Sunday, November 20

Maciej Cegłowski, Who Will Command The Robot Armies?:

Over the last two decades, the government's ability to spy on its citizens has grown immeasurably.

Mostly this is due to technology transfer from the commercial Internet, whose economic model is mass surveillance. Techniques and software that work in the marketplace are quickly adopted by intelligence agencies worldwide.

President Obama has been fairly sparing in his use of this power. I say this not to praise him, but actually to condemn him. His relative restraint, and his administration's obsession with secrecy, have masked the full extent of power that is available to the executive branch.

Now that power is being passed on to a new President, and we are going to learn all about what it can do.

More or less all of this is worth thinking about.

Wednesday, November 16

Flashes of clarity:

It’s probably time to treat the network we have as a failure mode.

A pathological network may be an existential threat to the project of democratic governance.

Whatever anarchic inclinations I’ve had over the years: I have a hard time imagining that any preferable alternative emerges from the large-scale failure of a democratic state. At least not this one, however imperfectly democratic it has been in fact.

Ok, let me think for a minute.

Much of the American political system has been captured by a combination of populist authoritarian racists1 and a dangerously deteriorated Republican Party. That’s one thing that’s happening. It would be a bad idea to downplay it.

Beyond that, but also all wrapped up in it: It feels like there’s this intensifying of in-group / out-group dynamics like I don’t think I’ve seen in my lifetime.

Of course that’s an old process. American ideological polarization has roots centuries older than this election cycle. In a nation-state founded in the context of slavery, genocidal colonization, cycles of mass migration and social upheaval, and grand-scale ideological/religious ferment — how could it not?

But above and beyond the American historical background radiation:

From outside it but not outside its reach, the dominant right-wing discourse appears as a cesspit of disinformation and resentment. It abhors moderation or nuance. The guffawing idiocy of talk radio and shit-tier web forums has consumed institutions for which those things were once just useful instruments of propaganda. It’s become a determining norm. Even conservative cultural outlets and individual voices that buck this trend seem complicit with its aims or incapable of exerting any moderating influence.

Left-wing discourse (even though smart people in it will explicitly and thoughtfully reject this assessment) seems locked in a cycle of conflict between factions and individuals whose goals and values are often indistinguishable to outsiders. The parsing of text for adherence to a constantly shifting and sometimes arbitrary standard of correctness consumes vast resources, alienates potential allies from one another, and poisons efforts at basic empathy. It’s almost impossible to address this pattern within the norms of left-wing discourse, because it will be parsed as a regressive defense of incorrect postures or identity relationships which in turn reduces to a right-wing argument about “political correctness”. (Without those norms, it tends to reduce itself to that sort of thing.)

Some of the left-wing / social-justice internet has simply crawled up its own asshole into absurdist theatrics. Considerably worse, some of it feels like it’s curdled into a culture of weirdly exaggerated mob discipline, dogpiling, and absolutist territorial infighting. This pattern seeps into the language and behavior even of lots of intellectually rigorous people who try hard to communicate in good faith. (And also probably the behavior of me.)

It’s early in a bad time, but most of these things feel unlikely to improve under the constraints we now face. Or to stop feeding one another.

The network now defines, if it doesn’t yet thoroughly own, the space we occupy in reality. Too much of the network space encourages adversarial communication as the only means of participation. Just existing without engaging some conflict narrative is possible within a lot of physical rooms. It’s a lot harder on a lot of the internet. This alone is almost a deterministic guarantee of fighty bullshit.

Two bumper stickers on a car in the Post Office parking lot the other morning:

TRUMP: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN

And:

If Guns Are Outlawed What Will We Shoot Liberals With?

🌲

Charlie Loyd, Some memories of my grandmother:

It’s not enough to remember Nazis as symbols of evil. What happened to six million people was not done by metaphors for wickedness, it was done by other people with hands and brains like ours. They were infected with the idea that there are intrinsically good people and intrinsically evil people. They were extremely evil, but not intrinsically. They were wrong in ways that you and I can be wrong. This is the most terrifying thing I know, and I know it from Grandma. What do “it can happen here” and “never again” mean? I can’t know the way that Grandpa did or Grandma did.

