All the King’s Tweets

The other night I made a comment that I wished Bill Gates would spend $10 billion to acquire Twitter and shut it down. IMHO, that would be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. The latest reason for this involves their changes to Verified accounts.

For years, exactly how someone got their Twitter account verified was a mystery. Usually if someone was famous, the theory was they would either call a friend at Twitter or show up to the office and verify they owned their twitter account, somehow. I remember a big news story about this when the president of Russia at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, visited San Francisco, visited Twitter, and his account was verified. Other times someone not as famous would bear the blue mark.

This is somewhat personal to me because during the 2011 Nymwars fiasco, when I personally stood up and said the Google Plus “real” names policy was bad and should be reformed, one of the most common pushbacks I got was along the lines of: why not add a flag of some sort to someone’s account to denote they are using a “pseudonym”? Some of my response to that included a distaste for promoting government issued names as somehow better than other names, as well as the idea that names that sound familiar (or are name-shaped) are real and funny sounding ones or not, but you can read my older posts or watch talks to learn more about that.

Case in point, when you have a community, online or offline, and you add a marker of some sort, it changes the dynamic of social relations and creates an element of reputation. For example, why do people who support causes wear ribbons on their shirts, or a colored bracelet? I remember being at a concert in Virginia shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre and seeing many people with buttons that effectively said they supported the victoms.

And now for something I’m going to make public for the first time: in 2014, I was on a RightsCon panel related to the topic of online identify and pseudonymity. One of the other panelists (who sort of lead it) was Colin Crowell, who was at the time the VP of Public Policy at Twitter (he is still at Twitter). We had a meeting at Twitter HQ before the panel to discuss what we’d cover in the panel, and at this meeting I asked him point blank what the verification status on tweets was about. He gave me a look like someone who’d heard this question a million times, and said (I paraphrase) that the sole purpose of the verification status was to prevent impersonation, nothing else; the status was generally added when an issue arose, the fraud team investigated, and decided it was an appropriate counter-measure to prevent further issues. He also added that nobody at Twitter had a verified status. Thus, for years, when this question has come up, I have generally defended Twitter, because I trusted what he told me.

However, then I saw this article on The Verge: I was stunned because while I’d heard and seen rumors about something like this happening, they were just rumors. When I saw this, I sent an email to Crowell asking for clarification: maybe I misunderstood the article, or maybe the article was wrong. Unsurprisingly, he never replied to my email, and since then things have changed a lot. At first the verified status was a tool used to counter fraud, then it turned into a mechanism for Twitter to collect government issued IDs, and as of a couple days ago it has turned into a tool for Twitter to virtue signal and silence people they don’t like. Let me explain.

I saw this piece from the Guardian about Twitter revoking the verified status of Richard Spencer and this piece from the Verge about changes to how Twitter handles verification status. Both of these are problematic.

First, assuming that Richard Spencer actually believes the hateful things he says, it doesn’t change the fact that he is Richard Spencer. There are lot of news outlets who use Twitter as a source for stories, and they rely on the verification status to demonstrate a person is who they say they are. For example, if Hillary Clinton lost her verification status, someone else with a twitter account called Hilary Clinton (notice the one ‘l’) or other variations could start saying some hateful things, and other than context clues like number of followers, there might be no way to tell that it’s not really her. In fact, many news outlets are not allowed to cite tweets from accounts that are not verified, precisely because of the modicum of truth this status provides, therefore if Richard Spencer does do something that is noteworthy, it makes life more difficult for journalists.

Second, here are the specific issues I have with Twitter’s new guidelines. First, in their morality clause, in addition to citing all the things they don’t want you to do, they also say that supporting organizations or individuals that promote those things will also cause you problems. I’m not sure what this means. Does this mean that if you retweet a hateful thing Donald Trump says, you can be unverified?

Next, and more terrifying, the phrase “on and off Twitter” in their opening statement. Does this mean that if you are an employee of a company like Home Depot that comes under fire for something in the news, that Twitter can decide actions should be taken against you? What if there’s video of you in the stands at an NFL game and the NFL gets embroiled in controversy? Finally, what the hell does any of this have to do with demonstrating that you are who you say you are? If they are violating your policies, why not just suspend their accounts (and send them the reasons why so they can appeal if they want)?

