Oct 282014
 

If you ask any geek about his browser, you'll get one of several answers, but if you ask about addons
there is one consistent theme: all of them use some kind of adblocker. Technically savvy people don't
see adds on the web anymore, and generally this has made them much happier browsers.
It has also reduced their risk of spyware and other malware infections.

So far so good but could there be a downside to this ? Not seeing ads means most engineers don't
see how targetted they've really become, don't experience the amount of data collection that 
this reveals – and thus have no itch to scratch on the underlying data collection itself.

Private companies collecting data to do targeted marketing have been shown not to be trustworthy
with that data, we know they've been happy to sell it to third parties – including governments
and government agencies like the NSA.
Some geeks have been warning about this for ages – Richard Stallman predicted it in 1983,
30 years before Edward Snowden revealed it as happening and the organisation he started
to fight for free software was in part motivated by trying to prevent this risk.
It is still one of the organisations on the forefront of fighting to reclaim our privacy with 
projects like diaspora and mediagoblin (which I wrote a short piece about last week).

But for some reason, even now, after Snowden's revelations – these FSF projects aren't getting
mainstream traction among geeks. There is still not enough drive to end them. It's becoming
ever more clear that there is no political solution to this issue – yet the technical ones
are struggling due to a lack of contributors.
Many of the very best engineers are actually working for the biggest culprits ! 

Why is this ? Why do engineers not feel the need to contribute to, make use of, and drive
technologies to end this corpo-government intrusions into our private lives ? I think in 
part because even good things can have unintended consequences. It's just possible that
unlike everybody else – the one group who can appreciate the visible evidence of data
collection and infer the scale required to do it, are not seeing that evidence because
years ago they started blocking the channels it exists on (since those channels are annoying).

Now I would never advocate that we stop using adblockers, if anything, I would advocate that
we should get them more widely used (if enough people use them – the advertising market would
collapse and a lot of the monetary reasons for data collection would dissapear) – but in it's
current state as something mostly used by tech savvy geeks and engineers, it may actually be
having a negative side effect by making those most capable of finding solutions to these issues
less aware and less motivated to do so.

So, no, don't uninstall your adblocker, but remember why you wanted it in the first place and
help us bring about a new true peering internet. Let's contribute to the FSF projects fighting
to change the way people share things online so that, once again, the users can control what
they share with whom. 

Oct 242014
 

Fill in the blank: More Americans have ______ than have caught Ebola.

A) married Kim Kardashian

B) walked on the moon

C) voted for Ron Paul

D) miraculously survived a parachute failure from more than a mile up.

E) broken a land-speed record

F) played Batman in a movie

G) All of the above.

 

Answer: G – all of the above.

You can still count all the Americans who have ever caught Ebola on the fingers of a Simpson's character's hand. Okay ?

Oct 232014
 

"THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED." – Terry Pratchett, Hogfather.

 

When you, like me, believe in things like equality, women's rights, anti-racism, ending poverty, relieving suffering and all the other hallmarks of liberals – there is an odd response you constantly encounter from the rightwing side of politics: they call it idealism, and this is said with scorn. The implication: you are believing in the impossible, wanting the unobtainable. They'll even say so outright with phrases like: "the poor will always be with us" or "that's just the way it is and always will be". Their scorn reaches a pinnacle when they call us "social justice warriors" – which is not, as it would at first appear, a phrase of praise. 

Their belief is that theirs is a more realistic approach to the world – as if it's depressing claims are somehow more in tune with the real, material, universe. Then they have the gall of accusing liberals of "reducing people to mere pawns of circumstance with no control over their fate" – which flat-out contradicts their own stated belief in the previous paragraph. Ironically liberals do not do that at all – when we point out victimization (what they scornfully replace with victim-blaming – so blatantly as to refer to "victim-mentality") we are not reducing people to products of circumstance, on the contrary, we are recognizing that people have been reduced in this manner (by forces that are very hard for an individual to overcome) – and fighting to change that. You can't solve a problem unless you're prepared to admit that problem exists.

However that initial belief remains not just questionable but outright false. Their embrace of present-day as if it's some ultimate truth is no more realistic than believing in justice and mercy. Greed is no more real than compassion. They are idealists as much as we are – their ideals are just so depressing and disgusting that they can't admit they embrace them as ideals to pursue – so they pretend it's reality instead. Well grind the universe, sieve it and show me one atom of greed, one molecule of inequality.

