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Things Break At Their Weakest Point

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Not even a block in to my 5 block walk to host our weekly Shut Up And Write session, I felt a familiar sensation - my leather dossier, slung over my back, had opened.  Every once in a while, the clasp doesn't quite catch, and the jostling of my quick-pacing walking gradually jars it to the point that it opens up.  It's well designed, so nothing falls out right away.  Usually it's a quick stop to close it up correctly, and then get underway.

Today the problem was a different one.  The leather buckle feeding into the metal clasp broke.  It detached - tore away - from the clasp.  There's no closing that bag at its usual (and only) juncture anymore, at least for the time being.  Everything else on my dossier is in decent condition, so doubtless we will be finding some fix to get in back into commission. It's definitely not the end of the world.  It's not even a major inconvenience - though at earlier points in my life, I would certainly have felt it to be one!

As I walked the rest of the way, holding the bag closed, I thought about how central a piece of equipment that particular dossier is for my work, teaching, and even leisure time.  That spurred a host of other reflections, and I thought they might prove of some interest if I were to set them down.

Things Break At Their Weakest Point

It really should be a truism, when you read it, right?  Despite our efforts, desires, and plans, things inevitably break down.  And where else would they break down?  At their strongest points?  Somewhere in the middle?  No - it will almost invariably be at the weakest point.

If we know - or at least can predict - what the weakest point of something breakable is, then we can take steps to prevent, or at least put off, that breakdown.  We can harden, reinforce, or protect it.  We can deliberately place less stress at that spot, whether through caution, moderation in use, or displacing that stress somewhere else.  When we start to see components fray, we can repair or replace them.  But we often lose sight of this.

It is easy in the course of an active life, to take all sorts of matters for granted.  This is particularly so when it comes to the weakest points of material things, persons, processes, organizations, the places where stress is going to sooner or later take its particular (and predictable) toll.  Without meaning to, we ignore those weak points.  After all, day-in-day-out nothing happens at those spots. With a past of such consistency, why shouldn't things keep going on the same way into an indefinite future?

In the case of my dossier, eight years of hard use have taken a bit of a toll.  Plastic piping shows - and is broken at one point - where the leather wore away along the edges.  Small points of the cloth parts have become a bit threadbare.  That's all minor wear and tear, and doesn't affect main functions of the bag - not the way that buckle and clasp does

Had I given it much thought - as I did the very first time that, overstuffed with class materials and a bulkier laptop, the clasp opened while I hurried across campus seven years ago - I should have expected this particular breakdown would inevitably occur.  After all, that is the weakest point.

All too often, we discover these vulnerabilities to the normal processes of the world, only once things do break down, and we find ourselves at a loss.  No surprise there.  One of the more interesting insights Martin Heidegger develops in Being and Time runs precisely along those lines:  we don't register the equipmentality of our equipment - including their materiality, their capacity for breakdown - while we're using them effectively.  It's when they break down that we actually pay closer attention.  And that's when people engage in a vast range of responses - often a mess of thoughts, feelings, desires, words, and actions.

Gratitude When Things Break Down

I'm not naturally a calm person who takes everything in stride and thoughtfully arrives at the optimal response to setbacks, obstacles, or breakdowns.  In fact, the reason why I originally got into researching - and then eventually writing on, speaking about, and coaching clients with - anger management is because I turned to ancient philosophy for resources to help me with my own too-quick temper.  My general temperament is one that in earlier times would be termed "choleric," "thumotic," or "irascible," and I still struggle with my impulses and inclinations towards anger.

Things breaking down - especially when I'm already short on time, stressed out, or am barely managing my own responsibilities - can prove a trigger for irritability, frustration, and then full-blown anger on my part, when I'm not careful.  I have worked for years to analyze and undo those otherwise automatic responses on my part, using resources drawn from a number of sources.  Sometimes I'm successful in how I deal with matters.  Sometimes not.

Dealing with my broken dossier today definitely goes into the "win" column.  I actually feel a sense of "second-order" or "meta-" gratitude - that is, gratitude about feeling gratitude - about the thoughts and feelings I experienced as I made my way to the coffeehouse for Shut Up And Write. And the reason I feel that second gratitude is because in the past it has not been my normal reaction to things breaking down.  Anger - unreasonable anger - at life, at the item itself, at whoever suggested solutions, that's more often been the case for me.  Totally unproductive, somewhat understandable but frankly unreasonable - that's the case for anger at things breaking down.

