The Dictator’s Handbook is Self Falsifying

I’ve been reading “The Dictator’s Handbook” this week, a recommendation from CGP-Grey (youtube) and a damn good one. It’s a description of how people who want power, get power and how they keep it once they have it. I won’t go into the nitty gritty, but suffice to say that it has a lot of good things to say about murdering people to get what you want.

The idea I want to explore in this blog post is using understanding, and “Life the Universe and Everything”. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of listening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; in the story we are told:

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory mentioned, which states that this has already happened.

This is why in the story the answer to the question of Life the Universe and Everything is “42”, but that the question itself was unknown. Knowing both question and answer would cause the above self destruction/recreation and it’s imperative that the characters never find out both.

The nature of understanding in that universe is thus that it is not just non-understandable, but deliberately evasive. The rules of the game will change as soon as you know the rules of the game. Not in some god like way of keeping you in the dark deliberately, as if the universe had agency, but because somehow what you know is tied to how things work.

So how does this relate to Dictators?

Well the book is so good at explaining the mechanics of the interpersonal relationships in ruling a country or business that it may change the behaviour of people who have read the book. It may change their behaviour enough to actually make the book’s premise false. Not that it’s false when you haven’t read the book, only that it’s false when you have.

But, this make one giant Saturn sized assumption. That it is possible to change how you act in a certain circumstance given this knowledge. If it’s not changeable, then knowing it doesn’t matter and no amount of self-help or ingenious insights into the human condition will change our society. But the book’s preface is that knowing the rules that rulers rule by can help improve society, so it expects behaviour to be changeable and if is then someone somewhere will figure out how to exploit this new behaviour.

Once you have the sort of second order exploit, you get a very complicated dance between people who understand, people who do not understand and people who want to exploit either group.

Hence the mechanism described in the book will “instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable”. Thanks Douglas Adams.

To drive this idea a bit further. This in my mind creates two quantifiably different types of truth. That which is understandable but unchangeable is solid or foundational truth. Like Mathematics, knowing 2 + 2 = 5 and why doesn’t allow you to change it’s truthfulness. Then there is mutable truth, where knowing how and why something is true allows you to manipulate it into falsity. This is especially true in biological and social sciences where adversarial mechanisms are in constant flux.

What do you think?

Total Aid

In politics, I’m not happy. As the world becomes politically harsher, crueller and more self serving; we hear and see the heart breaking plight of millions of Syrians and others fleeing their war-torn countries.

Someone recently asked me what the difference is between the wars we have today and the First and Second World Wars. Apart from the global nature of the wars, the Syrian war is different because it’s not Total War. This concept involves the participating countries dedicating every part of their military, economic and civic power into fighting the war. This was very different from past wars, where non-combatants didn’t usually get slaughtered, far away factories didn’t get bombed and neutral nations didn’t get invaded for resources.

There’s pressure from both sides of the Atlantic to increase the amount of our country’s power dedicated to fighting Russia, Syria, whoever else. In the name of democracy, or in the name of survival. I’m just not sure it’s helpful for the two western countries doing the least for Syrians to be the ones advocating more violence.

For example. The UK Government is under attack for it’s position that foreign nationals should pay for all National Heath services. Including pregnant women from Syria. At this stage, anyone from Syria can hardly be said to have a country where you could send the bill, anyone who is missing a safe home country should be helped by the health system in the UK and anywhere else in the word. Not just emergency care, but pre-natal and other care too.

Instead of Total War and partial war I’d like to propose the concept of Total Aid and Equivalent Aid. The Later is simply that in times of crisis, we can mobilise our countries to fight, not fight with violence, but fight with compassion. To give everything we have to help, protect, heal and stabilise the people and structures that the crisis is threatening. This doesn’t have to be war, although the Syria crisis prompts me to consider this.

One would imagine us taking in Syrians in large numbers, to take the risk that a rare minority will be criminal or idealogical. Our security and police services ARE strong enough and competent enough to help too and I see no reason they should be missing from a plan for Total Aid. Health care, education, social support and basic structural support can come from all quarters of society, from all classes and all means. Your country needs you, to help another country.

Once mobilised, we our support and teaching would leave many people and their organisational structures able to go back and rebuild (if possible) or relocation and rebuild. It’s easier to rebuild if you have a social structure that’s not torn apart and the friendships and good will created by reaching out and embracing our brother country in whole would lead to better relations even surpassing idealogical and religious tensions.

