The Great Big Thing(tm): Weaponized Autism Edition

It’s been a little while since I have been destroyed by existential dread, but when it comes to meaningless suffering, the western world never seems to disappoint. My issue dejour is that some beta chauvinist spent too much time on 4chan and then drove a van through a crowd of people. In an age of mass shootings, murdered journalists, and white power marches, I now have to contend with radicalized misogyny as well. Thanks Obama!

Somewhere along the way, weird white dudes stopped being trolls and started being terrorists. Somehow the Autism spectrum has been weaponized.

As a weird white dude, this disturbs me more than Nazi Bullshit because I can’t help but feel that something that I was once a part of has been co-opted for truly awful purpose. The alt-right using memes to spread their bullshit was bad enough. Memes never did anything to anyone but be awesome, so why drag them into your racism? This is something much worse. It’s some kind of gateway drug to indoctrinate nerds into this weird form of Radical Fuckery.

Back story time
You will have to forgive my linking to one of those Alt-underground blogs. I am keenly aware of the tendency of crazy blogs to reference other crazy blogs. This particular post captures something that I have been thinking about for a couple of years now: the radicalization of the bowels of the Internet, my former home. Years ago, before I found a home with the hacker community, life “Away From the Keyboard” was tough for me because I felt very much like an outsider. I felt that I was connected to something not of this world. Not just to technology, but to the pro free speech, pro privacy, anti intellectual property and anti corporate counter-culture of the Internet. It was a connection that made me feel like some sort of alien in my Midwestern/corporate/suburban surroundings.

I also felt (and still feel) that the Internet is being slowly ruined by a kind of corporate-led gentrification. The Internet was once the wild west. It was full of weird, dangerous, and scary things that corporations have felt the need build firewalls around, in both the technological sense and the metaphorical. Google safe search and the Facebook news feed are the ultimate expressions of those same metaphorical firewalls. These companies are complicit in the algorithmic dismantling of the open Internet in to “TV with a buy button”. They are hijacking people’s thought processes. And, they are neutering one of the last places in the world where Free Speech is possible. In response, I was determined to “keep it weird” by trolling the “Normal People” that would wander in to deep end of the pool. I and others like me would ridicule them for being, for lack of a better word, unenlightened. Trolling people was my way of “Freaking out Squares” like Homer Simpson did in that one episode of The Simpsons:

“Copyright is based on censorship man!”

I was having a few laughs at Normal People on the Gentrified Internet who weren’t at all equipped to deal with “The Real Internet” creeping into polite society. Dabbling in a bit of satirical and ironic homophobia is not a nice thing to do, but back then, I was not nice. I was angry and territorial. As coping mechanisms go, going on the Internet and ruining someone’s day is basically like shooting Heroin. Life Away From the Keyboard was filled with Normal People which was a source of frustration and alienation. Pointing out that Normal People don’t belong on the Internet because they’d be happier somewhere else was form of stress relief for me. I mean, I always knew that everyone belonged on the Internet, I just didn’t want the normies to accidentally fuck it up for the rest of us by confusing the Internet with television.

Fake Internet points are cool and all, but have you ever made someone really mad? When I finally found a place to belong to, I mostly put trolling behind me. Mostly. I had matured. Mostly. I learned to let other people enjoy things. I learned that being yourself on the Internet is actually really brave and that ridiculing normies was just me being one of those Gen X Cool Guys that doesn’t believe in anything. I also learned that while starting arguments and saying crazy shit in public forums is fun, that same behavior is being directed without satire or sarcasm at people who are trying to make the world a better place. Also, deadpan sarcasm is great way to make your Facebook friends think that you have severe mental problems.

They don’t think it be like it is but it do
My point here is that there is a major difference between rudely reminding someone that you can Internet better than they can and what is happening today. Like so major.

You see, the awful parts of the Internet used to be a place of perpetual flux. Sure, there were people stumbling in there to be weird and angry at the world, but there were others there who were making fun of those weirdos and celebrating their failures. Whatever you tried to do, it failed. Being an EdgeLord and trying to make a shocking statement always drew mockery and criticism. Either someone found fault in your logic and you got mocked for it, or someone went harder at it than than you and they mocked your lack of conviction.

There was no recognition; there was only mockery. In that mockery, I think that growth was supposed to happen. Getting housed by people that Internet better than you forces you to think harder about what you are doing and saying. It sounds awful, but the process of being mercilessly mocked [hopefully] matured you into a calmer, more enlightened person. At least that’s what it did for me.

Today 4chan and other awful Internet spaces are basically terror training camps for weird white dudes to become… Some kind of Autistic version of Al Qaeda I guess? For a lot of these dudes, once being white and male is no longer a competitive advantage, they won’t be able to compete at all. Sure, they’re the master race or whatever, but based on the pictures I’ve seen of their Nazi marches, those bros are inferior specimens. Take away their racism and sexism and all you have left is crippling anxiety and bad skin.

