New blog theme, new homepage, new me

It’s that time of year again. Birds shake pollen from trees, young men rev their cars by the waterfront, and I change the blog theme for no apparent reason. Or, supposedly, the reason being that my old theme relied on plugins which weren’t compliant with php8, but whatevs, here we are and I’m running a modified Twenty Fifteen. I tried making it ugly-fun, but maybe it’s just ugly, time will tell.

Speaking of ugly, I’m also finally redoing my homepage at monocultured.com, which has been living in a decrepit Koken CMS for years without updates. I’ve written about this before, and I’ve spent too much time just trying to decide between a simple html/css system, a static site builder, a minimal CMS, or another WordPress install. Like, I’ve literally spent at least a hundred hours trying different solutions out without being happy with any.

I thought I’d found a friend in Automad CMS but it was slow as molassess. This could be due to my cheap shared hosting, but after five minutes of looking into migrating to a dedicated server I luckily saw the procrastination for what it was and abandoned the task. I almost bit the bulled and got a cargo.site but I don’t want recurring fees. the mmm.page which I used for the WITP project isn’t responsive and creates a bit too much bloat to be used for a whole site, so that’s out.

So fuck it, I’m just relearning html/css for the n:th time and am making an ugly-fun site all of my own, and I’m doing it live. What will take the most time – as it should – is deciding what to include and doing the writeup for each project/set. We’ll see, but since I’m hoping to take unpaid leave from work soon, I’m going to need a portfolio site of some sort. (Also, I still have pozar.se for a more proper contact surface)

One headache for the site development is hosting video. I’ve used Vimeo previously, but can’t motivate the cost any longer, and migrating my stuff to Youtube is depressive as all hell – I’d rather not feed content to Google if I can avoid it – so once I get the website up and running I might as well copy/paste some javascript as well. Who knows, maybe I’ll learn something!

War, prepping, fear and nationalism

Two weeks ago Russia invaded Ukraine, and I’ve been on edge since. The threat of escalation into a wider European war which might turn nuclear suddenly feels tangible. It’s frightening – I wonder if this is how my parents generation felt growing up during the cold war.

Dead wasps

In the tv series Lost, Jack gives a pep talk to a frightened survivor along the lines of “I allow myself to feel panic and fear for three breaths, and then I do what needs to be done” – and that is all well and fine, but you need to somehow know what needs to be done. And if you believe that there’s a risk of end-of-the-world nuclear all-out fuckupery, it’s difficult to know what you ought to do.

To mitigate my anxiety I’m trying to read up on international releations, and I thought the 2015 lecture by John Mearsheimer was a clearly presented case of how “offensive realism” has played out in the Ukraine example:

My argument is: When security considerations are at stake. When core strategic interests are at stake, and there’s no question, ladies and gentlemen, in Russia’s case this is a core strategic interest. Countries will suffer enormously before they throw their hands up. So you can inflict a lot of pain on the Russians and they’re not going to quit. And they’re not going to quit because Ukraine matters to them. And by the way, Ukraine doesn’t matter to us. You understand there is nobody calling for us to fight in Ukraine. Even John McCain, who up until recently has never seen a war he didn’t want to fight, is not calling for using military force in Ukraine. What even John McCain is saying is Ukraine is not a vital strategic interest for the West.

RealClear Politics, John Mearsheimer: Why is Ukrain the West’s fault

What’s compelling about his analysis is that the ideologies of the actors are secondary to security considerations. Countries are basically single cell organisms looking to expand their resource base as much as possible, acting aggressively to defend real or perceived threats. For those of us playing computer games it’s the most rudimentary behaviour of AI opponents in a 4X game: if you’re closing in on our borders I will perceive it as a threat, and if you don’t repell my encroachment of your borders I will see it as a weakness to exploit.

It’s also a very depressing view of how human society functions. Then again, perhaps we won’t be functioning that much longer:

There is no denying that China is a rising superpower confronting the U.S. Reporting a study of Harvard’s Belfer Center of International Affairs, Graham Allison argued further that the so-called Thucydides Trap is likely to lead to a U.S.-China war. That cannot happen. U.S.-China war means simply: game over. There are critical global issues on which the U.S. and China must cooperate. They will either work together, or collapse together, bringing the world down with them.

Noam Chomsky: US Push to “Reign Supreme” Stokes the Ukraine Conflict

You get a book, and you get a book!

Again with the annual list of books read and listened to. I’m not sure if it makes sense to differentiate between what I’m reading on my digital screens or on paper – it’s still reading, right? The feeling might be different but I’m not sure if it matters enough for a list such as this, so let’s skip it this time.

The post is started January 2021. It’s the last week of the Trump presidency, Sweden is hitting record mortality to Covid-19 and I’m working from home most of the time. Here are the books I’ve read, listened to or abandoned in 2021, as well as a comment or two.