For that matter show me an atom of liberty, a molecule of "money" (after all – the bits of paper hte government print has no intrinsic value – just the common agreement to pretend they do).

Every belief system – including the philosophical ones about society and the state are made up of 100% idealism, there is no reality in these things – no truth to them. But ideals have an interesting difference from all other metaphysical concepts – they can have the same impact on the world that they would have had if they were real even though they are not. Which is as close to real as makes no difference.

When you act with greed rather than compassion – choosing to exploit people instead, you create a world of the exploited, a world where all the effects of greed exist, even if greed is not an actual thing with a material existince. When you pretend this piece of paper is worth a stick of gum, you can acquire a stick of gum. In a way – idealism makes itself real enough to work.

Which then leaves us with but one conclusion – there is nothing inevitable about any particular outcome. The effects of greed exist not because greed is a real thing – only because people act according to the idea of greed. If people instead act according to the idea of compassion then the effects of compassion are completely real, even though the compassion itself was no more a real thing than the greed.

There is nothing superior about the right's set of ideals, their version of justice isn't more real, neither is their version of economics they are as idealistic and unreal as those of liberals. What is real however, is the effect of those beliefs – the real results of the choices they inspire. 

You can tell me you don't agree with my ideals, but don't pretend their inferior or less real – both our ideals have exactly zero reality to them. But when my belief in justice, mercy and compassion guides my actions, the effects of justice, mercy and compassion exist in the world just as real as if they had been real things. The more people believe in an ideal, the more it's effects become reality. That is how all societies are formed – by the collective effects of unreal causes. So I choose to believe in the ideals which will have the effects I desire to see in the world. That is, ultimately, the only defining factor. Do you choose a world of suffering, and thus contribute to that suffering, or do you choose to act according to believes that lessen suffering ?

That is ultimately the great lesson – if belief has the power to cause real effects (by guiding choices), then the kind of society we live in is really something we can change. Since there are no two societies alike in time and space, we have absolute proof that the structure of society is not some predetermined thing – it must be changeable or they would all be the same (or at least, similar) – they aren't, so social structures are maleable, it's up to us what we choose to mould them into.

 

Jan 132014
 

If ignorance and stupidity were capital crimes the hangman would never get a day off, and since I oppose the death penalty instituting it for these crimes may be a ever so slightly excessive, not quite what you would call commensurate response. Nevertheless they are terrible things and somebody has to say it.

  1. Misusing "The cake is a lie": just about every time somebody uses this meme they are applying it to … you know, cake. Which makes absolutely no sense at all if you know what it means. The phrase "the cake is a lie" has it's origins in background grafiti painted on the scenery of the game "Portal" – a message left for the protagonist regarding the evil GLADOS's promises of cake at the end of the "test". So in any sensible world this would be a meme about conspiracies, abuses of power, dishonest politicians or businessmen, corruption, deceipt, exploitation… in fact practically ANYTHING except for the one thing it's invariably used for: baked goods.
  2. Miley Cirus memes: on a roughly 5-year rotational cycle holywood finds a young girl, gets her to sing terrible songs and show a great deal of skin – then when she inevitably crashes and burns forgets about her: and everytime it happens we have the exact same debate. We have the sexist conservatives complaining that she's a bad influence, we have the liberals complaining that she's being exploited and we have the individuals trying to find a way to say that her behavior is empowering. It's a trend and debate as old as Madonna's career and it never changes. The only way it may ever change is if we stop playing the game – it's not even the sex that sells here – it's the controversy about the sex that sells… so stop the controversy, walk away – just shut the hell up. If the girl is truly empowered and doing it because she enjoys the attention then she'll keep doing it without you defending her, if she's a terrible influence on your children then the best way to reduce that influence is to ignore her and not keep drawing their attention to the fact that she shocked you. The only people who have anything to gain from the debate are the record companies – the one group whom neither side of the debate considers to be doing the right thing. They are doing what makes them money – and this world being what it is – the only way to end it is to stop letting them make money out of it.  It's a curious game professor, the only way to win is not to play.
  3. Viral Advertising: you know something – I hate viral advertising. Not the ads themselves – the people who share them. Laugh at the ad if you think it's funny but stop being some rich corporation's free marketing agent. Especially if you then go and rant about some of the things those corporations do. Excercise your free will and don't just follow a trend because everybody else does it – especially when somebody else is hoping to get rich out of your lack of thinking for yourself. Don't be a pawn in somebody else's game. Of course I would never suggest that sharing it shouldn't be allowed – but I do hold on to the right to think it's stupid. I have seen too many facebook walls with, on the same day even, a post about the horrors of animal-testing and a shared ad for a company that tests on animals. 
  4. Group-prejudice memes: man these annoy me. Racist jokes may be out of vogue but sexist jokes, nerd-jokes, gamer-jokes, people-from-some-country-jokes … the world of internet humor has now devolved into a state where prejudiced assumptions about people based on an arbitrary characteristic makes up practically all of it. This is beyond stupid: this is harmful, this is hurting people – and hurting people is not okay. 
  5. Rants about the stupidities of internet memes: rants like this blog post you are reading right now, they are futile, they are ultimately meaningless and to put the icing on a terrible christmas fruit cake they tend to devolve into what may just be the lowest form of humor ever invented: self-refferentialism.
Dec 042013
 