Twitter seems to have conflated morality with verification, something that is very, very dangerous. Further, what constitutes their moral code seems to change based on the wind, and how they arbitrate it seems to change based on some combination of public opinion and the biases of twitter employees. It seems like the outrageous actions of Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince overriding his own company’s policy and banning Daily Stormer from their service because he “woke up this morning in a bad mood.” Which is especially noteworthy given that just two years earlier he defended his inaction against ISIS customers of his service.

I’m really not sure what has gotten into Twitter. I know from talking to people from several free speech groups who used to have direct channels to resolve issues that Twitter has basically stonewalled everything. Their actions are haphazard at best, and the only appeals process seems to be getting lots of negative PR, even though that is also clearly hit or miss. I still believe what Crowell told me a few years ago, which suggests that darker more nefarious forces are at work within Twitter. I know they have been struggling to make enough money, maybe this is part of their efforts to reform their business policy, like their recent shift to 280 characters (which was a disaster)?

In any case, I’ve given up on them– anyone who looks at my Twitter profile knows this– but I do think they are another canary in the coal mine, and based on what I’ve seen, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Living in Germany, I’ve talked to friends who lived during the DDR days under the Staatssicherheitsdienst (aka the Stasi) and they generally describe the climate of the English speaking world as similar. Of course that was government run, and Twitter is a private company, but they do seem to have a grip on the social landscape, whereas the US government seems gridlocked. The one thing I know for sure is that this is horrible, it can’t last forever, and I hope to god it ends soon.

The dry-heaving, deflated state of the Internet

As I’ve mentioned before, I basically no longer use what is called “social” media, and I have the western propaganda machine blocked in as many places as possible. It’s clear there is a culture war going on, and while there is as of yet no loss of life, it is ruining a lot of things which were once beautiful.

Within computer science, there exists what is called the discovery problem. Both Yahoo and Google started as attempts to solve it. You have a set of things with which people might want to engage, and you want to make sure they can with the most minimal friction possible. It’s not a new idea. If you think about it, newspapers, libraries, even roads operate like this to some extent.

This creates a gateway (or portal) of sorts, and whoever controls it has a lot of power. They control what is served in what order, based on what search criteria, and how frequently.

They are a technology which serves some sort of purpose. In theory, the gatekeeper is a neutral party who serves this higher purpose. A librarian acts to help someone find a book or information they seek. A journalist (a real one) tries to uncover the truth and report it. So a question to ask, when you are looking for something, is who is guiding the answer: is it the purpose of the technology, or the agenda of the gatekeeper?

Realistically every gatekeeper has an agenda, and traditionally this is why we’ve had multiple newspapers, radio stations, and so on. However, this seems to be dying away, and I’m not sure why. Google is one of the worst at this. I would say Facebook as well, but I don’t have firsthand experience. I first started noticing it with the Google Plus names drama, when they pushed the “Search Plus Your World”, trying to map searches to what fits you. And there is a dance between subjective and objective quality. Ever notice that when you search for someone’s name, you get their Wikipedia entry? Which of course makes assumptions about how reliable wikipedia is. After all, if I search for “Lyndon Johnson”, what should I get first, the Wikipedia page, or a website about Robert Caro, who is probably his most famous biographer?

I’ve been noticing lately that Youtube has been doing a lot of this. Let’s say I search for a kind of video, maybe about a current event. I click on a video that seems relevant… maybe it has a lot of views, maybe it has a description that fits what I’m looking for. Let’s say it’s a CNN story about the current event. I watch part of it, and then go back to the main youtube screen. Suddenly I’m getting recommended a ton of videos about that event (matching the keyword), and other videos about CNN.

That’s innocent enough. But for me, this cycle has iterated enough times that I pretty much know exactly what youtube is going to show me. The best analogy I can make is that it’s like knowing what time your favorite TV show is going to appear. It is literally the same, more of the same, and so on. Although lately the videos are fighting for attention, so I’ll get a lot of buzzwords in the titles, as well as things I didn’t ask for that youtube is clearly promoting, maybe because they were paid? Unsure on that.

