Cracker Country

I met someone recently. And during the course of conversation, we discovered we grew up around the same area. The conversation went along these lines:

  • Stranger: I’m from X.
  • Me: Oh, really? I grew up near there.
  • Stranger: Where are you from?
  • Me: The Y/Z area.
  • Stranger: Don’t take this the wrong way, but we used to call that, “Cracker Country.”
  • Me: *laughs* There’s probably some truth to that when you and I lived there [a long time ago], but it’s probably less true now.

Everyone involved in this conversation was white, whatever that means.

The Y/Z area was a place in the gap between rural and suburban. It used to have large blocks of pastureland for cows. They have since been converted into a suburban landscape. I remember a school dance that featured a “hoe down” as a theme. It was telling choice, walking a fine line between irony and actuality.

It was a town of the middle and lower classes that was white, which is true even today. I have no memories of any black people in my school or in the area. Issues of race were, and in many ways still are, invisible.

I shared this exchange with a family member from that area. They took it “the wrong way.” They found “cracker” offensive. My reaction to the term is closer to this one in the Gawker. It doesn’t bother me at all.

But, why? What is the difference? I don’t live there. I didn’t feel like I belonged when I was there. I left when I came of age and never returned. Maybe it doesn’t bother me because I don’t identify with the place.

But, would it be different if I still lived there? What if I were someone with stereotypical “cracker” interests? What if I attended a Baptist church? Loved fishing, hunting and/or shooting at the range? What if I worked construction or raised cattle for a living?

Conversations on race and class are always complicated. The closer you are to a stereotype, the more you’ll resent that stereotype. The other side of intersectionality is that the lower someone is on an axis such as class, the more they will focus on other axes, including white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. to help increase their social standing.

OpenBSD’s Guide to Netiquette

The OpenBSD’s mailing list page netiquette section is excellent. It is a distillation of how to communicate online, i.e.:

  • Plain text, 72 characters per line [or simplest formatting available]
  • Do your homework before writing
  • Include a useful subject line [or headline]
  • Trim your signature
  • Stay on topic
  • Include important information
  • Respect differences in opinion and philosophy

Using only plain text is extreme outside of email. But, the idea that formatting should not get in the way of content is good. Know what you are talking about. Help others to understand. Give them all the relevant information. Trim out anything that does not move the discussion forward or is confusing. Treat everyone with respect.

It’s good advice for any kind of communication and for life. It’s relevant to writing an email, a newsletter, a blog post, an article or anything else you may do.

Semi-Auto Cut-Up: Another Offering (KJV)

Eat the congregation, together,
smite them afraid, blast vessels.
O ye dead life, mercy, semblance
of a kind, a measure of shadow.

But, they had no prophet, neighbors
and friends, children of fate, troubled
the Others, remember them not, no-name,
wilderness sacrifices, sore consumed.

Desolation came and passed, Death,
bare the enemy, dead, desolate,
good and great together into the land,
begat headstones, seeds unto the earth.

Father of water, turn thyself,
out to sea, high between, separate,
sing of the living, purify mouths
and soul, fetch their inheritance.

Surge, rain on the wise borderlands,
pull the stopper, flush the tidal womb,
from the unleavened, and the unclean,
reborn, another offering to be devoured.

Another A.I. assist using a recently trained neural network using the King James version (KJV) as the corpus. Since this is the first neural network I tried myself, I learned many valuable lessons. It took 2.5 days the first go around, and the result was unusable because of all the newline characters in the original text. I didn’t realize that the text would have to be pre-processed or what it would entail. I plan on writing a post about the process of making Project Gutenberg texts usable as writing with the machine co-authors.

Also, there is a point to be made about the inherent class obstacles in learning and using neural networks. The differences from having a dedicated machine running the right hardware is the difference between waiting days to train a new model or a few hours. On the other end, speed also limits how big of a data set you are willing to start with. The KJV is about 5MB, and it took 2 days. Robin Sloan’s pre-trained text is around 123MB. Spending 24+ days to train a model is a serious barrier to entry.

