Sunday, January 14, 2018

It's not the end of the world, but we can see it from here

The world did not end yesterday.

This statement has two qualities. One is that it is universally true for literally every situation you will find yourself in, a precondition for situations being that yesterday led to the present. The second, and more immediately pressing quality, is that it is related to a very specific event.

If you are reading in the future, then here is the context: yesterday, an alarm went off in Hawaii, warning about an imminent ballistic strike. Which is a technical way of saying that the nukes are coming, and they are coming this way. As you might imagine, this caused quite a bit of emotional anxiety for everyone involved. The fact that the whole ordeal happened because someone pressed the wrong button (I have been given impression that this is the literal truth, rather than mere evocative language) - did not help.

In fact, very few things help when the world is about to end. That is kind of the point of the world ending.

This is a very immediate situation to find oneself in. Everything becomes irrelevant, and one singular question becomes the totality of all possible lines of thinking: what do you do? Nothing matters any more, and thus the only thing that matters is what you do. Other questions, such as "what would others think?" "would this look good on my CV?" "does this affect my credit rating?" "can I really afford it in the long run?" - are swept away, and you are left with the immediacy of choice: do or do not, do this or do that. The long term is gone, this is your moment to define yourself in terms of your own. For the duration, you are the most important thing in your reality. You decide. What do you do?

This immediacy is both terrifying and, in a perverse way, liberating. The word that most perfectly summarizes the situation is the old version of "awesome": to be struck to one's very core with awe in the presence of some overwhelming factor which quite literally is larger than anything one has ever encountered before. It is the kind of experience that leaves you mouth agape and your mind repeating: everything I knew was wrong. Nothing makes sense any more, and because of that, the multitude of considerations that permeate everyday life melts away. Nothing makes sense, and the only thing that is of any importance whatsoever is:

What do you do?

Fortunately, the news about the world ending happened to be greatly exaggerated. We are still here to talk about it, and to try to get a grip on what this all means. Most, I suspect, will see it as just another news item among many, and not think too closely about it; there are still plenty of everyday chores to be done, and the non-ending of the world means they will not do themselves. Life goes on, with ruthless indifference, and this confronts us with a single, even more pressing question:

What do we do now?

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Backstage sociology

This semester, we talked a lot about Goffman's concepts of frontstage and backstage. One of the things that struck me about it is that it is, as so many other concepts, fractal. You can apply it to just about any level, and then move either upwards or downwards, finding roughly the same processes going on. The scales differ, but the process remains the same.

These words have the advantage of meaning what you think they mean. Backstage is the social space behind the stage, where the last-minute rehearsals, costume changes and informal banter takes place, while frontstage is, well, on stage. The two spaces have different social dynamics, and things that are proper in one is improper in the other, and vice versa. While the play is on, only the actors who are supposed to be on stage are on stage, and they have very defined roles to play; the show must go on. Only when they have retreated backstage can the actors let their guard down, stop acting and - quite unceremoniously - collapse into the post-performance heaps they really are.

The audience members, too, have roles to fill whilst the show is on. The fact that these roles mostly consist of sitting and watching makes them comparatively easy to play; this does not, however, take away from the fact that things get very strange very fast if audience members suddenly decide to join in on the action. Everyone present have roles to fill, and most everyone present know these roles implicitly.

A non-theatrical example is a restaurant. Out among the tables, things are quiet and posh, with hushed conversations taking place among the dining guests, a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. In the kitchen, however, the hustle and bustle is in full swing, with yelling, fast-paced motions and a stress level that is through the roof. The difference between frontstage and backstage is not subtle.

The fact that these two states of things happen in close proximity to each other means that there have to be boundaries between them. Often enough, these boundaries are subtle until you try to cross them. A restaurant guest is usually not allowed into the kitchen, and quickly escorted out should they somehow stumble into it. Shoppers are allowed to browse the store area, but any attempt to enter the back rooms will be ever so efficiently discouraged. If you do not have a keycard, you are not allowed into the office building. At concerts, only those with backstage passes are allowed into these mystical spaces.

Most spaces can be analyzed using these concepts. They are very versatile in this regard.