From there, it’s obvious that she did not let go, was not subsumed into the history textbook subheds of the century; she was always moving under her own power, in catastrophies and in merely imperfect systems. And so was everyone. Grandma was special in many ways, but point to anyone and so are they. Some of us are lucky enough to get to a place where our work can accrete, where we can build a piece of the world we want. Many of us are not. War is only one of the forces that can destroy a person’s chances, or a generation’s work, or a generation. The weight of history is intolerable, an ocean-trench pressure, if we try to take it as a weight. Talking with Grandma helped me take it as a liquid, something that we can equalize against without being crushed, something whose unintelligible mass we can, with luck, push through and move within.

I’ll leave it on that one. It’s more useful than any thoughts I’m having.

1 Only _some_ members of this movement are self-declared Nazis, in the Klan, or activist antisemites, so I guess we're still collectively on the fence about whether "pack of fascists" would be appropriate terminology.

Monday, November 14

Like usual I’m at the bar; I brought a laptop this time. Some football is happening on TV. Old guys bullshitting, etc. I waited too long to eat and I’ve been reading the internet all day, so my head hurts and I can’t think straight enough to program. I guess that leaves writing.

The part of the internet I know how to see is a wall of text right now. It feels like you could scroll for a hundred years. It’s nearly all got a kind of hallucinatory, half-drugged quality to it. I scan through take after take and my eyes glaze across most of the sentences. There is a kind of systemic shock on display. People are trying to order the world by reading and writing, and the new arrangement of the world resists ordering.

In other views on the network, I imagine you can see a kind of deranged elation. If there’s coherence anywhere, I don’t know how to find it.

At the bar the old guy on my left shouts GOD BLESS AMERICA TODAY across me to the guy on my right and tries to draw me into an argument about whether God exists. The guy on my right and the bartender engage in some friendly dialog about how upset the people in his office were the other morning when he brought in donuts to celebrate. They’re status quo people, he explains. Afraid of change. The bartender expresses contempt for people who say they don’t know what’s happened to this country on the internet.

Several feet down another old guy is hassling a woman who voted for Trump about how Trump will be convicted under RICO any day now. He must say “RICO” twenty or thirty times. People are talking about demonstrations and how once upon a time they got arrested for protesting after Kent State. I can’t really read what they think about the current state of affairs. After a while I stop trying so I can focus on finishing my beer and leave without looking too much like I’m in a hurry.

There are no conversations that don’t seem to be at least implicitly about the election.

Sunday, November 6

I wrote this on Sunday night. I didn’t post it then because it wasn’t finished and I thought I should reword it so it was kinder. I guess it might as well go up as-is.

It’s early in an unseasonably hot November in the Western United States of America. An election day looms. I find myself, in those moments when I can face the news, somewhere between paralyzed with fear and numb with disgust.

I filled out my ballot a few days back. I voted for a single-payer healthcare system I doubt will pass, and an increase in the minimum wage, and some other things that are fairly important in Colorado. I voted essentially party-line for Democratic candidates for state office, though I am registered as an independent and do not much love the Democratic party itself. In some cases I voted that way because I approve of the candidate, but mostly I just view a Democratic majority as the lesser evil in a system too vast and calcified to admit any choices that reflect my theoretical politics more closely.

I didn’t feel any ambiguity about voting for Hillary Clinton. Not really. One of the first things my culture tried to teach me was that I should hate Hillary Clinton. Later on I came to dislike her politics for reasons pretty well removed from the ones that saturate the discourse of the rural Plains. It doesn’t really matter given the options. She’s an establishment politician with a mixed record, but she’s not observably a fascist.

I have told this story a dozen times by now: The other night we sat at the basement bar of the beer joint a few blocks over and watched the last 6 innings of a game where the Cubs won the World Series. During the commercial breaks there were a lot of campaign ads. No one seemed to pay the official Trump ones much mind, but it was laughs and smiles every time a Clinton ad tried to play up Trump’s vicious idiocy.

“That guy’s funny.”

I got scared then. I thought: Jesus Christ, he might win. I haven’t been able to shake it off. I think it could happen, even if the polling says it probably won’t. This idea might have been funny once. I can’t even remember what I thought when it was still a punchline of a candidacy. It’s not funny any more. A lot of bad things are going to happen. Even if he loses, I suspect that white nationalism has a platform now that isn’t going away any time soon. A certain kind of overt, brainsick hate is blooming out again through the culture. It’s hard to turn a failed campaign into a lasting movement, but it’s not impossible.

