A Fork() in the Road

This essay appeared as an article in the Winter 2018-2019 issue of 2600 Magazine

“Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done
anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” This is the opening line of The Trial
by Franz Kafka, a novel about a man who has been imprisoned. The authorities
refuse to tell him the nature of his accusation, how long he will be in jail,
and what– if any– due process he will receive.

Our relationship with technology over the years (and decades) has been one of
tension at best. One can read the history of IBM and see how Big Blue
established an almost monolithic enterprise, and then read Steven Levy’s
Hackers and see how the same kinds of technology were used by individuals to
build creative inventions. On one hand, we can use technology to create massive
surveillance instruments that give governments and corporations all kinds of
unaccountable powers; on the other, the same technology can be used to give a
voice to people who might never have had one before. This tension is a tango
dance on the sharpened edge of a sword, and we’re currently at a point where one
slip in the wrong direction could be disasterous.

I see a lot of trends in current computing that I not only dislike, but which
worry me. If my neighbor prefers to use a Mac and I prefer to use a PC, fine by
me; but if my government decides to install surveillance cameras, not only does
this threaten to override my personal preference, but it has the potential to
impact others as well. And at least governments are (in theory) accountable to
citizens; what happens when similar moves are made by large corporations?

I believe computers are tools that ought to be used to enable freedom. But what
happens when the technology available to use starts making decisions for us?
First it begins by demanding proof we have legally purchased the operating
system (such as Windows product activation), then it begins to dictate what
software we can have installed on our hardware (the App Store), and finally, it
forbids us from even modifying our own hardware, pushing technology as fashion
items that are impossible to repair. Add in a few extra features, like forcing
people to go to the officially sanctioned company store to fix their
increasingly opaque tech, and we’ve created a Cathedral that not even Eric S.
Raymond could have dreamed up.

To make matters worse, we now see the moves by these same technology companies
to further abstract control away from us in the form of “web applications.” Now,
instead of having software locally installed that might occasionally “phone
home” to the corporate mothership, our entire computer effectively becomes a
dumb terminal that is useless without both access to a fast internet connection
and proper credentials to access the service of our choice. And this extends
into all kinds of domains: if services like Twitter and Facebook have forced
their way into the public square, does this mean that to participate in
important discussions, we now must have access to these services? What happens
if one of them decides to kick us off, or to limit our account? And what if our
job depends on them? Right now, we have no recourse.

In some ways this is about control, in others it is about coerced profit. Take
software that we would have once purchased and installed on our computer, which
may now have moved to a “cloud” only subscription model. Maybe we can’t even use
it anymore unless we have an internet connection. So now, not only does our data
all exist in the cloud (aka, someone else’s computer), but if we skip a month of
payment for whatever reason, our access could be completely revoked. Whereas
before, we made a one time payment and could confidently say we owned the
software on our computer, now we’re locked in a carrot and stick game that only
lasts either as long as our ability to pay in perpetuity or until the company
decides to shut down that service. And let’s pray that there is no lobbying from
said corporations to ensure that the laws remain in their favor.

So what can we do? We need to look at the various fronts upon which these trends
thrive, and come up with ways to push back. While we care about our personal
freedoms and liberties, these companies generally only care about the short term
bottom line. Here are a few thoughts that might help guide us. First, the
average person doesn’t care about abstract ideas like “freedom” unless they see
a direct cost to themselves, so maybe it’s useful to construct a narrative
explaining that, while there might be short term happiness, there will be long
term misery. Second, consider the various cost-benefit analyses various
companies employ, and see if there are alternative strategies that either help
or make no change for the company while helping the individual, and come up with
ways to propose them. If we can honestly tell a company our proposal will cost
them nothing and even earn them more money, they will often start listening.
Finally, keep a watch both at the local and higher levels of government for
bills coming through, push back when necessary, and get involved when we can.
Lawmakers are not technology experts, and they really appreciate help from their
constituents. There are already some groups, like the “self hosting” and “right
to repair” movements, working to make strides in these areas.

As these technology trends have continued to advance, all of us have been losing
small bits of individual agency and freedom; the compound loss is significant.
There is a clear struggle between the rights of the individual and that of the
corporation: after all, surely Microsoft has the right to make sure people
aren’t pirating their software. But there is a limit. With each of these moves,
the corporation gets a little more powerful, and the individual becomes less of
a citizen and more of a user. We’re now at a point where we need to step back,
ensure that we as individuals become aware of what else we might lose, and
decide what kind of future we want.

Lecture notes from 35c3

This past December at 35c3 in Leipzig, I gave a 90 minute long self-organized session called “Why Does War Happen? An Examination of the Thucydides Trap.”

