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4 stars
Kleine, aber feine anarchistische Bibliothek  de

Die Gustav-Landauer-Bibliothek Witten (GLBW) ist eine kleine, aber feine anarchistische Bibliothek im soziokulturellen Zentrum Trotz Allem in Witten. Viele aktuelle anarchistische Literatur ist vorhanden, auch vieles älteres und einiges englischsprachiges, vieles zu den Schwerpunkten Anarchismus und Philosophie – speziell auch zum Postanarchismus – und Anarchismus und Religion. Ein weiterer Schwerpunkt ist die Gustav-Landauer-Sammlung, die Werke von und über den deutschsprachigen anarchistischen Theoretiker und Aktiven der Münchner Räterepublik Gustav Landauer enthält.

Manchmal ist sie etwas chaotisch, aber es gibt eine kompetente und liebevolle Beratung, nach der man unbedingt fragen sollte. Preislich ist die GLBW dank der kostenlosen Ausleihe (keine Mitgliedsgebühren!) unschlagbar.

Aufgrund der aktuellen (2020) COVID-19-Pandemie ist die GLBW leider geschlossen, aber die Aktiven sind bemüht, zumindest einen kleinen Teil der Schriften auch online im Internet Archive/in der Open Library zur Verfügung zu stellen. Im Internet Archive liegen auch einige Aufzeichnungen von Vorträgen.

Achtung: Diese Rezension könnte Anteile von Parteilichkeit enthalten. 😉️

5 stars
A FOSS, european, decentralised video platform

Peertube is basically a libre response to Google’s Youtube. It has no ads (apart from possible in-video sponsors), has no central server and this leads to a better possible content moderation. The content moderation is based on the server that you signed up to chooses to ‘federate’ with and manually black-lists ect… This of course means that NSFW (eg. porn) can be found on Peertube yet might no be available from your viewing experience as that is based on the instance/server that you are viewing the federated network from.
It’s a work in progress and this review is so basic it’s basically just to give a few words and 5 stars for a FLOSS project that incredibly didn’t seem to have any reviews yet.
(I’ll come back to update and improve this review in the future.)

4 stars
Too bloated, a real shame

I have used Matrix for some time now and yet the only reason is that I find it the least bad open-source messaging app.
Today, in a world of so many different protocals for IM, both proprietary and FOSS, I trully believe in Matrix’s vision of a federated multi-support IM service. The compatibility with IRC has made it a truly recommendable program for most things and has allowed to completely uninstall my horrible IRC app. The possibility of the federation although problematic for complete privacy is a very good tool for the sustainability of the project, indeed it does not need for the official to pool in great amounts of revenue to keep the servers afloat or have the it die when the lead devs aren’t as interested by it anymore or don’t have the ressources/time to keep it sailing smoothly.
However, Matrix fails spectacularly at what actually matters for greater adoption: a clean, lightweight interface (web)app. I shall first start by thanking the devs that have created third party clients for Matrix because I just do not like the webapp. It’s honnestly fine. The desktop version however is just horrible for not-so-powerful computers (I would recommend nheko-reborn as cross-platform). The android app however, I must admit is much nicer, however it is a bit more than I need so I use the ‘minivector’ fork (available via f-droid).
To add to the dissapointing, yet encouraging, applications are the features. There is no doubt that to compete with a propritary application is quite challenging for any FLOSS project and yet the most basic features that make discord (or slack) great to use is not implemented (and does not seem to be in the roadmap?) in Matrix: rooms! I swear I think the mere creations of different rooms would make Matrix so much better. The audio/video is really, I think, secondary to the implementations of the most basic and advanced texting features. These have been for some time, I believe, become expected by most people/users.
And yet, despite these critiques, I shall keep using Matrix and look forward to it’s future because I dare express my optimism for it’s future sucess.

4 stars
A good idea that can be built on

The purposes of the Libre Game Night are threefold;

  • one, to have a enjoyable place to hang out and play with others,

  • two, to play FOSS games, including a very enjoyable 24/7 minetest server,

  • three, to promote FOSS games.