Something happened in the decade between my time as a troll and now. It went off the rails somewhere. Maybe too many people like me abandoned the Real Internet and the EdgeLords took over? I parted ways with that form of Internet culture years ago, and now I feel like a significant piece of my history has been stolen from me. And, maybe I am partially responsible? I don’t really know.

What I do know is that what I once was, is not what this is. Doing it for the lulz, however mean spirited, is not the same as doing it specifically to harm others. Even if there are people still doing it for the lulz, those lulz are somehow empowering other people to do awful things. It was lulzy when I did it, but it’s not lulzy anymore. I was not an incel. I was not a Nazi. These assholes have stolen my history.

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MCU Captain America is Best Captain America

Film as a medium is in a state of decline and it’s the fault of people like me. I don’t turn up to the theater except for big productions like Star Wars and The Avengers. That means that market forces have driven films into being flashy CGI messes. I accept my responsibility for that. I am not perfect, I just don’t have the time and money to turn up for films that I can more easily enjoy on my TV at home. I’m flawed.

In talking to a friend about Flawed Paladins I remarked that taking the whole Dudley Do-Right idea and adding flaws and nuance made MCU Cap one of the best characters ever. I love that MCU cap is an exemplar of the American Spirit who is now at odds with modern American society and government. He’s a manifestation of our WWII American Exceptional Narrative of the US saving the world from insensate evil. Cap is fictional, but so is a good deal of the narrative of American Exceptionalism. Cap is an all-American kid from Brooklyn, desperate to serve his country in the face of unfathomable evil. He sees people being hurt, and he steps up. Like 70 years later, he gets thawed out and he’s appalled by what he sees. He says “When I went under, the world was at war. I wake up, they say we won. They didn’t say what we lost.”

In Cap’s heart, and at the heart of the narrative, is the idea of freedom. I would define this freedom as the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from need. I would posit that modern America runs on religion and fear, is perplexed by freedom of expression, and actively hates the idea of freedom from need. Obviously you need the press and courts and all that other bullshit, but the blueprint is those four basic freedoms. MCU Cap is the personification of the idea of America and his “America is great, but this shit here isn’t America” struggle makes him perfectly imperfect. He has to do what he thinks is right, even if it means working for a group like S.H.I.E.L.D. that he doesn’t trust.

MCU Cap’s internal conflict between his duty as an American hero and the shift in American society after The Avengers [a metaphor for 9/11] is absolutely brilliant. He is at odds with Tony Stark when he hacks S.H.I.E.L.D.’s computers but ends up at odds with Nick Fury by the time he sees what Fury is really up to [a possible metaphor for Snowden/Manning]. Then all that gets pushed aside by the attack on New York. By the time we see cap again in The Winter Soldier, Cap has made a compromise: he is being a hero for America by working for S.H.I.E.L.D. but he is deeply uneasy about the duplicity he keeps seeing. By the time we see him in Civil War, Cap is completely done with S.H.I.E.L.D. (and presumably with being a hero) in order to help Bucky, and they’re coming to get him.

I can’t think of a better criticism of corpofascist America than an all-powerful private army trying to take over the country, and hunting down two of America’s original war heroes in order to do it. Sure, there’s Hydra and Ultron manipulating everything, but the real story is Cap trying to reconcile loving his country, mistrusting his government, and looking out for his best friend, none of which ever truly get reconciled. I can’t think of anything more human than that.

In other posts I have bemoaned aspects of our government, our society, or our political process. I don’t know that I have ever stated that the reason that I hate all of it: the NSA, the TSA, the drones, the torture… Obviously it violates our privacy, free speech, and our freedom from fear. But I also hate all of it because that’s not what America means to me.

The Great Big Thing(tm): Reductio Ad Absurdum Editium

I did my best in a previous rant to point out the [possibly malicious] polarization of the national conversation. I tried to express my concern over the simplification of complex ideas into rhetorically convenient narratives. Unfortunately, my self-righteousness got the better of me and I don’t think I quite captured that the heart of the issue is a reduction of ideas. This essay really captures the issue for me without needing to watch 3 hours of Adam Curtis documentaries to achieve understanding. In essence, the essay likens the focus by Western Society on [predatory] exponential financial gain to the mutation of cells into a form of cancer:

Values and complexity are focused more and more on prioritizing exponential financial growth, led by for-profit corporate entities that have gained autonomy, rights, power, and nearly unregulated societal influence. The behavior of these entities are akin to cancers. Healthy cells regulate their growth and respond to their surroundings, even eliminating themselves if they wander into an organ where they donโ€™t belong. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, optimize for unconstrained growth and spread with disregard to their function or context.