Books read

Michael Lewis: Flash boys. It’s a hard sell evoking sympathy for Wall Street, but Lewis does his best when he’s writing about the plucky team behind a new stock exchange [IEX] which is trying to combat predatory skullduggery perpetrated by banks, brokers and especially high frequency traders. I’ve read about HFT and flash crashes before, but just had no idea of all the different ways brokers had found to fuck each other – and everyone else – out of billions of dollars. The book is well written, but I could have done without the personal portraits – there are only so many ways you can come up with non-negative ways of “moneygrubber,” and I really don’t care for descriptions which call leaving a $600k job for a $200k job “brave.”

Steve Burns, Nicolas Darvas: How I made $2000000 in the Stock Market. I’ve come across Darvas Box as a technical analysis tool for doing swing trading, so thought I’d read his book. The book was originally published 1960 and is worth reading – he’s candid about his shortcomings and the pitfalls of arrogance, and the descriptions of how he worries and overinterprets markets is genuinly fun to read. This edition has comments by Burns at the end of each chapter where he restates what Darvas has written – it seems more of a cheap moneygrab rather than adding anything of value to the original.

Paolo Bacigalupi & Tobias Buckell: The Tangled Lands. In a world where magic use has the unwanted side effect of creating a bramble which chokes everything else, and on top of it has nettles which cause a eternal cinderella sleep, we get four intertwined stories of ordinary people dealing with extraordinary circumstances. The parallell between the magic/bramble and civilization/anthropocene is a bit on the nose sometimes, but it’s a well written book and worth reading – just like about everything by Bacigalupi I’ve read (Water knives, Windup girl, Pump 6).

Oyinkan Braithwaite: My Sister, the Serial Killer. A short novel about a two sisters; one a conscientious nurse who can’t do good enough in her mothers eyes, the other a beautiful aloof narcissist who is most likely a serial killer of men who fall for her. Well written and the frustrations of the good daughter Korede are never written for laughs, even if the story is morbidly humouros.

Frederik Pohl: The Gateway Trip. A colletion of vignettes from the Heechee universe, recommended by way of a thread I started in ask.metafilter. I think I’ve read this before, but Pohl has clever enough ideas that he’s worth a revisit. I like reading a story which is just a bit more clever than I am – that way I’m surprised, but can still see the reasoning. It’s a good fit.

Paolo Bacigalupi: Tool of War. A YA version of the world presented in Windup Girl. People and animals are genetically modified and created for the purposes of global corporations and fiefdoms. The creations are conditioned to total obedience and loyalty, but through an experiment-gone-wrong scenario the chickens come home to roost, etc. A romp but some nice world building.

Sayaka Murata: Convenience Store Woman. A fantastic short story about a woman trying to fit in between social expectations and her own free will. Great read, not a word wasted.

Sarah Pinsker: We Are Satellites. In a near future where there’s pressure on kids and adults alike to get a brain implant which allows functional multitasking, a few holdouts suspect that all is not as it should be. Nothing wrong with the premise, but the ideas are thin on the ground and there’s enough for a ten page story, not a novel. (the colophon mentions that some chapters have been published as short stories) There’s a parallell between the anti-implant folks in the book and our current anti-wax movement, and reading them as the good guys is an interesting take.

Jan Chipchase: Hidden in Plain Sight. A guide/handbook for how to analyse your surroundings when doing design research. I heard an interview with Chipchase on the podcast On Margin and his job and life seems enviable – not that I would be able to do what he does, but the way he describes being so aware of his surroundings, travelling the world trying to understand people, sound fantastic. It’s like a career in targeted mindfulness or something. I’m going to reread this book in a years time or so; it’s a very practical book and I’d need to have something practical to apply it to.

Jo Walton: The Just City. The Greek pantheon is real, and Pallas Athene gathers people from different moments in time – our past, present and future – to enact Platons ideal city – the just city. We follow the recruitment and/or kidnapping of the people who will become the masters, as well as the first children of the city, and the story is told from multiple perspectives. I haven’t read Platos Republic, nor many of the other references the book makes, but it’s Walton doesn’t let the references get in the way of telling the story. The novel peters out after a while, and ends with a literal godly intervention – but it’s still worth a read.

Brandon Sanderson: The Mistborn Trilogy. A coming-of-age rags-to-riches story about Vin, a gutter-kid who is found to have rare powers, gets involved in overthrowing the government and discovers Power of Friendship™️ along the way. The main idea of some people being able to use metals to temporarily gain superpowers is interesting, but not enough to carry the story which has to drip-feed epistolary exposition to keep going.

Adrian Tchaikovsky: Children of Ruin. Followup on the interesting Children of Time, but this time it’s squids evolving instead of spiders. Still an interesting story, and interspecies communication is interesting and well done.

Mike Monteiro: Ruined by Design. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it” is a quote from Upton Sinclair which appears multiple times in this collection of essays on the role end responsibility of designers. The author is pounding his morally indignant chest a bit too hard at times, but there are valid points made mixed in with the hyperbole and repetitions. The blurbs present it as a contemporary version of Victor Papaneks books, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Papaneks clarity of though – although perhaps the sense of urgency.

