Brain food

…yes, I am talking about books.

I have read Ready Player One recently, and it was… okay. Not great because it had too much face palm-inducing moments, not awful because it could still be worse.

The good news: It is a book that has an interesting setting and some good moments. The bad news: It is very similar to other pieces I’ve read (Stephenson, Stross, Lukyanenko, …) and almost entirely unbelievable. I won’t spoil (because reviews with spoilers suck), but in short, the plot had some very strange features. Evil corporation trying to do obviously evil things and clearly behaving in an evil way? Well, that was unexpected. But being too dumb to solve some riddles? Being too dumb to care about stealthiness? But that aside, until the near-end of the book I had problems to feel some empathy towards the protagonist, because he seemed to lack personality (and thus any reasons why he is worthy to win) and be prone to invent completely insane, horrible plans that magically work.

And a note to the author: Please, don’t brag about your obsessions in such an obvious manner.

It’s better than my rant suggests, but still, it could be better, even with the general premise.

Currently I’m reading through The Undercover Economist Strikes Back. It is lots of fun and clarifies a lot about economy and why some people talking on economy have no idea what they are talking about. Very worthy reading.

Suicide of a party

(Warning: This text is another “I am so smart” piece on society. It might be full of categorical opinions and not-so-well-hidden insults)

Some years ago, I have stumbled upon the German “internet activists” and became somewhat fascinated. They were pretty cool guys that were trying to solve the social and technical issues that were brought by the Internet and other technical novelties. As the German government made its move “Let’s police online communication of our little citizens” (several times, once because of EVIL TERRORISTS, then FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHILDREN, and possibly also for the STARVING ARTISTS), the reaction of the Netzgemeinde (German for online community) was to form a political structure to voice its concerns to the wide audience. And it worked. Despite the general organizing issues, a political party, The Pirate Party of Germany was formed and started to push itself into awareness of the wide audience. In the beginning, the success was due to several reasons: Firstly, in the existing political spectrum, there has been little attention to “internet policy” topics, secondly, there was a general distrust towards the political system after several not-so-well received feats like VAT increase, economic crisis and other general chaos. Hence, the success of the Pirate Party was not completely surprising. The question was if they were able to expand this success.

The tragic reality of any social movement is that even people who believe they trust you cannot be completely trusted, which means that the chance of having strange people with strange or misunderstood goals in your movement is rather high. This issue can become serious as these people can (by the law of the large numbers) climb the organizational ladder and speak things for your organization that are, at best, not completely approved. In the worst case, they will try to project their beliefs onto everyone in the organization, and intentionally speak for everyone in debatable cases. Paradoxically, the bigger and older parties or NGOs circumvent this problem by being big, old and having some bureaucratic delay, which together forms a “Serious Business” atmosphere where a random person cannot change too much; think of it as a social fool-proof mechanism.

What does this have to do with the Netzgemeinde? Well… It is an intersection of risk groups. People with incentive to change (high probability of radical opinions); technologically advanced users with high in-group impact, people without much political experience (less ready to acknowledge alien interests), and, by the law of the large numbers, some people who want to self-present. Could it go wrong? Well, could it work, to begin with?

So, shitstorms ensued. One reason most organizations do not discuss internal matters publicly is the need to hide potentially damaging conflicts. However, PP wanted to be transparent. This decision imposed a requirement on discipline that had to be enforced on all participants, and this is not what happened. You also have to consider that the existing political movements did not like to have more competition and actively tried to undermine PP by telling that the Pirate Party does not share the Spirit of ’68 (as if it is something to be ashamed of) or just by actively looking for political mistakes. It surely didn’t help that beyond the core topics of Internet politics, there was not that much consensus concerning other political problems. Is it possible to live with these problems? Yes, sure, but one had to be careful and not shitstorm too often. Tragically, this was not the case. The downfall began in 2012, when the party had some remarkable initial successes (about 9% in Berlin) and some members thought it would be a good time to monetize their political experience by writing a book. There is a reason people summarize their political lives after they retire from politics, and the reason is that even if you write awful stuff, only you will suffer. The books were not that great and led to long discussions on Twitter where no one cared about restraint, especially after one of the writers complained that her books were pirated and considered legal action – not the wisest PR move for a member of the Pirate Party. Teh drama continued in discussions about potentially cool but politically and technically complicated organizational stuff, feminism, and history and even the whistle-blowing duo Manning/Snowden, directed by Assange, could not help much. For me, the last straw that took my sympathy away was a FEMEN-like performance in Dresden that aimed to provoke neo-Nazis but backfired badly; seriously, if you write “Thanks Bomber Harris” on your breasts, you should not take part in any political movement that wants to be taken seriously by people outside your peer group (which is rather marginal, in this specific case). And since every single part of this drama was feasted upon by the Netzgemeinde, I could follow it without actually having to go out of my way. Thank you, Twitter, for that much entertainment.