We had some technical hangups– it turned out the room had no projector or projector screen, so everyone had to download the slides locally. Thankfully most of the lecture was oral with some notes. I also tried to have people read excepts from Herodotus and Thucydides, but this didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. In general, most people loved the session, and the biggest complaint I got was that it was too information-dense; this amused me because I cut out probably 2/3 of what I originally wanted to use.

In any case, as follows is a general outline copied from my lecture notes, as well as the slides I presented with. I will likely give another session at a future CCC event, since there is so much more I want to cover.

General lecture notes (directly transcribed from my copy):

Read more of this post

The Culture War

Finished book four of Thucydides. At the deepest level it’s basically identical to what’s going on in the world right now. Thus far in modern times it has been limited to culture, but the longer the sides continue to grow more extreme and faction off, the more likely it is to get violent. This is not good.

The scary thing is how cleanly you can map the Democrats to Athens, and the Republicans to Sparta. Including all the intricacies. The Athenians claimed to promote freedom and progress, but at the same time maintained a massive empire and, when problems arose, were quick to resort to force. Meanwhile, the Spartans had a reputation for being somewhat backwards and old fashioned, but they were well disciplined (just look at Thermopylae), and had firm principles that lead them eventually to success.

I wonder which event in our contemporary world will be most like the Cocyra episode.

On Foundations

To follow up a bit on my recent post on Herodotus, I’m now halfway into book two of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. To say it is a masterpiece is an understatement. I might go as far as to say it’s the most important and best history and military strategy book I have ever encountered.

Although politicians today are toothless, and generally give speeches of hot air, if you look at politicians and social or military leaders in history that have been of significance, in almost every instance they have inherited something from this work. The speeches of Pericles alone clearly established centuries of discussion of how a polis and eventually a nation-state should be handled.

If you are interested, I highly recommend this (with Herodotus as a prerequisite), and I recommend the lectures of Leo Strauss at St. John’s College in 1972 as an ancillary guide.

On the crest of a tweet

A decade ago, the newfound glories of Youtube, Twitter, Google, and other sites embodied promises of expression, freedom, and exploration. Now things have ossified into a monolithic repudiation of everything that created it, and it seems that rather than becoming John Galt, Silicon Valley has become Silas Lapham.

The once underground “hacking” community shares the same sentiment. Perhaps one day we will learn that, just as, no matter how hard we try, we’re not going to be able to do Communism “right”, celebrity culture eventually leads to graves.

Image from Robert Crumb “On the Crest of a Wave“, 1990


In my quest to understand when things in the West went wrong, I decided to go all the way back to the beginning. While this isn’t a book review of Herodotus because I haven’t finished it (halfway through Book 7), I have learned enough to draw some rather fascinating conclusions, the primary being: context is everything.

This has been one of the hardest books I’ve ever tried to read, for a number of reasons. At several points, I’ve debated giving up. The digressions can really test your patience, and when Herodotus manages to construct what modern readers would call a “flow,” he quickly breaks it by casually mentioning a side character and then delving into a page long story about something that character did, and then abruptly resuming the original story. It’s also a huge pain when he uses names without much clarification, so that you’ll see the same name used to talk about five different people. And don’t even get me started on Book 2.

There are a few reasons I’ve persisted. First, it’s foundational. I see references to Herodotus all over the place, and it also sets the stage for Thucydides and Xenophon, which I understand are the bedrock of modern history and philosophy. Herodotus is sort of like a bridge between the world of the Gods and what modern readers would recognize as their own. And given how crazy the world of 2018 seems, Herodotus helps illuminate just how sane and stable things are.

I think that when one encounters the world, especially from fresh youthful eyes, the natural reaction is to say “Wow, things are really messed up,” and the natural response is to have a desire to fix it. While this is good in theory, if done recklessly it will lead to hell. Therefore, I’d say the best possible response, and the way to facilitate that desire, is to ask “Why are things so messed up?”

In that the perfect is the enemy of the good, it’s easy to envision a world the way we want it to be, and more difficult to envision a world that’s the opposite. Therefore, when we look at the world, we tend to see the disparity between how things are and how we want them to be, rather than that between how things are and how bad they could get.

There is a mantra that we become more conservative as we get older. I remember when I was younger, wanting to change and fix the world, and getting upset and impatient when someone older would ask me simple questions that confounded me. Now I get a similar reaction from young protesters when I ask similar questions. I’m sure someone upstairs is laughing. This does make me ask what “conservative” means. Clearly it’s not all simply the horrible things I remember the religious right doing in the 90s, because those people also seem to have the same reaction to simple questions. Could it in fact be the curse of foresight, and asking of a few simple questions before taking a corrective action, such as to mitigate any potential unwelcome side effects?

