Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

Not hacker ethics, but human ethics

16 December 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Say you're a hacker, and you have this roommate who always locks their room when leaving home. One day they leave without returning an item you need. What do you do?

  1. Pick the lock, recover your item and leave, locking the door again behind you.
  2. Also snoop through their things, but without disturbing or breaking anything.
  3. On top of that, leave them a note pointing out that they need a better lock.

Trick question! The only acceptable answer is, you don't go in even if the door is unlocked. Even if there's a genuine emergency, of the building-on-fire variety, you at least try to call and announce that you were forced to do it by immediate physical danger. Even if you suspect your roommate is a thief who stole your item, you call the police on them. Not because it's what the law says, but because you're a part of society, and society can't function unless we can trust each other at least a little bit. As I was tweeting nearly three weeks ago:

Hey, geeks: if you're at a hacker event and someone next to you leaves their laptop unlocked...

...don't touch it! Would you rifle through their bag, too? After all, they could use a padlock if they wanted privacy.

It's called common courtesy and basic trust. You're welcome.

Which is not a theoretical, but something that happened to me in real life (the laptop part, not the bag part), and contributed to my mistrust in the sort of people who frequent Linux user groups. In particular, their maturity level.

The very concept of "hacker ethics" is a red herring at best, and quite possibly dangerous. Hackers operate in the real world, dealing with real people within a social framework. They're not some special caste exempt from certain rules just because the digital (or virtual if you prefer) is less palpable. If anything, they must be more careful than the rest of us because, much like doctors, they can more easily hurt more people. And there's no Hacker's Oath. Maybe there should be. Then we could talk about a meaningful ethical framework for them.

And please don't serve me the tired excuse that "bad guys don't play by the rules". Precisely! That's part of what makes them bad guys. You can't fight them by becoming one of them any more than you can fight fire with fire.

Rules can and should be broken sometimes. The trick is knowing when not to do it. And too many people who call themselves hackers are just overgrown immature boys, playing with sticks bigger than they can safely control. Let's fix that first.

Tags: society, technology, philosophy

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Finding my voice online

10 December 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

When I first joined Tumblr in 2013 (escaping from the shutdown of My Opera), I couldn't wait to see what shape my new blog would solidify into.

It never took any shape at all.

You'll say that's kind of the point with the once-popular tumblelog format, but there's a difference between freewheeling and random. Add to that the high toxicity enabled by the reblog-with-additions feature, and you have a recipe for ugliness. And yes, I've allowed myself to be drawn into it way too often. Just like on Twitter, the other major platform to have this misfeature. There's no denying my share of the guilt.

Even on Mastodon, where you can only boost a toot as-is (and maybe reply to it in a separate toot), that's still too easy. It reduces the toxicity, a lot even, but the results are still chaotic. Not the beautiful, creative kind of chaos, either. Just a jumble of mismatched thoughts.

Funny, then, how easily I was able to form a coherent discourse right here. Not a pretty one, admittedly. All the loneliness and bitterness in recent years has been getting to me. But it's me. I'm slowly learning to be myself again.

The added friction, that forces me to work at making a post, makes a world of difference. Much like on my brand-new Dreamwidth journal. Or for that matter my gaming blog. Even though the latter has also been in exile on Tumblr for the past year.

Guess it's not just the place then, but also how you approach it? Perhaps. But there's a reason I'm bringing that blog home soon as well.

Lots of new beginnings for me this year and the coming one, then. And that still leaves some things to fix. Oh well, got to deal with them one by one.

If as of late you've had trouble recognizing yourself in your social media streams, take a step back and try to remember what you wanted to tell the world in the first place.

Even the Borg routinely proved able to break free. What excuse do we have?

Tags: social-media, personal, philosophy

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Dreaming of Dreamwidth

06 December 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

I don't exactly have a quota for this blog, apart from the self-imposed one resulting from average post counts so far. That said, almost one week into December I found nothing new to blog about. Funny how writing fiction tends to claim all my attention in a way programming doesn't.

Except something did happen recently: Tumblr just wrote what amounts to a suicide note, announcing they'll be banning everything that remotely resembles adult content as of 17 December. Never mind the issue of corporate America forcing their Puritanic worldview on the entire rest of the planet. (Ordinary Americans, it should be said, are fed up with that shit, and can't wait for mentalities to change already.) Many other social networks, however, stepped up to the plate, inviting people over. Well, those that weren't already flooded by people jumping ship, like Mastodon.

