Because illiteracy is cute in politics

As a general rule, we try not to reward idiots for being it.

And so, logically, people try to conceal the fact.

For some reason, it is acceptable for politicians to adopt ambitious technological policies while at the same time admitting that they understand absolutely nothing about technology and IT issues. How does that even work?

In Danish politics, the political parties designate speakers on a number of topics. The environment, social issues, that kind of thing – and IT. The latter has traditionally been a post rewarded to good party soldiers. They are just generally completely clueless on the issue. In what appeared to herself to be a stroke of genius but to everyone else merely appeared a stroke, Social Democrat speaker on IT issues Trine Bramsen wrote a guest blog post encouraging the ” IT nerds” to start dressing nicely and speaking a language other people could understand. She was relieved from her duties shortly after that, only to reincarnate as the speaker on legal rights issues (retsordfører), where she brought up the idea of banning the TOR network because it hampered surveillance by the police.

I am not an IT professional by any means, but on this topic, I think it is fair to say that I am an informed citizen. And so, it is like being part of the IT Crowd:

Is it supposed to be cute? I mean, it is not like any politician would grin, wave the arms and say Well, it is not as if I understand all this economy stuff anywayBut we have a lot of smart people around. Imagine the prime minister doing that? Or I generally think lowering taxes will improve employment, but it is not like anyone actually knows. Well, it is worth a go. 

In my workplace, the decisionmakers I work with who appreciate that they are not completely informed on the issues will simply ask, Is this realistic? – or What are the practical implications of that? - which makes sense. But actually bragging about ignorance?

The latest example which prompted this piece was the trial against Gottfrid Svartholm Warg – also known as Anakata, who some will know as one of the founders of the Pirate Bay (and if not, I very much recommend watching TPB AFK). He is on trial in Denmark accused of having taken part in the break-in on the mainframe of CSC.

Rediscoveries in recollection

There are a few things that will get me sitting down to think about life.
One thing is the Leonard Cohen tribute movie (at time of writing available here); another is, curiously, this Xkcd cartoon; and it is all amplified if I consume scotch. Today has seen all three factors, specifically featuring Wilson & Morgan House Malt. So, a couple of words.

First: My life never went a straight line. I have spent a lot of time in a pendulum between envy and disgust towards people who did education, work, career, life partner, children, all that. I broke off one education (cand.negot.), chose another (Russian language, history and literature), did fairly well initially despite being distracted by everything else, then lost momentum – and after that, I felt like a broken spring. I could have been an international-profile economist by now. I suppose I should be grateful I did not manage to. I was unemployed for a while, found work, studied IT support, let it go, went unemployed, studied technical design for a while until I gave it up (I confess I still have a weakness for CAD, at least 2D), and finally got my BA from SDU, the University of Southern Denmark (one should note that I had taken so long to finish that they renamed the university; so my degree is not actually from the university where I began my studies). Somewhere along this process I was engaged, left her, got married, got a divorce and married again. Not because it was unimportant, it was all that mattered when it happened. But life shaped me as much as I shaped it. I finally started working in public administration and have settled into that, even if I have worked in several places on the way.

What I wanted to write about today is a series of epiphanies. I am, you see, a serial spiritual reincarnator.
I grew up in a house with that diffuse combination of left-wingers who like the notion of the people (The People) but have little respect for the individual representatives of the tribe. We were smarter. And yes: My mother was very intelligent, and my father is. But there is a sort of equivalent to The White Man’s Burden when you feel it is your responsibility to educate. When my ambition broke, I got to talk to a lot of interesting people; I may have experimented with life at university, but nothing compared to what happened when I was sent into the unemployment projects. But characteristic for all the stages: I came to a realization of what I was and was not. When I was studying IT support, I saw that I had to get back to my studies; I remember sitting at university one afternoon, looking at the sun through the trees – it was in the countryside, and even if it was a huge block of concrete with rusty plates, it felt like home for a very long time; and I remember sitting there in late summer, thinking I had to move on. I found a new me.
It seems the definition is important. I have rediscovered myself as a bureaucrat. I am curiously fascinated with the term. I certainly discovered I was not to become a scientist. My good friend Kim showed the talent for the task. He deserves every scrap of success he ever gets – deserves as in having earned it through hard work. I could not do that. My mind is restless (which is a poetic dodge; my concentration is just all over the place) – he has the patience and focus, which I acknowledge and occasionally envy.

