This is not Germany in the 1930s

This post was written 2 years ago.
Sun, 13 Nov 2016
So the warnings were no use. The horror clown has been elected.

People will have to come to terms with him somehow. They are starting to do that, with "the door is open" congratulations, or the "I only do it because I have to" kind.

I almost never watch TV. Today I did for about five minutes, and in those five minutes I saw a female black novelist being questioned by a BBC presenter (also female), "But could it not be that he (Trump) did not mean the things he was saying?" What?? What kind of question is that? Next to the novelist sat a white-haired little man - don't know who he was - claiming the KKK was "marginal" and complaing that "you folks always focus on that (the racism), he said so many other things". That was enough of TV for me.

Trump will not build a wall [edit one day later: not sure about that anymore], and he won't ban entry to the USA to all Muslims. He might not even do anything overtly racist for a while. [edit one day later: I believe now that he will do overtly racist things pretty soon] The truth is, nobody knows what he will do. Some even think he will find the work of being a president too hard, will screw up and be removed. That sounds quite a desirable scenario to me.

It might not be so much about what he will do, but what those he surrounds himself with will do. The door will be open from his side, too. To big business, to tech companies, to big money in general. The door will not be shut on people if they are misogynists or racists.

mug  saying now panic and freak out

There is a chance that jobs will be created and the economy will improve. Who knows, Trump might even have good intentions (although the 'good' here is relative, and his understanding of what that is might actually be the main problem), and after gaining popularity by pandering to the mood of the people, might now want to restyle himself as some kind of Messiah.

If you look at newspaper websites, you can already see this "different story" emerging. Oh, he might not be so bad after all. Ah, it's all different now. The "election campaign" was nasty, brutal etc. not Trump. Give him a chance! We need to work together with him..

You know - I think in a decent society, the simple fact that he said things that were outrageously demeaning to women, people of colour, LGBT people and religions other than Christian, should be enough to forever disqualify him to be in any position of political power. He should never have been elected, now that he has, whoever has any power, should make sure that he will be removed from this position as soon as possible. It is a sellout of a society that they let somebody spout such awful things and still allow him to take the highest office in the most powerful country of the world. It is, in other words, a complete farce. I was recently reminded that in Germany there is a law against Volksverhetzung and I've seen now that since 1986 the UK has a similar law against incitement to racial hatred. That threshold was crossed a long time ago. Is there not something similar in the USA?

No chance for the woman


People speaking out in favour of Trump often have this argument, "but the alternative was so bad". Unacceptable. "She's a warmonger". This last one I have heard from people I respect.

I read that Clinton supported the Iraq war, but later regretted it. She wanted a "no-fly" zone in Syria. This would be a measure to stop the bombing in Aleppo. Would it really have meant war with Russia?

She is part of the "establishment". But above all, she is a woman. And every fault that is found with her, will count 10 times more than if it was found in a man, just because by popular belief it should not be present in a woman at all.

I know about Hillary Clinton that she wants to improve healthcare. I know that she champions women, and that she would have been a fantastic role model to young women growing up. I know she is hard-working, intelligent and competent. I know she would have had tough decisions to make, and that she is capable of making them.

Would she have carried on with the "neoliberalist" agenda? Would she have legitimised drones that kill innocent people in Pakistan? We will never know that. People say now, give Trump a chance! What if Americans had given Clinton a chance??

We know that neoliberalism is broken, everybody knows that by now. But if there is one person capable of keeping it alive a bit longer and squeeze just a little more out of those less fortunate, then it's probably Donald Trump.

It is not that everything had been awesome before this election, far from it. There are so many things that have already gone horribly wrong in this century. 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq was an extremely bad start. The ongoing and worsening crisis in the Middle East. The Syrian civil war. ISIS. The displacement of over 50 million people across the globe. This happened, or started, before Trump was elected. But none of it was helped by the last Republican candidate in office, either.

As for the Trump presidency, I struggle to see anything good coming out of it and in fact fear for the worst. I cannot see how inequality, racism and misogyny are not going to increase drastically, if not worse things are going to happen, like imprisonment and deportation of people of certain religions or ethnicities. I am definitely worried about the use of technology. Technology to track and identify people, and also to influence them and control them. I am also worried that down the road there will be new conflicts, new wars. - Really, I do not even want to think too much in detail.

I just realised that I am writing as if the Trump presidency was in fact an inevitability. But what if it wasn't? We really don't know what is going to happen in the next two months. I just saw some videos of protests in US cities. I feel for these young people, and though this piece by Tim O'Reilly (whom I much admire) makes a very good point, I feel it is right of them to protest. In fact, the majority of US citizens did not vote for Trump and, I assume, don't want him as their president. I don't know about the how but I wonder if there is not a way to indeed impeach him, as some of the protesters demanded. I just don't know how successful it could be with Trump having so much money behind him.

But in case the presidency will come into being, and perhaps even if it is not, we are entering dark times. Or, darker times, because the dark times had probably started a while ago, and we had not been aware, or refused to pay too much attention.

What can one do? What can I do?


I really want to finish off this post. I hope I will manage to jot down some more thoughts.

This on people who voted for Trump, to a certain extent those who voted for Brexit, and certainly those who have or are going to vote for AfD in Germany: I fail to understand these people, and I will stop trying to understand them. I made a serious attempt with an AfD supporter. It didn't go well. It hurts that this is somebody I have quite strong ties with. I have to live with the tension of still loving them, but also - for the moment - having lost them. I know there is nothing I can do to change their mind.

