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Friday, June 21, 2019

Alan Brinkley, an incurious historian

Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley has died.

I took his lecture course on US history from WWI to WW2. I found his lectures very informative and clear, but I also got the sense that he dismissed historical interpretations to the left of the centrist historical consensus without really considering them.

When Seymour Hersh published a big takedown of JFK in 1997, Brinkley wrote a review for I think Newsweek or Time -- I can't find it online. I was a bit shocked that he dismissed most of Hersh's accusations -- the assassination attempts JFK and RFK orchestrated, the mob connections, the womanizing -- as old news, as if the public already knew as much of it as historians did, or as if it didn't matter.

He also dismissed conspiracy theories about the US military knowing in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack. I think he's probably right about that, but as I recall, he said it without even a sliver of doubt that we know everything everyone involved knew half a century ago, and without acknowledging that the attack solved a huge political problem for the military which could have provided an incentive to look the other way -- even unintentionally.

The distinction I'm making is subtle. I've never seen convincing evidence that the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory is correct, and I think people convinced of it are not thinking rigorously. But that doesn't mean that there is no convincing evidence of the theory. In particular, I think institutions have a powerful way of creating convenient blind spots that let a group of people act out intentions that no individual may be conscious of. There is evidence that the military at the time not only wanted to enter the war, but desperately wanted a decisive causus belli to sway a reluctant public into full-throated support for the war. And there has been lots of criticism by military tacticians since that points out how bizarre it was for the military to assemble so many targets in a single location without preparations for defense. Does that mean the military specifically knew of that specific attack? No, but it may mean that there was a practical strategy either not to apply the normal amount of precaution, or to tempt the Japanese military into a political and military tactical error.

In short, in both of these areas, I think there is much there that a curious historian can and should engage. But Brinkley seemed to find these areas of inquiry unworthy of consideration, of focus or of respect. I think that's a mark of poor history scholarship.

But I was also looking for excuses to criticize my professors in those day... and probably still am!

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Should teachers instruct kids to use "academic language"?

A colleague sent me a link to a lesson guide about teaching students "academic language".

His reaction was horror, especially at lines like:

When they hear themselves “sounding smart,” it is a source of excitement and motivation in the classroom.

A few scattered thoughts:

First, I share my colleague's worry that focusing on "sounding smart" sends the exact wrong message, as if only the elite have complex or worthwhile ideas, and as though the goal is to imitate the elite's worst and most superficial traits rather than developing complex thinking and articulation organically.

That said, I think one thing to keep in mind is that some of us, including me, come from backgrounds where we can take many educational privileges for granted. Growing up, I could take for granted that I would be immersed in language and knowledge that would make me familiar with a wide vocabulary and a wide breadth of experience. I could take for granted that I'd have decent ability to adjust my phrasing and terminology to match formal or academic situations.

This isn't just a matter of learning some rote rules--it means the ability to communicate clearly and convincingly. For instance, in my programming work, when I write a bug report issue, I know to be specific and explicit because I'm very familiar with how hard it can be to parse someone else’s casual and vague language, even when they know exactly what they mean. To my colleague, I'd ask them to imagine if I wrote in an issue just that something vaguely “worked”, as opposed to writing more specifically “I was able to see the user’s profile” or whatever. My guess is they'd feel left in the dark a bit.

I’m a bit playing devil’s advocate, because I share a lot of my colleague's reservations about this type of approach. But I think it’s worth noting that there are specific pieces of knowledge and experience that are not available to many learners, if teachers are not specifically introducing them. To skeptics, I'd challenge them: are you so sure it does the students a service to act as though it’s ok if they never learn or experience this background information, or only learn it if they organically come to the intention of learning them?

Still, I agree this piece is awkward. I think much of the point doesn’t need the “academic language” framing to hit on something valuable.

One of the most valuable learning experiences I ever had was to write a regular opinion column in my college newspaper, because my editor insisted that I present my thinking clearly, and wouldn’t print it until it was good--at least, good at presenting the argument that I set out to present. I had had no idea how little rigor I was applying to my own thoughts, and how much I had a tendency to hide behind vagueness, rhetorical tics, and assumptions.

I think it’s hugely valuable to be forced to be more specific about what you mean, and I don’t think that needs to be a question of academic context specifically, though I can see how that could be a convenient entry point to it. A lot of this piece is really just talking about learning to write, which requires organizing your thoughts, examining what you said against what you meant, and empathizing with a reader who doesn’t have extra context.

A hard thing about prescriptive academic proposals is that most of the time, it’s possible to imagine some teacher and student for whom the proposal would work well. And, it’s possible to imagine others for whom the proposal would get in the way of authentic learning.

I think it’s hard to summarize the quality of a proposal overall; a more valuable step might be to imagine situations where it would and wouldn’t be appropriate, and try to add it as a tool to your toolbelt, and also to remember the inappropriate version so as to avoid it.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Thoughts on Bird scooters

Just tried a Bird for the first time, in Mexico City of all places. (Kind of symbolic that innovation would be embraced more avidly here than in the hand-wringing cities I've lived in the US in the past few years.)

