What Did I Learn From Napoleon 2100 Years Ago

In a conversation with Vanessa one sunset in late summer we were discussing how there had been no women in power in western history until recently. The exception to this that came to mind was Cleopatra. I didn't know much about her, beyond whatever tropes I'd seen in cartoons as a kid and a university student, but I was suddenly intrigued. Who was Cleopatra? And how come she got to have a fanny and be in charge of Egypt? To answer this specific question I employed Joyce Tyldesley's book Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, which was excellent. I placed a hold at the library and the library service shipped it to Adelaide for me to pick up at my convenience which was also super handy. That has nothing to do with Cleopatra or Napoleon but I just wanted to shout that out.

Writing a biography on a historical figure from classical antiquity is a bit of a trip. It's like being a private detective trying to solve a murder but all the suspects and witnesses are also dead and the police and the detectives are also dead. The crime scene has been defaced several times and then a hundred years ago was dismantled to be used as raw materials for a sugarcane factory. Is that torn piece of parchment used to wrap a mummy in a tomb 50 years after Cleopatra died that has her name on it evidence she was ruling and signing decrees? Maybe it is, maybe it was one of the other six Cleopatras. Maybe it was one of six million mummified Ibises.

Cleopatra's story was very interesting. Almost definitely because the majority of its primary sources were Roman writers who had vested interests in using her for propaganda and entertainment. I can only imagine what contemporary history would be rewritten as if all that the historians of the year 4023 have is access to a smattering of archived Tik Toks. Most of the artwork and records of Egypt were destroyed or lost between 33 BC and the invention of the paperback.

There was one piece of evidence of Cleopatra's reign that nearly survived to modern times. A temple depicted Cleopatra and her family on a stone wall. The stone wall was knocked down in the 19th century, but that was after Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt during which a member of his Armée took down a drawing that survived to this day. There's something phenomenal about the idea of Napoleon and Cleopatra having this kind of tenuous connection over so much time.

Anyway, the answer to the question to how Cleopatra VII got to rule Egypt for quite a long time was due to 1) Her father (the king) dying young 2) Her brothers being too young to rule and then (cough) dying before they could be old enough 3) Cleopatra having a son that was too young to rule 4) Probably being a descendant of Alexander the Great 5) Being on very good terms with two of the most powerful Romans of the time.

This was not exactly an inspirational tale, but it was more inspiring than the history of Ptolemy VIII.

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If you met yourself from the future, what would you ask your future self?
What if they wont tell you anything?

Easter 2023

Easter, pretty chill. Not always by design.

Thursday night - programming.
Friday morning, Torrens walk in the rain. Making and eating hot cross buns.
Saturday, brief lunch in Freeling. Smoothie for dinner.
Sunday, a lap of West Lakes. Risking Adelaide's worst pizza bar with Mum.
Monday, bakery walk, BBQ with friends and many portraits with the new camera.

Surveillance Capitalism - Or - Why Bradism Will Never Track You

Shoshana Zuboff must be an incredibly intelligent person. I know that starting a review of a book with a sentence like that could sound sarcastic when read on the internet, but I mean it. Throughout this book and its broad range of topics it is evident that the author has a comprehensive understanding of - among many things - economics, business, psychology, history, philosophy, and of course technology. I'm potentially as qualified as her to talk about just one of those subjects.

Does that mean I shouldn't review this book? Probably. But because I aim to reflect on the non-fiction that I read in order to absorb it better I shall review it, but with the caveat that the author is a lot smarter than me, and that my opinions are not authoritative.

Why does that matter? Well, a good chunk of the opening section of this book is dedicated to trying to explain that just because you think you're smart enough that tech companies and their disrespect for your privacy won't influence your spending habits/life, you can't know that for sure. No one can, because the pervasiveness of big tech companies is doing something to human civilization that no one has ever seen through to the end before. Not even Napoleon.

That concept was my attitude. I've never really bought anything on impulse because of an aptly timed buy button appearing. I block ads and trackers. I do all my web searches in private browsing mode. Everything on my Facebook is locked down.

If you're like me in those regards, you're not going to learn anything shocking while reading this book. Instead what you'll get is a thorough summary of how Google and then Facebook and the rest adapted their business and operating models to use a huge (gigantic) amount of computing resources to be able to track and classify every person on the planet, primarily for the sake of competitive advantage and revenue from ad sales. And if you think you're exempt from tracking and predictions based on your personality you better hope you've never appeared in the background of a photograph, had a Street View car drive past your Wi-Fi network, or had your Wi-Fi/Bluetooth on in your phone while walking around in a public place.

So if Google, Facebook, Amazon and the rest of the internet is now an orgy of cyber surveillance and pushy marketing that affects most people but definitely not me, what's the big deal? Just because something is unregulated does that mean it's bad?

Probably. The key takeaways for me were:
Governments and society cannot keep up with technological evolutions, or hope to regulate them. This is exacerbated by the fact that both governments and corporations are essentially just people, and quite often they are people with motives of making money. And sometimes (often) there is overlap between people in big tech and people regulating big tech.

This is bad for humanity in general because of the opportunity costs for building a better world.

The book describes a learning and teaching divide, where public advancement of machine learning, AI and data mining is held back because established companies hire the best people and patent their ideas for the sake of competitive advantage, i.e. to charge more for ads for things. If some of those resources were turned towards other endeavors like combating climate change, poverty, exploring space, etc. humanity might be able to advance further in my lifetime.

Instead this type of capitalism is fuelling overconsumption. If society could buy a little less impulsively, in lower quantities, there are a lot of material benefits. Less consumerism equals less pollution and carbon, reduced spending meaning reduced earning requirements. Ramping down consumerism might be what gives us that four day work week and a healthier planet to enjoy it on.

Finally, the impact of this kind of technological immersion combined with poker machine logic JavaScript functions has never been measured in the youth. The book refers to many peer reviewed studies that describe the negative implications for the psychology of young people. And it doesn't sound like a good idea that we sacrifice the minds of Gen Z and future generations to the "machine zone" for the sake of increased profits.

These threats appear to be material, but I didn't like how Zuboff uses strawman arguments to paint the evils of future technology against dumb policies that can't stop it. After bestowing so much credit to artificial intelligence, I don't see evidence that "humanity" can't be programmed into the governing processes and software policies.

The stanzas of sonnets that open each chapter give some contrasting artistic imagery to scientific subjects of economics and computer science, but in Part 3 in particular I feel the argument gets too poetic. After all, do Zuckerburg or the Google board really want to be the heads of a totalitarian government? Or just make a lot of money? Or are their motives irrelevant? There's no doubt these companies possess incredible, possibly unregulatable power over markets and people. As the book points out, the power to make power means even if not evil now, they may already be on an unstoppable path.
Does this mean we will never be able to "live free in a human future"? I don't know. I'm not that intelligent.

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Ups and Downs

It definitely feels like ANZAC day has been transitioning over the years from the first day of winter into a late-Autumn last gasp glimpse of summer. Today's weather was so exceptional that it felt appropriate to take Vanessa and my ANZAC tradition on the road and I ate this year's giant cookie at the midpoint of the Seacliff to Hallet Cove coastal walk.

Somehow, in spite of my aging and dilapidated body, I made it through the whole thing. I finished the walk too.