Karl Popper on Intolerance

Intolerance and discrimination seems to be all over the news lately. Two examples that readily come to mind are the LambdaConf fiasco and North Carolina’s LGBT discrimation law. One question that often comes up when talking about discrimination is: how much should we tolerate intolerance? For example, is it acceptable to ban people with known discriminatory views and actions from gatherings, irrespective of their other qualifications? Is it morally acceptable (or maybe even mandatory) to boycott gatherings and events and places that invite such people?

In that context, I wanted to share the following interesting excerpt from Karl Popper’s, “The Open Society and Its Enemies”, posted by one of my former coworkers. I wouldn’t say it answers once and for all questions of fighting intolerance, but it is a solid foundation from which to consider and answer such questions.

The so-called paradox of freedom is the argument that freedom in the sense of absence of any restraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. This idea is, in a slightly different form, and with a different tendency, clearly expressed by Plato.

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression should be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

To Compete with Medium

Dave Winer is encouraging bloggers (or really anyone with something to say) to post anywhere but Medium. He says that Medium is becoming a “consensus platform” for posting longform writing on the web, especially for people who don’t have a regular place to post. In doing that, Medium becomes a single point of failure, much like Twitter is for real-time short posts, or that Google Reader was for RSS. That means that Medium becomes increasingly capable of unilaterally changing how writing on the web works, for whatever purposes it desires. Medium could decide what you write, how it looks, who sees it, and whether or not you can take it elsewhere. And if Medium shuts down, you could lose everything you wrote.

Winer says that the reason people don’t just set up their own blog (even if they won’t write regularly) is because it feels wasteful to set up something and then not use it. This holds people back, even though a pure text blog takes up negligible space and bandwidth compared to videos or images. While he’s right about the minuscule size requirements of plain text, I think there’s more to users’ reluctance of setting up their own blog. There is a cognitive cost and mental overhead to setting up your own blog that Medium side-steps. To set up an blog on WordPress or Tumblr, you need to create a user account by providing a username, email address and password. Then you need to create the actual blog, by picking a domain name and title (and optionally, a theme). And then you can start to write.

Medium, on the other hand, lets you sign in via Twitter, automatically selecting your username and other account details (which you can change). After that you can just start writing. To be  fair, you are asked to follow other users and tags, but you can just click a button and move on. That’s exactly what I did before writing this post. There are options to use Facebook and email to sign up as well, but I’m assuming they’re equally streamlined. To break free from Medium’s hold on casual writing on the web, a competing service would have to be just as streamlined and painless.

So how would one go about competing with Medium? First you need to reuse identity from some existing social network or identity provider. Second, writing and publishing a post would have to be super-simple. Finally, to address Winer’s concerns, the competing service should come from an entity whose main business isn’t written content, but somehow naturally falls out of (or can be built atop) the core service. Luckily, there is already a service that can do this: GitHub.

GitHub is a popular code-sharing and hosting service that is very popular with programmers (and increasingly, with non-programmers). By default, GitHub hosts repositories of code, but they have an adjacent service called GitHub Pages that hosts simple websites. As a GitHub user, you can create a specially named repository and any HTML pages in that repository are served as username.github.io. Anyone with a GitHub account (which these days, is pretty much anyone who writes code) can post writing to their own repository and have it be served as a webpage from GitHub. Now, this only completes one part of the puzzle, since there’s no Medium-like interface to actually write your posts. You would have to write your posts using a text editor and push them to your GitHub pages repo. However, such an interface could be created by anyone, not necessarily by GitHub. They would just need your GitHub credentials, temporarily, to post your writing from the editor to the repository.

In conclusion: part of Medium’s attractiveness comes from having a streamlined path to posting irregular writing on the Web, helping to make it a large and powerful platform for web publishing. GitHub Pages provides part of the puzzle to create a neutral competitor that offers many of the same benefits. All that is needed is a writing interface that uses GitHub pages as a backend.

I haven’t talked about the social media and promotional features of Medium. I’m not sure how to replicate them in the same fashion. My goal with this post was to propose an alternative to the publish-and-forget style that Medium allows, and I think GitHub Pages is a step in that direction. Since Winer published his post, Medium has posted a response that addresses many of his concerns. The takeaway from the response seems to be that if you’re afraid of Medium having too much control over your content, post to both your own blog and to Medium.