One of the thrills for me of going into a traditional store is the surprise element. Take a used book store. Let’s say you go there to see if they have a book you’re interested in. You find it, and look at it for a moment. And then you see other books by the same author right next to it. This is somewhat close to the “also on CNN” videos. But then, on the next shelf over, you see books on a totally different topic. Or there’s a display created by the owner of the shop about a book you didn’t even know existed. These last two elements are what make the traditional bookstores (and other stores) special. And Youtube has totally destroyed any ability for them to exist on youtube.

Let’s approach this from another angle. Say you discover a new food at a nearby restaurant, and you like it so much you order it every day. After the tenth day, I’ll bet you no longer want to even see a picture of that food. The novelty dies off, and maybe you don’t go back for a month. It’s similar to stories I’ve heard from former pizza delivery drivers who tell me they never want to have pizza ever again. Or like the staff who works in retail during a promotion where they play the same song over and over again.

To me, the selections that Youtube offers resembles that food after the tenth day. The novelty has died, and I’m so numbed that it’s even difficult to imagine new keywords to search that will result in that “different topic” shelf that a bookstore would have. And yet, for some reason, I keep going there.

I almost wonder if this has placated the whole internet. In a sense, the websites of the 90s and early 2000s were a bit like the family owned shops in small town America before Walmart moved in. As I used to say, I can think of many people who would travel the US going to different small towns and seeing the little shops, but I can’t think of anyone who would travel the US going to all the Walmarts.

But the issue creating this distaste isn’t exactly a diversity issue (to use the hotbutton term of the day), I argue it’s more control. There’s a sort of feeling of disempowerment, similar when you argue with the staff at a large corporation and get fed the “there’s nothing I can do” line. The joy in those little family owned shops wasn’t exactly diversity, but that they were self-owned. If family with a toddler walked into the shop, the owner had the agency to suddenly tell them that “today candy bars are free for little boys named Billy.” There’s probably a community element to it too, something also absent from Youtube and Walmart.

To end the ramble, it seems like today’s Internet has become a homogenized, sterlized shell of what it was even ten years ago. I’m still not sure why, but I think this has something to do with it.

How I use the “modern” internet

One of the challenging side effects of the current culture war going on in the US is that as the big-d-democrats and big-r-republicans become more and more extreme, the general political discourse becomes more toxic. I’ve often thought the last few years seemed far more polarized than even ten years ago, and it turns out I’m right:

I tend to be pretty middle of the road, and in the past have tended to tune into things that I disagree with, just to get the counter perspective. The logic being that if you read both sides of an issue, then you can figure out for yourself what a balanced view is, and proceed accordingly. However, especially in the last year, both sides have effectively turned into propaganda machines, completely misrepresenting even the most basic facts as they push agendas. My traditional approach results in whiplash, and my conclusion is that the only way to stay sane is to tune it all out and focus on other things until the storm passes.

Turning off the internet really isn’t an option, but there are ways to modify how I view it that help me manage. I don’t have a Facebook account, which means I already have a huge advantage over a lot of people. I’ve recently all-but-disconnected my Twitter account, so while a link to this post will appear there via an automated sharing process, I no longer “use” it as such. Why I’ve stopped using Twitter is probably worthy of an entire post in itself, but a short version is that every time I logged in, within 10 seconds of looking at my timeline, I’d be upset about something; I decided that’s not a way I want to live.

The next thing is websites I visit. Whenever I hear about some important news thing, by habit I go to places like CNN and The New York Times, because even though I rationally know they have long ceased to be places of balanced news, I have this strange instinctual trust in their ability to be an authority, probably remnant from years where they were moderately reliable. It’s true that they put out some choice falsities that (for example) helped the US invade Iraq, but until recently I was able to chalk that up to a few bad reporters. Now it seems like every reporter has an agenda. I found a browser plugin called “Website Blocker” and have added them and a slew of other sites, such as Breitbart, Fox News, The Guardian, and others into the list. What’s nice about this is that it doesn’t work in “incognito” mode, so if there’s a news story you want to track, you can open it in a new window and follow it there. I’ve found this to be really effective, because if I click a link and the red “it’s blocked” page comes up, it gives me a moment to reflect on if this is something I care about, or if it’s clickbait and I’m being reactionary. I’m sad to say that I’m being reactionary about 90% of the time, but at least I know this.