As I've seen somebody remark, there is no point wasting any energy with trying to understand them. They have got what they want now in America. They might be getting more of what they want across Europe. I'd always thought virtually everbody will be against fascism after our parents' and/or grandparents' collective experience of it. I am now coming round to the horrible realisation that quite a few people want it or are okay whit it, or with parts of it. The "parts of it" faction is the one I really despair with. Thinking you can have the "reassurance" that no Islamic terrorists will enter the country (as one example) by putting your faith in right-wing populist leaders, and by that create a situation of maximum instability and promote the suppression of women and minorities. Thank you very much.

Then the recurring question: What can I do? Is there anything to do? Of course, I am not even in America. But there's this move to the right in many parts of Europe. I will use my postal vote in the German election next year, that's for sure. But apart from that?

Some immediate measures I personally will take:
  • Be very wary of what I will let into my mind. Unlike many others, I know that I can very easily be influenced. I will watch even less telly. I will avoid the mainstream press. That makes me quite reliant on Twitter and the interwebs as a whole. In some respects Twitter might be a filter bubble, but just a few replies away there's some people with very different opinions, so I think you can do worse than getting your information off Twitter. I've never managed to be in any way active on Facebook, and I am glad for that now.
  • Finish reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini - Defense against the Dark arts!
  • Boycott: I'll stop buying from Amazon. (I should have done that long ago!) There might be more to follow.
  • Pushing the feminist agenda as much as I can (cannot give any details of that at the moment, would take too long and also needs some more investigation)
  • Spend much time offline, both with learning stuff, and with things that lift the spirits (music, meeting friends, and reading books; lots of books). Re-reading parts of this book would be good for a start
  • I will not let anybody tell me to calm down about Trump or the rise of right-wing parties in general. I will calm down only insofar as it helps me to be more alert to fend off its effects whereever I can. I want to sleep alright! That is something I still have difficulties with. Trump does not deserve a chance. While my opinion might not matter much in the grand scheme of things, nobody will ever convince me otherwise.

I would like to become politically active in some way. So far I don't trust my personality much to be very effective. On the other hand I have seen some things in my life change quite substantially over the past years, so I am hopeful more change is possible. Nevertheless, I think proper political activism is not for me at this point. But if I can support others in fighting for worthwhile things, I will want to do that.

I love the #stopfundinghate campaign. It is so great to see it has already had some effect. I hope so much it can go a long way.

How to be free by Tom Hodgkinson

Back to America. A chance remark by my husband made me aware of something that gave me a glimmer of hope. He has started reading a book called Einstein and the frontiers of Physics by Jeremy Bernstein. Einstein, together with fellow physicists wrote a consequential letter to Roosevelt in 1939 that would trigger the development of the Atomic bomb. He wrote another concerned letter 12 years later, to his friend, the queen of Belgium. This was at the height of the McCarthy era:

"While it proved eventually possible, at an exceedingly heavy cost, to defeat the Germans, the dear Americans have vigorously assumed their place. Who shall bring them back to their senses. The German calamity of years ago repeats itself; people acquiesce without resistance and align themselves with the forces of evil. And one stands by, powerless."

Jeremy Bernstein then comments: "Einstein was fortunately wrong. McCarthy was sent into disgrace and democracy continued to flourish. As a nonnative American, Einstein had been too quick to underestimate the tradition of freedom in the US."

Please, America show us all that this is still true. Send your president-elect into disgrace. He is not McCarthy, he has a lot more money, but you cannot give up your freedom just like this. Yes, your freedom had been compromised already, and perhaps some of you thought "any change is better than no change". But you must realise that this is not the way (and it was only 18% of you who voted for Trump anyway. How can he become your president?).

And all of us, perhaps we can wake up from consumerism now, from all the tracking and advertising on the web, being trapped by our mobile phones. I have a feeling my phone has recently become more of a good servant, rather than swallowing up much of my spare time. If this can be true for most of us, that would be great.

But we have to be vigilant. Always. I want to be that more than I used to be. Don't let anybody tell you it's going to be okay. It is not going to be if we leave things to themselves. And Trump does not deserve a chance.

Some things worth reading/listen to:

There would be many more, but they are the ones that made the most impression on me in the past few days.
Tags: politics / usa / books /
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Midlife, books and watching Adam Curtis films

This post was written 2 years ago.
Thu, 20 Oct 2016
Right. I am going to do a kind of review now. Review in the "Getting things done" sense. I have to admit, my efforts to implement GTD in my life have to date not been that successful. My brain always seems to want to take over the collecting and scheduling etc. again. My suspicion is, this is because my tasks and appointments are just about managable without resorting to a system that needs quite some energy to set up and keep going. I am still looking for the sweet spot where I can benefit from some of its aspects while keeping it lowfi enough as to not cost too much enery to follow through with it. I will keep on trying!

But let me start not so much with all my projects, "next actions" or any such thing.

I want to look at what is causing me (and perhaps others, especially women?) this thing that almost feels like a pain. This tension, which by now contains the realisation that you probably won't become anymore what you possibly could have, less than you'd been capable of. When I last went out for a meal with close friends in Germany, all women, I said at some point "I still want to achieve something". As if having a lovely family and a pretty specialised job in an area you basically self-trained yourself in, didn't count. And yet, if I'm honest with myself, I still feel the same. It must have sounded overly ambitious, competitive, as if I was after outer success, but I don't think that's what I meant.

