Archive for April, 2008

It’s so hard to remain optimistic in 1934, 1984, oh right… it’s 2008…

 | April 14, 2008 10:14 am

I went to a Jewish school grade 1- grade 5. I spent my summer with my ultra-catholic, ultra-traditional German grandparents. My grandfather wore a Hitler-mustache. I’m told he used to say “I had mine first. Let Hitler shave his.” My grandparents were worried I would go to hell because I was going to a Jewish school. These opposing forces in my life left me a sort of perpetual inner conflict.

I recently gave my Swiss girlfriend Maus to read, and it was interesting hearing her perspective on it. Since I went to a Jewish school I grew up learning more about the holocaust than your average American, particularly on impact on the Jewish people and how it pertains to the modern Jewish identity, in particular Israel. Back there, my sister was the only kid I knew who didn’t personally know someone that had survived the holocaust. I think they all had a relatively direct connection to the Holocaust, whether it was a family member, or just a distant friend of the family now living in Israel. We spent a lot of time covering both the historical and emotional aspects thereof.

Now that was always kinda interesting for me, because I had to reconcile that with my German grandparents, who were responsible adults, even property owners, during the war. They were later refugees who had to leave their land in the Sudatenland, and resettle in Bavaria.

Now most Germans suffered as a result of WWII, by the end for certain. So as a result of this, and as a result of the moral implications of supporting the Nazis, it’s pretty hard to find a survivor who will admit to being supportive of Hitler and his policies. Okay, nowadays there aren’t so many survivors alive who were culpable adults during WWII, but back in the seventies there were plenty. I’m certain that if you would have taken a poll in the seventies, you would come to the conclusion that Hitler managed to take over and run Germany with the support of <1% of its population. This of course was not the case.

History shows, of course, that very very few of the German population actively opposed Hitler (I would love reference for this). Certainly not to the point of taking any significant risks. Well, very few of them survived it anyway, and my grandparents certainly did not. At the very least they supported Hitler with their silence and complacency, but they were my omi and opa! They were the next best thing (or maybe even sometimes better) to my parents! So of course I worshiped them. At the same time of course I believed every word they were teaching me at the IL Perez school.

I believe that it is for this reason that I worry so much about history repeating itself, with regard to the evils that feed fascism. Even if we disregard fascism per se, the fear of the harm (physical, psychological, economic and spiritual) that an out-of-control system or institution can perform is terrifying.

I knew my grandparents were sweet, nice, loving people, who almost certainly supported Hitler at some point in his career. This was never explicitly discussed, but I guess the majority of Germans supported Hitler at some point in his career, and I see no reason to believe that my Grandparents were an exception.Now, it’s impossible to get good information about this, because they didn’t have freedom of speech, but I wonder at what point most Germans stopped supporting him? Probably when it started negatively affecting their standard of living.

So I quickly came to the conclusion that anyone was capable of being a good nazi, just following orders. This of course proven by the Millgram experiment, but it’s a heady realization for an eight year old.

All of this is a really long winded buildup to saying that healines like: “Bosses’ power to check email”, and “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear”, and “Administration Set to Use New Spy Program in U.S.” really fill me with anxiety.

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Optimizing Happiness

 | April 8, 2008 2:58 pm

I once had an ethics professor who explained Hedonism as being an ethical theory in which the goal was to be as happy as can be (at least I hope that he explained it that way, my mandatory ethics class was a LONG time ago). Contrary to popular opinion, hedonism doesn’t mean abandoning ethics or morality.   Rather it means allowing ethics to come to  result from, or at least harmonize with,  people’s inherent selfishness. For example, people like safety, so they impose laws which punish murder and violent assault. People who enjoy those things will refrain from them because the happiness they gained from the illegal activities would be less than the happiness they would lose from the punishment (e.g. prison). Note the prof didn’t propose this as a system for an ideal world, rather as a framework for thinking about how the world works.

Hedonism has a pretty bad rap in the United States. The word is mostly used pejoratively, which I find ironic. We are after, constitutionally guaranteed the right to pursue happiness (cough). Neo-cons, who are the most anti-hedonist of the lot, are typically social darwinists, and believe firmly in the inherent selfishness of man. They believe deeply that this inherent selfishness can lead to an ideal world. They use this to justify those aspects of a free market which serve their interests. But they think Hedonism is bad. They accomplish this by simply not thinking about it very deeply. Trying to have a good time is bad because the bible tells them so. Well in fact, the preacher tells them the bible tells them so. Even those that bother to read the bible seem to only understand it selectively.  The neo-cons seek to build a society where people are inherently selfish, but not allowed to be happy.  I think this creates a twisted, self righteous, harmful and fundamentally unhappy society.

