No more acid

January 2nd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

LSD has gone the way of space exploration. The psychonaut is now an object of retrofuturism just as much as the astronaut. They’re relics of a time when we could believe in progress and exploration, whether of inner or of outer space.

I’ve never been able to work out why that is. So many aspects of the counterculture have made their way into a mainstream which has become inclusive to a fault. You can blame it on drug busts, on the rise of alternatives from MDMA to cocaine.

But I can’t quite believe that explanation. I think that somehow the acid culture was too modernist, too rational. The appropriation of the Dow slogan “better living through chemistry” shows as much — this was the continuing pharmaceutical research into areas where others feared to tread. Huxley and Leary were believers in progress, in infinite possibilities which could be revealed by crossing the frontier of the mind.

It’s that optimism which seems so out of joint today. Even the people who do drop acid treat it more as hedonism than shamanism. Few people consider the drug as a means to self-discovery — and those who do will find themselves looking back to 40-year-old texts for guidance, since there are so few people writing similar tracts today.

The House of Death

January 1st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Because it’s never a bad day for some William Blake:
Blake: The house of death

All America wept

December 27th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The Japanese slang phrase zenbei ga naita… means, literally, “all America wept”. But young Japanese actually mean “It’s nothing special” by the phrase. Japundit explains:

“When many U.S. films open in Japan, they are accompanied by posters claiming that American viewers were moved to tears. But such films have little emotional impact on viewers here. So Japanese filmgoers have learned, apparently, to disregard such promotional claims as largely meaningless.”

via Momus

Tax morale

November 29th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Would you dodge taxes, if you were sure you could get away with it? Absolutely you would, according to standard economic theory:

In the benchmark economic model, the key policy parameters affecting tax evasion are the tax rate, the detection probability, and the penalty imposed conditional on the evasion being detected.

But that doesn’t match reality, argues this paper on so-called “tax morale”. All but the slimiest of us have some inclination to pay up. If we didn’t then tax revenues would be far, far lower than they currently are.

Some economists have attempted to measure this. One way is to look at what gets paid in the absence of enforcement. There is absolutely no enforcement of the church tax in Bavaria, but 20% of people pay anyway. Or you can assume that migrant entrepreneurs bring attitudes to tax with them. In the US, there’s an 8% gap in tax evasion between Nigerian-owned and Swedish-owned companies.

Free willy: when you need to pee, you stop believing in free will

November 20th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

When you need to pee, you’re less likely to believe in free will.

Ridiculous as that may be, it fits into a consistent pattern. If you’re tired or horny, you (on average) believe less in free will. Likewise if you’re epileptic or suffer panic attacks.

The researchers are keeping their evidence secret, so let’s generalize a bit. The more you are at the mercy of your body, the less likely you are to imagine yourself as choosing your own destiny.

I’ve no idea how free will was defined (again, because paywall). But it fits perfectly into the wider story of how the belief in autonomy and free choice correlate with privilege. So you have billionaires convinced they have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, while thanks to learned helplessness, if you’ve spent a lifetime being shat on, you probably expect it to keep happening whatever you do.

America is threatened by a cult gap

November 19th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Did you ever expect to worry about a shortage of cults?. Ross Douthat summarizes an argument from Peter Thiel:

Not only religious vitality but the entirety of human innovation, he argues, depends on the belief that there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace.

Turkey, Iran, Oil, Gold

November 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Trade with Iran is one of the underlying themes of the corruption scandal which is engulfing Turkey. Sanctions on Iran led to it being excluded from the SWIFT network in March 2012, making it hard to send payment to Iran. But Turkey wanted to buy Iranian oil. So they figured out a dodge. Oil purchasers would deposit money at Turkey’s Halkbank, now at the centre of investigation. Iran would use this money to buy physical gold, which could be transported to Iran.

The entire deal infuriated the USA and others. While it was an open secret, the practitioners went to some lengths to conceal it — apparently involving Chinese front companies. Still, it’s plainly in the trade statistics:

We see a huge rise from March 2012 — when SWIFT blocked Iran — before a sudden collapse in August that year. The numbers are huge — the peak is over $1.8 billion dollars.

What happened in August 2012? Perhaps it’s linked to Obama’s Executive Order 13622, which brought gold under US national sanctions on Iran. This did not directly affect Turkey, but could have been twinned with similar pressure by American diplomats in Turkey.

What seems to have happened, in part, is another level of indirection. The gold, according to media reports, started being routed through UAE. Here’s how it looks in the trade statistics — a perfect match for the chart above.