The people who like Donald Trump, in large part they like him for things that would make me look for the nearest exit if I encountered them from any random dude in a bar. They like him because he’s a crude racist and violent to women. They like him for acting like a highschool bully and not knowing things. They like him for the reasons I wouldn’t leave anyone vulnerable alone in a room with him.

When I was younger, I came home from college and ruined family get-togethers by being angry about the Iraq War and all the other things that kids like me, fresh out of the sticks and turning into hippies, were angry about then. The Bush years taught people my age so much about how corrupt and destructive a thing American power could be in the world. The decisions of power in those years are still teaching us, come to that. So much of the poison of then is the poison of now, one way or another.

I’m sure I know people who are voting for Donald Trump. Some of them are people I love. Maybe you, reading this, are one of them. It’s hard to know exactly what to do with that. You might be wiser and better than me, in much of life: I’m neither wise nor especially good. But I can tell you this is an ugly thing.

Wednesday, November 2

some things i have been using lately

git-annex: I don’t yet have my head around more than a fraction of what git-annex and the git-annex assistant do. That said, the short version is that it lets you track files (usually large files like photos, but really anything) in a git repository without storing their actual contents in the repo’s history. It does this by leveraging symbolic links to blobs of data in the .git directory, and pushing data around between your local copy of the repo and various kinds of remote storage: Other repositories accessed over SSH, filesystem locations, Amazon S3, and so on.

I’ve been using these features on p1k3 to store images and thumbnails for simple galleries. (Here are some notes about my use case from back in August — the short version is I want to publish pictures without having to trust third parties like flickr, imgur, or Instagram.) The workflow is still a little bit confusing, and git-annex itself is enough of a hack that there are bugs to work out. Still, this feels like one of those fundamental changes to a paradigm that becomes, over time, an obvious necessity.

I backed one of Joey Hess’s crowdfunding campaigns for this project a while ago. It’s good to see work like this get real traction, and I plan to keep chipping in for its development.

Debian/Ubuntu installation: apt-get install git-annex

moreutils: Another joeyh joint, this one has been around for a while. It bundles a set of tools that fill gaps in the classic set of Unix utilities.

The thing I’ve used most often here is sponge(1), which collects standard input and writes it to a desired file. That doesn’t seem like much, but it lets you do something like this:

somecommand somefile | sponge somefile

A reasonable replacement for this idiom:

somecommand somefile > somefile

…which sooner or later everyone discovers doesn’t do what they’d expect, because redirecting to a file opens the file for writing before it executes somecommand somefile.

Debian/Ubuntu installation: apt-get install moreutils

fzf: I’ve been using dmenu to launch programs, jump between windows, and navigate directories for quite a while now. dmenu takes lines of standard input and lets the user select one (narrowing the selection with type-to-search), then prints it to standard out. It’s a simple idea, but elegant and fast for a good many tasks.

fzf is essentially the same idea, but runs in a terminal and offers more tunable search modes along with optional prefab keybindings in the shell. It can replace, for example, Bash or zsh’s standard Ctrl-R for searching in history. There are also shims for integration with tmux and Vim, and the author has taken an admirably modular and unixy approach to all of this.

I’m not completely comfortable with the interface of this one yet, but it’s a general purpose utility I’ve wanted for a while, and can easily imagine building other tools around. I’ll probably integrate it with commandlog for searching and annotating history.

Installation: Some ad hoc hackery explained in the repo. Here’s hoping it winds up widely packaged before long.

ranger: A column-based file manager with vi-style navigation. Python, but so far hasn’t been terrible and crashy, so it’s doing something right. Feels in the spirit of LIST, a piece of software I still miss constantly.

Debian installation: apt-get install ranger

linkdump

Playtime is over - Charlie's Diary

Who Will Command The Robot Armies? — As per usual, read this.

Introduction to Algorithms, 3rd Edition (MIT Press): Thomas H. Cormen, Charles E. Leiserson, Ronald L. Rivest, Clifford Stein: 9780262033848: Amazon.com: Books

Yahrzeit candle - Wikipedia

Colorado Election Results & Data

Blame

Living in Evil — This one is about a text editor, not geopolitics.

Open Audio blog

Switching to Emacs: Becoming Evil

lyro / evil / issues / #521 - Visual block with Vim's option virtual edit — Bitbucket