The other big thing is Youtube. I am a huge fan of Youtube, largely because many universities have started posting their college lectures there, and I find it a really valuable resource. However, the Adpocalypse that’s going on has caused a flurry of spam videos with horrible titles designed to get a quick click. There are other allegations regarding what videos they promote (since Youtube has a clear agenda in the culture war), but I’m more concerned about these stupid video titles. They are normally branded with choice key words designed to catch your attention, such as “cries”, “destroys”, “wrecks”, “obliterates”, “crushes”, and so on. A common example you might have seen during the election might be “Hillary supporter DESTROYS Trumper,” but this is by no means limited to politics. I found a great plugin called “Video Blocker” that lets you enter keywords such as those I’ve listed, and removes those videos from the Youtube page when you visit the site. What’s interesting is that it seems to just block them from appearing to you, so instead of getting another video, you get a blank spot. I’ve found that sometimes my recommended feeds are so empty they look like a toothless jaw, which tells me a lot about Youtube’s crap algorithms and how people are abusing it.

These plugins are in addition to other things, such as ad blockers and an HTML5 autoplay disabler. Although if a news website is autoplaying a video without asking, the chance is that I’ve already blocked it in Website Blocker.

In conclusion, while these things won’t prevent the culture wars, and won’t fix all the problems going on with the Internet in general, they will at least help you to stay somewhat sane as it wages on. Other suggestions are to have a day where you don’t use a computer at all and go to the park, or focus on doing cool projects that are also not related to awful clickbait. A word of warning, be prepared for the intense rage of people when you re-engage after one of these little retreats, and remember that it’s not about you.

An ode to AIM

After a 20 year run, AIM is being shut down in December. I’ve had my AIM account since May 14, 1998, so this makes me sad for a number of reasons. But I think it’s also worth reflecting both on the consequences of AIM dying, as well as the general state of technology.

I used AIM a *lot* in the late 90s, before moving to ICQ. Back then, there was sort of a holy war between AIM and ICQ, and the more serious computer users (read, an hour of internet time a day) seemed to use ICQ. From my personal experience, I stopped using ICQ in 2000 when a new version (I think it was 2000b) was released that was so buggy it was unusable on Windows 98. The community I was around all sort of migrated to AIM, and have used it ever since.

So long before what is now called “social media”, AIM served as a way to keep friends together, but not incessantly. I have my chat client logged into AIM right now, and even though I haven’t used it in years, I have a whole list of people who are also still logged in. It’s sort of like an active rolodex. In many ways, the buddy list now serves as a communication channel to people who I have no other way to contact anymore. Some might be stale, but the possibility is there. Until December.

I’m not sure why AOL wants to discontinue it. One of AIM’s main problems is that it’s centralized, through a protocol called OSCAR. I have no idea how difficult it is to maintain an AIM server. I have run jabber servers before, and they are usually pretty low maintenance. I wonder if there is some bureaucratic issue going on. Maybe AOL has to pay someone a license to keep it running, and now they’ve decided it is too expensive. Maybe there are a lot of security issues with the protocol, and they want to get rid of their security team that deals with it.

I wish they were more transparent about it. I wish they would do something for the AIM community– maybe set up a small nonprofit whose sole purpose is to collect donation money to keep the AIM servers running. Or make it all totally free software so someone could patch it to be decentralized, and keep it all still running. But again, this is all speculation, I have no idea. The one thing I do know is it makes me sad.

I’ve also become disillusioned with this new generation of technology. I’m a huge fan of personal liberty, using technology to empower individuals, and using computers to make cool projects and maybe even solve complex problems. But technology now seems to be about agreeing to 40 page EULAs you can’t possibly understand, and about companies taking more and more control over your life.

I recall a conversation I had with someone years ago, complaining about the then-new Windows product activation. IMO, if you pay for software, you own it, and the idea that you have to continually justify it to the company is the worst kind of leash possible. Their response was that there would be a lot of complaining, and eventually people would just go along with it and it would become part of an accepted norm. And it seems that now, the strange idea is not that you would need to get permission to run software you purchased, but that you would run software locally at all, because it’s all in the cloud (aka someone else’s computer).