James S.A. Corey: Leviathan Falls. The ninth and concluding book in the Expanse series. I had looked forward to see how they would wrap up the Chtuluisch corner they’d written themselves into, and the result is a serviceable book which sees the main characters play out the consequences of their personalities.

Louise Penny: Still Life. The first in a long series of detective novels, and came highly recommended by Sara. Not much of a whodunnit, but the jumping between perspectives – going from third person to second person omniscient in the same paragraph – is interesting. It’s either a good technique for showing the mulitplicity of social life, or used to gloss over where the writing falters, but regardless I can imagine picking the series up again.

Arkady Martine: A mamory called empire. Mehit, a new ambassador to the galaxy spanning empire Teixcalaan, is immediately embroiled in court intrigue while trying to solve the murder or her predecessor (with a mind-copy of him implanted in her own brain). A story about indetifying with your conqueror, and finding your own place as an other.

Books listened to

Kameron Hurley: The Light Brigade. As many reviews point out, the book is a revisiting of Heinleins Starship Troopers as many of the arguments made in the original appear here – albeit handled differently and with more nuance. Well paced story but occasionally hard to follow – time travel makes it tough to keep track of characters, and I had a hard time understanding why protagonist Dietz cared for some people more than others; their names just hadn’t registered. Fun all around thought!

Max Brooks: Devolution. It’s a zombie book by a zombie author but instead of zombies it’s Bigfoot. An epistoraly novel with few likable characters, even fewer interesting ones, and some sort of point being made about humans getting their comeuppance? Written as if for a movie, boring as all hell. Listened to it mostly to practice slow jog on the threadmill without having to be paced by music.

Andy Weir: Project Hail Mary. Following on his success with The Martian, here’s an even more engineery story about a clever guy solving stuff in space. It reads like a science teachers attempt at making physics interesting, and I’m only barely interested in the story – the stakes are high but I don’t really care. Some interesting ideas, but otherwise meh. Well produced solution with an alien who speaks in tones though – the audiobook format really lends itself to that kind of stuff.

Books abandoned

C.J. Box – The Disappeared. Murder, corruption, an old lady who’s a concentration camp survivor witnesses a murder? Abandoned 20 pages in.

Peter F. Hamilton: Salvation. There are only so many grizzled Russians talking to musclebound mexican mercenaries in the company of a dandy Scot I can take. Abandoned the audiobook an hour or two in.

Starting a biohacking lab in Gothenburg, looking back at Laborator

Back in 2016 I set out to start a biohacking lab in Gothenburg. I had read about biohacking for a couple of years, seen the interesting stuff that labs such as Genspace in Brooklyn were doing, and wanted to take part.

Biohacking as a term means different things to different people:

  • Quantified self: Humans as biological machines – optimize nutrition, supplements, exercise and mental practices, to achieve higher performance, improve quality of life, extend your lifespan, etc. A subset are grinders who do more extreme self-experimentation and invasive surgery or gene editing.
  • Citizen scientists: Folks who are generally interested in doing science – measure Ph changes in streams, find new wild antibiotics, map how pollution effects flora and fauna.
  • DIY medicine: Design of cheap medical and lab equipment from off-the-shelf components, DIY manufacture and protocols for generic medication, such as insulin.
  • Synthetical biologists: Create new organisms and biological systems, or modify and mapping existing ones, using tools such as Crispr Cas9.
  • Futorologists / transhumanist: Interested in ethics, morals, law and policy of biological issues – what will become of humans when we can become whatever we like; a very long view of humanity.
  • BioArt: Contemporary artists and fellow travellers who work with biological systems as material or area of enquiry.

The field of biohacking – if it’s coherent enough to be called that – is wide, and the lowest common denominator is that those involved are predominantly amateurs interested in biological systems of some sort. They might be specialists in other fields (data informatics lends itself to synthetic biology, hardware hacking to DIY medicine, etc) but they come to biohacking with agendas and interests different from a professional lab technician or university researcher.

This goes doubly for me: I’m not specialized in any field applicable to biohacking, and I most certainly don’t have any experience with lab work apart from dissecting a frog in seventh grade. But I do have a broad knowledge of all kinds of stuff, an unyielding fascination with how the world works, and experience with setting up a maker space and learning stuff as I go along. I figured that even though I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to do original research or design, I would be able to cobble together from what others had done, well enough that it would be worth the effort.

I scoured the net for similar groups in Sweden and/or Gothenburg, and reached out on mailing-lists and Facebooks and whatnots to see if there was interest, and over a course of a few months I had a newsletter, a homepage, and a couple of recurring faces at meetings. We founded Laborator, a non-profit association with a charter registered with Skatteverket, and – most importantly – I drew a logo and printed a bunch of calling cards. After six months we had five members and ten times as many on lists and in groups.

