VHBelvadi.com RSS feed http://vhbelvadi.com/journal Kirby Wed, 05 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0000 Get the seven latest essays from VHBelvadi.com via RSS: subscribe via vhbelvadi.com/rss Book review: ‘Outliers’ http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/book-review-outliers journal/book-review-outliers Wed, 05 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0000 I can­celled my dig­i­tal sub­scrip­tion to The New Yorker recently because the mag­a­zine car­ries a vast sec­tion in every issue that is useful only to people who live in, or are obsessed with, New York. But one of the many rea­sons I sub­scribed to the mag­a­zine in the first place was Mal­colm Gladwell’s arti­cles. Mr Glad­well has been a staff writer for the mag­a­zine for about two decades now. I always found his arti­cles quite insight­ful, which is why, when I was about to catch a flight out of Berlin a few months back I decided to spend €9⁹⁹ and grab a copy of one of his more con­tro­ver­sial books, Out­liers.

It was grip­ping in a way few works of non-fic­tion can claim to be, but most of the book is meant to be ques­tioned and chewed open rather than blindly devoured. I found the start of the book some­what curi­ous: in a bid to explain what this book is about, Mr Glad­well starts with the story of Roseto, a med­ical out­lier, a town where cer­tain med­ical con­di­tions were 30 – 35% rarer than in the rest of Amer­ica. The reason, he says, as a physi­cian by name Stew­art Wolf would later find out, was not geog­ra­phy, lifestyle or exer­cise, but that the people of Roseto were living hap­pily, in their own small world, in their trusted little soci­ety, in utmost har­mony.

These were things sci­en­tists had never before asso­ci­ated with heart dis­ease and other such ail­ments, but the rarity of heart con­di­tions in Roseto forced the med­ical com­mu­nity to step aside and look at things dif­fer­ently, to reason out that the things they had never sus­pected were affect­ing patients and, in turn, could affect a person’s health and life. I want to do for our under­stand­ing of suc­cess what Stew­art Wolf did for our under­stand­ing of health’, begins Mr Glad­well.

In one line, Out­liers is about how hard work and clev­er­ness alone do not guar­an­tee suc­cess in life, and how luck, cir­cum­stance and being at the right place at the right time too can all have sub­stan­tial effects on this. At first glance, Out­liers may seem like an escape strat­egy for some­one look­ing to not work hard and blame it on the stars instead, and this is what gave rise to a con­stant debate I had with this book: while the many anec­dotes and the many con­nec­tions between work and cir­cum­stance are insight­ful, I find it hard to believe there were no others in the exact same cir­cum­stance who never made it in life.

Con­sider two of the ear­li­est exam­ples in the book where Mr Glad­well goes on to show, full with game ros­ters etc., that the time when play­ers (and Sil­i­con Valley com­pany founders in the other exam­ple) were born played a huge part in their suc­cess. He states that, had they not been born when they were, they likely would not even have entered the fields they did.

How­ever, while these birth­dates were undoubt­edly con­ve­nient, were mil­lions of others also not born around the same time and would at least tens of thou­sands of them have not also been exposed to sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances, and did they not yet fail to rise to the occa­sion or make the most of it? While there is no argu­ing that being born in the 50s enabled Apple’s Jobs and Sun’s Joy to enter the fields they did, I remain uncon­vinced that a few exam­ples can rep­re­sent everyone’s sto­ries. By them­selves, these are undoubt­edly great reads, but I would hes­i­tate before treat­ing them as exam­ples.

The book takes it fur­ther with two full chap­ters that describe how, while IQ is useful to some extent, it really is not the whole pack­age. These chap­ters are inter­est­ingly titled The trou­ble with geniuses’. Mr Glad­well argues that IQ is con­ver­gent and does not depict one’s imag­i­na­tion (not least because imag­in­ing means using data to diverge, rather than con­verge, and arrive at propo­si­tions). IQ, he says, really stops mat­ter­ing beyond a par­tic­u­lar point and I tend to agree with this line of thought. What does help is prac­ti­cal intel­li­gence’, sit­u­a­tion-spe­cific knowhow that can help an indi­vid­ual turn cir­cum­stances around to their own best inter­ests; call it street smarts. Honing this abil­ity will almost always prove to be more help­ful in becom­ing suc­cess­ful than does know­ing how to solve the type of island ques­tions that fill IQ test book­lets. Again, these chap­ters, like the book itself, are filled with anec­dotes.

Speak­ing of anec­dotes, one of the most intrigu­ing things for me was where Mr Glad­well found these sto­ries and people in the first place. Some­one like Jobs is famous, but not all anec­dotes in this book are of famous people. The only one explained is Mort Jan­klow, because Mr Janklow’s firm is the author’s lit­er­ary agency.

Besides this, most people cited in this book were born in middle-class or better envi­ron­ments, going against the heroic (even if not always real­is­tic) tales of poor men over­com­ing odds to find suc­cess. Chris Langan is among the poor­est men­tioned in Out­liers but he does not have any­where near as much dis­cus­sion time in the book as his richer coun­ter­parts; in fact, Mr Langan is used as an exam­ple of how having great IQ alone is of little use.

Poor people becom­ing suc­cess­ful is such an oft-told tale that the suc­cess of people born into rich fam­i­lies is not as often heard because they are assumed to have some­how gotten a head start and their rise is seen as much less heroic, even if their achieve­ments are not. But the dif­fer­ence between suc­cess in fam­i­lies divided by wealth, accord­ing to this book, is clear: richer fam­i­lies prac­tise con­certed cul­ti­va­tion’ which gives their kids a sense of enti­tle­ment (not the bad kind) which enables them to take charge of sit­u­a­tions, i.e. be prac­ti­cally intel­li­gent, simply because they believe, to put it in a crude way, that they have every right to be in charge. That is not to say poorer kids never grow up with this, but the sta­tis­tics (and Mr Glad­well quotes them amply) lean towards the well-off.

All said and done, there is a faint back­ground music to this book summed up beau­ti­fully by this line: Suc­cess­ful people are prod­ucts of par­tic­u­lar places and envi­ron­ments.’ In fact Out­liers seems like an ode to seiz­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. It is also, in some small way, about how some people have great­ness thrust upon them: The sense of pos­si­bil­ity so nec­es­sary for suc­cess comes … from the par­tic­u­lar oppor­tu­ni­ties that our par­tic­u­lar place in his­tory presents us with.’

How­ever, to only look at this face of the book is to miss it entirely, because one of the many claims Out­liers is famous for is its ten-thou­sand hour rule. This is hotly debated and is what led me to the book in the first place. (Talk about any pub­lic­ity being good pub­lic­ity.) I will intel­li­gently steer clear of this topic but the gist of it is that Mr Glad­well, using the Bee­tles and others as exam­ples, says that ten-thou­sand hours of delib­er­ate prac­tice are required to become world-class in any field. One won­ders.

