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.

🔗 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.

🔗 Speaking of aging

“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June… If it were only the other way!” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

A while ago I realized that, as we live more and more of our lives online, many of us have turned into a sort of reverse Dorian Gray.

We create accounts in service after service, uploading our avatar images. Some of them are periodically updated for various reasons (Facebook in particular), but many of them stay unchanged for years. When was the last time you changed your GMail avatar?

As it happens, our online self keeps that perennial smile, that youthful face that’s sometimes years old by now, while our physical self, the one that’s locked in a room, sitting on a computer as the online self strolls around in cyberspace, ages day by day.

I have friends here on Facebook whose avatars I’ve known for years. Professors are known for having outdated pictures in their websites, with black hair that has long turned gray.

I met a guy at a conference who I expected to be a youthful long-haired dude in his 20s, and was a short-haired man in his late 30s. When I said “oh, you have short hair now!” he smiled, a bit confused, and then remembered his own picture. What is striking is that I should have known, since I knew that picture for over ten years myself, back when I was a dude in my 20s.

As for me, I have one nice pic of myself that I uploaded as an avatar in many services (Twitter, Github, etc) that I’m just too lazy to switch. I like the picture and I actually used it once as a reference at the barbershop when getting a haircut (was I trying to chase my “Dorian’s picture”?). Still, when switching back from my child picture here on Facebook back to my “current” picture, the thought that my usual profile picture is actually from 2011 came to mind. Hence, this picture.

🔗 Philosophy, the root of knowledge (in Wikipedia, at least!)

Just read this on XKCD 903:

“Wikipedia trivia: if you take any article, click on the first link in the article text not in parentheses or italics, and then repeat, you will eventually end up at “Philosophy”.

Tried it with a random article, the first one that came up in my Firefox autocompletion:

Brian Stowell → Isle of Man → Crown Dependencies → The Crown → Corporation sole → Legal personality → Entity (almost there! “philosophy” was the second link) → Existence → Sense → Physiology → Science → Knowledge → Fact → Information → Sequence → Mathematics → Quantity
Property (philosophy) → Modern philosophy → Philosophy

Beyond that it’s a loop Philosophy → Reason → Rationality → Philosophy.

Then I tried to pick something as far from philosophy as I could quickly think of:

Neymar → Association football → Team sport → Sport → Organization → Social group → Social sciences → List of academic disciplines → Academia → Community → Extant taxon → Biology → Natural science → Science → … → Philosophy

Turns out Wikipedians have already studied this phenomenon. Apparently, 94.5% of all English Wikipedia articles lead to “Philosophy”. Cool, huh? There is even a fun web app so you can play around with this.

🔗 Programming language research is a Human Science

Some people often tell me that, due to my various interests, they actually find it weird that I ended up studying Computer Science and not some of the Humanities. I try to explain them that my specific field of interest, programming languages, is actually a Human Science. And that is so for one simple reason: if there was no people, if computing was restricted to computers and there was no human factor, machine language — the binary code that processors actually run — would be enough. Programming languages exist because of people, not because of computers.

This quote puts it rather nicely:

“Programming is a science dressed up as art, because most of us don’t understand the physics of software, and it’s rarely if ever taught. The physics of software is not algorithms, data structures, languages and abstractions. These are just tools we make, use, throw away. The real physics of software is the physics of people.

Specifically, our limitations when it comes to complexity, and our desire to work together to solve large problems in pieces. This is the science of programming: make building blocks that people can understand and use easily, and people will work together to solve the very largest problems.” — Peter Hintjens et al., ØMQ - The Guide

Programming languages are the bridge we use to communicate our ideas to the machine, but also to communicate our ideas among our fellow programmers, and even to ourselves. Like natural languages, programming languages are constantly evolving (at a much faster pace, even!), as we try to balance the tension between being precise and unambiguous and being understandable and eloquent; to be able, in the same piece of prose, to tell a machine what to do and to tell another person what we mean. And this is by no means a matter of numbers.

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