Social Control in Singapore

All of the reasons I give for never again wanting to live in a city just don’t apply in Singapore: There are virtually no traffic problems, virtually no crime, no hypodermic needles or feces on the sidewalks, everything is clean and well-maintained. Everyone is gracious and polite, most buildings are beautiful. Everything smells either delicious or fresh, homelessness is virtually non-existent, public transportation is the cleanest, quietest, and best-organized I’ve seen in any city… In many ways, Singapore is about as close as you get to a metropolitan utopia.

But these advantages come at a price, in the form of limited free speech, government-recommend behavior, heavy surveillance, strong police presence, and laws that some westerners find oppressive. No vaping is allowed period, cigarette smoking is heavily restricted, no chewing gum allowed (technically it’s legal to chew, but illegal to buy or sell), etc. And if you want to protest something, you have to apply for a permit (guess who gets to approve or deny your permit?).

Continue reading “Social Control in Singapore”

The Fireplace Delusion

Very good analogy. TLDR; When you go up against things that bring people comfort, no matter how reasonable or factual your arguments may be, be prepared to meet The Clenched Fists of Entrenchment.

The Fireplace Delusion | Sam Harris

The Fireplace Delusion | Sam Harris

It seems to me that many nonbelievers have forgotten—or never knew—what it is like to suffer an unhappy collision with scientific rationality. We are open to good evidence and sound argument as a matter of principle, and are generally willing to follow wherever they may lead. Certain of us have made careers out of bemoaning … Continued

Source: samharris.org/the-fireplace-delusion/

 

 

 

Ambient Humanity – Notes on a Month Without Facebook

A month ago, I decided to take a mental health break from Facebook. Between the Cambridge Analytica mess, the cognitive pressures of always trying to juggle half a dozen ongoing conversations, and a creeping sense of “opinion exhaustion” (tired of my own and everyone else’s too), something had to give.

Alamere Falls / Coastal Trail
Winter rains pouring over the cliff into the sand at Alamere Falls, Pt. Reyes

The timing was good, and necessary. Over the past month, I’ve gone through one of the most intense work-stress periods of my life, so leftover mental energy was at a premium. When I did have time to unwind, I replaced the usual Facebook time with attention to platforms I knew were great (but very different) – Quora, Reddit, Twitter, and an endless supply of news and blogs aggregated via Feedly. All of them were interesting in their own ways, I was missing something crucial – what Kottke calls “ambient humanity“:

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity — the feeling that “others are here” — that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

Kind of hard to put my finger on why things feel so different outside of the Facebook bubble. Sure there are a zillion people having interesting conversations on other platforms, and I’m more than comfortable jumping in a pool with strangers, but the discussions are like drive-bys — I don’t feel invested the same way I do with people on Facebook. There’s something qualitatively different about talking things through with people you know or have known, compared to leaving one of a thousand comments on a topic with a bunch of random humans.

And there’s a level of civility on Facebook that I am not finding anywhere else. We are, for the most part, polite with people we actually know, and sadly, way too often rude with strangers.

Then there’s the news aggregation aspect. I found interesting content everywhere, of course, and wandered into great threads all over the place, but haven’t been able to shake the feeling that Facebook is not only great at social, it’s also among the best at news aggregation. Twitter is too noisy, even with tuning. Quora really isn’t about news. Reddit can be about news if you use it that way, but I find it much better for surfacing random stuff than for seeing what’s going on the world today/now. A dedicated RSS reader (I use Feedly) is right up there with Facebook, but feels “cold” in comparison.

But wasn’t this exactly what I was looking for — a break from the continual pressure to engage? If I so much as look at Facebook, I’ll post or comment. And when someone responds, I’m obliged to return and continue the conversation (you can’t just ignore a friend when they’re talking, right?). Outside of Facebook, that pressure vanishes. It’s exactly what I wanted, but it felt… empty somehow. The “ambient humanity” was missing.

There was a huge benefit to getting out of the Facebook bubble for a while — I felt and became a calmer version of myself, which allowed me to be more focused on the work stuff. There’s something about Facebook that seems to amplify outrage. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Now more true than ever, and Facebook does make me feel more “in touch” than any other platform, but here’s the thing: Outrage is a drug. However justified your outrage may be, however much this messed-up world is pissing you off, this remains true: Start down the outrage path, and pretty soon you’re subconsciously looking for things to be outraged by, taking cues from your tribe on the daily outrages, dwelling on outrage, going to sleep and waking up with outrage.

Miles and Mardo, Frozen Shady Oak
Winter lake, Minnesota 2018

The paradox is that if you want to stay aware, you’re going to be outraged. But continuous outrage is a super-unhealthy state of being. Ditch Facebook for a while and tell me you don’t feel the difference. It’s lovely to check out of that hotel for a while.

I had intended to do a lot more blogging this month, but didn’t, because you know, work. I still want to. But paradoxically, I find myself longing for this month to be over so I can return to Facebook. Weird, right?

