05 Oct 2022

Walks, thoughts

It being the eve of the Day of Atonement, when the roads become quiet and the sounds of nature come to the forefront, I enjoyed my afternoon walk through the woods and fields, without the distant roar of traffic.

Earlier I had seen part of an episode of The House of the Dragon series and read the final chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry of the Future . Probably these influences were in the background of my thoughts. The Dragon series is about in-family rivalry over the struggle for the throne and dynastic succession - itself rather a boring plot-concept, but one that is well-rooted in our history and culture. One of the characters, thinking of his legacy, says that history remembers "name" rather than "blood[line]". The interest in how one will be remembered is, according to vedantic thought, a projection of sat (existence), and the longing to live forever; the instinctive wish for immortality.

The Ministry of the Future also circles around these ideas of mortality and legacy; of the meaning and possible influence of a single human life and of the survival of the species in the time of the climate crisis. Taking the risk of venturing into new-agey territory it celebrates nature and urges human self-restraint in terms of population growth, resource use and territorial expansion.

I already feel like I've lived a long life and when I die can hope to be forgotten. But most likely I will go on living for awhile, so I sometimes feel a need to assess the use of my time. Influenced by yoga and eastern philosophies, I have always understood life and human evolution as the striving for the attainment or rediscovery of our true nature. Besides the aspect of sat (existence) mentioned above, this is said to include also chit (consciousness) and ananda (bliss, or joy). We have a voracious interest in acquiring knowledge and experience on account of sat and chit, and a hunger for pleasure on account of ananda. All three of these basic instincts are infinitely insatiable. So we want to live forever, accrue knowledge, experience, money, material goods and sensual gratification, while fearing suffering and our mortality.

Indian philosophy says that the only way to "quench / to extinguish" these drives is through inner/integral (not solely intellectual) understanding of our true nature as already immortal, omniscient and joyful. Thereupon, according to both Buddhism and yoga, we attain nirvana (which means literally the action of extinguishing).

So how to do that? Not, I think, by denial of these instincts (asceticism). That has no meaning. Not by diminishment. As we approach death, we experience the extenuation of the physical and mental faculties. This morning I read that dear old Shraddhavan recently died at the age of 80. This English woman was one of the founders of Auroville and for years and years held study circles on the meaning of Sri Aurobindo's poem Savitri. The obituary said that since the end of last year, she began gradually to "fade away". Whether or not that is true I do not know, but my hope is that this was just how it looked. My hope is that, rather than diminishing, we grow, i.e. expand into the cosmic, the universal, the infinite. From the outside, this can also look as if we are "fading" because the attention has shifted.

In the final pages of The Ministry of the Future Robinson mentions the statue of Ganymede and the eagle on the lake shore of Zürich. His character surmises that the bird may really be the phoenix, which constantly rises from its own ashes, and that the bronze human statue is making an offering of himself, and all that is, to it, for the sake of immortality.

Figure 1: Ganymede statue, Zürich (Wikipedia)

At the end of the day, we die. The atoms that made up our bodies, our brains and the wisps of consciousness that gave meaning to our lives, seep out into the ether. They are carried on the cosmic wind, to recombine and make new bodies, new souls. We may hope to leave a legacy, to live on through our children or our good deeds. But the fear of death and the longing to continue at all costs, even with senses and bodily functions impaired, seem to express doubt.

If we want to die instead with an intimation of our immortality, with awareness of the universal, and with the feeling of deep joy that are our birthright and inner-nature, we need to consecrate our lives to expansion, rather than fear extinction. But why wait for death, if we can seek to do this already? That's the purport of vedantic philosophy.

This still does not really answer the how. On my walk, perhaps with Robinson's Ministry resonating still in me, I began to think that one approach could be to live more closely to nature. From the perspective of climate action, this is a little counter-intuitive. The best arrangement for humans is to inhabit small to mid-sized communities or towns that provide most of their needs within walking or cycling distance, without the need to commute or import. Ideally goods would be shared rather than owned. If we are fortunate to live in a place where heating and air-conditioning are less necessary, the carbon footprint can be further reduced.

