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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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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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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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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Church and state in Romania

06 October 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

My parents were never married in church. They were of different Christian denominations, you see. No priest from either side would perform the ceremony.

And you know what? It didn't matter in the least.

It wasn't the church that made them eligible for cheap housing.

It wasn't the church that protected me during their divorce, a few years later.

It wasn't the church that helped mom raise me alone after the event.

It was the state. Because, you see, they were legally married. And that's what matters in a modern country.

This weekend, Romania is holding a referendum on whether to make same-sex marriage constitutionally impossible. (Right now it's theoretically allowed, just not in applied law.) In other words, whether to head back towards a dark age we'd barely left 14 years ago. I have no doubts as to the result. Suffice to say, never in my lifetime were the polling stations open for two days in a row. Not once. It's simply not done here.

Except, it seems, to support religion-fueled bigotry.

But then, what can you expect from a country where the Orthodox Church is a state institution, financed from the national budget. In the European Union. In 2018.

I have no mouth, and I must puke.

Tags: society, politics

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Institutions never worked

26 September 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

We have a saying in Romania: "man blesses the place". Seems ovbious in retrospect, doesn't it. You probably know more than one business, community or simply household that's a great place to be, and it's all thanks to the efforts of one person. Once they're gone, for whatever reason, things are simply never the same anymore, no matter how much everyone else tries to keep going like they used to.

Of course, it can also go in the other direction. We have a saying for that, too: "fish rots from the head". Which only serves to reinforce how, one way or another, individuals matter.

Except... things weren't supposed to be this way. Almost as soon as we invented writing, we also came up with institutions: a system for cushioning the impact of good people leaving, or bad people coming. Or both. The idea is to establish norms and best practices, and ensure everyone at least tries to follow them. That way the institution keeps fulfilling its purpose, for better or worse, no matter who's doing the work.

And it doesn't help. Can't say it ever has. Time and again, institutions at best muddle through, if they don't act like a dead weight outright, until some exceptional person comes along to shake things up, whether they bring a renaissance or a dark age. You'll say the person at the top, whether they're Steve Jobs or King Charles I of Romania, isn't performing the actual labor; it's a collective effort.

Then why do we always, always need that person at the top to spur us on?

Maybe naked apes are wired to need a strong leader. Likely, it's more complicated than that. Either way, someone makes the difference. Not norms. Not rules. Not laws. It's all too easy to ignore those once nobody's watching anymore.

A piece of paper can't look at us and say, "I know what you're doing".

We're used to talking about social structures in the abstract, as if they exist by themselves somewhere above us. But a family, a tribe, a village, a country... they're all made of people. Just people working together to make things good for each and every one of them.

Well, so is an institution. Make it about people, not minutiae, and it might just survive its founder for a change.

Tags: society, philosophy

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