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

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

I am a criminal

I sometimes shock my fellow human being by telling them that I am a criminal.

One might suspect this is done in order to stir up a conversation among and with my fellow human beings. It is. But more than that, it is done in order to inform them that I am indeed a criminal.

You may or may not find the reason I'm a criminal laughable. The reason is that I'm a file sharer. Which might not seem like such big deal - there are worse things to be guilty of, after all, and in the grander scheme of things it's not that big of a deal. When they wrote the seven deadly sins, copying computer files was not among them. You may or may not approve of it, but when compared to murder, rape or large scale financial fraud, there's not too much doubt about which one is the worst. Which one will send you to hell, and which one will at the most give you time in purgatory.

There is a qualitative difference between the one in the other.  When push comes to shove, misdemeanor and hard core criminality are two different things, and should be treated differently.

The crux here is that in the eyes of the law, this difference does not exist. According to the law, I am as likely to go to jail for the one as the other, and if I ever become the target of a legal process, I am as guilty as charged. And I both can and will go to prison for it, as sure as if I did something of the worse order.

The reason I tell people I'm a criminal is that in the eyes of the law, I am a criminal. Not of the hardcore life of organized crime kind - but the kind that goes to jail anyway.

The disconnect between being a criminal and being a criminal is the prime reason I tell my fellow beings about my criminal being. Because it is not just me - it's just about everyone that is younger than me who's used a computer. There's a whole generation of criminals out there, living their life in the shadow of their possible prison sentences. Living their life in preparation for a police investigation - or a police raid - that may or may not ever come.

Living lives of crime. Becoming used to thinking like criminals. Without ever committing something most people would consider criminal. In the common sense use of the word.

This does not have to be.