In fact, to me, the whole point of this book was to make me stop and think. I will not go over every inch of the book in this review because that makes little sense. Con­tro­ver­sial ideas like the ten-thou­sand hour rule or that for your work to be sat­is­fy­ing it has to be autonomous, com­plex and have a con­nec­tion between effort and reward’ are at all not a case to dis­miss the book but to realise that, if any­thing, Out­liers puts you close to the lives of men who have achieved great things and asks you to pause and wonder what they did it. And whether it con­vinces you that they achieved things because of their effort or their cir­cum­stances or luck, in the end it does, like any good book, make you men­tally richer.

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Crick’s excellent paper on X-ray diffraction http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/crick-xrd journal/crick-xrd Thu, 30 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0000 In the process of re-for­mu­lat­ing the cur­ricu­lum for spe­cial­i­sa­tion in con­densed matter physics at our uni­ver­sity, I chanced upon a review paper by Fran­cis Crick titled X-ray dif­frac­tion of pro­tein crys­tals’. One of the papers I am teach­ing this year has a lot to do with the the­o­ret­i­cal aspects of this: the phe­nom­ena of scat­ter­ing, the struc­ture factor of an atom, exper­i­men­tally observed inten­si­ties, deter­mi­na­tion of crys­tal sym­me­tries and their rela­tion­ships, and so on.

Inter­est­ingly, Crick’s paper begins with this con­cise note on why biol­o­gists cannot care less about X-ray dif­frac­tion and seems to me to be in agree­ment with an argu­ment I have made for years now that biol­o­gists and chemists seem unusu­ally sat­is­fied with a sur­face-level under­stand­ing of phe­nom­ena, because if they ever decide to dig any deeper they would all end up at quarks and become physi­cists. From Crick:

The X-ray study of pro­tein crys­tals is a dif­fi­cult and highly spe­cial­ized field. Even­tu­ally, when the struc­ture of a few pro­teins has been unrav­eled, the results will be of vital inter­est to ensy­ti­ol­o­gists, since they should give infor­ma­tion about the spa­tial arrange­ment of the active site” of the enzyme. But mean­while X-ray meth­ods will be only of sec­ondary inter­est to enzy­mol­o­gists.

The paper is rather vague in its descrip­tions, which makes it an excel­lent read for anyone start­ing out with it. Now that is not to say Crick did not know any better than what he wrote; in fact, he prob­a­bly know a lot more than he gave away in this paper. But it is mildly sur­pris­ing, even if not pleas­antly so, that only two equa­tions exist in a paper explain­ing how the mol­e­c­u­lar weight, den­sity, com­po­si­tion and shape of crys­tals are deter­mined.

Both these equa­tions are simple: one of them, used to mea­sure the mol­e­c­u­lar weight $A$ of a crys­tal in terms of an empir­i­cal con­stant denoted by $k$, is given by $$A = \frac{1}{k}\,\frac{V}{n}$$for a unit cell of volume $V$ with $n$ asym­met­ric units within it. How­ever, the pro­ce­dure is not as straight­for­ward as this equa­tion might make it seem.

For starters, the most effec­tive way to deter­mine the mol­e­c­u­lar weight of a crys­tal is to use it in a solu­tion and resort to SAXS. This is nowhere near as accu­rate as straight up mass spec­troscopy, but it works more prac­ti­cally since crys­tals are, quite often, found/​grown in a solu­tion. In this case, the for­mula really becomes $$A_x = \frac{I(0)_x}{C_x}\,\frac{A_c C_c}{I(0)_c}$$as out­lined in the paper,Accu­racy of mol­e­c­u­lar mass deter­mi­na­tion of pro­teins in solu­tion by small-angle X-ray scat­ter­ing’, by E. Mylonas and D. Sver­gun. The sub­script $x$ refers to the unknown crys­tal and $c$ to the known one. To mea­sure the mol­e­c­u­lar weight then we use such a com­par­i­son tech­nique between two crys­tals involv­ing their zero-angle scat­ter­ing inten­si­ties $I(0)$ and the con­cen­tra­tions $C$ of their respec­tive solu­tions. In other words, this is some­thing like Crick’s for­mula, but not quite.

Of course Crick’s own paper goes on to qual­i­ta­tively describe that crys­tals can be used in three states while mea­sur­ing their mol­e­c­u­lar weight: wet (in a solu­tion), air-dried (with sol­vent mol­e­cules present between the lat­tice), and vacuum-dried (with no left­over sol­vent mol­e­cules what­so­ever), point­ing to the fact that the former is a rather con­ve­nient method and that, in the wet crys­tal method, the Adair – Adair for­mula helps deter­mine the ratio of water to dry crys­tal, usu­ally in grams: $$w = \left( \frac{D_p — D_b}{D_b — D_w}\right) \frac{D_w}{D_p}$$where $D_b$ is the den­sity of the crys­tal, $D_w$ the den­sity of water, and $D_p$ the rec­i­p­ro­cal of the par­tial spe­cific volume of the crys­tal.

How­ever, $D_p$ itself demands an exper­i­ment for its value to be deter­mined, and Crick care­fully avoids some basic cal­cu­lus here: the par­tial spe­cific volume is the par­tial deriv­a­tive of the volume of a com­pound with respect to its mass. A den­sit­o­me­ter, an instru­ment that mea­sures trans­mit­tance through a solid, is gen­er­ally used to find this out with a buffer of (read, a cham­ber filled with) suit­able mate­r­ial and another of the crys­tal in ques­tion and then this: $$D_p = \frac{1}{D^\prime}\left( 1 — \frac{D_c — D^\prime}{C_c} \right)$$with $D^\prime$ being the den­sity of the buffer and the rest of the terms as explained ear­lier.

This is not a cri­tique of Crick’s paper. In fact, I thought it would be useful enough and have added it in as quick read­ing mate­r­ial for stu­dents of the intro­duc­tory course since there are sev­eral good sum­maries Crick makes (e.g. pp. 142 and 143 in the linked paper). What I wanted to pro­vide were some clar­i­fi­ca­tions that the meth­ods of XRD are gen­er­ally more com­pli­cated than descrip­tion makes them seem. But what really makes this useful read­ing is that Crick’s sum­maries are valid even for today’s SAXS exper­i­ments.

This is one of those basic overviews I wish some­one had given me when I was study­ing crys­tal­log­ra­phy: it is a great read for some­one who is start­ing out in the field but the glar­ing omis­sion of math­e­mat­ics alone should be enough to sug­gest to any reader that it should only be used as a primer and not as spe­cialised read­ing. Over­all, a worth­while read.