I think it has to do with competence and an urge to be creative, while feeling you don't have the means for it; also, not feeling competent at anything in general - on the contrary, feeling pretty inadequate.

When I was a teen, I had an anthology of pieces by women writers. There was an extract from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It started something like "I started adding up all the things I couldn't do" and in the end, she comes to this conclusion: "The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end". I later bought the Bell Jar, it must have been one of the first books I read in the original English version. The similarities between how Plath was experiencing things and myself was so striking it blew me away. It was comforting, too, that I was not the only one feeling that way. In particular what she describes in that quote, that feeling that you cannot really do anything properly, has remained with me up till now; it is not always present, and occasionally I manage to convince myself that I know some stuff, but yes, it is still very strong.

By now, this is also coupled with a feeling of powerlessness on the political level. That I cannot stop nasty things from happening, not even when acting in a group. Is that true? I am not sure. It looks like we are still on a downward path, economy-wise. And then there is the poisoned public discourse which I hope has reached peak shrillness and meaninglessness now.

Returning to the above, what is interesting here, is to make a distinction between the perceived lack of competence and the real one. And while it happens with the best intentions, telling me I've got impostor syndrome does not help me that much. Yes, I might have that, because almost everybody has it, especially in tech. But that does not mean I'm not dissatisfied with where I'm at and would like to know more. Of course, I have reached a certain level of competence, I can do my work (sometimes I get a bit stuck, but by and large I can do it). If I think about it - hm, I had actually not been so clear about that, so writing does help! - in this particular area, the level I'd like to reach is where I can a, contribute to Open Source b, teach c, create own projects/use my skills in projects that are meaningful to me.

There is something else, this is again political, I am jumping back an forth. So, there is the actual competence, but then there is the entitlement, for lack of a better word. That does not really match it actually, what I mean is perhaps, being effective out of habit. Being used to being in power, used to being able to do things. I wonder if that is one of the things pupils learn at a private school. You can do things! It could also be that, for whatever reason, this message was just quite weak in my own youth (although a class-mate once actually said to me "You can do anything you want" - meaning my good grades). Knowing something, but then also using it. And by using it you get better at it..

Two more things regarding perceived vs actual competence. Another significant book in my life has been Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I read it in my early 20ies and then again in my early 40ies! I believe Robert Pirsig is the grandfather of all geeks and his style of writing must have influenced many tech blogs. If you read the book now, his way of writing would probably not seem that unusual but that is because it has become mainstream. One central philosophical idea of the book is that we are capable of recognising quality even if we can't define the criteria for it. We recognise good writing style, good design ect. At the ReasonsTo conference in Brighton, Stefan Sagmeister gave a good example when he showed the audience a work of art by Mondrian and a fake one, side by side. Asked to say which was the real one, by show of hands, a vast majority went for the correct one.

Then there is this about the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, which David Moody pointed me to at the hack night. I once started reading "The Pragmatic Programmer" and really liked it, and the book this chapter is taken from is by the same people. I like the idea of these distinct stages, and I like the idea that people on a team can be at different stages, not everybody has to be an expert.

I want to make a somewhat structured effort to move along this scale, and document it as well. Again, I have to make sure that the documenting does not take up too much energy, I will just record some things that I find significant steps, things where I improved beyond what I'd have thought.

But really, if some of the above sounds a bit negative, in reality I am not unhappy at all (with my learning, world politics is a different thing!). If I look back to 5 years ago, I have already got much further than I thought I would. It took me longer than young people nowadays who decide to become a web developer (and have grown up with computers). Many times I didn't learn in a very effective way. But I'm glad I persisted, because I really do love working in this area.

I won't write so much about the Curtis films anymore, but wanted to mention them, because they do always have quite some effect on me. So, I watched Hypernormalisation on IPlayer - I then also started to watch Bitter Lake which was made about two years ago and which I had missed. But I stopped for now, as it is becoming a bit too much (I normally don't watch any telly). It is scary to think, with the many things mentioned in those films that I had not known about, how many more scary stuff is out there. But mostly, Hypernormalisation reinforced an uncomfortable feeling I (and others, I am sure) had already. We are not really ruled by politicians anymore but by corporates, the potential of technology for evil goes much further as we want to admit to ourselves, and what is presented to us as political discourse is just a spectacle that is put on to distract us. I don't really watch it anymore, just what I hear about it is enough to make me turn away in disgust. Will we ever get to some place of normality again without there being a huge catastrophe first? But really a lot that is happening is already catastrophical, that is the sad thing.

In the credits, the Massive Attack musician Robert del Naja was one of the first people - or the first? - Adam Curtis thanked. I found that intriguing and googled the two names together. I found this article in Vice about a show they did together in 2013. I think the trend they mention there, to obsess about the past, has only become more pronounced, with the Brexit vote being the culmination. And yes, entertainment these days is probably quite conservative even if it doesn't always look like it, and is capable of exerting control. And this sentence sums it all up for me, and has stuck with me: "If you like yesterday we are going to give you more of yesterday so you never get a tomorrow"

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Diary week c/ 26 October 2015

This post was written 3 years ago.
Mon, 26 Oct 2015

This is going to be very short this time. Unfortunately, I am also not in the best mood at the moment. I feel failure is imminent. A failure to keep up the good faith in something and thereby make it work.

