Quality content on the internet is a rounding error when adding the ninety percent utter shit and ten percent malicious fuckery.beggs
Never before have so many people understood so little about so much.James Burke, in Connections [wikipedia.org] episode 1 “The Trigger Effect”
James Burke said that in 1979, a year after I was born, in his TV show Connections. As a kid watching reruns of Connections I doubt I understood what he meant. That as society advances people come to use and depend more and more on technology that requires specialized knowledge to understand. We are surrounded by technology that our lives depend on, but few of us understand very much of it at all. Think about all the technology you use every day do you understand it? Even the basics; electricity? The turbines that generate it and the grid that delivers it to you can charge your phone, or laptop, to read this? Forget about the phone or laptop themselves with literally hundreds of components that are each a technical marvel —touch screens, accelerometers, radios for bluetooth, cellular and wifi, and the processor, even the battery. And don’t forget the tens or hundreds of thousands of lines of computer code that make all those physical bits work together so you can look at cat memes on the internet. What about the technology required to grow food on far off farms to feed more than half of the world that lives in cities today? The trains, planes and automobiles that deliver it in an edible state? The list goes on. How many of us could really survive an apocalypse?
The complexity of the world has increased in what feels like an exponential rate over the 40-plus years since Connections was made. Each of us has been reduced from a cog in vast machine to a single tooth on a very small cog in a massive world spanning machine. When I was a kids cars were complex machines but I could learn enough about how they worked, as mechanical things, to understand them. I was far from a gear head but I could even do basic maintenance and little repair. I could change the oil or clean the spark plugs because I could understand what was going on under the hood and apply that knowledge with my hands. Today, the principles haven’t changed (as long as we are talking about internal combustion engines, ignoring hybrid and electric cars for now…) but cars are computers and they require specialized equipment to even diagnose many problems. My car throws an error if you replace the battery without the manufacturer provided software to tell the car what you did. As the world gets more and more advanced we all see less and less of the overall machine and it can be overwhelming. More and more we are surrounded by black boxes we don’t understand. It reminds me of another quote:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.Arthur C. Clarke, in Profiles of the Future
Everything around us is magic today, the technology behind you seeing these words on your mobile phone requires armies of people to design, build and manage. You can’t even name or imagine all the people and tasks along the way much less how it works, unless it’s your job to design it or build it or manage it, or to study it. And that would make you what we call an expert. But these days people don’t seem to believe they need to listen to experts about the things they don’t know.
Even the most venerated experts, the canonical example of an expert: doctors, aren’t safe from the disrespect for expertise today. There are many issues with the practice of medicine [ted.com] but when I’m sick I still want an expert to take a look, to diagnose and to treat me. I want someone who trained for years to understand how the human body works, continues to keep up with advances and is certified to apply that knowledge. The human body is magic to me, because I don’t have the knowledge. How is it that people can think a random talking head on the Internet knows better than almost all the trained doctors and medical researchers in the world? People are drinking bleach! Or worse making their autistic kids drink Clorox like Kool Aid in Jonestown.
Do you remember, before the Internet, that it was thought that the cause of collective stupidity was the lack of access to information? Yea… It wasn’t that.Anonymous meme
I can’t find a source to cite for that, I’ve seen different versions of the theme on the internet many times over the past few years, it seems appropriate. But we did know, or some people knew, that the idea, in the early days of the Internet, that access to information would make everyone smarter, was bullshit. We were warned:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”Isaac Asimov, “A Cult of Ignorance”, Newsweek (21 January 1980) (more about it on Open Culture [openculture.net])
This thread of anti-intellectualism is the direct parent of the disrespect, and hostility, towards “experts” on display today. And there does seem to be something fundamental about it as it affects people on both sides of the political spectrum, liberal anti-vaxxers and conservative anti-maskers alike, rich hollywood stars and struggling middle class workers, and don’t get me started on flat-earthers. Ignorance, individualism and the internet are a potent brew.
