Better Thought Technology 

“Technological innovation, in the conventional sense, won’t help us slow the publishing process back down. Slowing down requires better thought technology. It requires a willingness to draft for the sake of drafting. It requires throwing away most of what we think because most of our thoughts don’t deserve to be read by others. Most of our thoughts are distractions—emotional sleights of the mind that trick us into thinking we care about something that we really don’t—or that we understand something that we really don’t.”

—Eddie Smith, “From boiling lead and black art: An essay on the history of mathematical typography.” Practically Efficient. October 13, 2017.

Pretty good overview of the history of mathematical typography.

Commercial Surveillance State

“Manipulation campaigns can plug into the commercial surveillance infrastructure and draw on lessons of behavioral science. They can use testing to refine strategies that take account of the personal traits of targets and identify interventions that may be most potent. This might mean identifying marginal participants, let’s say for joining a march or boycott, and zeroing in on interventions to dissuade them from taking action. Even more worrisomely, such targeting could try to push potential allies in different directions. Targets predicted to have more radical inklings could be pushed toward radical tactics and fed stories deriding compromise with liberal allies. Simultaneously, those predicted to have more liberal sympathies may be fed stories that hype fears about radical takeover of the resistance. Such campaigns would likely play off divisions along race, gender, issue-specific priorities, and other lines of identity and affinity.”

—Matthew Crain and Anthony Nailer, “Commercial Surveillance State.” N+1. September 27, 2017.

The Story Behind the Chicago Newspaper that Bought a Bar – Topic

“By 1976, reporter Pam Zekman was well-acquainted with the everyday corruption that permeated Chicago. After all, the city was so well-known for shady dealings it birthed its own shorthand: ‘Chicago-style politics’ was used with frequency to describe boss-style rule and graft in government. 

Zekman was part of a four-person Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team at the Chicago Tribune, where she had gone undercover in a nursing home, for a collections agency, in a hospital, and at a precinct polling place, exposing wrongdoings ranging from medical malpractice to election fraud. ‘We had become known for doing this kind of undercover reporting with one caveat: When there’s no other way to get the story,’ says Zekman. ‘We didn’t do it just for the idea of doing it and we did not do it cavalierly.’

When Zekman was poached by a rival paper, the feisty Chicago Sun-Times, she proposed a daring project that would go down in the annals of journalism history as both a feat of reporting and a focal point for ethics debates still raging today. For years, Zekman had been collecting tips about city employees extracting bribes from local businessmen, but couldn’t get sources to go on the record; she figured the only way to get the story would be to get inside the system. So she convinced her paper to buy a bar. They would staff it with newspaper workers, run it like any other watering hole (with some notable exceptions that included concealed photographers), and wait to see what happened.”

—Andy Wright, “The Story Behind the Chicago Newspaper that Bought a Bar.” Topic. Issue No. 4, October 2017.

I’m Alright; You’re 50/50

“Reuters/Ipsos, which tracked confidence in major institutions every couple of months after the 2016 presidential election, found in late January that 52 percent of Americans had a ‘great deal’ or ‘some’ confidence in the new president’s executive branch. That dropped to 51 percent in the May survey and to 48 percent in the latest poll. Trump took office in January.”

—Chris Kahn, “The press, branded the ‘enemy’ by Trump, increasingly trusted by the public: Reuters/Ipsos poll.” Reuters. October 3, 2017.

I find myself wondering: 

  1. Are the populations of an online poll conducted over three periods comparable?
  2. Do polls of this sort represent “Americans”?
  3. If you compare two polls, each with an “credibility interval” of two percent, and the data point is a four percent difference, is this meaningful?

And the answer is “No,” on all counts. It’s junk like this that confirms the biases of one echo chamber and crying of “fake news” by another. 

Personally, I cannot help wonder why confidence in U.S. public institutions are as high as half the polled population has some confidence in our major institutions. I’d be more interested to learn why. Congress is dysfunctional. The Presidency and the federal government as a whole has too much power. The court system is filled with ideologues that seem more interested in theories of law and supporting elites than justice. 

The only thing one should be confident of is the whole edifice will limp along until, one day, it collapses in a heap.

Scuttlebutt – An Off-Grid Social Network

“It’s a decentralized system for sending messages to a specific community, rather than the global internet. It works by word of mouth. Instead of posting to an online service like Facebook or Twitter, Scuttlebutt applications hold onto their data locally. When a user runs into a friend, the system automatically synchronizes its stored updates with them via local-network transfer—or even by USB stick. Then the friend does likewise, and word spreads, slowly and deliberately.

For the contemporary internet user, it sounds like a bizarre proposition. Why make communication slower, inefficient, and reliant on random interactions between other people? But Tarr and others building SSB applications think it might solve many of the problems of today’s internet, giving people better and more granular control of their lives online and off.”

—Ian Bogart, “The Nomad Who’s Exploding the Internet Into Pieces.” The Atlantic. May 22, 2017.

Originally came across Scuttlebutt in this article in The Atlantic a few months ago. It’s relatively easy to set-up.

  1. Get an invite code to a pub.
  2. Download a release of Patchwork, a Scuttlebutt client, for your operating system and install.
  3. Follow the prompts to connect to the pub.

It strikes me as reminiscent of the old BBS systems. But, much would look familiar to the people that came of age using Facebook. There are public forums, public user journals and private messaging. The reason it’s more like a BBS is that it is built around the idea of asynchronous updating rather than real time.

The problem—like with alternative, decentralized social networks everywhere—is the existing user base does not include people you already know. Then, for most people, it’s a question of why not just use Facebook? 

There are good answers to that question, e.g., it’s not a platform that makes money doing surveillance on its users in order to make money selling ads to them, it’s an augmentation to occasional social interaction rather than a surrogate for it, the built in delay cuts out some of the addictive attraction of social media, etc. Still, these are rarely persuasive arguments that convince people to change from Facebook, Twitter, and so forth to a much less polished social media platform.

Regardless, Scuttlebutt is an interesting alternative—one I’ll be watching in the coming years.


Perceptrons vs. A.I.

“The success of deep learning systems has given us better machine perception. This is really useful. What it does well is matching or identifying patterns, very fast, for longer than you can reasonably expect people to do. It automates a small part of the glorious wonder of intuition. It also automates everything terrible about it, and adds brilliantly creative mistakes of its own. There is something wonderful about the idea of a machine that gets it completely, hopelessly wrong.”

—Yorksranter, “It was called a perceptron for a reason, damn it.” The Yorkshire Ranter. September 30, 2017.

Becoming Dangerous 

Becoming Dangerous: A book about ritual and resistance “is a nonfiction book of deeply personal essays by marginalised people using the intersection of feminism, witchcraft, and resistance to summon power and become fearsome in a world that would prefer them afraid. With contributions from twenty witchy femmes, queer conjurers, and magical rebels, BECOMING DANGEROUS is a book of intelligent and challenging essays that will resonate with anyone who’s ever looked for answers outside the typical places.” 

Kickstarter for the project ends October 20, 2017.