In all honnesty, I think it does accomplish all three but great improvement could be made. The use of IRC and Mumble are not necessarily the best choices to wider the community, and I think this is shown through the small number of regular players, whereas the use of different software might help (there was a talk of a discord bridge, rightly rejected, but still, perhaps the existence of a non-bridge server could be beneficial). However, a better organisation would be greatly appreciated: the voting system (as perhaps a rotating system to know wich game to play, or a second day in the week having that system ?), not to mention the website and wiki seem a decade old (just like the use of IRC in a way, except that IRC has got some benefits). I also am lead to believe that a system to RSVP when one would be connected might tend to bring about a greater number of persons, as would having another night or not at least 4 different timezones. The timezones can of course be a good thing with a very large and arround the globe community, yet I do not have the sense that this needed.

On a temporary note, during the global COVID-19 lock down every night is libre game night!

5 stars
A timeless masterpiece about power and belief

Dune. Arrakis. Desert planet. Long before I read Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic, it exerted its pull on me. As a kid, I spent dozens of hours playing Dune II (1992), which kickstarted the real-time strategy genre in gaming, with a thin plot loosely based on Herbert’s novel. I enjoyed Star Wars, which owes many of its ideas and settings to Dune. And I ran away (as you should) from the botched 1984 movie adaptation.

In 2020, how does the novel hold up?

Dune tells the story of a conflict in the far future, with cataclysmic consequences for a humanity that has become an interplanetary civilization. The conflict centers on the planet Arrakis, the only source of “spice”, a mind-enhancing drug needed for space navigation.

Young Paul Atreides, member of one of several powerful Houses that rule the galaxy, joins his father, Duke Leto, on a journey to take charge of Arrakis on behalf of the Emperor, displacing House Harkonnen. The Harkonnens have other plans—and so, it turns out, does the Emperor. Will the inhabitants of the desert planet, the native Fremen, take a side in the conflict? And what is the meaning of Paul’s visions of the future?

Frank Herbert is an incredibly imaginative author, and he manages to pack so many complex ideas into just a few paragraphs that it can make your head spin. The future of Dune is one where humanity has not only invented AI, it has decided to do away with it, in a jihad against technology. Instead of AI, a select few serve as mental computers—mentats—on behalf of the ruling class.

Religion, too, plays a powerful role. A religious order known as the Bene Gesserit has fused faith, eugenics, and mental discipline to pursue a long term agenda alongside secular rulers. Through its Missionaria Protectiva, it has seeded superstitious beliefs in human settlements throughout the galaxy, so it can exploit those beliefs later.

All this world-building is at times dizzying, especially when Herbert uses invented words and concepts without much introduction, leaving the reader to figure out what they mean (or inviting her to read the book’s glossary). But this is not a book without payoff—the characters and the world come alive as the story unfolds.

Herbert wrote five more novels that continued the story, and his son Brian Herbert has co-authored many additional books set in the same universe. While this sheer volume may seem daunting, the story told in Dune stands on its own, with or without sequels or prequels.

The Verdict

Dune is a masterpiece, at times challenging, but highly rewarding. By focusing on timeless themes of power and belief (instead of obsessing about the future of technology), Herbert managed to write a story that is just as much at home in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.

In some ways, it feels more relevant than ever. Part of the book is a plea for ecological literacy (it even features an appendix on the ecology of Arrakis), for understanding the interdependence of life and life-giving resources. And as we grapple with AI not just as a concept but as a reality, Dune depicts a fascinating future where the human intellect is augmented, not replaced.

I’ll withhold judgment on the arc of Herbert’s books until I’ve read more of them—but I can wholeheartedly recommend the first book in the series. A new movie adaptation is in the works, but with a world-wide pandemic, who knows when we’ll actually see it. In the meantime, you can’t go wrong reading the book that started it all.

2 stars
Un no buen libro sobre el lenguaje e Internet  es

Para quienes desconocen las particularidades de Internet puede resultar algo (no demasiado) esclarecedor.

Un acierto del autor ha sido sin duda dedicar capítulos separados a las diferentes situaciones que se presentan en Internet:

  • La red informática mundial (o World Wide Web)
  • El correo electrónico
  • Grupos de charla (síncronos, como IRC; asíncronos, como las listas de correo)
  • Mundos virtuales

La descripción que hace del lenguaje de Internet es bastante precisa a grandes rasgos. Sin embargo, es incapaz de proporcionar una visión lo suficientemente detallada con tan pocos datos: usa unos pocos correos de que dispone para describir el correo electrónico y otras pocas conversaciones para los grupos de charla. Para la red informática mundial se apoya principalemente en guías de estilo y en otros estudios sobre el lenguaje de Internet.

No ha estudiado profundamente el uso de otros idiomas aparte del inglés en Internet, cómo se relacionan comunidades angloparlantes con las no angloparlantes ni qué papel juegan factores como el ancho de banda. Se ve claramente que el autor no tiene ni la más remota idea de cómo funciona Internet a nivel técnico. Con esa limitación solo puede hacer apreciaciones superficiales.

No aporta nada nuevo, no resulta interesante la lectura y deja demasiadas cuestiones sin resolver. Tampoco se aventura a pronosticar mucho sobre el futuro de Internet y sus efectos. En el prólogo dice que el libro lo ha escrito básicamente para formar su opinión y esclarecer sus ideas acerca del lenguaje de Internet y sus consecuencias, poco más. A mí prácticamente no me ha aportado nada, quizás porque entiendo como funciona técnicamente Internet y ya había observado y participado en gran medida en las diferentes situaciones comunicativas de Internet usando diferentes idiomas.

A día de hoy, dadas las novedades que ha habido en Internet desde su publicación en 2001, el libro no resulta muy útil. No he leído la segunda edición (publicada en 2006) en la que se incluye un capítulo sobre los blogs y la mensajería instantánea ni creo que la lea nunca.

4 stars
A solo sojourn in a space station full of 3D memories

As my reviews of Gone Home and Firewatch make clear, I am favorably disposed towards exploration games (sometimes described as “walking simulators) where the player explores a story-rich world with relatively few action or puzzle elements.

Tacoma is the second game by the makers of Gone Home, Fullbright Games from Portland, Oregon. In Gone Home, the main character (a woman named Katie) returned to an empty home and tried to find out why her family wan’t there to meet her. In Tacoma, the main character (a woman named Amy) visits an empty space station and tries to find out what happened to its crew.

But where the world of Gone Home was littered with notes and other papers for the player to sort through, Tacoma tells its story through the experiences of the crew, which Amy can review through recovered Augmented Reality recordings. The ghostly figures of the crew can be observed in conversation, taking a smoke break, or playing AR games.

In the lounge of the space station, watching an AR recording of the station’s medical officer talking to its AI. (Credit: Fullbright Games. Fair use.)

Ostensibly, Amy’s job is to recover the valuable “wetware” that powers the ship’s Artificial Intelligence, but in the process, we are learning more and more about the events that caused Tacoma to drift through space without its crew. It quickly becomes clear that an accident happened on Tacoma, but we still don’t know the fate of the crew, and whether there is a deeper mystery to uncover.

In addition to AR recordings, Amy can access some of the crew members’ most intimate personal files—calls and instant messages, emails, private notes. Much of this does not add to the main story, but paints a more complete picture of each crew member’s motivations and emotional connections.

There are no real puzzles, but there are countless objects you can interact with, from books you can pick up to a zero-g basketball game you can play. These details serve no purpose other than to create a richer world for the player to explore.

There’s also a fair bit of world-building to center the story of Tacoma in a future where humans and AI must learn to co-exist, and a small number of corporations is fighting for control of people’s lives. This world is intelligently constructed, and whether or not you find it plausible, it’s internally consistent.

In spite of all this, you’ll likely finish the game in 2-3 hours—double that if you add another playthrough for more exploration or to access the commentary track.

In short, Tacoma is an atmospheric game that lets you feel like you’re on a space station, without having to deal with demons or aliens. As a story, I found it less compelling than Gone Home, in spite of the clever storytelling mechanics. It’s hard to become invested in any of the characters, and the clues we get about their backstories provide very little narrative payoff.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the time I spent on Tacoma. I wouldn’t recommend paying full price for it, but it regularly drops to $5-$7.50, at which it offers good value.

4 stars
We All Shine On

Is rudimentary consciousness a fundamental property of matter? The idea strikes many people as bizarre, because it evokes notions of self-aware household objects and tomatoes screaming in pain as they make their way into the pasta sauce. But it deserves more precise articulation and a fair hearing.

In “Galileo’s Error”, philosopher Philip Goff makes the case for this idea, known as panpsychism, for a general audience. He begins by outlining the problems with dualist mind/matter explanations (where the mind is a separate “thing” that somehow interacts with matter), and with strictly materialist explanations that neglect to offer any explanation for the quality of conscious experience.

What if those qualities are the intrinsic nature of matter itself? In this view, the human mind is continuous with the universe in which it is embedded. There’s no need to postulate “special mind stuff”, to invent deities, or to wave your hands and say “emergent property”.

Instead, in this view, subatomic particles like electrons experience change, and more complex forms of consciousness can be built up (or indeed arise) from simple ones. The qualities of human experience—the color red, the smell of coffee, a loving touch—must have their foundations in matter itself.

Of course, this is not a new idea, and many philosophies and religions have embraced forms of panpsychism. It is not even new to Western philosophy, and Goff especially cites the debates between Bertrand Russell and Arthur Eddington. This context is where the book offers what I consider to be the most succinct argument in favor of the panpsychist hypothesis (p. 134):

Eddington’s starting point is as follows:

  1. Physical science tells us absolutely nothing about the intrinsic nature of matter.

  2. The only thing we know about the instrinsic nature of matter is that some of it, i.e., the matter inside brains, has an intrinsic nature made up of forms of consciousness.

It is hard to really absorb these two facts, as they are diametrically opposed to the way our culture thinks about science. But if we manage to do so, it becomes apparent that the simplest hypothesis concerning the intrinsic nature of matter outside of brains is that it is continuous with the intrinsic nature of matter inside of brains, in the sense that both inside and outside of brains matter has an intrinsic nature made up of forms of consciousness.

Aurora Borealis, seen from Iceland in February 2014. The complexity of the nonliving world invites the question whether it is fully discontinuous with embodied human experiences. (Credit: Schnuffel2002. License: CC-BY-SA.)

Yet, current scientific attempts to explain consciousness rarely consider it a phenomenon that is even worth studying outside of the context of a brain. And these “explanations” (e.g., efforts to show that certain neural activity is correlated with certain conscious experiences) are at best predictions—they don’t get us much closer to understanding what conscious experience is.

Goff points the finger at Galileo Galilei for setting science on a path that is strictly quantitative, a path where any effort to explain the quality of an experience (the color red, the smell of coffee, a loving touch) is out of bounds, or at least suspect. Goff argues that to disregard these qualities is to disregard fundamental scientific facts. Indeed, no fact is as foundational and undeniable as the reality of our own conscious minds.

Panpsychism is an attractive hypothesis. Like the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, it elegantly resolves tricky questions at the very “bottom” of existence. It also has similar difficulties of testability, which could put it in the “not even wrong” realm of speculation. Perhaps, as our ability to predict conscious states increases thanks to efforts like integrated information theory, we will predict them in places where we wouldn’t expect them. Then the more difficult claim to defend may be that “mere matter” is not continuous with conscious experience.

The Verdict

Philip Goff presents a cogent and beautiful argument in defense of a thesis many “materialists” will seek to dismiss as New Age woo. But the idea that consciousness needs no rudimentary precursor in nonliving matter may itself turn out to be woo. Goff does not assert that the panpsychist hypothesis is correct—only that it should be considered seriously in our efforts to understand consciousness.