Lessons Learned from the Hemingway Editor

As an exercise, I tried rewriting an essay I wrote for this blog, Ergot on Rye, in the Hemingway editor. I learned that my writing in too academic. It is too hard to read. Expressions need to be simpler. I need to use fewer qualifiers.

The Hemingway editor helps me break down some of those learned habits. It also has direct to WordPress publishing capability. But, it’s only available for Windows and MacOS. writegood-mode in Emacs might be an alternative on Linux.

Below are quotes from the first few paragraphs, followed by their rewritten counterparts. The difference is quality is obvious.

Original:

“tl;dr: Ergot is a forgotten plague that teaches a lesson about the cost of ignorance, and perhaps, offers another one on the price of sanity and the value of a little madness. (1,620 words)”

Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “tl;dr: Ergot is a forgotten plague that teaches a lesson about the cost of ignorance, and perhaps, offers another one on the price of sanity and the value of a little madness. (1,620 words)”

“This is a cautionary tale about ergot. Ergot is a fungi of the genus Claviceps that is a parasite of grains — primarily rye, but also triticale, wheat, barley, sorghum, pearl millet and rarely, oats. It has two major effects: (1) hallucinations, often with convulsions or epileptic symptoms, and (2) constriction of the blood vessels in the extremities that lead to gangrene and/or death. Generally, it is one or the other, which predominates likely depends on ergot genetics and the alkalinity of soil in which it grows. Other symptoms include strong uterine contractions (making it an effective abortifacient), nausea, seizures, high fever, vomiting, loss of muscle strength and unconsciousness. Its active ingredient is lysergic acid, a precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD. Historically, tens of thousands of people have died, been disfigured, or gone mad from ergot poisoning. Today, it is controlled and very rarely effects anyone.”

Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “This is a cautionary tale about ergot. Ergot is a fungus. It is a parasite of rye. But, it also grows on triticale, wheat, barley, sorghum, pearl millet and rarely, oats. It has two major effects. One, it causes hallucinations, convulsions and seizures. Two, it constricts the blood vessels in the extremities causing gangrene and/or death. Which effect happens depends on ergot genetics and the alkalinity of soil in which it grows.

Ergot also causes abortions, seizures, fever, vomiting, loss of muscle strength and unconsciousness. Its active ingredient is lysergic acid. Lysergic acid is a precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD. Ergot poisoning has mutilated, driven mad or killed tens of thousands of people. Today, it very rarely effects anyone.”

“Historians have speculated that lysergic acid in ergot may have been converted into ergine by boiling ergot-infected rye for an extended period of time. This process matches historical recipes for kykeon, which was the drink culminating a religious fast in the Eleusinian Mystery cults and perhaps used in other mystery cults as well. While there is some archeological evidence for the existence of rye after the Bronze Age, it did not become a widespread food staple until the Middle Ages.”

Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “Boiling ergot-infected rye for an extended period of time converts it to ergine. This matches historical recipes for kykeon. Kykeon was drunk at the culmination of religious fasts. Eleusinian Mystery cults used kykeon in their rituals. People ate rye after the Bronze age. But, it did not become a widespread food staple until the Middle Ages.”

“Rye is a grain that grows on marginal lands. During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 C.E.), there was a population boom and expansion that put pressure on the food supply, and as a result, rye was seeded in the winter to provide a bonus and/or nurse crop for more extensive agriculture. With the increased eating of rye by the population, the effects of ergot became more widespread and notable. For example, possibly the first example of a dancing plague in the historical record is a 1021 C.E. incident in the German town of Kölbigk:”

Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “Rye is a grain that grows on marginal lands. During the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 C.E.), there was a population boom. The expansion put pressure on the food supply. As a result, planting rye in the winter provided a bonus and/or nurse crop for more extensive agriculture. With more people eating rye, ergot poisoning became more widespread and notable. For example, the first example of a dancing plague is in a 1021 C.E.. It happened in the German town of Kölbigk:”