We would also be leading by example and showing how strong we are that we can help so well and with so much good. Until the crisis is put to bed and the world as a whole can move on.

OK, so maybe you’re not convinced by Total Aid, maybe the troubles in the world could get so great that we need to think about our own lot. For you I offer option two. Equivalent Aid. That is, under agreement, treaty or convention a country will not spend money or take action with military violence without committing the same scale of operating and budget to helping survivors cope with what we have wrought on them.

I’d consider this the bare minimum human effort. The point at which a country goes from being a good country to a bad country. We are far from the point of spending the kinds of trillions on aid that we would have to to meet this target. But if we want to bomb places, if we want to invade things and generally mess up the place. Then we should at least be ready to pay for helping put some of it back together with equal force.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Free Software Faith for the Long Term

I’ve been an advocate for Free and Open Source Software for a long, long time. When I first got into it, it felt right, just, progressive. I struggle with how to communicate that feeling of freedom to others, to make them understand how important Free Software is.

When we talk of Free Software dialectic conflicts, there are two big fronts; the first is the idea that Proprietary software is a /better/ way to make software. Developers get paid, investors make money, huge profits can be poured into research and development. This is your Microsofts and Apples. Let’s ignore that idea today.

The second battle is practicalism. This idea says that it doesn’t matter how the software was made, just that it needs to work. Let’s explore why this idea is an important conflict. Practical solutions often favour the short term and the local. That is, they are solutions which usually a single person will make a decision about what software to use and the criteria most important is the cost (money, time, effort) to get it working in the here and now.

The conflict comes about because often Free Software is a more expensive proposition in the here and now. It’s more expensive because it takes more time to set up, or it’s tools are not tested as much, or not designed as well, or the more insidious reason: the wider world does not support Free Software causing the Free Software solution to be on the loosing end of a powerful network effect.

But proprietary software often has hidden costs. After the initial purchase costs, these are often either societal or long term costs. Societal and long term are the direct opposite of a practical decision. Thus they are not considered, or not valued highly when making the decision.

There is one parallel which I hate to make. Religion. Here is another societal and long term cultural device. Most religions ask participants to give up the bad behaviours in the here and now and be a little more patient for the better life or better after life. I’m horribly simplifying here so please forgive me. But religions mostly work on faith and their evangelicalism pressures people to consider the societal and long term. This is why I think Free Software advocates are so often compared to religious fundermentalists. It’s a cheap shot; it does not follow that faith in Free Software is faith against evidence. That’s just a bad argument.

But it’s worth considering that Free Software is a hard sell precisely because it’s a societal good that requires powerful network effects on it’s side in order to be fully effective. Having a self-sacrificing religion of one is foolish, but a society of good intentions can be a powerful force. We in the Free Software world often have to invest more, pay more and spend more time to make the Free Software world we want to see, and to see it happen for ourselves and our friends and families. But this will only be the case so long as the network effects are against us and I don’t believe they always will be.

Now consider Ubuntu. Here’s platform that tried to move some of the power away from practicamism by making Ubuntu easy to install, easy to use, a joy to behold. Things that are genuinely empowering to Free Software. As it built itself up, the negative network effects started to weaken and Ubuntu users enjoyed for a time, a level of support from the wider world that had not been experienced before.

But that naturally led to the in-fighting. It’s typical for the front runner to be targeted by all the also-ran distributions. The FSF targeted Ubuntu’s practicalist concessions (even though they were fairly minimal), Other distributions ripped Ubuntu and their community apart, trying to block Ubuntu’s success. I’m not saying they meant to do it, or that it was a conspiracy. But that these other communities did not see Ubuntu’s success as their own success and naturally tried to undermine it as humans are likely to do.

So for very human reasons, we’re here with no real champion for Free Software in the practical arena. Ubuntu has fallen for its own hype and is not able to being the Free Software faith with it, even if it was successful. The societal and long term benefits of Free software remain largely unknown to the majority of the world and we wait patiently for a successor that can try again to change the world.

What do you think? Comment below.

Short Text Alert Notification (STAN)

I recently got a new phone, and a new place to keep it. My previous phone was damaged when I sat on it and realized that keeping it in a back pocket was a bad idea. I’m keeping my new phone in a belt pouch with a Velcro seal and it takes me slightly longer to get at the phone than it would if it was in my pocket.

And so I was, a few days ago, messaging people using SMS and then putting my phone away. Several times my interlocutors would send me short affirmative messages which I would have to read by pulling out my phone from it’s pouch, turn it on with it’s (not always first try) security and then read a message that says “OK” or “Yes”.

