Fighting fire with metaphors

Today, I have seen yet another article about the Brave Individuals™ who fight the Islamic State, now, with videos on YouTube. I thought I have a problem with this, so let’s find out what the problem is. Finding out what disturbs you is done best by thinking loudly, and the modern era equivalent of this procedure is writing blog posts. Welcome again to “Dimitri ranting about newspapers”.

My first issue with this is the problem of audience. There is obviously a difference between a guy or gal who would think that it is a good idea to join the jihad and someone who would think that “Moderate or not – Allah will find his own” is a good joke. This is actually the general problem with politics, hurting people with different world views (which is not necessarily bad in itself) is a very different objective from actually making them think what you think, for the same reasons.

My second issue is the inadequacy of means. No matter how hard you fight effects (with propaganda, water, electricity, e-mail advertisements), you only can do so much with persuading people not joining some strange guys. If the aforementioned strange guys have money and obvious, measurable success, then they will attract people in any case (because there always are some strange people who are into that kind of entertainment). So solving a problem of a large, organized group of people successfully spreading violence and attracting more people is best solved by dismantling the organization with all the nice tools the last two centuries have to offer, including, but not limited to, intelligence, investigations, and, in some cases, violence. And this is, as the last two centuries teach us, only doable with another large organizations. (Which brings me to the lack of a comprehensive theory of organizations.) The times of individuals, singular actions, and the one weird trick are not the times we live in. Even the sniper, the modern army hero guy, is a very specific tool whom a lot of people have worked hard to educate, deploy, and extract.

The core of my problem seems to be that, again, people seem to think that memes can help you in all situations, and that really existing things magically fade away when you have convinced yourself they do not matter anymore. In lots of cases, this is true, but in an equal or larger lot of cases, it isn’t. It is especially and most dramatically not true when the thing in question is a person with a gun.


Let’s talk about literature. Again.

I have stumbled upon several discussions and a nice word that I cannot but translate into English. The word is “rivetism” which roughly expands to “an overwhelming desire to enforce absolute correctness in the details” and stems (as I’ve heard) from discussions about literary merits of a movie measured in the correctness of the number of rivets on a tank turret. Needless to say that “rivetism” is a pejorative.

Yet there is a point, and an arising question. Suppose you watch a movie about something you know, and know well. Take, for example, cooking. And there is this guy who takes a frying pan and loudly announces he’s going to make a soup. Ridiculous, right? Or imagine a book about school, where everyone loves the gym class. This is a slightly unrealistic scenario, doesn’t it seem so? So, when your expertise on the topic is sufficient to discern unrealistic assumptions, the hitherto suspended disbelief kicks in, and you have issues with connecting to the characters. This is the reason why people from air and space engineering are not so overwhelmed when talking about Gravity or pretty much any other space fiction movie that pretends to depict reality, as technical or scientific issues that are obvious to a professional are often overlooked by the authors. What makes this interesting is that disbelief is more readily suspended if the fiction is clearly depicted as fiction without further discussion of the technical details. That’s why Warhammer 40K works for me pretty well and Ready Player One does not.

Sadly, rivetism becomes inevitable if you get more closely acquainted with not only technical issues, but also real-life social interaction as well. Working in or at least witnessing a structure of at least 100 people gives insights about human interaction, and it is often the case that the human interaction patterns observed in real life do not match those depicted in fiction… at all. It begins with all those superhero movies that are plainly unbelievable when you know how many people work in order to make a single flight of a plane possible. It goes on with secret organizations no one has ever heard of yet with unlimited budgets and so on.

Probably, one just has to accept the inevitable truth that authors rarely have an idea about the (social and technical) mechanisms they use inn their plots, relax, and try to enjoy the narrative or the action nevertheless.