“Except for the apocryphal year punishment, these outbreaks of dancing mania closely match the descriptions of the Eleusinian Mystery rites after consumption of kykeon, which suggests a reaction to a hallucinogenic variety or ergot. Perhaps, the psychological effects lasted for a year because that’s how long it took the population to eat through their store of rye grain for that year? Whether this story is an accurate depiction of events or has apocryphal elements, it is clear that a widespread mania is preferable to gangrenous ergotism. The first major documented case of gangrenous ergotism happened in the Rhine Valley, in 857 A.D., but it recieved it’s common name of “St. Anthony’s Fire” during the 1039 C.E. outbreak in Dauphiné, France. The cause of ergotism, at that time, was unknown. It’s not hard to imagine that those inflected with madness from ergot would be seen as being possessed by the Devil and the gangrenous form as punishment for sin. To speculate, perhaps ergot had a role to play in religious purity movements such as the strict vegetarian Carthars and the subsequent Catholic crusades and inquisitions that were in response to it.”

Rewritten with the Hemingway Editor: “Dancing mania matches of what happens after consumption of kykeon. This may be a reaction to a hallucinogenic variety or ergot. It lasted for a year because that’s how long it took the population to eat through their store of rye grain. This story is may be apocryphal elements. But, it is clear that a widespread mania is preferable to gangrenous ergotism.

The first major documented case of gangrenous ergotism happened in in 857 A.D in the Rhine Valley. It received it’s common name of “St. Anthony’s Fire” during the 1039 C.E. outbreak in Dauphiné, France. The cause of ergotism, at that time, was unknown. People blamed the madness from ergot as possession by the Devil. The gangrenous form of ergot poisoning was punishment for sin. Ergot played a role in religious purity movements. The strict vegetarian diets of Carthars may have been in response to ergot poisoning. As the Catholic crusades and inquisitions may have been a response to were in response to it.”

Robin Sloan & Writing With The Machine

I am just so compelled by the notion of a text editor that possesses a deep, nuanced model of… what? Everything ever written by you? By your favorite authors? Your nemesis? All staff writers at the New Yorker, present and past? Everyone on the internet? It’s provocative any way you slice it.

I should say clearly: I am absolutely 100% not talking about an editor that ‘writes for you,’ whatever that means. The world doesn’t need any more dead-eyed robo-text.

The animating ideas here are augmentation; partnership; call and response.

The goal is not to make writing “easier”; it’s to make it harder.

The goal is not to make the resulting text “better”; it’s to make it different — weirder, with effects maybe not available by other means.”

Robin Sloan, “Writing With The Machine.” robinsloan.com. May 2016.

Robin Sloan hacked together some software to use a neural network trained against some corpus of text, e.g., Shakespeare, that then makes suggestions on how to complete sentences you write. He’s right that it doesn’t make writing easier. It makes it harder because it is essentially implanting non sequiturs into your writing that then have to be thoughtfully incorporated or erased. But, it does make your mind go off in different directions that would not occur if you were merely composing something on your own.

In order to try it, you have to install torch, torch-rnn, torch-rnn-server, the Atom text editor, and rnn-writer. It’s probably easiest to get it going on Linux or MacOS. The instructions are not entirely clear, and I failed to get it working the first time I tried. I made a second attempt yesterday, and I got it to work. The main thing is to go through all the instructions. Look for flags or how it can be done manually if it fails. I also didn’t realize that the torch-rnn-server requires git cloning and moving to the relevant directory in order to get the server to run.

Also, you should use the pre-trained model to make sure everything works first. Get the server running, connect it to your Atom editor and get a feel for the possibilities. However, you’ll probably find that the pre-trained model leaves quite a bit to be desired.

But, training up the model on a preferred text can take quite awhile if you are doing it on a consumer grade computer. I picked the King James Version of the Bible as my reference text, and I’m doing the training on an old laptop. By my calculations, it will take around 70 hours to train the model. It’s not a trivial exercise.

