“I don’t understand the purpose. What good does it do to march?”

A post from my wonderful colleague Lori, on her reasons for marching.

LoriLoo

…my Uber driver asked when I confirmed that I had been at the march that day (I think the two huge painted posters gave it away). The question surprised me, as he was an older African-American man. “Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m happy to share my thoughts. I didn’t vote for Trump in Novem…”

He interrupted me, “Oh, neither did I.”

“Yesterday (inauguration day), I was pretty sad. I was disappointed that our country chose to elect a person who has not shown himself to be very presidential. He’s joked about personally sexually assaulting women. As a woman who has been sexually assaulted, I don’t find that funny. I find it frightening that his comments normalize an atrocious behavior. He’s mocked a reporter with a disability. I find that unacceptable behavior for anyone, much less a supposed leader. He’s said he wants to create a registry of…

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Yes, Protest Does Matter.

In the past week, we have seen peaceful protests around the world, in response to the actions taken by Donald Trump, as he has assumed the American Presidency.

Despite not having attended any of the demonstrations myself, I’ve been troubled by the fervent reaction against those who have done so, and the poor arguments that have been made against speaking out. So, without passing comment on the content of any of Trump’s policies or actions, I’ve decided to address the common criticisms publicly:

1. Protesting doesn’t make any difference.

I almost can’t believe that this statement is still being uttered in 2017, after all that has been written, and after we have seen and to-this-day celebrate the outcomes of peaceful protest in the past.

The ultimate goal of protest is obviously to bring about change, but few who take part in any single act of resistance are naive enough to believe that that one particular event will have devastating political ramifications on its own. Movements are built over time, and are successful by building the pressure on those in power.

In this particular situation, there is a real chance that sustained protest can have an impact on the policies of the Trump administration. The Republican party is not full of evil people, and many viscerally disagree with his approach to many issues, but at present feel unable to speak up against them. If all these people hear is silent indifference to what is going on, they are far less likely to have the courage to take the first steps themselves in opposition.

For many, even if there is absolutely zero chance of political change, demonstrations are still immensely important. First and foremost, they are about standing up and publicly stating that you refuse to quietly accept actions that you fundamentally disagree with, and may otherwise be powerless to stop. It’s about demonstrating to other people who facing the brunt of the effects that they are not alone. That’s why they are called ‘demonstrations’.

I won’t draw comparisons between Trump and Hitler at this point, but I do find it rather curious how one of the biggest questions people have when looking back at history is how the German population could possibly have let fascism take hold, seemingly without much protest. I wonder how many people were dismissing those who spoke up, with the same argument: ‘Protesting won’t make a difference’.

2. It’s a foreign country. It doesn’t have any impact on you or people you know. Focus on your own issues.

There are a few constitutent parts to this. Firstly, this kind of statement is often made in a blanket fashion, completely ignoring the personal relationships that the person on the receiving end may have. Where their wife may come from; where their friends may live; where the company their work for is based, for example.

Secondly, even if a person has zero personal ties to the US, the idea that we could close our eyes and ears to what happens outside of our country is a non-sequitur. In fact, it’s the worst kind of nationalism. Following the argument through logically, no Scottish person should ever speak about the evils of apartheid – because it was a South African issue. Neither should the UK have gotten involved in the Second World War. There are innumerable examples of why this doesn’t hold water.

There is a valid criticism to be made of people who only care and speak up about what they see on the news in a foreign country, whilst acting completely indifferent about what is happening in their own back garden. However, that sort of criticism can only be made with in depth knowledge of a person and their motives, and is certainly not something that should be applied with a broad brush to people whose background you have no idea about. Just because somebody is concerned about the actions of Trump, doesn’t mean that they aren’t equally as passionate about the right wing agenda of the UK Government, or that they volunteer at a local foodbank every night.

All of this aside, the reality is that what happens in America does impact what happens in the UK. The policies and rhetoric of the most powerful man on Earth, who leads the biggest military superpower in modern history, who happens to be our supposedly closest ally, definitely has repercussions around the globe. To pretend otherwise is simply foolish.