I don’t know where to go from here, I don’t know how it can be fixed but I suspect it will take many experts…
I have been reading the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations in the past couple of days. It’s full of lots of progressive liberal dreams. But I’m a pessimist, I expect most of it cannot get passed Congress in anything like it’s current form but hope springs eternal. I guess. Anyway… I came across this part:
As millions of Americans have stayed at home to prevent the spread of the pandemic, it is plain to see that in the 21st century, the Internet is not optional: It is a vital tool for participating in the economy, and all Americans need access to high-speed, affordable broadband service. Democrats will take action to prevent states from blocking municipalities and rural co-ops from building publicly-owned broadband networks, and increase federal support for municipal broadband. We will increase public investment in rural broadband infrastructure and offer low- income Americans subsidies for accessing high-speed internet through the Lifeline program, so children and families can fully participate in school, work, and life from their homes. And Democrats will restore the FCC’s clear authority to take strong enforcement action against broadband providers who violate net neutrality principles through blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, or other measures that create artificial scarcity and raise consumer prices for this vital service.
I support this, I wholeheartedly support this. The lack of broadband is a detriment to anyone’s participation in the modern economy. As a worker, for more and more jobs, and, increasingly, as a consumer. COVID-19 has shown it’s an even more critical peace of infrastructure than we thought. You can’t have online classes or work from home meetings if people don’t have a good internet connection, and to do both at the same time?
I think the rollout should be pushed by the government as a common good, as centrally planned, funded and managed infrastructure. I’ve written about it before, here [confusion.cc] and even revisited it here [confusion.cc]. When I revisited the lack of broadband coverage, in 2017, I lamented how it seemed nothing had changed since I originally wrote about it in 2010. Well… guess what? It’s still shit.
I live in Singapore where we have a national broadband network, pumping high speed internet into nearly every house and small business. I still buy connectivity from a service provider, but what I’m really buying from them is the connection out to the wider world, the network from my house to the service providers is the same no matter who I purchase from. The idea is that broadband, like roads is a necessary part of the national infrastructure. When I leave my house and drive over the road to a shop or office the road is a common good connecting the two private locations. Good roads are a necessary part of the modern functioning economy. They are expensive and it makes sense that the government funds them centrally to ensure they reach everyone. The same is true of internet; connecting homes is expensive and it makes sense to let the government fund it to ensure it reaches everyone.
One benefit of the government managing the roads is planning. The Singapore government can encourage development in different areas through the management of the roads. Even in a place as small as Singapore you can see the effect of this when new roads are built, or more commonly, existing roads are widened or extended. Given, Singapore is a small place and managing infrastructure on the scale of the US is in a different league, look at roads in the US… but still I think it’s worth government investing in infrastructure for the common good. That includes bettering our investment in roads but also in new infrastructure requirements like broadband.
I should point out that Australia is also building a national broadband network, and it’s not going as swimmingly as it did in Singapore. Australia is much closer to the physical size of the US but only has a fraction of the population. So, yes, I expect it will be a much harder and longer process in the US. Dealing with federal, state and local governments and people and entrenched businesses. But we need to find the way. We got electricity to everyone only with a major governmental push after the private sector reached the point where it was not in business interest to push further. That was a hundred years ago. Broadband is the electricity of this century, and the US is falling behind. It was not until the 1950 after Eisenhower saw the benefit of good roads in Germany that we got the interstate highway system in the US. The same thing needs to happen now; take a look at the success of national broadband networks in places like Singapore and South Korea, and bring it back to the US.
Forgetting the good in the search for the power to affect it.J. R. R. Tolkien, Essay on the Istari, published in Unfinished Tales
More than a year ago, in late April, and into early May 2019, my mother, my youngest sister and I went on a bucket list trip: to see Machu Picchu [wikipedia.org].
