Echo Chamber Test

“[D]oes a community’s belief system actively undermine the trustworthiness of any outsiders who don’t subscribe to its central dogmas? Then it’s probably an echo chamber…

…An echo chamber doesn’t destroy their members’ interest in the truth; it merely manipulates whom they trust and changes whom they accept as trustworthy sources and institutions.

And, in many ways, echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust.”

—C Thi Nguyen, “Why it’s as hard to escape an echo chamber as it is to flee a cult.” Aeon. April 9, 2018.

The central idea isn’t that we all need “epistemological reboots”, although it’s often not a bad idea. The central idea is of intellectual humility, such as the possibility that you could be wrong. Philosophical skepticism, like that of Descartes, is taking it to the logical extreme, that not only can you be wrong, you might be wrong about everything. For example, everything we believe is real could be a Matrix-style simulation. We cannot exclude that possibility, even if it isn’t terribly useful in our day to day existence.

The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Sciences by Kieran Healy

The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Science is written for graduate students in the social sciences, but useful for any writer. For people not doing sophisticated data analysis, the key suggestions are to use a text editor like Emacs for writing, Markdown for formatting, git—such as on GitLabs—for version control, and a translator program like Pandoc to translate your text file into a variety of formats, such as epub, pdf, doc and so forth. Additionally, he strongly recommends automated backing up of your data with a cloud service. He mentions two standards but if you go that route consider a privacy focused service like SpiderOak, or the free software alternative, NextCloud.

Details

The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Science is worth reading for anyone involved with writing, research or data analysis. It introduces the problem of thinking about the tools that we use to do our work and serves as a technical primer for a particular style of writing.

Kieran Healy starts with a dichotomy, c.f. Section 1.2. There are two computer revolutions. One revolution is trying to abstract out the technology and present people with an easy, touch interface to accomplish specific tasks. Using your phone to take a picture, send a text message, post to social media, play YouTube videos, etc. are all examples of this type of technology. It’s probably the dominate form of computing now.

The other revolution are the complex computing tools that are being developed that cannot be used via a touch interface. At this point, there is no way to use an open source neural net like Google’s TensorFlow in a way that is going to make sense to the vast majority of people.

As we move to using a keyboard, this tension can be seen in the different types of tools we can use to write, research and do analysis. Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Access, etc. were designed to be digital equivalents to their analog predecessors – the typewriter, the overhead projector, the double entry account book or the index file. Of course, the digital equivalents offered additional capabilities, but it was still tied to the model of the business office. The goal for these tools, even as they include PivotTables and other features, is to be relatively easy to learn and use for the average person in an business office.

The other computing revolution is bringing tools to the fore that are not tied to these old models of the business office and is combining them in interesting new ways. But, these tools have a difficult learning curve. For example, embedding programming code that can be written into a text analysis to generate calculations when it is typeset is not a feature the average person working in a typical office needs. But, it clearly has some advantages in some contexts, such as for data analysts.

Complexity makes mistakes easier to make. So, it requires a different way of working. We have to be careful to document the calculations we use, track versions from multiple sources, be able to fold changes back into a master document without introducing errors, and so forth. The Office model of handing a “master document” back and forth and the process bottlenecked waiting for individuals making revisions isn’t going to work past a certain minimum baseline level of complexity that we are slowly evolving past.

So, laying out this case, he then suggests various tools to consider: a text browser such as Emacs, Markup for formatting, git for version control, Pandoc for translating text documents into other formats, backup systems, a backup cloud service, etc. All of these tools are equally important to complex writing of any sort, whether it be for writing long works of fiction, research analysis, collaborative writing, and other circumstances we are more likely to find ourselves in, which these more powerful tools help make possible.

2018 Experiments, 1st Quarter Follow-up

New Year resolutions always seem like an exercise in futility. Everyone does them. But, it is difficult to get the social support to make any kind of New Year resolution work. Failure is expected. Starting out in the aftermath of a holiday like New Year’s Eve probably doesn’t help much either.

New Year’s resolutions tend to focus on one big change, and they are rarely conceived in such a way as to accommodate the inevitable failures of implementation that come with trying anything new. And when doing something, you always learn things that differ from our preconceptions when starting out. So, you have to build in some flexibility into your program, and a resolution tends toward absolutes.

All of this is true of the changes I tried to make at the start of 2018. I started in December 2017 trying to eat a ketogenic diet, start a HIIT Burpee and Running Program, and consistently do some form of meditation.

