Social media considered harmful, last part

July 25th, 2017

In his screenplay for the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, Bud Schulberg posits the political rise of Lonesome Rhodes, a populist figure who captures the public imagination through his folksy manner and ability to present himself as a working man’s alternative to the political elite of the day. When a recording of Rhodes speaking, in an unguarded moment, reveals his true feelings of contempt for others, his political collapse is instantaneous.

There was probably a time in our nation’s history when that would have been the fate of a figure like Donald Trump, after recordings surfaced in which he talked about “grabbing pussy” and otherwise revealing himself to be a crude and contemptuous man. But now we live in the era of social media.

Trolls are not merely tolerated these days — they have become woven into the fabric of our culture. The ability to derail rational and constructive discourse through an act of pure verbal aggression has come to be admired in many circles. And I think this goes a long way toward explain the continuing acceptance in many circles of Donald Trump.

As Trump’s true nature has emerged as a troll writ large, a con man and a bully, a supposed “billionaire” who hides his tax returns out of fear of revealing his true financial state, a long time swindler of employees and contractors, a taker of bribes from Russian benefactors in the form of sweetheart real estate deals, an admirer of murderous despots in brutal totalitarian regimes, a man who seems to view his marriage merely as an opportunity for photo-ops, a serial liar on a scale never-before seen in our nation’s political sphere, his popularity in many quarters has only increased.

I don’t think such a figure would have been acceptable to the American public before the emergence of trolling as a form of power. Baseless insults, crude verbal attacks, disgusting comments about women, switching from one set of “facts” to another at the drop of a hat, these are not forms of behavior we historically associate with leaders. Yet now, in 2017, they seem to add up to a set of traits that many in our country find admirable.

One question that remains: Was the rise of a figure such as Trump a consequence of social media, or was it the result of an existing flaw in our social fabric, one that social media has merely allowed to blossom forth?

Social media considered harmful, part 3

July 24th, 2017

So how might the presence of frustrated angry trolls affect the larger societal discourse? Consider, for example, the responses to my post the other day.

I received a number of truly thoughtful and caring responses from people who simply wanted to work in a spirit of cooperation for everyone’s benefit. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires participants to be confident in themselves, and therefore capable of trusting others.

A troll, in contrast, essentially functions as an angry three year old in an adult body, either unable or unwilling to trust, and therefore wanting only to run around tearing things down. When anyone makes a thoughtful or kind suggestion, or attempts to elevate the level of discourse, a troll will respond by going on the attack.

In a moderated forum such as this blog, the effects are minimal. Yet most of society is not a moderated forum. In particular, the political sphere is essentially unmoderated. I fear that a gradual acceptance of troll-like behavior on-line may have helped to lead us down a dark and destructive path in our larger political discourse.

More tomorrow.

Social media considered harmful, part 2

July 23rd, 2017

If a stranger walks up to you the street and punches you in the nose, that person is labeled as crazy. But if a stranger performs the equivalent act on-line, that is simply considered rude behavior. The first person might end up in an institution. The second person we just call a troll and shrug our shoulders.

How did we get to this place? Why do so many people on-line come out swinging at total strangers? My best guess is that it’s a way of dealing with feelings of fear and helplessness.

Before the advent of social media, if you were feeling helpless or scared, you would generally turn to the people in your everyday life — your family, your clergy, perhaps a neighbor. These were people you actually knew.

But now there is an easier way. You can go on-line, vent your frustrations, put on a fictional persona, act out all you want. You can avoid ever confronting feelings of helplessness or fear. In fact, you can feel that you have replaced them, through aggressive and inappropriate interactions with strangers, by an illusory feeling of power.

I’m not saying *everyone* does this. Far from it. Most people understand the limits of social media, just as most people understand the limits of alcohol use.

So the underlying problem isn’t social media itself. The real problems lie elsewhere.

Social media merely exposes those problems. But in doing so, it creates new problems of its own. More tomorrow.

Social media considered harmful, part 1

July 22nd, 2017

When people keep trying to post hostile troll-ish comments, I end up blocking them, and then I don’t even see their subsequent attempts. But in the one or two attempts that I do see, before I realize they are either crazy or trying to act crazy, I always learn something.

Yesterday the trolls came out in force, because one of my posts was listed on Hacker News. And I learned quite a bit — mostly about the nature of anger.

