Notes

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This is a microblog for frequent, shorter thoughts, interesting links and shaping ideas before they become full posts. The best way to follow is via my RSS feed.

Good intentions and unblinding

I’ve learned almost automatically to dismiss any position, which would primarily be defended by calling critics racist.

For instance, Shopify’s UX blog published a piece on how race should be included in alt text. I don’t doubt that the author has good intentions, but that’s not enough and could lead to overwhelmingly negative consequences.

Most are familiar with the classic of blind orchestra auditions leading to far more women playing prestigious orchestras. While far from perfect, the SATs and other standardized tests have opened doors to higher education that were mostly closed to those without wealth and family connections to top-tier schools.

This tendency to label everything, to remove all privacy, about one’s background, sexual orientation, psychological well-being, health, and political beliefs doesn’t sit well with me. For any student of history, it’s pretty obvious that adding these sorts of labels will eventually go very wrong.

Then there’s the fact that race is a messy, euro-centric categorization scheme. Are North Africans black? It often happens that someone is of African descent but finds his Arab cultural identity far more important.

An upperclass resident of Oslo has next to nothing in common with an Albanian villager, save a lack of pigmentation. Reducing both of their identities to just being “white” borders on the absurd. You get equally absurd groupings with other races.

The crocodile tears of TV Rain

I’ve previously written about the problems of Russian “liberals” believing they have a carte blanche because they are “anti-Putin”.

The reality is far murkier. Most of these “liberals” are ideologically Russian imperialists that are temporarily inconvenienced by the brutality and incompetence of Putin, but they have no ideological disagreements with Muscovite centralism and see russification as a sort of sacred mission.

This is the background to the latest scandal of TV Rain, the supposedly liberal Russian media outlet losing their broadcast license in Latvia.

There are a couple of tells that this was the correct move.

  1. TV Rain showed up to the hearing on the matter with the expectation that it would be held in Russian, and hence didn’t bring with a single translator. This is typical Russian arrogance — even self proclaimed Russian liberals don’t really recognize Latvian independence or that they are guest in Latvia (source)
  2. The violation that led to the incident was a “journalist” calling for fundraising for “our army” on air, which is a violation of Latvian law. At first TV Rain apologized, shedding crocodile tears. When the stunt failed, TV Rain reversed course, praised the journalist and reinstated him. (Statement of TV Rain’s CEO)

This utter lack of humility has been my experience with Russians in Europe since the war began. Never an ounce of gratitude towards the countries that host them, willingness to learn their languages, respect for their cultures or seeing themselves as anything other than victims.

So no, this decision by Latvian authorities isn’t an attack on freedom of the press. It’s a move by a people who have spent centuries under Russian occupation to not allow Russian colonial propaganda undermining the very existence of the Latvian state to be spewed by Russians in Latvia.

Short threads on Russia

  1. Russians are by and large not protesting, and it’s not because they live in authoritarian state. China and Iran have far crueler regimes, yet both countries are seeing stirrings. Russians largely support Putinism, and this is the highest standard of living many Russians have ever experienced. Thread by Sergey Radchenko

  2. Kamil Galeev is gem. I’ve seen nobody with a more clear insight into modern Russian culture. A sample:

    Mobilisation in countryside is often nearly total - most able males are drafted. So these rural women are asking to return their local gynaecologist (and only him). Your son’s death is abstract. Your personal health risk is real

  3. Galeev about Europe:

    Idea that European countries should be sheltered from the consequences of their own choices at any cost is fundamentally rotten. European businesses profited handsomely from arming Putin, European governments did nothing (or worse). Now it’s time to pay the price

    Last time it was Syria who paid the price for the actions of European manufacturing companies. Now Europe itself will face the consequences of its actions. And even if this price is absurdly small in comparison with what Syria has paid, I still see an element of justice in it