But there are communities that fulfill these requirements while still being close to nature. That's why I looked again at Auroville (and discovered Shradhavan's death). From their newsletter I also learned about the latest developments regarding the internal strife that they have been experiencing within the last year. But like the Aurovillians themselves, I believe they will eventually overcome those difficulties, since their lives there really depend upon that.

As human beings in our world community, the lives of our children and grandchildren depend upon overcoming the enormous challenges of our era. It's the dire necessity of doing so that underlies the optimism in Ministry of the Future. As Robinson says, "we will cope no matter how stupid things get" and "the only catastrophe that can't be undone is extinction."

I would add that something of ourselves survives even extinction. Matter, energy and consciousness are never truly destroyed - they simply recycle to make something new. Seeing this can lead to an understanding of the inseparable interdependence between ourselves and our biosphere. If as a species, we begin to get, to really grok, this interdependence, we will surely take all the steps that are necessary to safeguard our planetary home.

Tags: thoughts
27 Sep 2022

How aesthetics influences my use of software and the web

It's hard to admit it, but if I look at my consumption habits on the internet, and of my use of software in general, I am definitely influenced by the way a site or an application looks. I will tend to prefer those that look attractive to me. I can point to various examples.

SeaMonkey browser has a very good solution to RSS news feeds. It's easy to subscribe, and it arranges them like email messages under separate folders. It's easy, quick and responsive to skim through news feeds. Yet although SeaMonkey's presentation is not what you would call ugly - and there are worse examples of feed aggregators - I have to force myself to go there and start reading. Back when I was using Google Reader and Feedly, it was easier.

Figure 1: SeaMonkey Mail & Newsgroup screen

Similarly, Thunderbird, which derives from SeaMonkey, is an excellent email client, but, try as I might, I find myself steering towards webmail clients such as Fastmail's (and Gmail's for the office). I often read mail in the webmail client, then compose the replies in Thunderbird, which gives me more control.

Wikis are sometimes a better solution for building websites than blogs. Material is arranged by subject rather than chronology for one thing. Yet when I try to read articles produced in Dokuwiki and Mediawiki, for example, I am often put off by the way they look. They are just too boringly plain for me, I suppose.

LibreOffice is a fine wordprocessor, and for me just as good as, and easier to use, than its commercial competitors. But, when I write text, I will usually prefer a simple text editor. I think I'm put off by all those tool bars, rows of icons and the menu system.

My taste is not necessarily dictated by what's considered slick. I dislike many modern websites, with their oversized graphics, animation and glitzy formatting. Similarly many shopping sites are attrocious (could that be the real reason why I cancelled my Amazon account?). But I often like simple blogs that use attractive fonts, good proportions between the sizes of titles and texts, and nice use of graphics. And news media sites are usually fine for me (though I'm usually seeing them ad-free).

I like to think of myself as uninfluenced by style (Lao Tzu: "The sage is for the belly, not for the eye") and free software is often more drab than its commercial equivalents. But the truth is that my tendency to use software or visit websites is quite affected by appearance, even if the selection is not always conscious.

I once read that all of us weigh up and unconsciously evaluate a website within a few seconds of landing on its home page. And just as surely, our sense of aesthetics is influenced by trends and the conditioning derived from what we have seen before. It's a bit like cars. What makes the latest models look attractive to us, while those of a few years ago seem dated and old-fashioned? There's nothing intrinsically better about the new designs. A visitor from another planet would not necessarily choose the new design over the model of a decade ago.

Tags: web
25 Sep 2022

New fediverse instance

I decided to take the plunge and launch a new fediverse instance, using the services of mastohost.com. The new instance is at social.vikshepa.com/@hosh.

A few weeks/months ago and again now, I looked at practically all of the available fediverse flavours and tried to set up two or three of them. Each time I either failed or had to give up in the middle, whereas previously I had managed on my home server or shared hosting. Perhaps I'm getting old.

Among those that I looked at were Friendica - Hubzilla - Zap family; Mastodon and Pleroma, Epicyon and GnuSocial version 3 (which includes an Activity Pub protocol extension).

Some of those failures may have been caused by unfulfilled dependences in Kamatera's server packages (such as missing PHP modules), or due to choosing the wrong web-server software (NGINX or Apache), or because the recommended installation involved something like Docker, which I didn't want to use. Docker appears to be more resource hungry, which means renting a more expensive VPS.

