KATA IΩANNHN ΜΕΡΟΣ 1/? (Gospel of John Part 1/?)

Εν αρχῇ ῆν ὁ λογος                                                                                

και  λογος ῆν προς τον θεόν

και θεός ῆν  λογος.

(from http://www.ancientgreekonline.com/JohnGospel/JohnChapter1.htm)

I have a couple advantages here: first, this is probably the most famous sentence in the entire Bible, and it’s also very simple Greek, so it’s difficult to mess up. But there are a few things here that are worth explaining if you’re unfamiliar with languages besides English. Let’s start with the first line:

Εν αρχῇ ῆν ὁ λογος

As you probably already know, this translates to “In the beginning was the Word.” Let’s take a deeper look though. We can see it doesn’t translate word for word, because the greek has 5 words and the English has six. This is due to how Latin and Greek handle articles. Simply put, sometimes it doesn’t use them. So we have the first two words, “Εν αρχῇ”, meaning “In the beginning”, but there is no “the” between “In” and “beginning”, whereas the end of the line “ῆν ὁ λογος” directly means “was the Word.”

Next, the noun for “the beginning” is actually “αρχη”, but this is in nominative form. All languages use cases, but some (like English) are very, very implicit, whereas languages like Greek, Latin, and German are more explicit. Here’s a simple table that attempts to illustrate the basic cases of Greek:

Nominative: this is the case of the subject
Genitive: this is the case “about” or “of” the subject.
Dative: “with” positionally or location-wise
Accusative: relating to the direct object

(Here’s a better and more in-depth explanation of the cases in Ancient Greek: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_nouns)

The word “Εν” makes the noun take the dative case, therefore “αρχῇ” is written instead of “αρχη.” I might do another post listing the cases for specific words, but I believe this is sufficient for now. The word “ῆν” is in the imperfect tense, and I believe the rest of the line should make sense.

I’m going to avoid addressing the word “λογος” here because it’s worthy of a full post if not a full book. I’ll suffice it to say that this word is very complicated, one of the most complex I’ve encountered, and it has a meaning similar to the idea meant by Platonic form. In a sense, I think John is suggesting that it means an archetype, and suggesting a rather important theological idea.

και ὁ λογος ῆν προς τον θεόν

This one gets complicated due to the word “προς”, which in most Bibles translates into “with”, but it has many definitions. For example, from Luschnig/Mitchel, it’s translated as “to/towards” when the object takes the accusative. I have to look more into this word to see the possibilities, and it’s especially tricky because Google Translate only works with modern Greek.

However, roughly speaking, this translates into “and the Word was with God.” It actually translates directly into “and the Word was with the God”, but this is simply another example of how the Greek language works, just like we saw with “beginning.” One thing worth noting here, because the word “προς” (with) takes the accusative, the word for God “θεόν” is in the accusative rather than the nominative form.

και θεός ῆν ὁ λογος.

Here “God” is back in the nominative. This is a little interesting because the direct translation is technically “and God was the Word”, but in Greek, like with Latin, the endings of the words change based on their case, and thus their role in the sentence. This means that the order of the words is actually irrelevant. 

So finally, our English translation:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.

This concludes our first look into the Gospel of John, stay tuned for line 2.

Ad Maiorem Gloriam Dei

I’ve lived in Berlin for over 2 years now, and being around so many different spoken languages has rekindled a very old interest. For many years I’ve been on a self-directed study of the history of Western culture, beginning with Homer and ending with philosophers like Noam Chomsky (as a linguist). This involves reading a lot of philosophy and history.

Typically when you read a such a book, like works of Kant, they are actually a response to some event which occurred earlier. Sometimes you need to do background research to figure out the lineage, and sometimes they cite it directly; for example, in Summa Theologica, Acquinas directly quotes Aristotle as he analyzes and responds to him, whereas Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno are in large part metaphorical political satires.

Another important point known to anyone who has studied languages is that when you translate, you lose a lot of meaning. This loss can occur in many forms: it could be that the target language doesn’t have a word that captures such a meaning, such as German’s “schadenfreude”, or that in the original language the word has several meanings, not all of which carry over. It could be that the phrase in the target language is very awkward, even though it has the correct meaning. Or it could even mean that the word in the original language conveys via sound or tempo a particular feeling that is lost.