Reducing the American experiment down to unfettered corporate growth is a gross reduction of ideas. Reducing ideas essentially reduces people. Reducing humanity down to statistics is dangerous because it eliminates most, if not all, of the complexity that makes humanity so different from everything else. I did a fair amount of whining about the hypocrisy of our polarized media landscape without talking about how absurd it is to reduce people down to being cogs in a machine. I have touched on this idea in the past pondering the nature of freedom. This reduction is absurd because the idea of advancing one ideology (which is really just a subset of human struggle) at the expense of another ideology (which is itself another subset of human struggle) is basically pitting half of society against the other half, while deliberately ignoring everything that they have in common.

Rejecting absurdity means embracing irreconcilable ideas

Much like the geardo cargo cult that worships gun culture, there is another cargo cult that worships technology. Much like the cult of the gun that has no real concept of military doctrine, the cult of code has no real concept of software engineering. Just like guns are falsely ascribed the power to help realize white-male-power fantasies, math is also falsely ascribed the power to achieve techno-Utopian fantasies. I understand how seductive both kinds of fantasies can be. The cult of the gun seeks to take control over the violent chaos that threatens to destroy so much. The cult of code wants to cede control to powerful algorithms that promise logic and objectivity and free us from the responsibility of making hard choices. The gun can’t protect you from an uncaring universe, and algorithms just crystallize the biases of their creators.

The desire to take control from those we perceive to be tyrants and to give control over to systems we believe to be objective is a paradox. Like the idea of a benevolent dictator or a truly free market, the perfect system is a great idea that always fails when implemented. Any complex system, be it an economy or a social network, was engineered by people to be used by other people. Engineers are as flawed and fallible as anyone else ergo the systems they build will also be flawed. End users aren’t the sheep that engineers wish that they were. Any imperfect thing (i.e. all things) will eventually be misused by someone with an understanding of its flaws. This isn’t hacker self-righteousness, just look at all of the government programs that get defrauded or the tax increases that billionaires find ways of avoiding. These are flawed systems designed by people that other people have chosen to capitalize on. It doesn’t matter how much time, effort, and money you put into developing a system, someone will invest more in order to exploit it.

The problem with both cults is that neither the gun nor the algorithm is a substitute for humanity, nor is either a hedge against tyranny. In fact, with frightening frequency, both tools harm humanity and encourage tyranny. Guns empower tyrants and are mostly brought to bear against the innocent. Computers empower the reduction of ideas down to data sets, where they confine us to platforms run by big corporations, another form of tyranny. The AK-47 was supposed to be a Communist gift to liberate oppressed peoples, but they mostly got used by death squads. Facebook was supposed to help us to connect with each other, but it mostly pits us against each other while shady marketers peddle divisive media for money and political influence.

Like most of my pseudo-intellectual deep thoughts, the thought began with watching an Adam Curtis documentary but is became fully actualized by watching Rick and Morty. The Adam Curtis idea, that there is a “positive liberty” which is born out of violent struggle, and a “negative liberty” which is born out of apathy. In Rick and Morty, Rick is the epitome of both the gun and the code cults. He has all the weaponry and all the technology, yet most of what he uses it for is to allow himself to get drunk and watch TV. He literally sells a gun to an assassin so he has enough money to spend the day at an arcade. He gets involved with all manner of epic adventures, mostly so he can be an asshole to everyone close to him. He is forever ridiculing the beliefs of others, yet he believes in nothing.

This is probably where I should look to the Asian philosophies I studied as part of my martial arts training should come into play, but Confucianist parables and Taoist paradoxes just aren’t the right medicine for this species existential dread. I’m pretty fucking far from being an Uncarved Stone and trusting the process. If anything, I am an *over* carved stone, and the process is light years away from trustworthy.

The Great Big Thing(tm): TV Edition

When I am not playing Skyrim to stave off my existential dread, I watch TV. Needless to say, I have been watching a lot of TV. I used to consider myself more of a cinema nerd, but films just aren’t that good anymore. When I compare some of my favorite films from a long time ago, to the franchise drek that is film today, it lacks quality. Sure, there are good films here and there, like The Dark Knight and Rogue One, but there are a lot of CGI messes too, and some TV shows seem to deliver more consistent quality.

Film sucks for the most part, and I can’t binge watch Adam Curtis documentaries all the time or I will lose my goddamn mind, so I watch TV. Of course I also do family stuff, but with an infant who doesn’t sleep at night, that involves a fair amount of staying up all night holding a sleeping baby, so TV is a big part of my nightly routine.

I have been watching a few new shows and re-watching some old faves, so I’m just going to list them in no particular order and say random things about them.