Today I felt grateful instead.  Grateful that, although the clasp broke early on in my walk, I only had a few blocks to go, rather than the 10+ block walks to and from the campuses where I teach.  Even more grateful that I wasn't in the midst of travel - what if this clasp had broken while I was quite literally taking planes, trains, and automobiles on my recent trip to present at Stoicon in London?

So much of our reaction depends on maintaining proper perspective - assuming of course, that we had a reasonable perspective in the first place!  The breakdown of the clasp means that the dossier doesn't stay closed, and I need to hold it as I carry it.  That's it.  Those are the only thing that have changed.  It hasn't stopped performing its main function - containing my computer, cords, books, notebooks, student papers, and a few granola bars.  The strap hasn't broken.  It still looks more or less the same. It just doesn't close.  And that's something that can be fixed.

I also thought about the years of service this leather dossier has given me.  I don't go as far as the personification of objects that Marie Kondo advises in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up - you thank the items you're letting go for the service they've rendered you - but I did remind myself that I've owned this particular Coach dossier for eight years.  I'm a big guy, and hard on the equipment I use, and I take it nearly everywhere, so that bag has definitely done its time with me.

When things break down at their weakest points, gratitude is not only a better response than any of those encompassed within anger's spectrum - a more reasonable and productive response - it also feels better, not just in the moment, but through the rest of one's day.

Dealing With Our Dependencies

One approach that people adopt for dealing with the vulnerability to breakdown of those myriad things upon which we come to rely is to attempt to dissociate oneself from them.  Reducing our dependence on things that possess weak points eliminates our own psychological weak points - or so that line of thinking goes - so that when the inevitable does occur, we are not disturbed by it.  That's not unwise council, and you find movements from ancient times down to the present, and across cultures, proffering similar solutions.

One can go too far with that approach, I think. Minimalist excesses of ancient Cynics were already criticized by others for that in ancient times - to where its effectiveness in one area actually makes a person less effective at living in the world in others.  There's also plenty of people who talk the free-from-attachment talk but don't walk that walk (and once they lose their temper over some item breaking down at a bad moment, even their words change too!).  But on the whole, approaching the material objects, processes and platforms, even the technology upon which we are inevitably dependent with realistic sets of expectations is a prudent - a practically wise - course to take.

It would be inadvisable to be mindful or attentive about every single thing that we are dependent upon, and which could break down at weak points.  Given the kind of existence we have at present, that would be an impossible task.  But that doesn't mean that one couldn't devote a bit of time, thought, and attention - perhaps each day - to the things upon which we are particularly dependent, considering or even checking them at their most vulnerable points.

Until today, I'll admit, I hadn't even thought about just how dependent I myself am on that one leather accessory - more dependent than I am on my three pairs of shoes and boots (since, after all, I've got three) - really, about as dependent as I am on much more sophisticated items like my phone or laptop.  I've lugged that dossier practically everywhere - classes, lectures, coffeeshops, overhead bins, my car - filled it full of needful things, and tossed it around, all the while expecting unreasonably that it would simply remain the same faithful piece of equipment over time.

I assumed it would hold up in every way, not even stopping to think about its weakest point.  But of course, that's precisely where things will break down.  It's a matter of when - as well as how one deals with those breakdowns - and that in turn depends.  Depends on what?  How we take stock of at least some of our own dependencies.

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Vasterling, dr. V.L.M. (Veronica)

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Veronica Vasterling is associate professor gender studies and philosophy at the Institute for Gender Studies and the Department of Philosophy.

Research Topics
Gender and feminist theory, philosophical anthropology, political philosophy (esp. the work of Hannah Arendt), hermeneutic phenomenology.

Course topics / teaching topics
More information: Prospectus genderstudies

Key scientific publications

  • The Hermeneutic Phenomenological approach to Plurality: Arendt, Habermas, Gadamer, in Gert-Jan van der Heiden (ed.) Phenomenological Perspectives on Plurality. Leiden/Boston: Brill 2015: 158-174.
  • The Psyche and the Social: Judith Butler's Politicizing of Psychoanalytical Theory. In de Vleminck et al (eds) Sexuality and Psychoanalysis: Philosophical Criticisms. Leuven: Leuven  University Press 2010: 171-182.
  • Cognitive Theory and Phenomenology in Arendt's and Nussbaum's Work on Narrative. Human Studies: Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 30 (2) (June 2007): 79-95.
  • Feministische Phänomenologie und Hermeneutik (ed.) Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2005.
  • Body and Language: Butler, Merleau-Ponty and Lyotard on the Speaking Embodied Subject.International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 11 (2) (2003): 205-223.