Beyond that, I’m a big believer in respect for tradition, something that has been completely abandoned in the modern era. A less laudable version of this is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It seems that there is a rush to throw out the old in favor of the new. The problem with this is that we continually redefine the old in shorter and shorter lifespans, and we also redefine the criteria by which we judge “new is better.” This leads to making the same painful mistakes over and over again.

That was a long winded way of saying I’m going to miss AIM, I’m going to miss all the friends I’ll never be able to chat with again, and I’m sad with the general state of what is called technology.

Speech only stays free if we renew our subscription

Another way to say this is “history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.” One of the surefire ways to know a generational shift has taken place is that the same issues come up, often with the same arguments. The latest example is with “political correctness” or PC.

Here is a public debate from Firing Line, the show hosted by William F. Buckley, from August 28, 1991 (26 years ago), starring a few names you might recognize, including Dinesh D’Souza.

“Resolved: That Freedom of Thought Is in Danger on American Campuses”


And here is a discussion from July 27, 2017 (less than a week ago) from the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, regarding free speech on college campuses:

“Challenges to Freedom of Speech on College Campuses”


Even though the discussions are not isomorphic, they are a fairly clear demonstration that issues which might have once seemed hashed out and “settled” have re-emerged for a new generation. Perhaps if everyone paused, watched the first debate, and read pieces that were written in the previous iteration, we might sidestep some of the pitfalls that will readily present themselves this time around. But I suspect this is wishful thinking.

Patreon is the canary in the coal mine

I just watched the second half of Dave Rubin’s interview with Jack Conte, the founder and CEO of Patreon. For a number of reasons, I think this interview and the events surrounding it were some of the most important in a huge battle going on right now. I’ll summarize the events as I understand them, and then explain why I think it matters in a larger context.

Patreon is a service that allows you to “subscribe” to someone, and every time they post an “update”, you give them money. The way this works varies, for some people it’s a monthly payment, for others its per “post”, and so on. It cracks one of the oldest traditional problems: how does an ordinary person support an artist they enjoy, so that artist can keep creating art?[1] This is fantastic, and a lot of people who I respect and learn from now make a living from the service, and in my opinion we’re better off for having it.

The trouble began a few days ago when a journalist named Lauren Southern had her Patreon deactivated, without notice, for violating their “content policy.” Due to the faceless, lackluster way her account was revoked, she made a video complaining that not only IHHO was the suspension based on false information, she was suddenly without any income and without any chance for appeal. This created a major public backlash against Patreon, which prompted Conte to make a video detailing the evidence that lead to her suspension. Southern posted a hilarious response video, and the surrounding drama lead to an expedited discussion that just took place. In my opinion, Comte seemed apologetic for the mistakes he acknowledged Patreon made, and sincere about reforming their procedures so this doesn’t happen again.

On face value, it seems like yet another story of drama created from a startup with more money/vision than experience. But I think it’s actually a very important episode in a very complex paradigm shift that seems to be happening right now. But before we can understand why Patreon is important, we need to understand what’s happening with Youtube right now.

For decades, the public narrative has been controlled by what we collectively call the Mainstream Media. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and so on. And for decades, everything they aired had to fall within a certain set of boundaries. New television shows have to be run through a process, and journalists had to fit a certain mold, which varied based on the outlet. Youtube changed this. With Youtube, anyone who wants to can upload videos, and provided they don’t fall into certain categories (copyright infringement, illegal activities, etc), it’s free and they can share it with anyone they want. Over the years some people have created brands and followings, and Youtube set up a system where they could play ads on videos, and those people who have millions of views can make money from it. The most notable example of this is PewDiePie, who I think makes several million dollars a year.