To bring it home, so to speak: the ‘solidarity’ word is one that comes with a lot of baggage, but it is exactly what protest is often about: making a statement about what kind of society you want and believe in, even in spite of everything that may be happening elsewhere. It’s about saying: ‘The most powerful nation on the planet may be targetting refugees, but we won’t accept those same actions here.’ If all the protests in Glasgow yesterday achieved was to make a single refugee feel more welcome and secure in their adopted city, then they were already a success.

3. The American people chose to vote for Trump. Get over it.

This is one of the most ridiculous assertions of the lot. The idea that once a political party or candidate wins an election that they are infallible, and should be immune from any sort of criticism is ludicrous. At best it is complete hypocrisy on the part of those uttering this nonsense, and at worst an extremely dangerous perspective, that results in human rights abuses in countries like Turkey and Russia.

4. Protesters are just idiots who are virtue signalling whilst contributing exactly zero to the cause they’re apparently so passionate about.

This is pretty much a word for word comment from someone who didn’t approve of the demonstrations held in Glasgow yesterday, but the language is similar to a lot of others.

Here’s how ‘virtue signalling’ is defined:

virtue signalling (US virtue signaling)

noun [mass noun]

the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue: it’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things | standing on the sidelines saying how awful the situation is does nothing except massage your ego by virtue signalling.

On its own, the phrase is seemingly innocuous, but more and more frequently it is now being used to dismiss people who are taking a position that others disagree with, without them having to actually intellectually engage with that position. It’s become one of the lazy phrases like ‘fake news’ that I can’t stand, as it doesn’t actually mean anything in practice.

Given that the phrase is based on intent, the only way ‘virtue signalling’ could accurately be ascribed to those who chose to demonstrate against Trump or his actions, would be if the person using it knew those intentions. In other words, they would need to know the specific motivating factors involved… something that is clearly impossible when applied to a group.

It’s probably worth being crystal clear on this: disagreeing with your position doesn’t mean that somebody is ‘virtue signalling’. It means they disagree with your position. Challenge them on their arguments, not with some spurious empty phrase that only serves to shut down discussions that you can’t handle.

Trump image by Gage Skidmore – used under CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

Trump, Prostitutes, and 4chan. Still want to ban sites that publish fake news?

Today the big story on the web is that a story leaked from a ‘British intelligence officer’ about Russia blackmailing Donald Trump, published by BuzzFeed, and then dutifully re-posted by other major established media outlets was allegedly made up by posters on 4chan.

Whilst the articles state that the claims are ‘unverified’, and ‘contain errors’, it appears that there has been very little in the way of fact checking or corroboration of sources going on. Indeed, publishing allegations without due dilligence is exactly the operational basis of other sites that don’t fall under the banner of ‘credible’ media. The fact is that the outcome in either case is the same: either willingly or blindly (through a desire to publish content first to drive advertising revenue), these sites are spreading misinformation. Looking at the Mirror’s coverage, one would be forgiven for thinking that the info was at least partially credible:

Screen Shot 2017-01-11 at 12.46.40.png

It’s all too easy to scoff at the Mirror, or BuzzFeed. Nobody takes them seriously after all; everybody knows that! That clearly isn’t actually the case, and it demonstrates the problem with the reactionary drive towards ‘banning’ or filtering sites that publish fake news from online platforms.

Of course, these claims to have made up the story could very well be made up themselves… but that doesn’t invalidate the criticism. If anything, it highlights the issue with asking or expecting third parties such as online service providers to filter out untrue content.

To echo the questions I raised in my previous post on this topic: Exactly what constitutes fake news, where do we draw the line, at what point do ‘credible’ news sources lose that credibility, and who makes those determinations? Should BuzzFeed articles be removed from Facebook? What about The Mirror? What about CNN? Maybe only articles claiming to have made up fake news should be treated as fake news. Where does it stop?

For an interesting read on this that was shared by my colleague Davide recently, check out this page:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/08/blaming-fake-news-not-the-answer-democracy-crisis

It only gets worse when charges of fake news come from the media, which, due to the dismal economics of digital publishing, regularly run dubious “news” of their own. Take the Washington Post, that rare paper that claims to be profitable these days. What it has gained in profitability, it seems to have lost in credibility.