One of those platforms welcoming new members is Dreamwidth. I was vaguely aware of it as an offshoot from LiveJournal, but didn't know any details. Turns out, it looks like a fairly interesting place.

For one thing, unlike other blogging-focused platforms, Dreamwidth offers public profiles, which among other things can show what you're reading. And what you're reading can include newsfeeds you import from just about anywhere. Which means you can use Dreamwidth as a kind of mini-aggregator. But mostly, you can express yourself as a reader, not just as a writer. In other words, to have a meaningful public presence on the platform without turning into a dancing monkey.

Then there's the attitude: unlike its precursor, Dreamwidth is community-owned, based on open source and open governance, with an official anti-advertising stance. The only financing source is paid accounts. Which also means the only scripts you get on the pages are there to enable extra features. Not many, though! Most of the site works just fine in a text-mode browser. And it's very light by modern standards.

Last but not least, there's a wealth of documentation, which is good because some features appear to be more technical in nature. Also, the various official accounts, on the platform and elsewhere, just came back to life after a year of silence, so you can probably ask questions and reasonably expect them answered. Good sign!

A few more highlights:

  • advanced community features;
  • advanced privacy features;
  • selectable, customizable themes.

Yep, it looks like a good place to be. I also seem to have a ton of friends there, and predominating interests right now seem to revolve around literature. Going to think about it some more. But not too long.

Tags: personal, social-media, website

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What I did in November

29 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

So, November is coming to an end and I'm unlikely to meet my usual post quota. Might as well do something a little different for once. Injecting some much-needed positivity is a bonus. So what did I do this month?

For one thing: writing! I'm three weeks and 8000 words into a story that came to me unexpectedly. Was looking through some old files, see, and came across a forgotten bit of worldbuilding. Next thing I knew, there were all these characters coming to life in a new, exotic fantasy world. Go figure. There's a lot of recycling going on, with all my favorite themes and tropes making a comeback, but you know what? I like them. And there's nothing wrong with writing to feel good.

Of course, after such a start it was time to take a break and figure out how things will unfold exactly. Can't complain, having returned to fiction writing after such a long break, and it's worth getting this one right. And hey, there's more to do while my brain works in the background. Such as releasing another thing I wrote this spring and then set aside when it was 90% completed.

Last but not least, I've been looking at social media options again. It's a thing I do with some regularity, and with so many social networks going away, or at least being in bad shape, this is timely. And lo, there's much to see these days:

  • Vivaldi is the spiritual successor of My Opera, for those who remember it. Built by the same man, and hosted in Iceland, it leverages open source projects such as WordPress and RoundCube to provide blogs, e-mail and a forum. Doesn't feel the same at all though. Let's face it: those days are past. Strange as it may seem to say that about a time not six years ago.
  • Much more appealing on first sight is Pjuu, a very simple social networking service with few features (yet). It was built as a hobby project, and seems to have roughly 10 active users, but the overall feel is great. There's even an Android client. Definitely worth watching.
  • Speaking of Android clients, recently looking through F-Droid reminded me of Movim. That's yet another social network made in Europe, and unlike the previous two it's distributed. But not on some new protocol: it uses good old XMPP. Which means its main feature is real-time messaging; a welcome experiment.
  • And then there's Scuttlebutt, which unlike the others can work without any servers. But it still has some, because like in any distributed system discovery is a problem. That's not the biggest though: rather, what bothers me is the reliance on an append-only, cryptographically signed database. In other words, a blockchain, though they conspicuously avoid using that word. What's wrong with that? Oh, just not being able to delete anything ever again, which means data keeps piling up, filling your storage and increasing network traffic as time goes on.

Then again, the storage issue impacts all social networks, while none of them makes it easy to go back and choose old posts to delete. Such a curious blind spot.

The Internet requires the ability to clean up cruft if it's gonna keep working. Please consider it.

Tags: personal, literature, social-media

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Conan the Barbarian was right

20 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

When you mention Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard's famous literary character, people might think of a no less famous quote:

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.