On Brexit

I started to think about current events, and, as it sometimes happens, I had more thoughts than I initially thought I have.
First and foremost, I am surprised. Very surprised. I went to sleep on Wednesday with a feeling that UK will vote “Remain” (not by a large margin). Last year, I was nearly brave enough to bet a bottle of whisky on it. (Hey, I would have made the same bet on Sunday!). I was wrong. However, as I do not have any responsibility (I’m not a famous expert, I have no obligations, my predictions have little, if any, influence), the sorrow of me being wrong is limited and I consider this an opportunity to update my mental model and ask questions.
Why did this happen? Obviously, more people were motivated by fear of THE IMMIGRANTS (double fun in a country with a rich colonial history) than those motivated by fear of losing economic ties. This alone tells us something about the vote, it was a vote against something, not for something. If a society votes out of fear for the lesser evil, this already is a rather unhealthy sign [CITATION NEEDED]. Even worse, this is something a political party can make advantage of by yelling “Vote or lose” without having to do anything.
Who motivated the “Leave” voters? There was a “Leave” campaign, led by non-marginal political elites. This indicates a controversy in the political class; even more, this indicates a lack of consensus on foreign policy, which is something that happened only rarely in the last 70+ years between the iron curtain and the Atlantic Ocean. It would be interesting to know the motives why a significant part of the political class decided that leaving the EU is more profitable; it would be even more iteresting to know what they know.
What has Cameron done? As I perceive that, Cameron (and his political surroundings) played the game of bluff with Brussels, and threatened to exit. As Brussels was not as prone to bluff as Cameron thought it was, he announced a referendum and suddenly other forces hijacked the issue. In football, this is something called an own goal.
Is democracy to blame? This is probably the most polarizing question, and some Germans are currently taking pride in the constitutional impossibility of referenda in Germany. As this is also a question that begs simple answers and mantras, I will try to highlight the sides of the issue as I see them. The good side of referenda is that you have direct influence on a decision. The bad side is that issues can be complicated and it is often hard to obtain information required to make a qualified decision. Especially if political campaigns work with memes instead of actual reasons (and they do). This means that we probably should do the scientific thing and consider previous work on the topic and empirical data. Empirical data suggests that referenda can be a working mode of operation if your country is at least well-connected. (Hello, Switzerland!) Empirical data does not suggest that it does not work in other conditions, although there are some indicators that not all issues should be decided by popular vote, such as death penalty (Gemany has had a popular majority for death penalty). This does not mean that popular votes are bad or that the voter is dumb; this just means that the public benefit is not the sum of individual benefits. IMO this also means that the questions decided by popular vote should be asked in a clear, understandable manner, and readiness of all political elites to take the decision as is and perform it; a referendum should not be the place of political fight.

A fully general manipulation

I have come across an interesting thought, and probably it is worth sharing. The thought occurred to me when I saw a link to a B**zF**d article that contained the usual mixture of 50% guilt-trip and 50% advanced rationalization (needless to say this is the right stoichiometry to skip the article and add the source into your personal blacklist), and then I read some ideas that went in a similar direction. So forgive me for not being very original.

How do you motivate people into doing something? I heard the opinion that fear and greed are pretty good, even more, they can be regarded as universal motivators. However, when it comes to practical issues, there is a shortcut, and this shortcut is guilt. The first step in the method is to convey the opinion that the listener is a worthless zombie who does not really live up to some expectations. Needless to say, as most people have their skeletons in the closet, you get an audience that is instantly motivated to do something to redeem itself. (If you ask yourself if this is the same mechanism as the one used by the original sin concept, welcome to the club. I suspect this, too.) And then the second step kicks in, where the author more or less discreetly asks the patient to do something to get rid of worthlessness. Like, buying the latest and greatest gadget. Or going to some raid (“Prove you’re not a slave, do what I say.”), political or not. Or donating to a cause.

If you look closely, you may find this pattern in ads, PSAs, and, least pleasantly, in clickbait pieces on society where the author tries to—yes, you guessed correctly—implant some behavioral pattern. However, the problem is that if you are the bad guy you are implied to be, you should not be prone to such manipulations, and if you are not, then the articles kinda miss the point. Then, there is the fully general aversion against manipulations; these mechanisms are on my big black list of Things Only Bad People Do. Your moral compass (or whatever navigation device you have instead) should not react to stimuli such as “Be a Morally Beautiful Person, do what I say”, since either you should know better what to do to be Morally Beautiful, or your decision rules work in a completely different fashion. In any case such advice from an unqualified author in some newspaper can be dismissed as a bad, off-limits manipulation attempt.

Ein Meta-Rant

(This post is gonna be in German.)

Eine lustige Geschichte zwingt mich, etwas länger wach zu bleiben.

Dies ist ein Blog-Post. Die Verfasserin ist mit einem Informatik-Schulbuch unglücklich, was weitgehend verständlich ist. Die Art, auf die sie dies äußert, ist es leider nicht.

Kurzgefasst scheint das wesentliche Problem zu sein, dass das Buch ziemlich alt ist und die Schule sich nicht darum gekümmert hat, neuere Lehrmaterialien zu besorgen. Folglich geht es im Buch um ein „A:”-Laufwerk, um PPP-Verbindungen, um Audio-CDs, um Objektorientierung (dies ist zugegebenermaßen ein Henne-Ei-Problem, und intuitiv ist Objektorientierung leider nicht immer) und darum, dass man sich im Internet mit Klarnamen vorzustellen hat (was je nach Subkultur okay oder nicht okay sein mag, aber die Art, es zu vermitteln, arg zweifelhaft ist). Wäre es dabei geblieben, gäbe es diesen Post nicht.

