Joe Rogan: savior of political discourse

Few things in recent memory have resonated with me as much as Meghan Daum’s outstanding Medium article on the subject of the “intellectual dark web” and the ongoing erosion of nuance in today’s political climate, minus the heartbreaking divorce story.

Three years ago, I would have considered myself mostly apolitical. We had our first black president and were well on our way to having our first female president. The economy had recovered from the 2008 recession. Everything was going well, without me needing to take any notice of political matters. And then something happened in 2016 that kick-started my interest in politics, as it did for so many other people.

Prior to election day, 2016, I drove around the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was noticing a curiously large number of Trump signs on people’s front yards. Listening to the news, I would hear the broadcasters pleading with young people to “get out and vote,” and all I kept thinking was, “careful what you wish for.”

And then it happened: half of the American people (nearly half, that is) voted for a megalomaniacal, egotistical, misogynistic, late-night-tweeting, barely-coherent reality TV star, just for the purpose of rubbing in how much they hated his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Since then, I’ve endeavored on a quest to understand the Trump voter, or more precisely to understand what enabled Trump, what gave birth to the idea of him as our president. This quest is still in its infancy, but there is one thing that stands out as a major contributor to our current state of affairs: our conversations have gotten more and more polarized, and any hint of nuance has been virtually extinguished.

The idea of “disagreement” on political matters has shifted from a chance for a healthy debate to instant knee-jerk responses of insult and offense. The problem exists on the Left and the Right. If you speak to a right-winger and broach the idea of socializing healthcare, you’re automatically an SJW soyboy cuck. And if you speak to a left-winger and broach the idea of limiting immigration from predominantly Islamic countries, you’re automatically a racist.

Much has been written on the rise of “victimhood culture,” which is what the Right perceives is happening to the Left. They believe the Left has become obsessed with identity politics, with minority groups competing for who is the most oppressed, researching where these groups intersect and thereby carving out even more oppressed minorities. College campuses have become “safe spaces” that stifle free expression and protect students from radical or dangerous ideas, they say, and many of today’s professors and academics are proudly Marxist and long for the next proletarian utopia that will inevitably usher in a new Gulag archipelago.

Conversely, as a response, the Left have developed a tendency to lump together any kind of dissenting opinions into the same category, react to them with the same magnitude of revulsion, and even to misrepresent and inflate statements made by centrists or center-leftists, and brand them as “alt-right-adjacent,” further alienating people who would otherwise be their allies. They are convinced that any deviation from a perfect liberal progressive narrative will necessarily lead to white nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, trans-phobia, and fascism.

The reason for all of this polarization is, to me, plain as day: Twitter. Here we have a social network that literally forces us to condense our most deeply-held beliefs into a single sentence, into a slogan, or a hashtag. It is, of course, impossible to do this without grossly oversimplifying our beliefs, or without turning them into statements that sound profound but are actually meaningless (or turning them into “deepities,” as Dan Dennett calls them).

When we communicate with each other using nothing but slogans, what do you think will happen? It’s much easier to argue against a slogan using an equal-and-opposite slogan. It’s also much easier to take offense when someone rejects your slogan because of the beliefs you’ve poured into it. Twitter then compounds the problem by rewarding this behavior in the form of encouraging “likes” and “retweets,” giving rise to a competition of one-liners which can only be won by making your slogans all the more extreme. Is it any wonder, then, that Twitter is Donald Trump’s favorite platform for conveying his messages? Is it any wonder that Twitter creates bubbles and echo chambers where like-minded individuals egg each other on, often anonymously, to behave more and more extremely? And is it any wonder that Twitter can be so easily manipulated my malicious external forces who might want to influence our democratic process?