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The assault on science http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/assault-on-science journal/assault-on-science Tue, 28 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0000 Hidden in the cloudy reportage about Donald Trump’s fund­ing for NASA’s manned mis­sion to Mars were sev­eral char­ac­ter­is­tic absences of facts. Some­how, ever since Mr Trump’s elec­tion cam­paign came into full swing last year, the absence of facts has been nor­malised even if report­ing lies out­right thank­fully remains frowned upon. (One won­ders how soon that will change.)

This time, though, most main­stream media took part in this, per­haps unwit­tingly: the Wash­ing­ton Post seemed unnec­es­sar­ily excited by the news of Mr Trump sign­ing the bill, and ABC fix­ated on a joke about send­ing the US Con­gress to space, sparked by Ted Cruz and car­ried on by the pres­i­dent.

To my knowl­edge it was only the BBC that rightly pointed out that NASA’s fund­ing has actu­ally been cut by about four-hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars. Fur­ther, the halfway mis­sion to get humans into lunar orbit from which a Mars mis­sion was orig­i­nally intended to have been ini­ti­ated is now dead. Even Elon Musk had to step in on Twit­ter and clar­ify that the bill Mr Trump signed changes almost noth­ing about what NASA is doing’.

What few are focus­ing on is that while plan­e­tary sci­ence gained fund­ing (and I am per­son­ally extremely happy about that) envi­ron­men­tal research agen­cies suf­fered a blow. Appar­ently, as Nature reports, the White House con­sid­ers mon­i­tor­ing the envi­ron­ment a waste of tax payers’ money’. The US National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA), the DSCOVR mis­sion and others all lost con­sid­er­able fund­ing.

None of this is sur­pris­ing, which is pre­cisely where the danger lies. The Repub­li­cans have always been dis­be­liev­ers in global warm­ing, but to cut off fund­ing for the research insti­tu­tions that can, at least, prove that global warm­ing is a real and present danger is simply being in denial. What we must be wor­ry­ing about is that what was always seen as out­ra­geous is becom­ing the expected in Mr Trump’s admin­is­tra­tion.

That the gov­ern­ment is bent on tar­get­ing envi­ron­men­tal agen­cies should be still less of a sur­prise when you con­sider that the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is a former state attor­ney gen­eral who has sued the EPA four­teen times in the past. This is, unfor­tu­nately, not a joke no matter how much it seems like one. This makes no more sense than does appoint­ing Richard Dawkins as the next pope.

The whole story has been care­fully crafted: deliver bad news mixed with bits of good news and our opti­mism over­shad­ows, and tends to jus­tify, the neg­a­tive news. It may seem para­noid to state that the EPA losing fund­ing spells a down­hill tra­jec­tory for envi­ron­men­tal watch­ers but it is impor­tant to remem­ber that every­thing starts small. It is the fact that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion can quickly grow unchecked that we must be wor­ried about. Right now, Mr Trump has his people placed exactly where he needs them: a serial fake news prop­a­ga­tor as his White House Chief Strate­gist, a global warm­ing dis­be­liever as head of the EPA; an orig­i­nal­ist, anti-euthana­sia judge as the pres­i­den­tial Supreme Court nom­i­nee; a former neu­ro­sur­geon who once said him­self that he was unqual­i­fied to lead the hous­ing and urban devel­op­ment wing is now sec­re­tary of that same wing etc.

Mr Trump has care­fully filled posi­tions in his cab­i­net based entirely upon his own inter­ests. It may be argued that he has placed them in a manner that would make it easy for him to fulfil his cam­paign promises, but is let­ting our carbon emis­sions lose on the envi­ron­ment any sort of improve­ment at all?

Slowly but with dan­ger­ous cer­tainty an assault on sci­ence has begun. The foun­da­tion of sci­ence is to inves­ti­gate phe­nom­ena and accept the truth whether we like it or not, not skew facts to what we want them to be, and by manip­u­lat­ing sci­en­tific agen­cies by freez­ing their funds (as with the EPA) and order­ing them to iso­late them­selves from public aware­ness (as with the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture), or simply can­celling meet­ings with­out reason (as with the CDC), Mr Trump and his gov­ern­ment is ensur­ing that only things that are in line with their views are allowed and every­thing else is blocked off. Or, more specif­i­cally, that things that are not against their per­spec­tive are encour­aged and this encour­age­ment is blown up in the media to mask the many steps they are taking to cut off equally useful insti­tu­tions that may not agree with them directly, all in the guise of bettie using tax payers’ money.

At the end of the day, how­ever, there is little sense in hit­ting back: Mr Trump’s elec­tion to the White House was proof that we have learnt little, if any­thing, from his­tory and that people who try to oppose sci­ence are usu­ally proved glo­ri­ously wrong and soci­ety quickly for­gets about them.

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A fresh restart http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/restart journal/restart Sun, 26 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0000 It has been ten long years since I first founded my own space on the web. I was driven to it thanks to my writ­ing and my hob­bies, and they are what have kept me here. Although I have been prepar­ing to cel­e­brate this to some small extent over the past couple of months, this year marks exactly a decade since my web log­ging began and my own web­site was founded. And, boy, has it been a jour­ney.

The inter­est­ing thing about this has been as much what has hap­pened on the web around my web­site as what my site itself went through. For exam­ple, I started on Vox​.com, which was the address of an excel­lent blog­ging plat­form before it became (as it now is) a news web­site. Although I moved out of Vox within a year and well before it shut down, I have always had a soft corner for the dead com­pany. In any case, my next stop was Word­press where I remained for nearly a decade; until last week, in fact.

Word­press is a great plat­form; it is simple but has an eter­nal iden­tity crisis because it mar­kets itself as a blog­ging plat­form’ but is really so much more that one won­ders why Matt and co. do not simply call it a web­site con­struc­tor. What I liked about Word­press was that the source code was open and you could dig into it and bake your web­site to your pref­er­ences and to your sat­is­fac­tion. I have also always liked the Word­press tagline: code is poetry. Per­haps math­e­mat­ics is far more poetic, but I digress.

Look­ing for­ward

The jour­ney so far has not been with­out bumps. This web­site has been hacked, it has moved servers, and, most notably, it has sur­vived a mas­sive culling as part of my reju­ve­na­tion drive: over three-hun­dred of my past arti­cles were pulled from this web­site to trim it and shape it and make it more crisp and useful for future read­ers.