What can we conclude from all that? If you are trying to start a political movement, you have to establish some kind of discussion rules and enforce them strictly. If you think your movement should be labeled “progressive”, be aware that this attracts unexpected audience and you will have to deal with things like social justice, the internet and people with radical opinions. And be aware (at every organization level) that communication is more important than you could ever think. And most important of all: you have to define common goals. One of the reasons the whole internet community destroyed itself in a bunch of shitstorms is that their vocabulary had words like “protocol”, “transparency”, “freedom”, and “narrative”, but the word “goal” seemed completely alien, the most close goal is to get the fuzzy warm gut feeling of Doing The Right Thing, which is admittedly nice, but subjective and not very much scalable for groups larger than five to ten people. Hence, the internet community ultimately devoured itself on conflicting goals, lack of consensus and unwillingness to do political work, which is not the same as tweeting memes.

Say Yes To Normativity

It’s me again, and today I will talk about why and how repressive norms can be useful.

My main motivation was a post by some anarchist guy (you don’t know him, no, I don’t know him that well either) where he was complaining about how the concept of neuro-normality is repressive and thus, must be abolished. Concerning the first part, yes, it’s true. The society defines “normal” behavior, and sometimes is pretty repressive in that concern, the judicial system being living proof. Non-conforming people are marginalized in several different ways, including, but not limited to, public shaming, implicit recommendations etc.

While this includes suffering individuals, and is horrible on a personal level, I have at least one good argument for (sometimes repressive) norms.

The reasoning is rather simple: first, human behavior is largely defined by the society this human being is born in. A human brain is more or less the same at birth, independent on where this individual was born, in Nairobi or in Beijing, and the environment has an enormous influence on this brain, thus, conveying concepts of acceptable behavior. It is not something one can free oneself of, at least not unconsciously. Second, human rationality is bounded, and this bound is not negligible. Thus, it is in the society’s best interests for an individual to behave in a rational way under more or less the same ground assumptions. So, it is more or less straightforward that under these assumptions, it is a good idea for a society to define a notion of “normality” (more precise, a spectrum of normal behavior) which coincides with rational behavior.

Now there are some hippies and Children Of Forest which will oppose me on the general grounds of “you cannot and should not force people to be rational, freedom is more important”. Somehow, everyone thinks that this is an argument coming from the political Left, and Left sometimes seems to embrace this thinking. However, this argument empowers other groups. We must recall that irrational behavior is mostly the reason for most things that are wrong with market economy, such as overproduction of electronic equipment, all those marketing magic, products overpriced on reasons of “exclusivity” and “VIPness”. All this means that telling “you cannot and should not force people to be rational” is a mistake on the goal level, the one of the unforgivable kind.

It is important (for me) to emphasize that I am not talking about paternalism. Paternalism means taking the means of planning and decision making away. I am talking about encouraging making the right decisions, the ones that conform with individual and collective goals, whatever the goals may be.

This all means that there is actually a strong reason for social norms and their enforcement, but not (all of) the norms of the current society. Ideally, the norm should be rational behavior. By rational, I mean, identifying your goals and doing the right thing that serves your goals. Or, for short, being rational means winning. And the problems societies are facing now are far too important to allow for irrational decision making.

Forgetting things

I am unpleasantly surprised by the society’s response to the modern computer capabilities. The problem is very simple to state: Computers are less limited in the way humans are. With sufficient technology, computers can indefinitely store information. This is a genuine problem, but the public response is a lot like the response of an emu on concrete floor – a bloody mess. I came to writing this post after seeing several fascinating news items discussing Google Glass. Most of them went like this: OMG, if you run with electronic equipment, this can rob our privacy!!! And considering the right to be forgotten, as the European Court names it, the situation is even more grim, as the society happily jumps on the bandwagon of thought with the destination I Do Not Want To Be Judged For My Past.

However, by discarding the past, one is not entitled to a future. Past actions offer a useful prediction on future behavior, and by discarding the obvious consequence of the expansion of human memory, people are willingly limiting their capabilities of judgment. The most radical call is to remove anything from the Internet that might affect one’s reputation negatively, and if this will be done, no information can be deemed reliable as it will be subject to one giant confirmation bias with legal restrictions on negative tests of the hypothesis “Can we trust them?”. As an application, suppose I am a political expert. I tell you exciting stories about the dangers of loloization (my newly-invented buzzword) of society and make fun (for you and me) and profitable (indirectly, for me) predictions that with 99% certainty, the society will turn into idiots incapable of thinking by 2015. Next year, as this does not happen, I nicely ask to remove all my interviews containing the word loloization, because I have the right to be forgotten and my reputation of a political guru will be obviously damaged if these interviews are still visible. This is an obvious exploit. Furthermore, by demanding the right to be forgotten, people are delegating their agency to the goodwill of the legislative and the judicative systems. Furthermore, as (seemingly) the responsibility for actions in public is being weakened to pre-digital status quo, nobody can stop the technically competent private enterprises from creating a mass archive of public human (mis)behavior as long as there is some public or corporate interest in it. On the other hand, the same corporate interest can, using the right to be forgotten, remove traces of corporate misbehavior. The most prominent example is the Spanish guy who removed Google entries of his past bankruptcy. A sane solution here would be an explicit display of the date of the relevant entry, not its erasure.