On the ketogenic diet, it is possible to lose a significant amount of weight. Within a few weeks of starting it, I lost just over ten pounds, probably the bulk of it due to water weight.

However, I found it difficult to stick to because eating is such a social activity. Invariably, there was a birthday party, a holiday, or some other social occasion where people encouraged me to come off diet. If I ate one thing, the next comment was, “Well, since you already ate cake, why not have some cookies too?” The holiday season was particularly challenging.

In retrospect, my suggestion is to not tell anyone that you are on a diet, whether it is ketogenic or some other type. As soon as people hear that you are on a diet, I believe social forces kick in, and people will try, likely not even consciously, to bring you back to your default routine. Few people will support your effort, particularly if your diet impacts them in any way.

If you are lucky enough to have a spouse or significant other joining you, it will be much easier to keep on diet. If you are on your own, you’re on your own. Keep a low profile and use excuses like you aren’t feeling well, aren’t hungry, and so forth to skip eating when out. Socializing is a killer of diets. If you like socializing, eat before you go and try to find activities where you are active and not eating.

I haven’t been following a ketogenic diet closely for several weeks. I started again in April, but I plan to keep it low profile. Thankfully, the few people that might read this post don’t care what I eat.

The HIIT Burpee program has been the biggest success thus far. Doing the program is probably another factor in why I am not taking off any weight, quite the opposite actually.

I started with the idea of 12 sets of timed burpees. But, in retrospect, the key issue is not time but the number of burpees per set.

The program probably should just be setting an interval timer with budgeting about 3-5 seconds per burpee in the set and then take a minute rest in between sets. With 12 sets, the whole thing can be done in less than 20 minutes. But, it should be noted that it hurts, and it probably shouldn’t be done more than twice a week.

Start from 1 per set and work your way up. If 12 sets is too much, do 2 rounds of 6 sets or 3 rounds of 4 sets, with 3 to 5 minutes of rest to catch your breath per round. If you do these exercises on concrete, it helps to wear a set of leather work gloves if you don’t want bloody finger tips.

In the beginning of the HIIT program, I also laid off doing any running because the program is punishing. Until you adapt to the program, don’t try to do anything else. I went from 3 per set and a total of 36 burpees to 6 per set with a total of 72 burpees, for the last five weeks. There has been significant increases in tone and muscle, even over this short period. I have missed 3 out of 28 sessions. I think it makes sense to plan for a week off every quarter, which wasn’t in my original plan. I am going to start trying to work in some running sessions this quarter.

As for meditation, I did manage to do around 50 consecutive days of meditation. Overall, I think it is a good practice. However, I had problems with my android phone I was using to time the individual sessions, and thereafter, I haven’t been regularly doing it.

The problem with my phone ended up being an opportunity. I learned how to get an inexpensive phone set-up with LineageOS. Then, I used the same idea and changed my primary computing platform, buying an old ASUS 201 laptop with bad wi-fi and adding a usb wi-fi adapter and installing Libreboot and Parabola Linux, all for $83.

Parabola is an Arch distribution, which took some getting used to changing from Debian. But, it was not too bad a transition. I find I spend more time on the command line and associated tools in it, e.g., this post was written in Emacs and posted to cafebedouin.org using org2blog. Hopefully, the org2blog set-up will help me to write more original content for cafebedouin.org.

Also I also am trying to stick to a reading list. I have been putting any new books I hear about on a preliminary list for next year rather than trying to read them. I haven’t really been reading much over this quarter. I have been sidetracked on a series of other projects. But, today, I am recommitting to reading and writing more, doing daily meditation, twice a week physical training, and eating better. I’ll follow-up in three months, and we’ll see how it goes.

Facebook’s Surveillance Machine

“Should we all just leave Facebook? That may sound attractive but it is not a viable solution. In many countries, Facebook and its products simply are the internet. Some employers and landlords demand to see Facebook profiles, and there are increasingly vast swaths of public and civic life — from volunteer groups to political campaigns to marches and protests — that are accessible or organized only via Facebook.”

—Zeynep Tufekci, “Facebook’s Surveillance Machine.” The New York Times. March 19, 2018.

It’s a Catch-22. You have to be willing to tell Facebook, as well as the employers and landlords that demand access to your social media accounts should you choose to have them, to fuck off in order to get “vast swaths of public and civic life” off of the Facebook platform. Regulation isn’t going to solve the problem of Facebook and the feudal Internet. Thinking that regulation can solve every problem is one of the central contradictions of U.S. liberal political thought. But then, U.S. conservatives have similar notions of deregulation. You can’t have small government and a global war on Communism, terrorism and drugs.