So I thought; why not have the phone change it’s notification sound for simple messages? A table of possible short messages which would then translate into a different notification sound and allow the user to understand a simple message without having to pick up their phone, unlock it and read the message.

This would certainly make sending short messages slightly more polite as it can seem aggravating sometimes to have to read short messages. Even though it’s not the fault of the sender really.

  1. The idea would require a customized default messaging app for android, or possibly system configuration, I’m unsure how notification sounds are stored.
  2. A research stage where short messages on multiple phones was collected into a corpus of English messages. Each classified into what it probably means.
  3. An additional corpus of emoji messages that can be easily converted into sound. Example a kissing emoji into a kissing sound.
  4. A restriction on the time between the previous message to/from the sender and the notification. Say half an hour. This is to prevent an affirmative messages which arrive a week after the last correspondence from confusing the recipient.
  5. A secondary research phase where a group of people’s would have the app installed (replacing their messaging app) and would self report if the new notification sounds made any difference over a couple of months of use.

This is a sort of imaginary plan, but I could see this being useful. But the only way it would be come mainstream is if it was adopted by Google directly into it’s own messaging app. A stepping stone towards that would be adoption of the modified message app into after market android such as the Cyanogenmod project. The stepping stone would certainly allow more data to be collected about it’s functional use out int he wild.

Another alternative stepping stone would be to approach a manufacturer or telco network. But quite often apps these layers install are seen as bloat-ware and it might be better to avoid that route if possible.

What do you think? Good idea? bad idea?

To Parent or not to Parent

I was reading “Leave them kids alone” in my New Scientist last week and thought back to discussions I’ve had with my dear sister about how unhappy or happy our upbringing was and what it might have done to our resulting adulthood.

This is a difficult topic because our childhood contained many horrors, much that was difficult and down right damaging. But speculating on which parts of it have made us weaker and which parts have made us stronger, is just as subjective to us as it would be from anyone from the outside.

Poverty is like that. Not all bad, but not at all good.

But getting back to the thrust of the book review above. The warning there is that modern parents are far too attentive to their children. They structure their lives too much and expect far too much from them.

As someone who came from a family that was too insecure to provide much structure at all, I have to reflect on this. Was my ability to hang out with friends until 2am from the ages of 13, good or bad? Was I ever given too much latitude? Probably.

But then I think to the if the goal is to make your child’s environment supportive and loving no matter what they do, seems to have produced the most positive of my friends and the most well behaved children I know.

I think kids are all different. They’re born different and they grow differently as they come of age and learn. I think natural development of brains mostly shakes out the stupid from most people I know. It might be that we’ve all had experiences that changed us, or I think, it might just be something human brains do.

So in a way, I don’t think we should be too anxious about our children. They’re going to be ok so long as they don’t get injured, or have severely negative mental issues. Letting them play will make them wider and more social individuals, and providing them ways to study will make them deeper and more capable. But only so much as the balance between nature and nurture will allow itself to be bent and even then I think most of the middle class in both the UK and USA have left that balance far behind.

My plan with violet, for as much as I have one at all, is to provide her with as much opportunity as possible without being disappointed if she doesn’t take to any of them. I can only keep her safe in a loving home and that must be my primary goal beyond thinking too hard about her personal development.

What are your thoughts? and do you think the article above should have mentioned Gen-X vs. Gen-Y like it does?

Review: goodnight Sweetheart

I’ve just watched the special for goodnight sweetheart (BBC Sept 2nd 2016). Goodnight Sweetheart was a sitcom/drama back in the 90s about a tv repairman (Garry) who finds a portal back to the 1940s during the world war London Blitz. This deeply flawed time traveler then flits back and forth between the 1990s and the 1940s with a woman in each era.

The show was and still is, very well written. The jokes are masterfully done and I appreciate how much the show dovetailed the two times.

** Spoilers below, but I think spoilers add to the experience **

The part I always found fascinating is the time travel stories. There’s one episode where he has to stop pearl harbor attacks, he fails, goes back to the 90s to discover everything changed. Apparently in his universe he was able to stop the attacks by pretending to be a British spy. There’s another where he finds a portal back to the 1800s by going the wrong way round and discovers that Jack the ripper is actually a time traveler from the 1940s.

