Ubuntu Upgrade

actually more of a mildly sulpherous vent than review

I’m a semi-willing user of Ubuntu / Linux on my home desktop, though I also have a Mac G4 with OS 10.4x and OS 9.x installed and a Compaq Prolinea 486sx with Windows 95 installed.* The Compaq generally gets used as a DOS box rather than for old Windows programs as I still have a dBase IV application that I still use. I sometimes use the Mac as a CD / DVD player as the iTunes light show is fun. But Ubuntu / Linux on a System 76 mini about the size of a candy box is my main machine.

Semi-willing? Well, I’m willing because first of all, the price for Ubuntu / Linux is so right for a poor boy. Free. And as an interface / operating system, it’s not bad and even deserving of a contribution ($) of some sort from me. As a cheap and penurious geezer, that’s a recommendation. There are also some reasonably adequate home office applications that come with it, as well as others that are about what you might expect for the price (free). Depending upon what task is at hand, that may be all that you need. Or it may be a pain in the ass.

I recall starting out with Ubuntu 14.x. For the past several years, I’ve been using version 16.04 LTS. I’m given to understand that LTS = “Long Term Support” and, just as with commercial operating systems, periodic updates have been available for download. Generally, I’d wait until there were at least 100 megabytes of download pending before updating: once or twice a month, effectively. But version 16 was almost old enough to be considered quaint. Version 20 was the happening thing or, for the experimental DIY types, Version 21. This last April, the “long” in LTS finally came to an end for version 16; it was time to upgrade.**

After looking at the upgrade options, it seemed to me that upgrading to version 20 directly from 16 was going to involve rather more DIY than I was willing to do, but upgrading to 18 looked to be pretty much automated. It was but it took a total of three hours to accomplish, and one did need to be on hand to answer an occasional installer questions. Apart from that, it was only minimally painful.

Version 18, however, is rather different in layout and function than version 16. Some of the changes seem aimed at making the interface more consistent. Generally, most of those changes are annoying but not particularly burdensome. Others speak directly to one of my pet peeves: sure this New and Improved version has useful new features, but suddenly a few important things that were once simple to do have become awkward, at least. This has been so typical of my experience with software for the past several decades, and don’t get me started about the WordPress block editor: another example.

So far my major disappointments about version 18 concern work spaces and file management. Work spaces basically allow you to have separate desktops open, four of them in version 16, giving you the equivalent of a single desktop four times the size of your screen with ease to shift between them. Heck, you could have an open window spanning different work spaces. (Why would you do that? Ease of resizing an oversized window, for one thing.) With version 18, additional work spaces are available as needed, but opening a new work space now requires extra steps. Shifting between them might still be easy with keyboard shortcuts but otherwise that, too, is extra work. I may very well be missing something, but right now it looks like my desktop has effectively shrunk to a single screen.

Like many similar products, Ubuntu includes a dock wherein you can park shortcuts to your favorite software. Obviously the file management software should have a place there; only if you make it so is it there in version 18. My beef is that with version 16, one could right-click the icon and get a list of your top level folders to go to but no longer. Now you need to open the manager first then choose your destination. One is tempted to describe version 18 as being the product of minds unreasonably obsessed with consistency.

Some of the software that gets distributed with Ubuntu also gets updated but it’s far too soon for me to have much of an opinion about it, though I will say: It took far too much noodling around to get Firefox properly configured. Though I’ve had worse experiences with early versions*** of Windows: an endless, fruitless cycling between dialogue boxes that promise yet are never quite what one was looking for. Firefox was nowhere near as bad but still. I am also looking forward to seeing what this new version of LibreOffice can do as the versions included with version 16 were not really ready for prime time (useful enough for home and maybe some microbusiness), and Scribus barely qualified as a useable page layout tool but maybe that’s changed.

Likewise this barely qualifies as a review. Ubuntu 18, after all, is almost as much history as version 16 and I’m not sure how much time is left on its support clock. A further upgrade to version 20 may be on my agenda for later this year. Nor are my software needs so diverse as to give everything a fair workout. But this has been my experience so far.


* There are, I’ve read, Ubuntu / Linux programs to run a virtual DOS box, and given that they seem to be intended for nostalgia gamers, it sounds pretty sophisticated. But I haven’t been inclined to even explore the issue. Aside from whether the dBase IV installation disks are still readable or not (from age), the particular version I have would not have run on a DOS box running faster than 66 MHz. (It wasn’t impossible but it required some lame workarounds.) The problem, IIRC, was a time-saving feature that turned into a bug when run so fast.