Thoughts:


1) My daughters (7 and 10 years old, I'm sure this violated the terms) had such a great time riding it back and forth that we spent over an hour, just on one block.


2) It was super easy to ride and I felt very, very safe. My daughters got the hang of it quickly. They had a few close calls with pedestrians, but they're kids. Kind of made me resent the adults who crash into people and ruin it for the rest of us. 


3) The same speed felt a little scary on the scooter that would feel completely normal on a bike. This makes me wonder if I'd ever use one for commuting if a bike were available.


4) It seemed like the highest speed was unnecessarily fast. I was surprised it goes that fast; setting the max speed a bit lower would make me feel better about everyone else riding then.


5) The price is great, and I could try it for a buck. I love paying as I go without having to worry about subscriptions and such. The least you can possibly spend on Citibike is like $10 which I think is exclusionary and also the wrong upfront pitch.


6) the brake felt stiff and hard to reach, even for my big hands. My daughters could barely pull it at all, and it didn't seem to have anything wrong with it.


7) The wheels are just big and bouncy enough; it really rode well on CDMX's cracked sidewalks.


All in all, an amazing (and belated) experience! I hope the Boston area gets these.


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Monday, May 27, 2019

A personal taxonomy of Hogwarts houses

My family's current favorite topic is which Hogwarts house various people should be in. This requires a bit of reinterpretation, because in the Harry Potter books, the house identities are not very fleshed out, and they encourage the sense that Gryffindor is the best, and Slytherin and Hufflepuff the worst. (Or rather, the most despicable and unimportant, respectively.)

Here's how we've redefined the houses:

Gryffindor: summarized in the books as those who are brave, though that's not a very helpful definition. We've settled on a definition of those who are concerned first and foremost with justice and principles, even at the cost of some discord. Gryffindors want to make a point of things, and might have a hard time compromising or communicating. Examples: Liz Warren, AOC, Bill Russell. You might map the Enneagram personality types 1 (the Reformer) and 8 (the Challenger) to Gryffindor.

Ravenclaw: summarized in the books as those who are clever. We've decided this doesn't only mean those who like to study schoolbooks! In our telling, it means people who relish the world of the mind: they use intellect and reasoning as their first line of encounter with the world, and they seek wisdom, experience and exposure to new things. They're more concerned, ultimately, with understanding new ideas and parsing arguments than with who is ultimately helped or hurt. Ravenclaws could have a hard time in situations where their theories aren't working. Examples: Barack Obama, Anthony Bourdain, Matt Yglesias, Gregg Popovich. You might map the Enneagram personality types 5 (the Investigator) and 7 (the Enthusiast) to Ravenclaw.

Hufflepuff: kind of never defined in the books; I think there's one line that calls them "loyal". We've decided this means people who are first and foremost helpers, whose instinct is to help before they might, say, try to articulate a view of the systemic roots of a problem, or put themselves out there to change it. Might have a hard time when their good intentions aren't appreciated. Examples: doctors, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Bradley, Pete Carroll. You might map the Enneagram personality types 2 (the Helper) and 9 (the Mediator) to Hufflepuff.

Slytherin: in the books they're basically the evil ones, but if you try to articulate their identity positively, I think you get something like Ayn Randism: power as something of the natural right of each person, and the focus of life as a struggle of various powers for their due, and space to be heard. Might agree that the ends justify the means. Examples: Fidel Castro, Ayn Rand, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant. You might map the Enneagram personality types 3 (the Achiever), 4 (the Individualist) and 6 (the Loyalist) to Slytherin.

An interesting wrinkle is that people can change over time, or have layers -- e.g., pre-Hajj Malcolm X was a Ravenclaw whose public face was a Gryffindor, but El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz became a Hufflepuff. Oprah's brand is Hufflepuff, but behind the scenes she's super Slytherin. Running against Obama, Hillary Clinton positioned herself as a Slytherin, but by all accounts she's a total Ravenclaw.

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Intersectionality is conservative

It's striking that conservatives dismiss intersectionality as "any claim of oppression excuses any misbehavior", when it actually very much argues the opposite -- that patterns of oppression exist within each oppressed group, and not just without.

It's actually a very conservative philosophical critique -- that progressive claims to redress by feminists, people of color, LGBTQ folks, religious minorities, and people with disabilities should not be taken as a license by anyone to ignore the duty to be decent and just.

It's an appeal to timeless values, in the face of the tendency for them to be obscured as artificial social hierarchies and poisonous ideologies are brought down.