How­ever, I was increas­ingly feel­ing that the ten-year mile­stone deserved a true restart. Know­ing every­thing I know now, having learnt every­thing I learnt over the past ten years run­ning a web­site, what would I do dif­fer­ently if I started all over again? Now it is cer­tainly fool­ish to start over blindly and for no reason besides the fact that it has been ten years, which means my propo­si­tion has some back­ing:

  1. Word­press is slow and bloated. No matter how pow­er­ful it is as a plat­form, Word­press is slow and bloated and if there is one thing I cannot stand, it is a slow web­site. I have patience and I will wait an entire minute for a web­site to load, but most people will not and it would cer­tainly be a folly to build one’s own web­site on the assump­tion that people have the incli­na­tion to wait before a blank screen while a web­site takes its own sweet time to load.
  2. The Word­press back­end is stuck in the noughts. Around the 90s and the 2000s, the Word­press back­end was prob­a­bly the most dash­ing web­site man­age­ment setup in exis­tence. No longer is this true. Not only is Word­press built on ageing code, but their updates come too far apart. The plat­form is undoubt­edly robust, and it works, but it comes at the cost of feel­ing (and arguably being) dated, which is not some­thing I par­tic­u­larly like.
  3. Word­press is too much for a simple web­site. While it had its roots as a web log­ging plat­form, Word­press has out­grown that. And that is a good thing, except the sim­plest of things need mul­ti­ple steps some­times. For most of us with a simple, per­sonal web­site a page-based system with some under­ly­ing logic will suf­fice: this approach can be made scal­able too. For people who know noth­ing about code, Word­press is still the best option and I would still rec­om­mend it to anyone start­ing out. For those com­fort­able with code, look else­where. That is not to say Word­press is a dud; far from being that, it powers and will con­tinue to power Physics Cap­sule and the other web­sites I run and design, because they are much more com­plex and fit right into the type of con­tent cre­at­ing and serv­ing’ web­sites that Word­press is ideal for.

Kirby is all that Word­press lite’ would have been and more. That does not mean Kirby cannot scale; I have not tried it myself, but from my brief expe­ri­ence I can state with­out doubt that scal­ing with Kirby is a real­is­tic idea. But the best part about it, unlike cer­tain others (read, Ghost), is that Kirby does not want to replace Word­press or do any­thing along those lines. Kirby is its own thing.

Kirby CMS

Those of you who are aware of the cur­rent state of the Web, you will be well aware of file-based static serv­ing of web­sites. Word­press is truly dynamic (which is what makes it so pow­er­ful) and uses, at its heart, a data­base from which it pulls required data. But that power comes at the cost of page speed. There are, of course, ways of making a data­base-driven web­site fast (I man­aged to clock 0.9s with my old web­site) but noth­ing com­pares to static files served by the likes of Kirby, Jekyll etc.

Update: Many read­ers got back to me asking about all my older arti­cles. I had been work­ing on an archival (see below) and it is now acces­si­ble at old​.vhbel​vadi​.com and you can read every­thing that was on the old web­site as of Jan­u­ary 2017. Fur­ther, any link to one of my older arti­cles will auto­mat­i­cally be redi­rected to these archives.

Think of a hand­ful of coloured mar­bles on a table and a mixed bag of mar­bles next to it. If you were asked to pick a blue marble, you could the­o­ret­i­cally per­form a really quick search in the bag and pull out a blue marble, but, for the simple reason that an extra step or two are involved, it will still always be slower than simply pick­ing up a blue marble from the desk.

Unlike Jekyll, how­ever, Kirby does not render a truly static site; instead it is a file-based con­tent man­age­ment system. How­ever, it comes with a caching facil­ity that works beau­ti­fully and, for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, makes a web­site as fast as if you were using a static site gen­er­a­tor. My reser­va­tions with using Jekyll (no matter how tempted I was to com­bine it with Github) should not be of con­cern here, but suf­fice it to say that so far I have been incred­i­bly happy with Kirby and I only hope devel­op­ment of this goes on actively for years and years.

Besides caching, my core setup involv­ing the trio of mini­fy­ing, source code ver­sion­ing (to bust caches) and Cloud­front deliv­ery works like a charm with Kirby. CSS and JS han­dling is great too and I par­tic­u­larly like the file struc­ture because it makes a lot of sense (and one cannot always say that about file struc­tures). For now, I am load­ing CSS and JS in the header to pre­vent FOUT, but I will, over the coming weeks (or as time per­mits) think of a workaround that will let me move them to the footer: after all, this is always a better prac­tice.

I do not use the Com­mand Line Inter­face, pre­fer­ring manual work via FTP (which is more com­pli­cated, I am aware) but Kirby has sup­port for CLI too. In fact, Kirby has a small but pow­er­ful selec­tion of plu­g­ins that allow for a lot of expan­sion. One that I wanted was LaTeX sup­port but, while that does not exist, I think Math­Jax will work just fine and test­ing this out is cur­rently on my to-do list.

Update: I got math­e­mat­ics to work beau­ti­fully. Proof: $ e^{i\pi} + 1 = 0 $.

A lot of this is made pos­si­ble thanks to Kirby being a file-based system, which means I can simply upload my arti­cles as txt files (which, you will know if you have been read­ing this web­site for a while, is my pre­ferred uni­ver­sal format). The icing on the cake is that Kirby sup­ports Mark­down; it has its own flavour of Mark­down, but the stan­dard syn­taxes work just fine too and saving Mark­down as a txt file works as it should.

The com­par­i­son drawn to static sites and against data­bases does not mean Kirby is dumb’ (for lack of a better word). There is suf­fi­cient on-the-fly logic while ren­der­ing pages and none of it takes sub­stan­tially more time than a static site itself. Too good to be true? Per­haps, but it sure is true.

Under­stand­ably, all of this comes at a price: whereas Word­press is free, Kirby costs any­where from €15 – 79 based on whether you plan to use it com­mer­cially or not. This is rea­son­able and I do not mind paying rea­son­able sums to sup­port such good soft­ware, and one that I will likely use a lot in the coming days and, most impor­tantly, one that my online home is built on.

Life with Kirby

Kirby has an admin­is­tra­tion area called The Panel which works smoothly, and (prob­a­bly) uses AJAX instead of reload­ing the web page repeat­edly. Although I rarely use The Panel, choos­ing to handle files directly via FTP instead, the times I do use it, the whole envi­ron­ment feels like sev­eral steps up from Word­press, but there is, as always, lots of room to improve.

I do not like to keep draw­ing par­al­lels between the two, but it is inevitable since I moved from Word­press to Kirby after all. This is my first arti­cle and I am back on Byword to write it. I use Cyber­duck on Mac to upload to my server and I did the same when it came to design­ing my web­site itself and every­thing has been going incred­i­bly smoothly.