One of the trolls made sure to announce himself as a troll by posting a comment that was ostentatiously insulting, and then acting offended when I didn’t post it. So here was somebody essentially saying “I will engage you not in actual discussion, but only as my enemy. Those are my rules of engagement.”

So what would motivate somebody to go up to a complete stranger and loudly announce themselves as that stranger’s enemy? What’s really going on in such situations?

I think there are implications to this phenomenon that are more significant than mere bad manners. More on this tomorrow.

The death of place memory

July 21st, 2017

I was walking down an unfamiliar street the other day, but I had a pretty good sense of where I was going. Also, I could more or less keep in my head the general direction I was headed, so fairly soon I managed to get to a familiar intersection.

While this was happening I was thinking about a potential downside to wearable technology. If I had been using a mature version of a wearable, I would have had the option to see an optimal route at all times.

With the Cloud as my guide, I would have quickly learned to simply follow the directions on offer, confident that I would arrive at my destination in optimal time. I wouldn’t even need to think about it.

And that’s the problem right there. With every new technology aimed at making our lives easier, another skill becomes lost.

In this case, it would be the skill of place memory — the ability to navigate through a strange place using only one’s wits and common sense.

Who knows, maybe this is a good thing. I’m thinking of the future generations may read this, long after the skill of navigating through a strange place without computer assistance has been forgotten.

They will probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

The non-linearity of productivity

July 20th, 2017

I happen to be going through a very productive time right now. I’m working on a project that I’m very excited about, and the threads are all coming together to create a very satisfying tapestry.

Of course, there are long stretches of time when I don’t feel very productive at all. I’ll noodle around, trying this or that, but nothing really compelling results.

I’m wondering what the relationship looks like between productivity and time. Is there a pattern to it? Are these things cyclic? Random? Contingent on the phases of the moon?

If only we could find a correlation between time-varying productivity and some specific external factor. Maybe we could use that knowledge productively.

Perhaps, if I knew I was about to enter a fallow period, I could choose that time to go on a relaxing vacation. Or perhaps, if I knew that a firestorm of creative energy was about to burst forth from my brain, I could be ready to make the most of it.

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Maybe I should try to tackle it the next time I’m feeling productive.

Productive relaxation

July 19th, 2017

These last five days I had the very good fortune to spend quality time with a dear friend in London after a whirlwind conference. I had the additional fortune to be there when my friend needed to spend about 50% of her time making a deadline.

We would wander out in the morning, look at cool places like the Tate Modern, and houses of famous dead people like Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson. Then we would eventually settle in at her flat and get work done.

The reason this was so awesome was that it gave me perfect cover for engaging in my favorite activity: Working on my research software. In most social situations this would have been at least slightly awkward. But in this instance it was perfect, because our respective agendas lined up precisely.

Not only am I returning to NYC happy and relaxed and in touch with my inner Anglophile, but I also got a tremendous amount of work done during the last five days.

Oh, and I also got to be in London when Roger Federer won his eighth straight Wimbledon match. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The surprising price of avocados in London

July 18th, 2017

This week at a local market in London we purchased these 22 fresh avocados for a total cost of three quid. When I worked out the exchange rate (a bit less than four U.S. dollars), that total came out to be just about 1/15 the cost, per avocado, of the most recent avocado I purchased in New York City.

I am happy to report that all the avocados were perfectly ripe and delicious. We made lots and lots of guacamole!

Overheard this week in London

July 17th, 2017


“Right then. Where does this go?”

Secrets of the Knights Templar

July 16th, 2017

As an American, I’ve had only limited exposure to the Knights Templar. To me they were a mysterious religious order that would show up in occasional old TV episodes of Superman, or that guy who patiently waited hundreds of years in a cave guarding the Holy Grail until Indiana Jones could come along and get it.

Yet clearly there was much more to them, a rich history waiting to be discovered. Which is one reason I was so eager to accept my friend’s invitation today to visit the Museum of the Knights Templar here in London.

I certainly learned a lot, about their shifting relationship with the various Monarchs of England, the waxing and waning of their political power throughout the centuries, their great role in both war and medicine throughout British history. But I also learned some small details that rather surprised me.

For example, in their role as providers of medicants, the Knights Templar tended to gather together some unusual ingredients. Here, for example, is a detail of a case of potions and elixars that I photographed during my visit:

Note, in particular, the container on the top left, labeled “Sang Dracon“. This translates into modern English as “Dragon’s Blood”.

Yes, that’s right — dragon’s blood. The Knights Templar had dragon’s blood.

Which means they had dragons. How cool is that?