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Saturday, April 20, 2019

Daily life problems no one has a solution to

Daily life problems no one has a solution to:
  1. I have computers/suits/graphic novels/items I’d love to sell and don’t care about the money, just feels wasteful to throw away something that could sell for a few hundred bucks. How can I do that?
    • Want easy way to dispose of items: someone picks them up, they sell or distribute them, give share of money to you or to charity
  2. I want to share my wifi, but set a limit on it.
    • Current solutions are very complicated. Want wifi router that lets you set up separate networks, open and/or closed, and rate limit
  3. At a cafe, I order, then go sit down far away and focus on something else. Turns out someone has been shouting my name for 10 minutes.
    • Buzzers are impersonal and expensive but work.
  4. I want to buy premade food in the morning, without having to reroute myself or wait for everyone else to deal with payment and choice.
    • Want a $5 breakfast burrito to be waiting for me at subway exit — that I can take or leave.
  5. I want to access data from my apps like weather, movie times, NBA playoff wins, etc.
    • Want a central API service that I can ask for different data, and have them source it and deliver it to me at a reasonable rate, with the same key. Pricing could work like Heroku — free for delayed and infrequent use, expensive for frequent access and updating.
  6. I want to hire a French tutor to come tutor my daughter. Um, how on earth do I do that?
    • Seriously, it's crazy this question doesn't have a better answer yet
  7. I want to sign up my kids for summer camps. Which ones are free, when, and which of their friends are signed up? It's a mess and every site takes a long time to register.
    • Single site that camps and afterschool programs list on, which handles registration and connects to social media
  8. I want to be able to filter the internet's nonsense by preferring to see information posted by people with a social or financial track record of decent behavior and credibility
    • Opt-in internet-wide reputation. What could go wrong?

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Blogger Unknown on Sun Apr 21, 12:56:00 PM:
#1: That’s sort of the role that pawn shops and consignment shops sort of fill, no? I suppose the question is: why haven’t those sorts of businesses consolidated/focused online/modernized/offered an end-to-end time saving no-hassle solution? There’s clearly demand for this service, so is the supply side not being met because it isn’t very profitable? I’m not sure, but I want this too.

#2: I know that small-business level solutions have that sort of functionality built-in (UniFi, Meraki, etc), but I suppose that I don’t have first hand knowledge about setup complexity/difficulty. Have you looked in to those?

#3: Part of me wants to push back on engineering a tech solution to this one in favor of preserving the messy human and analog aspect of this, but you’re right that yelling isn’t exactly pleasant either!

#4: Mmm breakfast burrito. Are the key features the pre-made aspect and the “on my travel path” aspect? In Toronto we have a software startup called Ritual which solves part of the problem. You order/pay for an order at normal take-out places on your phone and then just grab it off of their shelf (if the restaurant is trusting enough), or just quickly ask the person at the front to grab the prepared order from behind the counter.

#5: Ooh, this one is fun. I need to wrap my head around it. Doesn’t exist because: something something data ownership, silos, resale, probably(?). An interesting question to ask is if/why this is/isn’t on Google’s roadmap. Their mission is to organize the world’s information and they probably have the widest/deepest database and they have the scale/infrastructure. All (!) they’d need to do is unify some APIs and monetize?

#6: Surprising that this is so hard. Clearly a business opportunity. I always just assume that the “Uber/AirBnB for…” Silicon Valley startup space throws money at and conquers all these types of problems immediately! :)

#8: Now we’re getting ambitious. Love it!

Keep it coming. I like these “needs a solution” threads. Meta-idea: where’s the curated/crowdsourced list of life’s unsolved problems? A shared todo list for the world!
 

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

Journalistic authority and the informed identity

Reading this Franklin Foer piece applauding the Mueller report, I'm stuck again by the bizarre way that journalists are summarizing Mueller's (apparently) not recommending charges against Trump for criminal conspiracy.

Foer writes that "In the case of Trump, the corruption doesn’t seem to have transgressed any laws." That is a remarkable statement to present as fact, and I think the implication about the Mueller report is misleading, given what we currently know about it.

This is the same feeling I had with Rosenstein's letter about James Comey, when the mainstream media seemed to spontaneously mount the collective delusion that Rosenstein had recommended Comey be fired, which he did not--and, in fact, seemed to have carefully avoided doing.

Assuming we can trust Barr's direct quotes from the report, it appears that Mueller's team did not find sufficient evidence to conclude that Trump or his campaign "conspired or coordinated" with the Russian effort to intervene in the election. It also appears to conclude that the evidence available to Mueller does not establish that Trump committed any crime.

That's significant, and it shouldn't be downplayed. But it's very, very different from concluding that there exists no evidence that Trump or his campaign coordinated with Russia, or committed crimes doing so. Significantly, Trump did not give live testimony to Mueller's team. Whether that was because Mueller did not want to politicize the inquiry, or didn't want to risk a constitutional crisis from Trump's refusal, or what, I'm not sure.

The president and the campaign also appear to have actively hidden or obfuscated at least some information, probably criminally -- judging from Mueller's various criminal charges. Did Mueller find and resolve all instances of this? It's possible, but almost certainly not.

Anyone who has spent any time observing the criminal justice system knows that the conclusion of a criminal case results in, at best, the prosecutors' best attempt at finding the truth. But most of the time -- perhaps nearly all of the time -- the result is only an approximation.

The whole point of the presumption of innocence in criminal cases is that the burden is NOT on a suspect or defendant to prove innocence. But the corollary is that a suspect or defendant not charged or found guilty cannot claim to have been determined to be innocent.