There is a prevailing myth in South Africa today that the old National Party government did a pretty decent job of running the country. Sure there were apartheid but the politicians were honest, had good intentions and built up the country and it's infrastructure.

The origins of this myth is not hard to trace: it's exactly what the Nats were telling South Africa during the more 50-odd years they were in charge. What is more interesting is the side effects of it:  The contrast with current government scandals – both corruption and service delivery related.

And tied into this – the core question we must answer: why does this myth persist to be able to create these contradictions ? We cannot only attribute this to effective National Party propaganda, the more right wingers will talk of how Bantu education budgets exceeded white education budgets (and ignore realities like how Bantu education systems were designed to suppress rather than uplift it's receivers – culminating in the June 1976 unrests) showing that the propaganda was believed – but the ANC is certainly no less busy spreading it's own propaganda and bragging about it's supposed achievements – so why the difference ?

Why do ANC propaganda have a limited impact, while National Party propaganda – unheard since the 1980's continue to be beleived ? 

We hear about service delivery failures, protests around them and even many rightwingers feel a twinge of sympathy for the protesters (well sometimes) yet somehow they don't make the connection that exactly the same failure happened under the NATS at a much grander scale ? After all – the NATS simply did not try to deliver proper services to the bulk of the population.

Can it really be explained pure by the fact that those believing this were mostly from the section of the population that did receive services (and, on average, still receives far better) ?

I don't think so – that doesn't explain the over-all myth, though it certainly (and significantly) contributes to it's prevalence. It doesn't explain why there is a sincere belief that misguided as they were, NP politicians were honest, hardworking and well-meaning – while corruption is a cancer of the ANC only.

Especially since no historian actually agrees with that- in fact the NP's history of corruption was severe, excessive and certainly no less egregious than that of the ANC.

The real difference I believe is these few facts:

1) Until 1976 South Africa had no television service, and the only radio service was government run.

2) When a television service was introduced, this was also government run – no private vendors were allowed to broadcast television in South Africa until 1986 when M-Net got a license and they were prohibted from broadcasting news.

3) The largest newspaper group in the country (which controlled nearly 90% of all printed media) was, while not government owned extremely government aligned (in fact – it's long time chief Piet Steyn was chairman of the Afrikaner Broederbond).

4) What little private media existed, as well as international media companies, were tightly controlled by a web of censorship laws that made bad news and scandals essentially impossible to reveal.

Despite all this there was one, well-known corruption scandal in the NP years – the infogate scandal of the early 1980's – but it's the only one that came to light and many NP members of those days actually considered that one to be a fabricated scandal that was created to frame Connie Mulder in order to clear the way for P.W. Botha to become executive state president (a conspiracy theory lent some creedence by the fact that Mulder was found innocent during his later criminal trial – but had been kicked out of the running by then).

Only one corruption scandal in 50 years -and that one quite possibly never happened. It's simply not possible – it defies all experience of politics throughout human history. Sure you can get a good, honest leader now and then  -but 5 decades full of government without a single bad apple ? Just not possible.

But when that government essentially controlled every piece of media in the country – it would be quite possible for a completely corrupt government to never, ever get caught. That is a lot more plausible. I posit that the Nats were as, if not more, corrupt a government than the ANC (and that there is no such thing as an un-corrupt government) – they just never let the public be allowed to find out about it.