I find MOOCs seductive. I know that I am not going to be a scientist. But the method and being presented with new ideas has a magnetic effect on me. I have studied statistics, networks, rhetoric and other topics with Coursera, Stanford EdX and Open2Study. They are great.

hammer_lilleI came to a conclusion. That I will invent, reinvent and re-conclude what I am. I am fascinated with headlines and definitions, but they will only go so far to cover what I am. So I thought of three things that I want to do and always wanted: To create, shape and defend.

To create – to decide to leave behind something I have created. It can take on many shapes, physically and intellectually. A carpenter as much as a school teacher – but important because you are not just a tourist in this world, you create something that will last. It is easy to create something of use for today and tomorrow, and it is worthy to have a job to feed and shelter yourself and your family. But we should all try to leave something enduring behind. An opus, if you will.

To shape – to strive to give the world the shape it deserves. To shape is also to reshape, to split the unhealthy and and unconstructive. There are thoughts in us and around us which are not worthy. There are values in us which have not found their final form, and the creativity around is presents a potential.
So everyone has an obligation to shape and reshape oneself and the world around us in a direction of equilibrium and sustainability, so the shortsighted, the selfish and the narrowminded does not defeat us. After having children it is more clear than ever that we – as well as the world around us – have not found our final form.
Creation is ongoing, and we are all subjects and objects – with an obligation to strive for the best in ourselves and others.

To defend - to acknowledge the value of oneself and the people around you in a way to also understand the necessity of stopping the people and ideas that present a threat to you and your loved ones.
If you create your life’s work and shape the world around you, there will be those who try to pressure you – perhaps because what you do threatens their view of the world, perhaps they feel your ideas are misguided. Understanding is not the same as allowing others to decide for you. So you or the people you love are threatened on your life – physically as well as in your views – you have the right to say stop! – and resist.

Digital hoarding

I sometimes feel that I have the online equivalent of people who just shop to have stuff. I have an archive of articles I need to read – print to PDF just to be sure – if I had not deleted hundreds of hours, I would have podcasts to fill this year and the next.

I download Linux ISOs and feel I should keep them because someone may drop by who would need the latest Opensuse, Fedora, Slackware, Arch, Frugalware et cetera.

I find Youtube videos – documentaries, shows and movies I want to watch. I download them just to be sure.

If I focused entirely on all the stuff I have pulled down and have stored, I would be occupied for a month.

I was considering getting a new hard drive – my latest Thinkpad came with the 60 gig drive that was the default when it was new.  It may just be a good idea that I do not.

My name is my name!

So as of recently, my name is my name.
That would be fairly straighforward for everyone else, but no such simple things in my household.

I married my Transsylvanian Hungarian wife, now Juliánna Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér, in September of 2007. We merged our names, and my Juhl-Johansen and her Zölde-Fejér came together as something which was ours entirely – and, of course, as some have pointed out, would be a challenge to pronounce correctly in its entirety anywhere. Be that as it may, it is ours, and it is not likely to be lost in a crowd.

However: A while after we were married, she had to get a new passport. And so, she ran into some difficulties. As it turns out, the Danish naming conventions – which had obviously been used, because the state church is actually the name registrar in Denmark – offered some challenges. Thing is: In Danish, you have a first name and a last name. Anything else is your middle name. Not so in Romania – Transsylvania, which was a part of Hungary, is now part of Romania, and no, it is unlikely you can come up with a Dracula joke we have not heard – They have first names and last names. So her Danish name document was rejected. After a bit going back and forth with various authorities on this, we simply pulled out my old last name, and after that was done, I was registered in the public registry as Morten Zölde-Fejer. They had also pulled the last accent.

After our return to Europe after living in the States in 2010, we started the process with my wife applying for a Danish citizenship. Since she was from a Hungarian family, she was not particularly connected to her Romanian citizenship; she had also never been part of the country of Hungary, so being a part of this country seemed equally irrelevant. We had come back to Denmark and decided to stay here, at least until the children are older.