This is almost laughably obvious and commonly understood, which is why it's so strange the NY Times, The Atlantic and other places have run misleading summaries of it in the case of the Mueller report -- suggesting that Trump has been found to be innocent by the facts.

I wonder if there is a journalistic bias at play here, where journalists prefer presenting themselves as knowing the facts and digesting them for readers, rather than being as much in the dark about the facts as we, and they, actually are.

Which of these headlines do you think the Times prefers its readers to see: "Mueller Finds No Trump-Russia Conspiracy", or "Mueller Gives Up on Determining Trump-Russia Conspiracy"? One is true per what the Times knows, the other false. But more importantly, one appears strong and informative, whole the other appears weak and uninformative, at a glance.

If everyone else is repeating the takeaway that the report exonerates Trump, and the NY Times is more cautious -- even allowing that we trust Barr's summary, the NYT isn't playing the part of the confident, ahead-of-the-story fount of up to date information that readers want.

And ask yourself, if you saw both headlines side by side in two different papers, which would you reach for?

The point is that these moments give us insight into the nature of the news business, which is to serve readers an ongoing story about the publication and about themselves. Each headline, each story must ultimately conform to the story that the NYT makes me an informed person.

The gap between that core focus of the newsroom, and the supposed focus on reporting the most important stories accurately, is usually mostly hidden from us. We don't know all the stories we don't see, which is why most avid readers if the Times couldn't tell you (in one of my favorite examples) that all available evidence suggests that two of Trump's wives have been illegal immigrants, including the First Lady. It's why family separation wasn't a public issue under Obama, though the NYT clearly could have made it one.

When you read the news, remember that you are being sold a story by an organization which holds its own importance and power as more important than the accuracy or relevance of its reporting.

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Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Honest questions about pronouns for trans friends

I wrote to a friend, who posted about their gender nonbinary identity:
I remember a time when we were young, when you spoke up about your gender identity, that struck me for its bravery and for my own realization that I wasn't able to inspect mine.

Can I ask a question, with the hope that my curiosity will come across? How do you feel when people who know and love you use male pronouns in reference to you? I struggle a lot with using nonbinary pronouns to refer to the nonbinary people in my life. I'm trying to use them with openness and with the knowledge that they mean a lot to them, *and*, I find that it feels impersonal and artificial. But I know that strict gender roles can be plenty impersonal and artificial!

I want to inspect and take apart my brain pathways that see someone AMAB and automatically use "he", and it's being a long road; and vice versa for people AFAB. Maybe that's because I'm not taking them seriously enough. But in practice, I find I often just clam up instead of talking about them like anyone else in my life.

I know it's not your job to coach me into awareness, but this is something I experience while trying to grow and undo my miseducation and prejudices, that's hard, and which I don't know how to talk about.

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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Why do I think of myself as a "maker"?

In 2015, engineering professor Debbie Chachra wrote a piercing declaration in The Atlantic called "Why I Am Not a Maker". It's excellent:

Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by or at the order of men. But behind every one is an invisible infrastructure of labor—primarily caregiving, in its various aspects—that is mostly performed by women.
...
Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.
...
The problem is the idea that the alternative to making is usually not doing nothing—it’s almost always doing things for and with other people.
...
Describing oneself as a maker—regardless of what one actually or mostly does—is a way of accruing to oneself the gendered, capitalist benefits of being a person who makes products.

This is hard to read, because the "maker" identity has been so useful for me. In my struggles for confidence in my work, that identity has served to place "shipping" at the center of what I try to do. "Shipping" for me means keeping communication to others in focus as I work; pushing past my routines and my tendency to keep my ideas to myself, where they're safe. "Real coders ship" is a mantra that makes me feel connected to everyone else who balks at telling others about their work, of preparing and packaging it in a way that tells others I'm proud of it (and, therefore, that judgments on it will reflect on me).

But Chachra makes me look back on that outlook and wonder if I was discounting the aspects of my work that don't scale. When I ran an afterschool creative technology program for kids in Brooklyn for years, parents and kids loved it, but I was always disappointed at my failure to ship artifacts that others could use to replicate the experience. I experimented with creating curriculum and a learn-to-code platform; was I too focused on these?

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Monday, March 25, 2019

Mystified by coverage of the Mueller Report

I'm trying to understand what I'm missing re: the Mueller Report.

First of all, it's super weird to me that so many people, including the NYTimes editors, are summarizing Barr's summary of the Mueller Report by saying some form of "The Mueller Report found no conspiracy with Russia".

Finding not enough evidence to prove something is not the same as finding **that the thing did not happen**. A good dozen people in Trump's orbit committed crimes specifically to hide evidence -- that we know of. Whether it would prove conspiracy or treason or not, there is evidence that has been hidden from Mueller, without which he seems to have wisely *not* found that Trump and his campaign did not treasonously conspire with the Kremlin.