  4. There’s already a movement afoot by Russian “liberals” to blame Buryats, Dagestanis, Chechnians, and other minorities for the war. As if they were some bloodthirsty savages that forced peaceful Russians into the war. It’s a similar narrative to the idea that NATO and the US are really at fault. Russians oddly have no agency and everyone around them is to blame. Thread

  5. I see a curious parallel between the border minorities of the Russian empire (especially the Kuban Ukrainians) and the Ulster Scots and wonder if any serious academic work has been done to compare them. Both were disenfranchised people inside their respective empires that were relocated to carry out the ethnic cleansing of other peoples. There’s also something similar in how moving to America these “Scotch-Irish” settled into Appalachia, remained poor and disenfranchised, were central to carrying out genocides against American Indians, all while having token representation in culture and power despite remaining on the margins of American society.

The AI writing dump

Notion is the latest company to offer an AI writing tool.

At first glance, the demo looks slick, even remarkable.

But thinking about it, this shows just how unremarkable most content actually is. The vast majority of press releases, blog posts and notes are formulaic and unimaginative.

It’s precisely this sort of content that is making internet search harder to use, and I’ve been saying we’re in the era of peak Google for awhile. Any vaguely popular search term is flooded with spammy results.

Putting the words out there is the least difficult part of writing. What’s truly hard is researching, synthesizing different strands of thoughts, making connections between seemingly unrelated lines of thinking, and breaking complex ideas down into something understandable. There are some AI tools that help with this, but I suspect this is going to be one of the last human domains to fall to automation.

For now, it looks like these AI writing tools will lead to more devaluation of the craft of writing and disciplines such as information architecture.

12 years of Wim Hof

If you’re interested in cold exposure and breathwork, especially in the Wim Hof style, I recommend Scott Carney’s reflections of 12 years of doing the method. In short:

  • There are huge diminishing returns, so the big fireworks from the first few months of training will taper offer. This matches my experience.
  • Wim Hof has nothing to do with the organization bearing his name; his son pushed him out and is making money off his father’s name.
  • There are a lot of other methods and approaches, it makes sense to find the one that works best for you.

The video resonated with me. Over the years I’ve grown to like the powerful huffing and puffing of the Wim Hof method less. Instead I prefer a minute or two of regular deep breathing and then a retention of up to two minutes.

Likewise, working on full body awareness, calmness and controlling my otherwise normal breath is how I step into a cold shower these days. And the water’s plenty cold in Amsterdam this time of year.

And to this day, even though I’ve been doing this on and off for years, a cold shower is the best way to calm down, energize (these two aren’t mutually exclusive!) and boost my mood for the rest of the day.

This stuff is really something else and so simple. For further reading, check out Scot Carney’s What Doesn’t Kill Us and James Nestor’s Breath. Neither book is new age nor filled with pseudoscience.

Holodomor

Last Saturday marked Holodomor remembrance day.

It’s worth taking a few minutes to understand the the long history of genocide and ethnic cleansing along the southern edge of the Russian Empire, which culminated in Stalin’s artificial famines that were intended to absolutely destroy Ukrainian, Kazakh and other non-Russian groups in Ukraine and Southern Russia.

Here are some maps and more context. And the relevant Wikipedia article.

Notice that the areas inhabited predominately by Ukrainians went well beyond the Soviet borders of Ukraine: Voronezh, Kursk and Kuban were all Ukrainian lands. The Holodomor wiped out much of the Ukrainian population, Russians were resettled there and the remaining Ukrainians were forcibly assimilated.

The story gets even darker, as Ukrainians had been settled in Kuban centuries earlier as part of Russian ethnic cleansing of the northern Caucasus.

This story constantly repeats itself in Russian history. Brutally eliminate peoples that can’t be russified or easily subjugated such as Crimean Tatars and Circassians, resettle and russify people from the Western parts of the Russian Empire such as Ukrainians, Belarusians, Baltic peoples, Poles, etc., or force groups into a sort of feudal servitude such as the Buryats, Chechnians and Dagestanis.