However, in order to put ads on videos, you must have advertisers willing to pay to put up the ads. And many companies have jumped at this exposure. But in the last few months, things have started getting strange. Many “Youtubers” have found that some of their videos get “demonetized”, and the reasoning why isn’t entirely clear. I’ve heard various anecdotes, from people such as boogie2988, who found that his “Francis” videos were getting demonetized, and from The LA Beast, a competitive eater, who found that videos with the word “vomit” in the title or description were demonetized regardless of the contents of the video. In a recent Rubin Report, Tim Pool discussed this issue at length. The lack of transparency from Youtube is scary, and it matches the pattern of other massive companies who seemingly can do whatever they want. In some ways this is the cost of treating a private corporation as a public space, but at the same time, if there’s universal expectation that a company behaves like a public space and the company does nothing to “correct” this, it makes you wonder what the word “public” even means anymore.

There are a number of theories floating around as to why the Youtube issue is happening. It’s clear that, especially after the 2016 election, there is a massive lost of trust in the existing media institutions, so maybe companies like CNN, who seem to be losing viewers, are seeing Youtube as a threat and pulling some strings behind the scenes to neutralize it. Large corporations in general tend to be allergic to anything which they think might cost them money, which includes videos of the wrong topics or which are embroiled in the wrong kinds of controversies. Or Maybe Youtube has long been trying to figure out a good way to handle these issues, and this latest iteration of probing hit a few land mines and freaked everyone out. It’s difficult to say.

The nice thing about Patreon is that it actually solves all of these problems. Most artists who use Patreon (that I’ve seen) have a bunch of subscribers who all pay a little bit, like $10 a month, and this can add up. Professor Jordan Peterson, who rose to the public eye after some controversy last September, is now supported by almost 5,000 individual patrons with over $50,000 a month, and he’s using that money to create some of the most profound lectures I’ve ever watched. Others like the scientist Sam Harris, and even the discussion point, the Rubin Report, are all at least partially funded by Patreon. There’s no large corporation that can find any of these channels “objectionable” and then revoke their advertising, because they are viewer supported. It’s basically the public television of the 21st century.

I think one of the biggest problems in the English speaking world right now is the lack of actual discussion. There are a multitude of opinion silos, some of them larger than others. Institutions like CNN and Fox News have their own narratives, supported by select facts to craft the appearance of relevant news stories while also pleasing their funding sources. Smaller silos, like various Facebook groups, are in many ways smaller versions of these institutions, adhering to a small-p-party line, and generally maintaining a rather fundamentalist intransigence. While people like Donald Trump are very largely to blame, they are far from the only culprit. The inability to see someone who holds a different opinion from yourself as human is the first step towards a nihilistic chaos that would only prove we learned nothing from the 20th century.

One of the reasons Patreon is so important is that it offers a lifeline to people who are trying to escape from the surreality and craft an existence which does not require a negotiation with Mephistopheles. Lauren Southern clearly has a conservative bent, and her work is controversial. If her fans, many of whom are also conservative, only hear about her account and other conservative Patreons also getting suspended, it’s easy to misconstrue this as Patreon taking a political side. On the other hand, if Patreon is overly transparent and puts out response videos to everyone the way they did for Lauren, it will put a massive strain on a startup that is surely having plenty of other issues to deal with. There are also questions about when a Patreon wants to have an appeal but wants it to be private, or how transparency deals with sensitive information, or deals with Patreons in countries with laws that conflict with their policies, and so on. And if we assume good faith on Youtube’s part and assume all their demonetizings were the result of algorithmic issues, should a company like Patreon even try to automate these problems, or are they forced to manually look at every complaint?

For now, I’m going to take Jack Comte at his word and hope that Patreon actively improves their processes. By doing this interview, they are already leaps and bounds ahead of Twitter and it’s “Trust and Safety Council”, a group whose claims of “trust” and “safety” would make Solzhenitsyn laugh. It seems like we might see a direct discussion between Southern and Comte, mediated by Rubin. I think that would be fantastic. If more companies in the US started following suit and actually addressing issues when they happened, I might start to have faith in American corporations again. Might.

[1] The more vernacular words for this are “content” and “content creator”, which I utterly despise because they suck all the meaning and spirit out of the essence of art.

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

Εν αρχῇ ῆν ὁ λογος                                                                                

και  λογος ῆν προς τον θεόν

και θεός ῆν  λογος.


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:

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 😉