast as possible, without any avoidable delay. Such as, say, story, taking in the scenes, enjoying the side quests or anything that isn't getting from start to finish. The faster, the better.

Separating the words "speed" and "run" makes it a tad bit easier to define this phenomena.

"Speed" means just that. Speed, velocity, motion, getting forward. Any moment wasted is a moment wasted, and if there is any way to unwaste a moment, that is the correct way.

"Run" is trickier. A run is everything that happens between when you press "new game" to when you either reach the end or give up. One might make the argument that there has to be some sort of intentionality to it for it to be a run proper, and that playing in general doesn't constitute a run per se. I'd argue that every playthrough is a run of one flavor or another, and that the only thing that differs is the skill with which it is executed.

Let's illustrate this with the most frequently used example of this blog: Deus Ex: Human Revolution. There are many possible runs to go for, with varying levels of difficulty. The easiest is the "I'm gonna beat this game" run, where the object is to beat the game, without any particular preferences. Then there are runs with various restrictions, such as not killing anyone, never being seen by anyone, not setting off any alarms etc. Or, hardest of all, all of the above. Any given set of restrictions is a "run".

(I'm not gonna lie to you. I've done that. All of it. It's a source of nerd pride. Respect my authoritah.)

Like genre participation, one does not need to know the genre to participate, only act in accordance. I.e. you're doing a particular run if you're playing in a particular way. It doesn't have to be formalized or given a name, but a run it is nevertheless.

A speed run is a very specific kind of run.

What makes these runs special is the laser like focus they have on minimizing the actual game time. Everything is repurposed in terms of seconds and minutes: how many minutes can you shave off by doing x or avoiding y? is it worth it to spend a couple of precious minutes early in the game in order to save time later on? what glitches, bugs and unintended features can be systematically exploited in order to become faster? what works?

The first things to go is story and morality, where applicable. If there's an option to do a good thing, and that option takes more time than the option to not do it, then that option is off the table. Except if you later on get a reward that speeds things up in some other, timely beneficial way. There's no right and wrong - there is only speed.

Then, everything else goes. Everything except outright cheating

It is interesting to see how something familiar be translated into a very unfamiliar context. There's absolutely no understanding for taking things slow and smelling the roses, and no sentimentality about anything. It's all rational, goal-oriented minmaxing, down to the last saved second - brutal instrumentality all the way.

The most interesting aspect of this is that this isn't limited to computer games. This is how instrumental rationality works overall, in all cases where efficiency is called for: in factories, in engineering, in middle management, in public policy review. Something that is a composite whole is reduced to one single measurable statistic, and then all efforts are put into optimizing for that one measured number. With a laser-like focus and brutal unsentimentality of those aspects of the whole that is not deemed important.

The question to ponder is: what constitutes a "run" in those cases that are not runtime computer games?

A possible response to an implied interlocutor

Dear sir, the biggest flaw in your argument is that it is based on the premise that you are a moron. I cannot in good conscience accept this premise, not even for the sake of argument, and I am in all honesty shocked that you choose to debase yourself this way. It is very much beneath you to behave this way, and it pains me to say that there are very few possible discourses wherein what you say does not assume that the sayer is not right in the head. That you would willingly perform such a speech act flabbergasts me, and therefore I shall give you this additional chance to restate your case in a way that is less embarrassing to the both of us.

Should you find this response offensive, then please refrain from voicing this. Some things are after all better left unsaid.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

We are no strangers

One of the stranger results of Snowden's reveal about the NSA - results of which there are many - has to do with nationalism. Specifically, European nationalism. Even more specifically, European nationalism visavi the the European Union.

Now, as you might imagine, the revelation that the NSA spies on just about anything worth and/or possible to spy on has sparked quite an uproar just about everywhere. The obvious result is of course that people are very much less supportive of American pre-emptive security measures in general - being the pre-empted terrorists and all. The less obvious result is that there's a sudden surge in pro-EU sentiments in certain circles. Nationalist circles.

Especially in the smaller countries.

Being a nationalist of a small country is a strange thing. On the one hand, it means that you are part of a very exclusive group of people, and that you can turn this very smallness into a source of pride. On the other hand, it also means that you really can't count on the support of a huge military machine in your nationalist endeavor - that goes with the whole smallness thing.

Another thing that goes with the nationalist package is a hefty dose of skepticism about the whole EU project. The "we are the best" mentality only includes so many people, after all, and the prospect of gradually becoming one with the rest of Europe is a bit too inclusive. Smallness and exclusivity, you know.