That last group is particularly tragic: Russians from the big cities are not affected by the imperial wars they overwhelmingly support. Instead the entire male population of villages of Buryats, Dagestanis, and Kalmychians have been conscripted to die in Ukraine.

It’s hard to overstate the trauma that the Holodomor still carries in Ukraine. Nearly everyone in their 30s and older from Central and Eastern Ukraine has a grandparent that survived the Holodomor.

Freedom to change

Here’s an interesting thread about having the freedom to change our opinions: In 1958, only 4% of Americans believed that interracial relationships were acceptable. By 2021 that number was at 94%.

The process of how this almost complete change happened in a mere 63 years is explained in the second tweet.

The lesson I take away from this is how important it is to keep an open mind. There may be people that I deeply disagree with, but they should have their to expression. It’s incredibly arrogant to think that I’m right on every issue, that history will look kindly on everything I do.

The writer on the team

There’s an interesting discussion on HN about the value a strong technical writer brings to a team. I’d say much of this is also true about a strong content designer, who often is the only person in an organization communicating across many teams, often has deep knowledge of a product and the reasons decisions were made.

Some highlights from the discussion:

But a different question is, why is no company trying to do this differently? Like, hiring one good tech writer to maintain the company documentation, and paying them as much as they pay the developers.

I once worked at a company - in a different domain - that made a conscious decision to make this kind of hire. It worked incredibly well, and I never understood why more companies didn’t do it. The context in my case was the Australian offices of a management consulting firm (BCG). The Melbourne and Sydney offices hired what were called “editors”, brought on at the same grade as the consultants. Not editing as in correcting grammar. But helping the consultants improve the logic of the arguments in their slide decks: so they were logically consistent, easy to understand, and actually addressed the clients’ issues. I was a junior consultant back then, and we were constantly pushed by our managers “have you seen Yvonne?” [the Melbourne editor] when preparing for major presentations.

A previous team I was on ended up with this role. Strong writer with no technical skills joined the team and worked hand-in-hand with engineers fleshing out docs. It was productive for the engineers because they needed to articulate the ideas very clearly. The writer has been attached to that project now for 6-7 years at this point, and could probably stand in as a support engineer for some problems. It was a little painful getting HR to approve a tech writer getting paid close to an engineer position (this was after a few years).

I do like the sibling comment calling for a librarian. I imagine that would pay a ton of dividends if the librarian was motivated and got support.

And the crux of it:

As a tech writer, I think this is because it’s hard to concretely quantify the value that a tech writer brings, and thus it’s hard to make a clear business case for.

The whole discussion is worth a read.

I especially like the idea of the tech writer (or content designer) as the team librarian. And of course as our society is devaluing libraries, even though they bring immense value, it’s an uphill battle explaining to the bean counters why you need a librarian, an information architect, or a writer.

Moral panics

There’s a piece going around about erasing women from pregnency, which is definitely an interesting read:

When I wake up in the middle of the night because I’m having excruciating stomach pain that could possibly be a placental abruption—but could also just be a fart—I need the Internet search results to tell me the difference between the two using straightforward, accurate, widely-accepted and easily understood language. The potentially fatal nature of pregnancy leaves no room for gender ideology in language. It doesn’t matter that a tiny handful of self-identified transgender men give birth every year. Their doctors know what a woman is, and so do they.

If this movement continues to encroach on online pregnancy discourse, millions of biological women will be denied clear, easy-to-understand terms that describe what is happening to their bodies, at a time when they need that help most. It is already infiltrating conversations between practitioners and their patients, and there are accounts of nurses struggling to maintain gender neutrality during birthing classes. In Canada, a nurse has been facing an endless, Kafkaesque ordeal at the hands of her regulator for saying what everyone knows to be true.

