Look Up

“Look up,” “Take it easy,” and “Keep it real.” What do these phrases mean? Their literal meaning is easy enough to grasp. But they are never used in the literal sense. They are touted as cures to our collective ills; metaphors for the actual processes which would make everyone less cynical and more attentive. I heard these phrases in the coda of an inane Hindi movie recently. The movie contained generic drivel about young people: the improbably rich MBA graduate in her 20s, the extremely hardworking gym trainer that luck does not favor, and the stand-up comedian who appears to be happy-go-lucky but is in fact hiding a dark part of his past. These characters are “finding their way” in the world; the typical plot of a “coming-of-age” movie. The lesson of this movie was to convince everyone to put their phone in a (stupid and futile) bowl, “look up,” and take notice of the world around them. One of the characters is told to stop stalking her ex-boyfriend on Instagram; “I don’t know [why]; I can’t stop.” It is ironic that it is this same character, a few minutes later in the movie, who recommends “keeping it real.” What was the great revelation?

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A Chronicle of Predominant Conversations (2023)

A large number of articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, video essays, podcasts, television dramas, and movies saturate the information landscape. It is bad form to say that there is more out there than can be read by any one person. The dreaded information overload has arrived. A few acknowledge the existence of this swarm of multimedia. The majority beckon an Algorithm, entrusting it with the responsibility of collecting, filtering, and sorting them in the unknowable order that each component particle of the majority expects. Opting out is futile. Not knowing about something is superior to not knowing about its occurrence. What follows is a view of culture and society based on the contents of 3 issues of the WIRED magazine.

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Review - God, Human, Animal, Machine (O'Gieblyn)

Rating: 5/5

I wanted to read a book which would delve into the philosophical underpinnings of the ongoing AI hype: What was the root of the idea that humans, with all their confusions and complexities, can ever be replaced by computers? O’Gieblyn’s column in the Wired magazine, Dear Cloud Support, is my favorite part of the magazine. Her writing is lucid and her references come from far and wide. I was not really prepared for the philosophical depth that is on display in this book: O’Gieblyn goes to the very beginning of the world and starts with the earliest philosophers (Plato, Aristotle) and ushers the reader through a series of “frames of mind.” She is not averse to religion or science; nor is she biased to any particular philosopher or their ideas; quoting from a huge variety of sources throughout the book to show the ways in which thinking has evolved. Her religious upbringing and her current vocation as a technology writer feature heavily throughout the book. After reading this book, I have a clear idea of where the foundation of the hype lies and how it has gotten this bad.

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Review - Subprime Attention Crisis (Hwang)

Rating: 4/5

What would happen if all the free services that you use on the Internet, which are powered by advertisements, stop being free one day? This is the premise of the Subprime Attention Crisis. If you ask yourself this, you might realize that many of the services that we think of as free are powered by advertising. For me, the most frequently used services that are ostensible free are Google Maps, WhatsApp and YouTube. I use at least one of them almost every day. If they were to become paid services, or the hurdles to using them without giving up too much data increased, it would be mildly annoying. This calculus will be very different for an Internet user who uses Gmail and uses it to receive important communication. Hwang’s argument is sensible and easy to understand. He starts from the basics of advertising on the Internet and builds up to his myriad theses: Programmatic advertising is very similar to the financial markets. Ad networks claims that targeted advertising on the Internet is better than “spray everyone” advertising on TV. This claim is a lie and that banner ads don’t really change consumer behavior. Commercial interruptions are blocked by users using ad blocking plugins or because users reliably skip ads on video-only platforms in under half a second. To back all of this, he presents a lot of industry research and anecdotal evidence. This was a convincing case for being aware that free services could stop being free any day, and there would be nothing really surprising about it. (Just the other day, YouTube took a step towards blocking ad blockers.)