(Our meetings were open to anyone, which also attracted some interesting individuals with their own peculiar takes on what we ought to do and a tenuous grasp on social etiquette or reality)

The other members were all biologists of one stripe or another. We had a post-doc, a researcher, a synth-bio dropout and an undergrad. I was the only one without any formal training, and I thought the combination would be great – we’d complement each other and create an open platform for biohacking: The main goal of the association was to get a permanent lab going, equipped to run small workshops and lectures.

Around this time I’d attended the first biohacking conference in Sweden (writeup here), participated in a workshop at Bionyfiken in Stockholm (at the time the only lab in Sweden, since defunct) and started collecting consumables and equipment. I’d also started to build some equipment required for basic experiments (mainly thermocyclers for PCR and gel-plating for barcoding) – and I got in touch with labs around the world to see what they did to get off the ground, hoping to build on their experience, and compiled it all in a communal document. I interviewed the Bionyfiken folks as well as a few artists who work with BioArt, with the ambition to create a podcast which would serve as a platform for Laborator outreach (those recordings are still unrealeased).

Summer of 2017 we talked about doing a first workshop in the fall. It felt as make-or-break time; there are only so many meetings you can have before you run out of steam, and we needed to do something public which would give us a concrete goal as well as garner public interest (and potential investment or grants). We didn’t have a lab of our own, but if we could borrow and equip a space, we’d be able to run some simple workshops. After some discussion we decided that we’d do a simple DNA-barcoding workshop, identifying the fish in sushi (the idea taken from high-school students who’d done exactly this back in 2008 – although they outsourced the labwork) – as it checked most boxes: it’s relatively simple and cheap to do; it shows the applicability of biohacking; it concerns food, which people have strong opinions about; finally, should we discover mislabeled fish we’d have instant media attention.

But then we hit a bunch of stumbling blocks, as one does. Someone got a new job, someone moved – one planning meeting was cancelled and then another, and pretty soon the energy had drained out of the enterprise. As long as there’s a critical mass of people on a project it can survive a few dips. But if the project becomes a metaphorical empty room, stepping inside and sitting down at the table requires a lot of will and energy – it’s easier to turn at the threshold and move on to a more interesting discussion down the hall.

As project instigator, the responsibility and the outcome is all on me. I focused too much on minutiae and side projects, at the expense of keeping the group pulling towards a common goal. In my mind, the lab was already a given and I was eager to move on to the next stage of the project. And so we became spread thin and lost focus. Any communal project is a marathon rather than a sprint: It’s important to be able to step back and trust your collaborators to follow the plans you’ve agreed upon, but when stuff falls through you need to be there to pick up the slack – and plans always shift, since life happens – regardless if it’s you or someone else who dropped the ball.

What I did right, what I did wrong, what I’d do differently today.

I managed to inspire a bunch of folks to get together to start a lab. Even though we had different ideas, everyone was willing to pitch in to make a permanent physical lab a reality. The IT-infrastructure (Slack/homepage/mailing list) as well as coordination with other labs made it all feel as a serious and “real” organisation. We quickly pivoted to organizing a workshop and had clear goals both in the short and medium term, and there was interest and enthusiasm both from members and mailing lists / groups.

What I underestimated was the amount of energy it takes to keep everything going and to motivate people. I abandoned the motivational part too early because I assumed that we all had the same drive, so I stepped back into “process support” before there were processes in place. The big picture of the project was important – thinking about lab space, financing, marketing, collaborations – but at the start all my energy should have been on getting a public workshop or two off the ground, letting the team feel proud of the accomplishment, and build upon that.

Today I would have begun by organizing a workshop or lecture myself, rather than creating an organisation first. This would have limited me to events which I actually could’ve pull off, and it might not have been more than a lecture on “state of DIY biohacking” or “biohacking and the law” or some such – but it could have attracted more people and also gauged the level of public interest. This would also allow a future organisation to be shaped by the events and participants, rather than fiat by charter, as well as provided the motivation for an organisation to be created.

Before writing this up, I looked through the blog to see what I’ve published previously. The topic of biohacking has loomed large in my mind for a while, so I was surprised by the dearth of posts (I might have missed some, my tagging isn’t consistent). The first time I posted on the topic here was in 2009, with just a link-dump: Pasting is the new writing. DNA wants to be free! (some of the links have rotted since). There’s some loose thoughts and a link-dump in 2016 – Biohacking and the things humans do – the 2016 biohack conference linked above, and finally just a brief mention in 2017 when things were petering out.

A job, academia, dillettante

The last couple of months I’ve been reconsidering what I’m doing with my life. One concrete evidence of my confusion is that I have too many tabs open in my browsers and compulsively download too many books – I do this in lieu of actually reading or acting on the stuff, and then I berate myself when I fail to do so. It’s my old mental companion “knowing about what I could do is the same as actually doing it” – which means that as soon as I get an idea, it feels “done” and I move on to the next thing. On top of this, I’m lacking compatriots to do stuff with; I don’t have a network of people who seem interested in what I’m interested in, which adds to me desperately striking out into the void of the Internet to find something to attach myself to.

