hisham hm

🔗 Protests and the space launch

I am not going to talk directly about the US protests. Instead, I will briefly note the role of the State in them, both as cause—promoting institutional racism—and as a continuing instigator. But aren’t the protests for justice, which supposedly needs to come from the State? But the government is clearly not interested in justice. So we have on one side the people, on the other side the State. But it didn’t have to be this way by definition: it’s _this_ particular state that’s the problem. And this makes me think of Peter Thiel.

Peter Thiel has said, in no uncertain terms, that he does not believe in democracy and ultimately wants the destruction of any form of State. That’s what he went up on stage in the elections for. That’s what the alt-right stands for. This is not a crisis, this is an ongoing plan. Historians will look at this as a multi-decade process, with the early 1980s under Reagan and Thatcher as the first inflection point, and the last few years with the alt-right, Trump and Brexit as the second one.

The first stage, neoliberalism, was about crippling the state in order to declare it inefficient and privatize it. In the 90s in particular this was sped up in practice and played down in discourse, but early on this was the stated goal.

Now at the second stage, it is no longer about crippling government institutions. It is about crippling the concept of government itself: get the incompetent to power, so that the supposed flaws of the democratic model become evident. Then offer something else.

Of course, the trickery there is that invariably the incompetent were led to power in various places by apparently legal but effectively criminal means: mass propaganda done in breach of campaign funding laws, voter supression, buying congress.

So now we’re at the stage where there’s a useful minority of radicalized fascists ensuring we get the worst possible government, and a mass of average people whose heroes are billionaires, ranging from your monopolist-turned-philantropist to your tweeting-techbro bigot. It may seem contradictory that the forces that are ultimately destroying the notion of nation-state ostensibly employ the discourse of nationalism. But if you pay attention, they are priming their base on adapting to the upcoming state of things.

This pandemic is the first time in history when we see a national crisis being addressed by the government by giving a press release and giving names of _companies_ who are going to be doing this and that to deal with the issue. This was very, very startling to see.

The notion that is up for companies and not the state to organize society is being normalized. America is at the forefront of this process, and has been for a long time. Other places still have things like functioning health and educational systems, but the pressure exists. In that sense, the landmark space launch — once a matter of national pride, now privatized into another triumph of business over country — led by Thiel’s associate Musk, is not at all disconnected from the ongoing events. They are deeply, closely connected.

Thiel’s company Palantir — named after the all-seeing eye in LOTR, another techbro favorite — provides machinery for mass surveillance in the the US. The surveillance people worldwide are under is already managed by a private company.

When you think of Russia and its oligarchs, or the growing number of billionaires in China’s parliament — why lobby the middleman, just buy a Congress seat for yourself — we see that the increasingly direct control of superpowers by businessmen is not an American-only phenomenon. It might be that the façade of a state will stick around for long, as a useful device as people cling to their flags and anthems, but I feel the foundations of the modern nation-state slowly crumble into dust under my feet, and I do not like what’s taking its place.

Zygmunt Bauman saw it back in the 1990s: in a world of companies, we’re no longer citizens, only consumers. And the rippling effects of this are much worse than they initially sound, but this is a conversation for another time.

🔗 Remembering Windows 3.1 themes and user empowerment

This reminiscence started reading a tweet that said:

Unpopular opinion: dark modes are overhyped

Windows 3.1 allowed you to change all system colors to your liking. Linux been fully themeable since the 90s. OSX came along with a draconian “all blue aqua, and maybe a hint of gray”.

People accepted it because frankly it looked better than anything else at the time (a ton of Linux themes were bad OSX replicas). But it was a very “Ford Model T is available in any color as long as it’s black” thing.

The rise of OSX (remember, when it came along Apple had a single-digit slice of the computer market) meant that people eventually got used to the idea of a life with no desktop personalization. Nowadays most people don’t even change their wallpapers anymore.

In the old days of Windows 3.1, it was common to walk into an office and see each person’s desktop colors, fonts and wallpapers tuned to their personalities, just like their physical desk, with one’s family portrait or plants.

I just showed the above screenshots to my sister, and she sighed with a happy nostalgia:

— Remember changing colors on the computer?
— Oh yes! we would spend hours having fun on that!
— Everyone’s was different, right?
— Yes! I’d even change it according to my mood.

Looking back, I feel like this trend of less aesthetic configurability has diminished the sense of user ownership from the computer experience, part of the general trend of the death of “personal computing”.

I almost wrote that a phone UI allows for more self-expression today than a Win/Mac computer. But then I realized how much I struggled to get my Android UI the way I wanted, until I installed Nova Launcher that gave me Linux-levels of tweaking. The average user does not do this.