[for more detail on this story, you could do worse than look at this report from May]

Why has this open secret turned into a corruption scandal now? Foreign Policy

While the gas-for-gold scheme may have been technically legal before Congress finally shut it down in July, it appears to have exposed the Turkish political elite to a vast Iranian underworld

Was the internet ever nice?

November 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Has the internet been getting nastier, or do we just notice it more now? The latter, says Kameron Hurley:

Just because internet harassment shows up on CNN doesn’t mean it’s new. It just means it’s more visible.

And yes, we’re the ones who made it visible, after enduring a lot of bullshit.

After dealing quietly with abuse since the beginning of the internet, many folks, most of them women, decided to air the reality of the abuse they received, and though it took nearly a decade, men and mainstream media outlets finally started believing it was something that existed, and started signal boosting. Suddenly we were seeing posts that compiled all the horrible comments they got, the ones we deleted quietly back in the day. Not a day goes by now, it seems, when someone on Twitter isn’t retweeting some horrible thing some troll said to them.

Also a neat little anti-hate-mail trick:

I also reduced the number of email threats I got really easily, by simply changing my email address to a “publicity@” address instead of a “Kameron@” address. When someone sends you something hateful, they want to KNOW you’re getting it. They don’t want to think it’s being vetted by some publicist.

InterPlanetary Filesystem

November 15th, 2014 § 1 comment § permalink

The Interplanetary File-system must be one of the most interesting technical concepts I’ve come across lately.

[warning: the below is pretty technical. Likely both confused and confusing, written to help me et my head round IPFS]

Globally distributed file-storage is something that’s been just around the corner for a long time now. Bittorrent and the like got us 90% of the way there, but functioned as mechanisms for sharing single files, rather than as a layer of infrastructure for other applications to be built on.

To download a file (as with bittorrent) you query its hash in a Distributed Hash Table. You get a list of users storing that file, and download it from them. As a file becomes more popular it becomes cached by more users, so no one node gets overloaded — again like bittorrent. The IPFS designers are also leaving room for more ambitious incentive schemes like Filecoin.

As for uploading: each user has a writeable directory, with an address generated from a keypair. This means the system can enforce only one user being able to write to a directory, without needing any central authority. Only you can upload to your directory, because only you can sign uploads with the private key corresponding to the public key in your directory name.

There’s also a git-like version history built into the filesystem. This feels like overkill to me. The advantage, though, is that you can provide a mutable-seeming directory structure, while under the surface the directory is an immutable data structure, namely a Merkle Tree. It also means that files don’t get deleted — the user just commits a version of the directory without the files. And perhaps you hope that other nodes won’t store the old data, but you have no way to enforce that.

Here’s how creator Juan Benet describes it:

IPFS provides a high through-put content-addressed block storage model, with content-addressed hyper links. This forms a generalized Merkle DAG, a data structure upon which one can build versioned file systems, blockchains, and even a Permanent Web. IPFS combines a distributed hashtable, an incentivized block exchange, and a self-certifying namespace. IPFS has no single point of failure, and nodes do not need to trust each other.

IPFS gives every user a writeable directory, with an address based on their key

Bad conlang ideas

November 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I’m enjoying this tumblr dedicated to bad ConLang ideas. Some highlights:

  • A language that is right branching when the speaker is happy and left branching when sad.
  • Boustrophedon is pretty cool, and having letters that are rotations and flips of other letters means that you have to make fewer letter shapes, making it easier to create and alphabet, so why not use both together?
  • Your gender system should classify dead people based on how they died, and living people based on how you think they will die or how you want them to die. One of the grammatical genders is used only for wombat attacks.
  • A conlang where each number is expressed as its prime factorization, rather than using a place system
  • Require in your conlang unreleased implosives, like /ɠ̚/, after every few words or so. That way you can sound like you’re speaking to a nice thumping bass beat.

A big, empty church

November 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Church-building is one of the oldest forms of self-aggrandisement. It’s especially suitable for those with a bit of guilt about however they obtained their wealth and power. Even the Hagia Sophia, perhaps the greatest church (or mosque) ever built, was perhaps partly built to expiate Justinian’s guilt at massacring the Nike rioters.

Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s entry into this tradition will not be remembered for as long, even if it does outdo the Hagia Sophia in sheer size. In fact, it has some claim to to be the largest church in the world. The president of the Ivory Coast built it at a cost of $300 million, claiming it was “a deal with God”.

