Accepting Evil

Last week I visited the Topographie des Terrors in Berlin and wanted to share some thoughts that I was processing while walking through. The museum is built on the former site of the SS and Gestapo headquarters and exhibits the rise of NAZI ideology and acceptance throughout Germany and Europe. It’s particularly relevant today in demonstrating the mechanisms which can be used to bring mainstream acceptance of horrible, hateful, and evil ideas.

On to the lessons I learned

Fake News is not our problem

some have told me that fake news did it
that there was no chance
that faceter and twitbook made us
believe it

some have told me that we must forbid
that an alarm should sound to eliminate
that no alternative fact exist lest we
believe it

some have stirred to try and prevent it
that the algorithms see through
that the censor do its work and
hide it

some have stirred to ask, what must we
that people not see it
that the reader not read it
hide it

but I do not blame the lie
because it was always there
just as the pasture gate leads away
from the highway and into the field
and from the field and into the pasture
and from the pasture and into the slop

the signs lead the way
once we may be fooled
but twice is on us
as the saying goes
and from the noise and into the discourse
and from the discourse and into our mind

some have challenged me to come and reason
that I may discern my path
that I might oblige my duty
question it

some have challenged my entitlement
that my feet may learn the path
that my way not be misled in the dark
probe it

some have challenged my response
that we not simply believe
that we not hide and cower
that we filter the noise
that we treasure our minds 
that we question
that we probe
that we ask


Tonight I was reading a list of Perlisms – provocative quips from the late Dr. Perlis at Yale – when I came across number seventy-three:

It is not a language’s weakness but its strengths that control the gradient of its change: Alas, a language never escapes its embryonic sac.

A couple of my favorite programming languages constantly get picked for their failings and weird idiosyncrasies, but at the same time they have dramatically altered certain programming domains. JavaScript has revolutionized the web, Python certainly has made programming approachable and useful in academic contexts, and MATLAB has trivialized algorithmic computation.

In these languages you might find things like broken identity (in JavaScript NaN !== NaN), inconsistencies (in Python 2 * '3' is '33' but '2' * 3 is 6), or even very un-programming-like patterns (MATLAB .m files – seriously?) but I feel like these wuts are more or less the artifacts of robust systems being incapable of being everything for everyone all the time.

Truth be told – we all have some major failings, but those don’t have to be the things that holds us back or define us either. In some regards I feel emotionally scarred from experiences with lost tempers and personal shortcomings, but as I have grown older I have learned more and more how to cope with strange outbursts and rude outbursts and overlook them.

We’re all pretty amazing beings and yet we all seem to get into these kinds of situations where we explode: some outwardly in fits of rage, some inwardly in deceptive or passive aggressive tactics. While those things are all problematic, it takes some real courage to look past those when interacting with others and be able to asses them for what they are: small scars in robust and incredible systems whose strengths far out-signify their flaws.

Peace at SFO – who would’a thunk it?

It’s incredibly calm right now, and considering the chaos I left an hour ago – that’s pretty incredible. This weekend I have been attending the Hacking EDU conference at our Automattic booth (we’re one of the primary sponsors). The event bills itself as the largest educational hackathon in the world and more than twelve hundred students attended (or so I was told). It’s been a good weekend but pretty loud and chaotic.

Somewhat late in the day I decided that it would make more sense to spend the night at the airport instead of trying to get here in time for my 6:00am flight home. Times like these I really wonder what I must have been thinking when I booked the flight, but it’s all going to work out just fine. I’m the only one in sight except for a few scattered cleaning crews and the only noise is the gentle hum of the air conditioning. Having this peaceful and quiet decompression time wasn’t something I anticipated, but I sure am thankful for it.

Hundreds of students form teams to compete for prizes and internships.

Those of us who attended the Automattic booth at the hackathon didn’t know what exactly to expect there. The array of highschool and college students, on the other hand, all seemed to have some idea as they strolled in on Friday afternoon carrying a sleeping bag under one arm and a wide-screen monitor in the other. We brought more swag than we usually would, but I think we ran out of most stuff after about an hour or two – those freebies went fast!

Unlike most of the other sponsors, we weren’t exactly there to push our products or services on the participants. Lots of people came and asked us, “What are your APIs?” and expected us to have a list. We really just wanted to encourage them all to pursue programming and their creative talents, but a couple other companies brought some hefty prizes: $2,000 for the most creative use of Target’s API; $5,000 for the best app built on top of a database platform online; etc… We sponsored a prize for the app or idea with the greatest social impact.

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Not homeless; not underprivileged; this is the making of a Silicon Valley tech-startup entrepreneur.

For those of us at the booth who didn’t grow up in the Bay Area, we had a mantra for the weekend, “This is sooo Silicon Valley.” (We were referencing both the startup culture of this area and the parody sitcom about it on HBO). Students had a surprisingly varied level of technical background, from those hitting the ground running to those who didn’t realize that Facebook runs on the Internet, but almost everyone had one goal in common: find the next disruptive and revolutionary idea to pitch to the judges; find someone interested enough to fund their idea; chart their own way as their own boss and eschew college – and oh how buzzwords flew 😊.

