A Pefunctory Definition of Hacking

A good introduction to hacking, complete with its own self-critique, of sorts: Hackers ethic for the world after collapse, from Nature Bats Last.

Sharing, openness, decentralization—so far so good as far as the main tenets of hacker culture go. Of course, this is just one guy’s opinion, but the piece is pretty interesting from the point of view of the outsider (altering html code is the most advanced thing I can do on a computer).

The first two definitions often listed for hacking now seem quite elucidating:

1. To cut or chop with repeated and irregular blows: hacked down the saplings.
2. To break up the surface of (soil).

Also interesting is the fact that if one now googles “hacking,” both Edward Snowden and the NSA come up, separately, near the top of the list.

The NSA now has a record of me looking up the term “hacking.” I’m not really making a point here, but sometimes it’s enough just to point out the obvious.

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Lessons of the Passenger Pigeon

Here’s a review of a book about the obliteration of the passenger pigeons in North America: Why the passenger pigeon became extinct.

After an initial read, here is a list of just three (of many) unstated premises:

1. The title

Passenger pigeons just “became extinct,” eh? This kind of language reminds me of a news article I read about the US military intervention in Libya, which went something like “bombs fall on Tripoli”—bombs, of their own agency, just happened to fall on a town. Nobody built them, put them on missiles, targeted and launched them toward other people, etc.

2. This paragraph:

Seneca Indians called the bird simply Big Bread, and told a story about an ancient white pigeon visiting a warrior with the news that passenger pigeons had been selected as a tribute to mankind. Greenberg gestures toward the notion that Native Americans harbored a proto-conservation ethic toward the birds, but that distinction breaks down as his narrative of destruction progresses, which is perhaps just as well, because our propensity for using things up is certainly species-wide. It was paleo-Indians who helped hunt megafauna like the mammoth to extinction, the Maori in New Zealand who ate the flightless moa to death, and prehistoric Pacific Islanders who extirpated more than a thousand species of birds.

We are just naturally hard-wired to wipe out species. The Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis proves it. If Indians weren’t conservationists, why should we even try?

3. This passage:

We did hunt the passenger pigeon to death, even if we didn’t quite understand at the time what we were doing. We also might have saved it, at least in token form, if only our technological genius and our conservation consciousness—two things that set us apart from other animals—had come together sooner.

We are just clumsy children, totally oblivious to the consequences of our actions. Only our “technological genius” and “conservation consciousness” (which we can’t have if we’re as aloof or naïve as the first sentence suggests, right?) make us superior to other animals, let alone to other species, like trees. Considering the following observation: “But the central question that Greenberg sets out to answer is how a bird could go from a population of billions to zero in less than fifty years. The short answer is that it tasted good.”, I am forced to doubt both our genius and our consciousness.

Extroversion Is Not a Virtue

What’s with all the negative connotations of quietness? When did loudness—for the sake of noise generation—itself become a virtue?

While at a education training this week, we were given a scenario in which we might want to refer a student to a partner organization, so that the student could get a range of services: afterschool activities, counseling, family connection programs, etc. What was the red flag that was suggested to identify such a student? “Let’s say there’s a student who is just not talking. They’re not chatting with other students, not answering many questions, and just in general they’re being very quiet.”

In this quickly conjured scenario (which shows that the first thing people think of when trying to picture a “troubled” student is quietness), it’s clear that the act of being quiet is associated with poor mental health, disengagement, aloofness, and apathy.

Now, someone who is quiet may have all of the above qualities, but… follow me now… what if the student is just quiet? What if—heaven forbid—the student is being quiet so she can listen to others? What if the student doesn’t have anything ground-breaking to say at the moment, or actually doesn’t know the answers to the questions the teacher is asking (she’s being quiet and waiting to hear the answers)? What if the subject being covered in class is boring? What if the student is just tired, after 8 hours of the same mind-numbing bubble-filling that usually dominates the school day?

In my experience, if I have a student who is quiet in my class, I can almost assure that this student will be one of most engaged with the lesson I’m teaching, because this student is actually listening and concentrating. Students who are quiet analyze things, let things sink in, and process things on a deep level. They can do this because they’re not distracting themselves with small talk, or simply verbalizing every thought that comes into their head so that they can get points in “class participation.”

Susan Cain already made this point quite well: while introversion should not always be a crutch, extroversion should not always be a virtue.

Christmas Day Truce

“Three myths would arise during the early months of the Great War,” wrote Stanley Weintraub in his 2001 book Silent Night: “Burly Cossacks, sent by the Czar to bolster the Western Front, were seen embarking from British railway stations for Dover, still shaking the persistent snows of Russia from their boots. In France, during the British retreat from Mons, angels appeared—to cover the withdrawal. And the third was that, to the dismay of the generals, along the front lines late in December of 1914, opponents in the West laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas together in a spontaneous gesture of peace on earth and good will toward men. Only one of the myths—the last—was true.”