And so, she became a Danish citizen recently, after a longer process. And at last we could actually go through the process of syncing up our names! So the name you see at the top, here – it is actually my name now. Again. Still. At last.

The buck drops here: free and Free culture

I was watching Network, a movie that was released (unleashed?) into the world the same year I was.
I have heard it mentioned quite often in the context of critical journalism and rising tension because of an an anaemic and malnourishing production by popular culture. It is a very strong movie when it comes to pointing out the inertia of established media megacorps that will keep running despite the mold-to-gold ratio going from 1:20 to 20:1.

Anyone who has seen my podcast list will know that I consume quite a lot of audio for the price of zero. But I would like to debate this price and whether all parameters are taken into account when applying the market forces to the formula.

And, of course, with this page being what it is, I will also tell you what I think is awesome.

Being a Danish citizen, I pay a national TV license. This covers access to the national TV channels, radio – access by internet included.
Now: Danish Radio is an interesting beast in itself – as I suppose all national broadcasting services are, a mash of history, traditions, transitions and rumor; as is common, it was the only TV channel offered here for a long time, and it had a hard time trying to renew itself. In a play upon the abbreviation, DR was referred to as Dampradioen (the steampowered radio). This impression seems to linger, but DR has made a great effort towards being a modern system – offering a number of digital TV channels with a strong range of programs – and on the radio side, the shows are released as an impressive array of MP3 podcasts with RSS feeds. I am quite pleased with that. I also find it appealing that we, the Danish people, this language minority, pay for the creation of these things and make them available to everyone who understands the language.

Elsewhere in the cultural spectrum we find the other TV channels, for which I pay considerably more. The international channels that provide us with evil crap like Survivor shows, talent shows, cheap sitcoms and the like. To get access to these channels to see movies, we have paid a substantial sum. So I have changed the default subscription that came with my apartment and now pay a quarter of what I used to, cutting around $50 off that bill.
I find that there is a tendency for me to lose interest in TV, to be honest. Perhaps it is just because the children leave me with few hours to spare, and I need something that lets me do other things as well. TV requires a lot of attention, if it is going to be worthwhile.
As I mentioned in my audiobooks article, I had started listening to audiobooks back when we had the dog. As I also mentioned there: I encourage that you donate to these people who give you all these good things for free. As I said, I have changed my subscription service, because they were feeding me crap. I do not intend to spend less – I intend to spend it right! So what I want to do is give some donations to the people providing me with hours and hours of enlightening entertainment. I also want to encourage you to do the same.

Okay, so – into the meat of the story, as they say. As those who know me and this site will know, I am into science, technology, literature and international politics. This focus makes for quite a spectrum, I know. I will start with what I assume will be of more general interest.

To The Best Of Our Knowledge (website, RSS feed) is the first great example. Okay: If you are a quick-fix infojunkie, these are too long – every episode is an hour – but if you are willing and able to listen, it will be a great reward. There are two shows, one centered around culture and more current events, another of a more philosophical nature. They did an excellent Alan Turing episode, a genuinely brilliant feature on the apocalypse with a discussion spanning from the Mayan calendar over a discussion of the cold war to a great interview with Slavoj Žižek. Another great one was an anniversary feature on the life and work of Marshall McLuhan. These are just a few examples of this show getting into culture, education, politics; the show is extremely well done, and it will suck many hours from the life of a podcast addict if you start going through the archives…
Compared to other shows, this one is a somewhat – if not somber, then certainly serious show, But it is solid and intelligent, and never disappointed with anything but the realisation that it is actually hard to find time to listen to them all.
Donations can be made on the Donate page.