I have not yet set up an RSS feed for this web­site and that is on the cards, as is a past ver­sion of this web­site where all my older arti­cles will be avail­able. (This will not include the three-hun­dred-odd arti­cles I pulled down a few months ago but will only con­tain the ones that were still on my web­site as of Jan­u­ary 2017.)

Update: The RSS feed (for essays only) is now up and run­ning. Sub­scribe to it now or do so later through the menu button on the top-right.

I briefly tried includ­ing cover images for my arti­cles but found them to be dis­tract­ing from the text and they soon became, in my mind at least, a clas­sic exam­ple of form over func­tion. My design now, as a result, is simple but (again, in my opin­ion,) ele­gant. There is a sense of solid­ity and sta­bil­ity and slick­ness around Kirby and a char­ac­ter­is­tic peace of mind thanks to its set up and per­for­mance that I rarely had with Word­press. And now that I am here, all set up, I look for­ward to a lot of great things over the second decade of this web­site.

Adden­dum: I espe­cially want to thank my good friend, Manu S, for lend­ing his time to beta test the new web­site and check for cross-plat­form con­sis­tency, and for pro­vid­ing valu­able inputs during the design stage.

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Division by zero; or, guide to kicking a hornet’s nest http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/division-by-zero journal/division-by-zero Sun, 05 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0000 It is incred­i­bly funny that the reason we say divi­sion by zero is unde­fined is because we lit­er­ally have no idea how to define it. Per­haps con­flict­ing opin­ions exist’ would be a better state­ment. Bah’ would undoubt­edly be fun­nier since when­ever we encounter a $0/0$ in physics we des­per­ately rush to find ways of get­ting rid of it.

Gen­er­ally, divi­sion is treated as repeated sub­trac­tion, e.g. $18/6 = 3$ can be writ­ten as $18 – 3 – 3 – 3 – 3 – 3 – 3 – 3=0$. In other words, if $x/y=z$ it means we can sub­tract $z$ from $x$ and repeat this process $y$ times to arrive at zero. Of course the process is not so straight­for­ward if $z$ is a frac­tion, but we have no reason to rack our brains about such spe­cific cases right now.

The fact that zero is an awk­ward number to divide some­thing by has made it some­what of a recre­ation. With choco­lates, this is easy: divid­ing a Toblerone among zero people means you get to keep it all. So if divid­ing Toblerone by zero equals Toblerone, why does divid­ing $n$ by zero not equal $n$ too? This sounds good until you realise you are not really divid­ing Toblerone among zero people; you exist, which means the divi­sor is one, not zero. And $n$ over one is $n$ just as we expect it.

Not all exam­ples are so triv­ial, though. There are some that prove’ absur­di­ties like $2=1$. Con­sider the fact that $0 \cdot 1=0$ and $0 \cdot 2=0$, which means $0\cdot 1=0\cdot 2$ as a result of which $1=2$. But this is really a proof against divi­sion by zero. That is to say, if $0 \cdot 1=0\cdot 2$ it is because we divide by zero, as $(0/0) \cdot 1=(0/0)\cdot 2$, that $1=2$, which is clearly a fal­lacy, so $0/0\ne1$.

It appears that we decided only around the penul­ti­mate decade of the 1800s that divi­sion by zero is an impos­si­bil­ity (see Cajori, Florian’s 1929 paper, Absur­di­ties due to divi­sion by zero’) as far as ped­a­gog­i­cal alge­bra was con­cerned. This was in spite of the fact that the defin­i­tive result was stated half-a-cen­tury ear­lier by Martin Ohm. The form we know today was stated by Bernard Bolzano in the 1850s. If we solve the simul­ta­ne­ous equa­tions $a – b=a – b$ and $b – a=b – a$ we arrive at $a – a=b – b$ which can be re-writ­ten as $a(1 – 1)=b(1 – 1)$, which divid­ing by zero (since $1 – 1=0$) gives us $a=b$ even for two obvi­ously unequal quan­ti­ties.

We have nar­rowed things down now: the reason we do not divide or mul­ti­ply by zero is because, although doing so seems just fine, it implies incor­rect results else­where. So divi­sion by zero is essen­tially like taking a poker and stab­bing a hornet’s nest before diving into it head first.

Look­ing at it another way, the more dreaded result of $0/0$ actu­ally has a per­fectly mean­ing­ful mul­ti­plica­tive form: if $0/0=v$ then $v\cdot 0=0$ is a valid state­ment. This is what gives me some hope for $0/0$, but take another step and it becomes bleak: if $0/0=v$ then so can $0/0=a$ or $b$ or any of the other twenty-three alpha­bets in eng­lish or twenty-four in Greek and so on. Or, for that matter, any of the infi­nite pos­si­ble num­bers. This is why we safely state that $0/0$ cannot be defined’.

How­ever, could there be an as yet undis­cov­ered, spe­cial number that does sat­isfy $0/0$? One way to look at this is through limits. If any $a/b=c$ we quickly realise that, as $a ⟶ 0$ and $b ⟶ 0$, we must also end up with $c ⟶ v$. Except, if you keep making $a$ and $b$ smaller, you can get any arbi­trary answer you want that depends com­pletely on the rate of change of $a$ and $b$. In other words, if you keep halv­ing them, $c$ turns out to be dif­fer­ent from what you would get if you keep taking their square-root.

Once again, $c$ (and $v$ in turn) can be arbi­trary, making $0/0$ unde­fined. Or, if you want to look at the glass half-full, it can mean $z$ does exist but is a func­tion of that $a$ and $b$ which approached zero and we can define $0/0$ if we knew the nature of $a$ and $b$, and, there­fore, $0/0$ in gen­eral remains unde­fin­able. (Stu­dents of cal­cu­lus may notice this whole ‘$a/​b$ tends to some $a/​c$ as $b$ tends to $c$ approach’ that I took as some­thing like the rule of l’Hôpital.)

Getting such var­i­ous answers is noth­ing new in math­e­mat­ics or physics. For instance, the right-hand limit as $x ⟶ 0$ of $1/​x$ gives $+\infty$ and the left-hand limit of the same func­tion gives $ – \infty$. In other words, it can be tempt­ing to say that two infini­ties exist but this is not what a limit means; it simply means that we approach arbi­trar­ily large pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive num­bers. But look a little more and you will realise that many infini­ties do exist (just not in terms of limits) and that infin­ity’ itself is really just an umbrella term for an extremely large number.