Sometimes there is no reform that will square the circle, and you have to make a choice. It’s perfectly reasonable to choose not to use Facebook. It takes two to four weeks to shake off the desire to check it, and then, most likely, you’ll spend more time with those closest to you rather than cultivating all the weak ties out beyond your Dunbar number of acquaintances that Facebook facilitates. Not everyone can do it, but many people could (and should).

Swimming Against the Stream of Convenience

A year ago, I deleted my Facebook account. It was a bit of a watershed moment for my digital life because it was the start of a process, where I took a hard look at my use of the “free” services offered by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple and tried to assess whether other alternatives, particularly paid ones, were better based on factoring in other considerations than cost.

Facebook was the obvious starting point. On the plus side, it helped me to keep in touch with my extended family, a few groups I liked to participate in use the platform, and the calendar of events integration into Google calendar made it very easy to plan and take advantage of all the events my city has to offer.

On the negative side, those benefits came with a cost to my well-being and to society at large. During the U.S. election, it gave me a window into the thought-processes of people in my extended social circle, and I found I started liking them a lot less. It was obvious to me that people were being manipulated, less obvious to me is that I was one of those people. Reading “The Data That Turned The World Upside Down,” I had a realization that Facebook was manipulating everyone’s thoughts and interactions that used it, and by continuing to use it, I was essentially saying it was alright. It wasn’t.

But, once your mind goes down that route, then you can’t stop. You have to look at everything. Google has more than double the advertising revenue of Facebook. Yet, I used Google for almost everything, such as email, photo storage, contacts, etc. And, the influence they have, such as the companies that surface when using search, maps, or their other products is profound, but the algorithm is even more opaque than Facebook’s. You really have no idea what kind of influence Google is having over your choices, and it is impossible to have any transparency about what is going on behind the scenes and the intent behind it. Again, using Google means you agree the convenience is worth being manipulated. For me, it wasn’t worth it.

I changed my search engine to DuckDuckGo. I switched off of Gmail to one email provider then another. I switched off Google Drive to NextCloud, a free software cloud storage solution. With Nextcloud, I was able to migrate documents, pictures, contacts and notes off of Google’s servers. Some services, such as managing RSS feeds, were also part of NextCloud, which Google chose to no longer support when they retired Google Reader.

And once you go this far, it’s a short step to look at things like Wallabag to replace Feedly. Or eliminating other social media applications that are affiliated with feudal Internet companies, such as Instagram, Whatsapp, Hangouts, etc.

Once there, I was able to take bigger steps, such as installing LineageOS onto my android phone and Linux on the desktop to replace Microsoft Windows. Or using free alternatives to apps, such as those in F-Droid over those in Google Play or LibreOffice instead of the Microsoft Office suite. These moves were organic extensions of the thought processes quitting Facebook began.

Still, some things have no ready replacements. If you don’t use Google Maps, what are the alternatives? Those that exist are objectively nowhere near as good.

Choosing to not use Amazon is possible, but it comes with significant inconvenience, trade-offs and costs. Is it better to go to Wal-Mart rather than order from Amazon? What about paying 20% more by shopping elsewhere? Consider that over half of U.S. households have a subscription to Amazon Prime. Shipping costs alone make shopping for some products online prohibitive.

For Amazon, I’ve stopped buying ebooks from them. There is a lot of reading material to choose from in this world. I try to stick to DRM free books, but failing that, I try to use services that are not Amazon and available via the library, such as OverDrive. While OverDrive is not as good from a reading experience perspective, it does have the advantage of not being part of the feudal Internet.

The only Apple product I have ever used is iTunes and iPod related devices. I find other programs integrating my music collection to be easier to use. So, my exposure to Apple is negligible.

Being against the feudal Internet is swimming against the stream of convenience. It means more cost, more aggravation, and more of your time troubleshooting problems that would “just work” if you let Google, Apple or Microsoft manage everything for you.

Looking back after a year, choosing the path less travelled by has indeed made all the difference. Not everyone can do it — due to financial, time, or other constraints — but it is worth doing, if you can.

Installing LineageOS on a Samsung Device

LineageOS is an alternative operating system for your phone. It’s what Android looks like before the device manufacturers and phone carriers start adding software. Installing it is also an interesting exercise in how taking more control of technology often means taking more responsibility and risk.

