Tag: twoquotes

two quotations on technological impermanence (plus commentary)

Jason Snell:

Every time an app I rely on exposes its mortality, I realize that all the software I rely on is made by people. And some of it is made by a very small group of people, or even largely a single person. And it gives me pause, because whether that person decides to stop development or retires or is hit by the proverbial bus, the result is the same: That tool is probably going to fade away.

A lot of the software I rely on is a couple of decades old. And while those apps have supported the livelihoods of a bunch of talented independent developers, it can’t last forever. When James Thomson decides to move to the Canary Islands and play at the beach all day, what will become of PCalc? When Rich Siegel hangs up his shingle [NB: idiom error] at Bare Bones Software, will BBEdit retire as well? Apps can last as abandonware for a while, but as the 32-bit Mac app apocalypse taught us, incompatibility comes for every abandoned app eventually.

Robin Rendle:

At some point or another this website, this URL, won’t resolve though. Maybe the Internet Archive will stick around for a while, but then everything is locked within this vast archive.

But if my URL is dead, my website dies with it.

My work shouldn’t be presented in the Smithsonian behind glass or anything, I’m just pointing at this enormous flaw in the architecture of the web itself: you’re renting servers and renting URLs. Nothing is permanent because on the web we don’t really own any space, we’re just borrowing land temporarily.

The variety of impermanence that Jason Snell talks about is one that I reflect on often, which is why I try to minimize my vulnerability to it — for instance, by writing whenever possible in plain-text files, which are as future-proof as anything digital can be. I love BBEdit, in which I am writing these words, and hope that Rich Siegel will keep working on it into a hearty old age, and then will pass it along to a new generation of custodians of his work — but even if BBEdit dies my text files will not. I’ll just open them up in a text editor I like less, and will be deprived of some features and keyboard shortcuts that are deeply embedded in my muscle memory. Not the worst of fates. 

By contrast, I am reluctant to invest heavily in Drafts, which is a fantastic app, but also (a) is owned and maintained by one person, (b) keeps its data in a database rather than in text files, and (c) has no mechanism for exporting its data into text files. Too many potential points of failure for me. Even worse are browser-based, cloud-located notes apps, which could fail utterly at any moment. I’m old enough to remember what happened to Gnolia, but what really soured me on relying on any cloud-based app for my basic information was the collapse of Stikkit, a brilliant notes/contacts/tasks app whose users loved it a great deal more than its makers did. 

Paper, text files, and open standards for non-textual data — that’s my recipe for future-proofing my work. 


To some extent that system addresses the problem Robin Rendle points to – but only to some extent. It was a little over a year ago that I fully realized that I don’t own my turf online. My work on this blog isn’t vulnerable in the way that Facebook posts or tweets are, but it’s still vulnerable. If my hosting company were to suffer a catastrophic data loss, I’d be okay — I back everything up regularly. But if my hosting company were to decide that my critique of Amazon for memory-holing Ryan Anderson’s book marks me as a transphobe with whom they will not do business, and if other hosting companies took the same view … well, then I might be in a certain kind of trouble. 

I must make a distinction here: My data I own, my internet presence I rent. It’s interesting to think about how this situation differs from that of my published books and print essays. It’s possible for anyone to download this entire site — that’s what wget does, and I’ve used it to download my old Text Patterns blog to my hard drive — but I’m sure no one else ever has, so if anything were to happen to shut down this site or that old blog, then anyone interested in what I’ve written online would have to hope that the Internet Archive and its partners have the whole thing crawled and saved. 

But if you’ve bought one of my books, or a journal in which one of my essays appears, then even if I were to suffer Damnatio memoriae, you’d still have those texts, and it’s impossible for me to imagine a world in which anyone would go to the trouble of taking them away from you. 

So does that mean that I should focus my attention on writing for print publication instead of online venues like this blog? That would make sense if I wanted to ensure that people are still reading my work after I’m dead — but that would be ridiculous for a writer as insignificant as I am. As I often say, it’s quite likely that I will outlive all my work, and I’m just fine with that. So I’ll write in venues that give me pleasure, that seem fitting for whatever interests me at the moment. And then, one day, if I get the chance to set my affairs in order, I’ll hand over to my family a stack of notebooks and a hard drive full of text files, for them to do with as they please. 


Oblivion is not to be hired. The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the register of God, not in the record of man…. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt, whether thus to live were to die; since our longest sun sets at right declensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and have our light in ashes; since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying mementoes, and time that grows old in itself, bids us hope no long duration; — diuturnity is a dream and folly of expectation. 

— Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia 

two quotations on conspiracy belief

Ian Leslie

The US-based online conspiracy cult QAnon played a central role in last month’s violent insurrection at the Capitol. QAnon is a complex, sprawling conspiracy theory about a clique of vampiric paeodophiles who run the world. It sounds as if you’d have to very stupid or completely crazy to believe any of it, yet many thousands do, and it’s worthwhile trying to understand why. This clip from an interview with a former QAnon follower who has now recanted makes for compelling viewing. The woman in question, Ashley Vanderbilt, is intelligent and reflective and likeable, and provides an insight into how people like her get sucked in. The groups she started interacting with online (presumably on Facebook and elsewhere) were not explicitly ‘QAnon’. They were just people discussing some horrible, outrageous practice that needed to be exposed. They didn’t get straight to the “Bill Gates is drinking children’s blood” stuff. They started by discussing something relatively bounded and real: child trafficking. That triggered a powerful curiosity in her: “It piques your interest, because as a mom I want to protect my kid.” So Ashley started asking for information from her online contacts, whom she had grown to trust, and then more, and as she did she fell deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. “Eventually you get to that huge crazy theory, and you believe it. But it didn’t start that way.” Vanderbilt goes on to talk about how her intense absorption in the cult meant that she wasn’t fully present for her 4 year old daughter. I was really moved by her introspection and by her bravery in coming forward to talk about this. Her description of how she was drawn in reminded me of a passage from Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, in which he relates how American prisoners of war were interrogated by Chinese communists during the Korean War. The Chinese sought to persuade the Americans that they had been on the wrong side all along, with the aim of turning them into informers, and they had considerable success. Their approach was systematic and subtle. They didn’t start conversations with the prisoners by telling them America is evil and communism is good. The strategy was rather to “start small and build”. They would get the Americans to assent to statements like “The United States is not perfect”. Later they would ask them to make a list of “problems with America” and put their name to it. And so on, inch by inch, until at least some of the prisoners crossed the line and became true believers. I have no idea if QAnon operates as it does deliberately or if there is some bottom-up process for recruitment that has just evolved but the approach sounds similar. In many less dark situations, this is how good persuasion works anyway. People are hardly ever persuaded to “change their mind” by arguments, in the sense of a 180 degree reversal of their position. But over time, step by step, a mind can be changed. 

David French

But the more I see the conspiracies play out in real life, the more concerned I grow. When large numbers of people hold beliefs with religious intensity, those beliefs not only provide them with a sense of enduring purpose, they also help them form enduring bonds of friendship and fellowship. The conspiracy isn’t just a set of intellectual convictions, it’s also a source of community. It’s the world in which they live. […] 

Sweeping away a falsehood is of little use unless you can replace the lie with a meaningful and empowering truth. You cannot yank a person from their community and then leave them homeless. Do not pretend we can replace something — no matter how malignant — with nothing. […] 

When you fear for the mind and heart of your conspiracy-committed mother or uncle or son, don’t wait. Engage. But don’t engage immediately with argument, but instead with the fellowship and love that makes the heart want to turn towards truth. You become the person who loves them, accepts them, and helps provide that vital sense of virtuous purpose. 

The conspiracy theory is often the symptom of an underlying disease — a disease of hate or fear that robs a person of joy. The fierce anger and furious purpose of the conspiracy mindset is a hollow replacement for the peace and faith found not just in truth, but in truth communicated by a loving and empathetic family and friends. 

two quotations on journalism

Michael Brendan Dougherty:

[James] Poulos holds that the old mass-media mandarins are trying to “encode” their ethical dreams into the new digital-media world, before it is too late. One can see this most clearly in the moral panic about social media and which speakers get a platform on it. The New York Times doesn’t report on what is being said on new social-media networks such as Clubhouse; it reports on what shouldn’t be said there….

The new digital media has its own biases. It also has elements of fantasy. But its currency and legitimacy — its value as a business — comes not from ethical dreams, but the secure database management of events, which it interprets as truths. Many Silicon Valley founders and thinkers have intuited this and tried to make themselves fall in love with the idea of hard and unpleasant truths — the things that cannot be uttered ethically at places like the New York Times.

The conflict between one clerisy and another is just beginning.

