Posts tagged society

It is impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force; it is envy masked as triumphant carnival.

Slavoj Žižek: Shoplifters of the World Unite

Still on the subject of last month’s London riots (and beyond), Slavoj Zizek bests my ability to articulate a few (hopefully) nuanced thoughs. His indictment is complete: conservatives blind to the fact the riots were themselves a conservative outburst, leftists too vain to recognize impotence and too eager to opt in on to any popular outbursts without discrimination; and a particular insight about both sides’ lack of ‘world’, which I read as the refusal to acknowledge nuance, complexity, and the staggering fact that there are seven thousand million people around. Perhaps an good example of this — and as picking on the right-wing would be too easy — is the typical leftist blind and uncompromising refusal of nuclear energy, as if the option was between nuclear and nothing — it is obviously, a complex choice between nuclear and other equally harmful sources, as even a similar megawattage of ‘sustainable’ sources such as wind or solar is arguably ecologically harmful (and even if people in their little community believe they need no such amounts of energy, perhaps their 7000 million meat-eating, Benz-craving neighbours disagree, and what to do then?).

Again, a very recommended and uncompromising read.


The Null Device has some interesting thoughts on last week’s London ‘riots’. I think Andrew’s analysis nails it: the wave of stealing and violence may have started as a legitimate protest against a killing by the police, but very soon became an excuse for random looting and violence, and in a way the endgame of ‘Third Way’ neoliberalism — consumers who wouldn’t afford it otherwise stealing the bling (plasma TVs, iPhones, Timberlands) they were taught to want, excercising their ‘freedom’ to “claim back their taxes”, as a looter said in an interview (and as the post is right to point out just reeks of Tea Party rhetoric). All in all, an appaling sequence of events in which people excused themselves with far-right populist utterances, and I’m glad to see that, believing in the news, no exceptions are being made and looters are being tried as the ordinary criminals they acted like.

What I find painful is how yet again a vast number of so-called Leftists seem completely unable to tell their friends from their enemies, and seem to endorse actions motivated by ideas in the opposite ideological end. This “enemy of our enemy” cannot be our friend!, and I find it disgusting when people post dismissive slogans like “bankers are the real looters” as if two wrongs made things right. One can almost imagine certain kinds of leftist cheerleaders being sympathetic for thugs in brown shirts and combat boots smashing the windows of McDonalds restaurants: if we are for anyone or anything against globalization, high finance, etc., where does one draw the line after all? The Left should understand once and for all that there are bad things (such as banks) and there are worse things (like fascism gaining mainstream currency); and self-described leftists should stop feeling so damn pleased about themselves: advertising a sense of moral superiority plugs right into the neoliberal way of thinking.

Looters were no indignados fed up with the corruption and the inherent self-destructivity of capitalism in a globalized world where full employment is no longer possible. The protesters were not like those camped out in southern Europe or Israel. These crave for a Future in which they are able to live as they please, free from the bondage of insecurity — a Future in which they even can even choose to lead ‘boring’ lives like raising a family. The ‘freedom of choice’ offered by neoliberals (i.e. the “competitiveness” between products, say Android or iOS, or Pepsi or Coca-Cola) are completely irrelevant in comparison, even ridiculous. And yet in London there were no misérables stealing bread. Instead they stole bling, and took the opportunity to act on their prejudices, burning down GLBT bookstores, a warehouse full of indie music, and another of antique furniture. Looters were stormtroopers, destroying what they didn’t like: A Clockwork Orange rather than V for Vendetta. And thanks to them, we now have mainsteam talk of Chinese-style Internet censorship in Europe while governments from Lybia to Iran run away with the West’s hypocrisy and stage mock demonstrations in support of those ‘freedom fighters’ with brand-new Nikes. Are these the friends we Socialists* want?

Just to reiterate: the enemy of my enemy is quite often not my friend. Let’s be clear.

* The correct word for American readers is ‘Liberals’. Of course, ‘liberal’ completely changes meaning across the Atlantic, so my own use of ‘neoliberal’ or ‘liberal’ in the post should be interpreted as ‘conservative’ by those in North America. The mind boggles.