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New Wireguard Peer in 10 Minutes

I have been using Wireguard for about 4 years now. I started with the basic Wireguard setup, where I did everything manually and used the ip link and ip addr commands to create new links and assign addresses to them. The wg-quick utility is open-source and has built-in SystemD support. So, I switched to using the configuration file that wg-quick requires. With an ad-blocking DNS server, I was able to use the setup for a long time without having to change anything at all. The client support was excellent on Linux, Android and (even) iOS. I never really noticed whether I had my VPN enabled. I kept it enabled at all times except when I needed to access some geofenced service. However, I was still writing the wg-quick configuration files manually and most of them were very similar. This caused me to put off adding new peers to my network as soon as I needed to. Recently, I wrote a Golang CLI tool which generates wg-quick compatible configurations for Wireguard peers, based on a simple JSON input file. Using this tool, I was able to add a new Wireguard peer and create a new network in less than 10 minutes. The path to that CLI tool is what this post is about.

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Conversion from HTML to ePub Format

Recently, I have taken to reading magazine articles and long newsletter posts on my Kindle by converting them to the ePub format, rather than reading them on the computer, where the process of making highlights and taking notes differs from the process that I use for all the e-books that I read. As I started doing this for some long articles (such as this one), I realized that the best online options out there are not good enough. I have been using dotepub.com which seems popular and converts to both the generic Epub format, and the Kindle-specific Mobi format. While it does a good job with all the text, this particular article was particularly heavy on images, and all the images were required to understand the text. When I converted the page to an Epub format, it told me that it would not include all the images from the article. So, I set out to write a few scripts which could fix that problem and actually export web pages as self-contained epub files.

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Review - Darkness at Noon (Koestler)

Rating: 5/5

This novel starts off with an imprisoned protagonist thinking of the past where the prisoner was part of the very Revolution that has now imprisoned them. As the story progresses, philosophical ramblings come at increasingly frequent intervals and the novel reveals the most valuable plot point: watching the protagonist go back and forth between the belief that the “Revolution” was a good thing, which will eventually attain its original goals; and the belief that the Revolution was incorrect to say that “an individual is the product of one million divided by one million.”

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Better Personal Data Management

I switched from Ubuntu 22.04 to Debian 11 earlier this year. I was using Ubuntu’s LTS OS versions for nearly 9 years before that, since 2014. The switch to Debian was because I stopped liking what Ubuntu had done with the OS: The GUI has become a strange mix of Ubuntu’s old desktop environment (Unity) and the Gnome Desktop Environment, which is standard and popular. I generally use the i3 window manager, so the Desktop environment was not too annoying; I could have lived with it if not for Snaps. The introduction and use of Snaps was a continuous thorn in my setup. Each snap sets up a new loop file.1 So, the output of df is polluted with these strange loop devices that I don’t care about. Also, Firefox installed using Snaps does not work well with the KeepassXC Browser integration. So, the recommended way for installing programs on Ubuntu was actively getting in my way. (There is also some Ubuntu bloatware but an equivalent of that is there in almost every other non-base distribution, so it can’t really be counted against any single distribution.) I wanted to do a few things differently with this reinstall.

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Review - The Book of Form and Emptiness (Ozeki)

Rating: 4/5

Ozeki’s novel is good at the beginning and good at the end. The middle drags on for a little too long; I had at least a mild interest in figuring out how the characters end up. However, the interest levels get pretty low. It is a book about books, art, culture, the decline of reading, the increase of consumerism, capitalism, and the incredibly high number of things that are now a fixture in the lives of a few people. It is a portrayal of the present, as a dystopia, by a Book; that shows both the ability to buy things that jobs give people, and the precarious nature of those jobs in a society with no safety net. The novel is mostly sincere, but sometimes it crosses over into the cheesy. The novel has a character whose background is identical to Marie Kondo and whose philosophy is very similar (I guess) to Ozeki’s.

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Notes and Review - Lost Daughter (Ferrante)

Rating: 5/5

One should never arrive in an unknown place at night, everything is undefined, every object is easily exaggerated.

This is a beautiful line. Every time I am booking a ticket to some new place, I remember this line. I remember the dread and uncertainty of arriving at night. Despite knowing that arriving at night is unwise, I arrived in Italy late one night in 2019. It was a timely reminder of my lack of wisdom; a line like this makes the lesson a memorable one. Seeing the confused characters in this book, my first instinct was to clamp down on their inability to decide and brand it rashly as immature indecisiveness; then, gradually, I would see the lens fog up and doubt creep in. Were they really indecisive, or do they appear unclear to us only in hindsight?

It was like a slight twinge that, as you keep thinking about it, becomes an unbearable pain. I was beginning to feel exasperated.

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