Radio Litopia (website, RSS feed) is the next recommendation. This extremely intelligent literary podcast can only be recommended.
It is actually several shows. The primary one is Litopia After Dark, hosted by literary agent Peter Cox. The show covers news in writing, literature and the publishing world – and is rather entertainiFreang. Another show is The Debriefer, in which lawyer and writer Donna Ballman addresses current legal issues in the publishing industry as well as emerging trends in media and copyright. Between The Lines is an interview show in which Peter Cox talks to authors about their background and their works. Open House is a show where listeners and writers who participate in the site forums, the Litopia Colony, can call in and talk, along with a number of word games – intelligent and highly entertaining. Finally, on a more serious note (despite the name) – The Naked Book, a show hosted by Philip Jones, the deputy editor of the magazine The Bookseller. This goes into challenges of the bookpublishing industry – e-books and DRM, selfpub, agency model, the future of bookstores and the like. Interesting for those interested.
All in all, it is fair to say that these shows are intelligent, entertaining and insightful. Their discussions, both serious and humorous, are something I always enjoy listening to.
Instructions for making donations can be found on the Litopia Donate page.

Freakonomics Radio (website, RSS feed) is a podcast which came as a spinoff of the book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Their tagline is ‘exploring the hidden side of everything’, which means that they usually go into some sort of economic or consumption theme which, on the outside, seems to make little sense or to react differently than you would expect, but when explored makes more sense. A recent episode named The Cobra Effect refers to what happens when you make a prize scheme for fighting pests or problems, and people react soundly with the opposite result. The title refers to a concept in Delhi, where people were rewarded for killing cobras and bringing them in. The results were that people actually started breeding cobras – they actually speak of cobra farms – and when the plan ended, there were actually no change to that population at all. A good episode was on conspicuous conservation – a trend where personal consumption is used mostly to brand oneself; they measure the significantly higher popularity of the highly recognizable Toyota Prius compared to other hybrid cars end mention a trend in certain areas of putting solar cells on the roof on the side of the house facing the street – not because it is the sunniest side, but because it is visible!
As with all of the WNYC productions, it is extremely polished. Like Radiolab, the show weaves interview with commentary. The hosts are intelligent, educated and definitely worth listening to. The shows vary in length – some are shorter and are fit in as a component of the show Marketplace.
You can support this and the other WNYC shows by donating on the WNYC donation page.

StarTalk Radio (website, RSS feed)  As mentioned in the opening of this article, there is an incredible amount of extremely cheap crap sold extremely expensively in this world. Pop in every sense of the word.
I believe then increasing disgust with this means is the reason for the trend of the rockstar scientists. I suppose that this is not exactly new, but in recent years there has been an increasing focus on a number of high-profile scientists. The most famous example would probably be Stephen Hawking, in part because of his unique situation as someone who has overcome a severely challenging physical situation to become one of the leading scientists in the world. Carl Sagan is famous for his television shows, Richard Feynman for his lectures on physics, Bill Nye as a broad science communicator.
Interestingly, I was unaware of a lot of these people until I came across the Symphony of Science, which managed to convey some very strong feelings about scientific discovery.
One of the most charismatic scientists would be astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. After I first became aware of him, he seems to turn up everywhere! Frankly, I sometimes wonder how he manages to get any work done when he turns up on talk shows, debates, news. And I recently came across Star Talk Radio.
Star Talk Radio is a good combination of entertainment and an introduction to topics on space exploration. Dr. Tyson will take in experts and discuss subjects like sending humans into space, black holes, cataloging the stars and similar topics. Occasionally he will invite actors – he interviewed Morgan Freeman on his TV show on space, Whoopi Goldberg on science interest and recently Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton on the science of Star Trek and the reason they got interested in space.
It is a lively show, and the host is eager to share his broad knowledge. As he is quoted in the Symphony of Science, sometimes you hear scientific discoveries that make you want to go out and shake people in the streets and yell “Have you heard this!?”

Work in progress.

‘casts in the description queue:

Stuff you should know podcasts
Skeptically Speaking
Radiolab
On The Media
Critical Wit

Conceptual layers of society

Kim Rasmussen has made me think of layers of society.

Many of the people in the circles I frequent are high-volume consumers of Ted Talks and podcasts like Radiolab, Freakanomics, To the best of our knowledge, Stuff To Blow Your Mind, Skeptically Speaking and a truckload of technology casts – just to mention a few examples. There is a huge load of such programs of educational entertainment.
I find that this occasionally leads to a mental disconnect where I mention things to people in passing – things that completely blew my mind when I learned about it. A recent example was a conversation I was having where I said “it is like that Dawkins thing about considering your childhood memories, where the remarkable thing is that all of your cells have been replaced over the years, so no part of your body was actually part of this memory, even if you remember experiencing it physically” – and then I continued – until I stopped, because I realised that the person I was talking to was having a mental expansion experience.