Stranger Things

I watched Stranger Things for the first time a couple of weeks after it dropped on NetFlix. Since then, I’ve probably rewatched it at least 3 times. It’s a great show, full of nods to 80’s movies like E.T. and Stand By Me, but it also captures something essential about my childhood, which was playing Dungeons and Dragons in my friend’s basement for hours at a time and being bullied.

There are lots of neat things to spot in the show (like the fact that Hop’s daughter, Eleven, and Will all have the same stuffed tiger) and I am unreasonably pumped for season 2, which should be out in a few weeks. I have my own theories about what will happen, but I don’t really want to spoil anything if by some odd chance this is the thing that inspires someone to watch the show, and by an even odder chance I turn out to be right. I will say that the kids’ D&D game at the beginning of the game sort of outlines the plot of the season, and their game at the end probably outlines what will happen in the second series, or at least underlines what is still unresolved at the end of the first series.

Rick and Morty (obvs.)

The new season of Rick and Morty is awesome. It’s another show full of details and fan theories to obsess over. My existential angst is both alleviated and agitated by the show. The show’s conflicting ideas of finding meaning in uncaring universe either helps or makes things worse; I can’t tell which.

The essential point of Rick and Morty is that people with beliefs will have those beliefs tested at every turn. The show actively punishes characters for having any kind of belief, including the devil. The only person that seems to escape this punishment is Rick, and yet Rick is borderline suicidal. Rick has all the answers, and his answer is not to think about it. As power fantasies go, Rick is either the greatest expression because he is essentially all-powerful, or the worst expression because all of his power never seems to get him anywhere. Again, I can’t tell which.

True Detective (season 1)

Speaking of the dichotomy of belief and disbelief, the first season of True Detective is one of the best television shows I have ever seen. Rust (Matthew McConaughey) is incredibly intelligent and yet completely unable to interact with people, except for when he is interrogating them and luring them into making confessions. There are a number of similarities to Rick and Morty, mostly having to do with the juxtaposition of human meaning and savage cruelty, but also the juxtaposition of truth and deception, duty and corruption. There is just barely enough evidence in the show to convince you that Rust is either psychic or psychotic, and somehow not enough to convince you which one.

Rust is working to find truth, and in so doing alienating everyone and choosing to live in madness and misery. Marty on the other hand does the opposite and ends up alienating everyone anyway. The only way that they can uphold the law is to break the law. It’s existential absurdity at its finest.

Season 2 is a good show, it’s just not the masterpiece that is season 1. It’s still worth watching, I just haven’t watched it a dozen times like I have season 1. If you are going to commit to both seasons, you should probably watch season 2 first. Season 2 unfortunately lacks both the Southern Gothic aesthetic of season 1, and the Lovecraftian symbolism. Season 2 takes place in L.A. and without those motifs, it’s just weird L.A. people doing weird L.A. shit. Kind of like a darker version of Bosch.

BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman is another “grown up cartoon” that specializes in reflecting my own nihilism back at me. While Rick and Morty is an endorsement for not engaging in reality, Bojack Horseman is an endorsement for [shying away from] your responsibility for your own reality. Like Rick Sanchez, Bojack understands that everything is shitty and pointless. Unlike Rick, Bojack learns that he is responsible for his own happiness. Of course, Bojack does a comically bad job of handling that responsibility, but he is aware that the responsibility exists.

Watching Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty as a matched set offers two interesting takes on the “whatever you do you will end up feeling empty inside” nature of Western Civilization. I think both shows have an interesting viewpoint: that you can either take responsibility for yourself and your place in the world around you, or you can deny it. No matter which choice you make, you can still fuck it up completely.

The Great Big Thing(tm): SPAAAAACE Edition

In an effort to stave off existential anxiety I have been staying up all night watching YouTube videos about space. This guy Isaac Arthur has a large number of really interesting videos that cover some really interesting topics about the science of science fiction. I have been listening to him talk for weeks about gravity wells, and Dyson spheres and thinking about offworld societies. All of this stuff is super interesting, and then I existential bedrock again when I started watching his videos about the Fermi Paradox and the Simulation Hypothesis.

Basically, the Fermi Paradox is this idea that there are so many planets, stars, and galaxies in the universe that sheer probability says there are other planets capable of supporting life. So why are there no aliens?

Once I started thinking about the Fermi Paradox, it didn’t take long to start applying the logic to all sorts of things. At first I started thinking about this for other fantasy technologies, like time travel. No one has come from the future to stop catastrophes, so perhaps time travel just isn’t possible, or perhaps human life on earth is extinguished before time travel can be developed.

Then I hit upon the Simulation Hypothesis. Which is that our reality could just be an elaborate simulation. It was at this point that I remembered a New Yorker article about how election night and the Oscars might indicate some sort of breakdown of a simulation. At first I laughed it off, but for at least a couple of years things have been going badly all over (shootings, riots, natural disasters, you name it) and there hasn’t been much, if any hedonic adaptation as a result. Maybe we are living in a simulation, maybe we aren’t, but something certainly seems to have happened to the hedonic treadmill. Or maybe the chronic and constant bullshit that is living for 15+ years in post-9/11 America has taken a toll on everyone’s collective psyche.