I look at Herodotus’s tome and marvel at how things used to be. They aren’t currently perfect, but they *are* currently a lot better than in his day. Maybe we would all be better served by asking a few simple questions about why the world is broken before fixing it.

Why I no longer read “news”

I realize that there is a rather tired trope of “fake news”, and maybe if you’ve read other of my posts here, you’ll see a trend where I’ve tried to detox from the monolithized “mainstream” media and use tools like RSS to refine what I see. Today one of them slipped through, so I can show you precisely what my grievance is with a solid example.

One of the paramount reasons we call a story “news” is because we trust that there is a reasonable relation between the article we read and the sources it cites. A good journalist will follow through in ways such as reaching out to the people involved in the article, or ask clarifying questions for the reader to consider. Newspapers also have a section where a writer can indulge in their own opinions on a topic, hence called the “Editorial” or “Opinion” section.

So take a look at this “article”, from The Guardian, an outlet typically held in high esteem:


The author opens with a single source cited (we’ll get to that in a moment), proceeds to draw a conclusion based on the source that car insurers are charging higher premiums for people with Hotmail email addresses than other address types, and proceeds to indulge us with a personal recollection of how things “used to be.” She has a couple paragraphs of nostalgia, followed by a concluding remark that if Hotmail is the “worst” email to have, a personal vanity domain is the best, backed up by a single anecdotal experience she had. In my opinion (ironically), any editor worth their salt would have tossed this in the bin, or at least routed it to the Opinion section, where it belongs, rather than being paraded under “Technology>Email>Shortcuts.”

The verdict gets more damning when you bother to read the source. First, one look at the source website screams tabloid to me. Second, the source article is based on an “experiment” run by the author, hardly scientific. Third, the correlation between the points in the source and the points in the parent article is nonexistent. Let’s look at some examples.

The Guardian article headlines with a quote, “A sign that you’re not keeping up.” Clearly the implication is that the conclusions for this article were justified by something car insurance companies have said. Except that the quote is nowhere to be found in the source. Second, the article headlines with the phrase “car insurers.” Plural. But the source shows a simple experiment with a single insurance company, in the UK. Third, the source contains a brief quote from the insurance company in question, which never made it into the parent article. Therefore, the entirety of The Guardian article is baseless lard, opinions of the author being passed along as fact.

The reason I’m analysing this so deeply is the reason I discovered this excuse for news. There is currently a thread on Hacker News, bearing a headline that actually grabs the first sentence of the article in question, and there is a 200+ comment discussion assuming that the article is fact, and people coming up with theories as to why such widespread discrimination against Hotmail users is happening. For example, the very top comment declares it must be some kind of AI modeling.

So what we have here is the following chain: a barely functional tabloid article about a nebulous-at-best non-scientific experiment on a single car insurance company in the UK, which then turned into an opinion-piece-masqueraded-as-fact declaring an epidemic happening with multiple insurance companies not limited to any location, which then turned into a discussion about why such systemic discrimination is happening, and tapping into clear fears people have about how these insurance companies are clearly doing lots of data mining.

I wish this could be a post about why The Guardian has fallen, but I’ve seen similar pieces from the New York Times and other places. This kind of garbage is precisely why I’ve had to start honing my RSS feed to pay attention to particular journalists who have earned my trust, and disavow the fourth estate as whole.

Fire, Fury, and Fiction in the Trump White House

In the wake of all the uproar over the new book about the Trump administration, Fire and Fury, I decided I should pick up a copy for myself and see what the fuss was about. Thankfully, before I had to spend a dime, Wikileaks published the PDF, and so I was able to fetch it pretty quickly.

The first thing that stood out to me about the book came up even before the first chapter. The prologue details a conversation between the late Roger Ailes (of Fox News) and Steve Bannon on 4 Jan 2017, before the dust of the election had settled. Rather than a general description of what was discussed, which would make sense if Bannon had been interviewed, a line by line recitation of quotes creates the impression that you’re actually sitting at the table listening to their conversation.

The most recent biographies I have read, other than this book, are by Robert Caro. One of Caro’s books, The Power Broker, entails a scene where Robert Moses is in the midst of a lawsuit, and his parents learn this upon seeing the daily newspaper. His mother’s response to the lawsuit is quoted verbatim. When Caro’s editor asked him how he got that quote, given that the exchange must have happened decades before, Caro revealed his method. He had figured out to which newspaper the Moses family subscribed, contacted the outlet, and, using their delivery schedule history, successfully tracked down the person who had delivered the newspaper to the Moses family. It turned out the delivery boy was still alive, and Caro was able to interview him and get the quote, which the boy had heard and remembered to that day.