Although while I am writing this, perhaps, just perhaps, some strength is returning.

And still, there is a continuous undercurrent. Something sapping at my confidence day by day. When I met my husband, that was a time, one of just a few periods in my life, when I actually was confident. Compared to that, what is going on now? Rather, has been going on for years, on and off? Wtf? Wtf? Arggghhhhhhh.

There is something quite liberating about writing like that. Because it is a taboo right? I am writing personal things on my personal blog, and I am admitting that I struggle. In particular, I struggle with my confidence. The thing is, I'd so so much hoped I'd be over this, because I am really fed up with even thinking about this, and then talking to other people about it and so on, and so on.

But what if this is actually not even my problem? What if this is every other woman's problem, and what if it is every other man's problem, too? What if we live in a fucking bonkers time where every half-ways sane person, who happens to be a bit sensitive (I've come to adore those less sensitive, those who can be a rock to others), is struggling to cope? The thing is, I am not that important of course, and I know it. And what is my struggle compared to that of a refugee woman stranded in Lesbos in the wind and rain, with no food and no clothes and shoes for her children? What on earth is going on? And this is happening with the world looking on. There was an article in the HuffPost, all I could think is, is this really true? Can this really be? This is happening? And then beheadings are happening, too, in other parts of the world. What kind of world is this? - Then I read somebody saying the West is paralysed in its guilt. Tony Blair apologised. This must be one of the most pointless apologies ever to have been.

So with all this going on, it would be great if people managed to "pull together" and somehow turn this ship on the brink of chaos around. There are of course many good people helping with the refugees all over Europe, also many good people in Germany. Unfortunately, there are a lot of pretty awful people in Germany, too, and then there are people who become frightened, just because their certanties are being taken away, and they start looking for culprits and are all too willing to direct their hatred against people unfamiliar to them. This is so sad.

And in any case, it is just hard to find a rational, totally adequate reponse to the drama unfolding that everybody can just take part in. So much misinformation, and so many unknowns.

And really, what about the underlying causes. How could the Middle East have become this utter mess it is now. Even as a not very political person, I must come to the conclusion that yes, the West is to blame at least partly. If our political elites create such a mess, how on earth can we ever hope they will get people out of it?



Book Corner - Erica Jong!

Tonight I went to an event to see a woman who could actually act as quite an antidote to my or anybody else's despair. It is always a bit risky to meet your heroes, but I can say in this case my admiration is fully intact, if it has not even grown. What is so special about her? Foremost perhaps the honesty. But then of course, her wit and her convictions. And I really liked what she had to say about feminism as a movement that started in the 18th century and is not just about the liberation of women but is connected with the liberation of any minority group, and also the liberation of men (she said that a little differently I think). Also the very poignant observation that the most repressed group in the population is - children.

It is getting late now, so I will stop. As a closing line, perhaps I will just keep thinking of fearful but courageous Erica Jong whenever I feel down. Also because, among the many things that I always find lacking in myself, courage is something I have occasionally had, so I can relate to that as my role model.


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Diary week c/ 12 October 2015

This post was written 3 years ago.
Mon, 12 Oct 2015
Instead of concluding the past week with my entry, I am starting the following. Just like I have a habit of arriving everywhere exactly five minutes late (if I can afford it).

Newish job

So it's Monday, and I have been working at Wiredmedia. Starting a job there a month ago has been an entirely positive thing. It was on the cards, I had really wanted to work in a team again. And it makes a huge difference, even more than I would have thought. It's great because the job is something I can do and I enjoy, and at the moment I am mainly getting faster and more efficient. This does not happen much when I work on my own, as I keep doing so many different things that there is not much of a routine being established ever.

A weird conflict

Conflicts in a family where people essentially love each other, strike me as being really weird. What better way to highlight the human condition. We just cannot totally understand one another. In fact, the question is, how far can we ever progress on the path to understanding what another person thinks and feels. I just realised that the thing one can most easily empathise with is probably physical pain, even though we cannot even be sure there, if another person feels it the same way as us. Thoughts and complex emotions? Hmm. Not much of a chance I think!

So, I have this thing going on in my family of origin, a discussion about politics/current affairs that's gone totally acerbic (and I know I have some part in it; but I wonder if I am as guilty as some people make it out to me - at least judging from the attacks that are being launched at me; I am used to these attacks too by now, actually, although I will never get used to them; a person who can't face criticism has no other way of reacting to even the slightest sign of - perceived - criticsm than by lashing out against the 'opponent', it seems)

Taming my horses

I had recently started to fall back into a really bad habit. That of staying up till really late at night. I love it soo much! It's funny, it has more appeal to me than any kind of drug could have. Maybe my brain creates a sort of drug. The stillness; being undisturbed, just drifting along, reading a good book perhaps, or following some links to blog posts. Or coding. Although I don't do the latter as much anymore. I did start some online courses, which is quite a nice way of doing something relating to code, without too much danger of going down the rabbit holes of a project.

By taming my horses I mean that I always want to do too many things at one, and I keep starting new things before having finished the old ones. Sometimes that feels like I am being pulled into a lot of different directions, when I could make much more progress if I aligned my forces to all go in one direction. Still, I find now, if you just accept that you won't finish a lot of things (or won't finish them anytime soon), instead of beating yourself up about it, it can actually be quite an agreeable state to be in. I am never bored, that's for sure. It just shouldn't be too many things, and there should be a continued effort with some.