Freddie deBoer

I try to avoid looking at Media Twitter as much as I can; spending more than a few minutes in that space leaves one needing to decontaminate as if recently exposed to radiation. So I don’t know for sure if this is true. But I’m going to make the easiest bet in the world and say that media Twitter loves [Cade] Metz’s [hit] piece [on Scott Alexander]. And they loved it because, again, Alexander is not one of them. He’s not in the New York media social rat race, so he’s not a part of their culture. He’s not on Slack. He doesn’t tell the same tired, shitty jokes that journalists make on Twitter literally from the minute they get up to the minute they go to bed. He’s not performatively filling his feed with only women writers and artists, because he’s just not that interested in cishet men anymore, man. He doesn’t make references to whatever shithouse bar in Nolita media people used to go to after work to snort coke. He doesn’t use Twitter as an outlet to scream his dedication to BIPOC to the world, knowing this will look good on his resume. He’s not a thirty-three year old white person who speaks like a Black teenager, like half the journalists on Twitter. And most importantly, he jumped the line. He didn’t get paid $250 a week by Refinery79 for 60 hours of work for two years to climb the latter. He had the audacity to think that he could circumvent the system and challenge the official narratives…. 

Again: Alexander is an outsider. His readers don’t pay the Times for access to their shitty recipes. He’s probably never heard of Clubhouse. Unlike everyone on Media Twitter, he’s got a real job. He’s a lost cause. They will always hate him because he’s indifferent to climbing their rancid social hierarchy, the thing they care about the most in the whole world.

two quotations on prophecy

Washington Post:

When one QAnon channel on the chat app Telegram posted a new theory that suggested Biden himself was “part of the plan,” a number of followers shifted into open rebellion: “This will never happen”; “Just stfu already!” “It’s over. It is sadly, sadly over.” “What a fraud!”

But while some QAnon disciples gave way to doubt, others doubled down on blind belief or strained to see new coded messages in the Inauguration Day’s events. Some followers noted that 17 flags — Q being the 17th letter of the alphabet — flew on the stage as Trump delivered a farewell address.

“17 flags! come on now this is getting insane,” said one post on a QAnon forum devoted to the “great awakening,” the quasi-biblical name for QAnon’s utopian end times. “I don’t know how many signs has to be given to us before we ‘trust the plan,’” one commenter said. Yours truly, in How to Think:

In 1954 three social psychologists, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, read in the newspaper about a religious cult whose leader, a woman they called Marian Keech — her real name was Dorothy Martin — was prophesying the end of the world. Keech claimed that she had received messages from the inhabitants of a distant planet named Clarion, and from them she had learned that the world would be destroyed by a great flood on the twenty-first of December 1954. (She received these messages through automatic writing: she felt a tingling in her arm and a compulsion to write, but when she wrote, the words that emerged were not her own, nor in her handwriting. This was the method of communication the beings from Clarion chose to use to warn the world of its imminent destruction.) Those who heeded this warning and joined Keech’s group would be rescued by the arrival of a flying saucer from Clarion.

Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter pretended to be true believers in Keech’s message so that they might infiltrate and study the group. They had formulated a twofold hypothesis: first, that Keech was a charlatan; and second, and more interesting, that when the falsehood of her prediction was revealed her followers would not abandon her but rather escalate their commitment to the cause. […]

When the promised rescuers did not show up, and the threatened flood did not arrive either, the group was shaken. But then Keech felt once more the desire to write, and the message from Clarion was immensely reassuring: there was indeed a flood, but not a flood that kills, rather one that saves: “Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room and that which has been loosed within this room now floods the entire Earth.” Because of their faithfulness, they had been spared, and not just the little band of believers, but the whole world! And it was now incumbent on them, further messages explained, to break their habits of privacy and secrecy and to share with everyone, insofar as they were able, this “Christmas Message to the People of Earth.” (To which one can only add: God bless us every one!) See Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter’s book When Prophecy Fails.

two quotations on form

We will be back in some form. 

Donald Trump

It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful.

— H. P. Lovecraft

two quotations on recent events

The Economist:

Stand back, for a moment, and consider the enormity of his actions. As president, he tried to cling to power by overturning an election that he had unambiguously lost. First, he spread a big lie in a months-long campaign to convince his voters that the election was a fraud and that the media, the courts and the politicians who clung to the truth were in fact part of a wicked conspiracy to seize power. Then, having failed to force state officials to override the vote, he and his henchmen whipped up a violent mob and sent them to intimidate Congress into giving him what he wanted. And last, as that mob ransacked the Capitol and threatened to hang the vice-president, Mike Pence, for his treachery, Mr Trump looked on, for hours ignoring lawmakers’ desperate pleas for him to come to their aid.

In a democracy, no crime is higher and no misdemeanour more treasonous. Mr Trump needs to be punished for betraying his oath as head of state. He must be prevented from holding office again — or he may well stand in 2024. And, in case someone is minded to copy him, he must serve as an example of how vehemently America rejects a leader who tramples its constitution.