Edit: I published this earlier today before Trump’s press conference, and felt compelled to update it as a result of what he said. Responding to questions from the media, he apparently decided to pick up the ‘fake news’ mantle:

When Jim Acosta, Senior White House Correspondent for CNN, attempted to ask Trump a question, the President-elect refused to answer. “Not you. Your organization is terrible,” Trump said. “I’m not going to give you a question, you are fake news.”
So now Trump has appropriated the term ‘fake news’ to thwart off any criticism without response. That’s what happens when you set up an empty vessel as something that is inherently wrong with no real definition. This should have been easy to avoid. – (source)

This is precisely why setting up a straw man term such as ‘fake news’ is so dangerous, because an empty vessel that is inherently bad without any clear definition leaves the power in the hands of those who want to wield it for their own ends. If we want to try and combat ‘fake news’, we first need to understand what it is we are fighting against. Otherwise, the question becomes whether it is our version of fake news that is bad, or Donald Trump’s?

Censoring ‘Fake News’ is the real threat to our online freedom

As the results of the US Presidential election began to sink in, the finger of blame swung around to focus on ‘fake news’ websites, that publish factually incorrect articles with snappy headlines that are ripe for social media dissemination.

francis-fake.png
A ‘fake’ headline. Via the Independent.

Ironically, the age of propaganda has previously thought to have died out with the proliferation of easy access to the Internet, with people able to cross-reference and fact check claims from their bedroom, rather than having a single domestic point of information. Instead, what it appears we are seeing is the opposite; people congregating around a single funnel of sources (Facebook), which filters to the top the most widely shared (read: most attention grabbing) articles.

Almost immediately, the socially liberal-leaning technology giants Google and Facebook announced that they would be taking steps to prevent websites from making use of their services. This has sparked a ream of discussion about the ‘responsibility’ of other online platforms to take steps to prevent the spread of these so-called ‘fake news’ sites on their networks.

Here, probably for the first time I can remember, I find myself in agreement with what Zuckerberg has (reportedly) said in response:

The suggestion that online platforms should unilaterally act to restrict ‘fake news’ websites is one of the biggest threats to free speech to face the Internet.

Those are my words, not his – just to be clear. Click through to see what he actually said (well, as long as the source can be trusted).

It is unclear exactly what ‘fake news’ is supposed to be. Some sites ‘outing’ publishers that engage in this sort of activity have included The Onion in their lists, which in of itself demonstrates the problem of singling out websites that publish ‘fake’ news.

  • Where is the line drawn between ‘fake news’ and satire?
  • At what point do factually incorrect articles become ‘fake news’?
  • At what point do ‘trade puffs’ and campaign claims become ‘fake news’ rather than just passionate advocacy?
  • If the defining factor is intent, rather than content, who makes that determination, and based on what set of values?

It is not the job of online platforms to make determinations on the truth of the articles that their users either share, or the content that they themselves publish. There is no moral obligation or imperative on them to editorialise and ensure that only particular messages reach their networks. In fact, it is arguably the complete opposite: they have an ethical obligation to ensure that they do not interfere in the free speech of users, and free dissemination of ideas and information; irrespective of their own views on the ‘truth’ or otherwise of them.

The real challenge to free speech isn’t fake news; it’s the suggestion that we should ban it.

Misinformation is a real issue, and the lazy reliance culture facilitated by networks such as Facebook and Google where any article with a catchy headline is taken at face value is a huge problem, but the answer is not for these networks to take things into their own hands and decide what set of truths are acceptable for us to see, and which are not.

We have reached a position where half of our societies are voting one way, whilst the other half can’t believe that anybody would ever make such a decision, precisely because we have retreated into our own echo chambers – both in the physical world as well as the virtual. The solution to the political struggles we on the left face is not to further restrict the gamut of speech that is open to us in our shared online spaces, or to expect service providers to step up and act as over-arching publishers; it is to get out there and effectively challenge those ideas with people that we would normally avoid engaging with. Curtailing the free speech of others through the arbitrary definition of ‘fake news’ is not only not the answer, but it’s a terrifying prospect to the very freedoms that we are arguing to protect.

The real challenge to free speech isn’t fake news; it’s the suggestion that we should ban it.

Disclaimer: It should go without saying that these are my views, and not necessarily those of WordPress.com, or anybody else.