So, I want to keep a record of some things that I actually want to follow through with. Things where I find it's important not to abandon them. Currently, that's:
  • Writing this blog (ha!)
  • Updating websites relating to CodeHub and applying for sponsoring for the JS workshop
  • Learning JavaScript, on my own, and with the JS101 study group

  • There's probably a lot of other things that I have forgotten about, but will hopefully dig out by and by

Book Corner

I just started reading a very gripping book by Barbara Oakley, whom I actually first came across because she co-hosted an online course on Learning how to learn. The book Coldblooded kindness is about the true story of a woman whith quite an unusual mind, extreme artistic talent and an urge to 'fix' people or at least look as if she was doing so. She killed her third husband with a handgun while he was drugged. There is some scientific background about empathy that I find really interesting. Also 'victimisation' and the 'sancticity of the victim' really interesting concepts. - Food for thought for me who used to see myself as a victim a lot, although I have thankfully almost entirely stopped that now. The book also highlights for me how relatively common gun delicts are in the USA, as there is another gun crime mentioned in the book which happened to a group of people connected with the protagonist.

Tags: weekly_diary / books /
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Uncomfortable comfort zones

This post was written 5 years ago.
Fri, 23 Aug 2013

A rant and two mini book reviews

This is going to be more of a diary entry than any thought-through blog post. But I feel a massive urge to write, about so many things. And yet seem to be suffering from some kind of mental congestion. Where I read so much, fiction, non-fiction, books about web dev, but seem very little able to then communicate any of it, or use it in a creative way. Anyway that is what it feels like. But while that doesn't feel great, it's more and more the reading itself that I find unsettling. Not the books I've been reading, but the papers.

Thoughts that come at night

Journalists can give you the creeps (think "phone-hacking"), corporate data-hunger can give you the creeps, but governments (not only one, but a string of them!) starting to behave in the same and possibly worse ways… I can't even find a word for that. It becomes all the more perplexing, because we are all just so comfortable. What do I have to complain about? Maybe nothing yet, personally, but it does already affect others personally, and by the looks of it, will affect more and more people until there might be hardly anybody left who isn't affected.

I say "by the looks of it". Is it the media exaggerating, manipulating? One's own mind painting things more bleakly than they actually are? Do we know all the relevant facts? If there are things that resonate with what you know about the Stasi, Fascism, Nazism, is that a red herring? At least here the press can still report, right? What about all the despotic regimes, the atrocities you hear about. Are they not worthier of your outrage? But this is no excuse, and the reporting is already not totally free anymore.

And then, in some ways I do actually feel personally affected, because a government that orders the "symbolic" destruction of hard-drives to flex there muscle has for me lost every credibility and trustworthiness and I don't feel at all they represent the people they are meant to serve. I feel outrage about how it will affect many people on a subconscious level and that again most likely includes me. And quite a few journalists. You can say what you want, this is an intimidating act, it has zero to do with assuring security, but all with creating a shock effect.

Can we do anything to stop a gradual erosion of our freedom? Can I do anything? I have to say I don't know. I have never felt a very political person. But a lot of people will say that of themselves, and that is exactly why it is difficult. We have just been so comfortable and we are conditioned to worry so much more about status, about the things we have and we think we need. Maybe it is just what humans are like anyway. And we, in the Western world, just happen to have come to this point in our history where things start to go awry. Or maybe they have for a long time already. That's the thing, where do you draw the line? What does freedom actually mean?

Man Machines

Here is something I really wanted to write about. Two books I have read recently, quite different books, but both, in a wider sense, about how the mind works. Both, in my view, with some implications for individuals and society. I wonder whether I will be able to write much about the first one, as I finished reading it a few weeks ago.

It is called "The Emotion Machine", written by Marvin Minsky in 2006. It is kind of a sequel to "Society of mind" from 1986, about which I have written in another blog post. And like last time, I stumbled across it in my parents' house. So, let me see what I can retrieve.. Ha, this is actually a topic in the book! How do we retrieve memories. Anyway, these are a few things that bubble up. Some of this might be a bit inaccurate, but it is about ideas (that is how the mind works…):

  • The mind is organised in layers, each of which employs different "resources" (in the 1986 book those where called "agents"). High-level resources draw on subsets of other resources which themselves draw on others. There can be conflicts between different resources. If one system uses different subsets from another, we can do things in parallel (like walking and talking at the same time). But most things we have do to serially to do them well.
  • The self as a constant unchangeable agent is an illusion. There is no such thing as a self that makes decisions. It is always several parts of our mind working together.
  • Moreover, we cannot directly command the mind at our will. We cannot tell it to ignore certain needs. That would be detrimental in fact, for if we could decide to put off eating or sleeping forever that would do us harm. But not only that, things might demand our attention even if we would like to ignore them, and depending on what state of mind we are in different resources get precedence.
  • To decide what behaviour wil eventually be deployed, there are different layers of our mind exerting their influence. "Censors" are at work that stem from previous experiences, and they can stop things even reaching our consciousness. Minsky references Freud here. What is sometimes experienced in meditation as state of total peace (enlightenment?) is possibly the temporary absence of censors.
  • In our language we have a lot of "suitcase" words, that can mean slightly different things in different contexts. For example "to give" can mean physically giving something to somebody else, transfer ownership, lend… This can also make it difficult to give accurate definitions of things. How do you define "consciousness"? But far from this being a weakness of our language, it is actually a strength. You can make more connections between things if there isn't one exclusive definition.
  • When you see a familiar object, there is massive input from regions of your brain that store memories, not just from the visual cortex. So what you have learned in the past about that type of object probably contributes more to the picture than what you actually see.