So. The Snowden reveal kicks into effect, and the US suddenly looms that much larger in the overall threat assessment of the present. What happens should they look hither and decide that we are the threat? We and what army are gonna stop them if they get any ideas?

Suddenly, the EU seems like that much more of a good idea.

We are living in strange times, and strange things are afoot. In the strangest of ways.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Atheists don't like people talking about atheists

Hardcore atheists are fun. Especially those who denounce any, all and every thing that exhibits any trace of religion. Whatever it happens to be.

Especially those who do it on the grounds that it is nothing but fiction. That it's just a bunch of stories that someone made up and wrote down ages ago, and that any reasonable approach to it would dismiss them as the useless piece of discursive junk that it is. The less said about it, the better!

The funniest thing about it is that it is several things at once. Unreasonable, unscientific and untenable are three of them.

It is unreasonable on the grounds that just about everything boils down to stories that some dude wrote down ages ago. Nationalism, capitalism, pokemon - any major world changing stream of thought you can think of started out as someone sitting down to write a story about how neat it would be if [enter any if here]. It then grew out from that, one someone at a time.

Fan fiction is awesome that way.

It is unscientific, on the grounds that just about any major historical trend you could care to shake a stick at was based on, influenced by and justified with a religious foundation. This goes for any and every thing - architecture, music, politics, wars, economic expansions, and so on and so forth.

Dismissing religion out of hand makes history nigh impossible to understand. Not to mention the present, which is still based on history.

It is untenable, on the ground that if you insist on inhabiting this view for any length of time, you're going to find yourself alienated from just about anyone worth not being alienated from. Not just from religious people (although they are not amused), but also from people who generally just want to get along. Who want to explore ideas, what ifs and general ruminations with others. Not in order to get at any divine (or secular) truth, but to have a good time with those who happen to be there right there and then.

Life tip: barging in and roaring "IT'S ALL BULLSHIT" is not the suavest of moves. Anywhere.

Is there any way we could tell this to the most hard, most core and most atheist of the hardcore atheists? Or do we have to conclude that they have, indeed, withdrawn into their newfound atheist religions, and must be treated with the same kind of ecological respect that all devout communities need in order to not turn zealot? -

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What to consider when writing

There are two kinds of writing. The familiar kind is when you want to express something - a feeling, an experience, a fascination with a brand new concept that seems to be universally applicable, an opinion on a current event, etc. There's something inside that wants to get out, and it will only get out through the words put to print.

To write what one wants to write. Because that is what one wants.

The other, maybe slightly less familiar, kind is the writing that wants to finish something. To accomplish something. To have been written. To be able to say that there is writing about it. To be able to give to someone and say: this is what you need to read in order to understand.

To write what others need to read. Because they need it.

These two kinds are not the same. They differ. In just about any way you could care to mention, except maybe in the purely physical sense.

When thinking about writing, it is important to consider why. Not just why anything in particular, but why in general - why writing? Is it writing for the sake of writing, or writing for the sake of reading? For the sake of affecting some kind of change?

The key way to understand this difference is to ask the question: what difference does it make if this text makes it to its readers?

If it makes the biggest of all differences - has the potential to - you tend to write differently than when it doesn't. In general, you tend to become less and less personal the more difference hangs in the balance. And, in a sudden reversal, the words tend to become all the more indifferent. They are not you, they are just dead lead, words on a page.

Because you are no longer the author. The difference you want to make is.

Take, for instance, the period of time before an important vote is taken in assembly. There's still time to change the votes of individual members of this assembly, and giving these members a piece of text might change it. What to write?

If it is important enough, you just want them to vote your way. The reason for this is indifferent, only that they do. So, what to write?

The text that will make them vote differently. The text that, when they read it, makes them make up their minds.

This is not the same kind of text that begins with "hello, my name is [name], and I think that...".

The expression of one's own feelings, thoughts and impressions is no small challenge, to be sure. But it requires a different set of frames of reference than the production of the impersonal piece of discourse that will produce the change you want.

This is the difference between poetics and rhetoric.

You are somewhere in the middle.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Gypsies, thieves, neighbors and other undesirables

Crime is a strange thing. It gets most of its strangeness from the fact that no one is born a criminal and nothing is inherently criminal. A crime is, by definition, the breaking of a law - whatever that law might be.