This is of course completely unproductive and sure-fire way of burning myself out. You don’t get full by reading a recipe book, you actually need to assemble the ingredients and cook and eat the food. I don’t know why I’m falling into this trap again and again, but I do.

The bikeshedding is real though. As an example, I just now spent half an hour learning how to change the look and colour of my zsh terminal prompt because the default look annoyed me when I tried downloading the Hugo theme “Creative portfolio” to try it out as the main page of monocultured.com. It’s a nested doll of procrastination, since I’m uncertain what I ought to put on the homepage to begin with, let alone what kind of homepage I want, etc. Why on earth do I feel that I need a portfolio homepage when I’m doing very little freelance or artistic work, other than for my own amusement?

Depressed people do need human company. For some reason, human company helps. In fact, it is the single thing that helps the most. But not the kind of company a sad person needs. What a depressed person needs is simply to talk to people, not about their problems or their negative thoughts or their depression, but about anything else – music, animals, science.

Noah Smith: A few thoughts on depression

Anywho. One of the avenues of changing shit up that I’m thinking about is going back to school and getting a doctorate. And then I remember all the complaints my academic friends make about being overworked, under-funded and forced to publish, and realise that perhaps I’m not cut out for that millieu.

The sad result is that, as a community, we have developed a collective blind-spot around a depressing reality: even at top conferences, the median published paper contains no truth or insight. Any attempts to highlight or remedy the situation are met with harsh resistance from those who benefit from the current state of affairs. The devil himself could not have designed a better impediment to humanity’s progression.

Jacob Buckman: Please commit more blatant academic fraud

This speaks to the weird incentives that appear whenever there’s a scarcity of resources, and even just my experiences as a guest tutor at Chalmers arkitektur & UMA gave me enough insight into the backstabbing skullduggery required for academic success that it scared me off. I know my limits, and I’m not Machiavellian enough to succeed in highly competetive settings.

But perhaps I should study something which might play to my strengths, instead of my ambitions? Design research seems to be an interesting field where you can actually make a living while doing stuff on the border of journalism and academia.

But even if I find something which seems like a good idea – let’s say that I get it into my head that Cultural Geography is a fine thing to study and master – I’ll need to keep at it, lest I again get distracted by my distracted stupid brain. Observe how good people are at fooling themselves into thinking a goal is achieved by using something else as a proxy:

I know it’s meaningless, but I see those rings every time I lift my wrist and it’s dagger to heart to see them incomplete. Most of the time it’s easy to fill them, but when I’m on a four hour train, there are fewer opportunities to stand. So here’s what I do: at one minute before the hour, I stand up for two minutes so I get “standing” credit for both hours. I can then sit easy for another 118 minutes before rousing myself once more.

Buttondown.com, Adrian: If You Can’t Win, Cheat

In the post above Adrian lists non-obvious activities as “gamification”, and in my case I’d list “downloading massive amounts of books” and “keeping track of the latest memes” as at least tangentially related – both allow me to demonstrate (superficial) knowledge, or appearance of knowledge, to my friends and family, accruing kudos and cementing my position on some demented “keeping-up-with-shit” scoreboard.

Life should contain novelty – experiences you haven’t encountered before, preferably teaching you something you didn’t already know. If there isn’t a sufficient supply of novelty (relative to the speed at which you generalize), you’ll get bored.

Lesswrong.org, Eliezer Yudkowsky: 31 Laws of Fun

I think the above listicle is supposed to be applied to games – or challenges for characters more broadly – but to me it reads in parts as an outline of a philosophy for an enjoyable life.

The pandemic made me realize that I do not care about working anymore. The software I build is useless. Time flies real fast and I have to focus on my passions (which are not monetizable). Unfortunately, I require shelter, calories and hobby materials. Thus the need for some kind of job.

Hacker News, lmueongoqx: What tech job would let me get away with the least real work possible?

Contrary to what I expected on a US-centric highly competetive venture capital message board, many of the comments on the post above were sympathetic to the poster. I don’t think I’m qualified enough to find a job and lifestyle which would allow me to have this approach – at heart, I still feel poor even though I’m not, really – but the clarity with which the poster pursues an answer is inspiring. A similar thought struck me the other day as we started to rewatch the 2013 series Hannibal: The reason why the titular character is so impressive is in part because he’s so clear on his objectives (reprehensible as they are) and acts controlled and rationallly to achieve them. I’m sure there are better role-models than cannibalistic serial killers, but still. Let’s consider Raos writing on The Loser as a category to aspire to:

The Losers like to feel good about their lives. They are the happiness seekers, rather than will-to-power players, and enter and exit reactively, in response to the meta-Darwinian trends in the economy. But they have no more loyalty to the firm than the Sociopaths. They do have a loyalty to individual people, and a commitment to finding fulfillment through work when they can, and coasting when they cannot. […]They mortgage their lives away, and hope to die before their money runs out. The good news is that Losers have two ways out, which we’ll get to later: turning Sociopath or turning into bare-minimum performers. The Losers destined for cluelessness do not have a choice.