Sadly, for most of them this is but a pipe dream, but a few will probably make it in the end and hopefully they will all go away inspired and energized. Some really incredible people spoke at the event: the founder of the Y-Combinator, a popular seed-funding venture capital program; the founder of the Khan Academy online learning website; our very own Guillermo Rouch (who just left Automattic a couple weeks ago and will probably start some other great new thing any day now); and several leaders and pioneers in the technology world.

One of the side rooms where the “magic” (or attempted sleep) was happening.

The students are spending the whole weekend at the event center. I’m pretty sure most of them will have gone seventy-two hours without stepping outside or seeing the sun before they finish up tomorrow. The stocks of Redbull and Hint water, the stacks of paper towels and Fruit Loops, the emergency boxes full of toothpaste and mouthwash were staggering and hilarious at the same time. It has just been such an incredible experience and I know I would have loved to have participated when I was still in highschool. Although we left just a single Automattician to man our booth, the kids are still grinding away (between playing bubble-ball-soccer and taking advantage of the biggest LAN party they will likely ever experience). Their teams and projects have to be officially submitted in about ten minutes from now, I think, but they can continue to program or finish the details before demonstrations and judging tomorrow.

As usual, I chose adventure over luxury for my travels here to San Mateo and stayed at a “HackShack” hackers hostel. Actually, it’s just the home of a couple guys pushing along in the startup world trying to make the best-new-thing and they have opened up their rooms to errant hackers. Last night I had the great opportunity to work with them and chat for a while before going to bed and I had a great time learning about the problems they are trying to solve and the innovative ways they are accomplishing them.

It’s a shame to come all this way and hurry home, but I had plans long before this weekend to be with Mandi tomorrow. I would have liked to have hung out a bit more with my new startup friends at the Hack Shack and to have taken the train up to San Francisco to visit a few teammates, but honestly the Grand Meetup was exhausting and relentless – just as this weekend has been too. I had a lovely time getting to know a few of my coworkers better and now have the awesome experience of being the only one in a busy airport. Have a nice rest yourself; and good night!

Rightness. Equality. Transparency.

Volkswagon just admitted they did something very bad. They rigged their engines to cheat on emissions tests and to disable completely in real driving situations. This is so bad on so many levels because it took so much premeditation. Here’s the gist of it:

If the car detected that the steering wheel wasn’t rotating, that the outside temperature and pressure wasn’t changing, and that the engine has been running in certain atypical driving conditions, it would clamp down on the emissions controls to make sure they operated at peak performance.

Unfortunately, these emissions controls must have made the driving experience so much worse that they realized it would kill the marketability of the vehicles. Regardless, the company choose to disable the emissions controls by default and only turn them on when the car detects that it’s being tested. This gave it more punch on the road. What was the effect? Emissions over forty times higher than legally allowed.

No one even tried to discover this. A research team noticed during unrelated testing that the emissions seemed different in the lab verses on the road.

Whatever their CEO might say about this being the cause of a few employees, as a software developer I can’t buy it. First of all, someone on some testing team must have discovered that the car wasn’t peppy enough. Correspondence with engineering teams must have revealed the source of the problem as the emissions system. At this point, the matter must have been investigated but found to be unresolvable with the current implementation. The matter would have probably been brought up with a higher-up product manager, who brought it up even higher, then somewhere along the lines came the suggestion to cheat the tests.

It couldn’t have ended there though. Some team would have had to brainstorm ways to do this, a software team would have been formed. They would have researched models for detecting emissions test conditions, and then would have had to spend time with testing departments to field-test their predictions. In the end, the code would have passed several levels of code review and acceptance.

There’s no end to the culpability here and so many people who could have blown the whistle, but nobody did. Another New York Times author made a good connection between this deceit and the importance of open-source software in critical systems like these. The code hiding the deception was veiled behind intellectual property laws and off-limits to third party audits.

On one final note, to get a little political or controversial, I wonder how big of a deal this will actually become at large. There are about eleven million affected cars out there and they were the product of a company intentionally hoodwinking the public in order to protect their profits. I’ve often heard people throw a stink about immigrants coming up from Mexico on the sole grounds that what they are doing is illegal: it doesn’t matter why, even if the migration stems from a deep-seated and very valid desire to protect one’s family from the imposing threat of the drug war. The clincher is that the actual act of crossing the border was an illegal act and thus the families should go back. Does this ideal transfer to situations like this one with Volkswagon? Will it drive up people’s blood pressure to hear about another car cheating on the emissions exam?

It just makes sense…

The Atlantic just published an interview with the author of the new book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. In that article and in that book is an idea new to me about Hitler’s reasoning and motivation for many of the heinous crimes he planned, authorized, and enacted.