Allerdings geht die Verfasserin weiter und interpretiert das Geschriebene teilweise auf interessante Art und Weise. Zum Beispiel lesen wir: „Eine E-Mail wird im Allgemeinen innerhalb von Minuten übermittelt” und im Post „[…] brauchen E-Mail mehrere Minuten”. Das nennt sich Verwechseln des Perzentils mit dem Erwartungswert und ist Ketzerei. Ihr gefällt auch die Aussage „Ab 100 Folien pro Minute ist es ein Film” nicht, was ich dann auch nicht besonders gut nachvollziehen kann.

Teilweise ist es verständlich: Wenn man etwas generell (nicht) mag, sucht man Begründungen, und diese können sich auf Fakten basieren oder herrationalisiert werden. Passiert. Mir auch. Nicht immer verzeihbar, aber sei’s drum.

Am interessantesten ist die folgende Passage:

Und überhaupt: Wer braucht bitte ein Buch in der Informatik? Also: Ein Schulbuch? Gibt’s das denn im Sportunterricht? Oder in Kunst? Achso, an den Computer können die Kinder ja nicht gehen, gibt ja so wenige? Und da sind dann immer alle unruhig? Und der Lehrer kennt sich da auch nicht soo gut aus? Unterricht muss quasi mit dem Schulbuch stattfinden, weil es nicht anders geht – oder – wie?

Der Vergleich ist sogar besser, als die Autorin sich das gedacht hat. Gerade Sport. Ja, ausgerechnet Sport. Es gibt sehr, sehr viele Dinge, die man im Sportunterricht lieber in geschriebener Form übermitteln sollte. Aerobe/anaerobe Prozesse, Anatomie, Trainingstechniken, Sicherheit… Natürlich sollte man auch praktische Erfahrungen sammeln. Aber es gibt Grundlagen, und Grundlagen in konzentrierter Form kann und soll man lesen. Es gibt schon genug Menschen, deren Probleme dann gelöst werden würden, wenn sie sich die Mühe machen würden, die Anleitung zu lesen.

Dazu kommt ein ideologischer Aspekt. Lernen anhand von praktischer Erfahrung ist gut. Den Lernprozess nur an praktische Erfahrung und digitale offene Werkstätten zu binden führt zu Lehr- und Lernprozessen, die unformalisierbar, unmessbar und nicht als Ziel formulierbar sind. Ich habe ein inhärentes Problem damit, Bildung und Ergebnisse der Bildung direkt von Anfang an als unmessbar zu deklarieren.

Es ist etwas erschreckend, zu lesen, dass die Autorin an didaktischen Projekten beteiligt ist. Eine (falsche) Dichotomie Buch vs. praktische Erfahrung zu konstruieren, hallo, geht’s noch?

Political movements suck

(Forgive me for lots of political posts, I am currently re-formulating my world view and this way, you are suffering the least. There are, however, emotionally demanding alternatives.)

For some time in the past, I had a grudge against political movements, but I could not pinpoint the reasons. As this state (“I don’t like it, but I have no idea, why”) did not really satisfy me, I tried to find reasons for this emotional condition.

The first reason is buzzwords. Buzzwords are words or phrases that provoke an intuitive response without actual meaning. As examples, you can look at the party names (Christian Democratic Union, doesn’t this sound nice? No goals, but this warm fuzzy feeling of being in the good old days), stuff any “political scientist” says, and even sometimes in whitepapers (will a double-blind test distinguish between Net platform neutrality and Ultra-Hardcore?). Buzzwords are bad, m-kay? No clear goals means no clear proposals means no clear requirements means no responsibility.

The second reason is something I call topic clustering. Since I don’t want it to become yet another buzzword, I’ll define it: topic clustering means that a voter chooses not between individual problems he’d like to have solved in a preferred order (with given solution methods), but between clusters of problems, represented by political movements or candidates. This profits the political movements, but not the individual voter. In the extreme case, the society will shape itself after the political spectrum with predefined thought patterns for the individual (What political cocktail do you prefer? Wait, do you want to mix it itself? That’s not available, sorry). For example, suppose you like (completely at random) science and technology, social progress (as in, worker rights, equality and stuff), and, let’s say, nuclear power since you are strongly convinced that this is a consistent, non-contradictory set of beliefs. It turns out that there is no party with completely the same goals, which is not a problem in itself, but makes you choose what goals you prefer. Fractional voting is not a thing, hence, you have to decide what part of that cocktail is really important and what is not.