So this is a sci-fi and a comedy. But it’s also a drama. The snarky biting tension between his wife Evon and him as his marriage falls apart, the pressure on his friend Ron who’s business and life is ruined by Gary’s self centered story. It’s the best possible balance and the three way split between funny, interesting and serious reminds me a lot of Back to the Future; where some quite complex (for mainstream) time travel is the backdrop for some funny shenanigans. The only difference is that Goodnight Sweetheart has more time over six seasons to develop and the drama is a lot more serious when it’s there.

I’m writing this so my friends in the USA can find themselves a copy and see if they like it too. It’s an off-brand British sci-fi of the best kind. Something I wish we did more of to be honest. But hopefully this series has enough seasons to really binge watch.

The new special which caused this blog entry was excellent. Although it’s not a good idea to watch it without having seen the original series. In fact the show should be watched in order as there’s a lot of layers that build on each other as the show progresses and even the jokes and often back references. For example Gary playing music from the Beatles during the war, and then everyone believing that the famous band stole all their hits from Gary.

It was very funny seeing Gary, who often would be the one to be ‘in-on-the-joke’ with regard to technology and time travel, be thrown into 2016, where he’s been missing for 17 years. He tries to use a public phone box, but they’re all not-phones (the gags are great). No one responds to him because they’re all on their phones and there’s just a ton of jokes at the expense of how things have changed since the 1999. The Adel song was quite sweet actually, it’s hard to imagine Gary learned the song in a single car ride, but I’ll forgive it because it fits so well for what he’s been through.

Well, if you’re interested in the show. Check it out now! and let me know in the comments what you thought.

Talking to Friends about things

I have a family who aren’t religious. Some of them might go to church, and if they do, they’ve never mentioned it. Others are spiritual, in that they search for ways to understand the world and try to come to grips with everything through a non-academic social philosophy. This is important for most people, but I think especially important to the poor and working class who quite often see their lives twisted capriciously by unknown forces.

On the other hand, I’m a skeptic. A rationalist who has done a bit of philosophical reading (enough to be embarrassing at least). When I was younger I was much more hard line about my rationalism, anti-god, anti-fairy, anti-mystical thinking. I was righteous as only a neerdy teenager with a degree in wikipedia can be. And it did put a strain on my relationships with family. Although to be honest, most of my family at pretty kind to all sorts of odd thinking and my rationalism didn’t seem mad or anything, just one of many colours available in the pallet of local family philosophies.

As I’ve aged and consumed more understanding about skeptical thinking and pro-social philosophy; the two have often been at an interesting contention. How to be rational enough not to get taken in by gimmicks and snake oil, but social enough not to sneer and demean friends and family who have taken to believe in those things.

Over the years I’ve learned that there is an important factor about humans that is important to understand… we take shortcuts. A lot of them. When I say I believe in science, science based policy or health care, or that I trust the data, this is a shortcut. I haven’t gone into all the data, I haven’t read the papers and done due diligence. I’ve trusted that the network of trust I have between the people involved and the ideas we share is enough that my modest reading with my small contributions in critique is enough to be far more confident than my personal data has any right to make me.

A peer group with a shared set of ideas that embellish trust. That sounds like a tribe, a community of people who have created a in-group. And being part of that in-group makes me feel things, positive things when we socialise and anger when I feel it’s threatened.

But peer in-groups are exactly what my ginseng drinking family and friends have too. Just like me, they take short cuts too. There’s a trust there between the people involved and the understand about how the world works. I might claim that it’s moving away from what is true to what is not true, but that won’t change the social dynamics. And just like me, they will feel good when their ideas are verified and angry when those ideas (or people) are threatened.

So how is it even possible to challenge notion when almost anything you say will result in either anger, frustration or a heavy rolling of eyes? I think it is possible, but only if one focuses on two specific points.

Firstly, the social aspect is important. The closer you are to someone, both physically and kinly, the better the chance is that your reasoning will be seen as helpful and not destructive. Having constructive conversations that aren’t about ourselves being verified as right, but about breaking the ideas down as a social activity between friends and then seeing what results are built back up, can I think go a long way to preserving friendships despite radically different views.

The second is to be stateless. By which I mean, you can’t go riding into battle all kitted out in skeptical pennant banners flying. Your ideas are yours and you shouldn’t stand behind a peer group while trying to discuss a contrary idea. That just turns it into a fight between your self-assigned clans. Which you can’t win, because your tribal leaders aren’t here to make peace or barter terms and you aint no hero ready to let your friendship fall on the sword of truth.

Besides, no one ever changed their mind because someone shouted the truth at them.

What do you think? How do you talk to people with drastically different perspectives?