Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

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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The emperor is still naked

31 October 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

I still remember when we learned about crises of overproduction in history class, all the way back in middle school. The very notion of dumping entire shiploads of oranges into the sea rather than giving them away made no sense to me: what was the real point after all, making a profit or feeding the hungry? But my teachers didn't see a problem with it. Even though it went against Communist principles. Go figure.

Another lesson I distinctly remember was about the boom-and-bust cycle that defines the world's economy, and how the oscillations keep amplifying. Even to my young mind, it seemed obvious that sooner or later those oscillations would grow bigger than the economy could handle, leading to global collapse. But my teachers seemed to assume the economy would just keep growing enough to absorb every new shock. Well, guess what.

Mine is the generation of that kid from the fairy tale who shouts that the emperor is naked. Years have passed; we're now adults, the emperor is still naked, and we can't unsee it. Yet the adults from back then, who are now old, still pretend nothing is amiss, even as the world crumbles around their ears. After all, theirs is the generation that would literally rather die than lose face. Nor will they stop clinging to power, even as their incompetence is increasingly obvious.

By now, the pretense has become so normalized that the naked emperor can afford to drop it for the most part and make rude gestures at everyone with impunity: people will simply refuse to show any reaction. Even though it's increasingly in-their-face.

At which point does cowardice stop making any sort of sense and slide all the way into lunacy?

Tags: politics, society

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Designed for nobody

24 October 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

Imagine you were a big fan of cars and wanted very much to get into the world of car manufacturers. So you go to art school, practice a lot, and one day come up with the single most beautiful car design ever. One that would make the folks at Ferrari or Lamborghini turn green with envy. So you go with it to a factory and show it off. Everyone goes "ooh" and "aah"... until an engineer points out how there's no way to fit an engine under that gorgeous hood. Can you guess what would happen?

They'd laugh you out of the building, that's what. And they'd be right.

Look. Design is a nebulous term. There's no one accepted definition. But artsy high-concept crap nobody can understand or make use of is definitely not one of them.

Except that's what a lot of people think design is, ever since Frank Lloyd Wright created his superb but uninhabitable Fallingwater house. And so you end up with websites that look great, but are unreadable, unnavigable and definitely don't scale.

How else? Back when I was still in the business, a web designer's tool of choice was Photoshop. Yep. They didn't so much design a website as paint it. Paintings are nice, you see. They don't have to stretch and zoom, grow and shrink, or shift around like a transformer.

Websites must be able to do all that and more. Especially nowadays that mobile devices outnumber PCs by an order of magnitude at the least. And web designers hate that. It offends their artistic sensibilities.

If you ever saw a website with too long a sidebar, or too short a sidebar, or an ad banner that's breaking out of its box and trying to hide off-screen in shame, that's why: the great designer had no idea of the real content people were going to put in. Perhaps because they were never told. But who cares, right? We'll just fill the boxes with nicely balanced amounts of nonsense text. What do you mean, it may not be as nicely balanced in production?

Lorem Ipsum was a mistake.

Tags: website, philosophy

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Unit testing and code clarity

19 October 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

I don't usually think much about testing. It's just a normal part of programming. Lately, however, I've been playing with a new language, that has unit testing built not just into the standard library (like, say, Python) but the language itself! And the compiler supports code coverage too, for good measure.

It's incredibly fun, writing tests for code you haven't even finished yet, having them pass, and seeing the percent of coverage increasing. And that's a trap.

Because, you see, unit testing isn't your goal. Useful, working software is your goal. Preferably written in such a way that other people can read and change it.

(As as aside, code clarity means more than short functions and correct indentation. I've seen plenty of code, usually in C, that was small, neat, elegant... and you couldn't figure out how it did anything. Talk about missing the whole point.)

Unit testing is just another tool in the toolbox. Used at the right place and time, it can do an excellent job. Shoehorned in for the sake of ticking a checkbox, it will just get in the way. And don't even get me started about writing code to satisfy the tests as opposed to, you know, the end-user.

Nobody cares what tools a carpenter uses if the furniture they make is ugly, heavy, and requires climbing carefully over the nightstand to get in bed.

That said, I did actually use TDD exactly once. It was for a library of largely independent functions, the requirements were simple, and my tests were mostly there to document usage. That's another good case for tests, by the way, and in fact the D compiler also supports it directly. Making sure your example code runs, and runs correctly, can save you from a lot of embarrassment down the road.