That's from The Tower of the Elephant, a 1933 novelette. And it's remarkably topical in 2018, when literal Nazis demand to be debated over things beyond debate, such as human rights: a way of legitimizing the dehumanization of entire minorities in the guise of "civilized discourse", while the decent people who tell them to shut the fuck up and get the fuck out are labeled barbarians (pardon, social justice warriors) for refusing to be polite about, you know, genocide. It's likely not a coincidence, given when the original story was written. And don't get me started on how the warnings of writers, especially of the speculative fiction persuasion, were dismissed as mere stories back then too... until it was too late.

My favorite Conan quote however is from elsewhere:

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”

Specifically, from Beyond the Black River, from 1935, easily one of the darkest featuring Conan. And sure enough, look how many bad things we thought gone forever have been returning in force as of late:

  • the aforementioned literal Nazis;
  • infectious diseases we had all but eradicated;
  • unbridled capitalism;
  • the threat of nuclear war;
  • Christian religious extremism dictating policy in developed countries.

And all that happened because, like Conan before hearing those words, we believed for the longest time in a narrative of progress that anyone with decent knowledge of history could have told us was a myth. A convenient one, because if progress was inevitable and automatic, that meant we didn't have to lift a finger for it to happen. Others would take care of everything. For our convenience, of course.

Sounds familiar? It was the same tactic that kept a lot of good people out of politics for the longest time. And look what mess we're in now.

Tags: society, literature

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Technology will not save us

14 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Lately I've been thinking a lot about an old science-fiction story. Can't remember the title or author (any help would be appreciated), but it follows a typical suburban house through an ordinary day, as it wakes everyone up, reads them the news while making breakfast, and urges the kids not to be late for school. At noon it plays cheerful music while making lunch. By evening time it's preparing a hot bath, when a minor accident in the kitchen starts a fire, and the house burns down while reading poetry to its absent owners. Only at the very end does the story reveal that (spoiler alert!) said owners are right outside, turned into ash on the wall by the blast from a nuclear strike...

Replace tape recorders in the walls with a virtual assistant, the automated kitchen with a delivery drone from a fast food restaurant, and the nuke with death by overwork at a videogame studio. Now tell me it doesn't sound like an increasingly plausible scenario. And did it blow your mind to learn that the concept of a smart home dates not from this century, not from the mid-1980s, but from over fifty years ago at the height of the Cold War? Then hold on tight, because the earliest instance I'm aware of features in a 1909 story by E.M. Forster called The Machine Stops.

At least the latter has a happy ending. Under the present circumstances, I don't really think we're going to get one.

Tags: society, technology

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Activists and their double standards

04 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Opinions swung back and forth over the years, but nowadays if you try suggesting that voting may not be quite as effective as people claim, you'll promptly get an earful on participation numbers, and how it's your civic duty anyway, yadda yadda.

Meanwhile, try suggesting to the same people that billions of car owners the world over driving their cars less would have an impact on climate. You'll promptly get yet another earful, this time on how individual action can't possibly matter since a double handful of corporations account for the vast majority of CO2 emissions.

Oh, really? Who's been enriching the likes of Shell or Gazprom? Who's been buying and burning all that gas? It's not corporations that own and drive billions of cars.

The notion that individual action doesn't matter is the latest deflection tactic from people who want to feel completely comfortable both morally and in their day-to-day life. In other words, to have their cake and eat it too. And maybe I'd buy it if they weren't telling me in the same breath how slapping a rubber stamp on a piece of paper is somehow more effective than picking up a piece of litter from the ground.

Voting is safe, you see. Anonymous. Quick. A flick the wrist, and you can feel all smug about yourself for the next four years. Regardless of who wins the election.

Giving up even a sliver of your personal comforts is a whole other story. Shit just got real. It aches. Itches. You can't forget.

That strange new feeling is called responsibility. Get used to it.

Tags: politics, philosophy

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Possible apocalypses

03 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

What will climate apocalypse look like? Mad Max? Waterworld? Fallout?

It's a trick question. The oceans will rise, and the continents will desertify. What's left of them, anyway. And then the nukes could still fly. Not that they'll make much of a difference anymore once the world's biggest, richest cities are already underwater.

But what will that be like for you? Ever thought about it?

