Would You Have The Courage To Find The Truth?

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Monday, 5.15am

Sheffield, U.K.

“The opposite for courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.” – Jim Hightower

There are always things that people would prefer remained hidden. And there are people who have the courage to expose the truth. But is it just courage or is it also organization. Do you need a society that encourages openness rather than one where secrecy prevails?

The free press

Freedom of the press has emerged over the centuries as a right, the ability to say what you see or think even if that annoys or infuriates people. And people don’t like it, for obvious reasons. Journalists get put in jail, murdered and intimidated. Yet members of the profession carry on, looking for the story. But there are fewer of them because of the way the business works, people with the money pay to keep the media in business and money comes with influence and pressure.

Things have, of course, changed over time. During the Indian independence movement Gandhi understood the power of the press and the way the West would react when the truth came out in their newspapers. An informed population would do the right thing. Would the methods of non-violence have worked against nations that had a different approach to press freedom? Perhaps not.

These days we are all free to publish. If you run a demonstration then you will be on camera, filmed by the police, by your opposition and, if you have any sense, you will have your own team of camera people recording what’s going on. The intense scrutiny everywhere is showing just how much violence there is but it’s not showing anything new, it’s just showing up what was always there. And the thing about behavior such as this is it cannot stand the light, it takes a certain kind of individual to stand and lie in the full glare of the camera. But, of course, there are a few of them around as well. Things are changing, though.

The rise of database journalism

When I started looking at this topic I had an image of someone who headed into a dangerous situation looking for the truth. But it’s never that simple, where you suddenly go into a place that reeks of danger, from where you may not emerge alive. Perhaps it happens but if you were in that situation you’d try and tilt the odds of coming out alive in your favor before going in.

I remember many years ago, when I first entered college, a friend took me to a coffee shop and introduced me to a chap. This guy was sat on his own at a table at the back, or was he alone? Did he have a team around him, quietly watching? I was introduced to him and he asked a few questions, almost like he were sizing me up, like it was an interview and he was gauging where I stood, whether I was a resource or a threat. It was only when we left that my friend explained that this person was a rising local political activist, someone who would probably go on to be prominent in local politics. And that started to explain that air of menace and a hunger for power and the eye on who would help and who needed to be gotten out of the way.

But the majority of the time what investigators probably do is investigate. They look at records, ask for information, look for patterns. There is information out there and the absence of information is also a signal in itself. It’s a signal that you shouldn’t go there, invest there, do anything there. And then you hope that things will change, that people will realize that being transparent is good for business.

News and society

I started this post by thinking I would explore a story about a meeting, something I saw on a TED talk where this guy went and interviewed a gang leader and told his story. That’s the image at the top of this post, the feeling of terror and dread going into a situation that could be life or death. Would you do it? He did, not just on impulse, but after introductions, vetting, a process to reduce risk and build trust. Even gang leaders want to be heard, there are reasons why they have become the way they have. You remember Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather”, which was portrayal of the Mafia. Vito Corleone, the Don, didn’t choose to be that way. He was born into a situation where acting honestly got you killed and he then made decision after decision that led to him having power and wealth and control. There is a theme that even gangsters want to become legitimate business people – there is more money to be made out of the shadows than in them.

But when you look at the big picture, we are fortunate that we live in a society where there is more happening in the light than there is in the darkness. The freedom of the press is available to everyone. The cost of entry is falling and the ability to capture and share what is happening around you is within the grasp of many more people. Of course, there are also less people listening and a few people who get most of the attention but that’s not the point. It’s not about how many followers you have but whether shining a light in the spaces you live in will lead to improvements there.

A group of people that have no way to share news, no way to learn about what is going on cannot be seen as a community. You need that gossip, that shared knowledge about what is going on. And that’s one of the elements that you will need to build if you want to create your own community. You have to ask yourself how you will keep the news flowing, how you will keep people informed about what is going on.

But what is news and what is not? What we’ve learned over the years is that people get very good at manipulating whatever you put out there. If you go on the Internet, you expect to be attacked by people who want to exploit any vulnerabilities in your setup. A few years ago I set up a server and it quickly started getting thousands of attacks from computers trying to guess usernames and passwords. This is industrial, state sponsored espionage. You do your work expecting to be attacked, and do what you need to do to fix vulnerabilities. In society, this often comes down to rules.