Second, don't we already know that there was a criminal conspiracy in the campaign? We know that there was at least *some* significant knowledge by the campaign about the Kremlin's attacks on the election, and some significant coordination with them. Donald Trump Jr. published very specific evidence of that in his emails, proving that the campaign's inner circle knew about the Kremlin's work to influence the election in Trump's favor, knew that there was dirt the Kremlin had obtained that was likely to disrupt the election, and provided guidance on timing its release.

Further testimony has made it clear that the campaign made a follow up meeting in person with the campaign's inner circle at a time when Trump would be present, that multiple members of the campaign lied about the content of that meeting, and that the campaign promised to consider items at the top of the Kremlin's agenda if Trump won. You don't need to wait for the full report to be released to know that that is collusion.

And when it became clear that the Russians they were communicating with were involved with criminal hacking, it became a criminal conspiracy not to tell the cops about it -- just as has been prosecuted thousands of times for petty crimes.

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Looking back at my Bitcoin take

During the early part of the 2017 Bitcoin boom, a relative of mine emailed other relatives, including me, wondering whether to invest.

She wasn't religious about it or anything; she only wrote, "Maybe we should be investing a little in this". And I certainly agree, at least if you interpret "a little" to mean an amount well under 1% of one's net worth. I own a little Bitcoin, which I bought primarily to be able to experiment with.

At the same time, many of the world's scams are built of a sense of fear of missing out, and come with a pitch of "Sure, it'll probably go bust, but what if it's the next big thing? Can you really afford not to put in something?" As if imaginary billions vaporizing is worse than losing the hard currency that's actually in your pocket.

So here was my response. 30 months later, I looked it up. The BTC price at the time was about $5300; now it's about $4000, where it's been stable for the past year. In between, of course, it briefly (very briefly) went up to $20,000.

So while my advice to not invest currently appears sound, that doesn't mean a well timed series of trades couldn't have made a ton of money, or that buying at the time and holding won't eventually pan out.

Here's what I wrote on Oct 13, 2017:

I  have a lot of thoughts. Mostly, I think almost no one understands what the underlying value of these things is. If everything you can buy today turns out to have no value in 5 years, very few people would be legitimately surprised. But, that was my reason for not buying Bitcoin 6 years ago, which would have been very lucrative!

I've been arguing for years that "coins" should not be considered to have significant intrinsic value because the function of one cryptocurrency is pretty easy to replicate. In a way, that's happening now, where Bitcoin's share of the cryptocurrency market cap has fallen by 50% in the face of many new competitors. Of course, the overall value may grow faster than competitors can proliferate, but there is little reason any functional use of one currency can't be expanded to handle another. Would someone in 2050 rather have 1 million Bitcoin or $1000 USD? I would bet on the latter, because Bitcoin will just be one cryptocurrency among many, many with the same usefulness--or much more.

I could be wrong, and what will happen in the short term is anyone's guess. But if I'm the least informed player at the table, I think it's very unlikely that I'll come out ahead. Maybe that's just my cautious philosophy, which sometimes is a great asset, but might sometimes keep me from seizing an ambiguous opportunity.

It's worth noting that the industry still hasn't come up with a good, popular, secure way to even maintain an account of these "coins". I've had friends get theirs hacked and stolen, and others be unable to get the companies who provide their "wallets" to let them transfer their coins out. It's the wild West over there.

-Ben

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Monday, March 11, 2019

A mess of attention

My daughters love Youtube explainer/demo/unpackaging videos. What's worrisome is that they are absorbing Youtubers' obsession with subscribes, likes, etc. When my daughters make their own videos showing off cool stuff they can do or make, they always start "Hey guys, it's me!" and they end "Don't forget to hit the subscribe button!"

What's troubling is the way they equate high volume of attention with quality of connection. Or rather, they don't really even know that quality of connection means anything. And I find myself feeling the same.

A lot of my thinking these days is about how we can make attention more evenly distributed. As we have less time for each other, less time for the local, we make more time for the incredible.

So parents watch their latest TV obsession, which is amazing, instead of telling their kids stories. (I totally do this. Telling stories is hard!) Sports fans follow all the stars closely, and care less than their parents did about the details of their local team. The number of incredibly gorgeous people that we see every day is higher than it's ever been, and the normal person next door is less interesting -- and we don't know how to strike up a conversation anymore, anyway.

And even within individual social media accounts, there is concentration of attention to posts. My most impassioned posts are ones that Facebook quickly learns won't get a lot of likes; my most generic posts are in a sense "wealthier" with attention than the ones that would challenge my friends and make them challenge me back. Meaning is poorly rewarded, because it is poor in social currency.

What I'm longing for is an increase in the "floor" of attention -- the amount of connection to your fellow humans that we can expect when we reach out, whether it's by organizing a meeting or a club, posting our thoughts, or talking to our neighbors.

The most troubling part of this for me is that even if we partially opt out, the attention concentrators and dopamine hustlers get more and more efficient each year. It's like fighting a losing battle, and the incentives are pretty much all aligned in that direction.

