Choosing your words in the internet age

I wrote a line or two on the subject of choosing your words with care, and avoiding some because they may be considered harmful. Since it was well received, and it made my own thoughts clearer too, I’m posting a spelling improved version here ;)

I think the focus on ‘correct’ use of words come from our age of soundbitism, 140 character limits: we more and more think of words in isolation, rather than in context. On top of that text becomes easier and easier to fire off, and these broadcast bits of text are then treated as if set in stone. As if language is not an interaction but a one-way street, where all responsibility for writing correctly for everyone for all time is emphasized. This treatment of text seems mostly an online phenomena: rarely in real life communication with friends, family, or strangers, are you not able to correct your language if it was clearly ill-received or you missed a nuance important to the recipient.

I am not happy we are treating text more and more as a record and less and less as a method of communication. Me and my partner are of different nationalities, and we (and I suspect many close partners from different backgrounds) have developed a kind of language just for us, where we’ve addressed and keep addressing misunderstandings, different connotations and meanings of the same or similar words, and so on. What we’ve developed makes sense to us, but may not to others, and could be even offensive (I hope not though! If we discover that, we’d change it to not be). Hedging your texts against all possible offences before you encounter them, that’s a bit of a fuzzy line: the fact that we mostly use a particular language (say English) already precludes a large portion of people from understanding us. Is that a problem? Not until others will be involved in our communcation.

In protestantism, calvinism, the letter of the word became more important than the spirit of it, and it is my theory that through American cultural projection this shift in perception of language is spreading to all discourse, in all countries.

If you write or say a text a text on depression using the words dark and light, the language could convey accurately what you feel, because you and only you can chose the words that best fit your feelings. In case you’re speaking with people who experience those words in another way, for whom ‘dark’ is usually used in a racist context for instance, you are free and encouraged to change your language to fit the particular group of people you’re conversing with. This is after all how language develops: we change it to suit our ability to communicate, to suit new esthetics and new awareness on how people understand the same words differently.

It all depends ;) As it must be with language.

Anscombe's quartet

Stat nuts know this one. It’s an example of the problem with measures for central tendency: you probably are missing things. What distribution has the following:

  • The average x value is 9 for each dataset
  • The average y value is 7.50 for each dataset
  • The variance for x is 11 and the variance for y is 4.12
  • The correlation between x and y is 0.816 for each dataset
  • A linear regression (line of best fit) for each dataset follows the equation y = 0.5x + 3

All of these distributions!

Even with a set of number summarizing the data, can we still be talking about vastly different distributions. It’s one of those things that always bothers me about ‘average’ income. Basically ‘average’ anything: you may as well spare me the average and hand over your data. It’s often a meaningless number, and I can’t tell if it’s meaningful unless I see the distribution. For instance, how does the income distribution evolve over time? Much more interesting than the average, if you ask me.

Francis Anscombe wanted to demonstrate why we need to graph our data, and he couldn’t have made his point better.

PGP 6

6, a good number. It is the number of PGP related posts so far on this blog. Recently I was approached by one of the OpenKeychain devs, who wrote about a new Thunderird plugin, called “Autocrypt” (source code). I took a look and I really like it! It is zero-conf, which is the idea behind Autocrypt after all. With some fiddling you can load up your old key. Upon sending, similar to Enigmail but with a clearer icon, you can set the encryption (on or off, overriding a default you can also set) and lookup keys for recipients. It can probe web keys (see Well known) and a recent new sort of key directory, keys.openpgp.org, not SKS. If found, those keys are used and you get a nice green icon. That’s it! And it works, on first try, and reliably, so far. A far cry from my first attempt to setup Enigmail in Thunderbird. The add-on also does not use an external PGP client, so it’s really just a matter of installing the plugin and you’re done!