Key professional publications

  • Vrouwelijke filosofen: Een historisch overzicht (eds. with I. v.d. Burg, C. Ceton, A. Halsema, K. Vintges), Amsterdam 2012: Atlas.
  • Epistemologie (ed.) Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies (2010) 13 (3).
  • Evolutionaire psychologie: een kritische beschouwing vanuit gender perspectief. Tijdschrift voor Humanistiek (2009) 38: 61-71.
  • Practising Interdisciplinarity in Gender Studies (ed.). York: Raw Nerve Books 2006.
  • Feministische filosofie (ed.) Wijsgerig Perspectief 45 (1) 2005.

Complete overview publications gender studies: Publications IGS
Complete overview of publications: Academia, Knowledge Base and Radboud Repository

Research related activities

-Member of the board of the IAPh (International Association of Women Philosophers), http://www.iaph-philo.org/ 
-Member of the editorial board of Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies
-Member of the SIFP (Society for Interdisciplinary Feminist Phenomenology), http://sifp.uoregon.edu/

Veronica Vasterling studied philosophy and comparative literature at the University of Amsterdam (1976-1982), was a Fulbright PhD student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and translator German-English for the US Justice Department in Washington (1984-86). With a stipend from the Dutch Research Council (NWO) she wrote a dissertation on Heidegger (1989-1993), and in 1998 she helped establish a philosophical library in Jinja, Uganda. Since 1990 she works at the Institute for Gender Studies and the Philosophy Department of Radboud University. In 2004 and 2007 she was visiting professor at the Gender Studies Department of the Central European University in Budapest. More information on Veronica Vasterling can be found here.

All publications and information are available at the Documentation Centre of the Institute for Gender Studies.

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40 days ago
Vasterling, dr. V.L.M. (Veronica) - Radboud Gender

Listes des élections communales et provinciales 2018

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Venez découvrir les listes des élections communales et provinciales déposées en Région Wallonne en cliquant ici.
Vous y trouverez toutes les listes pour les élections communales, provinciales et du CPAS de Comines-Warneton.
Pour les élections communales, la liste des communes est triée par ordre alphabétique.
Pour les élections provinciales, la liste est divisée en provinces, arrondissements, districts et cantons.

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In Which Nietzsche Learns the True Meaning of Christmas

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A true Übermensch spends Christmas miserable and alone, as everyone knows.
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349 days ago
It means go fuck yourself, you stupid ghost. I'm not going to change a god damn thing.

Move Slowly and Fix Things

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Synoptic Table of Physiognomic Traits

Ruminations on the heavy weight of software design in the 21st century.

Recently I took a monthlong sabbatical from my job as a designer at Basecamp. (Basecamp is an incredible company that gives us a paid month off every 3 years.)

When you take 30 days away from work, you have a lot of time and headspace that’s normally used up. Inevitably you start to reflect on your life.

And so, I pondered what the hell I’m doing with mine. What does it mean to be a software designer in 2018, compared to when I first began my weird career in the early 2000s?

The answer is weighing on me.

As software continues to invade our lives in surreptitious ways, the social and ethical implications are increasingly significant.

Our work is HEAVY and it’s getting heavier all the time. I think a lot of designers haven’t deeply considered this, and they don’t appreciate the real-life effects of the work they’re doing.

Here’s a little example. About 10 years ago, Twitter looked like so:

Twitter circa 2007

How cute was that? If you weren’t paying attention back then, Twitter was kind of a joke. It was a silly viral app where people wrote about their dog or their ham sandwich.

Today, things are a wee bit different. Twitter is now the megaphone for the leader of the free world, who uses it to broadcast his every whim. It’s also the world’s best source for real-time news, and it’s full of terrible abuse problems.

That’s a massive sea change! And it all happened in only 10 years.