With Pleroma, which is said to be easier to install than Mastodon, the instructions for OTP install currently fail for me at the point of downloading the Pleroma software package. Earlier this year there were problems in the team of developers, out of which a new fork appeared called Akkoma (see details). I considered trying to install that, but who knows whether it will last? Even its developer isn't sure.

With Epicyon, the setup goes perfectly, but when trying to access the site, I got a 502 Bad Gateway error. This happened after two installation attempts.

So, despite my preference to go-it-alone, I eventually decided to try an easier way, and signed up with Mastohost.com, which automates the installation and setup in a very cool way and promises to maintain the instance afterwards. Which, at this stage, sounds wonderful to me. I bought their cheapest plan, which is currently $6/mo., so it's only good for one instance, or maybe would suit a family or a small team. That package is smaller than the other managed Mastodon hosting that I was able to find. Joinmastodon.org lists a few options for managed mastodon hosting. Of those, there is a German web host that offers a €5 plan, but their website is German-only.

For now, this is an experiment. My social media use is likely to be light, which is another reason to choose Mastodon (or perhaps Pleroma). I want to be able to follow a few people and for the news stream to look like a microblog (whereas Friendica or Hubzilla's posts are larger and do not flow as quickly). And I am not interested, this time, to put up long posts or media; these will be posted on my website. The one time that I might be interested in sending such posts directly on Mastodon is when I'm away from my computer and have access only to my phone, such as while traveling.

Although it has become the most popular alternative social media platform, I'm aware that there are many things to dislike about Mastodon, in comparison to other platforms. I'm told that its implementation of the Activity Pub protocol is quirky or individualistic, and it won't talk to any other protocol. Its privacy settings are undeveloped in comparison to Zot. It lacks the nomadic and clonable features of Zot, and so forth. So adopting Mastodon is a bit of a compromise for the sake of convenience.

There are a few reasons for opting for a personal instance over using a public server. First, the whole meaning of the Fediverse is that it should be a conglomeration of separate instances talking to each other. Popular fediverse sites, with a large number of instances become silos in the same way as Twitter and Facebook, though they are non-commercial in nature.

Second, Fediverse sites last as long as their owners and administrators have the motivation or resources to continue them. In fact, most of the Fediverse sites on which I have been active, have eventually gone down, beginning with Laconi.ca / Identi.ca. When they do work, they don't always work well. Disroot.org's former hubzilla server seemed to be down as often as it was up. Its current Pleroma instance is not letting me follow more than my current two people. Having a personal instance promises greater control.

Third, I'm unhappy with public timelines. On Twitter or Facebook, there is no such thing as a public timeline, whereas every fediverse site has these. Most people would regard them as a feature: they are, after-all, a good discovery engine. However, a couple of times I've run afoul of public timelines through accidental posts. Once, when I was on Fosstodon, I had set up WordPress to automatically send updates to Mastodon. Then, when importing a bunch of old posts into WordPress, it sent a dozen old posts at once. As a result, I got accused of spamming, and taking undue advantage of the instance's resources. In the absence of a public timeline, that sort of thing is less likely to happen. If it did, the posts would usually be seen first by followers, who could choose to block you or send a warning. Depending on the settings of remote instances, posts seen by followers may still end up federating to public timelines. Unfortunately, Mastodon is less privacy-aware than the Zot platforms, where privacy settings can be more finely tuned, though I do find, under "posting privacy", an option that prevents distribution of posts to public timelines. I've also elected to opt-out of search engine indexing (though not all search-engine crawlers honor that).

I'm not a very social person, either digitally or in person; I suppose I lack the social graces, and sometimes feel embarrassed by my interactions. Embarrassment is not a quality of those who are "good" at social media. Many of these are prone to outbreaks of objectionable behavior, which oddly enough, seems to increase their popularity. Probably they are appreciated for their supposed authenticity.

By the way, regarding Mastohost, I was pleasantly surprised to see that its developer-owner and the data center it uses are European.

Tags: fediverse
24 Sep 2022

Europe and its problem with Fascism

The world watches in trepidation while yet another European election threatens to bring in right-wing populists - this time in Italy. It's pretty exasperating to see this constant tussle between inept neo-liberal and centerist parties and their right-wing adversaries. Europe needs change, but its people keep looking in the wrong direction, choosing the worse over the simply bad.