In high school, I was fortunate enough to study both French and Latin, and being surrounded by so many languages and linguists in Berlin has inspired me to revisit Latin by way of Lingua Latina, a book I highly recommend. I’m about halfway through Lingua Latina Pars 1, and even though I need a dictionary, I can still mostly make out what’s being said in works from people like Acquinas and Cicero.

However, for some works, such as Summa Theologica, this only presents half the picture, as Acquinas was studied in Ancient Greek and cited Aristotle in the original, even though he responded in Latin. Seeing as I haven’t studied Ancient Greek, this creates a difficulty for me, and one which I now intent to tackle.

So over the next undefined period of time, I’m going to try teaching myself Ancient Greek by translating the Gospel of John. There are a few reasons for taking this approach. The New Testament, unlike the Old Testament, was written in Greek, in part because they were trying to spread the word of the Gospels to the Gentiles, most of whom spoke Greek. Second, from what I understand, the Gospel of John in particular is a good starting place because it was written by someone who had Greek as a second language, and thus is more accessible to someone trying to learn it.

Once I finish this translation, I’ll make an attempt at the other Gospels, and maybe once I’ve finished that, take another stab at Aquinas. It’s worth noting that the while the New Testament is written in Koine Greek, works like Homer and Aristotle are composed in Homeric Greek, which is centuries older and, from what I understand, more complex. It’s also worth noting that both of these are totally different from modern Greek, so this will not help me converse with someone from Greece. Oh well.

I’m not sure how often I’ll get to translate a line or a chapter, but I’ll post translations with notes along the way, and try to make this accessible for someone who hasn’t studied Latin or Greek before.

Land of the Free for 30 Minutes

I just returned from a trip to the United States. I have lived in Germany since March 2015, and thus I’m not sure if things in the US have gotten worse, or if I’m beginning to notice it more. The three concepts that summarize my trip to the US: upsells, noise, and hidden charges.

The flight to the US was foreshadowing. Multiple attempts by the (American) airline to get me to buy their “rewards” card which I assume is a fancy way of saying credit card. Promises that I’d save so much money in the future with them. They also wanted to make sure I knew about upgrades I could buy in addition to the base service in theory provided by the cost of plane ticket: I could 1. check bags for free 2. board sooner 3. have more room 4. have more refreshments than provided to everyone else. The one thing that stood out here was that while they kindly offered mini TVs in the seats with video selection, they charged for headphones and played ads before every video you wanted to watch.

I arrived in the US, to be funneled through to the passport control area. The first thing I noticed was the blaring noise. There were around a dozen big screen televisions in the room, all blaring some special airport version of CNN, with the exception of the TVs right next to the passport officers, which had a video of Obama on loop welcoming everyone to the US. Beyond passport control and stepping into the airport was just as bad, except now there were hundreds of noises from people (all Americans) shouting into their cell phones. As I took a shuttle over to my transfer terminal, I remember some lady on a business call, and based on what she kept shouting into the phone, kept wondering what precisely made this call so important that it couldn’t wait until she arrived. And why my ability to have peace and quiet was somehow trumped by her need to share with the world how important she was. I suppose I could have tuned this out by popping onto the airport wifi, but even this was limited: free for the first 30 minutes, and then an offer either to purchase an hour’s worth, a day’s worth, or a month’s worth, all at “special rates.”

My next flight was even worse, because there was no food provided, which the airline used as an excuse to blare periodic announcements that you could buy refreshments at an additional price. Then they rolled a cart through and directly asked all the passengers “would you like to purchase anything”, while waving bags and cans in your face, as if to entice you to pull out your wallet. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these employees, who are probably being hustled by upstairs to turn as much of this overpriced crap as possible. And of course they only took plastic, which becomes difficult if you only have a european bank card and American cash you had assumed would be perfect for such emergencies.