Why do we keep losing the argument? A response to Trump’s victory.

For the third time in recent memory, I’ve woken up from a restless night to the news of a political outcome that feels more akin to a dystopian nightmare than reality.

My heart goes out to my friends and family in America and beyond who are crushed, and in despair at the result of the Presidential election. I know and deeply resonate with the sudden, terrible feeling that you don’t live in the country you thought you did; the realisation that the majority of your fellow country-people do not share the same hopeful and inclusive perspective that you hold as such an integral part of your identity. It’s important to take the time to mourn that loss, and we are grieving alongside you.

When the initial shock clears (and it will), we need you to help us take a step back and work out why we on the socially liberal side of the spectrum keep ending up on the losing end of these political outcomes. Why is it such a surprise to us that the results are what they are? How can so many people feel this way, and take positions that we find untenable, and us not realise?

I’ve had time to reflect on some of this since the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and then the recent Brexit vote. The reason these results seem to come completely out of the blue to so many of us isn’t so much because of the existence of a ‘silent majority’… you only need to go down to any pub or bar to hear the exact same views espoused by Trump and Farage… Instead, the real reason is that we have walled ourselves off from these irritants, creating quasi echo chambers where our only associations are those who either agree with us, or who we can have coherent conversations. The distinction there is important – as the problem is comprised of two elements: We avoid interacting with those who hold these opposing views as they seem so inconceivably awful, and when we do, we don’t even know how to engage with them properly.

Deleting people from your Facebook for posting racist, sexist, or otherwise derogatory and intolerant statements might well be part of the issue (as people are so keen to point out), but it is often the only thing that can reasonable be done to avoid getting involved in daily arguments. There is no escaping the fact that the recent wave of populism often seems completely blind to any sort of reasoned debate or discussion, and trying to get a cohesive position from many can be impossible, and frustrating. Asking somebody to provide evidence for their claims, or point out inconsistencies in their logic leads nowhere but anger, and whilst it might well win the argument, it isn’t winning anybody over.

I don’t believe that what we are witnessing is some sort of a working class movement, as some have claimed, and it certainly isn’t a battle between left and right. This is a new kind of class movement, one where those who feel disenfranchised and disempowered, and who may not necessarily be able to articulate exactly why they feel the way they do are attempting to wrest some sort of control out of a system that has failed them. Arguably though, the biggest failiure has been the ability of those of us who hold apparently ‘enlightened’ views to even begin to effectively communicate with these people, or appreciate the real issues that they face. They are real people in our communities, but ones whose views we have chosen to try and avoid conflict, which instead has only served to facilitate their growth.

I’m not sure how we do this, but if we are ever going to turn things around, we need to find ways to both interact with those on the other side of the fence, but also to engage with them. Not avoiding the discussions is probably an important first step.

High Court’s Article 50 judgement is best outcome for all

For the first time in a while, I woke up to headlines that gave me a glimmer of hope that not all has completely gone to the dogs:

Screen Shot 2016-11-03 at 12.36.32.png

I took the time to read through the full judgement (PDF), which is something of a master class in British constitutional law and statutory interpretation; full of exactly the points that I and other legal commentators have been making since the EU referendum was announced relating to British Parliamentary sovereignty.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-13-42-36

Specifically, the judgement superbly outlines and solidifies limits on the Royal Prerogative, which is a power oft-criticised for its vast, unchecked reach, and past abuses.

“The powerful constitutional principle is that the Crown should not have power to vary the law of the land by the exercise of its prerogative powers.”

Essentially, the judgement was that based on the Diceyan principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty; that it is the British Parliament who must give the Article 50 notification; not the Government via the Royal Prerogative.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-13-39-59

Despite the strong, and reasoned nature of the judgement, the response from those who voted to leave has been almost unbelievable, with Conservative MPs declaring that the Government should not be bound by unelected judges (which is literally, the entire basis of the rule of law), and that the decision to require Parliament’s involvement is ‘disgraceful’.

Dictionary definition of contradiction in terms.
Dictionary definition of contradiction in terms.