** Apparently version 16 is hard to kill. Security updates will continue to be available. This is more than what could be said for Apple’s support for older OS versions.

*** Come to think of it, early versions of Windows is all that I have experience with.

Coup de Idiots

C’est pire qu’un crime. C’est une faute.

— attributed to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (disputed)

The attempted coup on January 6 should not have been much of a surprise to anyone but maybe the most naive. As I wrote back in 2016, Night of the Living Trumps:

“A geezer I am. I have lived through Nixon, Reagan and Dubya. Should I mention LBJ? One might think of this as yet another spell of really bad weather and verily the sun also rises. But there is a stink of existential threat from Trump that hasn’t been so strong in the air since Nixon.

“Part of it is Trump’s so nakedly disordered personality. Nearly everyone who aspires to be President is likely to be a bit insane, but until now most have been able to simulate normality. Part of it is the enthusiastic bigotry used to motivate Trump’s electorate; there’s no putting that back in the bottle while Trump holds office and the Republican caucuses control the legislature. Part of it is the solid wall of chaotic uncertainty about just what a governing Trump actually means in terms of policy.”

This post is written in early days post-riot, but my impression from a great distance is that the riot was essentially a clusterfuck, to use a bureaucratic term of art: The organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching and consequently people went where anger and hysteria led them or the organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching but others at the rally did have a plan or some (or all) of the organizers had a plan but it wasn’t shared with everyone. You might think of additional possibilities but regardless, people did bring young children, infants in fact, to the rally and march. What expectations do you think they had?

One ongoing discussion that I find particularly interesting is the examination of conspiracy theories as role-playing games. A good introduction to this (lots of links) is Reed Berkowitz’ A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon, posted back in September of 2020 at the curiouserinstitute. Berkowitz begins his analysis with:

“When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)

“QAnon has often been compared to ARGs and LARPs and rightly so. It uses many of the same gaming mechanisms and rewards. It has a game-like feel to it that is evident to anyone who has ever played an ARG, online role-play (RP) or LARP before. The similarities are so striking that it has often been referred to as a LARP or ARG. However this beast is very very different from a game.

“It is the differences that shed the light on how QAnon works and many of them are hard to see if you’re not involved in game development. QAnon is like the reflection of a game in a mirror, it looks just like one, but it is inverted.”

While the technology Berkowitz writes about is ideologically neutral (like Alinsky’s organizing techniques), this particular exercise was targeted:

“Another major difference between QAnon and an actual game, is that Q is almost pure propaganda. That IS the sole purpose of this. It’s not advertising a product, it’s not for fun, and it’s not an art project. There is no doubt about the political nature of the propaganda either. From ancient tropes about Jews and Democrats eating babies (blood-libel re-booted) to anti-science hysteria, this is all the solid reliable stuff of authoritarianism. This is the internet’s re-purposing of hatred’s oldest hits. The messaging is spot on. The “drops” implanted in an aspic of anti-Semitic, misogynist, and grotesque posts on posting boards that, indeed, have been implicated in many of the things the fake conspiracy is supposed to be guilty of!”

If Berkowitz’ analysis is even approximately accurate, it has important and existential implications for democracy, media, journalism, and politics generally. Yet that isn’t quite what got my attention. Berkowitz’ description of the QAnon phenomenon (“A game that plays people.”) suggests that it is a genuine meme, the first that I’ve actually heard of.

Wait. Meme? Don’t we see these every day, those graphical and sometimes comical little factoids that people trade back and forth? Well, yes and no. Richard Dawkins gets credit for coining the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As Wikipedia helpfully explains:

“Dawkins wrote that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.”

So “yes” in that an internet factoid could be a trivial example of the concept, “no” in the sense that some folks felt that these “replicating cultural entities” could do much more than entertain. They could conceivably warp human history, indeed even human evolution, as part of their process of natural selection. So if conspiracy explanations on the internet are in fact “memes,” QAnon is a research opportunity of major importance.

Alas, the study of memes hasn’t prospered, has failed to be naturally selected if you will for obvious (to me anyway) reasons: How do you operationalize the concept? How do you define and measure a meme so that it is possible to trace its ecology, evolution and spread? Also IMHO the concept carries an alarming burden of social Darwinism.

But if, conceptually, “meme” has such social Darwinist baggage, is discounting it as social science so unfortunate? Well, maybe, because there are analogous phenomena in the physical sciences: “quasiparticles” and “collective excitations.” These “are emergent phenomena that occur when a microscopically complicated system such as a solid behaves as if it contained different weakly interacting particles in vacuum.” Yeah, your computer and phone and any electronic solid state thing depend on an “emergent phenomenon.” Human consciousness is sometimes speculatively described as an emergent phenomena, a consequence of neural size and complexity. It may be that mass culture has emergent properties as well.