Do you think the creators of that little 2007 status-sharing concept had any clue this is where they’d end up, just a decade later?

Seems like they didn’t:

People can’t decide whether Twitter is the next YouTube, or the digital equivalent of a hula hoop. To those who think it’s frivolous, Evan Williams responds: “Whoever said that things have to be useful?”
Twitter: Is Brevity The Next Big Thing? (Newsweek, April 2007)

Considering these shallow beginnings, is it any surprise that Twitter has continually struggled at running a massive, serious global communications platform, which now affects the world order?

That’s not what they originally built. It grew into a Frankenstein’s monster, and now they’re not quite sure how to handle it.

I’m not picking on Twitter in particular, but its trajectory illustrates a systemic problem.

Designers and programmers are great at inventing software. We obsess over every aspect of that process: the tech we use, our methodology, the way it looks, and how it performs.

Unfortunately we’re not nearly as obsessed with what happens after that, when people integrate our products into the real world. They use our stuff and it takes on a life of its own. Then we move on to making the next thing. We’re builders, not sociologists.

This approach wasn’t a problem when apps were mostly isolated tools people used to manage spreadsheets or send emails. Small products with small impacts.

But now most software is so much more than that. It listens to us. It goes everywhere we go. It tracks everything we do. It has our fingerprints. Our heart rate. Our money. Our location. Our face. It’s the primary way we communicate our thoughts and feelings to our friends and family.

It’s deeply personal and ingrained into every aspect of our lives. It commands our gaze more and more every day.

We’ve rapidly ceded an enormous amount of trust to software, under the hazy guise of forward progress and personal convenience. And since software is constantly evolving—one small point release at a time—each new breach of trust or privacy feels relatively small and easy to justify.

Oh, they’ll just have my location.
Oh, they’ll just have my identity.
Oh, they’ll just have an always-on microphone in the room.

Most software products are owned and operated by corporations, whose business interests often contradict their users’ interests. Even small, harmless-looking apps might be harvesting data about you and selling it.

And that’s not even counting the army of machine learning bots that will soon be unleashed to make decisions for us.

It all sounds like an Orwellian dystopia when you write it out like this, but this is not fiction. It’s the real truth.

A scene from WALL-E, or the actual software industry in 2018?

See what I mean by HEAVY? Is this what we signed up for, when we embarked on a career in tech?

15 years ago, it was a slightly different story. The Internet was a nascent and bizarre wild west, and it had an egalitarian vibe. It was exciting and aspirational — you’d get paid to make cool things in a fast-moving industry, paired with the hippie notion that design can change the world.

Well, that motto was right on the money. There’s just one part we forgot: change can have a dark side too.

If you’re a designer, ask yourself this question…

Is your work helpful or harmful?

You might have optimistically deluded yourself into believing it’s always helpful because you’re a nice person, and design is a noble-seeming endeavor, and you have good intentions.

But let’s be brutally honest for a minute.

If you’re designing sticky features that are meant to maximize the time people spend using your product instead of doing something else in their life, is that helpful?

If you’re trying to desperately inflate the number of people on your platform so you can report corporate growth to your shareholders, is that helpful?

If your business model depends on using dark patterns or deceptive marketing to con users into clicking on advertising, is that helpful?

If you’re trying to replace meaningful human culture with automated tech, is that helpful?

If your business collects and sells personal data about people, is that helpful?

If your company is striving to dominate an industry by any means necessary, is that helpful?

If you do those things…

Are you even a Designer at all?

Or are you a glorified Huckster—a puffed-up propaganda artist with a fancy job title in an open-plan office?

Whether we choose to recognize it or not, designers have both the authority and the responsibility to prevent our products from becoming needlessly invasive, addictive, dishonest, or harmful. We can continue to pretend this is someone else’s job, but it’s not. It’s our job.

We’re the first line of defense to protect people’s privacy, safety, and sanity. In many, many cases we’re failing at that right now.

If the past 20 years of tech represent the Move Fast and Break Things era, now it’s time to slow down and take stock of what’s broken.

At Basecamp, we’re leading the charge by running an unusually supportive company, pushing back on ugly practices in the industry, and giving a shit about our customers. We design our product to improve people’s work, and to stop their work from spilling over into their personal lives. We intentionally leave out features that might keep people hooked on Basecamp all day, in favor of giving them peace and freedom from constant interruptions. And we skip doing promotional things that might grow the business, if they feel gross and violate our values.