A little bit on keys.openpgp.org. This directory aims to replace the SKS network, known from URLs such as pgp.mit.edu or keyserver.ubuntu.com. This network has been diagnosed with vulnerabilities to attacks, and is considered obsolete and unsafe by some in the encrypted mail community. Perhaps most concretely, as Autocrypt does not have trustlevels, keys.openpgp.org does away with distributing you signing others keys and such. It is simply a key index: does [email protected] have a public key? Which is, I agree, all most users care about. See also Signal encryption: you’ll communicate through a keypair, and if you really care, you can compare signatures offline. No need for infrastructure around that. Also, I guess in an age of more ephemeral keys, trustlevels are really obsolete.

About OpenKeychain: I tried to use the pEp app on Android for a while, but I stopped doing that in favor of K9mail+OpenKeychain. Yes, it’s slightly more work to setup, but pEp software also encrypts the subject line. Which makes sense of course from a security point of view, but it seems to be an ad-hoc implementation (no mention of subject encryption in the Autocrypt v1 spec). Which means, no other clients or plugins support it and show the placeholder subject which is not very practical. Also, it’s nice to have some compatibility with older users and clients of PGP, and having a clear subject is important I think.

So, if you want to encrypt your mail and you want to do so in an easy manner, I recommend this new Autocrypt plugin in Thunderbird! I’ll trial using Thunderbird alongside Kmail. Thunderbird has other flaws, but perhaps no greater than Kmail at this point. Now I just hope Thunderbird 68 will show up in the Ubuntu repos soon!

Ketchup

Ketchup, a condiment I don’t care much for, but is probably one of the (Western?) worlds most consumed. It’s an older article by Malcolm Gladwell, The Ketchup Conondrum, that goes into dept on the genesis of the red stuff. Ketchup contains all 5 elementary flavours! What’s interesting in the article is to observe methods also exhibited in The Century of the Self used in ‘food product’ creation. Although I employ very few food products, it’s kind of fun to see how by understanding that your dataset may have more than one axis, may have other distribution than the nominal one, can generate multi-million currency units in profit. Perhaps I should find employ in such a direction.

Gladwells studies into pedestrian topics such as ketchup are always interesting!

Shakespeare of shit

The original supposedly was posted to Quora, but I can’t find that original source. The tekst is awesome either way. Thanks, Nate White!

A few things spring to mind.

Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace - all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing - not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility - for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is - his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults - he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.

Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.

And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.

Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that.

He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.

He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.

That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.

There are unspoken rules to this stuff - the Queensberry rules of basic decency - and he breaks them all. He punches downwards - which a gentleman should, would, could never do - and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless - and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority - perhaps a third - of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:

Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.

You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.

After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.

He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart.

In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws - he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish:

‘My God… what… have… I… created?

If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.

Man wrestles submarine, wins

Yesterday the United States Coast Guard released a video that might as well be a movie-scene: a man hops onto an escaping ‘semi-sub’, slams the hatch and seems to succeslfully pry it open when submarine crew appears, all the while shouting the sub stop at once. Note how the Coast guard describes the location as ‘the pacific area’… That’s half the globe, boys! Anyway, as was vividly described in one of the comments, it must be great to have this job.

Even more interesting is the sub itself ofcourse. It’s used to smuggle cocaine, 17000 pounds in this one. Described as a semi-sub, it is barely submerged but obviously more than enough to make it very difficult to find. Wikipedia has a rather long page on these things, and it turns out it is a very common occurance! Some tech is discussed, such as the bent exhaust pipe seen in the video which helps cool the fumes and thereby make infrared tracking more difficult. There must be an underworld of highly skilled (and highly paid I suspect) engineers coming up with this stuff, and making them in series too it seems. Fantastic.

The article has more gems: the narco torpedo.

This particular “torpedo” was planned to be towed by a fishing vessel.[25] If a patrol ship is spotted, the “torpedo” cargo container is released. While still submerged, it was designed to automatically release a buoy concealed as a wooden log so as to be mistaken for marine debris by authorities. This log-buoy was equipped with a location transmitter system. This allowed the original towing vessel to retrieve the torpedo if the vessel and her crew were released by authorities.