The more tricky use case is about party pictures on the Internet. This is something that is regulated, but only in parts; some countries enforce a very strict regulation, which is something I would generally prefer. However, the more responsible thing would be to design technical devices in a responsible way and, most importantly, not to use devices that you cannot control. (Should I rise to power with my fellow technocrats, I will enforce strict computer literacy)

As someone who grew up in the computer era, I would like the humanity to embrace the new technological capabilities and act responsibly. Technology always carries risks, and the first man to discover fire undoubtedly made this observation. It should be clear that irresponsible behavior with technology should be limited, but it should also be obvious that legal restrictions can also be done in an irresponsible manner (consider, as a not directly related, but similar case, the current Russian legislation against “gay propaganda”, it is neither useful nor important not responsible, and one day the relevant law will be defunct anyway), and our responsibility is also to prevent that.

Problem solving in the large

I am by no means an expert, but I have the ability to observe and come to conclusions, so here my 0.02 EUR on the current state of affairs in policymaking under uncertainty. This post is influenced by a discussion somewhere else on the Internet on that topic and by some independent observations of mine.

The general modus operandi in Brussels seems to be “when in doubt, support the weaker side that fits your narrative and raise stakes to infinity”, and in several conflict situations this policy has been enforced. Let us just look at the results.

  1. Yugoslavia. Genscher was among the first ones to recognize Croatia and all other newly-independent states of former Yugoslavia. There was lots of support, mostly moral, but also military for Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and strong condemnation towards Serbia. What followed was a civil war, genocide, lots of people dead, bitterness everywhere, (even now) a source of instability, and poor countries instead of cheap, civilized workforce and a rather good-looking market. One may say that this were the first steps of European diplomacy and one should not judge too harshly with knowledge of today, so I won’t, but I would still like to observe the result.
  2. We move a step later and arrive in Kiev, 2004. The EU urged the Ukrainian ruler to surrender. The result? Not as terrible as the first time, but still: heavy economical and political damage, less possibilities for long-term planning, and increased conflict potential. One may argue that in this case, there has been some pressure from Moscow, however, it should not be a surprise for anyone even remotely familiar with the situation.
  3. Six and a half years later we land in Libya. Same policy, same strategy, almost no resistance. In the end, the country is unpredictable, the civil war is still going on, albeit at a small scale, trading and investing in Libya does not seem to be a good business, unless you can buy shares of Instability, Inc. And then there is the migrant problem that nobody wants to deal with. At this point, one would have to think whether the results so far coincide with long-term goals.
  4. We do not have to move much further in time and space to come to Syria. Everything is the same, but with more resistance. Lots of blood, a civil war that is still going on, a complete destruction of Syrian economy, homegrown terrorists joining the holy war, leakage of terrorist groups to Iraq, and lots of other interesting things that nearly make Iraq side with Iran.

I have deliberately left out Ukraine. First, I cannot foresee the future development, but for all I know, it looks scary and I should be lucky to be someplace far away. Second, this topic is a little emotional for me. I would just like to point out that the diplomatic policy in the EU followed the same general scheme.

We now see a pattern, and this pattern looks bad. However, nobody seems to take responsibility—the politicians and policymakers tell exciting stories at invited talks, the public looks in horror at the scary consequences and does not seem to entertain the thought that it might be a good idea to purge the policymaking department which is obviously not doing its job. Because trying several times the same thing and expecting each time a different result which does not come, this is the definition of idiocy. However, evading responsibility has never been so easy when you can hide behind Noble Narratives.

However, I do not want to think of everyone else as of idiots, because I know that I have less political and diplomatic experience. This would give rise to funny conspiracy theories, but I also know that there is no such thing as a multi-stage General Plan, because this implies that this Plan would be either too complex or too rigid: the first property is unsatisfiable, the second one makes the plan useless.

So, why does the foreign policy look like that, despite its obvious shortcomings? Lots of it—if I am reading the “public philosophers” right—seems to come from the impression that acting in a fashion that looks Morally Right will benefit everyone. If this is the case—I am not sure if it is, but I suspect that—it is a very dangerous mindset. If you, as a person or as a general entity, act out of some inner sense of what is right, this will make you feel comfortably warm and fuzzy in the gut but your objectives might (and probably will) suffer. Another problems seem to be a general lack of responsibility (and an unwillingness to take it) and conflicts of interest. This combination is very, very dangerous  and might lead to even greater failures.