There was a lack of scandal – not a lack of corruption. The product of censorship and media control – and exactly why these are such vile things.

The scandals in our country is a sign of hope -our politicians did not magically become more honest (and I don't think that will ever happen on this earth) – but they are finding it a lot harder to keep it secret or get away with it, and that is a good thing.

It is also why the continuing protests against the secrecy bill are so, so very important. Because the last thing we need – is to allow the ANC government to gain the power the Nats once had: the power to stop us from finding out when they are corrupt.

Aug 202013
 

The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, Motorhead, Queen, Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Manowar, Elvis Costello, Elton John, Phil Collins. You call the UK a nanny-state ? Well if they are, I guess it’s working because a disproportionately high number of their citizens have become immortal. Actually this is not as facetious as it appears. The single most prohibitive aspect in developing music talent is the extremely high cost of good quality musical instruments. I bought my first drumkit second hand for R3500, I had to be thirty before I could afford that – far too old to ever reach my true potential as a drummer, best I can hope for is “not sucky” – my second kit was closer to R15000. One of those “nanny-state” interferences of the UK into the market is that the department of arts and culture there will give an interest free loan to any ASPIRING musician to buy an instrument with. No strings attached except the money can only be spent on an instrument – if you have any income at all, even welfare money, you can actually GET an instrument and learn to play without huge interest payments weighing you down. By having far more of the people who WANT to play have the opportunity to LEARN to play, a much higher percentage of those with the talent to become legends actually DO become legends.

Jun 142013
 

In a discussion about sexism recently, somebody defended chivalry by stating “it is just good manners” – in his mind thereby, no questions could exist about whether there is any harm to this sexist way of thinking and acting and the way it pushes both men and women into predefined social roles without their individual personalities, abilities or nature taken into consideration.

To my mind however, that is a call-to-tradition fallacy – just because something is “good manners” doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. A critical thinker should treat manners like any other behaviour and ask questions about them. This doesn’t mean we should be rude or disrespectful to people all the time – it means we should question manners and mannerisms as social conventions specific to a given culture, look at their history and meaning and then make decisions about whether a particular manner is still appropriate today, whether it is doing good or doing harm and how it should apply when dealing with another culture altogether.

The majority of what we know as “good manners” in Western cultures originate in the aristocratic class system – they are deliberately obscure and overcomplicated because their true purpose has nothing to do with showing respect (or even feigning it). Their purpose was much more insidious than that: to create an artificial social rift between the privileged upper classes and the exploited lower classes. Those who knew which knife to cut fish with, could claim a false sense of superiority over those who didn’t which justified their brutal treatment of the lower classes.

In this regard then manners are merely a more modern form of an ancient false argument: those who knew the rituals held themselves as superior to those who didn’t – and felt justified to wage war on them, steal their land and property and exploit their labour. “After all – they don’t even know you’re not allowed to eat red meat on Wednesdays”. Of such was thousands of years of tribal brutality made. Where Western aristocracy took it to a new level was actually applying it to create a division within a single culture. All who didn’t know the proper rituals were inferior – be they the lower classes among your own people, or any member of a different culture.

Today’s culture has, therefore, quite wisely done away with a large chunk of these ultimately ridiculous rituals we call manners – and tried to cut down to those that are more basic. The ones we could identify as a sincere attempt at courtesy. That is by and large a good thing, and it shows that today our culture is far more evolved than we sometimes imagine. It also makes a claim like “it’s just good manners” sound even more hollow – clearly many things which were until recently considered “just good manners” have simply lost their worth. Of course they habit lives on, the very rich in society still practise many of these rituals and look down upon those who do not – we even directly recognize what they are trying to do when we describe those who practise these rituals as “classy”. What has changed is that the vast majority of us who live by more down to earth social conventions aren’t quite as powerless as we used to be, if Donald Trump publicly flogged an employee for using the wrong knife he would be charged with assault.

It was common, not to long ago, to consider throwing down a glove so grievous an insult that it had to be settled with trying to murder the person who did so – this was the standard ritual for challenging somebody to a duel. Most people today would not consider duelling with deadly weapons to be an honourable activity, nor the deaths that result to be justifiable homocide.