Holy shit. There is some serious thought and engineering in these things. Well, I guess at ~$100M per shipment, no expense needs to be spared.

Power structures

I have a bit of a backlog in topics for posts on this blog and I’m hammering some off right now. One thing I notice is they’re all related to interacting humans, psychology and sociology. Perhaps I should change studies.

No Kings: How Do You Make Good Decisions Efficiently in a Flat Organization? An article on Hackernews where once again the comments are most interesting: they converge on the fact that all ‘flat organizations’ are is organizations with invisible rather than visible power structures. That’s a pity, because it does seem like an attractive idea: pure democracy. I guess there will always be that monkey-part of our brains preventing us from perfecting our societies.

Diversiteit en dokter

Bij het wegwerken van het backlog, een 2 in 1 post.

Diversiteit, een begrip waar ik ingewikkelde relatie mee heb. Mijn probleem met de manier waarop deze discussie gevoerd wordt, en het was leuk te ontdekken dat ik dat gemeen heb met de eerste Nederlandse homorechten-activiste: het wordt benaderd als een whitelist, in plaats van open-by-default. Een $X zou niet moeten hoeven vechten om gelijk behandeld en gerespecteerd te worden, de bias in systeem, samenleving en koppies voor het een of ander moet eruit. In plaats van trouwrechten voor alle genders, gewoon het hele trouwen en bijbehorende voordelen en regelingen afschaffen. Immers, ongetrouwden hebben zo nog steeds een nadeel (of voordeel). Waar dat punt persoonlijk wordt aangestipt in dit verder niet heel beste artikel: diversity of thought. Er is een groep, en in Nederland lijkt deze groot, die ongemakkelijk wordt van hoe ik ben, met name hoe ik denk. Het is heel vaag en lastig uit te leggen, maar ik merk dat (dus met name in Nederland) een bepaald conformisme in termen van denken verwacht wordt, die ik ten eerste niet snap en ten tweede ook niet ambieer. Dit levert conflicten op, doorgaans van het kaliber ‘incompatibele persoonlijkheden’. Ik zal er nu niet verder op ingaan, want ik snap het nog te weinig er veel meer over te zeggen, maar deze term onthou ik even: ‘diversity of thought’. Het jammere van het artikel is de (bijna) gelijkstelling tussen ‘diversity of thought’ en anti-diversiteitsgekkies: dat is in elk geval wat mij betreft het punt niet! Het punt is die lijst ‘geaccepteerde deviaties’. Dit werkt tegen elke nog niet ‘erkende’ ‘afwijking’, terwijl het idee van diversiteit wat mij betreft het wegnemen van vooringenomenheid is, niet zozeer het toevoegen van inclusiviteit. Niet dat ik dat slecht vind hoor, maar het zou jammer zijn als we het daartoe beperkten. Een marsman moet zich hier ook meteen thuisvoelen, zo bedoel ik het, zonder dat er eerst decennia gevochten moet worden voor rechten voor marsmannen/vrouwen/homo/etc (heb je die whitelist weer ;)).

Artikel twee, ook van de NRC, is zo mogelijk nog ernstiger van aard. Falende gezondheidszorg voor een zeer precaire persoon. Wat me hieraan opviel is wat herken uit andere ervaringen: (te)veel hangt af van input van de zieke. Het systeem lijkt participatie te verwachten, terwijl ik juist een expert-oordeel verwacht waar ik behalve feiten niet mijn mening aan bij wil dragen. Dit faalt dan juist bij mensen die die bijdragen ook echt niet kunnen leveren, wanneer die geneigd op het oordeel van de dokter/ondersteuning te vertrouwen, of daar zelfs geheel vanaf hangt. Zou dat niet anders moeten?