Machu Picchu is one of those places that has been in the “oh my god I have to go” since I was a kid. We watched a lot of National Geographic specials when I was young (back in the pre-cable days when we had four channels: ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS.) I’m sure I first came across Machu Picchu on one of those specials. The many shows on the story of Hiram Bingham‘s [wikipedia.org] expeditions and the mysteries of Machu Picchu as well as the possible connection to the Indiana Jones movies, all of which were favorites in my house growing up, added to the mystic of Machu Picchu putting it near the top of my must-see-in-my-lifetime list. While I’ve checked off a lot of places on that list between my life in the US, my time in Europe and living in Asia, Machu Picchu was my first Central or South American site.
I flew via Amsterdam, 31 hours in total to get to Lima. I met my mom and sister in the airport there and took a short flight to Cuzco. The landing in Cuzco was an experience, because of the mountains all around Cuzco the plane makes a sharp banked turn and drops rapidly down to the runway. It’s a bit of a roller coaster.
We met a representative from our tour company at the airport and they dropped us at our Hotel, right in the center of Cuzco city. We spending the remainder of the first day walking around just to get somewhat acclimatised to life at 3000 meters above sea level. At that altitude climbing the steps up one level to our hotel room had the same effect as jogging a 100 meters or so. We had to work for the coffee we had at a second story café in the main city square, Plaza de Armas del Cuzco.
We started our site seeing on the second day, touring some of the main sites in and around Cuzco. We started just opposite our hotel at the Convent of Santo Domingo [wikipedia.org] which is built on the ruins of the Inca Coricancha or “the golden temple”, possible their most important temple. Much of the colonial architecture of Cuzco is built right on top of Incan and pre-Inca buildings, incorporating the large stones with no mortar in their foundations.
We took a car up into the hills around Cuzco to see some of the more Inca sites: Sacsayhuamán [wikipedia.org], Tambomachay [wikipedia.org] Puka Pukara [wikipedia.org] and Qenko [wikipedia.org]. All cool sites and considering Tambomachay and Puka Pukara are located at 3600 meters above sea level a good warm up for hiking at altitude. We returned to Cuzco in the afternoon and toured the Cusco Cathedral [wikipedia.org] where of course you can’t take photos of the amazing interiors…
The second day we explored the Sacred Valley on our way towards Machu Picchu. We saw the salt ponds at Maras [wikipedia.org], which were very cool. Our guide said there were over five thousand salt ponds but I’m sure he meant five hundred. Still it’s an impressive site, in use for salt production for hundreds of years before the Inca.
Nearby the Maras salt ponds we visited the Inca ruins of Moray [wikipedia.org]. This was one of the coolest ruins we saw, they look like some sort of arena or man made craters in the earth. A series of concentric terraces built into a couple of large natural depressions. As explained by the guide, the best guess is it was made to create a “microclimate” to better grow specific crops at higher altitudes than they would normally grow.
We finished the second day at Ollantaytambo [wikipedia.org] which competes with Puka Pukara for the best name of the ruins we saw (Machu Picchu is too well known). The ruins of Ollantaytambo are a series of massive terraces going up the side of the mountain known as the Terraces of Pumatallis, a large temple complex including the “Wall of the Six Monoliths” which is made up of six Stonehenge sized blocks, and several Inca storehouses.
The next day we left Ollantaytambo and made our way to Machu Picchu. We entered the city in the afternoon with clear skies and bright sunshine, and met our local guide who took us around for a few hours as the sun went down. Our guide was great, explaining a lot and letting us indulge in our photography for as long as we wanted. And the ruins of Machu Picchu were amazing. The lowering sun casting shadows of the still standing walls of store houses and temples and residences across the grassy plazas. Sheer drops down to the Urubamba River which hourshoes around Machu Pichu.
While we explored the city we saw the requisite llamas, including a baby llama and my sister had an up close encounter with one hungry llama that tried to eat her camera lens when she was changing lenses. Llama spit, yummy. We also saw several viscacha, a type of rodent which looks something like a rabbit, but with a longer tail and short ears. They are quite cute running across the ruins.