Upon arrival, I had a ride from the airport to my destination. It turns out that in Suburban America, a wrong turn– highly likely on these homogenous streets– costs you up to ten minutes, because logical routes are blocked off by random concrete slabs that might as well have “fuck you” painted on them. I’m sure there is some sort of Freudian analysis behind this road design, because it certainly makes no sense otherwise. The other thing I noticed: police, everywhere. I think in the short ride from the airport to my destination, I saw more police randomly floating around the roads than in three months of life in Berlin. I heard no sirens, and saw no fires or accidents, so I’m not entirely sure what they were doing.

The final thing I’ll note here is all the hidden charges. In Germany, if you go to a store to buy something, there is a price listed on the shelf next to that item. When you take the item to the checkout, the number that shows up on the cash register is the same number you saw on the shelf. In the US, this is not so. I remember going to get an espresso for the cheap menu price of $3.20, and when I was rung up, the number that appeared on the machine was $3.50, due to taxes. Let’s reflect on this for a moment: what is the purpose of this? I’m pretty sure sales taxes do not change that much, and certainly not so often they require a hidden variable to be appended to your charge at the end, lest it varies day by day or hour by hour. Are Americans expected to do the math on their own, calculate X percent of the menu price of an item, and magically add it so they can compare it to the number that shows up on the screen?

It almost seems like this is a kind of social conditioning, where when you have two numbers that conflict, you’re supposed to automatically accept the number that the authority– in this case, the cash register– tells you. And if you have an issue, your only options are to bring it up to the low wage clerk who probably doesn’t care, or to file a “complaint” with a faceless organization that might take 6-8 weeks to respond, if you are lucky. In other words, in such a tiny semantic detail, you are being conditioned to mindlessly accept whatever shit is given to you. Maybe this is why Americans also tolerate the blaring tv screens, the annoying phone calls, the endless upsells and don’t even bother to question why prices for everything keep going up, and yet they are offered less in exchange for those prices every time.

But who cares what I think. After all, in Germany, my freedom lasts longer than 30 minutes.

Sing, O Goddess, the anger of Twitter

Due to some drama that was birthed on Twitter and quickly grew legs, I deleted my Twitter account in early June 2016. I had a few reasons for this: it was making me more unhappy than happy, partly because almost every new tweet contained references to topics that upset me. I also viewed it as an experiment in addiction, to see if I would go through withdrawals of some sort. Sure enough, after blocking Twitter domains in my hosts file, I found I would be going to it multiple times a day, every time when onscreen activity had reached a lull and I wanted to avoid the attention deficit. In the same way that going on a trip to another culture might teach you about your own, when I cautiously resumed Twitter again about a week ago, I found that it was nearly unusable.

Before exploring internet chats more extensively, I think it’s worth taking a step back and asking some fundamental questions about human nature. I’m reminded of a speech Eleanor Saitta gave at OHM in 2013, looking at how worldviews may differ if you view people as inherently good versus inherently bad. If we are inherently good, then perhaps there is some trauma that happens to us (coming of age, perhaps?) which chips away at the optimism over the years; if we are inherently bad, then maybe life experience teaches us over time to empathize with others. Is that the lesson William Golding was trying to teach us in Lord of the Flies? But it seems that lesson is countered, at least to a degree, by the results of the Harlow Monkey experiment.

Clearly we are social creatures to a degree, otherwise solitary confinement would not be considered torture. However, confinement can take many forms, and I’d argue that one of them is the veneer of “free speech” when the social norms are quite the contrary. There is an ongoing debate in the US right now about just how free “free speech” can really be, which seems to be complemented by a very angry movement to throw out every tradition in the book. Perhaps the best question to raise that capstones all of this: “At what point does a word become more than just a word?” Then we begin to add more questions: who decides where this point is? What gives them the authority to decide this? What if I disagree with them, and want to set my own point? And what if I fundamentally disagree with such a loaded phrase, calling into question the entire premise– that words will always remain just that, words?