We're amusing ourselves to death, and doing so at the time in history when we need to focus the most on the boring day to day, since climate change is barreling along faster and faster and is going to have huge effects in our lifetimes. How can bringing our kids into tedious political and policy debates, coordinated across multiple unwieldy countries, compare to another episode of Succession?

I don't know whether fixing the distribution of attention wealth would help fix political engagement or group thinking. But I suspect they are connected.

In my writing and technology building life, I've gone both ways. I've written this blog for more than a decade, and long ago decided to keep writing what I felt moved to without regard for the nonexistent audience.

Interestingly, there did seem to be a high floor of attention in the early days of blogging. Ezra Klein talks about this; you could write a response to a prominent blogger and, if you wrote well, you could expect a reply. Now, contrary to what we expected from the internet in its early days, platform matters more than ever.

True, anyone can build their own soapbox using social media, and plenty have, from Justin Bieber to Coleman X. Hughes. Talent, and trolling, have always mattered, and always will. But talent does not seem to surface as effectively as we expected. You must be funded or amplified by someone who wants to profit from your attention, or be willing to play the social media game by sinking untold hours into the sort of generic pablum you see from, say, Casey Neistat.

It's hard to know a way out of this mess.

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Monday, March 04, 2019

I pledge allegiance to the killbot

Item 1: The Washington Post ran a recent story titled "The Kalashnikov assault rifle changed the world. Now there’s a Kalashnikov kamikaze drone." Item 2: The US Dept of Defense has a propaganda feed where they show off their technologies with pride, including a recent post bragging about the firepower of a Hercules warcraft.

I think the dawning age of killer robots is one of the most important stories in the world.

I anticipate that the next step change will come when autonomous killer robots are equipped with recharging capabilities, and designed for indefinite deployment. Then it will start making much more sense to give them rudimentary AI to decide who to kill, when and where.

In addition, this method of violence will give us even less personal connection to those we kill. Think of the difference between pulling the trigger on several people who ends up being the wrong people (which has a PTSD rate near 100%) and deciding to conduct a drone strike on them; much less personal, much less of a sense of immediate responsibility; less PTSD, though there certainly is some.

Now think of the difference between that and writing code that someone else on your team reviews, and yet someone else deploys to a drone fleet, and then there are dozens more code deployments after you. If, over the course of years, indirect reports suggest that these drones have been killing many of the "right" people but also many of the "wrong" people. In the meantime, you've shifted to another coding job, for a finance company. Are you going to have PTSD now, retroactively? Not likely.

With less human resistance and pain, comes greater incentive to err on the side of killing.

We already don't care how many innocent people are murdered by our manually controlled drones. We literally don't even try to keep count, beyond keeping a fake count that is an obvious lie. We didn't even care when the US government murdered a teenaged US citizen. Will anyone really care when Democracy Now! reports that our extended deployment killbots are murdering thousands of innocent children?

And then when the other side murders us, Sam Harris will take it as evidence that their values are incomprehensible and alien to us and can't be negotiated with.

The Terminator and Matrix dystopias, as pessimistic as their premises seem, are actually myopic about humanity. They envision a future where humanity is united in regret for creating such powerful and destructive killing machines. What they get wrong is that humanity is going to be working hard to make the killing machines smarter, long after it's clear that they are destroying human life as we know it.

The Pentagon will be proud of them. Dianne Feinstein will be proud of them. And odds are, our kids will be proud of them.

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White pride: the most tortuous and pathological gerrymander in history

“We invented the modern world... White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world.” - Columbia University student, who reportedly approached a group of students of color on campus last night for this tirade

[Tweet by Keith Boykin]

In arguments with white nationalists who are smart, usually male, and think of themselves as simple truth tellers -- Richard Spencer and Jordan Peterson roughly bracket this group, with Spencer at the overt white supremacist end, and Peterson at the cagey end -- you often hear versions of the quote above.

I think it's worth breaking down this argument, because it's so frequently made, and I gather they think the only arguments against it are mere impassioned outrage and not cogent refutation.

This argument, in its best version, goes something like: "Listen, I know all people have made contributions, but look at the last 500 years... can you really deny that Europeans/the West/white people have contributed the most to civilization?"

Richard Spencer has publicly asked a chilling version, something like: "If you erased Africa from the last thousand years of history, would you even notice?"

These arguments seem strong to many people as a result of several misconceptions -- common ones, but also deliberate ones, and certainly pernicious ones -- that act together to open what seems to be a large rhetorical window for this argument to go through.

But even in its most seemingly innocuous version -- "Listen, I just want to celebrate white people and be proud of them, like black people or Latino people want to celebrate their people" -- there is a huge set of misconceptions, and dangerous ones at that.

One misconception is that racism is just one of many things that has been a feature of white identity over the centuries. That seems reasonable on the surface, to many people steeped in our culture. In the past it seemed reasonable to me!

In this framing, you could make a checklist of aspects of white history: the scientific method, calculus, calculating gravity, modern physics, the plane, the Protestant Reformation, the US Constitution, slavery, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, the EU.