Sometimes it looks like we have to either fight tooth and nail or flee, like those Russians now massing on the borders and trying to get out, because the state eventually came knocking on their doors. Or like the Israeli leftists who leave to countries where they can learn to shrug off the local politics. Or the Brits who fled Brexit, or refugees everywhere. Sometimes living in another country is simply less painful. If you live as a resident outside you native country's borders, the army recruitment center isn't going to come looking for you or your children. It's true that you'll have less power and influence, and will probably be unable to create change either in the country of your citizenship or in the country of your residency. In the conditions of today, that's the price that you pay.

One day, in a more stable world, the purpose of nations will be to serve their citizens and safeguard the environment. Citizenship could be abolished and replaced with residency. You live in a nation of your choosing and both you and the nation enter into a contract. You pay your taxes and the nation provides you with the social services that you need. That's the basis. On a local level there are other commitments, in order to build a sense of community, since loyalty anyway works more naturally on a local level, while "patriotism" and "nationalism" are usually encouraged artificially, by politicians, for extraneous or nefarious objectives. In the 21st century, it has become more important for everyone everywhere to pledge our alliegance to the planet than to the nations that are working together to destroy it.

Tags: europe
22 Sep 2022

Free speech

PayPal Demonetises the Daily Sceptic

… PayPal just doesn’t like free speech, which is why it has shut down the FSU [Free Speech Union] account … There are five issues in particular where it’s completely verboten to express sceptical views and if you do you can expect to be cancelled, not just by PayPal but by YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.: the wisdom of the lockdown policy and associated Covid restrictions, the efficacy and safety of the mRNA vaccines, Net Zero and the ‘climate emergency’, the need to teach five year-olds that sex is a social construct and the war in Ukraine. Dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy in any of those areas is no longer permitted.

This is the new front in the ongoing war against free speech: the withdrawal of financial services from people and organisations that express dissenting opinions on those topics. And not just those who express them, but those who defend them, too, like the FSU. That‘s what makes this an escalation in the war on free speech. Until now, companies like PayPal, GoFundMe, Patreon and CrowdJustice have only demonetised individuals and groups whose views they disapprove of. Now, PayPal has closed the account of an organisation that defends people’s right to free speech, without taking sides on the issues they’re speaking about. Even that is no longer allowed, according to this Silicon Valley behemoth.

I don't know anything about the above website, though the author's framing of the "five issues" leads me to suspect that I might not agree with him on some of these. But I think the action taken against him should bother us. Not because our own opinions stray from the orthodox, but because we need to reserve the right to think differently and to express opinions that differ from those of the mainstream. It's been pointed out elsewhere that there are gaps between European and US interpretations of the meaning of free speech. (For example some European states outlaw the expression of Nazi sympathies.) But here the US corporations seem to be closer in their approach to the Europeans.

In so far as Western countries differ from authoritarian regimes, it means that whereas adopting a wrong opinion on Ukraine can get you incarcerated in Russia, it can get you demonitized or demonized in the West.

Orthodoxies and the rules for enforcing them change and vary from place to place. The boundaries and the buffer zones between the acceptable and the forbidden shift, or expand and contract. It's always more or less painful to be situated outside of the mainstream, whenever and wherever we live. But without pushing up against those boundaries, social change and reform would be impossible and societies would remain static and rigid in their orthodoxies.

The main problem with opinion is its association with identity. Defending our opinions is confused with a defence of the self, and, in the same way, people are loved or demonized for their opinions. Politicians who change their opinions are accused of expediency, though Gandhi was famous for reserving the right to inconsistancy. An anarchist friend of mine said that being able to change opinions was a sign of sanity, while holding rigidly to the same views was insane. Most of us would admit to modifying our opinions over time, often to accord with the prevailing wisdom of the times. When I was growing up, I unconsciously absorbed so many of the orthodox English working-class views of my parents and grandparents, from which I was only gradually able to liberate myself over the years. The problem is that we continue to be influenced by the false arguments of journalists and influencers, while staunchly believing in our intellectual autonomy. That's why it's necessary to listen to, if not learn to tolerate, divergent opinions and arguments. If our press, our financial services or our regime don't allow them, we're in trouble.

Tags: opinion
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