This is a random list. There is much more to the book. And it gives a fascinating insight into how the brain might work. It is humbling and awe-inspiring at the same time. We are such intricate, ingenious machines! We are just not able to command them very well (or not at all?). Especially not always to our own benefit. Perhaps this is a result of my age, but I feel more and more that we are really a product, of our genetics plus all our experiences plus society plus the people we are close to plus individual circumstances and so on, rather than these largely unchangeable beings that have a personality. But of course you still move and live "as if", it is what we have learned to do, and it is our frame of reference. So while it is fascinating to follow Minsky along, in the end you cannot keep looking at things this way. Unless you worked at a "Thinking machines" lab I guess, then you would probably switch into this mode for several hours each day! In any case, we need to use the "I" as a model in our everyday lives.

One thing I took from this book for myself is that really, if we want to make any changes to our habits or ways of thinking, we have to do it in a very indirect way. This probably varies for different people, but my mind pretty much has "a mind of its own", I find it nearly impossible to order it to do anything. Any plan I make seems doomed to fail, unless there is an outside pressure, like I have an appointment with somebody. I also was reminded how powerful meditation can be, and I would so much like to do more of it again. But ironically, this is one of the things I find impossible to tell my mind to do. As is writing for that matter, and I cannot tell you what a massive relief it is to find myself writing now. Massive, massive, massive.

As I said, I feel there are implications for society, too. It might be difficult to put this into words. Basically, I guess at the level of society you find the same patterns repeated as in our mind. And in fact, Minsky's 1986 book was called "Society of Mind", it works in the other direction as well. Our mind is a society of resources that work together. Likewise, our society generates an Übermind which goes in the direction that the most powerful resources (or agents, I think that might be a better term actually) determine it to go. And sadly, you have a mixture of "bully-in-the-playground" and "old boys club" phenomena here, in our current society. The ones who shout the loudest and punch the hardest, get the attention. And decisions get made by the ruling classes, and a shocking number of times in secret it seems. It is an interesting question now, how we can make the more thoughtful and sensible parts of that Übermind be heard more. Giving them a voice should be engrained in the structure of our societies, and that is what constitutions and the law are meant to do. Yet it looks like the power of those agents that keep things in check, aber being eroded, and that is scary, I can't help saying that again.

Also, those in power employ certain tactics to manipulate the public. I just hope - and believe - that they, too, often get things wrong in that respect. Whatever psychological knowledge they might have, they will not be able to steer the collective of our minds, as much as they would like to.

Are you ready to be Wholehearted?

On to the second book. I actually stumbled over that, too! In a motorway service station, in the over-priced WHSmith shop, of all places. The book is called "Daring Greatly", subtitle "How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead". Quite a mouthful, and I have to confess that I normally have an aversion to titles like that and the books they normally adorn. But there are exceptions. And the exception here is that it is written by Brené Brown who has given one of my all-time favourite TED talks, and that upon brief inspection of the contents, I just really wanted to have this book.

I read the book in a single day. My most concise description of it would be: It is telling the truth. The truth that lies at the heart of our experience of being human. This is the other side of Minsky, this is the "illusion" that the mind creates, which is, for us, the truth we live in. It is telling this truth in very pragmatic terms, with only passing references to such things as mindfulness (her therapist tells her: "Less thinking. More feeling." Something I can fully subscribe to). Based on qualitative research. Not quantitative, thankfully! One of my pet peaves in TED talks, is the total straightness of curves and absence of standard deviations in the "statistics" they show there. So, what is this truth. In short: To be able to live life to the full, we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be seen. We also need to be prepared for some (sometimes immense) discomfort and pain. And we need to build up something Brené Brown calls "shame resilience". As a good summary of her conclusions, just watch the TED talk.

It is not at all an easy feat. In fact, BB herself says that she has created a roadmap with her research, but is not necessarily a good traveller along that map. At the start of her journey, she states, she was "2 for 10" and is still not always able to embrace the hallmarks of "Wholeheartedness", a term she has coined for the ability to live life to the full and with authenticity.

In any case, the themes of this book are really important to me. Shame is something I have felt a lot, especially in my earlier life. And it has this tendency to self-perpetuate, and to operate in silent. So, kudos to Brené Brown for dragging it out in the open like that and give it a good "beating". I say, it is important to me, but it should be to everybody really, including a lot of people who are not even aware of how shame, fear of failure, illusions of scarcity, shape their lives. I wish this idea does in fact spread and enter the collective unconscious, without ever becoming too dogmatic, that is always the danger.