One of the stranger aspects of this is that the one surefire way to reduce criminality is to reduce the amount of laws. If the amount of laws is reduced to zero, then there are by definition no criminals.

Strange as it might sound, this will not happen any time soon. But it is a good starting point for understanding crime and criminality. If we can reduce the amount of criminals by simply redacting the relevant laws, then it follows that we can also increase the amount of criminals by enacting new ones. It's the same principle, after all.

This becomes relevant real fast as politicians oftentimes compete in the ancient art of trying to appear the most anti-crime. The one says the penalties should be raised by this much, the other hears this and goes +1. All the while their voters nod their heads and thin - yeah, let's get those criminal bastards.

The thing is that there really is nothing in place to stop the politicians from declaring the most random things criminal. All they have to do is to pass a law, and then - wham, a new group of criminals are now in existence, and all measures that can and should be used against criminals can now be used against these new people.

Who would that be, you ask? Well, it all depends on who happens to be the outgroup of the moment. It could be any group that can be defined by words, but traditionally homosexuals, ethnic minorities, political oppositions and other undesirable elements have been targeted.

The recent usage of the word "terrorist" has made it very possible to treat a large number of people as criminals. The British have their laws against "anti-social behavior", which I suspect many people break by just being.

It could be anyone. It could be you.

This calls for restraint when it comes to what measures can and should be used against criminals. If all it takes for a country to round up all gay people and put them in incarceration is one minor bill passed into law, then gay people - or any other group, for that matter - can't really be said to live in safety. Especially not if the tougher measures go above and beyond sending people to prison.

It has happened before.

Don't make the mistake of imbuing metaphysical properties into the term "criminal". No one is born a criminal, and no eternal unholy stigma is placed upon the souls of those who break the law. They are still people, and as the rhetoric starts to become more heated, it is wise to take a step back and ask the question: is that a decent way to treat people?

It is always about people. No matter how much anyone wants to put the fear of "criminals" into your head.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Funny you should say that

Something funny happened the other day. Someone read my post on statistics, and exclaimed an unequivocal "you're wrong!". Which then prompted someone else to enter into the conversation and proclaim "no, you're wrong!".

It is one of these situations where I nod politely and then continue to be friendly to both parties. Separately.

The issue was - is - whether Steam counts achievement unlockage among owners or players. Is it enough to own a game, or do you have to actually play it to be counted? It is a rather obscure point, but significant in context.

The funny thing about me being wrong or not is that it doesn't matter to the post. The general message being that you got to keep an eye open regarding context still applies, regardless of the inner workings of achievement mechanics. And, because it's funny, we now have at least two things to say about rhetoric.

Funny how that works.

The first thing is that this is a very common outcome of any communicative attempt. In general, you try to convey some general point about the world at large. More often than not, you do this by using particular words and examples. As Kant hinted at, the world in general does not say anything in particular unless you point at it, and wherever you are, there you point.

What happens is that after you've said something in general, someone comes along and says something very particular about something very particular. And then the exchange suddenly becomes about this particular thing, rather than the more general thing you're really interested in. And once you're stuck in the particulars, the devil.


Knowing that this can and will happen will make you better prepared. When discussing things in general, you'll know that you have to be ready to refocus whenever things start to derail (unless, of course, the new topic of discussion is more interesting than the old one). You'll have to be rather quick about it, though - it doesn't take long for topic changes to stick, and then you're stuck.

(If you discuss issues of gender in any capacity, ever, you will see this happen very quickly. Keep an eye out - you'll be amazed.)

It also makes you better at proving people wrong. Not in the philosophical meaning of the word, but in the rhetorical. As you've seen, it didn't take long for the two particular people to proclaim the immortal words "you're wrong!", and to get into their respective fighting stances. It also works on a more general level, in that as soon you are able to point to any specific thing and make a reasonable claim that it's wrong, the rest of the argument follows into the category of wrong. No matter how solid the argument may be in every other part, it will be perceived as wrong - and that is all that matters when perception is everything.

It is very possible to overuse this method. Do not overuse it.

The second thing to be rhetorically said about this is that it's a very useful teaching tool. Whenever I want to point out the importance of adapting your general communication to the specific context you're in, I always use the same example: you're never quite the same at a funeral as you are when hoisting a pint of beer on a night out. When at a funeral, you're likely to be somber and low key. When on a night out - perhaps not as much.

The teaching tool is to use particular examples that you know in advance what people will object to. Funerals, for instance, are not always the somber situations that the popular imagination might suggest. They can be all manner of things, in all manner of moods - they can even be quite happy events, in that the community is reminded of all the good times they've had with the person in question.