Misc. links June 25th - Aug 2nd

Here’s something that every true hacker knows: doers know a lot better.

Narcissism is on the Rise, and I believe not just in America. This is the thing many so-called ‘liberals’ (in the European right-wing sense) don’t get: late (neo-)liberalism goes way past the economic laissez faire of older days. Since the 1970s or 80s libertarian polics have started to embed very nefarious ideas about merit and individualism; it is extremely tempting for the rich and privileged to embrace a philosophy in which caring for others is considered a bad thing. We are staring at the consequences, yet the belief most people have that they too can become part of the elite and Show Everyone Else The Finger is what keeps the status quo.

On the subject of online courses worth taking, here’s Stanford’s Computer Science 101 (using Javascript) and MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science (if you rather prefer the typographical neatness of Python). Harvard College’s CS50, by contrast, has a more classical approach, relying on C at the start (but eventually spanning other languages).

The Web Right Now, according to The Oatmeal.

I haz Stellar — I’ll post some thoughts on it once I’ve got the time to play a little more with it.

Arri camera menu simulators. If you want to know how the user interface of hundred thousand dollar cinema equipment feels like.

Starships can be lonely places.

Football: a fearless penalty kick (still, if I was the coach I would have that guy substituted); what happens when you mix a little volleyball and a lot of kung-fu.

Misc. links July 6th - 24th

Andy Rutledge has some thoughts on the terrible design of news websites, and some actual proposals at making it better. A very interesting read, and some very interesting proposals, but I have a feeling news websites are defective by design. There’s no advertising revenue on cutting down confusion and unnecessary clicking. Services such as Readability and Instapaper are allowed to let ‘power users’ actually read stuff (some people do the darndest things!), but their very existence is a sign media companies don’t care about the readers, and content is often considered cattle feed. They’d give us lorem ipsum every day if we read the ads.

If your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault. So says Anil Dash (warning, the link crashes consistently on Chrome, which is something the author should really look into). I agree: moderation is essential. I’ve often learned this the hard way, but there’s no incompatibility between aggressive moderation and freedom of expression (after all the Internet is big, and there are enough free places where you can exercise your expression). It’s all a matter of my house, my rules.

Ted Dziuba is a great programmer, he even built a Facebook clone in 4 days. A great humourous play on the stupid job offers that ask for incredible complicated feats of Web development for indeterminate future money (or, I would add, the digital sweatshops *ahem*, ‘creative industries’ that ask for developers to be proefficient in every language known to Man, with some design software thrown in, which only shows ignorance and a certain path to insolvence).

The Cinefamily is my new favourite blog about cinema. It rawks.

Whose Ideal Was This, Anyway?: the evolution of the ideal body, from late 19th century women in corsets to early 21st century women on the edge of the Uncanny Valley. The contrast between the images of Bond Girls 40 years apart, Ursula Andress and Halle Berry, is the difference between an image of a woman and an image of a Formula1 racing car — an image of science and technology, but not an image of a woman, really. Men, by contrast, have had an easier time keeping the media at bay from blasting their self-image, even if some things are ridiculous — see the steroidal ultra-muscular action figure.

How to Become a Scientist Over and Over Again

A very interesing Scientific American article about Erez Lieberman Aiden, a twenty-first century Renaissance Man with work in lingustics, mathematics, engineering and genetics.

Although I strive to be interested in multiple things, this article made me feel like a very low-ranking amateur-division polymath, if ever. But even though there’s no contest there — some people are just geniuses the way some are natural leaders, others run 100 meters in 9.5 seconds and others fully recharge on just 4 hours sleep —, this is the kind of success-story article I find misleading: even if corporate and academic establishments are supposedly supportive of All-Round People, often these will only actually get there through a mix of far-out genius, luck and nepotism — and I feel there’s a very thin line between being perceived as ‘a genius’ and ‘a deadbeat who can’t focus’, very much like the thin line between being brilliant and being a self-obsessed douche (think of you favourite sport for thousands of examples of this). The truth is, establishments, being establishments, want drones. Caring about multiple kinds of stuff may get you plenty of pats in the back and the kind of weak praise that is disgusting the way weak handshakes are, but doesn’t correlate with big cash payments and career advancement (see most true Renaissance Men — for each sponsored millionaire like Michelangelo there were dozens of peers striving to make ends meet).