Just Wandering Away

About to post this to Facebook…:

I heard a pundit say the other day that people “are just wandering away” from Facebook. I feel that. The vibe has totally changed, and much of the old vitality is gone. Pre-Trump, Facebook was an enjoyable place for serious debate on an endless variety of topics. Post-Trump, FB became a place to rally and compare notes about the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization. But no one can stay in rage mode every day – we become exhausted. Now it feels like people are just kind of limping along, trying to keep their chins up against an inexplicable and endlessly infuriating backdrop.

Then there’s the whole Cambridge Analytica thing, and the ensuing #deletefacebook movement. If you didn’t catch tonight’s 60 Minutes interview with the developer of the app that scraped your data, must watch.

Three Facebook writers/friends I admire bigly have quit FB over the past month, leaving my stream all the poorer. Meanwhile, I find myself pining once again for pre-Facebook days, when it was all about blogs aggregated into RSS and FOAF networks. I’ve let my Twitter and Flickr accounts go somewhat stale. I don’t give Quora nearly the amount of time it deserves. Medium is an amazing resource. Reddit is a massive phenomenon of which I’ve barely scraped the surface. There are still tons of great blogs out there. And the stack of unread magazines and books on the coffee table keeps calling.

Coming to treat Facebook like it’s the internet itself, or like it somehow represents the “best of the internet” is a subtle trap, one that occurs silently, almost naturally, when you allow it suck you in. It’s too good at what it does.

I think a big part of the appeal of TV shows set in the past (“Call the Midwife,” “The Crown,” etc.) is that they let us spend an hour remembering how different the world was before the internet changed everything, for better and for worse. Lately, I’ve been leaning more toward “for the worse,” which is ironic given my chosen profession, but I can’t escape the conclusion that our culture’s seeming inability to distinguish truth from fiction, or to even care when our leaders use lies as a primary currency, or to think rationally as a collective, is largely due to the fact that anyone can now speak on the same playing field as trained professionals. What drew me to a career on the web – the revolutionary potential of an idealistic “democratization of voices” that could “give everyone their own printing press” turned out to be HORRIBLE for democracy.

Meanwhile, it feels like a third of the country views people who just want to maintain common-sense, good-for-humans policies as if they are “leftist radicals” (excuse me now, WHO are the radicals?). Today I did something truly radical: I picked up the damn phone (remember those?) and called an old friend. Sat in the afternoon sun and talked, just like in the olden days. It was truly great.

Lately, the thing that makes me happiest is not having online conversations – it’s rolling through pristine countryside on two wheels. It’s bike season, and the centuries are coming up. That’s where I feel most at peace, and I experience a deeper sense of meaning making a new friend on a bike than I do clicking Like 30 times a day. Late nights, lately I take more pleasure in writing code than in “scrolling the feed” (which is why I’ve been posting less).

This is all a long way of saying I feel increasingly depressed by it all. By the internet in part, but by Facebook’s supremacy *in particular*. I need a mental health break from this platform. Not unplugging entirely, but needing more diversity of inputs and of voices, and to do more analog reading. I’m returning to my old haunts for a spell, and looking for new ones. Just deleted FB from my phone (it only takes a second!), and will not visit FB/web for one month (though I’ll probably check in on this post for a day, and may make exceptions for a couple of big events coming up).

I know it’s going to be tough — for all of its problems, Facebook is an incredible platform. The technology is good, all my friends are here, and it serves important functions for organizing events and interest groups. This will be tough.

For updates this month, see blog.birdhouse.org and twitter.com/shacker . Come May 21, I’ll re-evaluate.

Much love,
./s

Space Oddity

Easy to laugh this off or to get pizzy about space junk, but cannot underestimate the significance of what happened today – humans launched a Tesla into space blasting Bowie on infinite repeat, using a rocket many times larger than anything we’ve launched for decades, for a fraction the cost of what NASA launches cost, *and* brought two out of three of its booster rockets back for a perfect (and simultaneous!) landing, ready for re-use. And we got a view from the Tesla-in-space streamed live on YouTube as it all went down. Humans are awesome, and Mars just got a whole lot closer.

Great pics in the Guardian coverage.

Skeptoid on Rhino Horn

In the mid 2000s, a rumor circulated that an unnamed politician in Vietnam had been cured of cancer by consuming powdered rhino horn. Fast forward 17 years, and rhino horn is now worth around $25,000/pound on the black market. That rhino that was shot by poachers and had its horn removed with a chainsaw in the middle of the night at the French zoo a few months ago? Its horn was like a quarter-million-dollar pile of gold sitting out in the open.

Not only is there NO science on the anti-carcinogenic properties of the keratin in rhino horn (chemically the same as your own fingernails), the belief isn’t even derived from ancient Chinese health literature. All of this literally stems from one rumor gone viral, combined with public willingness to buy into rumor as truth. Rhino species are going extinct rapidly, and poaching is a huge part of the reason why.

The Skeptoid podcast is one of our national treasures, as far as I’m concerned. This episode is particularly good.

Rhino Horn: Cure or Curse?