In many ways this is what happens when a politician says that there are fairly simple solutions to piracy or child pornography like, say, DNS-blocking. Since this is clearly useless, the conversation completely disconnects my brain between the starting point and an actual solution.
Same thing happens when a teacher is associating freely and comes to the epiphany that it is actually a question of making the children engage in the learning the same way as when they play video games. So I pull out maybe 15 podcast episodes discussing this, or I say ‘Since this is already being done, we should probably focus more on…’ leaving the other person disconnected.

I am not trying to guru myself here, I just have this experience frequently – and I find that this makes it difficult for me to discuss things with a lot of people who actually have an executive role where I have only just grasped the basic principles behind it.

Open source snobbery or why awesome is almost, but not quite enough

So I have a dilemma with what I use as my computing platform. It is a silly thing, but I suspect that others experience a similar thing, and that makes it something worth considering. It is a technical issue mixed with, or undermined by, aesthetics.

I have been a Linux user for a number of years – in various incarnations. I started out as a Red Hat user – back then I dual-booted between Windows and Red Hat, partly because getting a working internet connection was a challenge. I changed to Mandrake Linux which was impressive enough to let me change entirely. After that I tried out a large number of Linux distributions as well as variations of the BSDs. I settled on Slackware with Slackware 10.0 and enjoyed the Slackware philosophy: You can set up this system to do and be anything. I learned to rewrite the boot scripts, recompile the kernel to only support the hardware I owned but do that well. It was a great satisfaction.

However, with my two most recent laptops, both Thinkpads, I have experienced difficulties with wireless as well as power management. It seems they have the same issues with suspend, and the wireless connection is consistently dropping. The first aspect I have found an explanation for and solution to, but not the latter.
As a result, I have had to leave Slackware and look elsewhere for the most fitting system   for this old X32. And this leads me to an embarrassing problem with making an appropriate choice.

I guess it comes down to a perception of hierarchy. Plainly, everyone will agree that Slackware is a distribution for Linux users who know their way around the basic Linux system, simply because if you don’t, you are not going to get an installation that is usable.
What this means is that Slackware is an endgame distribution. If one looks at the mailing lists, people have been using Slackware for ages, and people who end up with Slackware are going to stay there.
However, if you have to become a refugee from Slackware, the original Linux distribution, it is going to be an extremely ambivalent process. Because you already made it all the way.

I am using Fedora 16, the Lxde respin. And actually, this is a lovely distribution. It is lightweight, it is up to date, it will do the nice things you want without too much customisation. However, it goes through a lot of stuff before it is ready to log in, and I have no way of gettng a feel for the system. And it gives the distinct impression that one is not supposed to. A lot of stuff works automagically on this system, and it does seem a bit sensitive to tampering. I should not neglect to mention that one can get quite spoiled using a system which will do a lot automatically compared to a distribution where one has to do a lot of work before using it will be smooth and simple…

Now of course, the most marketed hobbyist distribution is Ubuntu. But that is a mainstream beginners’ distribution with a questionable approach to community and going for the mindshare. Leaving aside that Gnome3 and Unity will not run on my hardware, Ubuntu simply does not appeal to me. While Linux Mint is considerably more appealing visually and when it comes to functionality – I just downloaded their new Lxde release, and it works quite well – but I always get bugs with these Ubuntu derivatives, and somehow a couple of lines of terminal output will always peek out. If one is running an OS where this is intentional, that is not a problem, but with these, it just looks sloppy. I can also choose to see it the way that they can’t be bothered to support the older hardware I have chosen to buy. This does not make it more appealing.