The Qatar affair

I have been reading on the Qatar Word Cup affair for a while and, currently, I am laughing my head off. So, as it appears, some FIFA guys have taken loads of money from some climatically and otherwise challenged, but financially rather successful country. (NOTE: this is a plausible, but wild guess and there are probable more reasons to hold a World Cup in Qatar. However, there does not seem to be evidence in support of the latter claim, but on the other hand, there is some strong evidence that said country is actively intervening in the regional politics.) Now some people, also from FIFA, very SUDDENLY (this is an important point—nobody thinks about the implications before the decision is made) realize that sports in summer down there is a bad idea and fight a large medial campaign against this idea, and, probably, against the general decision of holding a World Cup in a very hot, both literally and figuratively, region. Holding the World Cup in winter seems also bad since it does not fit in the schedule of the leagues, so there seems to be no really good solution. On top of that sits the great master of balls Sepp B. and does not seem to support either side while promising that a decision will be made somewhere in the future.

In a perfect world, people would decide based on reason and logic. However, this world is not perfect, and things like these happen disturbingly often. If a decision has been made, it is hard to revoke, and very easy to rationalize. Even if it will turn out that the decision has been biased by money, the stakeholders will be likely to say “so what, the decision has been made, costs has been sunk, and now we have to deal with it”.

In any case, 2022 is far away, the Middle East might be subject to some landscape design, and until then we will have a lot of fun. So, if you are a professional football player and fear that your job makes you perform somewhere very hot, chances are, this won’t happen.

How to be an Internet prophet

Do you have a feeling that you have better things to do than just working on your job because in fact, some very sophisticated thoughts that no one in your real life environment understands cross your mind? Do you feel offended by the words “armchair reasoning”? Fear no more, since I will give you precise instructions how to feel respected and very influential.

In my experiences on the Internet I have come across several instances of “influential people” whose influence was mostly correlated with the number of bytes produced. Bonus points for influence can be gained if the ideas are labeled as those that will help solve the current world’s problems. Note the word “labeled”: it does not actually matter whether the solutions that are being proposed will work or are at all feasible to implement. It is only sufficient to identify as a morally right, problem-solving person to feel morally superior, and nobody has the right to question your identity.

Then, to make an idea really popular, a unique source of current world’s problems has to be identified. This is a very, very common part, because the concept “get rid of \(X\)” is far simpler to memorize than “\(X\) causes \(A\), absence of \(X\) causes \(B\), both \(A\) and \(B\) are undesirable”. Often \(X\) is defined in a not entirely clear way; this gives some spaces for an argumentative retreat and still makes a vague intuitive interpretation possible.

Make no mistake: You are the Light. It is not your job to educate anyone why exactly you believe what you’re doing is morally right; it should be obvious to anyone (using derogatory words as “sheeple” is discouraged, they are tainted and not usable anymore) sane. And since you are the Light, dissent cannot and should not be tolerated. This is completely independent from your political platform; even if you state that you are in favor of a calm discussion, you might say that calm discussions are an ancient tradition of (insert your political affiliation here)  and leftist pigs just inherently cannot discuss anything calmly, so they might just go screw themselves. It is doublethink, but it’s a little price for being an Internet guru.

As I mentioned prices, there is something you must understand: This style of self-presentation will alienate people. Take it like a sane person: Troll them, accuse them of derailing, associate them with not-so-nice people (think Hitler, Stalin, Paris Hilton, ALF), and they might go away.

Enjoy your sect.

A magical transformation

Full moon
Full moon

On the night from Sep 30 to Oct 1, a magical transformation happened. I ceased to be a student of Computer Science and became a research associate at the Computer Science department at my university. Why magical? Because, some months ago, I almost expected to move somewhere else for a PhD position. Dresden, Vienna, even Bozen/Bolzano were probable; I was absolutely surprised as I was made aware of a PhD position with an interesting topic at my home university. I also found a nice flat not too far away from the famous Westfalenstadion (also known as Signal Iduna Park), and incidentally, also rather close to the university.

The first days of work were mostly organizing work and reading research papers; for now I am very excited to get into the research context and (hopefully) be able to produce some interesting thoughts.

As usual, I will now torture you with some pictures of Dortmund.

The U of Dortmund
The U of Dortmund
Zeche Zollverein
Zeche Zollverein


I was pretty much offline for six months. I got a job, have written and submitted my thesis and three weeks from now, I will be done with university… for now, in any case.
Yeah, that was kinda fun.

 I’ll try to update more regularly from now on, as nothing really time-consuming happens.