So let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Is Your Place In A Community?

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Sunday, 7.36am

Sheffield, U.K.

“Who is a professional? A professional is someone who has a combination of competence, confidence and belief. A water diviner is a professional. A traditional midwife is a professional. A traditional bone setter is a professional. These are professionals all over the world. You find them in any inaccessible village around the world.” – Bunker Roy

How do you fit into your world? Do you have a place, a niche? Or are you still looking for one, looking for what you can do, where you can do it and how you can contribute to your society and community? Have we really moved that far, are our societies composed mainly of soldiers, laborers and clerks – and then those outside the mainstream?

The nature of hierarchy

A state of hierarchy implies that there is a set of relationships between elements and, in particular, there is one element that is at the top. This means you can have a very flat hierarchy, with a number of elements subordinate to one or a tall hierarchy, grouped into multiple levels, as you traditionally see in organizations or the military.

What matters in society and community is often where you fit into that structure. It’s also more important for us, on a day to day basis, on how we are doing compared with others who are at the same level than how we are doing compared to others at the levels above or below us. After all, you might be delighted with your bonus until you realize that your coworker got twice as much as you did. That will often rankle more than the Chief Executive getting one hundred times what you received.

So what is it that gets us into the hierarchy in the first place and then how do we position ourselves in there? And does it matter?

Claiming your place in social status

The psychologist Jordan Peterson has talked about dominance hierarchies as having a biological basis – animals fight for status and so, he argues, do we. His views have been criticized for not taking account of the diversity of human societies over time. He also suggested that what we should be looking at now is a competence hierarchy, where your status in modern industrial or post-industrial society is largely dictated by your competence. This is perhaps nicely summed up by the phrase “Be nice to nerds. You’ll probably end up working for one.”

On the other hand, life just isn’t that simple as the last decade or so of politics have shown us. The information society we live in has made dominance politics perhaps even more important as people rush to the safety of messages and leaders that promise both to protect them and help them dominate others. The messages of competence and community are drowned out as the animalistic, fight or flight parts of our brains crowd out the reasoning and rationality required for compromise and accommodation.

What this probably means is that there is no formula, no sure fire way of getting to where you want to be. The path you take depends on the destination you’re aiming for and you need to play the game the way that works best for you. You can be who you are, you can be what your audience wants and you can be something in between. But that’s something you need to decide. Your worth, however, will be determined by others and how they feel you are contributing to them and their way of life.

When it comes to society anyway. When it comes to things that have to work, then there is a difference force at play.

Operational or technical status

A different approach seems to matter when it comes to technical tasks, the things that require actual competence to complete. This is captured by a observations that come down to something on the lines of “Those who can, do. Those who can’t are promoted to management.” It’s very easy to stand around and talk about what needs to be done. But when it comes down to it, the people doing the doing are too busy getting on with that to also think about the management of the process. And this leads to predictable problematic situations.

Take the handling of the Covid pandemic, for example. The professionals know how to handle patients who present with symptoms, they know how to build hospitals, set up processes, and create safe working environments. Once someone enters a hospital they will go through an industrial process that gives them a better chance of living.

Politicians, on the other hand, have the power to make decisions. But they are uniquely unqualified to make decisions of a technical nature and so they make decisions based on what’s best for them because that’s all they know to do. For example, a politician will take action to lock down communities after it is clear that infection rates are rising and people are dying. If they locked down before people started to die they would be criticized for destroying livelihoods without proof that there was a problem. So, they have to wait until the problem is visible before they can take action. If you’re an airline pilot and you see a mountain looming ahead of you then the sensible thing to do is increase your altitude, fly over it. A politician is in the unenviable position of having to first bump into the mountain and then, when it’s clear that there is a problem, try and take evasive action.