I think we’re in the process of finding out, through experience rather than research.


Postscript: Among the people who took memes seriously is the science fiction author John Barnes. He wrote a series of speculative novels around memes, wherein he turned memes into something resembling computer viruses. All of the books are good albeit some are seriously depressing. I’d recommend (in order) Candle and The Sky So Big and Black. Barnes has gotten favorable cover blurbs from both Poul Anderson and Steven Brust…

“Avarya”

I’ve been known to complain about genre fiction, about how so much of it consists of variations on the same old elements with maybe popular concerns thrown in for seasoning… or maybe to justify, socially redeem, the whole project.

On the other hand, occasionally someone like Gökalp Gönen comes along to take the same old (in this case, quite old: Isaac Asimov, but also more recent: steam punk, and 2001, not to mention a certain kind of wordy play I might have attended back in the 1970s) same old and do something quite creative none-the-less. For me, this video is wow… just wow.

Note that subtitles in various languages, including English, are available.

I think the title is intended to add another dimension of meaning to the video, but I’m not competent to pursue that. My Sanskrit is a tad rusty, begging your pardon. Apparently avarya is used as a feminine name, implying sweetly irresistible.

Norman Thomas and Max Shachtman

These recordings are from another reel of audio tape from the late Carl Shier’s basement. This one was a real (begging your pardon) find as the recording dates from 1958. Furthermore, Shachtman, as I recall, was not in general enthusiastic about being recorded. If that sounds a bit shifty to you, it does to me as well, but that’s my bias. Shachtman, IMHO, was not someone who brought out the best in people. Also, if you know anything about open reel magnetic tape, it doesn’t always age well or for long, so it was a real surprise that the audio quality was as good as it was.

As with the earlier audio posts here at Yip Abides, the recording was posted on Chicago DSA’s web site back when I was the web master. This was done early in the century when a plurality of web access was still done through slow dial-up connections, so I had an incentive to degrade the quality slightly and divide the recording into five parts. Altogether, the program lasted nearly two hours. They had iron butts in back in the 1950s! If you have only the time for one, my recommendation would be to listen to Norman Thomas, but that’s mostly because Thomas dealt with issues that I find interesting.

The text below is a slightly edited excerpt of the text from the original web page:

Given the memory of the McCarthy inquisition and the image of the silent generation, it’s hard to imagine 1958 as a particularly optimistic time for the left. But by then, McCarthy-ism had largely been discredited, the Korean War had de-escalated to a fitful cease fire, the Civil Rights Movement was gathering momentum, labor organization was nearly at its all time high including a recent reunion of the two major wings of the movement: the AFL and the CIO. Nor was the economy especially good; the country was undergoing its first experience with “stagflation”: inflation accompanied by relatively high unemployment.

On a smaller scale, the left was coming together. The Socialist International had recently helped engineer a reunion of the old Socialist Party of America and the Social Democratic Federation from a split that had happened in the 1930s. Negotiations were underway to merge with Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League. As part of this process in Chicago, a series of public events, the “Democratic Socialist Forum”, were being held, and this is a tape made of one of them. The Democratic Socialist Forum was a joint project of Socialist Party – Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Socialist League, and the Jewish Labor Bund.

Max Shachtman of the Independent Socialist League leads off the discussion. Shachtman is one of the more interesting and obscure historical figures. He was one of the founders of American Trotskyism and an organizer of the Trotskyist 4th International and he played a major role in the famous Teamsters strike in the Minneapolis. In the 1930s, his organization (the Workers Party) entered the Socialist Party with the explicit (if covert) intention of either taking it over or destroying it. They more or less did the latter. But in later years, Shachtman (but most especially his followers) played an increasing role in mainstream politics, particularly the Civil Rights movement and the labor movement. For more information, see Peter Drucker’s biography, Max Shachtman and His Left. This is a rare recording of Max Shachtman and mostly interesting in the context of his political career.

Norman Thomas was the Socialist Party’s Presidential candidate from 1928 through 1948. Thomas was already in his 70s and his delivery shows it. But if Thomas showed some physical infirmity, his presentation (mostly on the problems of the left) touched on the concerns that dominate the left today [this was ~2000], including the problem of labor organizing in an economy that was already showing the effects of automation and a swing from manufacturing toward services.

This recording is an interesting historical record of two of the major players in the 20th Century U.S. left.