After trying the pre-trained model, it probably makes the most sense to try training the tiny-shakespeare.txt file included with torch-rnn-server, as a first walk-through of training up your own neural network from a specific text. This way you aren’t spending several days training up something you aren’t sure is going to work.

After that, take a look at Project Gutenberg. I can imagine using a neural network trained on years of our emails, Montaigne, old slang dictionaries, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales to different affect on our writing. There seems like a world of possibility with this approach.

Good luck!

Amazon & The Cultural Landscape of Books

The small print publisher 404 Ink’s discussion of their finances, particularly the portion on the cost to small press publishers to have their books sold via Amazon, is a bit of an eye-opener. On some level, I was aware that the discounts that Amazon is able to offer on books had to be squeezed from authors and publishers (but apparently not distributors). But, I was not sure of the exact scope.

I’m imagining a publisher like Dorothy selling Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk. On the publisher’s website, it is $16.00. On Amazon, it is being sold for $14.87. If we assume a similar distribution like 404 Ink’s, then:

  • Printing cost (9%): $1.44
  • Royalty to author (12%): $1.60
  • Share to distributor (12%): $1.92
  • Share to publisher (9%): $1.44
  • Share to Amazon (60%): $8.48

So, the $1.13 difference between Amazon and Publisher prices is 7%, which Amazon offers as part of a package with Amazon Prime, free delivery and so forth to create a price sensitive, captive book market that buys primarily through them. But, even with the 7% off they are still making 13%, or $2.08, more on a $16 book than a traditional book seller.

And let’s be real about mom and pop book shops. Books selling have been dominated by the likes of Walden’s, Borders, Books-a-Million and other chain book stores for decades. I don’t really care if Amazon puts them out of business. But, there are still independent shops that are trying to carve out space in the cracks, promoting books that are not in the cultural mainstream. The problem is that there are not many cracks that Amazon isn’t in.

There’s also a large question about our cultural output. If there is no room for an independent publisher or book store to make a living doing that kind of work, and publishing houses like Dorothy are doing vital cultural work in promoting emerging women writers, what happens to those writers? Do they stay at their technical writing jobs, in the corporate cubicle, etc. and never produce any work? Or, do they end up channelling their creative energy to generate page views, followers and what not, hoping there’s a life to be found, like salt sprinkled in a wound?

There’s an argument here, beyond the standard argument about the feudal internet, the Rating Rabbit Hole, and so forth that we should pay the extra $1.13, buy directly from publishers, and consider this a tax to support diversity in our cultural landscape. Because every time we buy from Amazon rather than directly from these small publishing houses, we are voting with our dollars to essentially destroy the very stories we are showing we are willing to buy, just to save a small fraction of the cost. It’s a tragedy.

Of course, you could argue that if there is no money to be made on Amazon, then these small publishers will turn to alternatives, such as print on demand, and they will develop a market outside of Amazon. This is true, and it is happening. But, relegating a large portion of our cultural output to the long tail is also an exercise in diminishment. The diversity of the long tail will be a function of the amount of effort we put into creating it, and the first step is to stop using Amazon to buy books.

The Spirit of Good Will

I was reading How to Think by Alan Jacobs, and he makes this really insightful comment:

“Genuine community is open to questioning from people of good will.”

He makes a distinction between cliques and in-groups, where conforming to certain ideas are the condition for acceptance, and genuine community, where the communities are open to dialogue and being changed by “people of good will.” He says that open-mindedness is not an unqualified good.

“The life of the mind always requires triage, the sorting of the valuable from the less valuable, the usable from the unusable, and in conditions of information overload we start looking for reasons to rule things out…We cannot make progress intellectually or socially until some issues are no longer up for grabs.”

It made me think of a few online interactions I’ve had recently. One was with someone whose worldview was informed primarily by right wing conspiracy theories. He was suggesting that in order to know what was really going on, I should spend some time listening to a podcast which had Joe Arpaio as one of the commentators.