To be clear: today’s judgement was not about whether or not we leave the EU; instead, it simply re-asserted the sovereignty of the British Parliament, which is exactly what the leave campaign was arguing had been lost in the first place. If Parliament does decide to completely refuse to trigger Article 50, then that would arguably be a disgrace. The referendum was held, and the outcome should be respected; something that I have repeated time and again on this blog. However, Parliament should be involved.

The UK voted to leave the EU, yes, but the kind of exit was never specified. We were faced with the prospect of having the most extreme form of severance possible, thrust forward at the whim of an unelected Prime Minister. Instead, now we have Parliament involved in determining the kind of exit.

The Government argued in it submissions that Parliament would most likely have the chance to vote on any deal that was reached with the EU before it was implemented, and that it wasn’t necessary to have Parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50. The Court quite sensibly rejected this notion, on the basis that by the time any such vote came around, there is the real chance that the time limit imposed by the European Treaty would run out, and leave us with no rights or compromises.

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-13-14-15

By all means, get angry if Westminster completely refuses to ever trigger Article 50, but to be outraged at the principle that the British Parliament should be involved in the implementation of one of the most significant political processes of our lifetime is plainly just nonsensical. To reiterate: today’s question isn’t about whether or not Article 50 should be triggered, but who has the power to do it – on behalf of the people.

Of course, all of this is subject to a final appeal to the Supreme Court, so we will see what happens in the next leg.

I’ll wrap up with this text, taken from the Fire Brigades Union case, and quoted in today’s judgement:

R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Fire Brigades Union [1995] 2 AC 513
R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Fire Brigades Union [1995] 2 AC 513

A Hyper Key Solution for Mac OSX Sierra

In the past I’ve mentioned how I have streamlined a lot of the everyday tasks I have to do through the use of various keyboard-centric apps such as Alfred and Keyboard Maestro. One of the linchpins of my setup is the use of something called the ‘Hyper Key’, which is essentially re-mapping the fairly useless Caps Lock to act as a super-function key, letting you trigger all sorts of shortcuts and different macros.

This particular configuration relied on two bits of software, called Karabiner and Seil. However, earlier today I was forced into upgrading from OSX El Capitan, to OSX Sierra, to fix an issue with some other apps that I was having. Of course, upon upgrade, I discovered that the Karabiner/Seil combination no longer functioned properly, and there was no real solution using the same tools. Sigh.

After a bit of digging, I discovered a way to re-enable the same functionality, albeit with a bit of jiggery pokery. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Install Hammerspoon. This is a piece of software that allows for automation, acting as an interface between a scripting engine called lua, and the OS itself.
  2. Install Karabiner Elements. This is a version of Karabiner that works with OSX Sierra. The latest DMG is available here.
  3. Under OSX Keyboard System Preferences pane, change the Caps Lock Action to ‘None’, to allow Karabiner to control it.

    Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 21.12.04.png

  4. Set up Karabiner Elements to map the caps_lock to F18. You can also do this by adding in a config file to ~/.karabiner.d/configuration/karabiner.json, but it’s so easy to do manually that it seems overkill to go that route.

    screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-21-09-05
    How Karabiner Elements should look
  5. Now, load up a lua config file into Hammerspoon, by copying it to ~/.hammerspoon/init.lua – see below for examples.

The config file I am using is available over on GitHub here. It will re-enable the Hyper Key function for all a-z and 0-9 keys, as well as a couple of miscellaneous ones that I use, though it should be self explanatory on how to add new ones.

One thing to watch out for is that any Hotkeys set up in Alfred to launch applications with the Hyper Key don’t seem to work any longer, so for that, one way to get them to launch is to add a specific mapping in the init.lua configuration. Here’s what I’ve done to get 1Password to launch with CAPS+O:

-- Code to launch single apps that Alfred used to handle.
-- Hat-Tip: https://gist.github.com/ttscoff/cce98a711b5476166792d5e6f1ac5907

launch = function(appname)
 hs.application.launchOrFocus(appname)
 k.triggered = true
end

-- Keybinding for specific single apps.

singleapps = {
 {'o', '1Password 6'},
}

As you can see from the above, I obviously didn’t write the code to make all of this work. Credit for that goes to a combination of ttscoff and prenagha; I just tweaked it for my own simple use case and wrote this up in the hope that others might find it easy to follow.

Good luck!