Peggy Noonan:

I just have a feeling our much-maligned establishments are saving the day. A former cabinet official said to me this week, “Trump never understood our institutions.” He never understood how strong and deeply layered they are. The agencies held, the military, the courts. Because Mr. Trump is purely transactional, he thought if he appointed Neil, Brett and Amy, they’d naturally do his bidding because that’s how the world works. But it’s not always how the world works. This week the Supreme Court blandly refused to fast-track his latest election appeal. They did it quietly, without comment.

I have a feeling there was a lot of quiet stature around us all along.

And they were quietly thinking: Don’t mess with my country. But they didn’t say mess.

two quotations on American politics

Barack Obama:

The point I’ve always made to Ta-Nehisi, the point I sometimes make to Michelle, the point I sometimes make to my own kids — the question is, for me, “Can we make things better?”

I used to explain to my staff after we had a long policy debate about anything, and we had to make a decision about X or Y, “Well, if we do this I understand we’re not getting everything we’re hoping for, but is this better?” And they say yes, and I say, “Well, better is good. Nothing wrong with better.”

Ibram X. Kendi:

There’s no saving America’s soul. There’s no restoring the soul. There’s no fighting for the soul of America. There’s no uniting the souls of America. There is only fighting off the other soul of America.

Obama and Trump did not poison the American soul any more than Biden can heal it. Trump battled for the soul of injustice, and the voters sent him home. Soon, President Biden can battle for the soul of justice.

Our past breaths do not bind our future breaths. I can battle for the soul of justice. And so can you. And so can we. Like our ancestors, for our children. We can change the world for Gianna Floyd. We can — once and for all — win the battle between the souls of America.

This morning I’m doing my weekly reading of the news, and I’ve just read these two stories, from the same magazine, back to back. The contrast is illuminating. One sees politics as the hard slow work of improving the world; the other see politics as the movement towards a final confrontation, on the plain of Megiddo I suppose, between the forces of Righteousness and the forces of Evil.

two quotations on democracy and the judiciary

Samuel Moyn, 2018

In the face of an enemy Supreme Court, the only option is for progressives to begin work on a long-term plan to recast the role of fundamental law in our society for the sake of majority rule—disempowering the courts and angling, when they can, to redo our undemocratic constitution itself. This will require taking a few pages from the conservative playbook of the last generation. It is conservatives who stole the originally progressive talking point that we are experiencing “government by judiciary.” It is conservatives who convinced wide swathes of the American people that it is the left, not the right, that too routinely uses constitutional law to enact its policy preferences, no matter what the text says. The truth is the reverse, and progressives need to take back the charge they lost. To do so, they need to abandon their routine temptation to collude with the higher judiciary opportunistically. Progressives must embrace democracy and its risks if they want to avoid the stigma of judicial activism that still haunts them from the past.

The editors of First Things, 1996: 

With respect to the American people, the judiciary has in effect declared that the most important questions about how we ought to order our life together are outside the purview of ‘things of their knowledge.’ Not that judges necessarily claim greater knowledge; they simply claim, and exercise, the power to decide. The citizens of this democratic republic are deemed to lack the competence for self-government…. The courts have not, and perhaps cannot, restrain themselves, and it may be that in the present regime no other effective restraints are available. If so, we are witnessing the end of democracy. 

two quotations

I ate my breakfast, checked my email, and stood up to head to my gate. As I did, I looked down at the small section of my life situated at that airport dining table: my new Nike Air Max sneakers, my cashmere swacket (that’s 50% jacket, 50% sweater, 100% cozy), my almost-too-soft-to-be-taken-outside leather duffel bag, and my iPhone. All of these objects were central to me – I felt like they defined me – and it was my iPhone that was at the core of it.

Benjamin Clymer

You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product. And then you die.

Louis C. K.

two quotations

A vigilant, eyes-wide-open embrace works much better. My intent in this book is to uncover the roots of digital change so that we can embrace them. Once seen, we can work with their nature, rather than struggle against it. Massive copying is here to stay. Massive tracking and total surveillance is here to stay. Ownership is shifting away. Virtual reality is becoming real. We can’t stop artificial intelligences and robots from improving, creating new businesses, and taking our current jobs. It may be against our initial impulse, but we should embrace the perpetual remixing of these technologies. Only by working with these technologies, rather than trying to thwart them, can we gain the best of what they have to offer. I don’t mean to keep our hands off. We need to manage these emerging inventions to prevent actual (versus hypothetical) harms, both by legal and technological means. We need to civilize and tame new inventions in their particulars. But we can do that only with deep engagement, firsthand experience, and a vigilant acceptance.

— Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

“A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Númenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”

— Saruman, in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

two quotations on the shape of lives

The problem of meaning is created by limits, by being just this, by being merely this. The young feel this less strongly. Although they would agree, if they thought about it, that they will realize only some of the (feasible) possibilities before them, none of these various possibilities is yet excluded in their minds. The young live in each of the futures open to them. The poignancy of growing older does not lie in one’s particular path being less satisfying or good than it promised earlier to be — the path may turn out to be all one thought. It lies in traveling only one (or two, or three) of those paths. Economists speak of the opportunity cost of something as the value of the best alternative foregone for it. For adults, strangely, the opportunity cost of our lives appears to us to be the value of all the foregone alternatives summed together, not merely the best other one. When all the possibilities were yet still before us, it felt as if we would do them all.

— Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations

We live out our lives, both individually and in our relationships with each other, in the light of certain conceptions of a possible shared future, a future in which certain possibilities beckon us forward and others repel us, some seem already foreclosed and others perhaps inevitable. There is no present which is not informed by some image of some future and an image of the future which always presents itself in the form of a telos — or of a variety of ends or goals — towards which we are either moving or failing to move in the present. Unpredictability and teleology therefore coexist as part of our lives; like characters in a fictional narrative we do not know what will happen next, but nonetheless our lives have a certain form which projects itself towards our future. Thus the narratives which we live out have both an unpredictable and a partially teleological character. If the narrative of our individual and social lives is to continue intelligibly — and either type of narrative may lapse into unintelligibility — it is always both the case that there are constraints on how the story may continue and that within those constraints there are indefinitely many ways that it can continue.

— Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd. ed.

two descriptions of the university

It is not that I wanted to know a great deal, in order to acquire what is now called expertise, and which enables one to become an expert-tease to people who don’t know as much as you do about the tiny corner you have made your own. I hoped for a bigger fish; I wanted nothing less than Wisdom. In a modern university if you ask for knowledge they will provide it in almost any form – though if you ask for out-of-fashion things they may say, like the people in shops, “Sorry, there’s no call for it.” But if you ask for Wisdom – God save us all! What a show of modesty, what disclaimers from the men and women from whose eyes intelligence shines forth like a lighthouse. Intelligence, yes, but of Wisdom not so much as the gleam of a single candle.

— Maria Magdalena Theotoky

Lots of youth in a university, fortunately, but youth alone could not sustain such an institution. It is a city of wisdom, and the heart of the university is its body of learned man; it can be no better than they, and it is at their fire the young come to warm themselves. Because the young come and go, but we remain. They are the minute-hand, we the hour-hand of the academic clock. Intelligent societies have always preserved their wise men in institutions of one kind or another, where their chief business is to be wise, to conserve the fruits of wisdom and to add to them if they can. Of course the pedants and the opportunists get in somehow, as we are constantly reminded…. But we are the preservers and custodians of civilization, and never more so than in the present age, where there is no aristocracy to do the job. A city of wisdom; I would be content to leave it at that.

— The Warden of Ploughwright College

(Both quotations from The Rebel Angels, that wicked and wonderful novel by Robertson Davies. There may be found in the book a third description of what a university is, and who its ultimate patrons are. But that the enterprising reader may discover.)

two quotations from Saul Bellow’s Herzog

One:

But how was he to describe this lesson? The description might begin with his wild internal disorder, or even with the fact that he was quivering. And why? Because he let the entire world press upon him. For instance? Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thoughts can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs. The beautiful supermachinery opening a new life for innumerable mankind. Would you deny them the right to exist? Would you ask them to labor and go hungry while you yourself enjoyed old-fashioned Values? You—you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot. There, Herzog, thought Herzog, since you ask for the instance, is the way it runs.

Two:

But what is the philosophy of this generation? Not God is dead, that point was passed long ago. Perhaps it should be stated Death is God. This generation thinks – and this is its thought of thoughts – that nothing faithful, vulnerable, fragile can be durable or have any true power. Death waits for these things as a cement floor waits for a dropping light bulb. The brittle shell of glass loses its tiny vacuum with a burst, and that is that. And this is how we teach metaphysics on each other. “You think history is the history of loving hearts? You fool! Look at these millions of dead. Can you pity them, feel for them? You can nothing! There were too many. We burned them to ashes, we buried them with bulldozers. History is the history of cruelty, not love as soft men think.”