Note: Installing alternative operating systems like LineageOS on your phone is a great way to learn more about how it works. You are going to make mistakes. You may brick your phone. If you are interested in attempting it, use an outdated phone you already have on the LineageOS list or get one from eBay to learn on. It’s okay to mess up, just don’t attempt it on a device that is important to you until you know what you are doing.

Installing LineageOS on your phone is relatively painless. The major difficulties are twofold: 1) being careful about installing the right files for your device and 2) getting Heimdall, the software on Linux to flash the bootloader TWRP to your phone, to work. Heimdall doesn’t work out of the box when installed with a package manager like apt-get on Debian.

Note: If you are on Windows, Odin sounds easier to use than Heimdall. I didn’t use it, so I do not know if this is true. I can say Heimdall does not work as expected on Linux.

  1. Download TWRP (most recent), LineageOS (nightly for the device) & OpenGAPPS (ARM, same version as LineageOS, pico) for your device and put them on the root directory of your phone’s sdcard. To transfer to your sdcard, enable developer mode for your device (in my case, going to Settings, About Device, and tapping on Build Number 7 times) then select USB Debugging in developer options. You will then be able to connect your phone to your computer, agree to connect on your phone and use any file utility to transfer the three files transfer rather than ADB, the android debug bridge. USB Debugging also needs to be enabled for the next step.
  2. Install Heimdall from source. There is a bug in the version v.1.4.1, which is what currently installs from apt-get. That version always throws off error messages when trying to flash the bootloader TWRP using software from apt-get. Try an apt-get install.
    $ sudo apt-get install heimdall-flash

    Then, check your version with:

    $ heimdall version 

    If you get v.1.4.1 (or if you cannot get Heimdall to work), try compiling from source.

    Compiling from source and using the heimdall-frontend solves that problem. I never got it to work from the command line. Install the required software to compile from source.

    $ sudo apt-get install build-essential cmake zlib1g-dev qt5-default libusb-1.0-0-dev libgl1-mesa-glx libgl1-mesa-dev 

    Make a bin directory in your home directory and enter it.

    $ mkdir bin
    $ cd bin

    Clone the source.

    $ git clone https://github.com/Benjamin-Dobell/Heimdall

    Make a build directory and enter it.

    $ mkdir -p Heimdall/build
    $ cd Heimdall/build

    Build the software from source.

    $ cmake -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Release ..
    $ make

    Transfer Heimdall to the system directory.

    $ sudo cp bin/* /usr/local/bin 
  3. Start the Heimdall-frontend.
    $ heimdall-frontend

    Turn off your device. Boot into download mode, on my device (SAMSUNG) download mode was started by holding down Volume Down, Home and Power. Then connect to your computer using the USB cable.

    1. Go to Utilities tab in the Heimdall frontend.
    2. Detect Device.
    3. You will see Download PIT, which stands for Partitions Information Tables. Go Save As and save it on some location.
    4. Go to Flash tab.
    5. In PIT category, click Browse and select PIT file you downloaded from device in step 3.
    6. Click Add button.
    7. For partition name select where you want to flash it. BE CAREFUL! If you flash it on wrong partition you can perma-brick device. For most devices, the recovery partition is RECOVERY.
    8. Go Browse for file and select twrp.img file you downloaded in step 1. In Session, check No Reboot.
    9. Click Start.
    10. When complete, disconnect device from the USB cable, pull the battery and immediately restart into recovery. On my device, you can boot into recovery by holding down Volume Up, Home and Power. If you don’t, your phone will likely write over the TWRP file you have flashed, and it will look like nothing has happened.
  4. From here, it was straight-forward per the instructions on the LineageOS Installation Instructions for my device.
    1. Backup your device, so you can recover in the event you bork it.
    2. Wipe the Cache, System and Data partitions.
    3. Install LineageOS.zip first, then OpenGAPPS.zip (optional, but if OpenGAPPS is not there a lot of apps might not work as expected, or at all) second.

When done, TWRP will ask you to reboot. That’s it.

Good luck!

5k Math

Over the last several years, I’ve taken my weight before a 5K race and logged the time. After 12 measurements, it looks like I can get a good, conservative prediction of my time from my weight: weight x 7.5 = seconds to complete 5k. To put it another way, for every 8 pounds lost, there is a corresponding decrease of ~1 minute of time to run the 5k. Once a sub-10% body fat weight is achieved, it may be possible to bring down the 7.5 number to ~7, but prior to that I think the best way to get faster is to lose weight.