Or maybe 9/11 was when the simulation started?

The Nature of Freedom

A few cultural events have caused me to think a lot about freedom lately. Of course our new Presidential administration has had an effect, but also some films, television programs, and documentaries. Also, I have been assisting my local political community and the results are pretty depressing.

One film that I saw was “Arrival“. It is based on a short story called “The Story Of Your Life” which goes into more philosophical detail than the film, and centers on the idea of free will. The aliens in the film can see time in a planar rather than linear fashion. Because of that, they have no concept of free will. Knowing what is coming leaves them with no choice but to play their parts to contribute to the known outcome. Speaking to others isn’t so much an exchange of ideas as it is a declaration or codification of events, like announcing a winner, or pronouncing someone dead. Reading the story left me feeling that I had broken my brain in some fundamental way.

Not long after that, I started watching “Westworld“. The hosts in West World are driven by code which is interpreted by their central processing units. Because they store memories digitally, they don’t remember things, and instead reload (relive) them. As a mercy to the hosts, their memories are erased on a regular basis. Something within the code that governs the hosts causes them to start remembering and all hell breaks loose. Again this idea, while fictional, made me think about the nature of freedom.

The idea of reality as a lived experience, the cognitive lens that we see the world through, is based on recollection of previous experiences. Our human memories are not perfect; we cannot retrieve bit-for-bit copies of stored data the way that a computer can. We cannot go back and relive an experience the way that a host from Westworld can. As we experience something, it is colored by a complex mix of emotions and bias. These imperfect and colorized recollections then shape how we experience new things. These new experiences, perceived through our flawed cognition, are then stored using that same flawed mechanism, making it even more flawed. As humans age and grow, their cognition becomes a kind of degenerative corruption of observation. Your lived experience might actually just be shitty encoding.

As I watched these works of fiction, I have also begun to listen to intellectuals dissect the ideas of freedom. I watched a series of documentary films by Adam Curtis. The idea of this series, is that efforts have been made to reduce the idea of humanity into self-serving automata. This numeric representation of humans relies on a kind of rational strategy that guides us. The problem with this simplified view of course is that it ignores the shitty encoding that guides human decision making.

The documentary series points out the use of Zero Sum Game Theory in modern political, economic, and even biological research. This cynical approach led to the dissolution of the idea of human individuality and the rise of popular psychology which uses drugs to manage human behavior. Oversimplification of human behavior leads to a kind of segregation based on small sets of variables, rather than meritocracy. The result is the corporate-run caste system that we have today. More importantly there are two varieties of freedom: one of struggle and coercion based on violent radicalism, and one of meaningless consumerism. Meaningless consumerism is how The West operates without violent revolution; people are free to do whatever they want, so long as all they want to do is watch TV and buy things.

This my issue with the western idea of freedom. It is a comfortable existence; it’s largely devoid of bloodshed, but it is also largely devoid of meaning. Buying new things – says the guy with 4 laptops – isn’t making yourself any happier. Watching TV – says the guy who came to this conclusion by watching movies and TV – doesn’t help you to improve yourself. Being a radical freedom fighter isn’t the alternative, and it’s not like you can bring down corporatism in a bloodless and market-friendly manner. What you can do, however, is diversify. Instead of using violence to coerce others into your idea of freedom, I think that you can build communities around ideas other than meaningless conformity and draconian order. Organizing into communities is the start, but you have to go much further.

Paradoxically (or perhaps ironically), I criticize the tendency for governments and corporations to reduce humanity into numerical figures, yet I cannot help but to see political and economic systems as complex networks. I am an avid proponent of peer-to-peer networking, of decentralization, and the mistrust of authority. In a peer-to-peer network, there are no clients and servers, there are only nodes. The power of the Internet is not that it connects nodes, but that it connects networks of nodes. We, as individuals, have to organize ourselves into networks that pursue and produce meaningful things. Individuality is important, but agency may actually be more important. Having freedoms that you do not make use of is pretty much the same as not having freedoms to begin with. If you are a corporate-run fascist state, it’s probably a better for you if your subjects ignore their freedoms. Convincing them to do that might be part of your game plan.

This is the idea that I am moving around in my mind. What is freedom? Do we in The West actually have it? Did we lose it or did we give it away? The thought process is similar to the Orwell vs. Huxley debate, but I think it goes further because it should take into account human tendencies. Huxley kind of does with his societal focus on people being distracted from the importance of the self, but Orwell does not because he is more focused on the politics of violence and fear. My fear is that both Huxley and Orwell are right. That we are being duped into willingly ignoring essential liberties so that a powerful and violent elite can manipulate everything to their benefit. Honestly, I prefer pondering the nature of cognition, the nature of free will, and the nature of humanity because the idea of “Huxleying your way into full Orwell” scares me to death.