To conclude, one quote from the section on parenting. That chapter had a bit of an eye-opening effect with some thoughts I had not previously come across or forgotten. One thing worth noting is that your actions and the way you present yourself to the world, has a much greater influence than anything you say to your child. This is again something I believe to be absolutely true. And this. It seems an important message in our safety-obsessed times of helicopter-parenting:

"I no longer see rescuing and intervening as unhelpful, I now think about it as dangerous. Don't get me wrong — I still struggle and I still step in when I shouldn't, but I now think twice before I let my discomfort dictate my behaviours. Here's why: Hope is a function of struggle. If we want our children to develop high levels of hopefulness, we have to let them struggle. And let me tell you, next to love and belonging, I'm not sure I want anything more for my kids than a deep sense of hopefulness."




This post was written 5 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
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The Future, the Past and Marvin

This post was written 6 years ago.
Tue, 01 Jan 2013

Today I checked Twitter for a bit and saw some statements about 2012 having been a difficult year, by at least three people. I don't think I saw any that said 2012 had been a brilliant year for them. Are there years that collectively are perceived as difficult? Does every year seem difficult in hindsight? Or are people more prone to state a year was difficult than that it was great? I don't know. I think politically, for Europe and for the UK (and not only) it has been a bit worrying as well, and this might have seeped into the collective unconsious as well as having concrete effects down the line. We had the Olympics and the European Championship, and - as many other people - I enjoyed watching these events. We often had people over for the football, of English, German and Austrian nationality, and had some nice little parties. And watching the Olympics Opening Ceremony, I felt so proud I almost forgot I'm not British. Still I could not help but sometimes feel a bit cynical as well. The ancient Romans already said "panem et circenses" if what I learned at school is right. You have to give the people bread and games to keep them happy, and, I suppose, distracted from getting too enraged with their government and start rebelling and demanding stuff.

If you think now this is going to be a highly political rant you are wrong. No, just some random thoughts.

I am in this rather pensive mood, and also feeling a bit melancholy, about time passing, and passing so quickly. 2013! How unbelievable; this was a date in the far future, how can it be here now? How amazing, too. Twelve years after 2001, and only six years away from 2019, the year Blade Runner is set in.

The Society of Mind

So, yes, this post is random. I am sitting here in my mum's living room, my daughter lying on one of the sofas, and the dog Marvin on the other, both asleep and snoring. And I will just write about the things that have been on my mind in these holidays, things I thought I could put in a blog post or posts.

I wanted to write about Marvin. Not Marvin the dog, but the person the dog was named after. Marvin Minsky. More precisely, I wanted to write about a book he wrote, called Society of Mind. I read this book in just a few days, whenever I found the time, and till late at night; I somehow felt compelled to read it, after I had rediscovered it, lying on a shelf. My late father who was a big admirer of Minsky's had bought it once. The book was published in 1986, so you could argue whether it is not a bit dated. I don't know anything about the current state of Artificial Intelligence so I couldn't say. Yet I think the ideas in this book can stand on their own. Also, the way the book is written and layed out is interesting in itself. It is written in the form of essays that each span up to one page, in the edition I was reading. And the layout and typography look quite modern too. But these are just factors that support the content.

Easy is the hardest thing

So what is it about? Luckily there is a good wikipedia entry about the Society of Mind theory, so I don't have to explain it all. I like this description of the book: "It is a collection of ideas about how the mind and thinking work on the conceptual level". Yes, there are lots of theories and models, there are no proofs about how things work in reality. And yet these ideas don't seem far-fetched, actually many seem very plausible (although I don't believe at all in his explanation of foreign accents! - he suggests you lose the ability to learn the precise phonetics of a language at puberty, so there's no risk of you picking up the phonetics of your child's baby language. Hmm) The reason why they are quite plausible is that they stem from attempts to build machines that have some abilities of the human mind, starting with just very "basic" ones, things that children learn. One fascinating conclusion in the book is that it is actually much more difficult to make a machine do something we regard as basic, than things that require higher mathematics and logic. It is easier to build a chess computer than a robot that carries out actions that we learn as little children. We think of things as basic because we were not conscious of learning them, and always had them available by the time we had learned to think. Minsky is disecting the processes that it takes to, for example, build a tower from building blocks. It really is quite complicated if you think about it.

What brains do

The book touches on theories of child development, psychology, and of course programming in its aim to explain how thinking and perceiving might work, and how consciousnes might arise. Minsky at one point sums up his findings with "Minds are simply what brains do". There is no "hidden ingredient", not what we think of as a soul. This also means there isn't really a free will. Everything that happens in our mind, every decision we take, is a consequence of what we have learnt plus random events. This is not what we like to hear, and in fact we need the illusion that there is a "me", an individuum that is "in control", constant and immutable. We need it for our mind to function properly. For my part, I find this all makes sense, and it echoes things I have read about, or thought before. Not that I'd ask myself these things all that often.

I wouldn't even say I am generally that interested in theories of consciousness, I used to be a lot more. But I have returned to this interest for a few days and it was a fascinating excursion. And I think a lot of the ideas from that book will stick in my mind, just mostly unconscious, but some of them might pop up here and there.

As one last thought, of course another consequence of these ideas, if they were right, would be that we could in fact build thinking machines, given we find out enough about how the subprocesses work that together make up the work of our minds..

I would have liked to write even more about some implications of the book's ideas, it is all coming back to me now, but I have to leave it here. I did not think I'd write so much anyway.