Venkatesh Rao: The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office”

Taking part in the Venice Bienniale

Korean Pavillion at Venice Biennale 2021

Thanks to Ana Betancour and Carl-Johan Vesterlund I got to participate in a roundtable at the Venice Biennale, through the Korean Pavilion & Future School. The topic for our roundtable group was An Atlas of Global and Local Imaginaries and our common denominator was different kinds of mapping, mostly geared towards socially responsible architecture and planning.

The discussion was streamed to the pavilion in Venice – we had initially talked about doing it live on site, but, well, Corona – and it was curious to see the pictures afterwards of my remote face talking at people. Of course, I would have loved to participate in person, but the benefit of sitting in front of a camera at home is that I’m more relaxed when I’m not blinded by stage lights or can hear people shuffling in their seats.

I presented my ongoing project What is this place / This is the place and the others were kind with their comments. The project is a mapping of a site in Gothenburg, and it’s at times like these that my proclivity towards obscure knowledge shines, and it was interesting to hear the others take on it – especially since they’re all practicing architects. I might be on to something with WITP/TITP and wonder how else to present the project in addition to the project page at mmm.page/monocultured.

Recording of the roundtable. Participants: Ana Betancour, Matthew Butcher, Killian Doherty, Oriana Eliçabe, Ahn Jae Woo, David Ortega Martinez, Mateusz Pozar & Carl-Johan Vesterlund.

Multiple personalities, meaning & will-to-power

Asher, however, is not part of a typical influencer collective. He is one of many members of a 29-person “system,” all of whom share a single body, brain, and life. Each person, or “alter,” in the system is a distinct form of consciousness. This group of identities live together in the body of a 31-year-old man diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder. The A System’s account — by far the biggest in the DID TikTok community — has amassed 1.1 million followers since February 2021.

Input: Inside TikTok’s booming dissociative identity disorder community

There’s a character in Doom Patrol with 64 personas / alters – Jane – and although her experience is partially supernational, the origins of her alters are in respons to trauma, which is the popular understanding of the phenomena. But is this something which instead might be cultivated or implanted, and how would that work socially? How would your family react if “you” decided to branch off an alter just for dealing with familial relations, along parameters that “you” have some initial control over – more caring, less truculent, prouder? The book A Memory called Empire touches on this, with lineages of implanted personas who inhabit sequential persons, providing knowledge and experience, but also forcing “the main” to come to terms with the voices in her head.

Over time, groups that drank together would have cohered and flourished, dominating smaller groups—much like the ones that prayed together. Moments of slightly buzzed creativity and subsequent innovation might have given them further advantage still. In the end, the theory goes, the drunk tribes beat the sober ones.But this rosy story about how alcohol made more friendships and advanced civilization comes with two enormous asterisks: All of that was before the advent of liquor, and before humans started regularly drinking alone.

The Atlantic, Kate Julian: America Has a Drinking Problem

As a teenager alcohol was not so much a door of perception as a a second story window you had to climb through to act in forbitten ways, but as an adult it’s clear that for many it’s the only legal way to selfmedicate out of a depression –  SSRI:s and the like notwithstanding. I’m not sure what the movie Druk / Another Round was trying to make about alcohol – it’s about four middle-aged men who experiment with being constantly buzzed to bring joy back into their lives – but getting stuck with addiction or bad habits because you’ve confused the means to happiness with happiness itself is a real thing; be it laziness or full blown substance abuse.

I was surprised to learn that Neville hadn’t attempted to interview Argento for the film. The lead-up to Bourdain’s suicide, he explained, is “like narrative quicksand. People think they want to know more, but you tell them one thing more, and they want to know ten more.

The New Yorker, Helen Rosner: A Haunting New Documentary About Anthony Bourdain

I only vaguely know of Bourdain as a darling media figure, but I didn’t know that he became famous at the same age that I’m at right now. Somehow famous people show up fully formed in my field of view, and I don’t reflect on where they came from or who they are beyond their public persona. I guess I’ll have to watch the documentary now.

This is a shorter summary of the Fun Theory Sequence with all the background theory left out – just the compressed advice to the would-be author or futurist who wishes to imagine a world where people might actually want to live: […] People should get smarter at a rate sufficient to integrate their old experiences, but not so much smarter so fast that they can’t integrate their new intelligence.  Being smarter means you get bored faster, but you can also tackle new challenges you couldn’t understand before.

Lesswrong.org, Eliezer Yudkowsky: 31 Ways of fun

I guess this is a list of questions you might ask yourself if you’re imagining the future – you’re writing a book say, or world building a computer game – but I found the questions existentially useful as well: how important is this point to me and what should I do to reach it? At the time of writing this, I’m fundamentally uncertain of where I’m heading in life, and questions such as these help me meditate on what I want vs what I think I ought to want.

Robert Lowell once said that if humans had access to a button that would kill us instantly and painlessly, we would all press it sooner or later. If there were a switch to flip—“some little switch in the arm”—we would inevitably flip it. At a moment of weakness or a moment of strength, depending on your understanding of the act, we would all make the decision to die, if it were convenient enough.