But this completely fails to appreciate what "whiteness" is. Racism is not merely something that white people *did*. Racism is the purpose for which the identity of "white" was created in the first place. There is no whiteness without racism.

In historical places where the lines of race we're familiar with today were not being used, "whiteness" simply did not exist.

If you assembled residents of 17th century Trieste, and separated Moors, Arabs, Somalis and Berbers on one side, and Finns, Celts, Galicians, Jews, Muslim Slavs, Armenians and Persians on the other, and asked what the dividing line was, people would have been stumped.

All nationalism and ethnic pride is a bit abstract and absurd, but at least it usually has some reference to an identity whose delineation is one of common experience, common culture, common laws, or *something* shared.

I'm proud when an American wins a medal, when a Jew does something generous or brave, when someone from my hometown makes good. These are all "imagined communities", per Benedict Anderson's formulation, but at least I and they have some shared set of positive experiences. And of course we all have shared experiences with humanity, and the imagined community of all fellow humans.

But there are other identities that were constructed deliberately and specifically for exclusion, destruction and oppression. That doesn't make the members of those identity groups bad! The people included still deserve love, and many may be decent and deserving of pride and respect.

But to assert love and pride and identity for that categorization is another matter. That means putting the people themselves aside, and assigning fealty to the oppression that is the reason that identity was constructed in the first place.

I love German people, and the German people may be more or less the same people that were supposed to be the core citizens of the Third Reich, but expressing love for the people of the Third Reich is inherently an act of oppression. It can't just be appreciation for people.

"White pride" today has no more to do with appreciating Kabardino-Balkarians or Kaliningraders or the Sami than it did in the antebellum South.

Asserting "white pride" may be squarely intended to express dominance and cruelty. Or, it might just be passing on an inheritance, casually as a conduit for what the person has absorbed. Not everyone knows history.

But the source of "white pride" is the specific, deliberate, systematic creation of an identity -- the construction of a lie -- with one purpose: to enable the legal kidnapping, imprisonment, rape, murder, abuse, deprivation, brainwashing of, and theft from, people of color.

And if that's not what this or that white person thinks they meant by something they said -- well, the originators planned for that. They built the identity of "whiteness" so that complicity with cruelty and theft would feel natural, and not remarkable.

The whole point is that unless we "white" people fight against that programming, and dismantle our assumptions that what we think of as race has essential meaning, we will be passing on and perpetuating the oppression that whiteness has always served. And even when we fight against the programming, we'll always be struggling to grow and extricate ourselves, and continuing to be complicit in oppression, because that programming runs dddddeeeeeeppppp and the incentives to buy into the big lie are still legion.

Another, completely separate misconception is thinking that ideas like "the Western mind" and "the modern world" are concepts that merely happen to overlap with whiteness. In this misconception, "Western" accomplishments seem to be a credit to people who would be called white.

To unravel this complex lie, you need to consider how the exploration and formulation of history and ideas themselves is farmed in part by the demands that racism places on how we see the world.

The contributions of people excluded by "whiteness" to the great cultural or scientific products of history are not merely ignored or downplayed, but our assumptions about what constitutes great achievements are built in service of whiteness and racism.

It's ironic that one of the most famous right wing assertions of white cultural supremacism was Saul Bellow's "Where is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?"

I'm reading Anna Karenina now, and it's all about how bogus an assertion like this would be. Tolstoy is focused in many sections on demonstrating that brilliant ideas and creativity not only can come from anywhere, but do, and that it is our assumptions about gender and class, in particular, that determine which kinds of brilliant ideas get documented and celebrated.

So while the gravity-related experiments of Galileo were astonishingly brilliant and able to spread widely, we in this Western-dominated world just have no idea how many other people, on different continents and at different times, conduced their own experiments on gravity, in ways both similar and different to Galileo.

But even more importantly, we know nothing of nearly all of the other great works produced outside the West, because our systems of recognizing, spreading and reproducing great work themselves were built in the course of building Western power. Most statues in Europe and the United States glorify someone famous, in part, for killing people; few recognize brilliant teachers, transcendent builders of community, gifted doctors and healers, heroic midwives, phenomenal matchmakers or astonishingly productive experimenters with wild herbs. And we certainly don't know more than a tiny sliver of history's most brilliant epic poems, folktales, speeches, songs, sermons, and stories.

That is not to say -- not to say at all -- that the impact of those great creators isn't with us. It is with us, crucially, essentially. All of those things have been necessary to build the modern world, to create its health and spectrum of culture and depth of experience and breadth of imagination.

I'm deeply indebted to Ta-Nehisi Coates and Barbara Fields for helping me begin to break down my own programming around race. Coates wrote about the Bellow quote in Between the World and Me, excerpted in his post, "Tolstoy Is the Tolstoy of the Zulus".

Coates writes:

And now I looked back on my need for a trophy case, on the desire to live by the standards of Saul Bellow, and I felt that this need was not an escape but fear again—fear that “they,” the alleged authors and heirs of the universe, were right.

And this fear ran so deep that we accepted their standards of civilization and humanity.