On Reading More Books

One of my intentions for 2016 (I hesitate to call it a resolution) is to read more books. Over the last few years, the number of books I’ve read (and the frequency with which I read them) has steadily decreased. I haven’t kept records, but I couldn’t have read more than a handful in 2015. All this is despite the fact that I do in fact read a lot on a daily basis mostly in the form of blog posts and articles online.

My reasons for wanting to read more books, as opposed to just reading more in general, are mostly subjective. Firstly, my ability to sit with a piece over the course of several hours, follow the author’s text, remember what was said and gradually incorporate new material, has deteriorated over the years, and it’s an ability I sorely want back. Even the longest online essay rarely takes over half an hour to read. I want to feel comfortable following intricate arguments, or interesting plotlines again and I want to carve out several hours of time in a day to sit with a single activity (something that I’ve also been doing too little of in the recent past). Secondly, I want to get back to writing more regularly over the course of the year while getting better at writing, improving both quality and quantity, as it were. A prerequisite to writing well is to read well, and broadly. A side effect of that might be more book reviews and recommendations showing up here. Stay tuned.

Finally, I’m looking forward to embracing the physicality of books. Though I’ve shifted most of my reading to the Kindle Paperwhite over the last few years, I still own a good number of paper books and pick up a new one every now and then. In particular, for books that aren’t pure text, such as Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood, paper is still far superior to any electronic version. For me, even the Kindle Paperwhite is a more comfortable reading medium for books than a phone or computer screen. Personally, I’ve found that attaching myself to a screen has become the default activity for unscheduled time. Usually that screen is either a television for Netflix, or a phone for random Internet and social media things. It’s a default I’d very much like to change, and having a physical book or dedicated reader to turn to seems like a step in the right direction.

It’s going well so far. I’ve re-read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist and tore through Paul Kalanithi’s beautiful and devastating When Breath Becomes Air in just two days. Last night I cracked open Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style which I hope will help with writing more and better. This morning I read the prologue to Molly Crabapple’s Drawing Blood while finishing my coffee and am really looking forward to the rest of it.

In addition to reading more, I would like to keep track of what I read. After all, Socrates will tell you that the unexamined life is not worth living. I’ve never been very good at this, but the tools to do so have never been easier. I’ve resurrected my long-default Goodreads account and brought it up to date on the readings of the year. Feel free to follow me, if you’re into that sort of thing (though I don’t plan on using it as more than a tracker). At the end of the year, I would like to have a record of what I read and some idea of what among them were the most memorable (though probably not a definitive “best of” list).

I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to end the year with a lot more read, a mind expanded, and perhaps some new interests discovered. I don’t want to set up any goals because I’d like this to be a low-stress endeavor, but I do hope to check in from time to time with news of progress, and of course pass along any jewels I discover. I am also very open to suggestions for interesting books from diverse domains.

New York, New York

Pitiful, this city of New York. I expected Constantinople, Baghdad before the Mongols. Rome. Oh. Those were cities. This is a factory. A machine.

— The Strain.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of New York City. Having grown up in a really big city (which had more than its fair share of big city problems) I’ve been attracted to smaller, out-of-the-way settings. My first four years in the United States were spent at Lafayette College in Easton, PA and the second four at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

However, as time goes by, I find myself increasingly attracted to the city. I’ve been ending up there increasingly regularly, either as a stepping stone, or as a destination itself. The last few times I was there, I even found myself wondering if I could see myself living there long term, at least for a few years, in the not-too-distant future. The answer to that is a very strong “maybe”, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if that were to change to a “yes” in a few years’ time.

There is much to recommend New York City, the food, the culture, the tall buildings and bright lights, the Fifth Avenue displays during the holidays, Central Park. But for me personally, it is perhaps the only place in the world where I can see friends from high school, college and graduate school, and make new ones, all in a few days’ time. Indeed, if New York were not this unexpected nexus of various parts of my life (and the people involved) I would be far less drawn to it. Philadelphia, another large, though oddly more comfortable, city, would be a far second.