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. The last couple of years have seen the growing popularity of long-form discussions and debates in the form of podcasts, YouTube videos, and even live events. Joe Rogan’s podcast is one of the spearheads of this movement. Despite each episode being two to three hours long, it receives over 100 million downloads per month. To me, this level of popularity indicates a real craving for these kinds of discussions among the general public. People are getting tired of being angry at each other, and are demonstrating a willingness to listen to the whole story, a need to understand their opponents’ ideas before drawing conclusions.

On his podcast, Joe Rogan doesn’t prepare any specific questions or impose any kind of structure; he simply invites his guest to shoot the shit for two hours, and let the conversation or debate come about naturally. His interviewees come from all walks of life: MMA fighters, sports players, actors, musicians, writers, businesspeople, scientists, and more pertinently to this discussion, political commentators (in which all of the previous professions can also take part).

He has interviewed most of the major figures of the “intellectual dark web,” such as Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Bret and Eric Weinstein, Michael Shermer, etc. Many of these public figures have their own podcasts and YouTube channels, such as Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast and Michael Shermer’s Science Salon. And many are also active on the live debate circuit — as Harris likes to point out, by doing nothing more than putting a date on a calendar, he can witness thousands of people fill the theatre hall to watch him debate his opponent.

It’s these intellectuals that are considered by some leftists to be “gateway drugs” to the alt-right, since some of their statements, crossing certain political trip-wires, can be seized upon to demonstrate a superficial sympathy with the alt-right. However, anyone who takes the time to listen to the full conversation, instead of a clickbait sound bite or an out-of-context quote (on Twitter, of course), will understand that this cannot be further from the truth. Saying that these people are gateway drugs to the alt-right is like saying that mountain climbing is a gateway drug to jumping off a cliff.  By the way, “intellectual dark web” is really a silly term for it, since it implies a well-defined club with which these people identify, or even some kind of groupthink among the people in it, which also cannot be further from the truth. The opinions of these intellectuals are as diverse as they come.

More importantly, however, Joe Rogan often interviews guests with whom he doesn’t agree (and neither do I). This includes provocateurs and opportunists like Milo Yiannopoulos and Candace Owens, as well as prominent farther-right figures like Ben Shapiro, Gavin McInnes, and Steven Crowder. At points when they disagree blatantly enough, or when they are factually incorrect, Rogan calls them out. But for the most part, he patiently lets them lay out their views and make all their arguments to support them. And from this style of conversation, as vehemently as I might disagree with them, I can take away a few important points: a) they are all human beings with strengths and weaknesses, b) they are not wrong about everything, c) at the points where they are wrong, I can analyze exactly why they’re wrong, what led them to these conclusions and what I can do to avoid those conclusions myself, and d) I can disagree with them without considering them irredeemable.  But that’s merely my takeaway from these discussions. Yours may be different, and that’s OK — let’s talk about it.

I am now virtually convinced that Joe Rogan’s show, and similar shows that are springing up all the time, is the antidote to the abject cesspool of vitriol that Twitter has become. In the coming months and years, I hope for a mass exodus of users from Twitter to more meaningful, unabridged, unedited conversations, where people will truly understand the nuances of the issues that impact our society, and make more informed decisions based on knowledge and facts instead of emotionally charged placards in the form of tweets.  This can only be a benefit to our democracy, our civilization, and our planet.

Knock-off apps: the sincerest form of flattery

As the developer of a relatively popular app, there are numerous things I have to worry about on a regular basis. One of these things, however, is something for which I was kind of unprepared, and still not sure how to deal with: the emergence of knock-off apps — apps that have a suspicious and often hilarious resemblance to the original.

There were, of course, counterfeit apps that were blatantly using my trademark in their name (“DiskDigger” is a registered trademark in the U.S.), or my graphics in their store listings, in which case the Google Play Store thankfully took them down upon request.

But then there are apps that don’t quite use my trademark, and don’t quite have the same icon and screenshots. But because they are close enough, they can take advantage of being near the top search results for this category of apps, and lead numerous unsuspecting users to install them and be greeted with a barrage of ads and spyware.