But I digress.  If we  leave the word Hedonism out of it, I think that most of us agree that, under certain constraints, it’s a good thing to strive to be happy (we may not agree on the constraints, but let’s leave that aside for the moment). I think I can also say, without fear that I will stir a great deal of controversy, that many of us aren’t having a lot of luck being happy.

Now for some of us, this is caused by certain pathological and easy to identify problems. Maybe they are problems we aware of, or maybe everyone can see it but us, but the fact is our unhappiness is our own fault. I couldn’t hazard a guess as to how many people are like this, but I think everyone knows one or two. But a great many of us are unhappy and can’t readily identify a cause, or even a significant variable which we can control. Thus more and more people turn to pharmaceuticals.

One of the most difficult variables to control is stress-levels. In fact, for a great many of us, excess stress is clear and beyond the dominant variable in the equation that determines out moods. For most of us, it’s pretty much impossible to decouple the problem of minimizing stress from maximizing happiness. It may even be possible to frame them as equivalent problems.

The problem is that optimizing happiness is incredibly difficult. If you’re dealing with a person who has their shit reasonably together, and has eliminated all the obvious problems over which they have any control, you are left with many, many significant and interdependent factors. The weather, your family, your lover or lack thereof, your diet, exercise. So if you’re trying to determine if the johaniskraut or the omega-3 fatty acid supplements are making any difference, or if it’s just because the weather has been a bit nicer lately.

So the problem is, once you get to certain point, it’s just bloody difficult to optimize happiness. There are so many significant variables it would be incredibly tedious (and stressful!) to keep track of them all. Beyond that many of the significant factors are terribly difficult to quantify. Mood itself is terribly difficult to quantify. Finally of course, it’s pretty taboo to talk about maximizing our own happiness. Tell someone one of your interests is pursuing enlightenment, see if they laugh.

Nevertheless, I predict that there will be a resurgence in this field of human endeavor. As pervasive-computing becomes a reality, people will begin tracking their own biometric data, and tracking those factors they think will have an influence. Biofeedback therapies will advance. Someone will create an open access database to allow people to freely contribute their data, and we will begin to explore inwardly, using technological tools.

There will be resistance to this. It will be considered hedonism. The technology, data, and human energy involved will be directed towards sex and drugs. Some individuals will see this as a lapsing of morals. It will be an influence which brings society in a more empathic direction, which will threaten the violent, and those who are financially or politically empowered by violence. It will teach us that the pursuit of wealth, and our commercial culture have only limited benefits. So like the counter-culture movement in the 60’s, this movement will be attacked. The attacks will be the same as we always see: cultural (like the ridiculing of 60’s counter culture), legal oppression (e.g. most drug laws), and of course commercial co-option (e.g. the commercial counter-culture movement of the 90’s).

But I have faith because I must have faith. Let’s struggle on my hedonistic brothers! I do actually think, on scale of hundreds of years, things have been getting better. Our only problem now is that our rate of technological advance now dwarfs our rate of social advance. But that’s no reason to give up on technology. Just keep trying to apply it to something that actually matters. Kudos to the man who makes the first biometric happiness tracker! Keep it free please!

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A poem

 | April 5, 2008 4:21 am

I was rooting through my hard drive, when I stumbled across this poem. I have no idea if I wrote it, or if I just heard it somewhere and wrote it down. If you know the original author, please let me know.

Tell me why the stars do shine,
Tell me why the ivy twines,
Tell me why the sky’s so blue,
And I will tell you just why I love you.

Nuclear fusion makes stars to shine,
Phototropism makes ivy twine,
Rayleigh scattering makes the sky  so blue,
and sexual hormones are why I love you.

I really want to believe I wrote this…It seems like something I’d write, particularly the last line, which doesn’t seem quite right… But the line about Ivy twining doesn’t really sound like something I’d come up with…

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Feeling curmudgeony

 | April 4, 2008 4:11 am

So, I was thinking about setting up a page to track companies I think are worth avoiding, and what alternatives are available.