One of the cooler things we learned from our guide is that while the jungle has been cleared from Machu Picchu, since Hiram Bingham first brought it to the attention of the outside world in 1911, no re-construction is done. There has been some rebuilding due to earthquakes over the years, but only if a stone can be identified as fallen since the Bingham’s expeditions using the photos from the expeditions, is it replaced.
Machu Picchu shuts to visitors at sunset, so after a few hours we made our way down to Machupicchu Pueblo or Aguas Calientes [wikipedia.org] the small town in the valley below the citadel. The town is full of tourist hotels and cafes and restaurants. Basically a clean showers, cold beer and hot food for people who hiked the Inca Trail. Also a steady stream of busses up and down the switchback road up to Machu Picchu.
We woke up very early the next morning to take one of the buses up to Machu Picchu to catch the sunrise. Alas, despite waking at 4AM and being on one of the first few busses we didn’t get to see the sunrise. It was cloudy. Low hanging clouds hugged the tops of all the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu. On the plus side we got to see Machu Picchu with clouds rolling through the city so we got both the sunny and cloudy experiences. We decided to spend our full day taking some of the hikes.
First we hiked several kilometers back along the Inca Trail towards Cuzco, several hundred meters up to the Sun Gate, Inti Punku. We got to trek through the cloud forest with clouds rolling up and down the slopes, we walked in and out of the fog. By the time we got to the Sun Gate there were some breaks in the clouds creating a dappled effect on the city below us.
After hiking back to the city we went around the other side of the summit of Machu Picchu to hike the shorter trail to the Inca Bridge [wikipedia.org]. This part of the Inca road system was more dramatic, with sheer drops down two or three hundred meters to the Urubamba River below —with no railing. The Inca were crazy, the Inca Bridge itself is a few planks of wood spanning a few meter gap in a section of the path which is just half a meter wide and running along a vertical rock face.
That night we took the train back to Ollantaytambo and then a car back to Cuzco arriving quite late. The next day was May day so we just chilled in the city and explored some of the sites. Unfortunately the market we wanted to see was not so busy. We did walk around the San Blas neighborhood but many shops were closed for the holiday. So we just had a lazy day, which was just a well as we had booked an adventure for the next day with a 2 AM pick up.
Our last adventure started pre-sunrise as we caught a bus to drive 4 hours southeast of Cuzco to hike Vinicunca [wikipedia.org], the Rainbow Mountain or Mountain of Seven Colours. A couple of hours on the bus and we stopped for breakfast at a small lodge off the highway. After breakfast we got back on the bus and started to climb up one lane gravel roads. We started about 3,700 m.a.s.l. meters above sea level and over the next hour we climbed a thousand meters up these gravel roads hugging the rising mountains. When we stopped at the parking lot we were 4,700 m.a.s.l. at which point some people are already experiencing altitude sickness to the point of vomiting. Luckily no one in our group was vomiting.
From the parking lot it’s a 5 kilometer hike up to the summit of Vinicunca —which is actually a pass, the lowest point around to cross over the Andes in this region. The foot of the pass is 5,000 m.a.s.l. and then it’s another 36 meters to the very top of Vinicunca. The first part of the hike is a relatively gentle rise, it takes most of the first 4 kilometers to go up, maybe 230 of the 336 meter elevation change. Even though the lack of oxygen means that even this shallow rise makes you out of breath if you go too fast. Everyone goes at different speeds depending on their fitness and age and our guide, who does this every day, went back and forth making sure everyone was ok. I’m not sure if he needed to use it but he carried an oxygen bottle just in case.