Cub Linux as a kid’s computer

zoey_compOne of the things that my daughter wanted for Christmas was to be able to play some of the web games she’s seen on TV. I have a strict policy about not letting anyone touch any of my computers, so I rehabilitated an old HTPC for her to use.

The PC portion was mostly incidental; her main gift was her cool keyboard, cool mouse, awesome Pepa Pig headphones, and of course, her game subscription.

The donor PC was an old Intel Atom box with 2gb of RAM. This basically made Windows impossible. I toyed with the idea of using Lubuntu, but then I came across Cub Linux. It’s basically a lightweight version of Linux that boots to the Chromium browser. It’s like an [more] open source version of Chrome OS.

Getting the machine setup was fairly straight forward. I set it to auto-login and to go to sleep after a half hour. She knows how to turn the monitor off, that’s good enough for a 4 year old. I also installed VNC media player so she can watch cartoons that I have downloaded for her.

I almost always install Samba on Linux machines because it makes it easy to move files from Windows. The process is documented fairly well here. I just shared out the home directory like before so I could put videos in the Videos folder.

old_linux_screenieOne problem with kids’ computers, especially for kids that are learning to use a computer while also learning to read, is that they need constant assistance. I use SSH for the low level operating system stuff, but a lot of it is just her not yet knowing what to do when something pops up on the screen. So I decided to share the desktop so I didn’t have to get up and walk over to the PC just to click OK or type in a password. One of the best tools for remote access to a Linux desktop is VNC.

VNC is a technology that I have been using off and on for years. I even used it on Windows in the NT and Win2K days before RDP basically obsoleted it. Every now and then VNC comes in super handy.

There are a number of ways to set up VNC, and a number of packages that deliver its functionality. Basically, you can run multiple X Window servers that let multiple users have graphical desktops at the same time. It can be super confusing for Windows users, so bear with me. Unix is multi-user. It’s meant to be used by multiple people at the same time. These users may be sitting at one or more physical consoles, virtual consoles, or remote shells. VNC is one way to get a graphical (window that you click with a mouse) console remotely on a system. You start a VNCserver on a given display x (:1, :2, :3. etc.) and then connect a VNC client to it on TCP port 509x (5091 for :1, 5092 for :2). Multiple users can run multiple servers and launch pretty much any number of graphical shells.

octopod_screenieVNC is awesome, but a kid computer is seriously single user. What I need is to be able to pull up her Linux desktop on my [often] Windows desktop, without any intervention from her, and without getting up from my desk. She is still learning to use a computer, so I want to demonstrate things on her screen. Not getting up from my desk is important because she needs assistance fairly often. Also, I happen to be a lazy slug.

Fortunately, there is a tool for doing this known as X11VNC. The key difference for X11VNC is that it shares the physical console display, :0, which is the display of the user sitting at the keyboard. This is ideal because when I connect to her computer, I see what she’s seeing, and either of us can type or move the mouse.

To set up X11VNC, I first had to get the software installed from repos:
sudo apt-get install x11vnc

After you’ve installed it, you want to create a remote access password and then edit the config to start at boot. I use the same password for the remote session that I use to log into the user account. Thanks to the auto login, no one but me should ever have to type it in.
sudo x11vnc โ€“storepasswd /root/.vnc/passwd
sudo nano /etc/init/x11vnc.conf

Then paste this into the editor:

# description "Start x11vnc on system boot"

description "x11vnc"

start on runlevel [2345]
stop on runlevel [^2345]

console log

respawn
respawn limit 20 5

exec /usr/bin/x11vnc -auth guess -forever -loop -noxdamage -repeat -rfbauth /root/.vnc/passwd -rfbport 5900 -shared


Then you can use any VNC Viewer to access the desktop remotely by entering the IP for the computer. My personal favorite viewer is tight-vnc.

With the remote access portion set up, I am now able to help her with her computer without getting up from mine. She has discovered that we can both type on the same computer at the same time, so a game has emerged. One of us types in a text editor and the other tries to delete what the other has written. It’s a race to either type or delete gibberish and she laughs like a maniac when we play it.