Of course, if this gender-ideology nonsense is exasperating and confusing to privileged knowledge workers like me, imagine how it strikes truly marginalized members of our society. What the hell is a “birthing person” or “menstruator” to a non-native English speaker; or to someone who hasn’t been exposed to college sensitivity training sessions, and is simply looking to buy pregnancy-related drugs at Walmart?

The number of biologically female individuals that identify as men and are capable of pregnancy, and actually pregnant, is exceedingly small. I don’t think any sane person would be for discriminating against them, making their lives even harder, being rude to them or refusing to call them by the pronouns they wish to be called by.

That said, these people represent an incredibly rare edge case; removing simple terminology and playing word games is going to have serious consequences for millions of women who are uneducated, live in English-speaking countries but don’t speak English well, or those with various cognitive disabilities.

It’s not possible to craft an information architecture that works for everyone. There are always tradeoffs. For me the case is obvious that using common, simple and widely known words in medical literature is something that saves lives.

Another article puts this into perspective:

[R]ather than ask that “women” present themselves for a smear test, NHS letters and poster campaigns might use gender-neutral language and direct the appeal instead to “individuals with a cervix”, the phrase used by the American Cancer Society. This kind of language is feted as “more inclusive”, but the question we should be asking is, inclusive of whom?

Attendance at cervical screenings is at a ten-year low, and late diagnosis hugely increases mortality risk. But, unfortunately, less than 50 per cent of UK women know where the cervix is, and those who do are disproportionately likely to have more educational qualifications and be native English speakers. The costs of confusing public health messaging are suffered more by some groups than by others, but this can all too easily be forgotten by progressive elites in the rush to signal inclusiveness.

Word games cost lives.

And more to the point:

The psychologist Rob Henderson has coined the term “luxury beliefs” to describe, as he puts it, “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class”. For instance, a member of the bourgeoisie can elevate his status by proposing to “defund the police” with little fear of negative consequences for himself if this policy were ever enacted, since those most affected by crime are poor people who can’t afford to move away from dangerous areas.

Protesting in the Netherlands

Some related news stories in the Netherlands:

  1. Amnesty international says the right to demonstrate is under threat. It often becomes impossible for some groups to protest as their demonstrations are not allowed due to safety reasons and such. It’s hard to not see these bans as politically motivated.
  2. One of the yuppie parties wants to outlaw the opposition. Naturally the reason for wanting to disband another party is protecting democracy.
  3. Hundred are arrested for protesting against private jets as Schiphol. This was a classic act of civil disobedience with the only “harm” being a few very rich people slightly inconvenienced.
  4. Out of towner clashed with locals in a small town over Zwarte Piet.

The narrative not told in these stories is that by attempting to ban wrongthink, political positions and protests are becoming more extreme.

This is a worldwide issue. Suppose the Canadian government had simply allowed the truckers to protest, the movement would likely have fizzled out pretty quickly. Instead there’s a concerted effort to demonize groups guilty of wrongthink, forbid their protests, and take extrajudicial measures against them (for example revoking their access to the financial system without any due process).

The natural reaction to any of this is going to be more extremism. We you deprive people of any meaningful agency and the ability to have their voice heard, things get ugly.

A side note about Zwarte Piet

I included the Zwarte Piet (for the unaware, it’s this Dutch version of Santa Claus where kids dress up in blackface) because it still has the same feel: “enlightened” people from the big cities condemning people in the villages for wrongthink, which is only going to lead to more Zwarte Piet fundamentalists rather than letting the tradition wither out on its own.

I have to say, it was jarring the first time I saw some kids in blackface. In Amsterdam they don’t do full on Justin Trudeau style blackface, just a few spots. Apparently this is show the black is soot from the chimneys.

As odd and ugly as I find the tradition, I also don’t see the merits of banning it.

You’ve reached the end, kind of

Notes are meant to be fleeting, so I only display the last 10 of them. Older notes are still accessible either via their respective permalink or the random note link.