But still, being interested in things is interesting. Keep doing it.

Everything is stupid

There’s been much noise and disinformation about the so-called IMF/EU ‘bailout’ of Portugal, which I chose to spell with quotes because it’s not really a bailout, but rather a loan made under such paradoxical draconian conditions — eg. restoring ‘competitiveness’ by lowering corporations’ welfare taxes while raising taxes on the energy they spend; privatizing only the public companies that actually made a profit for the State — the portuguese economy won’t be able to pay it. It’s no stretch for conspiracies theorists to see Portugal (and Greece, and probably the rest of Southern Europe) out of the Euro before you can say ‘loanshark’.

There’s a saying about “nobody is ever right in a home without bread”, which no-one seems to acknowledge. Our incumbent Prime-Minister, José Sócrates, is perhaps the most hated man that ever lived, and there’s no shortage of newspaper articles, viral videos, tweets and remarks on Facebook blaming him for everything, from gasoline prices to the shortages of second-gen iPads on retailers. Most common though, is the charge our PM and a small cadre of ‘boys’ “ruined our country”.

I mean, they did. But so did you and me and everyone else. Our politicians are our representatives, and I don’t mean this in the democratic sense that we elected them. When people say our ministers and MPs and public company execs ‘lost touch with reality’, I contend they didn’t: they’re our hyperreal selves. Whenever I see someone linking to a blog post listing the salaries of politicians, or to a video clip of a report about the Parliament’s luxury car fleet, quite often it reeks of envy-fueled outrage. For it is hard to detect a feeling of injustice in a people who generally like to brag about their own consumption.

Most of us in Portugal live damn confortably. When our grandparents tell us their personal stories of hunger, of their shoes being their most prized possessions, we fail to believe it. Most haven’t seen something like Las Hurdes, the shocking documentary Luís Buñuel did in 1933 about the misery in a part of Spain just the other side of the border (and we can be sure this side of the hill wasn’t any greener), and those who did think bygones. We’ve come a long way, and we’re spoiled brats, who yearn for a past that never existed just because the cable TV bill went up. So spoiled, a whole generation of graduates has the luxury of considering themselves ‘slaves’ after volunteering to work for free, basically sending the job market the message that their knowledge and studies are worth zero euros per hour.

Politicians have the responsability of their leadership. But we, the portuguese people, fell well on the turbo-capitalist addiction. It starts at home, from credit cards to car loans (and I do have one), from the habit of dining out on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to the home-owning mania, from plasma TVs to tablets to holidays in Brazil. We hear people complaining that because of the crisis, they’ll have to keep the same car for two years. We see parents buy their twelve year-olds all game consoles known to Man. We made tax evasion a national sport, and mistake being gentle for being a loser.

Still, for all their self-righteousness about their being Workers and our being lazy pigs (spend a year in our climate and try being anything else — someone said “geography is destiny”, rightly so), there’s something quite critical the leaders of the richer countries of Europe like to forget about: although in the past two decades their taxpayers contributed a lot of money to Portugal via the European Union, they weren’t actually giving it away for our politicians to mismanage at will. All that money actually came with a lot of strings attached, and all those countries bought something from us — a dismantlement of a great part of our agricultural and industrial capacity, and our conversion to a EU-enforced services-based economy —, basically an almost irreversible ‘non-compete’ clause that made Portugal and other Southern European countries utterly dependent on foreign imports — Northern exports — and credit. Part of their growth was our loss.