I spent the better part of five days in New York City in between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. One of those days was spent in the hustle and bustle, the strangling crowds of Times Square and Rockefeller Center, and that required the next day to be spent in the low-key comfort of a Brooklyn coffee shop, and I was glad to make my escape from New York well before the madness of New Year’s Eve descended. In those days, I ate, I drank, I made merry, I talked about startups and distributed systems and Bitcoin and financial programming languages. I watched the new Star Wars, nerded out over it, thought it was too close to A New Hope, and was delighted by Emo Kylo Ren, perhaps a bit too much. All in all, I had a good time. I came back sick in body, but refreshed in mind and soul.

But at the end of all that, it’s good to come back to home in snowy, cold, middle-of-nowhere Ithaca, NY. For me, New York City is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there (just yet).

President Garrett Expands Graduate Student Support and Funding

I had a chance to hear President Garrett speak to the Cornell Graduate & Professional Student Assembly on Monday and was very impressed. I was expecting to hear the standard “Keep up the good work, look forward to working with you” spiel, and was pleasantly surprised to hear about all the activity that’s under way.

In addition to already being active, President Garrett struck me as very well-informed, opinionated, erudite and well-spoken, while being quite down-to-earth and eager to talk to students, rather than down to them. I (cautiously) have high hopes for Cornell under her guidance, and I’m personally looking forward to working with her administration as part of the GPSA.

Hundreds of Little Things

Last week I came across a blog post about the new release of an image editor called Acorn. I don’t use Acorn, but one part of the post appealed to me. In a section titled “Hundred of Little Things” the author talked about fixing bugs in Acorn:

It took months and months of work, it was super boring and mind numbing and it was really hard to justify, and it made Acorn 5 super late. But we did it anyway, because something in us felt that software quality has been going downhill in general, and we sure as heck weren’t going to let that happen to Acorn.

Most of my past week was fixing lots of small and annoying little bugs in my summer project. Some of them were edge cases in the core functionality of the system, but a lot of them were little bits and pieces and rough edges that I would have normally just let pass. I do agree that software quality seems to be going downhill in general. One way to fix it is to pay attention to all the little things that we usually let slip past. On a related note, I think that writing software in a way that doesn’t allow these little things to slip past us is still unnecessarily difficult and complicated, but that’s a matter for another post.

Sunday Selection 2015-08-16

Around the Web

Mad as Hell: How a Generation Came of Age While Listening to John Stewart

Last week marked John Stewart’s last week on The Daily Show. I enjoyed his last few episodes, but part of me was really wishing that his last show would include a takedown of the Republican debate. This isn’t the most in-depth post about his years at The Daily Show, but I think it captures effectively how many people of my age feel about John Stewart and the show.

Meditation vs medication: A Comic Essay on Faciing Depression

I’ve meditating more regularly in recent months as well as reading more about meditation, mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy in general. At the same time, depression is a growing concern, especially among people involved in technology and for me personally as well. I’ve also come to realize that there is a certain taboo surrounding anti-depressants: a latent fear that medication will fundamentally change who we are. I don’t think any one article can completely tackle this complicated bundle of issues, but this is a good place to start.

Programming Sucks

If you’ve ever wondered what the day-to-day life of a programmer is like, or the state of our technology is, this post gives a only half-joking look at behind the digital scenes. If you lived in the trenches yourself, you will find yourself nodding along, and maybe shedding a tear or two. There should probably be a trigger warning associated with this article.

From the Bookshelf

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach

Talking of meditation, my most recent foray into that world came in the form of this book. It’s not about meditation per se, but rather involves using meditation as a tool to become more comfortable with our lives, face our inner demons, and accept the way things are as a focal point for living a better life. The book is replete with personal stories from the author’s life (and those of her patients) and includes helpful guided meditations to get you started.


Forging the Hattori Hanzo Katana

I’ve always had a fascination with Japanese culture and martial arts, and Hattori Hanzo’s monologue is probably my favorite part of the Kill BIll movie. The movie doesn’t actually show you how the sword is forged, so here is a video that does. The narration could have been better, but it’s still a very entertaining (and educational) video.