There are math­e­mat­i­cal ways of look­ing at this (for instance, Cantor’s the­o­rem) but for the pur­poses of this essay, I will state an intu­itive approach: we all agree that there can be infi­nite num­bers simply because we cannot think of any jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to end count­ing at some point, which means the set of even num­bers has an infin­ity as does the set of odd num­bers and the two infini­ties cannot be the same. Another such inter­est­ing, non-math­e­mat­i­cal exam­ple would be that of Hilbert’s hotel.

If you really crave math­e­mat­ics though, here is another look: one can start count­ing from zero to one in suf­fi­ciently small frac­tions as to never reach one’ in their life­time. More inter­est­ingly, there can exist an infi­nite number of divi­sions between 0 and 1. The same is true of the 1 to 2 domain, and, clearly, the infin­ity that exists between 0 and 1 cannot be the same as that between 1 and 2. How­ever, you can make these two infini­ties equal by simply defin­ing a one-to-one cor­re­spon­dence between the set 0 to 1 and the set 1 to 2. That way, there are as many num­bers between 0 and 1 as there are between 1 and 2 and the infin­ity you reach while count­ing in one set (what­ever that means) is then the same as the infin­ity you reach in the other.

That is so far as only count­ing the number of ele­ments between the extremums of the sets goes. If you counted one set as zero plus the number of ele­ment, i.e. start count­ing the first ele­ment from zero instead of simply call­ing it the first ele­ment, and, like­wise, if you started count­ing the second set as one plus the number of ele­ment instead of simply as the first or second or nth ele­ment, you would still end up with two dif­fer­ent infini­ties with two dif­fer­ent weights and the weights would then differ by one, since the points from which you started count­ing, zero and one, differ by one. And remem­ber that this whole mess is char­ac­ter­is­tic of real or com­plex num­bers since the set of inte­gers and whole num­bers is well-defined: there are $9 – 4=5$ num­bers between 4 and 9, not infin­ity.

How­ever, none of these equal­i­ties exists for the even and odd infini­ties we came across ear­lier, or, say, a ratio­nal and an irra­tional infin­ity that we can sim­i­larly describe. That is to say, two infini­ties of the same kind can be shown as equal, but not two dif­fer­ently clas­si­fied infini­ties.

It does get mind-bog­gling. As physi­cists we then know­ingly throw some more tantrums: what, we ask, is the phys­i­cal impli­ca­tion of so many infini­ties; and what might be the hope­fully exis­tent mag­i­cal number, v, that can solve all our trou­bles? For the time being, that is a can of worms I do not want to open.

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The vanity of the iconic http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/iconic-photographs journal/iconic-photographs Tue, 10 Jan 2017 00:00:00 +0000 Among the many thoughts I have in my moments of leisure is a recur­ring one about pho­tog­ra­phy: when was the last time we had a pho­to­graph as revered as The Tetons and snake river, or the cyclist of Hyères, or Lanesville or Reflec­tions, or col­lec­tions with an impal­pa­ble draw like The Amer­i­cans or Chromes or Uncom­mon places? What pho­to­graph was made in the last decade that was not reportage and was well and truly a work of fine art, driven by the photographer’s vision alone?

An iconic work is one that is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of every­thing it stands for, a family of tech­niques or beliefs or approaches. It is undoubt­edly hard to be iconic, but have we sealed that pos­si­bil­ity entirely? Two argu­ments can be made to account for our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. On the one had we could declare that we have indeed not seen any works of com­pa­ra­ble merit at all. On the other we could argue that there are far too many and we no longer stand by a scale with which to rank them.

As hard as it may be to pick the defin­i­tive one, the former is the more opti­mistic pos­si­bil­ity. On the inter­net, mar­ket­ing is vital to get­ting noticed. Good work will find its rewards but rarely as fast as bad work cou­pled with great skills in mar­ket­ing. For some reason great artists who are equally great mar­keters are hard to come by, per­haps because there is too little time on our hands to real­is­ti­cally be able to master both these skills. The sad part of this, if it is true, is that we are let­ting some really great work slip through our fin­gers.

The other option demands that we con­sider the times in which these pho­tographs were made. Today, every­body with a camera-phone is a self-pro­claimed pho­tog­ra­pher, and there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of pho­tographs being shared on the Web every single minute. With so many pho­tographs around us, can we even real­is­ti­cally hope to remem­ber a pho­to­graph and recall its name (if it has one) enough to make it iconic? What is an icon if it is not even recog­nised?

It would be easy to mis­take all of this for fame, but that is not my point of con­cern here. The inten­tion now is to see if any pho­to­graph has seeped into our mind deep enough that we can even recall it, let alone describe it and poet­i­cise it. Do you, for instance, recall all the pho­tographs you saw when you vis­ited your social net­work of choice yes­ter­day?

This is, arguably, a bigger reason why we have not defin­i­tively ranked any recent pho­tographs among Ansel Adams’s or Cartier-Bresson’s or Brassai’s or Robert Frank’s or Eggleston’s works. So many of us are voic­ing our opin­ions that we cannot bring our­selves to agree upon some­thing. That art is so per­sonal and sub­jec­tive has not helped any. And so many of us are shar­ing so many of our pho­tographs today (to say noth­ing of how many of these can even be cat­e­gorised as inten­tional, artis­tic work) that we do not have time to soak in one to our sat­is­fac­tion before another is thrust upon us.

Pho­tog­ra­phy has become almost as widely prac­ticed an amuse­ment as sex and danc­ing … [It is] a social rite, a defence against anx­i­ety, and a tool of power. 

 — Susan Sontag 

All of this is not to make the inter­net a vil­lain. The onus is on those of us who use it as a tool to use it better. More­over, this is not all pho­tog­ra­phy has to con­tend with today. The inter­net has enabled the masses and nor­malised pho­tog­ra­phy to such an extent that com­par­ing it to its niche status in the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies seems unfair. Added to this are var­i­ous other media, from cin­e­mas to three-dimen­sional videos to vir­tual and aug­mented real­i­ties, and pho­tog­ra­phy (which deals with the sense of sight alone, restricted to two dimen­sions) is com­pet­ing with forms that directly com­mu­ni­cate to mul­ti­ple senses in our body and in three dimen­sions too.

During the times of pio­neers, and for decades later too, until cam­eras started cost­ing sums we would never think twice about spend­ing, people had not only seen much less of the world but also never saw pho­tog­ra­phy as a tool. It belonged, like the paint­brush, in the hands of artists. Writ­ing was a tool, per­haps the pre­ferred tool with which to keep mem­o­ries. And then pho­tog­ra­phy came into everyone’s hands and under­stand­ably became the pre­ferred medium. With that, exactly what was artis­tic about pho­tog­ra­phy was lost on most people.