Knowing in advance that someone probably might raise this objection, it is easy to then refocus to the core message: that it is important to adapt to the context you're in, whatever it might be. And that it's a virtue to keep an eye on the context - it might not always be what you expect.

You know, rhetoric can be quite fun. In general.

Friday, July 19, 2013

By the numbers, but without the math

Have you ever wanted to conduct a statistical analysis, but been deterred by the thought that math is not really your thing?

Then you have good taste, and will be pleased to know that math is somewhat optional. At least if you know where to get your data and how to interpret it.

For reasons that are very much statistical in nature, I recently stumbled upon this data set. It is a breakdown of how many percentage of Steam players have unlocked any given achievement in the game Deus Ex: Human Revolution, from the highest percentage to the lowest. Looking at these numbers, we can say some interesting (albeit not conclusive) things about how gaming happens.

One interesting stat is the percentage of players who've unlocked the First hack achievement. At the moment of writing, the number is 78.5% - slightly above three fourths, and slightly below four fifths. The interesting thing about this number is that you are forced by the game story to unlock this rather early. Not right away, to be sure, but early enough that those who find the game even modestly engaging will get there as a matter of course.

The fact that over a fifth of the Steam players who own the game hasn't as of yet unlocked this achievement is significant. In at least two meanings of the word.

An immediate conclusion from this might be that people lose interest before reaching this particular point, and that there's therefore something wrong with the game design. A 21.5% drop-off rate between the start and a rather early point implies a very steep learning curve, after all.

This, however, assumes that people have actually played the game. Remember - this statistic is a percentage of how many of the Steam owners have unlocked the achievement, and ownership is not the same thing as starting up the game. Especially not on Steam, where they occasionally sell games for next to nothing for limited periods of time. Which prompts people to buy the game when it is cheap, and then inactively sit on it until they get in the mood to actually play it - and, thus, creates a significant gap between those who own the game and those who gets achievements in it.

It is important to take these things into account before leaping to conclusions. Context matters.

Looking at the other end of the percentages, we find three achievements below 3%. Two of them might be expected, as they are rather hard to unlock. The third, however, is a strange one - and with a 0.9% unlock rate, a rare one.

The two expected ones - Foxiest of the Hounds and Pacifist - are conditioned on the player managing to not do certain things throughout the game. Not setting off an alarm or killing anyone, respectively. The hard part is not go for the appropriate game style - with enough game sense and patience, you can manage. The hard part is to not do it by accident - alarms can go off even when you're not around, and enemies can die due to bugs or circumstances beyond your control. In any number of ways, something can happen that invalidates the achievement, and nothing in-game tells you that this has happened. Until you either get it or not.

If you are hell bent on getting these particular achievements, you'll just press "new game" and try again when the achievement fails to unlock. Most people, however, will just shrug and move on to greener pastures. Which contributes to the figures we see.

The third one is the odd one. Doctorate. On paper, it is an easy thing to unlock. Just read all the various books spread around the world - there's even a handy wiki entry with all the locations marked out. One might imagine this being a more common one, well above the 0.9% level of achievementness. But for some reason, it isn't.

One reason might be that the very first book is in a very inconvenient location. If you play the sneaky way, you'll want to avoid this area altogether. Which is probably what you'll do, and by the time you figure you'll check the handy guide, you'll be far enough into the game to not want to restart for just the one achievement. This, of course, goes for all the other books you are likely to miss. But the fact that you miss the first one so early means that most players are effectively never going to see this particular achievement happen.

That's of course not the reason. But it's a reason, contributing in context.

So. Are you still up for some statistical analysis? In that case - go for it. There's a lot of fun to be had!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Solidarity under siege

I follow the Twitter updates about ticket inspections in the Stockholm public transit system. Not because I live in or visits Stockholm that very often (or would find my way around, should it come to that), but as a reminder. A reminder that the actually existing coordination is actually existing. People helping other people they haven't met and probably won't ever meet to a less stressful life. Just because they can.

It is a good sight to see. Every time.

This coordination is also a sign that there is an ever present latent readiness to mobilize in case of emergency. A rather low degree of latent readiness, to be sure, but it is there. And along with it, a readiness to take action. A readiness following from the ever present awareness of the messages that might, at any moment, drop in. At any moment, a call to action.