But at least they are more likely to change wallpaper in their phones than their computers. Nowadays you walk into an office and all computers look the same.

The same thing happened to the web, as we compare the diminishing tweakability of a MySpace page to the blue conformity a Facebook page, for example.

Conformity and death of self-expression are the norm, all under the guise of “consistency”.

User avatars forced into circles.

App icons in phones forced into the same shape.

Years ago, a friend joked that the inconsistency of the various Linux UI toolkits was how he felt the system’s “freedom”. We all laughed and wished for a more consistent UI, of course. But that discourse on consistency was quickly coopted to remove users’ agency.

What begins with aesthetics and the sense of self-expression, continues to a lack of ownership of the computing experience and ends in the passive acceptance of systems we don’t control.

Changes happen, but those are independent from the users’ wishes, and it’s a lottery whether the changes are for better or for worse.

Ever notice how version changes are called “updates” and not “upgrades” anymore?

In that regard, I think Dark Mode is a welcome addition as it allows a tiny bit of control and self-expression to the user, but it’s still kinda sad to see how far we regressed overall.

The hype around it, and how excited users get when they get such crumbles of configurability handed to them, just comes to show how users are unused to getting any degree of control back in their hands.

🔗 Writing release announcement emails

Mailing lists are not exactly fashionable nowadays, but some of them remain relevant for some communities. The Lua community is one such example. As of 2017, a lot of what goes on in the Lua module development world still resonates in lua-l. With over 2500 subscribers, it’s a good way to kickstart interest in your new project.

Mailing list users tend to be somewhat pedantic about etiquette guidelines for posting, especially for announcements and the like. So, I usually follow this little formula for writing release announcement emails, which has been effective for me:

  • Email subject - this is important; I use a format like “[ANN] MyProject x.y”
  • Summary - The first paragraph explains what is the project
  • Links and installation - Then a link to the project website, and a one-liner instruction of how to install it (that is, the incantation for the appropriate package manager — in the case of Lua, luarocks install myproject). More detailed instructions and documentation should be available from the project website.
  • Description - Finally, a more detailed description:
    • If the announcement is for a new version of an existing project that was previously announced on the list, I include a summarized changelog, essentially “What’s new in version x.y:”
    • If this is the first announcement of the project, then a longer description of how the project works. For Lua modules, for example, this may include a really short “hello-world”-type example for the library. This is information that should be in the README.md file for your repository, which in future announcements will be reachable via the link for the project website (often a Github repo URL) mentioned above.
  • License - Users should be able to figure out the license of your project easily, so especially in new projects mentioning can be a good idea — but watch out if you’re using a license that’s not the majority option in a given community. You may be unnecessarily flamed for your choice by people who don’t even want to use your project in the first place. If you’re not going with the “majority license” (and remember, license choice is your call as an author, not the community’s) it might be a better idea to avoid mailing list noise and mention the license only in the project website and sources. The goal is not to hide it (interested people should find it easily; do mention it in your project’s README.md and include a LICENSE file) but just to avoid licensing flamewars. Of course, using the majority license has major pros, so if it’s all the same to you go with it, but if you’d prefer another one, don’t let yourself be bullied by a community into picking one free software license over another. It’s your freedom too!
  • Be nice! - Finally, remember to sandwich all this technical info with greetings at the top, kudos to contributors, requests for help and feedback, etc. A mailing list is a social medium, after all. :)

An example of an upgrade announcement is here:

[ANN] LuaRocks 2.4.2

Hello, list!

I'm happy to announce LuaRocks 2.4.2. LuaRocks is the Lua package
manager. (For more information, please visit http://luarocks.org )

http://luarocks.org/releases/luarocks-2.4.2.tar.gz
http://luarocks.org/releases/luarocks-2.4.2-win32.zip

Those of you on Unix who are running LuaRocks as a rock (i.e. those
who previously installed using `make bootstrap`) can install it using:

   luarocks install luarocks

What's new since 2.4.1:

* Fixed conflict resolution on deploy/delete
* Improved dependency check messages
* Performance improvements when removing packages
* Support user-defined `platforms` array in config file
* Improvements in Lua interpreter version detection in Unix configure script
* Relaxed Lua version detection to improve support for alternative
implementations (e.g. Ravi)
* Plus assorted bugfixes and improvements

This release contains commits by Peter Melnichenko, Robert Karasek and myself.

As always, all kinds of feedback is greatly appreciated.

Thank you, enjoy!