It is all good, as probably my most important short/medium-term goal for now is to write more. And it doesn't matter for the moment what it is about. It doesn't matter that the start of this post has no apparent connection to the rest of it (indirectly it has because it's somewhat about the mind too, I guess). I have a feeling there might be a number of random posts on here, about things that just pass through my mind - actually that's what a lot of blogs do, isn't it. It's a good exercise for getting things from your unconscious before your very eyes, and doing it "publicly" provides some perhaps necessary cohesion and format. And I don't need to feel guilty about writing it, as I am not urging anybody to read it. In fact not many will read it, but some might, and that will be just the right people.


This post was written 6 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: books / mind_stuff /
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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work - and Twitter

This post was written 9 years ago.
Wed, 27 May 2009

Alright. This will be a round-up of a talk I heard last week(!), plus my own thoughts on the topic. I have very little time to write.. The talk was called "The pleasures and sorrows of work", by Alain de Botton who has written a book of the same title. This event was part of the "Festival of Ideas" in Bristol.

The topic is close to my heart, as it must be for many people, but I was also interested in seeing AdB as a speaker. He turned out to be a very good one. He went straight "in medias res" and gave what I suppose was a summary of his book with extensive explanations of his thoughts. It was also very entertaining. He talked about people with various professions he had come across during his research. In one case this was everyone who had handled a fish on its way form the Indian Ocean to - Bristol.

Then there was a careers counsellor, people at an accountancy firm, people marketing a biscuit (did I get this right?)... He also talked about his work as a writer which I found particularly interesting. What also stuck with me, were thoughts about the nature of work. One thing was his view that the main criterium to see a job as fulfilling is that it makes a positive difference in people's lives. The more I think about it, I think this is really true - for most people. AdB observed that the sense of making somebody's life a little better was often lost these days. For example, if you are a worker on a production line, making biscuits, you are not involved in selling the biscuits and seeing the satisfaction people get from it. (By the way there was a really funny reply to a question at the end - the question was staged I suppose - about what biscuits people in the South West were inclined to eat. AdB confessed to being a huge fan of fig rolls)

Also very notable was his account of seeing the careers counsellor being called in to conduct a session with workers that were being made redundant. AdB stated that he was initially very "suspicious" of this approach, it seemed forcefully optimistic in an American way, which he thought was often rousing suspicions with British people. However, he found it extremely moving when he saw people taking part in this session. It involved them being asked to stand up and talk about their childhood dreams. AdB recalled what a huge impression it could make when a burly 45-year-old man stood up and started talking about what he had wanted to become as a child. The approach the careers counsellor generally took was, first of all, giving people a piece of paper and making them write down everything they liked. This would bring to light what people's real interests were. It would very often turn out that a very little thing had made them veer off course. A throw-away remark by somebody, the wish of their father, some discouraging experience.

Interestingly, according to AdB, the notion that a job should bring fulfillment and also the idea that a job - kind of - defines who you are, is relatively young. AdB jokingly fixed the turning point to "middle of the 18th century". Before that, apparently people didn't expect to get any joy out of work. At this point I was thinking how starkly this contrasts with Tom Hodgkinson's view who in his book "How to be free" often cites the middle ages as providing a much better work environment, where people knew where there place was, didn't work too long hours, and often sang while they were doing their work. Maybe the two authors were talking of different things. In any case I cannot speak for or against either of them, as I don't know about that long gone-by past.

There would be so much more that one could mention about this talk. I'm sure it has been done somewhere on the web (I haven't looked) but more so certainly in his book. Which makes me think I should probably buy it. He has marketed it well to me ;) Shall I really speak about my own experience now? - Why not: I had a completely analogue childhood. The only times first signs of the dawning digital age showed up were when my father brought home funny coloured cards with lots of rectangle-shaped holes in them. (what are these called in English? - in German it's simply "Lochkarten" [punch cards of course!]) . So I couldn't possibly dream of becoming a web person. But as soon as I had discovered the principle of how to create websites, I was hooked. Without actually realising how much so. For a long time something has been missing - the belief and the will to go through with something you really like, I think, and the ability to take the necessary steps. I had mentioned to friends - and once even to a boss - that what I would really like to do is create websites. But it never occurred to me that I could actually try to make that my profession. I still sometimes have doubts about it. The worst thing is to compare yourself with other people, especially looking at other people's stylish websites. As Tim van Damme (the maker of http://madebyelephant.com) once wrote: Don't look at CSS galleries (although I think he certainly shouldn't have a problem with that).

But as mentioned before, I HAVE to re-design this my own website - or have several themes that can be selected, Jeremy Keith style. Keep on dreaming, baby ;) . Anyway, I do think I have found/will soon find a way to apply my skills in a meaningful and money-earning way, and I am quite glad about that. I think I love web design - because it is all about communication. Communication was not always easy for me as a child - mostly for external reasons - but something always important to me - it makes me see beauty in other areas of life. Since seriously learning about web design, I learn more and more about design principles and I have started to look at why things appear beautiful . I can only recommend to everyone doing it. - Because I like the marriage of creativity with the technical, logical. As a child I loved things like "Einstein's riddle" (different coloured houses, different nationalities, whose pet is the fish?) - more reasons I have not time to list.

I actually wanted to write about my Twitter experience as well. But that would be too much now, and is off topic. Just one thing, Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton) actually started following me after I had tweeted about him. But I think that's an app that just follows everyone who mentioned his name on Twitter. Still, looks quite nice to read "Alain de Botton" is now following you on Twitter! ;)

This post was written 9 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: books / work / webdev / twitter /
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