That last point would be quickly defended by the late Frank Zappa, who stressed the point on CNN Crossfire when he was attacked during the PMRC discussions of the late 1980s. It’s also defended by the US Supreme Court in Watts vs United States (1969), where they ruled that “crude political hyperbole… did not constitute a knowing and willful threat.” That said, it is very interested to see what words are explicitly included in the “Seven words you can’t say on TV“, and which words are left out– does this mean they are so vile that we should just “know,” without being told, that they are unacceptable?1

I think it’s now clear that words are just that, words. However, I readily concede that words within context, especially when that context is directed at someone, can summon rather potent emotions from their target. This is after all, why we often use titles and honorifics: “Sir,” “Madam,” “Your Holiness,” and so on. These words convey an intent of respect. They are the verbal version of why we generally wear our Sunday best when meeting the President. It logically follows that words can also convey other intents, sometimes for malicious reasons. An online search for the phrase “hate speech” demonstrates this fairly quickly.

And here is where the challenge comes in, especially in Western cultures where we try to respect the concept of individual sovereignty, freedom to choose, and so on. In addition to the explicit right to “free speech,” we often also expect a right of “free listen”– that is, and especially in our own home, we want to be able to choose what words we read and hear, and what words we block out. In our home, this is a personal choice we do not need to defend or justify to anyone. However, the more public the conversation becomes, the more others may demand that participation in the public context requires waving these choices.

But perhaps “public” is the wrong word to use here, because although it shares roots with words like “republic” and “publish”, I would argue that there is no such thing as a general, shared public. After all, what does it mean to make something public? Perhaps you’re suggesting it is “available” to anyone, but a FOIA document is also technically available to anyone willing to wait the required months or years. Maybe you mean something related to accountability, but its unclear what that means without specifying to whom they are accountable. Or perhaps we just use “public” as a catchall word for a context that we believe many people have access to participate in.

Imagine for a moment that you are a citizen in a small town in America. You were born there, grew up there, and know everyone well enough that when you wave at them, they wave back. In addition to the written rules, there are a lot of unwritten rules that, as a community, you all mutually understand. One might assert that the collection of individuals, the greater-than-sum community, and all these unwritten rules comprise a “public.” Then we can extend this and say that something which acts in the interest of the individuals, the community, and the unwritten rules, comprises a “public good.”

Now, it turns out that there is a small town in another state, which resembles yours in many ways, but there are some key differences. Maybe they say “coke” instead of “pop,” like dogs instead of cats, or maybe they drive on the left side of the road instead of the right. The differences might seem silly, but they go against your native grain, and conjure very uncomfortable feelings. They force you to ask questions about things you want to consider stable. As a community, you might even say they go against the “public good.” Anyone who has studied Psychology 101 can see this quickly (and unintentionally) invoking the fight or flight reflex, and leading to less than desirable outcomes.

In a sort of Scarlet Letter sense, we often take our emotions and apply it to the person who says “coke” or the person who likes dogs. Instead of being an individual who has a trait, hobby, or taste we disagree with, they become “the dog man” or “the coke drinker.” Often this is harmless, and the man you know who works at the bookstore becomes “the bookstore guy.” But when we take this approach with a negative emotion, it sometimes invokes the fight or flight reflect. Do they become the outcast like the Sarah Woodruff, or do we decide they are a sort of Grendel who bears the mark of the Beast?

Now rewinding back to our origin, let’s revisit how we handle things on Twitter, on Facebook, and other websites we call “social media.” Rather than seeing the individual or the community, we see a post, often removed from a greater context. And in particular, we see a symbol– a phrase, a word, a picture, an implication. More to the point, because we are creatures based on pattern recognition, when we have such a symbol that is missing context, we strive to fill that void and create a new context for it. And because that symbol may invoke some emotions within us, we use those emotions to create the context. This, I would argue, is how, like cattle, we brand the usernames attached to those symbols.

At least in Western Culture, our society is based on a fight of good versus evil. We see traces of this fight in works like The Iliad, or in many places through history. Further, one might argue that from the blank slate, you become good by defeating evil; otherwise, if you are inherently good, you maintain being good by defeating evil. And if we’re taught these lessons from a young age, in our small (or large) towns, it logically follows that it might provide a motivation to action when we see things on Twitter/etc which we identify as evil. But there is one key problem with this approach.

Notice that while The Iliad text begins with the Rage of Achilles, the story itself begins far before the text begins. In fact, one could suggest that the Trojan War is a response to a previous battle, and the good and bad sides are determined by who writes the story. This lesson has been lost in the modern age, where we are flooded with stories of happy endings, where the demon has been defeated, and we forget that after Beowulf defeated Grendel, he found this was only the first battle.