1. Introduction — George Watson

The introduction was by George Watson, a political scientist who was then the Dean of Students for Roosevelt University. The organizers of the meeting were probably expecting something better of Watson, but as the author John Scalzi has observed, the default failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.” Length — 3:20.

2. Max Shachtman

Max Shachtman begins the discussion with his vision of what a democratic socialist movement should be. Length — 39:48

1959l
Max Shachtman at the 1959 Debs Dinner in Chicago. Photo by Syd Harris, scanned from contact sheet.

3. Norman Thomas

Norman Thomas speaks to the problems facing the democratic left in 1958. Length — 40:24.

1959 Debs Day Dinner
A. Philip Randolph and Norman Thomas at the 1959 Debs Day Dinner in Chicago. Photo by Syd Harris.

4. Max Shachtman

Max Shachtman’s reprise, wherein he speaks about Leninism. There’s about a 30 second gap resulting from the amateur engineer running out of tape and having to flip over the tape reels and rethread the machine, but you’ll have to listen closely to spot it. Sabotage? That’s a fanciful thought under the circumstances, but I’ve seen any number of amateurs and even a few professionals do the same. Length — 17:03.

5. Questions from the audience.

The question and answer session showed that lefties hadn’t changed much in the last half of the 20th Century. Strip away the specifics of current events in 1958 and this could have been from 2000. I suspect the possibility of something new is rather greater today, but I’ve not been to a political meeting in years. You tell me. Unfortunately, the questions are only somewhat audible. Length — 34:38.

Postscript

A curious note from when the program was posted on the Chicago DSA site: The site, back then, was hosted by pair Networks. They provided access to the raw log files that recorded activity on the site, but the customer had to find their own analytic software. pair Networks provided two shareware open source options. We used Analog. Every month that I ran the numbers, there would be hundreds of requests for these audio files. That seemed unlikely. Further undermining its credibility, the volume of data (the total number of bytes sent in serving those file requests) would never come close to the total needed to account for all those requests. By examining the logs, it became obvious that when a user downloaded or listened to one of these files, that action would result in multiple requests for the file, each ending with a “partial download” code until a final request was served. By filtering out those requests returning a “partial download,” one still got a number that was too high. It turns out that many of the remaining requests were not for the file itself but for the “meta data” (title, duration, etc.) that one might expect if the file were part of a play list. And where were those requests coming from? Perhaps a majority of those were from web spiders that index the web, including China’s Baidu. The rest? A plurality by IP address, China. Of course, with VPNs, there’s no telling for sure where the requests were originating, but I had this fantasy of someone in Stalinist China setting up a honey trap for Trots… We’ll never know, but my experience counting beans for the web site left me with a profound mistrust for all traffic numbers for the web. It’s not that they are lies, necessarily, but the beans selected for counting on web servers were to serve the needs of the people running the servers not the authors and the editors (or advertisers!) of a web site. In general I regard the numbers as accurate only to within an order of magnitude.

The Atlas of False Desires

This from Nathan Su’s Vimeo channel, a short piece that is ambiguously fiction, complete with graphics that evoke the imagery of William Gibson:

“In Fashion, forecasting the next big trend is everything. In the wild territory of the internet, companies harvest social networks for valuable patterns to predict and manipulate your buying preferences. As trends spread like viruses through dataspace, they provoke planetary shifts in production infrastructures; translating dreams into economies that reach from sweatshops to the windows on the high street.”

Passage

What is important about this video is not so much the content — I like the content — but the technology. In the coming decade, the technologies that this video represents will dramatically change what it means to be an actor, elements of which are already in play.

This item is from Theoriz Studio. Based in Lyon, France, they seem to do art light installations and gaming work… at least judging by what they have posted on their Vimeo channel. Regarding this video, Theoriz Studio says: “PASSAGE is an artistic short movie involving elements of dance and new technologies. The first of its kind, it has been shot with a special mixed reality technique developed specifically by THEORIZ studio.”

Sunrise Y2K

Photo by Roman.

Remember all the predictions of disaster for the dawn of the year 2000? How delicious it was in anticipation, like creeping toward the summit of a roller coaster… Except it wasn’t even that. Were you disappointed when civilization didn’t end? Or even stumble?

Not me.

I’m not sure just when in 2000 this photo was taken or, more puzzling to me, where. Had you asked me a month or two ago, I would have said it was on my way to work in the early morning from a Red Line CTA train. Maybe it was. Or maybe it was on the Loop. Or maybe… I don’t know. What does come to mind with certainty was how grateful I was for tasks that yanked me out of the apartment so early that I would experience the emerging sunrise.

It was often overwhelming.

Unlike most of the “Y2K” software bugs.