My mother, sister and I went at a slow pace and didn’t have much issues with the first 4 kilometers. The last kilometer was much steeper and we were stopping to catch our breath and let our muscles re-oxygenate regularly. At first we were stopping every 100 meters, then every 50 and soon every 10. By the time we got to the last 100 meters we were playing the “10 more steps to that rock and then we will rest” game. And the last 40 meters is a dirt stairway. By the time we got to the top we were going one. step. at. a. time. But we made it to the 5,000 m.a.s.l.. And I did make it all the way to 5,036. An Amazing view, with the colours of Vinicunca on one side, the red valley spread out before you and snowcapped Ausangate wrapped around behind you. (I wrote about this in brief before.) [confusion.cc]
And that’s about it. We had one more morning in Cuzco for some shopping and then started our return. Flying to Lima and waiting hours for our next flight, where we had to stand in the ticketing lobby for a few hours as they only open the desk three hours before the flight and we had about 6 hours between the flights from Cuzco and our international flights. I came back the way I went, 22 hours via Amsterdam to Singapore, not including the 4 hour stopover in Amsterdam or the 6 hours in Lima. But it was worth it to knock Machu Picchu off the bucket list.
As a last note: it’s always hard to title these travel posts… I started using the city or region and then country and then the month and year long ago. For the most part that has served me well, but there are a few holes in the logic. For example, a trip to multiple major cities or countries — say a trip to Amsterdam with a short side trip to somewhere in Denmark. Do I make two posts? Or keep it as one under “Amsterdam, Denmark…”? I’ve split this type of trip up most times, but that means sometime ending up with a set of photos and a post that are quite small. On this trip I chose Cuzco which is both the city we started in, though we spend nights in two others places, and also the name of the administrative region of Peru that almost everything we went to see was in. So should it be “Cuzco, Cuzco, Peru…” or “Cuzco Administrative Region, Peru…”. Anyway, it’s a minor thing. It’s also a good problem to have, a first world and privilege problem given the cost of this type of travel. So, I’m lucky to have to try and figure it out.
You can see the whole Cuzco, Peru, April 2019 photoset on Flickr [flickr.com].
I’m super worried, by the way, about the generation of workers who have kids under the age of 10 during the pandemic. Because in the short term, co-workers can be like, “Oh, so cute, your kids are on the Zoom call!” and then try to make accommodations for that. But in the long term, those workers are fundamentally not going to be able to be as productive as someone who’s been on their computer for eight hours at home with grown kids or without kids. Who’s going to get promoted two years from now? Or who’s going to lose their job two months from now? I really worry about that.Melissa Mazmanian, interviewed by Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic for What America Asks of Working Parents Is Impossible [theatlantic.com]
I wonder if that will be the same visible impact on things like lifetime earnings and job advancement as graduating college during a recession?
I remember reading long ago that people who graduated in the middle of the dotcom bust were affected long term because they could not get jobs for a long time or had to take jobs with a lower salary (compared to what they would have expected a few years before or a few years after) and that dragged them down, as a group, year after year. They were something like three years behind for salary and position at any age versus the people who graduated a few years before or after them.
As of right now there are 173 broken links in the posts on confusion. That’s out of 1888 total links. This is according to the Broken Link Checker [workpress.org] plugin by WPMU DEV. The plugin automatically changes the link color to red with strikethrough text so you will see the broken links.
A blog post that links out the rest of the Internet is a little snapshot of part of the web from when the post was written and while the Internet never forgets [confusion.cc], it’s an ever changing place and many, many sites die all time time. Many personal sites disappear because the owner abandons them, maybe they shut them down purposely or maybe they just stopped paying the bills and moved on. Big sites redesign and move things around, so much for permalinks. I see a bunch of links to still active news sites but it seems the stories are no longer reachable by the link I used ‘back in the day’. Somehow it all reminds me of the way your memories are constantly shifting, adapting each time you remember them, a memory of a memory of a feeling of a time when…
I guess it’s just the inevitable consequence of being around for so long. This blog has been going for nearly 19 years. There are a few links that seem to be broken because of typos or other simple things including, embarrassingly, internal links to other Confusion posts. Those I will try and fix but most of the broken links will just stay there, you can’t change snapshots so why should I change the links?
I first heard about Lovecraft Country from a friend, a friend who lives in Sweden. He recommended it wholeheartedly, saying he read it several times. I picked it up a week or so later, just as the COVID19 pandemic was taking off. It was not long after I finished Lovecraft Country that the George Floyd protests started. Given the nature of the book it was a very timely read.