Harpers, Will Stephenson: The Undiscovered Country

The state of research on the topic of suicide, 2021. From Swedish machines which can predict if you’re going to kill yourself, to the problem with reductionist analysis. My therapist was of the opinion that suicidal idolation was always a negative, while for me it’s been a constant companion – mind, those two suggestions don’t contradict each other – but recurring thoughts of suicide just feels like a social faux pas; like mentioning an infected boil at dinner table. The latter might actually be more constructive since your dinner guests can suggest a topical cream, but what the hell can they do about the former except expressing concern?

Our sessions on the topic reminded me of the awkward monkey meme.

Foreman and her colleagues at the American Association of Suicidology look forward to seeing the dialogue expand around suicide memes, however inelegantly. “I’ve never known a single problem that got better by not talking about it,” Foreman says. “Not a single public-health problem has gotten better by reducing conversation.”

The Atlantic, Elizabeth Anne Brown: Suicide Memes Might Actually Be Therapeutic

They were ‘always happy’, he says. And what did their happiness consist in? An endless round of feasting, drinking, hunting and love-making. Who would not sicken of such an existence after a few weeks? […] The inability of mankind to imagine happiness except in the form of relief, either from effort or pain, presents Socialists with a serious problem.

George Orwell: Why socialists don’t believe in fun

And here we’re back to what “31 laws of fun” touches upon – A Utopia, or a good place isn’t static. It’s not a set of stuff or things or events – it might be about relationships between persons, allowing an unending combination of ambitions and passions to be expressed with a minimal framework safeguarding “personal rights” – but regardless, it’s more difficult to point out what is good than what is bad. Avoiding bad stuff isn’t happiness but relief, or Utopia would be a place where bad things constantly happen just so that you then can mitigate them. Then again – that’s one of the 31 laws listed above: present challenges difficult enough that solving them feels rewarding.

Run your tech into the ground

Every once in a while I get obsessed with getting a new piece of tech. If I just buy that lense I’ll shoot more, if I get this NAS I’ll finally sort my data storage out, etc. This is just me internalizing the consumer culture promise of finding solutions by spending money instead of thinking, and it’s sooo alluring. So anyway, I was thinking of getting a new laptop, and then I came across a post about just that very thing on Lowtechmagazine.com and now I’m feeling consumer shame.

Although capitalism could provide us with used laptops for decades to come, the strategy outlined above should be considered a hack, not an economical model. It’s a way to deal with or escape from an economic system that tries to force you and me to consume as much as possible. It’s an attempt to break that system, but it’s not a solution in itself. We need another economical model, in which we build all laptops like pre-2011 Thinkpads.

Low Tech Magazine, Kris de Decker: How and why I stopped buying new laptops

And although I’m just now writing a post about using my tech until it breaks or really can’t fulfill a necessary function, I just now opened up a new tab to see if I ought to buy a new tablet. Even though I already own a Sony tablet which works. Granted, it’s slow, and I’d like to get something which allows me to use a pressure sensitive stylus – but still, I’ll mostly use it for reading PDF:s so I can actually live with the shortcomings and there’s no reasonable reason for me to look at new ones right now, only unreasonable reasons and procrastination.

To my surprise, a young western couple was sitting on the edge of the roof with their legs dangling. I told them it was unsafe because a sniper could pick them off and they also brought attention to Kirk and me. The two ignored us and kept swinging their legs. In the hazy distance, I could see dozens of tanks and support vehicles, but the scene was too far away even for a 400mm lens.

Jeff Widener: Tank man

The back story of the most iconic photograph from the Tianamen square massacre is sobering, but also an inspiring take on what technology allows us to do. Much of what was dangerous to Widener when he took the photo and delivered it to AP and then the world, is today a non-issue (assuming that you have a working cellphone with Internet connection); but at the same time we are nowhere near the same level of control of our technology as he was then, as determined state and private actors can intercept everything digital that you do. (How the NSO group enables state terror) Also, there’s just something impressive with people who know their shit – I mean, I can’t set camera exposure by eye, so am impressed that he did.

Pfizer gave my feet blisters!

Yesterday, after weeks and months of waiting, I finally got my chance to get vaccinated against Covid-19. One of the side effects unfortunately turned out to be blistered feet, who would have though! Mind, the blisters were most likely caused by me being late and having to run a couple of kilometers in slippery sneakers, but still!

Today I have a sore arm and a light headache with photophobia – much like the first stages of a cold. Sara had similar symptoms, and if I follow her trajectory I’ll be fine in a day or so. But today I’m spending in bed, catching up on reading.