I told him I’d pass. He said that I wasn’t being open-minded, and he was right. I’m not open-minded about questions that I have resolved to my satisfaction and “are no longer up for grabs.” I’ve also heard enough of some people’s ideas to immediately discount anything they say; Joe Arpaio is a good example. Some people have a lot of bad ideas. It is better to not listen to them. The more we listen to bad ideas, the more they take up residence in our mind. Once we figure out an idea is bad, we don’t need to keep revisiting it, just wait until someone we know, someone of good will, vouches for it. Then, maybe, give it more consideration.

An example of settled questions, for me, is whether fluoride and vaccinations are good for you. The short answer, these are two of the most important public health interventions of the 20th Century. They are good. But, there are longer answers, too.

Fluoride kills mouth bacteria, which in addition to cutting rates of dental caries, dental abscess, etc., in the mouth, also cuts other diseases that can originate in the mouth, such as reducing bacteria Porphyromonas gingivalis in the gums that is responsible for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Even with fluoride in water, approximately 34% of the United States population over 30 has periodontal disease. Want to take a guess what the Venn diagram of the 1 in 5 of U.S. citizens over the age of 65 without any teeth and the third of the population with periodontal disease looks like?

We know that fluoride provides protection against caries, which are the most common health problem among children, and it also helps adults. Rates of moderate or severe fluorosis is only 3.6%. It’s pretty clear that the risk/benefit analysis of adding fluoride to water is a good public health intervention. It doesn’t need further discussion.

Same goes for vaccines. Study after study has proved they are safe, and they protect from major diseases. When you look back in the past, you know what wasn’t good about the Good Ol’ Days? The flu epidemics, diptheria, tetanus, hepatitis, human papillomavirus, polio, measles, mumps, varicella, rubella, rotavirus, and smallpox. And that’s only scratching the surface. Risk/benefit? It’s obvious that vaccines are almost all benefit. There’s nothing to discuss. Go get vaccinated.

Are these studies absolutely conclusive? No. But, you have to make calls in life, and these are two calls that I am comfortable making. There’s little risk and a whole lot of benefit, which is why we do them as a matter of public policy.

Of course, there are people that are absolutely convinced that vaccines and fluoride are responsible for some terrible harm. I am open-minded to these ideas, only in so far as to understand how it might make me feel to believe them. But, it’s not going to be a belief I share.

There are others that I consider settled. The Earth isn’t flat, and people have walked on the moon. The Holocaust is a historical fact. Very few people have RFID in their bodies, and it is not the Mark of the Beast. And so forth.

Others I’m willing to suspend judgment on. I’m open to the idea that the government has covered up contacts with alien civilizations. From a probability standpoint, I think it is low probability, <1%. I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest it was true, and I would be surprised if there were any. Elvis is very probably dead.

It goes the other direction as well. I’m willing to acknowledge the point that planetary models of climate change might be inaccurate, and the story of climate change is wrong. Again, it is low probability on the level of alien contact, <1%, but not impossible.

The question is: where does good will lie? Am I being a person of good will if I am willing to empathize with how someone feels about believing something to be true, even if I believe it is false? Am I a person of good will if I am willing to entertain the possibility that one of my deeply held beliefs might be wrong? Or, is being a person of good will mean taking seriously an argument you do not believe in and responding with a counter-argument, such as the fluoride argument above?

I think being a person of good will comes down to two things:

  • loving people more than our ideas
  • valuing learning over debating and winning

When there is no love and no respect, there can be no dialogue. When someone only wants to share their point of view (and get you to adopt it) and they aren’t listening, then there is no dialogue. If the person you are talking with listened to an idea, but immediately discounted it because it is inconsistent with their worldview or established settled beliefs, then there can be no dialogue.

We can not, and should not, always be people of good will. We have limited time on this earth and much of the dialogue we might have is of no value to anyone. But, there are also people in our lives that are in desperate need of love, respect, and recognition. Perhaps the value in dialogue isn’t in the exchange of ideas, but in giving people in our lives a good listening to. What would we hear if we truly listened and didn’t get hung up on what was being said?  Or, is that possible? Are heart and mind intertwined such that there can be no feeling without thought or vice versa?