Recently, I have installed Chakra and Arch – they both had some boot issues I could not track down. They would boot, but they would be probing the hardware for so long that it was pointless. I tried FreeBSD, GhostBSD and PC-BSD – they give a strange boot freeze error. The Red Hat Enterprise/CentOS/Scientific Linux family will not accept my machine because it has to go with PAE – which my CPU does not. Since this is an older machine, I am not even going to attempt to make Gentoo play on it. It would take me a week to build a usable system on this old iron. Dragora, while interesting as a Free-as-in-freedom-FSF-approved take on Slackware, simply won’t give me a good X.org implementation.
I mention these because they are respectable systems. Arch, FreeBSD and RHEL are distributions for technologists. Fedora gets a few bonus points as a member of the Red Hat family with a healthy dose of community.

Long story short, I feel a bit like a phony, and the more I use this, I feel less of the feeling that made me happy about running an open source craftsman’s OS. For the time being, I will stick with Fedora. I have Debian Live sitting on a USB stick next to me – Debian is a respectable community tool. A bit of work would be needed to really get into it. When I used Debian way back, it seemed very elaborate, but powerful.

The quest continues…

The unrespecting gentleman

I feel it is in its place to comment on the Open Respect initiative by Jono Bacon, because I believe that Jono has all the right intentions – but there are some concepts in this which are problematic.
The essence of Open Respect is to encourage an exchange of ideas and opinions in, to quote, a respectful manner.

First, Jono’s statement:

  • Respect is not judging people based upon their genetic or social attributes, but instead the quality and content of their discourse.
  • Respect is not just civility in communication, but also respecting other people for making their own choices, even if you disagree with them.
  • Respect is sharing opinions so a mutual understanding of principles is understood, but then giving others the freedom to pursue their own paths without fear of persecution by those who have made different decisions or have different definitions of freedom and openness.
  • Respect is engaging in honest, open and polite debate with the goal of enriching each others perspectives, not for the purpose of proving each wrong.
  • Respect is understanding that others often pour their heart and souls into their work, and being sensitive of this emotional connection to their work, particularly in times of critique

Source: OpenRespect.org

Now, the issue he is addressing here and in a previous blog post is as old as debate itself, but is perhaps – probably – aggravated by the internet troll mentality, the online literary equivalent of road rage; some issues simply inflame people. Many reasons for this, and I could discuss that as well and get flamed to a crisp.
Part of what makes this particular initiative problematic is that respect is actually ambiguous, as is made clear in the responses to his blogpost. An example of this is a comment by Fab, known by listeners of the Linux Outlaws podcast; Fab comments that in his view, respect is something you earn. And I dare say that when Jono uses the term, he talks about respectful behavior in the sense of politeness. What he does not address is the fact that people who do not have a civil tone in a debate, online or personally, simply do not respect the person they talk to. As in, they feel a personal disrespect for the person they are debating with.

Frankly, I hear a lot of voices on the net – people I simply do not have any respect for. People I think are wrong in their interpretations, naïve in their views and repulsive in their morals. But what is that to me? It is, of course, the dilemma of a gentleman that one of the most uncivilized things to do is telling people they are impolite.

When there is a debate, criticizing people has nothing to do with respect, and I find it clutters things to bring that up. I write this piece to say that Jono is going about this the wrong way – partly because I believe such an initiative is futile, whatever the intentions, partly because I find his choice of title unfortunate – but at the same time, I have a personal respect for Jono for the work with Lugradio and for doing his Severed Fifth project to draw some conclusions about the strength of Creative Commons and the community around his music. And so, a critique would be the decent thing to do, because that is part of the debate.

It is, of course, a question of basic decency. It is a question of addressing a debate in a civilized fashion. I would want to do so to people I hold in great esteem, and I would want to do so with people in whom I find little to respect. In the end, it is a question of respect – for yourself. And one would do well to consider when a debate is actually needed; often enough, these debates can look like the unstoppable heading towards the immovable with no sort of agreement on the horizon except, in the very best of cases, agreeing to disagree.

And why do I find the futile? Consider a sign beside a trashcan saying “Please put trash in the trashcan”. My old workplace was always cluttered with such signs until I tore them all down. Those who will be civilized about it will be civilized about it – is a sign going to make any difference to the others? I feel that Jono has made a digital signpost trying to ask people not to be unpleasant. The results are predictable.