They are also fractal. Individuals act differently when they are frontstage (often quite literally meaning that they are not alone) than when they are backstage, and the boundaries between these states allow very few persons access. A small group (beginning at two persons) can similarly act differently when in a frontstage setting than when alone, with similar boundaries to entry. A large group (a theatre production, for instance) can project a particular image frontstage, while having very different dynamics backstage. And so on, scaling up as much as need be. (I suspect the discovery of alien life will have interesting implications in this regard.)

The only thing needed to use these concepts is an impulse to apply them to concrete situations. Upon reading this, you now have this impulse.

Have fun.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Spoiler warnings and you

There is a new Star Wars on the loose. With it comes the division of the entire human race into two categories, as radical as it is universal: those who have seen it, and those who have not seen it. The gulf between these categories is immense and absolute; there are no in-betweens.

Except, of course, in the case of spoilers.

Given that I at one point was a media studies major, spoilers are utterly irrelevant to me. There is no "right" way to consume media - there are only degrees and ways of paying attention. Knowing how something ends prior to seeing it does nothing to change the experience. Everything important lies in how the medium is being used (and sometimes abused). The narrative aspects are a part of that, but there are many other parts of equal importance, and a movie is at all times the interplay between all of its parts.

To be sure, there are movies that rely heavily on surprise endings. Good ones are described in terms of subverting expectations; bad ones in terms of deus ex machinas. If a movie does not hold water despite the surprise being foretold, it is not spoiled - it was always-already a bad movie. We do not rewatch favorite movies because they surprise us, but because they are good company. If a movie is bad company, it will be thus even if someone already told you the butler did it. The goodness and badness lies not in you having knowledge - it lies on the level of production, geometry and acting.

Very few viewers found themselves disliking the recent remake of the Orient Express because they knew how it ended. The enjoyment and/or dissatisfaction lies elsewhere.

Looking around on social media tells me that this is not a view widely held. There are people posting spoilers, people yelling at the aforementioned group for posting spoilers, and people decrying the posting of spoilers in general. It is something of a trending topic, especially in relation to the new Star Wars movie. Posting spoilers is framed akin to murdering the movie, a sin above and beyond the pale. Friendships have ended over it.

It is interesting to note this difference in perspectives on media. On the one hand, there is the view that spoilers are irrelevant. On the other, the view that spoilers are everything. Both are valid experiences of being human. The fact that both views can coexist and seldom interact with each other tells us something about this world we live in.

I do not know exactly what it tells us. But it would be nice if someone posted a spoiler of it. -

Monday, December 11, 2017

Connecting the recent developments of Patreon and bitcoins

These last few days have been intense, online-wise. Patreon did what they did, and the price of bitcoins soared way above the limits of reason and sanity.

It is tempting to see these two things as connected. It is even more tempting to connect them. Because it is a very easy thing to do.

The thing about what Patreon did is that it underscores the need for what bitcoin supporters claim bitcoins do. Patreon gave - gives - everyone the opportunity to donate money at people without too much fuss, and it provided a social vehicle for accepting these donations. At the heart of Patreon's raison d'etre we find the sending and receiving of money.

In short, online transfers of money is kind of a big deal. For Patreon and bitcoin both.

If we go back to the olden days of bitcoin evangelism, we find that the emphasis was much more on the crypto than on the currency part of cryptocurrency. It would be possible to perform transactions in secret, without the prying eyes of government surveilling every transaction. You didn't have to justify why you used your digital moneys the way you did - you could do what you want with them. Including donating them to others for no particular reason whatsoever. No borders, no taxes, no limits, no donation fees.

There is no reason bitcoins could not have evolved to fill a similar role Patreon fills: donations freely given to those who are deemed worthy of them. There could have been an active crowdfunding culture within the bitcoin community.

But there isn't. And there can't be.

The reasons are manifold, but they all revolve around the fact that bitcoins fundamentally do not work as money. The recent dramatic rise in value of bitcoins, with values eclipsing $16 000, only serves to underscore this fact: if you bought something with bitcoins a week or two ago, you would have lost out on this increase. The deflationary nature of bitcoins mean that any use of them that is not getting more bitcoins is an irrational use. Buying things with bitcoins is always a losing proposition; the only winning move is to sit on them until their value inevitably rises.

The most extreme example is the bitcoin pizza, bought for 10 000 bitcoins; the estimated value of that pizza is now $137,408,583.