Messy Nessy Chic writes that:

the whole thing is arguably one big empty and outrageous contradiction. Up to 18,000 people can worship in the basilica (7,000 seated, 11,000 standing) but in a nation where more than two thirds of its people aren’t even Christian, it has a tough time filling just a few seats. A recent visitor to the Ivory Coast told me that there couldn’t have been more than three other people inside when he toured the massive house of worship.

Evidence on AA

November 2nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Alcoholics Anonymous is something I know mainly from Hollywood, which has an ongoing obsession with the format. It fills roughly the expository niche that was once occupied by psychoanalysis — it’s an easy way to fill in backstory, and enable introspection that would otherwise be totally out-of-character.

Still, AA gives me the creeps — the religiosity, the rigidity, the all-or-nothing approach. If I were ever addicted, I’d run a mile from anything with 12 steps.

I occasionally wonder how fair that is. Is AA, as Hollywood would have it, the One True Way to cope with addition? Scott at SlateStarCodex has dug into the research. Turns out that even that can’t help: “the studies surrounding Alcoholics Anonymous are some of the most convoluted, hilariously screwed-up research I have ever seen“.

AA does seem to work better than no treatment. But then, so does psychotherapy. So does acupuncture. So does 5 minutes of a doctor suggesting that you think about quitting.

most alcoholics get better on their own. All treatments for alcoholism…increase this already-high chance of recovery a small but nonzero amount. Furthermore, they are equally effective after only a tiny dose: your first couple of meetings, your first therapy session.

Alinsky proposes a fart-in

November 1st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Another idea I [Alinsky] had that almost came to fruition was directed at the Rochester Philharmonic, which was the establishment’s — and Kodak’s — cultural jewel. I suggested we pick a night when the music would be relatively quiet and buy 100 seats. The 100 blacks scheduled to attend the concert would then be treated to a preshow banquet in the community consisting of nothing but huge portions of baked beans. Can you imagine the inevitable consequences within the symphony hall? The concert would be over before the first movement — another Freudian slip — and Rochester would be immortalized as the site of the world’s first fart-in.


Integrity of identity: Audre Lorde and danah boyd

October 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

[tldr: inconclusive and poorly-explained ramble on identity and roleplaying]

I’m belatedly discovering Audre Lorde, reading my way through her collection “I am your sister. It’s touching and inspiring, and I agree with most of it. But here’s one aspect I’m struggling with.

Emotional consistency is supremely important to Lorde. You should be the same person with your family, with your friends, at work, with your lover or before the police:

In order to make integrated life choices, we must open the sluice gates in our lives, create emotional consistency. This is not to say that we act the same way, or do not change and grow, but that there is an underlying integrity that asserts itself in all of our actions.
None of us is perfect, or born with that integrity, but we can work toward it as a goal.

In Lorde’s life, that integrity was what allowed her to be unapologetically herself. She was fighting against silence — the silence that comes from subduing your identity to fit into society, and the silence of fear and self-censorship that stops you trying to break through it:

The women who sustained me through that period were Black and white, old and young, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence…
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say?
What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself—a Black woman warrior poet doing my work—come to ask you, are you doing yours?
And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.

Everything we are should permeate everything we do. Lorde condemns — albeit with gentleness and sympathy — anything that puts part of our life into a box. This comes up, for instance, in her discussion of BDSM (something I hope to return to another time):

I feel that we work toward making integrated life decisions about the networks of our lives, and those decisions lead us to other decisions and commitments—certain ways of viewing the world, looking for change. If they don’t lead us toward growth and change, we have nothing to build upon, no future.

Through all this the question I’m struggling with is: must we have only one identity, at least as the ideal state of self-actualisation? I would like to declare “I am large, I contain multitudes“. I’d like to play different roles without needing to merge them into one identity.

And — politically speaking — I believe there is value to this. The “world of work” is now breaking it’s 9-to-5 bounds, asking us to blend our employers’ needs into every moment of life. Increasingly, our work is also “affective”; requiring not just our minds and muscles, but our hearts as well. On the internet, social networks threaten to achieve Lorde’s aims by force — giving us an integrated identity whether we want one or not.

So now, if we behave with “integrity”, it means letting the areas where we are not free dictate our behaviour even when we are free. If I must be non-threatening at work, I must be non-threatening everywhere; for in this world without boundaries, my behaviour anywhere will be linked back to my work. Every compromise or self-denial we make in one context becomes expanded.

The excape from this is to divide our identities. danah boyd has been tracking this for a decade, looking particularly at teenagers. She and her subjects regard “collapsing contexts” — visibly connecting different facets of an identity — as a threat to wellbeing, perhaps even an act of violence against chosen identities.