I haven’t been able to find a site that does this, at least not in the way that I would like. A buddy and I had talked about starting a site called coporateconcience.org, but we never got past the planning stage. Busy lives. But let’s face it, consumer power is now a bigger player in the world socio-economic development than democratic power. I don’t approve, but in my analysis, it’s the reality. It’s not often talked about directly, but it does crop up in music and speculative fiction. Maybe it’s just blase… everyone knows it so why talk about it? I don’t know…

Anyway, I was recently reading about how Creative, who have been making my sound cards for >10 years, shut down a modder. Legally of course they had every right to do what they did, but in these days where the corporations dictate the laws, “legally” is not equivalent to “morally”.

Details are available here but the gist of it is as follows: Apparently creative “broke” their support for certain Audigy features under Vista. This was done intentionally, as a marketing strategy, in order to force Vista users to upgrade their sound cards. They did this by programming checks for which OS the computer is running, and in the event it is Vista, switching to buggy drivers. This modder took out those checks, and had Vista also go to the working drivers. The point I wish to make is this was an intentional act by Creative.

The most telling line in the whole article is this:

O’Shaughnessy [Creative’s VP of corportate comunications] also wrote that whether ornot it cropples its Vista drivers is a “business decision that only we have the right to make”

Okay, I don’t want to say this kind of behavior is on the same scale as manipulating elections, unscrupulous lobbying, unscrupulous lawyering, or using 13 year old sweat shop slaves to produce your goods. But it freaking annoying and arrogant as hell, don’t you think? Do you want to buy your stuff from a company with that kind of attitude? I certainly don’t, and I happen to be in the market for a soundcard (I’ve been making do with the onboard audio since I built my last PC, but I’m a bit fed up with it), so I’m going to dig around and find an alternative to audio, hopefully one that isn’t quite so asshole-ish to its customers.

Seriously, imagine you’re using your soundcard for several months, one day you update your drivers, and bang, everything is broken. Maybe you have the old drivers, or can find them, and you can make it work, but maybe not, and anyway what a hassle. Or you do what they want and get an upgrade. Well, if that scenario happens to me I’m gonna look hard for an alternative. In this case I’m going to try to avoid the scenario in the first place.

What bugs me is how ordinary this is. This is really the norm in the computer industry, software and hardware. It might be irrational, but I really blame Microsoft. They pioneered these kind of strategies, and virtue of being the big boys on the block, they legitimized them. I can remember several years ago, when Apple implemented a typical Microsoft feature into their Quicktime drivers — a pop up question to ask if you’d like to upgrade to QT-Pro. There was a lot of discussion at the time whether Apple should use such strategies, since it would be losing a certain amount of moral highground over Microsoft, and since they might lose customers. But it seems to have been successful, and this lovely feature remains with us to this day.

In the end though, the problem lies with the consumer. We are all such bloody idiots. That’s the failing in free-market doctrine. The benefits of a free-market economy come only to the extent that the assumption of an informed consumer is true (amongst other assumptions). This assumption really only holds to a limited degree, and marketing departments serve mainly to decrease this degree.

So maybe I should start a corporate conscience site. Maybe it would balance all the people in Marketing out there. I think Bill Hicks was right on when he would say “Anyone out there who’s in marketing? Kill yourselves! Seriously, I’m not joking, go home, put a gun in your mouth, and pull the trigger! I’m not kidding…”

Which gets me to the curmudgeony part of this post. Man, I feel a bit bummed out by how litigous the internet has become. How much like real life… I remember ten years ago, back in the wild west days of the net, where you could say whatever bullshit you liked, and it was virtually unheard of for your words to come and bite you in the ass. Ah well. Let me at least say that wistful reminiscences aside, I don’t thing the net is a worse place than it was.

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Meep++ update

 | April 1, 2008 2:27 am

Well, I finally learned about the Gnu autoconf tools today, and modified the appropriate files so that Meep++ now compiles what it’s supposed to. I finished the reworking of the last name dependancies too, created a svn repository for the code, and made a page for the project. Next step is to generate the latest Doxygen docu, and see how readable things are now. Hopefully by the end of the week I’ll be in a position to add in the machinery for customizable update loops.

And of course I took Butchie for a run. This time Bettina came along on the mountain bike. Hope you aren’t sick of pictures of great danes in the swiss woods, cuz here’s another one.

Bettina and Butchie

The breeders who sold us Butchie have a couple of 6 month old Danes looking for homes. With the two homeless pups, they have 8 danes to take care of.  I shudder to think of how much food they go through.  So if you’re near Switzerland and want to adopt a nice dane, go check them out.

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