Slowly but surely, a mentality of being under siege sets in. The public spaces are no longer public - those who do not conform are liable to have bad days. Especially in Gothenburg these days, where the ticket inspectors are infamous for their creative interpretations of the words "setting an example".

The norm is not to have a ticket; the norm is to be able to afford one.

These updates are a sign of solidarity. But it is a sign  of a solidarity that can only exist under the conditions of a very vague "us" against an equally vague "them". Free-riders are usually not hostile to those they are riding with - not even the ticket inspectors, if they are professionals rather than Transit Rambos. They are not the "they" of this story. "They" are the they of "they say", and the solidarity is the solidarity of those who've heard enough of what "they" have said. Those who have heard enough to know they never can or want to do as they say.

One of the scariest things about "they say" is that it so easily transforms into "they should". Especially for those who do. Those who have heeded the constantly reminded call. They say you should have a ticket; why should I have sympathy with those who don't?

This transition from imperative to query often leads to action. More inspections, higher fines, surveillance cameras, less tolerance, closer scrutiny, vilifications - and when neither of these measures work, pure violence.

Nonconformists will be punished.

How does it feel to go to work every day, knowing that one is a modern pariah? A contemporary outcast, in transit from an unheeded imperative to a paranoia-induced bloody nose. Ever vigilant for signs of the machinery of control that runs on the words "they say".

I follow the Twitter updates about ticket inspections in the Stockholm public transit system. Not because I'm affected by them, but as a reminder that things are not as simple as they say. That the shades of gray are both more and less shady than those who call for ever harsher measures against criminals want you to assume. That this solidarity under siege isn't something that should exist in a society that calls itself free.

Originally published April 12, 2011

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Your social computing is no good here

Another day, another police raid. I have lost count of them - by this point, my reaction upon hearing about them is a shrug and a tired acknowledgement that it happened. It's no longer a thing out of the ordinary, but more and more a part of the digital status quo.

This time it has happened to [], a page where those who so wishes could find subtitles to movies. Swedish subtitles, translated by the fans, for the fans. Not the movies as such, mind you, but the files that contains the translated subtitles to these movies. That is to say, text files containing the translated transcripts of the dialogue within these movies.

We have therefore taken another step up the ladder of abstraction when it comes to internet related crimes. We know from the Pirate Bay-trial that it is de jure illegal to provide a bulletin board (physical or digital) that contains information as to where the files are. That is to say, to in any way, shape or form assist the accessories of the crime in question - be it in the form of a link, a word or a pointed finger. This has now been extended to things that might in any way, shape or form be related to the assisting of these accessories. Such as fansubbing.

This is not a step in the right direction. For three reasons.

First off, the general vagueness of this legal situation is very detrimental to the social stability. If handling things that are peripherally related to piracy is criminalized to the point where police in the mood for a raid can show up at any time, then there's a very present incentive for ordinary people to start thinking like criminals. Because they are, in the eyes of the law. And, moreover, there's an incentive to start to raidproof one's home, workplace or digital hideouts - the police might after all show up at any moment, and if they find something suspicious, they both can and will use it against you.

Under such conditions, applied paranoia pays off.

Secondly, this stifles innovation. Things that might be seen as creative and innovative leap when it comes to collaborative computing, might also be seen as organized crime. Or as facilitating said organized crime. Which, quite straightforwardly, makes it rational to be hesitant when it comes to innovate in these areas - especially when these innovations includes the sharing of information. Those policemen are not kidding around once they get into their raiding gear.

To slightly paraphrase a famous phrase: any sufficiently advanced application of collaborative computing is indistinguishable from piracy.

Thirdly, this is a direct and unmistakable message to the digital business community. Or, rather, it's two messages, one domestic and one international. The domestic message is this: don't mess with computers. The international message is this: don't come here if you are a company that messes with computers. Since every action that in any way, shape or form relates to collaborative computing can be interpreted as abetting organized criminality, and since actions undertaken on a commercial scale are always punished harder than those undertaken on a hobby basis - just don't do it. Stay out. It's not worth the hassle and the legal fees. Keep your business elsewhere.

It goes without saying that this is quite the opposite of conducive to a prospering digital business community.

There are two ways to react to this. The one way is to shrug and keep on keeping on, as if this is the way things are supposed to be. The other way is to get mad. To get out of your chairs, open your windows to the internet and yell: this legislation kills innovation, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!

It's your choice. Don't let the threat of the next police raid leave you too unaffected.

Originally published July 10 2013