Just focus on delivering already, before you forget why you were writing all those tests in the first place.

Tags: programming, philosophy

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Programmers, disconnected

12 October 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

When academics examine videogames, they'll often note how much developers thereof seem to live in an echo chamber, hardly aware of any media outside of their chosen profession. If they read at all, it's the same kind of escapist fantasy that games are already derived from, itself highly derivative more often than not. No wonder the results are twice disconnected from any chance at cultural relevancy. And that wouldn't be a problem if the same developers wouldn't all but demand to be deemed culturally relevant.

(Exceptions exist, of course. Personal games and walking simulators have taken off big time in recent years. Sure enough, nobody quite knows what to make of them.)

This morning, I was pointing out how open source is inherently derivative. In the mean time, I figured out why. You know how programmers have a reputation for being nerds. It's hard not to, in a profession that often starts in one's bedroom, during high school or even earlier. Which in turn allows people to skip certain rites of passage, whose forgotten importance was teaching people to be social. And open source programmers are derided as big-time nerds even among other programmers. We're the nerdiest nerds who ever nerded, as a friend would say.

(Exceptions exist there, too, as another friend pointed out. And if nothing else, some programmers come to this profession from other fields, bringing with them knowledge of different people with different needs. There's software to help coordinate disaster relief efforts, for example, something a business would never invest in.)

For the most part, however, open source programmers are twice disconnected from the analog world. How else? For the longest time, they've been busy playing catch-up. And in their hurry to reach parity with commercial software, so they can command the same respect, they forgot to check whether the products they imitated were still serving a real purpose, or had long been reduced to solutions in search of problems, only good to create more jobs for consultants.

Look. Programming can be playful. Programming can be art. It doesn't all have to be utilitarian and pragmatic. But when most of what we do seems to cause more problems than it solves, it's time to take a step back and figure out what the hell we're doing.

Tags: programming, philosophy

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Open source, the perpetual substitute

12 October 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

There's a big problem with free and open source software, and nobody seems willing to talk about it: the entire movement is fundamentally one of followers and not innovators. How else could it be? The GNU project, that gave birth to the whole thing, was explicitly launched to make replacements for proprietary software. The Linux kernel was a reaction to Minix, an educational operating system. All the big apps, like LibreOffice or GIMP, were meant right from the start as clones and/or replacements of expensive, industry-dominant software. Even desktop environments like KDE and XFCE were initially blatant copies of their commercial predecessor CDE.

Show me one piece of open source anyone's actually heard of that's original and trailblazing rather than a me-too. Heck, even most games in the field are derivative. That titles like FreeCiv and Super Tux Kart surpass their originals in every way is simply a result of so many years in development.

That's the one big advantage of open source, apart from the freedom it offers: not being driven by commercial interests, it can keep getting improvements for a long time. Don't let version numbers fool you: DOSbox, for instance, stalled at 0.74, but that means it had seventy four major releases! Chrome cheated shamelessly, and is only now getting close. But is that enough of a selling point? Time and again, people prove willing to put up with any amount of shoddiness in software. Even bugs that destroy all their data simply aren't enough to make them look for alternatives.

Sure, open source has won. In the web server space, nobody in their right mind would use a proprietary operating system, unless office politics force them to. The GNU Compiler Collection is still at the core of Mac OS X (along with other open source components). The Python programming language now powers pretty much everything that's not system or enterprise software. And so on, and so forth.

Speaking of the Python programming language, now that's an example of open source innovation. So is WordPress, the software behind nearly a third of all websites. But how many people not in the business have heard of either? They're infrastructure, designed to fade into the background and let people work. You'll say that's true in other areas... but for instance I know exactly who manufactures the public lighting for my city. And the tramways. And the metro. So should you.

Only in computing we find it normal to treat everything as a black box. And that's why we never learned to truly take advantage of software freedom. Even those who understand its importance have mostly been concerned with playing catch-up. And "we have everything the big players do" is a pathetic, shameful selling point.

"Look at us! We're not totally lame! Please love us! No, don't leave..."

Now Microsoft has bought GitHub just as we were moving towards a "post-open source" era. And open source replacements can't seem to get much traction at all.

Nor will they, not ever, unless we learn to blaze our own, new trails for a change.

Tags: software, philosophy

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