Which then leads to the second challenge, which is that as they cannot do anything useful they have to set objective and targets for others like mandating a certain number of tests a day. So the professionals, in addition to trying to diagnose and cure patients have to record and report on what’s going on. So the objective of the individuals involved becomes to monitor and report rather than do. The intervention of management, then, reduces the effectiveness of the system as a whole.

Does this mean that the competence hierarchy theory does not hold, that dominance is actually what matters?

A fine specimen

I suppose when it comes down to it everything matters when it does. We were on a beach in Wales and a couple of young women walked by and I caught the phrase, “It must be great having a husband like that.” For an instant I thought they were talking about me but, alas, I then saw the object of their admiration, a sculpted Adonis strolling with his partner. We are, after all, biologically driven underneath it all. Above that we have a veneer of humanity, a thin one, one that we have evolved over time but that we are still figuring out how to work with. Evolution is too slow for us, our brains have created a way for us to adapt to our circumstances that go beyond mere biology but we have to remember that he biology still underpins it all and when things go wrong, we will revert to survival and savagery.

But community is not about that, it’s about that veneer of humanity in action. It’s about having the courage to be human and overcome the flight or flight circuitry that’s hardwired into our brains.

Let’s look at that in the next post.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Does Life Really Need To Be As Complicated As It Is?

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Saturday, 7.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

“First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure.” – Douglas Adams

After a round of recent updates it’s becoming clear that some of my computers are getting a little long in the tooth. The relentless need for more bandwidth and higher resolution applications along with sneaky decisions by developers to create lots of processes that hog computing resource is pretty irritating. After all, does a browser really need to use quite so much memory and processor power? What are we trying to do here really?

It sometimes feels like we are in the relentless pursuit of bloat, more of everything at the expense of all things. Having more does not make us better off or smarter or better looking. It all just slows us down, adds weight and acts like anchors, physical, mental and financial. And is this really helping us at all?

I realize this is just moaning, and Douglas Adams in “The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy” gets it right as usual, remarking on how people complain all the time, including how things went bad when we came down from the trees and started walking around, while others are of the opinion that we really shouldn’t have left the seas at all. I also appreciate that the complaints I have will seem pointless to people who do not quite see that constraints are freeing in a way that resources are not.

For example, the Raspberry Pi is in the news, with a gorgeous throwback to a computer in a keyboard priced lower than a weekly food shop, less than you’d spend on a takeaway on certain days. The Pi 400 is an entry level desktop computer and while it’s aimed at students there’s no reason why you can’t try and use it for other stuff as well. I thought I’d try an experiment for a bit and see if I could do the things I wanted to do in the world of the Pi, and actually go back to a previous model, the Pi B+, which is even cheaper.

There are a few core things that I do every day, write – in a blog or papers and draw the images that go along with these. Drawing is the only reason for starting up the graphical display, the X interface, what most people think of as windows. The rest of the time is all about text and that’s fine in the command line, in the old DOS looking terminal. Now, can I do that, can I spend most of my time looking at black and white, including for Internet research and only surface to the desktop when I need to draw something?

Well, so far it seems like I can. Elinks is a fine text mode browser. Using Screen I can create windows and copy and paste text from one place to another, like with the quote that starts this post. I post what I write to WordPress using org2blog but I have to confess I am not a fan of the interstellar spaceship that is emacs. I prefer writing in ed and vi. But emacs has the awesome org2blog mode that makes it so much easier to post what I write to WordPress.

Already as I do this it’s distraction free, I cannot do anything other than write without effort, so I have to make an effort if I want to distract myself. There is the cursor and the page and that is all. I only need to go to a browser when I am looking for information and the rest of the time I am free to move that cursor along, word after word, line after line. There is no email popping up, no LinkedIn to check, no news to worry about, no update on what Biden is doing right now or whether the other guy has finished with golf.

Now, for those of you that haven’t seen a Pi, it’s the size of a pack of playing cards. It’s sitting here, working away, doing what I would do with a lot more computing power. That said, this little box probably has most of the power of my eight year old machine, but given that I am using forty year old software it has all the power I need.

Anyway I don’t have much more to say on this matter other than I’m going to try this for a bit and see what happens. There should be no real effect on anyone that reads this. It might just make it easier for me to focus on what matters.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh