Greece, a society undergoing Stockholm syndrome

I spent last week in Athens because Lea was at work at the Athens & Epidaurus festival where the Schaubühne staged two plays. I spent the week relaxing, working and taking in the Athens air.

Rooftop drink watching the Acropolis

Athens Terrace Life

The temperature of 32-36C during the entire week was a good reason to spend all my time outdoors in the shade. Athens, being accustomed to this weather, has ample options to choose from to spend your time, from garden patios, terraces all over the place, drink and food stands and lots and lots of iced cappucini and espressi.

Garden patio

Interestingly almost every restaurant, café and terrace in the city has WiFi. One place near the hotel where we went regularly, Ambrosia, excused themselves for not having it saying ‘they were old.’ Given the proliferation of internet, I hardly saw any laptops in the various cafés neither during the day or night time. I’m guessing the WiFi is being used by smart phone users to supplement their limited data plans.

Nice cafe

Oddly during the so-called economic crisis, almost everything at terraces was still pretty expensive (Amsterdam prices). Iced coffees went for €4 and cocktails from €9 upwards also beers were definitely not cheap. I didn’t see a lack of visitors either. Many of the very upmarket establishment where I was rubbing shoulders with the Athens 1% were bustling. Those that have managed to set aside enough savings (wherever they got the money) look to be casually riding out the current storm. I have no idea how those who are less well off are weathering this.

Athens square life

A lot of real estate around town looked to be for let with “Enoikiazetai” plastered on too many buildings to count. This seems to stem from a similar price locking where property owners will not cut their prices even though the market cannot support it.

The artist at work

Strolling around the city I saw parties and preparations happening everywhere. A party would consist of a DJ, a couple of speakers, electricity tapped from a nearby distributing box and a couple of coolers filled with beer. The best of these was one evening in a derelict construction site where in a gallery space artists were at work and downstairs a rave was taking place. Tons of people were drinking and partying on the street. At least crises are good for parties.


The Theater Festival

I dropped by the theater festival after the opening night to have a drink. This festival like so many others was located on the location of evaporated industry. Where there once were jobs, there now are cultural venues. The Peiraeus 260 complex was a rather successful example of this development. High profile theater festivals such as this one are almost exclusively frequented by a kind of elite who have an old-fashioned and status sensitive cultural taste. I briefly skimmed the program, but I could not find anything I wanted to spend my time on.

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On that opening night, the location served Berlin beer, locally brewed but with a proper bear logo on it. All of the Schaubühne shows at this festival (and at the previous one in Athens a couple of weeks ago) had sold out even on the night that Germany was playing Greece in the EC. Greek people even were boastfully demonstrating their German language skills at anybody they could find. It looked to me as if the ruling class of Athens —fully aware where their money comes from— was cozying up to their new German masters.

This all is a bit surreal if you read reports about Greek ressentiment against Germans. We did not see anything of the sort here. If anything, in parts of Greek society Germany seems to be an aspirational value.

The Engaged

At the port of Peiraeus I saw a banner by SYRIZA claiming that the necessary changes in Greece have been made. I hope they don’t believe it themselves.

“The change in Greece has been done. Europe, are you listening?” —SYRIZA

Then at the local Ruby programmers meetup they were discussing organization of the next Euroku, a rather large event in this scene. And like anywhere in the world programmers are in such short supply that they cannot lift their heads for the amount of work on their plate. This is good for them, but that same short supply means that they will not be able to change a lot.

Hacker event discussing Ruby now

Near the end of my stay I found Exarcheia square which seems to be the focus of the counter-cultural movement. No riots to be found, just a bunch of banners obscuring the square and a collection of nice cafés and restaurants that are a bit less glossy than those in city center. Probably the place where normal Athenians hang out. At night a large group of people gathered on the square. Music from a DJ and banners professing sympathy for Turkish anarchists accompanied the revelers who were mostly occupied trying to deplete the beer supply of the local drink stand.

Street art

Whatever you may think of it, the protestors, the politicians, the programmers are all busy doing things. At least they do not spend their days idling on terraces sipping pricy beverages.

The End

My final impression is that of a country locked in a strange kind of socio-economical stasis, very much resigned to the current situation and deeply divided on many levels. Change looks to be far away either going to require a long time or the breaking of a great many things. However difficult the Greek relationship with Europe may be, it has been the source of a lot of the local prosperity.

I should work in beachside clubs more often.

On my last day there I had my wallet pick-pocketed from me while returning from the beach. This is a common enough occurrence in the tourist centers of the mediterranean. Fortunately I suffered no worse damage than having to replace a stack of plastic, having no money on me to donate to the Greek cause.

Week 274: programming for n00bs, meetups, matches and hackathons

On Monday I got back into work after the couple of days in Copenhagen. I also discovered that the talk I gave in Rotterdam “Designing in the Face of Defeat” about the New Aesthetic has been recorded and you can watch it above.

Indie meetup

I spent the entire day working on saba and then rushed over to the A.Maze Indie Meetup. It’s always good to see the usual suspects and the games they’ve been working on.

Upfront UG - so many people!

On Tuesday we kicked off the implementation stage for the Playing with Pigs project. In the evening I dropped by at the Upfront UG in the same building as where I work.


On Wednesday I started adding sound to saba. It is amazing how transformative an addition sound effects are to a game. That night at the Maker’s Loft we saw the Netherlands losing from Germany, which was made a little less painful by doing it in the company of a lot of Berlin friends.

Watching bike ballet

On Thursday I took the train to Amsterdam and ran into Wilg and Timan who demoed me the custom heigth maps they are doing for Snowciety. If you’re into winter sports, you should definitely check out their app which looks excellent.

I thought Dutch showers would be mild

Friday I spent at our Hack de Overheid offices at the Open Coop where I spent the day preparing my lesson in programming for beginners I would give at our hackathon.

So many musea and archives opening up all their data. So awesome!

That hackathon was the main reason I came back to the Netherlands. We did the annual spring hackathon we do with Hack de Overheid to promote open data, civic applications and be a place where people can go to connect over these causes. The event was a resounding success thanks to the help we got in organizing it and all the people who showed up. The great Michelle Thorn gave a great keynote where she made some good analogous to help structure the activistic work we are doing. A great help to all of us to see the bigger picture and keep firmly in mind the goals we are aiming for.

Tim Berners Lee guides the way to more open data #hackathon

So much data was opened up again and so many ideas to improve the Netherlands were shared and built upon. The institutions giving away their data is such a stark difference from the attitude I have witnessed in Germany these past months. It is as though both countries are in different world: one in the modern, sharing world where developer mindshare and providing excellent services to your citizens is foremost, and the other in a traditional authoritarian nightmare where permission needs to be asked for everything and is rarely granted by the autocrats. It is probably clear which is which. More information about the hackathon and its follow-ups will be on our blog soon.

My workshop on learning to program was received well, even with the ridiculously short 45 minutes we had to explain algorithmic thinking and rudimentary programming. It can be done. With a bit more time, we could have had everybody do something for themselves too to hammer home the concepts. I will be posting the slides soon and organizing follow-up events in Berlin and Amsterdam to get more people programming. If you are interested, let me know here or on twitter.

Little piece of heaven in North

Finally we saw the opening of the swinging garden in front of our office, which when the sun is out has turned into a right little piece of heaven. Amsterdam North is seeing a positive development with a speed that I could not have imagined a couple of years ago. It’s affordable, spacious and friendly, totally the opposite to what is normal in city across the water.

Having a drink with this view

Copenhagen Bikes

During my visit to Copenhagen I tried to make use of the Copenhagen City Bike system. Although eventually successful, it turns out bicycle sharing systems without a digital component can lead to frustrations.

Where London’s Boris Bikes provide a digital readout of station occupancy in Copenhagen you need to walk around and see which (if any) station still has a bike in it. Late afternoon this turns up empty most of the time because it seems many tourists get one and then camp on their bike for the rest of the day or their stay.

As in any bicycle heavy city, spots for parking your bike are always scarce and underused bike share parking will be quickly appropriated.

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After seven or eight empty stations (which when empty are rather hard to spot too) I finally found a somewhat functioning bike to take a tour of the city with. The map affixed to the bike shows the region with bikes and where you can take them (within the lakes and Christianshavn roughly). The bike itself is rather nice and can be made to perform adequately.

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Some people also lock the bikes either short term or long term similarly to what happened to the Dutch attempt at White Bicycles for everybody to use pioneered by the Provos. Without accountability enforced by security measures it turns out any such material sharing system quickly falls prey to the tragedy of the commons. I am right now reading Bruce Schneier’s “Liars and Outliers” which treats exactly these kind of dilemma’s between individual benefit and social benefit and how to create systems which create globally optimal outcomes to support our complex societies.

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No cars for life

This article by Good about people my age and younger driving less strikes me as very true. Just one point: I have a driving license, but I’ve never owned a car. My brother does not even have a driving license because if you never leave Amsterdam having a car is ludicrous. I try to minimize my driving except for the occasional road trip because I think my time is too valuable to spend many hours doing something unnecessary.

But even more striking is the following paragraph that positions this change as one of the factors that influences the change of population within certain cities:

When the Millennial generation’s desire for more public transit and walkable neighborhoods clashes with political/policy gridlock, the result is skyrocketing real estate prices in the nation’s few non-car-centric cities. This can have a powerful displacement effect on lower-income residents. The more walkable a neighborhood, the more expensive it is. (Consider Manhattan, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, large swaths of Brooklyn, and Center City Philadelphia, among others.) This forces low-income and immigrant communities into the suburbs where, paradoxically, those least able to afford a car may be forced to get one. — GOOD

Public transport here of course is complementary with walkable neighborhoods but also with a lively urban fabric with enough cultural, leisurely and other things to do within easy reach. In short people who can afford it want to live in the nice parts of the city (and who can blame them). This proces has already happened in Amsterdam and is now taking place in Berlin (see the previous piece on the protests) somewhat more violently.

Theoretically political/policy gridlock is fixable, but I’m bearish on political change in Europe and Germany where all our attention is directed towards the maladies plaguing the continent and the political system is historically autocratic and unresponsive.

Week 273: Objects, Hack de Overheid, Copenhagen, European Data Forum, Linked Data, Metropolis Lab, all new Foursquare

I’ve been into something of a speculative realism binge lately reading quite some books and even more blogs from the field of current day philosophy. Last Monday I finished Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology which is highly recommended if you want to read up on object oriented ontology.

Preparations for our Hack de Overheid hackathon are entering their last weeks and things are speeding up. If you want a nice day of civic hacking with friendly people and good food and drinks, I’ll say head on over to our signup page.

Getting some work done and then it was off to Copenhagen with the Tuesday night train. Travelling that way with your own bedroom, going to sleep in one city and waking up in another is by far the most relaxing way to go (except when the train has a two hour delay before your 00:32 departure).

You try to travel by rail because it's good and stuff but things go wrong too regularly. Stuck at HBF at night with a two hour delay.

And now by magic I will go to sleep in Berlin and wake up in Copenhagen.

I visited Copenhagen for the European Data Forum to see what the data driven discussions were about on the European level. We got informed about a lot of European programs, a lot of talk about Linked Data and not very much pertaining to the stuff we do from day to day. Some friends from the open data movement were present and the event was quite informative all in all.

The focus on Linked Data in many of the participants is heartening and understandable but ultimately it is a doomed approach. I got into an argument about this during lunch with some developers. There are problems on two levels. On the low level, Linked Data does not solve any actual problems for developers but it does cause many for them because of lack of tooling, learning curves, interoperability costs etc. This is both a problem in proposition and marketing but it is not seen as such by the Linked Data community. Until that is recognized, adoption of Linked Data technologies will remain as dismal as it is right now.

On the higher level, the fact that there is so little interoperation and so much problems standardizing and getting things to work together may be symptoms of the fact that the models of the world being aimed for are too complicated. Engineers will always mistake the map for the territory, but it is curious that they would be able to sell that many other people on it. The engineers’ answer to the fact that things do not work yet is of course: that they need more time/money/resources thrown at the problem. The fact that the cost/benefit ratios have gone completely skewed is not being noticed because it is in no one’s best interest to do so.

Fortunately people on the ground doing real work in open data, such as us and the Open Knowledge Foundation, are encountering these problems and fixing them because in the real world we have no other choice. Rufus Pollock presented about the folly of perfect models and APIs and he’s right on both counts (I presented about this myself before).

Government agencies that can’t release their data on a website properly, are probably not ever going to have APIs that are usable or stable enough for anybody to build something serious on. They would better dump the data and have the developers with a vested interest build their own APIs or whatever they need. Similarly Rufus argued against overmodeling againts a room of European funded academics. I’m not very hopeful but some of it may have changed some hearts and minds.

The same day Berlin celebrated its own open data day, which I unfortunately had to miss. I hear that a lot of people showed up which is good because a lot of work is still to be done in that field. A list has been started to discuss open data in public transit, which should be a high priority. After having gone around Copenhagen for a couple of days with its Google Transit support, not having such a transit facility in a city is such an annoyance and cause of opportunity cost that it should be counted as a criminal offense on part of the transit operators.

European Data Forum - Going to be interesting at least

After two days of talking about data I also visited the Metropolis Lab at the Overgaden art institute where they were having talks about developing the creative city. It was a nice and cozy event, pretty much the complete opposite of the previous one I had visited where artists, architects and festival curators were discussing their work. Given the description of the event I had expected a bit more about games and other procedural media/systems.

I did see Tor Lindstrand present about architecture and I must say that was an awesome experience.

Metropolis Laboratory - another gathering for which we are too practical from the looks of it (now discussing authenticity and authority)

The rest of the time in Copenhagen I spent eating and drinking quality things. Coming back to Berlin that was one of the most important differences I noticed, the fact that food and drinks in Copenhagen were about three times as expensive but also at least twice as good than I had in Berlin.

The other is that the opulence and organization of a Nordic capital is a stark difference to what we are used to in Berlin. It is nice being in a city that is not destitute for a while though Copenhagen may be too polished to live in for any amount of time.

Nice cross station where the train suddenly is street level and there is no wall.

Egg muffin from heaven

New place, totally game

I also browsed the Avignon festival website which I will be visiting in July and came across this item on the programme by Sévérine Chavrier who is staging a play “Plage ultime” inspired by the works of J.G. Ballard. I will be arriving just too late to see that, but I do wish that more theater makers would take note. My current experience indicates that France is doing well in theater innovation (Gisèle Vienne is another name to watch out for) and Kornél Mundruczó is also showing a work “Disgrace” at Avignon (who I saw before in Rotterdam).

It's raining outside and the food here is sublime. I don't think I'm going anywhere.

Kaffe & Vinyl win @straboh

And then it was back to Berlin on Friday night.

End of the week we also got surprised by the all new Foursquare, with a major update to both the mobile client and the website.
Can you tell we're the commercial messages are going to be?

I have to say that I absolutely love the new engagement that this view allows. The main timeline that you now see, though noisy can stand up to the best that either Facebook or Path or Instagram have to offer and that showdown is clearly the direction that Foursquare is headed. Engagement around pictures, likes and comments is high and this update may very well increase that.

I have been a bit annoyed by some changes, but then again I may very well be too much of a power user while they are going for a mass market appeal. For most users what they have changed is an improvement.

For some others like myself and Tantek Çelik, the lack of a local friends view is a bit of an annoyance, especially if —like me— most of your friends live somewhere else. I quite like knowing what everybody in Amsterdam has been up to, but it does not have to be front and center to my experience because I can’t act on it (except in virtual ways).

For most users this is unlikely to be an issue because all of their friends will be in the same city anyway. Because I thought complaining is only going to fix that much, I made a single serving view of foursquare with only the people within a 50k radius: Old Fashioned Checkins.

This was very easy to do because of Foursquare’s excellent developer APIs and support. Another feature missing from the mobile client right now is being able to explore for venues that you have not visited yet. If I look around my house now, I almost only get to see places that I have already been to. Not much serendipity in that. These are undoubtedly things that are going to be improved upon on future updates, but this has been one of the first changes in foursquare that has been so jarring.

Then the rest of the week work to finish saba has continued apace as well.

The Prince of Networks Notes

Last weekend I finished the Prince of Networks (which is in fact available for free online and I recommend you read it, though Alien Phenomenology may be a more concise and lighter introduction into speculative realism) by Graham Harman.

I must say I’m quite impressed by the clarity and breadth of thought that Harman and many of the philosophers in that current express. This interview (my excerpts from it) with him contained some insights and phrases that I had not seen expressed before.

More generally speaking whether it is Harman or Bogost or DeLanda or any of the others, it is particularly nice to be reading the current philosophers of our age who right now are relevant, alive and online. This last bout of reading has finally made me reach the long overdue realization that philosophy need not be a dead pursuit nor that writings on philosophy need to be obtuse.

So here are my notes from the book which is filled with brilliance:

the engineer must /negotiate/ with the mountain at every stage of the project, testing to see where the rock resists and where it yields, and is quite often surprised by the behaviour of the rock.

it is impossible to derive one thing instantly from another without the needed labour

Actors become more real by making larger parts of the cosmos vibrate in harmony with their goals, or by taking detours in their goals to capitalize on the force of nearby actants.

It is never the actant in naked purity that possesses force, but only the actant involved in its ramshackle associations with others, which collapse if these associations are not lovingly maintained.

Harmony is a result, not a guiding principle.

Systems are assembled at great pains, one actant at a time, and loopholes always remain.

To see something ‘directly’ means following a lengthy chain of transformations from one medium into another and on into another.

Their main difference is that Plato’s metaphysics seeks reality at a layer deeper than all articulation by qualities, while Latour thinks there is no reality outside such articulations.

Yet they are allowed to enter only by virtue of their effect on other things, since Latour holds that there is never anything more to them than this.

The question is only whether we grant sufficient reality to objects when we say that a thing is not just /known/ by what it ‘modifies, transforms, perturbs or creates’, but that it actually is nothing more than these effects. If the pragmatism of knowledge becomes a pragmatism of ontology, the very reality of things will be defined as their bundle of effects on other things.

Latour does not mind defining an actor by what it affects, but he does not allow an actor to borrow its effects in advance. Payment in real time is demanded at every stage of the translation.

If not for this basic asymmetry between an actor’s components and its alliances, we would have a purely holistic cosmos. Everything would be defined to an equal degree by the actors above it as below it, and there would be no place in reality not defined utterly by its context.

Monisms are too pious and sugary in their holism, dualisms too static in their trench warfare, and triads too smug in their happy endings. But fourfold structures allow for tension no less than plurality, and hence we find Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, Scotus Eriugena, Francis Bacon, Vico, Kant, Greimas, McLuhan, and others chopping the world into four.

Instead of an objective nature filled with genuine realities and a subjective cultural sphere filled with fabricated fictions, there is a single plane of actors that encompasses neutrinos, stars, palm trees, rivers, cats, armies, nations, superheroes, unicorns and square circles. All objects are treated in the same way. Latour justifies this with his broad conception of an actor as anything that has an effect on other things. […] Latour adds that if all entities are equally real, all are not equally /strong/. Fictional characters and myths have weaker legions of allies testifying to their existence than do lumps of coal. Hence, we can democratize the world of actors and still avoid the free-for-all of social construction.

In this sense, an object is a sort of invisible railway junction between its own pieces and its outer effects. An object is /weird/—it is never replaceable by any sum total of qualities or effects. It is a real thing apart from all foreign relations with the world, and apart from all domestic relations with its own pieces.

Week 272: speculative realism, iPhone development, event visiting and preparation

A nice and quiet week in which I got a lot of stuff done that needed doing for a while.

Fuck you hipster

I’ve been working on a personal transit app that has a different take on things than most apps. That has taken quite some time and attention but it is progressing rapidly. The state of open transit data around the world, however, is still disappointing.

I finished the Prince of Networks and published my notes here as wel as excerpts from an interview with Harman.

On the other hand I am also putting the final touches on the game we’re making for saba. That is coming along rapidly and we should be able to submit that to the App Store in the near future. It looks like I’m becoming something of an iOS programmer.

On Wednesday I visited the encampment near my office protesting the liberalization of rents and wrote some thoughts about that. Similar protests are going on where I live.

Checkin it out (no shortage of photographers in Berlin it seems)

I also have gotten quite busy arranging stuff for our upcoming Hack de Overheid in Amsterdam on June 16th. I will be holding a workshop demystifying programming for people who don’t know how to program yet. You are very welcome to join us if also want to get your feet wet with code, data journalism or open data.

I also briefly wrote up the launch of Politwoops in the USA with help from our friends from Sunlight.

My bicycle got a second brake which is a requirement in the highly responsible Germany. Talking about bicycles, I started a Tumblr to document the miserably state of cycle paths in Berlin.
New capabilities unlocked

Then it was also off to the Campus Party Housewarming Party and the day after the mediaboard of the region organized a Gamersnet summer meeting in a videogame arcade lounge. The Berlin gaming scene is still rather nascent but there may be some potential here. The city is still too artist heavy and engineer thin which will need to change for more stuff to be built.
Open bar and MS/Nintendo games on display

On Friday everything continued apace with a special anniversary visit to the local Cafe CK who are providing us with the only drinkable coffee within a literal mile.

The coming week it’s off to Copenhagen for a brief visit to the European Data Forum (open data) and to the Metropolis Laboratory (urban games).

An interview with Graham Harman

This interview with Graham Harman is filled with valuable tidbits, some of which I wanted to collect and share for your reading pleasure as much as mine:

And like it or not, Apple and Amazon are stirring up more interest, even among intellectuals, than most academic critiques of capitalism. Is that just because we are all a bunch of brainwashed idiots locked in on our own trivial conveniences? Hardly. It’s because these companies are also doing something exciting that addresses where consciousness really is today, and which it didn’t know that it wanted. Did I know in advance that my brain would catch fire as soon as I had a smartphone and a tablet computer? Not at all. I initially thought both of these things were consumerist pseudo-needs, just like the academic Left still does. But I was wrong, and so were they. To have the right electronic device in your hands can sharpen your brain as much as the discovery of an important new author.

Life has to be optimistic, or it becomes merely reactive. And I really fear that the Left is becoming the permanent homeland of the critics and the grumblers.

It is frankly a failure of imagination to try to explain away 1989 by griping about how Central Europe was simply recuperated into a banal consumer capitalism and nothing changed, or that at least political discourse mattered behind the Iron Curtain before ’89, and so forth.

And just goes on and on. The entire thing is worth reading and positions Harman as one of the more notable thinkers and philosophers we have right now.