They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. But not all of us.

It must have been around that time that I discovered an essay by Ralph Wiley in which he responded to Bellow’s quip. “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” wrote Wiley. “Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

And there it was. I had accepted Bellow’s premise. In fact, Bellow was no closer to Tolstoy than I was to [17th century queen] Nzinga.

And if I were closer it would be because I chose to be, not because of destiny written in DNA. My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

In conclusion (I hope!), there have been many incredible innovations in technology, culture, inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge in the world. There are many ways you could break down or categorize the patterns of who was involved and who was recognized; who provided credited and uncredited support; where potential was invested in or squandered or suppressed.

Many of these people fit our unfortunately familiar categorization of "white". But nearly all people in history who could be called "white" had nothing to do with these innovations; and many who could not be called "white" had a huge role in them.

Crediting "the modern world" to "white people" has no explanatory power; because understanding the world has nothing to do with the motivation behind that claim.

To carve a boundary around thousands or millions of people from hundreds of different cultures and times that follows only the contours of complexion is perhaps the most tortuous and pathological gerrymander in history.

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The long con of the neocons

The recent Congressional testimony by genocide abettor and perjuror Elliott Abrams has brought his case to some attention, thanks to pointed questioning by Ilhan Omar, one of the most exciting and legitimately democratic Representatives in recent memory.

Which means, of course, small-minded backlash from the centrist Washington cognoscenti, as detailed in a good thread by Intercept writer Jon Schwarz.

It's easy to take potshots at a blatantly evil agent of murder like Elliott Abrams, but much more interesting is the question of why generally decent people tolerate someone as dangerous and destructive as Abrams or, say, Henry Kissinger, who was the featured speaker of MIT's inauguration of its new college for computer science last week.

Part of the defense of Abrams is that while his worst episodes are bad, his typical episode in decades of foreign policy work has been pretty vanilla.

Which is exactly what you'd expect. Everyone's a fierce advocate for human rights etc when there's nothing on the line, and most of the time, speaking at conferences or writing position papers or cultivating our relationship with Latvia or whatever, there isn't much on the line.

That's precisely why it matters so much what you do when the stakes are actually high. It's when you learn that a huge economic trade partner is collecting millions of religious minorities in concentration camps, say. It's when you learn that the right wing rebels whom you supply with weapons to destabilize a socialist ally of the Soviet Union are not just fighting against socialist troops, they're tracking down labor organizers and cutting off the heads of their entire families.

(In a very real sense, the migrant caravans that come to the US from Central Americal -- from the very countries he destabilized -- is the work of Elliott Abrams.)

Abrams' public, surface answer is pablum about human rights and the pains of establishing a democracy. But look behind the surface to the actual communications that mean something, where power is actually being wielded, and you'll find that democracy is just a side effect. It's easily discarded as a principle every single time that it comes in conflict with American military and economic control.

Abrams's real feelings about human rights are probably like Kissinger's feelings, as revealed (after painstaking pressure for decades by journalists and academics) in declassified documents. In 1973, when the US backed coup in Chile was kidnapping, torturing and murdering liberals, the US embassy wired frantically from Santiago de Chile in an effort to stop it. Not to stop the coup, mind you, just to have the military seize power from the democratically elected moderate socialist government without so much murder and torture. In reply, Kissinger scrawled back "Cut out the political science lectures".

For people like Abrams and Kissinger, kidnapping, murder and torture simply aren't part of their calculus, unless they mean they or an ally will get caught and punished for it.

Is that wrong? Are these realpolitik hawks wrong? I can't say with certainty. The few honest among them will say "Our north star was stopping the Soviets from ruling the world, and we did that by sowing chaos and murder in every democracy that didn't reject them. We can't know if it was worth it, because some of the most important actions have unknowable net consequences."

"That meant selling out Americans by letting our allies smuggle drugs to our cities to fundraise; it meant funding the rape and murder of children; it meant assassinating progressives, tearing the social fabric, leaving generations of chaos, fear, and nihilistic violence."

"But we think on the whole it was the right decision, because the Soviets had no third world empire to milk, and the USSR collapsed. We don't actually know if American imperialism is better for the world than Soviet imperialism, but it's certainly better for American wealth and power."

Even putting aside our different values and goals, I can't say if I had been in these policymakers' position, my decisions would have produced greater net justice in the world, though I do think it's likely; and I think a guiding moral principle should be to prefer to save a life concretely, even if i means risking more in the future with low certainty.

Humility in the face of the unknown is, of course, supposed to be a conservative principle, and it's telling that it's nearly impossible to find a conservative who is critical of the massively speculative social engineering project that America's aggressive imperialists carried out in Kissinger and Abrams's time.

You can pick a random progressive thinker on foreign policy, and they'll have a morally consistent philosophy that doesn't require a lifetime of lies to pursue. Not so with the neoconservatives, who lead two working lives, one essentially a long con and the other a wielding of power in its most raw and inhuman form. What we do with that fact to conclude what's right is up to each of us, but there it is.

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