This is not a phe­nom­e­non rooted in this cen­tury. Susan Sontag made star­tlingly sim­i­lar obser­va­tions as early as the sev­en­ties: Recently, pho­tog­ra­phy has become almost as widely prac­ticed an amuse­ment as sex and danc­ing – which means that, like every mass art form, pho­tog­ra­phy is not prac­ticed by most people as art. It is mainly a social rite, a defence against anx­i­ety, and a tool of power’. The less likely we are to recog­nise art, the less likely it is for there to be an icon.

All of this brings me to my fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: what is the point? Why strive to be iconic? What good does want­ing to make an iconic pho­to­graph do? Making an iconic pho­to­graph should not be anybody’s aim. Pho­tog­ra­phy has entered into our lives beyond such a depth that we no longer take notice of it. It must make its pres­ence felt, but cannot hope to do so visu­ally. A car in Karl Benz’s or Henry Ford’s time would make people freeze in their tracks and take notice. Today, such a car is rare. Cars, like pho­tographs, have become a part of our lives that we almost take for granted.

So many of us are shar­ing so many of our pho­tographs today that we do not have time to soak in one to our sat­is­fac­tion before another is thrust upon us. 

As the Everyman’s snap­shot’ is raised to the level of art by the sheer force of an unin­formed crowd’s opin­ion, one may find them­selves won­der­ing what art is in the first place. This ques­tion is as old as art itself and hardly worth wor­ry­ing about. How­ever there is an ill effect of this: the time it takes to jour­ney, imag­ine, and make an inten­tional pho­to­graph (as opposed to an oppor­tunis­tic snap­shot’) and the tech­nique, dis­ci­pline, plan­ning, and effort that goes into making such a beau­ti­ful, artis­tic pic­ture is never thought about, let alone respected. It becomes no dif­fer­ent from any other sorry excuse for a pho­to­graph: it becomes another thing to swipe or scroll past on our high-res­o­lu­tion screens.

Tech­nol­ogy has made people nou­veau riche in terms of what can be done in the (dig­i­tal) dark­room regard­less of whether it needs to be done or not. You can micro­man­age a pho­to­graph with great ease, zoom into obliv­ion and set every pixel right and, per­haps even unin­ten­tion­ally, pay dis­pro­por­tion­ately less atten­tion to the pho­to­graph as a whole. As we con­tinue look into a pho­to­graph rather than at it, we habit­u­ally miss the forest for the trees. My ref­er­ence to the nou­veau riche should not be mis­taken as a wealth divide; it is better under­stood in terms of the luck­ier cousin of pho­tog­ra­phy who has not befallen this misery: making people nou­veau riche is like hand­ing every­one an unlim­ited supply of canvas and paint­brushes and pas­tels. But not every­one will make art and not every­one wants to.

The art in a paint­ing is more obvi­ous than the art in a pho­to­graph, in part because most believe a making a paint­ing takes sev­eral care­ful brush­strokes while making a pho­to­graph takes a click that lasts less than a frac­tion of a second: few think of the mental and phys­i­cal effort a pho­to­graph demands before and after depress­ing the shut­ter. A pho­to­graph is much easier to cap­ture’ in that, unlike a paint­ing, every­one stand­ing at a par­tic­u­lar spot, pho­tograph­ing a moun­tain will end up with more or less the same pho­to­graph. A good pho­to­graph, though is harder to make. And soci­ety will not recog­nise a good pho­to­graph so long as they look at the sub­ject of the pho­to­graph alone and not the pho­to­graph as a whole. The pic­ture of a cabin in the woods holds only so much excite­ment until you have seen sev­eral pic­tures of cabins in woods. But what if the cabin was only a frac­tion of the pic­ture? Indeed it often is noth­ing more. If we start look­ing at the way light falls on it, the way it has been com­posed, the geom­e­try and tex­ture in the pho­to­graph, the way the artist played with the space in his frame, the sym­phony of colour, and the var­i­ous other ele­ments that play together to make the whole pic­ture, then any number of pho­tographs of cabins in woods will all look dif­fer­ent.

Pho­tographs cap­ture time, not space. And they are about emo­tions, not objects alone.

In a crowd of pic­tures, a pho­to­graph loses indi­vid­u­al­ity not because it is not spe­cial but because our senses have dulled to the point where we no longer recog­nise and appre­ci­ate the merits of a good pho­to­graph. One can then not hope to make a pic­ture of a pigeon and awe people; they will have to look for a dodo. One cannot make pic­tures of the ordi­nary so long as people mis­take the sub­ject of a pho­to­graph as the pho­to­graph itself rather than appre­ci­ate other artis­tic ele­ments the pho­tog­ra­pher worked hard to paint in with light. And so long as the worth of a pho­to­graph is judged by what is in it rather than what all har­monise to make it up, the bar for an iconic’ pho­to­graph will remain so unre­al­is­ti­cally high that we will lose sight of it. We prob­a­bly already have.

A pho­to­graph must, instead, arouse emo­tion­ally any viewer who lets it. (Those who make them­selves immune to it cannot be helped.) The aim of making a pho­to­graph must then be not to make it an icon but to make it evoke cer­tain emo­tions in its view­ers. But will it stay with them and will they remem­ber it a week or a year from now? It is hard to say: if we took in pho­tographs as thought­fully and as slowly and as mea­suredly as a glass of cen­tury-old wine, they cer­tainly will. As long as we gulp it like a bottle of water, it will be just that: another glass of water we have grown accus­tomed to drink­ing and pay little atten­tion to. It does not enrich your table at dinner, it just exists.

To break out of this mould then, is more in the viewer’s hands than in a photographer’s. But con­trol­ling emo­tions is still some­thing the pho­tog­ra­pher can do. We should come to terms with the simple fact that being iconic has lost its mean­ing, for better or worse. Being a good pho­to­graph has not. And so long as we look past the blades of grass and instead try to cap­ture the breeze sway­ing them using our lenses, pho­tog­ra­phy will remain an art form. A single pho­to­graph may rarely stand out high or long enough any­more to be remem­bered by every­one for the next few gen­er­a­tions, but the art of pho­tog­ra­phy always will.

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How the far right became popular http://vhbelvadi.com/journal/far-right-popularity journal/far-right-popularity Fri, 18 Nov 2016 00:00:00 +0000 Patri­o­tism is the cause of all wars. There is a cer­tain self­ish­ness that drives people to fight for their per­ceived sense of own­er­ship. There is the idea that this is my coun­try’ and that is not; the idea that this is my kind’ and that is not; the idea that this rep­re­sents me and that does not, whether it is racial, gender-based or what­ever else; the idea that some­thing I believe in is cor­rect’ and what some­one else believes in is not, etc. This is turn­ing out to be a dis­ease of mag­nif­i­cent pro­por­tions, but it is, thank­fully, not yet incur­able.