So what really happens when we and our group of “twitter friends” join a mob and “take down” someone whose words we view as “racist”, or “sexist”, or anything else? And what is the end goal? I would argue that we are battling against the symbol, forget that there is someone on the other side, and in a race to defeat the monster (neglecting they might have friends), we ourselves become monsters. It creates a toxic, polarizing environment in which Might Makes Right, and whoever is the hero of the day gets to define what that Right will be. It necessarily leads to further conflicts, and more important, it can ruin lives. And yet, none of this is considered when someone is pounced upon because someone on Twitter misinterpreted a word they used.

In the end, these are simply observations. I don’t mean to justify one thing or denounce another. Further, I don’t think this is anything new. I do offer that “social media” has helped both accelarate these nasty reflexes in people, as well as retarding the lessons people would normally learn when making mistakes and seeking atonement. It does mean, though, that I will be taking a far more catious approach to anything represented in 140 characters or less.

1It’s also worth noting that when I touch on a very “heated” topic, I must increase the number of sources I explicitly cite, as if using them as a shield, or deflecting anticipated anger. It’s an appeal to a greater authority if I ever saw one 😉

A House Divided – Notes on the Clinton Emails

In the last week, I’ve seen three events, all of three of which have disturbed me greatly.

First, FBI Director James Comey gave a speech where he delinated all of the facts they could make public regarding the Hillary email fiasco, after which he concluded that they were not recommending pressing charges.

Second,  the House Oversight Committee asked Comey to come testify in an emergency hearing, where they asked lots of questions about how the clinton fiasco was handled.

Third, the House Oversight Committee asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to a similar hearing a few days later. The conduct was similar.

To preface this: I am not making a “political” statement about the 2016 POTUS election. While I completely hate Hillary, I consider Donald Trump to be satan incarnate, and think that either of them being in an office like POTUS will do grave harm to the US (and the world in general). I do not also advocate any kind of a witch hunt. While I can completely see and understand the view that this is only becoming news because it is Hillary (and there is some truth to this), I consider the problem far deeper.

So a few points.

First, the US government has completely broken down. There is a partison-divided Supreme Court which so far has not fallen prey too badly to petty politics, but it’s being completely fucked by Congress stonewalling Obama’s court nomination. If Garland, Obama’s nomination, is totally unworthy for the Court, then a simple hearing should quickly establish this. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration seems to be returning the favor: Comey’s speech leaves a massive gap between the fact pattern and the conclusion, as if we’re supposed to fill this gap with a “trust us” sign. And both Comey’s and Lynch’s testimony in front of Congress leave quite a lot to be desired. It seems like the only saving virtue here is that the Supreme Court has not directly fucked with either the Executive or the Legislative branches, although by the laws of karma, they certainly have room to do so.

Second, joining forces with the court of public opinion, the government seems to have forgotten how to compartmentalize issues, and insists on comparing them in a way that hurts discussion. In both Comey and Lynch’s testimony, multiple times, someone brought up the mass shootings that have happened recently. For some reason, it seems that it has become a political death-trap to suggest it might be worthwhile to have separate hearings on the two issues (classified data and mass shootings), lest they be used as ammunition against each other. IMHO, to say that one issue is important does not logically conclude the other issue is not important, but it is totally reasonable to say that the issue would be out of scope for the discussion at hand.

Third, the Obama Administration has, IMHO, utterly failed in its promise to be the “most transparent administration ever.” I acknowledge two things here: first, they have had to tackle very complex and diverse issues, many of them results of decisions made by former Administratoins. Second, there may be facts that shed light on their refusal to be more transparent about things, and to a degree I am willing to accept this as valid. However, this acceptance depends on a social trust, and the longer the general public goes without seeing key details, the thinner and more frail that trust becomes. Further, the complete silence over the facts revealed by Wikileaks and Snowden (which I will get to in a moment) work to sever that trust, and instead of speaking with resolute authority and presenting a reasonable answer, we have gotten stonewalling and aggression.