The basic premise is that Hitler was ultimately and primarily a racial anarchist. For him, this had the following implications:

  • The natural way of the world is a brutal and barbaric struggle between races.
  • The Jews spread the idea humanity and abstract thought and all sorts of imposed order which are inherently unnatural. This ideology is standing in the way of how things are supposed to be, thus the only way to bring the world into right again is to eradicate everything related to those ideas, including the people behind them.
  • Killing Jews inside the borders of nation-states was too difficult logistically whereas it was much more practical to do the executions in the “backwoods,” (my term) or the chaotic void left behind when a nation collapses.
  • Therefore, the only way Hitler could restore the natural world order was to somehow get the German people to start a war whose goal was the elimination of other nations in order to make way for the Final Solution and thus eradicate the world of the Jews’ unnatural ways and ideas.

Pretty much any analysis of Hitler’s life and works is going to be terrifying, but there are a few things in this article that stood out:

  • Hitler didn’t ultimately care about the German or Aryan race. He masqueraded his intentions behind German nationalism in order to win popular support so that he could acquire the mean to start his campaign against all statehood and order.
  • He didn’t just think that Jews were a problem (because, let’s face it, almost all of Europe considered them a problem at the time), but he considered them the problem that held back the natural order of the world and with it all things that are right and good.
  • His twisted worldview provided a framework within which he could mastermind his well-executed plans rationally, all the while being completely irrational to the rest of the world.
  • It’s conceivable that this combination of factors could reemerge in a new flavor somewhere today in the world and recreate the same horrors of those dark times.

The twist that separated Hitler from some of his terrible peers was that non-negotiable non-rational worldview that isolated him from reality. The author makes a brief connection with a refusal to acknowledge the state of Israel today by its geo-neighbors on the sentiment that Jews could never form a functioning state. It just makes sense,” in other words, “why recognize an entity that any moment will collapse on itself and no longer exist?”

Though not calling out as if from the watch-tower, the book’s author stages Hitler’s ideology as a warning to us today, especially those of us dealing with policies and foreign powers who have heinously racist or inflammatory rhetoric

There’s a key in there, he suggests: rational leaders know their limits and are on the look out for their own people; the crazy ones are those who are more focussed on conforming reality to their own malformed worldview’s than taking care of their own. This can separate the madman who cries for the elimination on an entire demographic but won’t ever actually do it from the one who will.

Summary and my takeaway

I think that a teaching-point here is to bring a particularly strong level of skepticism to policy arguments that we hear when they would hurt or sever the relationships between people: by malice, physical separation, class distinction, prejudice, preference, etc…

Many times we are fed ideas that just sound right and the discussion are closed to outside parties – locked away from inspection from unbiased observers. Maybe they even cater to our fancies and we get caught up in the enthusiasm of their implications. Nevertheless, they not only don’t have the best interest of the out-group in mind, but they ultimately don’t have the best interest of the in-group either, and these things are obvious from the outside.

There’s so many ways this discussion to pan out and there are so many places it applies today, but I think the only good place I can end this post is relate it to one very important piece of humanity: dignity.

Most prejudice ultimately strips away the dignity of its targets. They aren’t human, so they aren’t worth protecting, loving, and honoring like human are. Life is beautiful even in its messes and if we care about life and consider one another first and foremost as living, human, breathing, thinking, creative, worthwhile people, then that is probably the best way we can guard ourselves and our world from reinventing the atrocities of the past.


Update: Dear readers – the article I read and linked to in this blog post is currently down while the author attempts to navigate copyright legislation. It was a translation of an article that appeared in DIE ZEIT (the times) and I assume they contacted him for publishing the translation without permission. It’s still a good read (even better maybe) in German, but if that’s not your cup of tea, I will try to post a second update when and if the English translation appears again.

As usual, it’s easy to quickly dismiss a perspective that doesn’t fit into our own narratives and belittle or enfranchise those who disagree. As a European outside, I enjoy a certain distance from the issue of sovereign Greek debt, but the issue permeates the news around Europe.

The following article throws a wrench into the strong banter between Greece and Germany. These two countries are looking at the same issue and have developed extremely different interpretations. In fact, there’s no rational way to reconcile their differences: Germans claim that Greeks are whiny and lazy while Greeks claim that Europe is trying to humiliate them.

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I’m always prompted to take caution in a matter when people hold vastly opposing interpretations. Although it would be nice if were some formula that could be applied to solve this, none seems to exist (or at least none seems readily accessible or agreeable). We as people seem to be a little willy-nilly in handling things like this, all too often giving the preference for those best able to handle it themselves and withholding from those most needy.

This is a complicated matter and I don’t mean to imply that Greece should be handed a few hundred billion Euros by linking the article. It should make us step back and ask lots of questions before framing our understanding, however.

So you pay all your bills, but I think you’ll die before you pay me back.

This article on the Vice does a good job of summarizing some of the potentially unseen dangers of ignoring privacy issues on the web.

here is a company that knows the intimate details of my student loans, and they may also know about my health concerns?

The world has had thousands of years to figure out how to interact with reality but only a few to figure out the cyberspace. Everything is different in the cyber realm and we all need to learn what consequences and responsibilities it brings.

There’s a great deal of malicious intent on the web, but far more prevalent are the unexpected snafus and the malice they inspire.

Some basic rules of cyberspace:

  • They don’t have to be accurate to ruin your life
  • They know you better than you know yourself
  • They target everyone because it’s easier than targeting you