Indeed, miraculously, members of the Allied and German infantries agreed on Christmas Eve, 1914, that the incessant shells and machine-gun fire would cease the next morning, so that instead of the usual anonymous attrition, songs could be sung, gifts and letters could be exchanged, beer and cigars could be enjoyed, and some soccer could be played in what is now known as the Christmas Day Truce.

All along the lines, No Man’s Land went from being a muddy, cratered hell-scape to being a muddy, cratered meeting place where both “Tommy” and “Fritz” could fraternize, share pleasantries, and, of course, kick the soccer ball around. The spot believed to be the first place where Saxons and Anglo-Saxons (who were actually mostly Celtic) shook hands is commemorated by a Christmas Truce memorial, which was unveiled in Frelinghien, France, on November 11th, 2008. On the day of the unveiling, at the spot where their regimental ancestors came out from their trenches to drink, be merry, and play football, men from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers, played a football match with the German Panzergrenadier Battalion 371. (The Germans won, 2–1, presumably on a controversial decision by the ref.)

✽ ✽ ✽

As the Armistice bells rang throughout Shropshire, news of Wilfred Owen’s death, which had happened on the 4th of November, finally reached his parents via letter. He had been shot and killed outside of the village of Ors, the letter explained; today there is a monument to Owen standing among other monuments on the battlefield, which lies between Le Cateau and Landrecies in northern France. Before he died, not only had Owen proven himself as a soldier but had also done so as a poet, writing some of the most eloquent yet scathing indictments of the Great War ever penned.

Many of his works, such as “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” carried as their central theme the sheer futility of war: the madness of a situation where people could shake hands in the evening and blow each other up in the morning—all for the profit of an absconded and insulated few. War sounds lovely (the aforementioned poem’s Latin ending is taken from Horace’s Odes, meaning how sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland), that is, until one actually has to grab a rifle and dig in.

I often wonder what Owen might have thought about the Truce had he participated first-hand. The impromptu soccer matches that erupted during the cease-fire might have struck him as having particular importance. He surely would have noted that the soldiers were able to compete in a nationalistic venue without impaling or disintegrating one another (imagine).

Owen spent his Christmas that year in a small village near Bordeaux, France. He was 21 at the time, working as a tutor. He wrote later about his visit to a mass with a French family the night before: “All mixed up with candles, incense, acolytes, chasuble and such like. If I didn’t bow, I certainly scraped, for there was an unholy draught.” Little did he know that only 500 miles away, on the Western Front, British and German soldiers had set down their bayonets and let the shells go quiet, opting instead for carols, dancing, and exchanging gifts near an ad hoc Christmas tree, fashioned from a battered parapet in No Man’s Land.

✽ ✽ ✽

The episode demonstrates rather plainly that for the common soldier, the mud, the fleas, the poison gas, and the machine-gun fire was not worth it; not only did the infantrymen generally harbor little hate toward their opponents, but they knew all too well that they would not be sharing the spoils even in victory.

Their role as bullet fodder is not unique to this war, but is of course true in all of them, as the Confederate deserter Inman relates in Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain: “At wide intervals in the valley stood big houses with white columns. They were ringed around with scattered hovels so that the valley land seemed cut up into fiefdoms. Inman looked at the lights in the big houses at night and knew he had been fighting battles for such men as lived in them, and it made him sick.”

The best part about the Christmas Day Truce is that it was initiated by soldiers through direct insubordination. Most officers on both sides adamantly opposed any such fraternizing, since, as Stanley Weintraub explained, “Any slackening in the action during Christmas week might undermine whatever sacrificial spirit there was among troops who lacked ideological fervor.”

The fact that common people who were taught to hate each other could instead play a friendly game of football shows just how hollow the Hawkish glory-of-war ethos really is. If only for a brief moment in a long war, the comradery of the soldiers breached the barricade thrown down before them by the ruling elites. This interruption of business as usual begs the question: What if, instead of using cavalry and tanks, this conflict could have been settled with a football, two goals, and a few post-game pints? Or better yet: What if, instead of fighting each other over table scraps, the poor conscripts had turned on their masters, imprisoned them, and got on with the hand shaking?

Happy Solstice

From Winter Solstice: The Sun Pauses:

Because the Earth’s axis points to Polaris no matter where Earth happens to be in its orbit, the sun appears to move over the year from 23.5 degrees north of the celestial equator on June 21 to 23.5 degrees south of the celestial equator on Dec. 21.

The sun crosses the equator travelling northward around March 21 and going southward on Sept. 21, in celestial events known as “equinoxes” (from the Latin for “equal night,” as day and night are of roughly equivalent length on these dates.) The exact dates vary a little bit from year to year because of leap years.

On Dec. 21, the sun stops moving southward, pauses, and then starts moving northward. This pause is called the “solstice,” from the Latin words “sol” for “sun” and “sisto” for “stop.” Similarly, on June 21 the sun stops moving northward and starts moving southward.

These four dates have been extremely important to humanity since we first started to grow crops 10,000 years ago. Our ancestors have built amazing structures over the millennia to track these important landmarks.