Century of the Self

Yesterday I finished viewing the Adam Curtis documentary The Century of the Self. This documentary presents an unusual but very convincing view of the history of democracy in the 20th century. This history is in this view shaped predominantly by the ideas of Sigmund Freud, as put into practice by the hands of Edward Barnays in particular. After having succesfully and durably solved most elementary human needs, people grew beyond being mere workers to become autonomous, vocal, demanding and capable humans, who had new demands beyond housing and food, and expected those demands to be met. As I write this, I realize this last bit is incorrectly summarized: due to the influences of Barnays for initially American industry this feeling of entitlement was engineered. Industry had solved the basics of providing for democracy, and was now worried that markets were saturated and therefore demand would fall, perhaps spectacularly so. They were looking for ways to create new markets, ever-growing markets, and so created, through Barnays, the consumer-economy. In this economy, ever-changing and inconsistent fashion, desires, would guarantee markets forever. I won’t explain further what Adam Curtis very clearly and brilliantly explains himself best in the documentary, which he put on Youtube himself for all to watch: see part 1 here.

A shot where a man argues that people are not in charge, but people’s desires are, seems to be the most fitting one line summary possible. Towards the end, it is shown how first conservatives and through the Third Way labour became politicians catering to these whims. People and parties became a market of consumers and suppliers, rather than a democratic society of citizens and politicians, in the way envisaged by Roosevelt, and I think taught in most schools (mine for sure). It’s a sobering but very convincing view of pretty much the most important thing in the world: the basis for our society. What was not really presented in the documentary was how the desires and whims of the people are influenced. Nowadays all pretense is dropped and we have the profession of influencers, people who try to steer the otherwise often incoherent desires in one direction or the other. Not only commercially, but also politically. Certain pundits, columnists, so-called journalists, are but tools for finding out the best way to pander to voters. Meanwhile people were busy satiating their desires, as Barnays envisaged, the ruling classes could continue to direct the world, because fundamentally, people can’t be trusted with such power (alternatively, people should not really interfere with the course of history, big wallets should).

This puts into perspective my own incline: ultimately we cannot trust our emotions, we must find methods to be rational and measurable. Find out not what politians say, but what they do. See who’s been working for our cause for decades and who didn’t, rather than play the above game. I wonder to what extent the above, the consumerist nature of our societies, is something than can be undone. Is it the Pandora’s Box for which Labour seems to hold it since the Third Way? I’m going to watch more of Adam Curtis to find that out.

Wij discussiëren niet

Godfried Bomans, ik heb hem buiten mijn boekenlijst gehouden, spreekt over Nederlandse fouten, of eigenlijk, onhebbelijkheden. Niet toevallig komen er een aantal punten naar voren die gaan over taal, en met name zijn tweede punt, “wij discussiëren niet”, doet me erg aan mijn ouders denken, maar inderdaad misschien wel aan Nederlanders in het algemeen. Onlangs luisterde ik naar de Klara.be radiodoc over Jane Austen, die het meermaals over “the art of conversation” heeft, en volgens critici inderdaad omwille van de dialoog misschien nog het meest gelezen zou moeten worden, en dat deed me aan hetzelfde denken: ik heb eigenlijk maar weinig gelegenheid mijn spreekvaardigheid te verfijnen. Ik heb helaas geen dichters of schrijvers, of anderszins mensen met een voorkeur voor taal in mijn kennissenkring of familie, misschien is dat de reden dat het me opvalt. Het meest oefende ik nog in de tijd dat ik in de studentenraad zat, daar kwamen, natuurlijk, mensen bovendrijven die de discussie leuk vonden.

Even later zegt Bomans: “wij zijn als de dood voor pathos”. Herken ik ook in het bijzonder. Misschien toch eens wat lezen; helaas biedt de bibliografie op Wikipedia weinig aanknopingspunten. Bijna jaarlijks boeken na zijn dood?