I came down with Corona a couple of months ago, and it left me really ill for two weeks. I’ve been in worse pain before – nothing matches the agony of a proper stomach bug – but never as prolonged as this. My O2 levels never dipped below 90% but my fever was spiking terribly – at one point I got to 39.5°C and then dropped to 35.5°C in less than an hour, a whirlwind tour of cold sweat and violent shivering, an interesting albeit freightening experience. My breathing was laboured and I got winded just by standing up, not to mention the general fatigue, racking cough and all the other small miseries. Even after the acute symptoms subsided, my lungs felt broken for months afterwards – as if covered in sticky goop – and my sense of smell is still weak and limited in range (the other day I sniffed turpentine – nothing).

I’ll rather suffer any side effects of the vaccine than risk that again, and given that most people seem to tolerate it well I take comfort in the statistics and use this occasion to stay in bed, reading and closing down some of the 150+ browser tabs that I’ve been promising myself I’ll get to shortly…

Curbing the network effect

Imagine that Facebook was only allowed to have 5% of citizens of any given country signed up for their service. Or Google could only track 10% of all google.com search users in any given ad-demographic. The remaining users would be divied up by me-to companies who would just copy the innovators, but it would also allow for other companies to actually innovate service and revenue models – allowing for greater diversity of services and conditions for services; some would be pay-per-use, some would be ad-driven, some might sell you and your family to the secret police, or be funded by state grants. But there would a higher democratic reduncency in a world where no one company can be gamed for unproportional gains.

This could be regulated by government oversight – which is fraught with it’s own problems – or perhaps internationally traded like a carbon credit, with exponential cost increase per user once you reach a limit. I’m sure there are existing systems and ideas out there which could be used, and the deliniation is tricky: Should email be included in such a limit, to curb gmail? How about the iPhone with the iOS / icloud walled garden – is that garden a “social media space” in itself, and should Apple be forced to open up their phone for other app stores, or should there be a limit on phone market share per territory?

There’s an ongoing discussion about the human / ecological costs of large scale farming practices and factory farming – zoonotic diseases, single point-of-failure monocultured crops – so the analogy to societal ills maybe is useful here: If we’re all a bunch of cloned sheeple, reared for our wool and meat by Facefarm, we’re more vulnerable to a coordinated campaign which will give us political worms. The way forward isn’t then to replace one giant farm with another, but rather encourage small farms to flourish by regulating/outlawing the large ones. You’d have to keep a watchful eye on efforts to subvert this – large holders maskerading as small actors – but it will always be the case the people will try to work around either the letter or the spirit of the law.

I was listening to The Vox discussion with Steven Feldstein, author of The Rise of Digital Repression, and the topic was to what extent social media is a net boon or bane for liberal societies, looking at the examples of how Duterte used Facebook to come to power in the Phillipines, Trump in the US etc. Not having read the book I’m uncertain if I share the participants optimism that social media in the end will prove to be a net good – the argument being that with an an accelerated and more all encompassing Internet it will become too difficult for repressive regimes to find a balance between giving people access to communication and restricting the sedicious activity. (I imagine a hand on a throttle, constantly trying to keep the train of technological progress within a narrow band of acceleration.)

But as it’s presented in the podcast, the argument seems a bit naive and the conclusion not at all obvious: People and companies seldom have qualms about making money off of immoral activities, often by equating legality with morality – “if it’s immoral, make it illegal.” There no necessary connection between democratic ideals and social media companies – Apple blocking apps used in Hong Kong demos come to mind – and there’s no mechanism which automatically leads the companies down a democratic path; as the successful dictatorial capitalism of China (and the bustle of Western companies to establish a foothold) should prove.

The argument for a laissez-faire approach to software and social media is that by allowing unfettered access to the public, services are created which then battle it out in the marketplace, and once a platform reaches a critical mass of users the network effect comes into play and their success is self-fulfilling; You are on Instagram because everyone is on Instagram. For the company, what follows is a re-evaluation of what your business model is, and since the only thing you can sell is your audience it’s only natural that what you are developing is ways to package and sell your audience in as many ways possible. You’re not in the business to offer your users new functions –  that’s just part of your costs – you are in the business of selling your members to your customers, who can be advertisers, politicians or governments (repressive or otherwise). As long as the social media space is unregulated, this will alway be the outcome because it will always be more profiteable to make more money than making less money, and if you’re making the most money, you win.

So I’m thinking about how the damage could be limited, without curbing the possibilty of actual innovation and making a living off of online social stuff. How about setting a hard limit on how big services are allowed to become, while at the same time enforcing interoperability to allow people to move their data? We can look at the history of how monopolies were broken up (when governments still cared about that) but the point of breaking up companies here would not be because they’re stifling innovation or (unavoidably) use unfair tacticts to keep competitors down, but that they’re bad for societies and bad for people. We don’t want to replace a hegemonic system with another, we don’t want them to appear in the first place.

My assumption is that social media, and in extension any free online services, are overall detrimental to society the more users they have. I’m unsure where to draw the line of which services should be included, and I certainly don’t have any pat suggestions for how to regulate them, but it seems a better approach to have a discussion on “what in society is worth preserving and promoting, and how would a framework look that regulates companies based on that?” rather than “Lets ask Facebook to be nicer”.