In the end, though, it’s our collective fault, and no better proof of that than our denial to acknowledge we ever did anything wrong, as if our Prime-Minister was the only obstacle between Portugal and Paradise. So convinced only a supervillain kept us from glorious destiny, take as an example the absurdity of this discussion over at Metafilter, regarding a YouTube video called What the Finns Should Know About Portugal. That video was a desperate plea for Finland’s approval of the EU bailout put together by bored employees at some right-wing municipality, full of unproven (or even disproven) factoids regarding Portugal’s delusions of historical awesomeness, with a bit of ill-willed moral blackmail at the end. Despite the obvious fact we are not so awesome anymore (and who gives a shit, really, “our Ronaldo is better than the brazilian Ronaldo?”), this video spread like wildfire through Facebook and Twitter, and its only practical effect was convincing the rich Northern Europeans we are in fact all a bunch of douchebags. PIGS, in fact.

Put simply, we’d rather stay home, and movies are made for people who’d rather go out.

The Day the Movies Died - a gripping read about the sad state of film production in the US everywhere. It’s easy to blame greedy philistine producers, but the truth is most grown-up audiences rather stay home watching Mad Men — quality audio-visual time indeed, but part of a vicious circle that’s turning movie theatres into branches of Toys’R’Us…

White-collar criminology findings falsify several neo-classical economic theories.

Bruce Schneier quotes a paper on ‘control fraud’ theory, discussing how those in position of power (CEOs, heads of state and bosses in general) are the biggest security risk. According to the author this kind of fraud causes greater losses than all property crime put together (no shit?), but what I found especially resonating is the above quote. Even though I know almost nothing about Economics, whenever I watch the pundits on television I get the feeling Economics might be only slightly more of a science than Astrology. Then again, when I read something about the subject by some seemingly uncompromised economist, I find it a little more believeable as a scientific discipline.

So I’m left wondering: is the science of Economics itself a victim of control fraud?

An animation of a Slavoj Zizek lecture about the turbo-capitalist bundling of charity.

This is actually quite tangent to the International School on Digital Transformation I attended last week here in Porto, the gist of most talks being that what applies to individuals — getting help is a good thing but positive change unvariably must come from within — also applies to communities. Having computers and cutting-edge technology rain down on impoverished communities is not only useless, it’s actually harmful. Despite what Bono may have people believe, you can’t just helicopter to a favela like some guy from the future and give away a few Apple surplus products. Even though The Diamond Age is perhaps my favourite piece of sci-fi literature, the whole premise that giving a very poor girl a leather-cased iPad 4 preloaded with the Young Lady Illustrated Primer app will make her a princess is just wrong. Community change comes from the development of sustainable models and practices, finding what you can do with what you have within.

Add these to Zizek’s arguments about why turbo-capitalist ‘charity’ is so harmful. Paying more for an yoghurt carrying a label saying they will give 1 cent to plant trees in the Amazon forest is a bit like paying off the 15th century Catholic Church whenever you sinned.

I also find it quite depressing the people willing to enter the capitalistic-indulgence routine are the ones who are always complaining about taxes, despite driving on public roads, having both sanitation and clear drinkable water in their homes, having access to very cheap education and (still) very cheap healthcare, and all kinds of entrepeneurship benefits. They’ll be happily ‘vanity-taxed’ on their coffee beans — feeling good about arguably giving some third world producers more money —, but God forbid paying IRS/IRC/IVA taxes that will be redistributed — for instance through unemployment benefits — to the “lazy bastards” they’ve just laid off so that they could afford that 300 horsepower Lexus hybrid. They’re like those people who go crazy if they wait for 10 minutes in a line at their local Registers Office, immediately comparing it to Soviet Bloc bureaucracies, but are more than willing to do the same without even questioning at their cable companies’ public helpdesk — you know, because the State is Evil but private companies aren ‘t.

Bring on the ‘soft apocalypse’! In the meantime, there are a few more interesting animated lectures here.

It’s true that my romantic life has produced some humorous anecdotes, but good stories seldom come from happy experiences.

Tim Kreidler — The Referendum. There are so many quotable sentences in this article, I just picked one. I may be still thirty, but totally identify with the writer — and the fact that Portugal is still a conservative society doesn’t help either. (via Kottke)