Fourth, I am extremely unhappy with how the topic of classified information has been handled, basically since 9/11. Starting with the provision in the PATRIOT Act to expand the number of FISA judges from 7 to 11, we had some pretty strong indications that there would be an expansion of activity in the classified world. The economic boom in the Beltway during and after Afghanistan and Iraq support this conclusion. In fact, one could argue that one of the reasons Manning and Snowden leaked their documents is because of a system which existed due to the massive increase in what is considered classified (and therefore hidden from the public eye).

The more classified information you have, the larger the chance there is of both mishandling of it, and of a data breach. We can quickly see two examples of each: Manning and Snowden engaging in the data breaches, and Hillary Clinton and Gen. Petraeus completely mishandling such data. I would argue a fifth example which encompasses both mishandling and data breach is the OPM hack, which IMHO is the worst classified data breach in history, worse than all previous leakers, including the Rosenbergs, combined.

It goes without saying that accountability for these issues has not been uniform. There are reasons for this: Manning was tried under a military system, not a civilian system. Snowden was acting as a contractor, not as a government employee. Petraeus admitted to obstruction of justice. And, to be fair to Hillary, it seems that multiple past Secretaries of State, including Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, also maintained private email servers for their dealing with the State Department. A few more points here: first, it seems reasonable to ask how often Rice and Powell actually *used* their email systems, let alone sent classified data over them. Email wasn’t used that heavily until partway through the Bush administration. Second, I think it is well worth asking Congress why it was so urgent to bring these hearings so urgently against Hillary, when I am unware of similar hearings with Rice and Powell. There are clear party politics going on there.

Politics aside, Congress is asking the Obama administration some questions I would *really* like answers to. However, I think Obama is justified in asking why all this attention to private email servers has come up now given that it was done in the past as well. He might also remind them to schedule a hearing for Merrick Garland.

To conclude, the US government, as far as I can see, is completely broken, and clearly not going to get better any time soon. Will this change after the election? I have no idea. Perhaps the fact that the executive and legislative branches need to seek re-election, while the judicial is a lifelong appointment, has helped lead to this mess while insulating the judges? Or maybe it’s due to the fact that politics now seems to be about theatrical optics that get headlines, rather than any sort of reasonable discussion. All I know is that right now, I’m glad I live in Germany.

Why Combinator?

http://blog.ycombinator.com/new-cities

Leave it to aspie engineers with a guilt complex to try to remake society in a way so they don’t feel so bad about fucking over everyone who is not a tech worker.

“We want to study building new, better cities.”

How about a profile of existing cities, criticisms of them, and specific ways they can be improved? Robert Caro, Jane Jacobs, Maria Montessori, and the authors of Suburban Nation all have things they might offer… I’m also a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, but his wife might not agree 😉

“The world is full of people who aren’t realizing their potential in large part because their cities don’t provide the opportunities and living conditions necessary for success. A high leverage way to improve our world is to unleash this massive potential by making better cities.”

The two key words from this paragraph are “potential” and “success.” Let’s set aside the booklong discussion on who is the arbiter of these things, and focus on what qualifies as “success.” Given that this comes from one of the Sand Hill Road Gordon Gecko wannabes, it’s pretty clear what they actually mean is “maximize your return.”

“The need for new supply continues to increase significantly [1].”

Is that why they are encouraging automating non-tech workers jobs out of existings, and use a bastardized interpretation of Milton Friedman’s basic income as a crutch to explain it all away?

“Many constraints related to where cities should be located (e.g. near rivers for trade) have changed. We now have major technologies such as smart grids, autonomous vehicles, etc.”

In other words, the technologies that are destroying non-tech worker jobs are making life way easier for the rich and powerful.

“The internet itself allows for participation never before possible.”

Substitute “participation” for “exploitation” and you get the same idea. See internet.org.

“Also, housing prices in many cities have become untenable and we need more housing in places people want to live.”

Yes, and why has this happened? The same people who are praising all the technologies that remove our need for dependence on geography are also demanding you relocate your entire life to a central location, driving out the people who were living there before, and destroying any semblance of culture.

“Some existing cities will get bigger and there’s important work being done by smart people to improve them.”