Every such quote in Caro’s corpus is sourced like that, directly linked either to a specific document, or an interview with a first hand source. This is the standard to which I now hold all biographers. Now, one can argue that biographers sometimes will gather a collection of facts, plant them as seeds, and use their own perspective to water the facts a bit so they grow into a narrative. There’s a debate to be had, especially today, about how much of a biography or a journalistic report is based in fact, and how much of it was nursed by the editor’s metaphorical water.

The next thing that comes to mind about Fire and Fury occurred as I was reading the first chapter, and was sufficiently concerning that I have stopped reading the book. The first two chapters detail the attitudes and reactions to the Trump Campaign staff when they discovered they had won, and how they handled the transition. According to Wolff, everyone on the campaign staff, Trump included, assumed they would lose. The sole person who believed he would win was Bannon, whom Wolff makes some effort to cast as a loon. It goes into details about Kellyanne Conway hitting up her contacts and planning her next big move after the election, and Melania bursting into tears when she realizes the media focus would not be going away. The book also details really stupid things that people were doing, such as Paul Manafort’s liasonship with Russia, because they just assumed Trump would lose and it would be no big deal.

So my question is thus: in order to equip a biographer like Wolff with such detailed quotes and recollections, people had to be taking fairly careful notes and recording all their conversations. But Wolff describes the campaign and the transition team as disorganized and chaotic. And further, why would people be taking notes and recording things for an election they expected to lose? There are two reasons I can see to keep meticulous records: if you expect to cash out with a book deal, or if you think you’re going to come under heavy legal scrutiny. The first reason *could* explain it for some people, but not all of them. The second makes no sense for anyone except Bannon, since if you lose an election, nobody cares how legal your methods were. Further, assuming people *did* have these records and recordings– a fact Wolff’s own writing seems to contradict– why the hell would they turn them over to a biographer?

At this point, I’ve decided the book is a tabloid gossip piece which is very, very liberal with the truth. On one hand, Trump could settle that matter by filing a libel lawsuit against Wolff, but it seems that the optics alone on that would be pretty bad and distracting. On the other hand, perhaps people could look past their own personal biases (and for the record, I absolutely hate Trump), publicly point out these issues, and demand Wolff produce a detailed list of his sources for the book, including how he obtained every single quote. Incidentally, if he wants a guide on how to do this, he could look at any book by Robert Caro, which contains such comprehensive notes.

Latin workshop notes

Here are some followup PDFs from the 34c3 Latin workshop for further research.

The slides from my talk

PDF of Lingua Latina

PDF of Wheelock’s Latin (6th edition)

Additional reading material for beginners

Page about Reginald Foster, the Vatican’s official latinist for 40 years

Castrating click-bait

As I’ve written before, for the last year or two I’ve had a huge issue with the increasing amount of click-bait and inflammatory articles posted on websites of companies that call themselves news outlets. My previous solution to this was to simply block out the news sites, but I think I have found a better solution.

There are two big issues with blocking out everything. First, while many articles are shit, there are some choice writers and columnists who stand out as exemplary. As a side note, if you have any favorite writers, check to see if they have a Patreon, and try to support them this way. Second, it turns out that sometimes the issue isn’t the article itself, and not even the headline, but the font/color of the text, placement, as well as images that are used to promote the stories.

My new solution solves these two issues at once: RSS. The main reason I hadn’t looked at RSS before was that after Google shut down Google Reader for completely illogical crap-reasons, there was really nothing that worked for me. Readers tended to be clunky and not well supported. I’ve found a new reader, a Chrome extension called “RSS Feed Reader”, that offers the best integration I’ve seen. It uses the site feeder.co as a backend, and it offers a really convenient browsable menu.

Most of these news sites offer RSS feeds, and many (like the NY Times) even offer feeds for individual authors. So I’ve been able to collect a list of all the websites I consider relevant, even if I don’t agree with them, and now I have a little plugin where I can click on the name of the news outlet and get a list of headlines of the latest articles, in neutral colors and fonts so that it doesn’t piss me off. This has made browsing some of the worst offenders, such as Breitbart and The Hill, way way way more managable.

One of my favorite features is that when there are new articles, a little number shows up next to the feed corresponding to the number of new articles. You can look at the headlines, and if they all look like garbage, just click the “mark feed as read” option and the number goes away. This is also a fantastic way to do comparative news analysis: when a big story breaks, such as Al Franken resigning, you can quickly click through all the different outlets to see the takes. It’s actually enlightening, sometimes just by the headlines you can tell the bias of the news outlet.

The point of these exercises is to figure out a way to manage the current landscape without falling prey to any of the downsides of it. I’ve also found that this plugin replaces what I used to use reddit for, and it has none of the downsides (like reddit comments). And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t add something thanking Aaron Swartz for his efforts in helping to create RSS, since it seems to be helping restore my sanity.