Volunteering at Heroes And Villains Chicago

It’s been a couple of weeks since the Chicago event, and I am just now getting around to writing about my experience. I went to Chicago expecting to be more comfortable volunteering, but Chicago was an entirely different beast. Because Chicago is so much closer to Cincinnati than New York, we decided to leave early on Friday morning. This meant leaving at 5 AM, and doing setup upon arrival. We walked into the convention center thinking that we would start assembling booths, and discovered that in Chicago, this was a union job. This meant the primary focus of the volunteer force would be assembling the merch booth.

merchbooth

The merch booth is a large 5-piece structure that ships in dozens of pieces. The experience is not unlike assembling Lego. The primary differences are that the merch booth weighs close to a half-ton when assembled, and unlike a Lego kit, there are absolutely no instructions. Not only are there no instructions, there is no one who recalls seeing a successfully assembled merch booth onsite, so the experience is something like assembling a puzzle, which may or may not be missing pieces, with no picture on the box to guide you. It’s like a logic puzzle and a jigsaw puzzle had some sort of psychotic baby. Assembly was fraught with peril. Thankfully I had the foresight to bring a multi-tool with me, which made things go a little more smoothly.

We determined that there were two essential tasks: first, to figure out what the various pieces did, then to ascertain some sort of idea of the finished product. Chrisha set about trying to find a picture of the finished booth via Google. I worked with some dudes to deduce the functions of the various pieces, Sherlock Holmes style. After about an hour, we had the three major sections assembled, but the overall picture was still a mystery. All Chrisha had been able to find on Google was pictures of Esty’s boobs. Chrisha was eventually able to locate a picture, and we kind of saw how the sections came together, after zooming in on a grainy picture. No matter how many times I said “ENHANCE!” I just couldn’t get a crystal clear pic. I think that maybe the IT on CSI is BS.

gold_badgesSo once the merch booth situation was handled, Chrisha and I finished the day working in ticketing. I enjoy working there because I can clown around with the attendees and volunteers. I especially love finding a volunteer who is very serious about the job, or stressed out, and playing little good-natured pranks. Like saying that an error message on the TicketLeap app means we need to call the police, or telling the attendees the password to get into the con was “cantaloupe”. I also put together all the gold badges for the event, and had a bit of fun with them. One volunteer was sick or something, and wore one of those mask things that Japanese people wear on the subway. I made sure to address her using my best impersonation of Bane, every single time I talked to her. By Sunday she was probably ready to kill me.

The next day was the first day of the con, and I guess the number of volunteers was short. I was supposed to work at the merch booth, which I did for a couple of hours, but then I was diverted to work line control for Brian Tee. I had never worked line control before, so I was sort of making it up as I went along. Brian was really nice, and spent lots of time with his fans, a lot of whom were kids because he’s playing Shredder in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. I screwed it up pretty badly on Sunday when I got bored and waved a few people over to go through the line, but other that I think I did OK. I am definitely not cut out for line control, it takes a kind of attention to detail that I just don’t have. I am much better suited for jobs that require interacting with people.

Saturday night was the Nocking Point party. These events are always awesome. This particular party had Brother Sal and The Devil May Care on stage. It was great fun dancing with Chrisha. I don’t dance so much as get drunk and sway back and forth, but at many events that is good enough. Brother Sal complimented our dancing, and my kilt. I was not aware that Neal McDonough was a Blues musician and played an amazing harmonica. Well, he played a number of songs, sang, and did a tremendous job of making the night amazing. At one point he decided to dive off the stage, and wanted some men up front to catch him. I and some other big dudes made our way up front and caught him. It was insane. His wife also got on the piano and danced, and Neal tried to get her to jump off as well. I am half disappointed and half relieved that she didn’t jump of the piano and into our waiting arms. A highlight of the evening was getting to shake hands with Neal and tell him what a huge fan I was of Band of Brothers. It was a short interaction, like many that I have had with celebrities, that I assumed he forgot about.

I guess maybe he doesn’t get a lot of recognition for Band of Brothers, maybe? I don’t really know why, but the next day I came up to Neal at his booth and he remembered me. It started when I saw a guy in full Easy Company cosplay. He was dressed head to toe in vintage WWII gear, down to the steel pot helmet and brown jump boots. His costume was amazing. I managed to get a picture with him, and he was really excited that I liked his costume. We chatted for a minute, and I told him the brief tragic tale of my short stint as a U.S. Army Paratrooper. A bit later, when Neal arrived at his booth, I ran up to to tell him about this Easy Company guy.

When I get up to Neal, he asks me where my kilt was. I was taken completely off guard by that. I just sort of went “Uhh…” but in my mind I was like “Not now Neal McDonough, we don’t have time!” I showed him my picture of The Easy Company Guy and asked him if it was OK to bring him up to see him. Neal said he had to see this guy, so I went back to my post at Brian Tee’s line and hoped to spot The Easy Company Guy again. In a little bit, I spotted him, and took off to get him.