Topic clustering leads also to the third unfavorable phenomenon, which I dislike most. Political movements are groups of people. Groups of people tend to work on a friend-or-foe basis, which is sometimes okay, except when it isn’t. I have had a feeling (and it becomes stronger and forms a suspicion) that as a member of a social circle you are somewhat pressured to subscribe to the complete cluster of topics formed by some movement, as political groups are, by definition, the subjects that also define the ideological agenda. This pressure is not a bad thing in itself, but it forms patterns of thought that lead to pigeonholing people. And pigeonholing leads you to believe that there are only finitely many (fingers-on-one-hand many) types of people, which mostly reduces to two kinds: the nice, smart, ones that share 99% of your ideas and the ugly, dumb ones. Which is, at least, insulting to the variety of experiences. However, the real problem is the pressure to run with the party line, which happens whenever the cluster of goals turns out to be not entirely conflict-free. In that case, some goal is decided to be the politically nicer one, which is an arbitrary, political decision that is done to attract popular support. I won’t give you extremely recent, wild examples, but consider the Alan Turing trial. Then, a political decision has been made to persecute Turing, because at that point, it was the status quo that a homosexual person was a liability to the state, disregarding any previous accomplishments, which were pretty recent back then. A more recent example involves the civil war in Lybia, where several political entities pursued the noble goal of supporting their side and immediately forgetting about the consequences instead of the less symbol-laden policy of decreasing entropy. Now, Lybia is a clusterfuck. Systems have failed, people have died and will die, but as this does not happen in the press, the situation seems not to be something to worry about; otherwise, one would defend the wrong side. This kind of thinking makes me actually cringe and think that if the people/political culture actually endorsing this way of thought will medially lose to cat gifs, I won’t exactly mourn.

See also [1], [2].

On being excited

Birthday time, confession time.

I have a curious feature of personality which manifests itself in being extremely suspicious around overly excited people. Examples include political ideologists, but also tech evangelists and other self-declared prophets. I am not sure if I want it to stay this way, but it feels right.

Familiar? Alienating? Let me explain, and decide.

As usual in these cases, and even more applicable than normal, I’m probably going to rationalize my personal views, so feel free to comment.

I am of course extremely curious why I behave this way, so I thought about it for a while, and I think I have a half-baked answer. No, a couple of half-baked answers.

So, first and foremost, a lot of over-excited people are telling that something great or awful is going to happen, like, tomorrow and everything is going to be great and for free (or awful and expensive). Let me just say that in most cases, being skeptical is pretty much okay as most technical or social things are very unlikely to change radically over the course of days and the last simple, effective and cheap construction I can remember is an AK-74 (or an M-16, depending on your religion) and the same trick is not that simple to perform in other applications.

Second, radical positive changes are pretty unlikely to happen as such, and even less so if some self-proclaimed prophets are furiously promoting them. I furthermore have very strong negative feelings towards the “radical change is due TOMORROW” attitude as it devalues the work of everybody not directly involved. Surely, some people do useless things, but nearly every little feature of human life now relies on megatons of infrastructure and people doing their daily jobs. Sure, there are geniuses and extremely good ideas, but the bulk of what we call “civilization” is the work of large organizations.

Third, there are some personal issues. I have been a fanboy once, and for a while I have been seriously reconsidering the attitude. Thus, it is hard to take people seriously that are falling in the same pattern now. Sure, there are cool interesting, even exciting things, but running around and furiously promoting them is like advertisement, but without being paid. It does not help if journalism is currently in a state of an arms race in the hunt for clicks, which means that any form except the superlative is unused. “Why X is worse than Hitler”, “Unrivaled”, etc.

Together it all may taint issues for me. Any issue, actually. Science? Even science, if people are screaming “go team science!”. Even if it’s nice if people are your fans, they seem to have no idea what science does, and, worse, why science does it. This does not help. No, it makes things worse, because it opens more room for misunderstanding, strawmen, very random and very strange people with strange impressions of what is good, and just unneeded publicity.

It all does not really make my life worse. However, there are some limitations, for instance, I have serious troubles joining any political (or even ideological) movement. Too many ideologists, too many memes, too many simple, wrong solutions. I may even change my color, like phenolphthalein, if someone tries to tell me how exciting %thing% is because all the exciting people are very excited about it. Especially if %thing% is one of, but not limited to: ground effect vehicles, any tech startup, political ideology.

“Ancillary Justice”

Yay. I like characters that think aloud. I even more like characters that think aloud clearly, with clear goals, self-conscience, and some kind of risk assessment. Breq/Justice of Toren is such a character and is incredibly convincing. Although the part when she is distributed could be longer.

The story is set in the not totally (but soon) grim darkness of the far future, where humans are somewhere in the stars. The “social” part is sufficiently alien (although not entirely alien to the reader of today), but the questions relating to society are, as with every science fiction work, understandable and more or less acute in the society of today.

You probably should not expect epic action. Action is rare in this book, it is mostly main characters on a quest. However, dialogues and character development are convincing enough.

All in all, an heir to Banks.