So what about chivalry then ? We live in a world where many women would feel flattered if you held a door for them, others would feel insulted – that you are pushing them into accepting a meek social role and thus excluding them from any other roles. So how should we act towards it then ?
This is not such a simple question – most men who act chivalrously today are not trying to push a woman into a role, they are trying to show sincere respect as per the dictates of their culture. I don’t think this is always bad – but it can be harmful and that is why so many women now find it insulting instead. I would propose that the problem isn’t the existence of the social role itself, it’s being forced into it. This deprives women of individual choice and that is the essence of sexism. So I would propose the same advice that modern etiquette experts give to businessmen who have to entertain people from other cultures in trade: observe your host and act as they act, show respect by adopting the culture you are dealing with (even if you do it badly).

When it comes to chivalry then – respect the wishes of the woman you are dealing with. If she likes having the door opened for her – she has adopted that social role by her own choice, a choice I would respect, but if she is the least bit unhappy about it – then don’t do it. Do not force her into that role if she is uncomfortable with it. Where I would deviate from the advice is this: do not observe and try to copy here -ask. Don’t just open doors until you get a complaint, a lot of women who feel uncomfortable about it may nevertheless not want to be rude in turn and thus keep their discomfort to themselves, and this perpetuates bad sexism.
Instead, upfront, ask a woman you met how she feels about chivalry if you that’s your thing. Tell her that when you engage in it you are merely trying to be respectful – not to force her into a position of submission and state outright that if she feels such behaviour pushes her into a social role she is uncomfortable with you will not engage in it.
In other words – if you want to show somebody sincere respect, you show it to them in the way they like to be shown it, not the way you think they OUGHT to be shown it – and the only way to know that – is to ask.

Jan 142013
 

It was with a great mixture of anger and sadness that I read the story this week of the passing of Aaron Swartz. A lot of people have speculated on what may have set off the suicide which ultimately took his life but certainly the spectre of a malicious prosecution for a crime which was arguably not only victimless but served a noble greater purpose that should be deemed civil disobedience at worst and a fundamental right of a free world at best must have put significant stress on a young man who already suffered from depression and could well have contributed to his death.

Today the news announced that M.I.T. has launched an internal investigation into how they handled Aaron's case – an investigation that, based on the comments from the news, is pushing MIT back to reflection on it's once-proud roots as a hive of the free exchange of knowledge which Aaron so deeply believed in. 

If some good might come out of this tragic loss to the free software and free culture communities – it may be to give those who still believe in the open culture that made MIT great the ammunition to fight back against the conservative pundits who have been demanding an ever more "like a business" approach from universities and stifling the very sharing of knowledge that forms the heart of all research. 

But is it worth his life ? Was it a cause worth dying for – especially since he had no way of knowing that such an outcome may happen and we can probably assume that he didn't do it for the sake of his cause, but because he had given up on himself (and with that on his contribution to that very cause: which is ironic considering how great his contributions have been – this is the man who helped invent RSS after all).

Can the actions of MIT today make it worth while ? I say – certainly not. But perhaps it can give some justice and closure to his loved ones. That the wrong actions of MIT against Aaron which ultimately contributed to his death might lead to them at least realizing that those actions were, in fact, wrong and ceasing in such approaches towards others. 

Aaron did not die for a cause. He was killed by a disease. He suffered from depression and ultimately, like so many others, he succumbed to it. I wish he had sought help instead of taking that step, he had so much left to give the world (as ungrateful as that world may have been) and his loss is a tragedy for our community of immense proportions (now considering that it must be infinitely larger for his loved ones I cannot begin to imagine what they are going through).  No, his death was not act of heroism, and trying to explain it away that way would be cowardly and wrong.

But it could perhaps, be a warning – a warning to those whose thoughts cycle around ending their lives that they should seek help – that help exists and is worth asking for (I speak from personal experience). I could perhaps be a rallying to change. I am by no means suggesting that we turn Aaron into a martyr – that would be a violation of his dignity and exploitation of his loved ones, instead I am saying: this young man believed in a better world. A world where academic knowledge was freely shared, a world without censorship, in his honour – we must continue the fight for the world he believed in. 

Aaron wanted that world but he didn't live to see it, those of us who share his belief should redouble our efforts in the wake of this tragedy. Not to dwell on how he died, but to continue the fight to realize that for which he had lived.