Moreover, the wildly fluctuating value of bitcoins make it hard to price things. You might try to sell a pair of socks for what currently seems a reasonable price, only to discover mere hours later that it now amounts to thousands of dollars. Sellers cannot set prices, buyers cannot gauge if the prices that are set actually make sense, and the usual market mechanisms determining prices are in effect nullified. Prices carry no information, and in conjunction with the deflationary process mentioned above, it makes using bitcoins as currency a wager at best and a guaranteed loss at worst.

Adding to all this is the cost of conducting bitcoin transactions. Turns out there is in fact a transaction cost to bitcoins, aptly named a fee. Sending money without paying the fee will either take a long time, or simply fail. The minimum fee is 0.00001 bitcoins, or a $1.52; more if you want the transaction to complete with any degree of certainty and/or quickness. It is not unheard of for fees to reach the twenty dollar mark.

Needless to say, buying a ten dollar pizza for thirty dollars is the opposite of a good deal.

The list goes on. The bottom line is that bitcoins do not work as money, and by extension that they cannot work as a replacement for Patreon.

At this point, I suspect that there might be a non-zero amount of readers going: why does any of this even matter? What is the connection between bitcoins and Patreon?

The trivial answer is that there is no connection. The more interesting answer is that by juxtaposing these two things with each other, we find out something useful. On the side of Patreon, we have an actually existing real usecase in the world, which might very soon be in need of a replacement; on the side of bitcoins, we find an utter fucking failure to be even theoretically relevant to this usecase.

This has implications for the "currency" part of cryptocurrency. Given that I am not part of the bitcoin community, I leave it to those readers who are to grapple with these implications best they can.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The economic utility of dry feet

Patreon has made an announcement about some upcoming changes to their fee structuring, and this has caused quite a stir. To understate it slightly, these changes are somewhat unpopular and inexplicable to creators and patrons alike. I expect there to be continued discussions about these changes in the days to come.

In a strange chain of associations, this made me think about the economics-related term 'helicopter drops'. In short, a helicopter drop consists of giving everyone a one-shot amount of money, in order to stimulate the economy. The main component of an economy is people spending money on things, and they cannot spend money they do not have. Thus, ensuring that everyone has slightly more money than before would subsequently ensure that they spent more, which would have ripple-effects all through society, as the increased economic activity would spur even more economic activity.

Further along the chain of associations, this made me think about the many things we postpone to do due to a lack of funds. Not because it isn't necessary, but because we cannot comfortably afford doing it quite yet. By pushing these things into the future, we ensure that the money we do have can be spent on the things that are acutely necessary, rather than long-term necessary. A slight discomfort in the present is the price to pay for being ready to face the future, when the time comes.

My shoes are an example of this. There are holes in them, and my feet get wet every now and again. They are broken, but it is not critical, and I can squeeze another month of use out of them if I mind my step.

There are any number of similar examples, most of which we have stopped thinking about due to having gotten used to them. I suspect that a modest helicopter drop, in the range of some $5000, would be funneled directly into the equivalent of new shoes. It would not make anyone rich or change the fundamental structure of society, but it would ensure that people had less holes in their shoes. The benefits would be impossible to measure with econometrics, but they would at the same time be immeasurably tangible to those involved.

I do not know if this thought is useful to you, but here it is.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Learning for uneducated people

The academic discipline of Education is caught in a weird place. On the one hand, the powers that be want it to be a handmaiden to the educational system, providing it with ever more refined and efficient tools. On the other hand, it is seen by other academics as a handmaiden to the educational system, and thus understood as a specialized local field of knowledge, akin to accounting; it is something that takes a certain degree of skill and knowledge to perform, but it does not translate into academic credibility.

This might seem a subtle difference, and in some ways it is. It mostly depends into who you're arguing with at a particular moment. Which, as you might imagine, changes everything.

When arguing with the powers that be, the issues that come up tend to focus on budgets, more specifically the cutting of them if particular results are not delivered on time. Be it in relation to the international measurements that are conducted regularly - such as PISA - or some political debate touching upon education that rages at the time, there are always demands to give backing in some form. Questions such as "how can we teach our kids better so we will win the next round of measuring?" or "what do you have that can support our current political position on educational policy that we made up yesterday?" are frequently thrown our way, and not responding appropriately is budgetary bad news bears.