We cre­ated bor­ders, and we cre­ated nation states, which means it is up to us to return to them the mean­ing they seem to have lost. Our pur­pose in draw­ing bor­ders to seg­re­gate geo­graph­i­cal land­masses and the peo­ples within them was driven by the poten­tial ease of gov­er­nance. There is no doubt that gov­ern­ing a small hamlet is much easier than gov­ern­ing a large met­ro­pol­i­tan area, for exam­ple. But this rea­son­ing is lost on people who have now begun to look at it as a state­ment of own­er­ship. It is true that the people in an area must be ben­e­fit­ted by it in var­i­ous ways, but not such that it takes prece­dence over human­ity; it should not trans­late into a right to treat others badly on any basis what­so­ever. A border must remain an issue of gov­er­nance, not of absolute right. And, fur­ther, it should not be syn­ony­mous with own­er­ship. The earth belongs to every­one.

Ide­al­is­tic as these state­ments may seem, the twist­ing of their def­i­n­i­tions requires that cer­tain things about them be made clear. The world is seeing a surge in extreme right-wing ide­olo­gies, the kind of setup that, over the past couple of decades, has made Russ­ian voices mute. And that, unfor­tu­nately, promises to seep into Amer­ica and Europe and result in the same, pos­si­bly ten years from now. It is hard to point out with cer­tainty when it began, or even when it bub­bled to the sur­face of seri­ous news, but there is no doubt that it is man­i­fest­ing itself in var­i­ous forms around the world. Until recently, Russia’s pres­i­dent, Vladimir Putin, was its poster boy; now, the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent-elect, Donald Trump, has joined him. Soon, the French far-right pres­i­den­tial hope­ful, Marine Le Pen, who agrees with these two men with trou­bling ease on nearly all issues, hopes to com­plete the sordid tri­an­gle. She said as much her­self: There is a world­wide move­ment. A world­wide move­ment which rejects unchecked glob­al­i­sa­tion, destruc­tive ultra-lib­er­al­ism … the elim­i­na­tion of nation states, the dis­ap­pear­ance of bor­ders’.

It is of no con­se­quence pon­der­ing now whether this state­ment was meant to help Mrs Le Pen ride on the same wave of pop­ulism that cat­a­pulted Brexit and Pres­i­dent Trump into real­ity. What is clear, though, is that the elim­i­na­tion of nation states and the dis­ap­pear­ance of bor­ders for all pur­poses besides gov­er­nance is exactly what we need today. And her poten­tial elec­tion to pres­i­dency, while doing little for world peace (and quite a lot against it), will have no imme­di­ate ill-effect on France.

This is all not unlike the Brexit vote, which had no imme­di­ate effect on Britain, or Mr Trump’s win in the Amer­i­can elec­tion, which had no imme­di­ate impact on much of the coun­try. And therein lies the prob­lem. The way in which the coming pop­ulist, far-right dom­i­nance will affect civilised soci­ety, firstly, will be so grad­ual that nobody notices, and, sec­ondly, will clev­erly work by nor­mal­is­ing extremes. The decades the world has worked, for exam­ple, to make racism a black mark on soci­ety rather than a part of it, will be undone. Being straight will become the norm and any­thing else will be socially blas­phe­mous. Being like the major­ity will become the norm and trying to be an indi­vid­ual will become pun­ish­able. This should worry us. Look­ing at things as us and them’ will become the norm and take away our most cher­ished trea­sure: human­ity. There should never be an us and them’, rather just us’.

All of this will be accel­er­ated by the social web. Face­book has, beyond all doubt, influ­enced the out­come of the Amer­i­can elec­tion. Its founder, Mark Zucker­berg, claimed that fake news was being spread around by sup­port­ers of both pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates even in the face of over­whelm­ing proof against it: right-lean­ing Face­book pages spewed out false con­tent twice as often as left-lean­ing ones. But, like pop­ulism itself, fake news sells; it brings more view­ers onto the site and increases engage­ment, which, in turn, drives money towards Face­book. None of this is giving Mr Zucker­berg and his com­pany enough incen­tive to fight the fake news infes­ta­tion on Face­book, as Ben Collins writes in a great rebut­tal of Mr Zuckerburg’s state­ments in sup­port of his multi-bil­lion dollar com­pany.

The social network’s CEO also recently said it was a pretty crazy idea’ to think that fake news on Face­book influ­enced the elec­tion. It is, he claimed, a very small amount of con­tent’, and that people do not vote based on some fake news they see. Except, most people do not realise the news is fake at all; like an echo cham­ber, they see what is in com­plete agree­ment with their views and share it and more people share that and the fake story grows expo­nen­tially in pop­u­lar­ity until every­one has read it and found hollow sup­port for their own views rather than being prop­erly informed about cur­rent events. Some of these fake news sources have hun­dreds of thou­sands of fol­low­ers more than estab­lished, fact-checked news houses like The Wash­ing­ton Post or The New York Times, and some of these are being run by kids in Mace­do­nia whose only inter­est is rev­enues from visits that juicy click­bait can win them. Some, like the one called Amer­i­can News, have mil­lions of fol­low­ers and a ver­i­fied’ badge given by a Face­book employee. The Daily Beast has an excel­lent run­down of all of this, with facts and fig­ures to sup­port, that more than show how much of an impact fake news on Face­book (and likely else­where on the web) may have had in any pop­ulist elec­tion.

This is a vicious circle. People hear about a pop­ulist move that fur­ther com­presses their narrow-mind­ed­ness and they then share it, prompt­ing algo­rithms to pulling up more such sto­ries, fake or fact-checked. Between engage­ment-seek­ing social net­works, polish-seek­ing indi­vid­ual egos, atten­tion-seek­ing author­i­tar­i­ans and power-seek­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates mas­querad­ing as one of the people’ despite being bil­lion­aires them­selves, the biggest blow falls on soci­ety as a whole and on human­ity in the long run. We can put up fences and lock our­selves into suf­fer­ing or we can open our bor­ders and better manage our­selves know­ing that the only fuel that has helped us sur­vive so long is our will to stand up for open­ness and com­pas­sion every time. Of course terror needs to be checked and crim­i­nals must be held account­able for their mis­deeds, but there are far less savage ways to accom­plish this than those which far-right lead­ers the world over have been adver­tis­ing. And, so long as there exists a com­bi­na­tion of the flawed idea of nation states and national bor­ders, a mis­placed sense of patri­o­tism, and fake news float­ing around in echo cham­bers, the far-right will keep rising and soci­ety will keep slip­ping into the abyss.

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