The book is strongest when it presents this core argument. Goff lost me in the last chapter, where he makes what I consider to be a very weak argument for a non-deterministic universe and the existence of free will. He argues that “free will” is the “responsiveness to rational considerations”, but it’s not clear why a deterministic brain cannot be “responsive to rational considerations”, and why determinism must be a constraint to be “freed” from. Perhaps that is a matter for another book; in any event, it seems out of place in this one.

I recommend Galileo’s Error not as any definitive answer to questions about the nature of consciousness, but as a very well-reasoned argument for expanding the Overton window of science, especially when it comes to explaining the very qualities that make life worth living.

4 stars
A short but unforgettable walk in the forest

Can a game be a place?

As the player of Firewatch, you are a man named Henry who starts a job as a lookout in Shoshone National Forest, in Wyoming. In the preamble, we learn that this is an escape from dealing with your wife’s early-onset dementia.

Your only regular human contact is by radio, with a woman named Delilah who works in another lookout tower. Delilah is your boss, and she soon gives you your first assignment: to investigate some illegal fireworks near a lake.

Your relationship with Delilah is influenced by the dialogue choices you make. Mostly, the game keeps you on rails to uncover a larger mystery. This involves a lot of walking around through beautiful landscapes, using your map and compass to find your way.

This is an exploration game—or, as some would say, a walking simulator. The biggest challenges for the player tend to be of the “how do I get from A to B” variety. Nonetheless, Firewatch manages to be immersive and at times even menacing. The game targets an adult audience—as the developers put it, it is a “video game about adults having adult conversations about adult things.”

Firewatch offers many scenic views of its version of Shoshone National Forest. (Credit: Firewatch by Campo Santo. Fair use.)

After you finish the story, you can still continue to explore Shoshone National Forest at your leisure (and collect the game’s soundtrack in a mini-game). The landscapes really are beautiful, whether you’re walking through Thunder Canyon towards the lake, admiring a sunset, or exploring the forest at night with your flashlight on.

It is a very short game, and like life itself, its story is ultimately a bit untidy. You’re unlikely to get more than 4-6 hours of play time out of it. But it is a game that is also a place, and years after playing it, you may be tempted to visit it again.

The current regular sales price for Firewatch is $20. It has repeatedly been on sale for $5, so I recommend wishlisting it and buying it at a lower price.

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood
5 stars
A history of the seemingly ineffable

James Gleick is widely regarded as a masterful science writer, and for good reason. Through the 526 pages of The Information (2011), Gleick spins an accessible tale about Charles Babbages’s difference engine, about Turing machines and Maxwell’s demon, about Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and Shannon-Fano coding and Boolean algebra, all in service of illuminating a concept that may seem ineffable: information itself.

Gleick shows how complex computation and signal processing problems led to the development of information theory, which gave us ways to quantify information and to speak about the entropy of a body of text. This in turn touched countless other disciplines, and made the networked world we find ourselves in today possible. Towards the end of the book, Gleick explores the wonders of this world, including Wikipedia.

The book was written before recent debates about fake news, Twitter bot armies, and similar disinformation campaigns, but Gleick anticipated that the burdens of selecting true from false, and forgetting that which should be forgotten, would only increase.

This is a book that aims for breadth (from talking drums to telegrams, from analog computers to digital ones), not depth. If you’re looking for an introduction to information theory, look elsewhere. As a history of ideas, The Information succeeds brilliantly. Page after page, the book places a question in the reader’s mind, then addresses it; it weaves together anecdotes and facts, never overloading the reader with jargon, but not shying away from complexity.

As Gleick points out, without selecting that which matters, we end up with a Library of Babel, conceived by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges as a library that contains all possible books of a certain length. In the libraries of the real world, this book has earned its place to give us a shared history and vocabulary for the conversations to come.

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