I am sure The Easy Company Guy was startled and confused when I ran up to him and was like “Yo Easy Company! You gotta come with me!” and I grabbed his arm. On the way to Neal’s booth I explained that I showed Neal my pic of his costume, and that Neal was eager to see him. I ran him up the VIP line and explained that while I can get him through the line, I couldn’t get him past the manager. When I turned to explain, The Easy Company Guy was totally in shock that this was happening. Again, I had to return to my post, so I didn’t get to see what happened after that.

Apparently it went very well, because The Easy Company Guy came to find me. Turns out his name is Dustin, and he was absolutely pumped that he got to meet Neal ๐Ÿ™‚ I got a hand shake and a big “THANK YOU!” which was easily he highlight of that day. As the con was closing down, I went back to get Neal to sign my shirt. I said to Neal, “How excited was that guy?” Neal said The Guy was visibly shaking and Neal gave him a moment to collect himself, which I thought was just awesome of Neal. Neal shook my hand, thanked me, and said “You’re a good man, Chris.”

I had no idea that was on my bucket list, but it was, and I got to cross it off ๐Ÿ™‚

Am I a Feminist?

During a discussion with my wife, I said to her that I am not a feminist, and therefore “I don’t speak feminist” meaning that I lack the emotional and/or intellectual sophistication to understand some of the issues that I read about. My wife disagreed with me. Her argument was essentially that because I believe that women are equal to men, that I meet the minimal criteria for being a feminist. While that is flattering, I think that there is way more to feminism than equality. Yet, it is a conversation that I am not really invited to participate in. Her counterpoint was that I was only listening to the extremists. While she certainly has a point, that the extremists certainly derail the conversation, it is my opinion that her position is predicated on a definition of feminism that has become outdated.

By outdated, I mean that equality between the sexes is a goal from a different time. My mother is an old-school 80’s feminist. She was a healthcare exec, until she changed careers to education where she moved up from professor to chair of her department. She did her best to balance being my mom with being executive director of… whatever it was. When my mom was working on her Doctorate while I was in High School, sometimes I had to make my own dinner and/or find my own rides to things like Karate class. Sometimes my dad made dinner and picked me up from Karate, his work schedule permitting. I understood that my mom was way more than just a wife or mother. Her career was a big deal, same as my dad’s, maybe even more so.

I have done my best to treat my wife’s career and education with that same respect, and to support it where ever possible. I shuttle the kids around when she needs me to, I cook dinner, and that sort of thing, work schedules permitting. I don’t help around the house as much as I should because even though it’s a responsibility that we both share equally, housework sucks and I hate doing it.

While I might qualify as a feminist by my mom’s definition from the 80’s, this isn’t the 80’s. There are many more women’s issues being discussed today that go way beyond the workplace or family roles. These are issues that my mother probably dealt with, but they weren’t part of the mainstream discussion on women’s issues that I was exposed to. Today the national discussion is more of a debate, and I seem to be on the other side. Maybe that has to do with changes in the media landscape (since broadcast media has taken a back seat to the Internet) but I guess it also has to do with the advancement of the cause of feminism. Getting women the vote is a done deal, a lot of progress has been made in the workplace (the wage gap notwithstanding), and so the leading edge has been directed at additional issues.

The debate, as I understand it, breaks down like this:

  • One the one side you have modern feminists, advocating for various forms of positivity, speaking out against various forms of shaming, and trying to expose deep cultural problems in our society. There are also some, the extremists that my wife was referring to, who want men to basically be quiet and let the the feminists do their thing. They want men to “stay in their own lane” so to speak.
  • On the the other side, you have men. There are neckbeards who are trying to join the conversation, presumably so that they can get laid, the “nice guys” who can’t get laid, and the Men’s Rights Activists who think that all feminists are just man-hating lesbians who are trying to take away their… freedom I guess? Or maybe their dicks? I don’t really know. Those dudes sound like a bunch of whiny bitches to me ๐Ÿ™‚
  • For the most part, I try to stay in my lane, but sometimes I feel like that is being silently complicit with the extremists on either side. Maybe that is the problem with the whole debate: there isn’t a place in it for a fairly rational guy.

In her blog post defending Stephen Amell, Chrisha raised a brilliant point, which is that there is no social justice equivalent of a GLBT Ally. In that conversation, straight people don’t have to “stay in their lane.” They are invited to be part of that conversation, but outside of GLBT issues, terms like “white knight”, “mansplaining”, and “cultural appropriation” keep the conversation limited to those who are oppressed. Personally, I think that does little to educate would-be oppressors, but that’s really none of my business ๐Ÿ™‚

NOMB

listening_to_meIn the social justice/oppression food chain, I am basically an apex predator. I understand why marginalized people probably don’t care what I have to say, but hey, this is my blog, so I get to do the talking. So my question is this: what -if anything- qualifies a straight male as a feminist? And, if nothing qualifies him to be a feminist, then why doesn’t feminism have its own version of the ‘ally’ designation?