We know we have a big responsibility on our hands, and we take it seriously.

You should too. The world needs as much care and conscience as we can muster. Defend your users against anti-patterns and shady business practices. Raise your hand and object to harmful design ideas. Call out bad stuff when you see it. Thoughtfully reflect on what you’re sending out into the world every day.

The stakes are high and they’ll keep getting higher. Grab those sociology and ethics textbooks and get to work.

If you like this post, hit the 👏 below or send me a message about your ham sandwich on Twitter.

Move Slowly and Fix Things was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Alle goud van de wereld

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Een column over goud, Einstein, wetenschappelijke doorbraken en botsende sterren.

De goudsmid aan het werk. NSF/LIGO

Wat gisteren nog een spectaculaire ontdekking was, een wetenschappelijke doorbraak, dat is vandaag een meetinstrument, een hulpmiddel dat gebruikt wordt om de grenzen van de wetenschap weer wat verder op te schuiven (en naar een gezegde onder fysici zal het mórgen nog slechts hinderlijke achtergrondruis zijn).

Gravitatiegolven hebben die overgang in recordtijd gemaakt. Twee jaar geleden waren gravitatiegolven, een soort trillingen van de ruimte, nog een theoretisch vermoeden, voorspeld door Albert Einsteins algemene relativiteitstheorie. In februari vorig jaar maakten wetenschappers bekend dat ze er voor het eerst in geslaagd waren Einsteins golven te detecteren. Een doorbraak, waarvoor drie van de protagonisten in het onderzoek deze maand met de Nobelprijs beloond werden.

Maar al heel snel deden de metingen van gravitatiegolven méér dan ons vertellen dat ze echt bestonden en dat Einstein het bij het rechte eind had. Ze begonnen ons dingen bij te leren over sterrenkunde, over de extreme kosmische gebeurtenissen waarbij dergelijke golven worden opgewekt. Bij de eerste detecties waren dat botsingen van zwarte gaten, mysterieuze objecten die heel moeilijk op andere manieren te bestuderen zijn.

De overgang culmineerde (voorlopig) deze week. Gravitatiegolf-onderzoekers en meerdere teams astronomen maakten bekend dat ze er voor het eerst in geslaagd waren een bron van gravitatiegolven tegelijk ook waar te nemen met gewone telescopen op de grond en in satellieten. Het onderzoek, gepubliceerd in een hele reeks artikels in vakbladen, leverde een schat aan informatie over het heelal op.

Het waren deze keer geen zwarte gaten die botsten en de ruimte deden trillen, maar zogeheten ‘neutronensterren’, dat zijn de extreem ineengeschrompelde kernen van vergane sterren. Op 130 miljoen lichtjaar van ons hadden de twee neutronensterren miljarden jaren lang rond elkaar gedraaid, in een steeds nauwer en sneller wordende rondedans, tot ze tenslotte botsten en met elkaar versmolten.

Eén van de ontdekkingen is dat er in het geweld van de botsing op reusachtige schaal zware elementen werden gevormd: lood, goud, platina, uranium en een boel andere atomen uit de onderste helft van de tabel van Mendeljev. Alleen al van goud, is er méér gevormd dan de hele massa van de planeet aarde.

Daarmee wordt wellicht een al lang lopende discussie beslecht over de oorsprong van die metalen. Botsende neutronensterren waren één mogelijkheid, een andere waren supernova’s (ontploffende sterren). De neutronensterren lijken het pleit nu te winnen; waarschijnlijk is het meeste goud in het heelal afkomstig van hun botsingen.

Ook het goud op aarde, in onze armbanden, ringen, horloges of bankkluizen. Bedenk welke geschiedenis een atoom goud uit een juweel al achter de rug heeft: miljarden jaren geleden, lang vóór het ontstaan van de aarde, is het gevormd in het vuur van een infernale botsing tussen twee neutronensterren. Het werd de ruimte in geworpen, waar het na een lange zwerftocht terechtkwam in een jong, zich vormend nieuw planetenstelsel. De ring van Sauron, gesmeed in het vuur van de Doemberg, is er niets bij.

Deze column is op 21 oktober 2017 in een licht gewijzigde versie verschenen in De Tijd.

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