Empty statement detected. More input required. Also, how will population get larger when the non-tech worker class is driven into poverty and/or basic income, and it does not make economy sense for everyone else to have families?

“We also think it’s possible to do amazing things given a blank slate. Our goal is to design the best possible city given the constraints of existing laws.”

Is there such a thing as a “blank slate”? There are a list of historical events I can give you which have the same assumption, but the end result was less than desirable.

I have to stop there. The rest of this piece is unreadable, and loaded with unchecked arrogance. It seems like another step in YC’s realization that they are slowly but surely helping to completely fuck the economy, and are trying to dig their way out of it, and hopefully get a few good social graces along the way.

Social Autopsy

Since there has been a lot of drama and misinformation both about this project and my stance on it, I’ll take some time here to expand in more detail.

Yesterday I became aware of a kickstarter called “Social Autopsy.” As far as I can tell (from its video), the premise is to create a database of information about people who are being annoying harassers on the internet. While this created all kinds of controversy, I think it raises some interesting and important questions.

First, it’s important to note that the creator has specifically said that the database will only be comprised of public data. This is a very, very important point. A lot of people have criticized the project for doing dox dropping, which it does not. I’ll explain why in a moment. Second, I have come out, not in support of the project’s aim (which I disagree with), but in support of the project’s right to exist. Unsurprisingly but amusingly, I have taken a lot of heat for this stance. So I’ll elaborate on that in a moment too.

Regarding the project, as far as I can tell, it is a central gathering place of public information into a format that is more readable and accessible. At first glance, it seems people can contribute to it, although it’s not entirely clear how this process will work. There are a few comments about accepting screenshots and so on, which raises eyebrows. so here is my analysis.

First, if what they are making is basically a sort of filtered and easier to read Google, with information that could be found already online, I have absolutely no problem with it. One could argue that there is public and then there is “public”, which I think is a fantastic discussion to have, and is really what is on trial here. A lot of people post things in a forum they don’t consider public, such as posting something on a twitter account with 20 followers, and it then hits the front page of Gawker. This is actually a problem with unreasonable expectations, and not a privacy violation per say. If, on the other hand, someone tweets on a private twitter account, that is then screenshotted and posted onto Gawker, I would say Gawker is completely in the wrong. When the person twittered, they did have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and Gawker, not them, made the tweet public by publishing the screenshot.

There are some interesting scenarios that will come up. What happens if someone tweets, then deletes the tweet, but it is captured and posted on this database anyways? We’ve already seen this question come up with Politiwhoops, but one could argue that it is different for a private citizen. Also, what if someone tweets from a fake account that looks like you, and it gets added to your profile? And finally, what happens if a tweet is taken out of context and put in the database in a way that unfairly reflects you in a negative light? All these questions need to be considered.

In terms of why I support the projects existence: first, I fundamentally disagree with the premise of it. I’ve spent years doing research into the nature of names, privacy, and identity, and have found absolutely no conclusive evidence that forcing people to say things under specific names has any net benefit without causing collateral damage. Further, I think that putting unrelated items together in a list and suggesting that they are related without any proof is also problematic– this is why slander and libel laws exist. However, I think that if you have two items related to an individual that are both public, putting them next to each other on another public page is completely reasonable.

I did state that people should be more careful about what they post on public places, and I meant it. If you have a twitter account with your full legal name, and a linkedin account with the same legal name, and both are public, it seems unreasonable to assume that nobody would be able to put the two together. In terms of what happens when someone has unpopular opinions that bring consequences in another forum, there are two points to consider: context and proportionality. With the recent LambdaConf drama, for example, there was a speaker who had made some racist comments in a context completely unrelated to his LambdaConf presentation, and yet people merged these contexts together and demanded unproportional retribution. A couple thoughts here: first, was he entitled to curtilage, and second, what good would have come from banning him from the talk? And finally, if both of these personas he had were considered in the public sphere, is it reasonable to suggest there might be more local context-based versions of public?

Since this Social Autopsy project doesn’t even exist yet, I think it’s a great place to begin a serious discussion on these issues, and perhaps get some feedback on how to solve the underlying problems (harassment) without compromising personal privacy. We shall see.