Because when, for example, Google links a youtube profile to a real name, it performs a kind of outing. Whatever identity has been growing in the shadows is exposed to the full force of external scorn.

So Lorde’s prescription of consistency seems at odds with the human need for gradual, fallible self-discovery. Proclaiming her identity was an act of courage then, as it would be now. But perhaps we also need more space for people to develop and discover their identities, without immediately needing to justify them to everybody they know.

Clay Shirky on Chinese hardware hackers

October 6th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Clay Shirky talks about hardware hacking in China, particularly in comparison to the US “Maker movement”.

The maker movement is akin to the idolisation of the countryside which followed urbanisation. Consciously or not, it’s recreation of a culture which has been lost. In this case, the “hardware hacking” culture has been destroyed by a few decades of cheap imports and complicated devices. By contrast, stereotypically “female” making has not been interrupted, so there is no need to rediscover it in the same way.

Maker culture is largely male culture in part because men are celebrating our triumphant return to a set of practices women never let go of in the first place. One of the reasons Craft never found an audience is that that audience had never been lost; Ravelry and Pinterest and Etsy do a good chunk of what Craft was meant to do, and without any of the “We here in the Maker movement could not be more pleased with ourselves” vibe.

So, tangent managed, here’s the analogy. Hardware hacking in the US vs. China is a bit like Maker culture between men and women. Hardware hacking hasn’t become a hot new thing in China because it never stopped being a regular old thing.

There’s much more of interest in the article; I think it’s also the first worthwhile thing I’ve found on ello.


September 29th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The Scottish independence campaign was, and is, a massive popular movement.
But the post-referendum devolution wrangling is a depressing case of gerrymandering writ large.

So the tories want “English votes for English laws”, because they reckon they can get a majority in England more often than not. Labour want regional devolution, to stop the Tory South-East imposing itself on the rest of the country. Meanwhile the (non-Scottish) voters don’t care — and who can blame them, given the way all parties treat them?

Also: Alex on how this will get decided in a back-room deal during wash-up

Linus on welcoming small patches

September 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Somebody asks whether it’s worth submitting trivial patches to the Linux kernel, considering that it makes work for somebody else to merge them. Linus’ response is perfect:

To me, the biggest thing with small patches is not necessarily the patch itself. I think that much more important than the patch is the fact that people get used to the notion that they can change the kernel – not just on an intellectual level (“I understand that the GPL means that I have the right to change my kernel”), but on a more practical level (“Hey, I did that small change”).

So please don’t stop. Yes, those trivial patches _are_ a bother. Damn, they are _horrible_. But at the same time, the devil is in the detail, and they are needed in the long run. Both the patches themselves, and the people that grew up on them.

Brackets and codpieces

September 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Another good bit from the Etymologicon [previously]. This time, why brackets are named after codpieces. The ever-more-elaborate codpieces in medieval armour were called braguettes.

A Braguette

Then came an architect fixated on groins

What do you call the bit of stone that bulges out from a pillar to support a balcony or a roo? Until the sixteenth century nobody had been certain what to call them; but one day somebody must have been gazing at a cathedral wall and, in a moment of sudden clarity, realised that the architectural supports looked like nothing so much as Henry VIII’s groin.

So the supports became known as braguettes, which first became brackets in a dictionary compiled by Pocahontas’ lover. Then, because a double bracket looks a bit like [, the word was transferred onwards to name a piece of punctuation

Those never-admitted European ransom payments

September 4th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The Anglophone media has recently been making
noises about European governments making ransom payments to kidnappers.

It’s interesting that this has taken on the status of accepted fact — while, as far as I can tell, no European government has officially confirmed it. On the one hand I’m pleased that the media has the courage to report government actions without a press release. On the other, I’m a little nervous about how much this seems down to co-ordinated briefing by American officials. True it may be, but it’s apparently a truth only reported when it suits the powerful.

At the very least I’d hope that European journalists would browbeat officials into either confirming or denying the American (and British) official claims of ransom payments.

ETA: This New York Times article on the topic is pretty impressive, though, and obviously based on a lot of research.

KRG oil in Texas

September 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The slow progress of oil tankers makes for a nice change from the jackhammer pace of news. Disputes about Kurdish oil exports have been pottering along for months, following the movement of a few tankers around the world.

So we have the SCF Altai, which has apparently been running oil between Ceyhan and Israel since June.

And across the Atlantic there’s the United Kalavrta, which has been loitering off Texas while Iraq and Kurdistan slug out ownership rights in court. Once the court ruled against Iraq, the tanker promptly turned off its tracking beacon, and is now presumably unloading as quietly as possible.