Most of these apps seem to come from Indian and Middle-Eastern developers, which makes the horribly broken English in their app verbiage even more amusing to read. A small part of me even applauds their enterprising spirit, and I don’t fault them for wanting to make a buck, but I wish they’d find ways of doing it more honestly.

Take a look! Can you tell the knock-off apps from the real ones?

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The problem is that because these apps don’t explicitly violate my trademark, Google refuses to take them down, which is unfortunate because these apps do literally nothing except shove ads in the user’s face, and therefore actively harm the ecosystem of the Play Store. Shouldn’t Google care more about preventing the Play Store from becoming a cesspool of bottom-feeding cash grabbers?

The age of instant nostalgia

Nostalgia is an emotion that should be felt sparingly. At least for someone like me, it’s very easy to get lost in rabbit holes of nostalgia. On days when I’m feeling sentimental, I can spend hours browsing old photo albums and reflecting on past events that I’m powerless to change.

But nostalgia can go much deeper than that. With today’s technology, we can have experiences of nostalgia that were unheard of in previous generations. Remember those candies you loved as a child that were only available in the town where you grew up? Now you can buy them on Amazon and have them shipped in two days. Remember your trip to Stonehenge twenty years ago? Now you can see it in VR any time you like. Remember the games you used to play on your old Atari console? Now you can play them on your mobile phone while waiting for the train. Remember your old friends from elementary school with whom you haven’t connected in years? Now you can find them with a few clicks and talk to them instantly.

We’re living in an age when you can evoke feelings of nostalgia at a moment’s notice, and on demand. This fact is well-known to Hollywood, which capitalizes on nostalgia with abominations like Pixels which do nothing but literally tell the audience, “Remember Q*bert?” “Remember Pac-Man?” “Remember Galaga?”, or its endless obsession with sequels and prequels and reboots — anything to jog your memory of an old movie you used to love.  It’s also known in the literary world, with the success of novels like Ready Player One, where any semblance of a plot is merely an afterthought, and most of the book’s real purpose is to barrage the reader with a rapid-fire of pop culture references from the 1980s.

The problem with nostalgia is that it’s not a productive emotion, in the sense that it romanticizes the past, locks your thinking into it, as if your past experiences were somehow better than the present or future. This kind of thinking is counterproductive whether or not your past was in fact better than your present:  If your past really was better than the present, then you should be actively working to improve your present life instead of dwelling on past events. And if, instead, your life is better today than yesterday, then romanticizing the past cheapens the goodness of your life in the present day, and takes away time you could be spending enjoying the present and planning an even better future.

Nostalgia should be treated like a sweet, rich dessert — great in small quantities, but bad for you if you indulge in it too much.

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Premature optimization of Android View hierarchies

In my day job, one of my responsibilities is to oversee the technical evolution of our product and to optimize its performance. I’ve even written a few guidelines that detail numerous recommendations for maximizing performance of Android apps in general.

One of the things I have always recommended is to reduce the complexity of View hierarchies, and try not to overcrowd or have too many nesting levels of your Views, since this can supposedly have a negative impact on performance.  However, I made these statements based on common sentiment on the web, and based on the Android documentation, instead of on actual hard evidence.  So I  looked into it from an interesting perspective:  I dug into View hierarchies as they are used by other major apps, and compared them with our own usage.  This isn’t a totally “scientific” analysis, and it only looks at a single facet of proper View usage. Nevertheless the findings are rather surprising, and are actually challenging my insistence on View minimalism.

I looked at the Twitter, Facebook, and Slack apps, and compared each of their “feed” screens to the feed screen of our own Wikipedia app. (The reason I chose these apps is that the “performance” of their feeds is nearly perfectly smooth, especially considering that some of their content includes auto-playing videos and animations.)  I used the superbly useful and little-known UI Automator Viewer tool, which is bundled with the Android SDK, to explore these view hierarchies.