For one thing: migration. The New York City metropolitan area has more population than Romania at this point. They'll all have to migrate elsewhere. Every single one. And at least New Yorkers have somewhere to go. People in Tokio, not so much. That's one third of Japan's population. Every single family in the rest of the country will have to take in a refugee. And that's not counting all their other coastal areas.

If you're an only child like I am, you'd better take a crash course on living with siblings, and soon. Because if you're not among the refugees, you'll be among those who have to take them in. There won't be a "none of the above" box.

So much for the cozy apocalypse where we all settle down into a peaceful agrarian life. Or rather, we'll have that too, except with all the unpleasant sides we conveniently forget today: breaking our backs to barely make enough food, living with a dozen other people in two or three tiny rooms, and being grateful when that turns out to be the only source of heat towards the end of a long harsh winter.

Oh, you know what else will fall out of that? Disease outbreaks that will make the Black Plague seem tame. Which at least will alleviate population pressure. Too bad you won't live to enjoy it.

No, seriously. Do the math. Say a billion people die out of the world's current population of seven billion and a half. Now roll two ordinary dice. If the total comes up a six, you're among the victims. Feeling lucky today?

At least you won't have to deal with the ensuing societal breakdown. Because with that many dead, a lot of things that need done will no longer get done for lack of enough people with the right skills. Which in turn will only amplify all the other issues, much like climate change feeds on itself in the first place.

On the bright side, we won't have to deal with zombies, or Terminators. What a relief.

Tags: climate, science, society

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What people want to hear

02 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

We live in a complex world, with complex problems requiring complex solutions.

Arguably that wasn't always true. We've evolved in a much simpler environment, where our simian instincts were good enough. But saying "good enough" is already an admission that things weren't so simple back then either; it's just that for the longest time we could muddle through.

Either way, that's not the case anymore. Which is why scientists are always so cautious in their statements, and carefully qualify every claim they make.

Too bad our instincts have remained the same, and cautious, careful claims sound suspicious to our big monkey ears.

What scientists say: for X to work, it would take countless pieces falling into place just so, clicking together perfectly and working without fail for who knows how long.

What most people hear: so it's a done deal, right? Nothing can go wrong. Let's do it!

Did I mention most people are also incurable optimists? And by that I mean "wilfully oblivious to anything negative". But don't get me started about magical thinking now.

What else scientists say: to save the planet, literally everyone has to take unprecedented measures on a humongous scale, in less time than it takes to raise a child.

What most people hear: oh, it's all right then, we're saved. Nothing to worry about.

Think sci-fi writers have no sense of scale? Meet the readers. That's how the dream of space colonization stayed alive for so long, when it's even less plausible than I thought. And I had actually paid attention.

Most people don't want to. It tends to reveal the complexity of the world. And that frightens us more than any dangers.

Tags: science, education

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Climate change versus optimism

01 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

When the Paris Agreement was formulated in 2015, the idea was that if we could rein in CO2 emmissions by mid-century, we could avoid dealing with a climate catastrophe by 2100. That's plenty of time, right? A good reason to be optimistic about it.

We should have known it was too good to be true when polar ice caps turned out to be melting much faster than expected, while scientists had to overhaul their models every six months just to keep up with developments. Three weeks ago, a UN report revealed that we only have until 2030 to clean up our act, or else we'll face climate catastrophe by 2040. In other words, the doomsday clock jumped forward by six decades. Still optimistic about climate change?

Turns out they missed one. A new study that made the news yesterday reveals that Earth's oceans have been soaking up much more heat than expected lately. Like, several times more.

Those twelve short years we thought we had? We don't have them.

If you're wondering how we ended up in this mess, the answer is optimism. Being optimistic is all we've been doing in the forty-odd years since the first alarm bells. We kept driving our cars, running our AC units, flying around the world, wasting plastics, cutting down forests... After all, scientists were bound to come up with a miracle invention that would erase all the consequences.

They tried to tell us it doesn't work that way. We didn't listen.

But hey, look on the bright side. Soon there will be no-one left to point fingers at you. Won't have to live with the guilt. Soon we'll all be equally dead and none of this will matter anymore. So keep driving your car. It makes no difference.

How's that for optimism.

Tags: science, climate

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