-- Hisham

An example of a new project announcement is here:

[ANN] safer - Paranoid Lua programming

Hi,

Announcing yet another "strict-mode" style module: "safer".

* http://github.com/hishamhm/safer

Install with
   luarocks install safer

# Safer - Paranoid Lua programming

Taking defensive programming to the next level. Use this module
to avoid unexpected globals creeping up in your code, and stopping
sub-modules from fiddling with fields of tables as you pass them
around.

## API

#### `safer.globals([exception_globals], [exception_nils])`

No new globals after this point.

`exception_globals` is an optional set (keys are strings, values are
`true`) specifying names to be exceptionally accepted as new globals.
Use this in case you have to declare a legacy module that declares a
global, for example. A few legacy modules are already handled by
default.

`exception_nils` is an optional set (keys are strings, values are
`true`) specifying names
to be exceptionally accepted to be accessed as nonexisting globals.
Use this in case code does feature-testing based on checking the
presence of globals. A few common feature-test nils such as `jit` and
`unpack` are already handled by default.

#### `t = safer.table(t)`

Block creation of new fields in this table.

#### `t = safer.readonly(t)`

Make table read-only: block creation of new fields in this table
and setting new values to existing fields.

Note that both `safer.table` and `safer.readonly` are implemented
creating a proxy table, so:

* Equality tests will fail: `safer.readonly(t) ~= t`
* If anyone still has a reference to this table prior
  to creating the safer version, they can still mess
  with the unsafe table and affect the safe one.

About
-----

Licensed under the terms of the MIT License, the same as Lua.

During its genesis, this module was called "safe", but I renamed it
to "safer" to remind us that we are never fully safe. ;)

-- Hisham
http://hisham.hm/ - @hisham_hm

Hope this helps!

🔗 Pen-and-paper Street Fighter II

I just remembered an interesting tidbit from my childhood.

Around 7th grade in school I invented a pen-and-paper version of Street Fighter II for people to play during classes.

I don’t remember the exact details, but basically I drew a grid for the screen and then I drew stick figures in it, and passed the page around.

People would write-in their moves and then I played CPU: I’d erase the stick figures and redraw in new positions, update hit/miss, update the energy meters.

I remember trying to keep it balanced and true to the game: Dhalsim’s punch and kick could hit farther but were weaker, etc. I had all of the “sprites” with the character movements pre-determined on my notebook.

The game went on sneaking a page back and forth along players and me at the back of the class. I imagine how bored out of our minds we must have been in school to enjoy playing “Street Fighter II at 0.05 frames per second”.

🔗 On the word “latino”

One of my least-favorite American English words is “latino”, for two reasons:

First, a linguistic reason: because it’s not inflected when used. When you’re used to the fact that in Spanish and Portuguese “latino” refers only to men and “latina” only to women, hearing “latino woman” sounds really weird (weirder than, say, “handsome woman”). Even weirder “latino women”, mixing a Spanish/Portuguese word and English grammar. “Bonito girls”? :)

Second, a sociological reason: because using a foreign loanword reinforces the otherness. Nobody calls the Italian community in America “italiano”, although that’s their name in Italian. The alternative “Hispanic” is not ideal because it doesn’t really make sense when including Brazil, which was never a Spanish colony (plus, the colonial past is something most countries want to leave behind).

I can’t change the language by myself, so I just avoid the term and use more specific ones whenever possible (Colombians, Argentines, Brazilians, South Americans, Latin Americans when referring to people from the area in general, etc.)

After writing the above, I checked Wikipedia and it seems the communites in the US agree with me:

« In a recent study, most Spanish-speakers of Spanish or Hispanic American descent do not prefer the term “Hispanic” or “Latino” when it comes to describing their identity. Instead, they prefer to be identified by their country of origin. When asked if they have a preference for either being identified as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” the Pew study finds that “half (51%) say they have no preference for either term.”[43] A majority (51%) say they most often identify themselves by their family’s country of origin, while 24% say they prefer a pan-ethnic label such as Hispanic or Latino. Among those 24% who have a preference for a pan-ethnic label, “‘Hispanic’ is preferred over ‘Latino’ by more than a two-to-one margin—33% versus 14%.” Twenty-one percent prefer to be referred to simply as “Americans.” »

I think the awkwardness in the grammar from point one actually reinforces point two, because it strikes me as something that no Spanish or Portuguese native speaker would come up with by themselves. So it sounds tacked upon.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully identify as a Brazilian, a South American and a Latin American — travellling abroad helps a lot to widen your cultural identity! — and I have no problem when people wear the term “latino” proudly, but I always pay close attention to the power of language and how it represents and propagates ideas.


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