When arguing other academics, two challenges emerge. One is to remind them that we exist, and  another is - as mentioned - to convince them we're not just mere technicians and managers of the bureaucratic beast that is the educational system. Most attempts at either is usually met with annoyance, indifference, or some interesting combination of both which defy classification.

This peculiar state of things means that it is particularly difficult to assert the academic autonomy of the discipline. Part of being autonomous means other recognize you as such. The powers that be have no interest in that, given that they only ever ask for input in relation to nudging the educational system (or the discourse about it) in this direction or that. Other academics have no propensity to acknowledge it either, seeing as they do not interest themselves in the educational system, and thus their interest is effectively shut down. It is, as the saying goes, a tough crowd.

Thing is. Education is not, in fact, about education. It is about learning.

This difference is anything but subtle. Lowercase e education as an activity is something that takes place in a defined span of time at a defined location. It's something that happens in school. It's a process you go through, and then you are done. Sometimes you know more afterwards, sometimes you do not. It depends.

Learning, though. Learning can happen anywhere at any time, and in fact does happen everywhere at all times. It is the main way human beings interact with the world: some sort of sensation happens at them, and is subsequently processed into memory. Next time this same sensation is encountered, the previous experience is used as a reference point for how to proceed. Learning occurs everywhere.

An example is someone starting a new job. On the surface level, one might assume that what they learn is how to perform that job - the logistics of getting it done and the terminology that goes along with it. But that is not all that is being learnt. The learning process also involves noting who the coworkers are, how they relate to each other and their work, which things are proper and which are not, which values are (implicitly and explicitly) endorsed, and so on in a long list of impressions and sensations. A new person in a workplace does not simply learn how to do the job, but also an entire way of being in the world.

Understanding how this learning process works allows you to better understand what happens when things go wrong. Or when things go right. If someone doesn't get with the program, then you can analyze the situation and pinpoint where in the process the mismatch happened. Conversely, if someone learns the ropes faster than expected, then you can identify the thing that went right and try to replicate it with future new employees.

The focus here is not on individual capacities. A "smart" person can fail to fit in, and a "dumb" person can learn the ropes at record speed, depending on the social circumstances of the workplace in question. Learning happens when sensations occur, and sometimes this sensation can consist of a social environment (such as a workplace) communicating that you belong here - or do not belong here. Getting the message is very much dependent on which message is being sent, and many people decide that a particular career is not for them after learning that they are not welcome within it.

These are the kinds of things we study in capital e Education. Yet this is hard to convey, since so many have gotten the message that Education is merely a handmaiden to the educational system. -

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The best book you ever read

No book is ever as good as that one you read as a teenager. You probably remember it - that one which you picked up and just couldn't stop reading, which then formed the basis of your emotional core for years to come. You read it once, and then probably several times afterwards, each time reinforcing its imprint upon your very being.

How would one go about finding another such book?

One approach might be to look at that first important book, to see if it has any particular qualities that distinguishes it from other books. It is easier to find things when you know what to look for, after all.

Thing is. Upon returning to the book of one's youth, there is a non-zero risk that one might discover it to be less impressive than it is in memory. The years between then and now have included many things - books, experiences, life events, deaths - which put things in perspective, and changes one's outlook on things. There is a risk that, upon returning, the book turns out to be the most bland, generic, run-o-the-mill piece of prose there ever was.

This does not diminish its value or the validity of your experiences. It does, however, draw attention to the importance of context. When a book is read is as important as what is in it: in the hands of a young person in search of meaning, any book can become an ontological and emotional foundation.

If you happen to have kids of your own, the thought of leading them towards a similar book might have occurred to you. This, again, actualizes the question of how to find such a book, and how to introduce it.

Simply telling them to read something might do the trick. Sometimes, life happens in straightforward ways.

More often than not, though, it will be something unexpected. They will pick up a book, read it, and - wham - that's the one. There is no telling which one it is, but that's the one it is now, until they become old enough to remember that book they read as a teenager.

The key, then, is to give them ample opportunity to stumble upon a good book. Keep your home well-stocked with good books, and allow access to them at all times. Play the odds. Make it more likely that the book they stumble upon is something by, say, Gloria Anzaldúa rather than by - I shudder to think - Ayn Rand.

Life is full of surprises, strange turn of events and curious edge cases. Sometimes, it is no accident that we stumble upon them. -