Before we get to Lovecraft Country itself, it’s worth noting that I have read all of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction [goodreads.com], and I enjoy most of it. I am aware that he was a massive bigot, racist and anti-semitic, and many other -ists. I didn’t read more than a few of his non-fiction writings, is “essays” or letters, there is not reason to read it beyond a reminder of how nasty a person can be with their words. Good fiction, if lacking a lot of representation, but a nasty author.
This is the second recent book I have read that attempts to deal with Lovecraft’s bigotry by authors, who would have been on the receiving end of his bigotry, co-opting him. The other book is The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson. Johnson [goodreads.com]. That book takes place inside one of Lovecraft’s fictional worlds, the dream world, and aims to address Lovecraft’s sexism. Specifically the lack of female characters by populating the dream world with female characters, including the strong female lead.
Lovecraft Country on the other hand takes place in the “real world” where Lovecraft’s books exist, and so does Lovecraftian cosmic horror. So Lovecraft Country addresses Lovecraft’s rabid racism by casting as it’s protagonists a group of Black Americans living during the height of Jim Crow America. Lovecraftian cosmic horrors alongside the everyday, real, horrors of American racism.
Lovecraft Country is a collection of linked stories, focused around a the protagonists and their repeated encounters with the members of a secret society. Magical rituals, cosmic portals, potions and spells abound. There is even a monster or two. But there are also racist cops, racist shop owners and racist random strangers. The racism is both active; vulgarities and violence perpetrated sadistically, and passive; condescending tones, stares and casual disrespect and disregard. I can’t imagine how true it is, what it was —what it is— like to experience this type of bigotry in real life. It was oppressive and ever present in the story.
The climax of the racism is a flashback to the events of Tulsa Race Massacre [wikipedia.org]. An event that I first remember hearing about a few years ago. I don’t remember being taught about it in high school, not in American History class or even in Ms. Reynolds African American Studies class. Maybe my memory fails me or maybe it says something about American racism that the trauma of an event like that is not a shared public memory, like Pearl Harbor or 9/11 or Kent State.
Another aside: this is the second work I’ve come across this year that includes reference to the Tulsa Race Massacre as a key background event for the characters. The other being HBO’s Watchmen series. So maybe in the future what happened in Tulsa will be part of the collective American psyche.
I won’t spoil the Lovecraftian aspects of the stories, only note that there is a lack of cyclopean masonry and eldritch horrors. Lovecraft Country is more the The Colour out of Space and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward than The Call of Cthulhu or The Shadow over Innsmouth. But the real horror remains the ever present racism.
I really enjoyed Lovecraft Country, I will read it again, and I hope the upcoming HBO series is as good. I would put Lovecraft Country up there with To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man [confusion.cc] in giving me some vague understanding of how racism affects people through literature.
It should be obvious to anyone familiar with the site giving it even a passing glance from today that the theme has been changed. I switched to the default WordPress “Twenty Twenty” theme. I added bunch of custom CSS to override the theme and make it look more like confusion has looked for the past 14 years or so…
I was tinkering with it lately and just decided it needed a complete rewrite. I had about 500 lines of CSS and when I looked at the Twenty Twenty theme they have ten times that. Providing responsive layout and handling all the layout code generated by various Gutenberg blocks. Besides the CSS there are hundreds of lines of PHP and HTML in various template files, way more files than are in the old Confusion theme. It would be a lot of work to start from scratch, it might be fun, but it would also take me ages given the priority I assign to managing this site. So better off trying to use a ready made them.
But, I will miss the layout, the simplicity, of the old Confusion theme. I used the Custom CSS feature to skin the Twenty Twenty theme to resemble the old Confusion theme, but there is still a long way between the two. There are also a ton of things that must be broken. I hope I can work through those in the next few weeks. Ah, debugging in production! Wish me luck.