For reference, the deepest nesting that I found in the feed of the Wikipedia app is seven (7) levels deep:

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But get ready:  The deepest nesting in the Slack app is… eighteen (18) levels deep. And yet it performs perfectly smoothly:

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The deepest nesting in the Facebook app is twenty (20) levels deep. And yet it works just fine:

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The deepest nesting in the Twitter app is twenty three (23) levels deep, which includes eight (8) nesting levels for each item in their ListView (it’s not even a RecyclerView!). And yet I’m able to scroll the Twitter feed infinitely without a single hiccup.

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Therefore I’m compelled to reevaluate the importance we should be placing on optimizing View hierarchies, at least from the perspective of “nesting.”  Indeed, this seems to be yet another case for balancing reasonable performance guidelines with more immediate product goals, or put more simply, avoiding premature optimization.

Higher-level illusions

Most of us have seen optical illusions, and witnessed firsthand how a simple but specially crafted illustration can completely trick our brain, whether it’s an illusion involving depth perception, motion perception, color perception, etc.  One of my favorites is this illusion involving checkered squares with alternating shades of gray (Is square A darker than square B?):

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

When I first saw the above illusion, I found it unfathomable that squares A and B are actually the same color, and yet it’s true. The illusion is so powerful, I had to open the image in Photoshop and literally look at the pixel color values of the squares to convince myself that they are the same.

But actually, we don’t even need to resort to any specially contrived images to fool our visual circuits, since our eyes themselves have a built-in defect — a consequence of the eye’s evolutionary history — a blind spot that gets patched over in real time by the software of our consciousness.  This allows us to go on with our lives being completely oblivious of this defect (unless we consciously look for it), but it basically means that we experience this genuine illusion during every waking moment.

These kinds of illusions powerfully illustrate how a simple misfire of our sensory perceptions can send our understanding of the world completely astray, and how our consciousness has adapted to compensate for the laughable fallibility of our senses.

My question is the following:  If it’s this easy to fool our visual processing circuits, what kinds of illusions might be at work at higher levels of our consciousness?  What other blind spots are auto-filled by the software of our brain, making us oblivious to their true nature?

The key to uncovering and understanding illusions, I think, is cognitive effort.  It takes cognitive effort to realize that the illustration at the top of this article is, in fact, an illusion.  It takes cognitive effort to expose and become aware of the blind spot in your own eyes. What other illusions might we uncover if we keep building up the muscles of cognitive effort?

Perhaps we might discover that the Earth, instead of being a flat plane with a dome covering it, is actually a spheroidal mass that orbits the Sun, contrary to all of our intuition.

Perhaps we’ll discover that the Sun is actually one of billions of other suns, and is by no means unique among them, and that our galaxy is one of billions of other galaxies, with similarly little uniqueness about it.

We might also discover that the folk tales and mythologies of our ancestors are not literally true, but are merely expressions of the fears, aspirations, ideals, and desires that we all share, especially the desire to find meaning and purpose in a world that doesn’t grant us purpose on its own.

And perhaps we’ll discover that free will itself, far from being a gift bestowed on us by a creator or even a self-evident property that emerges from our consciousness, is actually the grandest illusion of all:  that all of our thoughts and actions are consequences of deterministic physical laws.

But all of these realizations need not lead us towards fatalism or nihilism, for these too are illusions.  If the universe doesn’t grant us a purpose ex nihilo, it shouldn’t stop us from being able to create our own purpose.  And if it really is true that the laws of physics underlie all of our choices, it doesn’t make our choices any less meaningful or consequential, and it doesn’t mean that we should stop striving to make better choices that improve the lives of current and future generations.

And of course, none of this takes into account the illusions of higher and higher order that we’re bound to uncover in the future, and all the consequences of those discoveries that we can’t even fathom in the present.  The one thing we must not stop doing is exerting our cognitive effort to keep discovering and untangling illusions, wherever we might find them. The immortal words of Stephen Jay Gould come to mind:

We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes — one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way.