Thursday, March 23, 2017

A news product I need, between Reddit and Facebook Groups and Wikipedia and Slack

I was on a conference call last night using Bluejeans, and there was quite a bit of confusion about where all the people on the call could find various shared files and comments. There was the Slack group, which confusingly has multiple channels so if you're looking for something you sort of have to check them all and manually scan; there's no way to emphasize the priority of anything, or to post a static file. There's the bluejeans chat for that particular call itself. There is the Google docs, where you have been given access to various docs but there isn't really a place to go to feel you're seeing everything.

I have a long-term thesis that there is a wide need for a product that would unite long-term information and short-term information in one place, that would essentially have transient chat elements like Slack, twitter, yammer, Facebook, Google and Yahoo groups, medium-term curation elements like Reddit and hacker news, and long-term writing and curation elements like Wikipedia. If Wikipedia is the place you go to find out " what's the eternally true back story of X", and Facebook/Google groups are places you go for "what's everything the X group is saying", and reddit is the place you go for "what are some interesting links and comments related to X" this would be the place you go to find out "what's the current deal with X".  Sort of a crowd sourced, moderator-curated Techmeme for any topic or group.

E.g.:

What's the current deal with our school's PTA: when the heck are the meetings, who is even leading it, what's the upcoming event schedule, where is help needed, where's the contact list, where's that permission form again, how can I find that awesome short documentary film one of the school's dads made about the school last year?

What's the current deal with sci-fi movies and TV: what's out in theaters that's good? what has just come out on streaming? what's been available for a while that's hot and much liked? what's the deal with that fake seeming Star Wars preview… was that good? isn't there like an aliens movie in the works or something?  

What's the current deal with the New York mayoral race: are there any Democrats running against de Blasio, are there any prominent Republicans planning to run, even what year does it take place, what are the top issues voters have reported caring about, what's the status of the city's promise to stand up to Trump? 

What's the current deal with the NBA: what are the team rankings and what direction are the teams going, how has boogie cousins shaped up in New Orleans so far, how bad is Durant's injury and what does it mean for the West, who has emerged as a new superstar this year, what are the Vegas odds on teams winning the championship? Are there any good bball podcasts and episodes? wasn't there like a fight the other night? who has clinched playoff berths?

What's the deal with the workshop I just took? Who was in it, where are the slides, what outside resources were mentioned but not explicitly provided?

What's the current deal with Nintendo Switch: the games that are out and their reviews, the sales versus expectations, the best twitch streamers, the most shared videos so far, the articles about it people have shared the most even if they're a week old? 

Right now, if you wanted to be able to know these things at a glance on one page, at a moment's notice, you would have to hire a full-time employee to curate information for you and assemble live pages of it; the way you would need to do that for background information on significant topics before Wikipedia. And yet we have seen again and again that this sort of summarization, categorization and curation work is in ample supply on the Internet.

Now of course, there would have to be enough attracting people to camp out on a page and work on keeping it current. Since a much wider range of topics would be eligible then Wikipedia covers, you can imagine that there would be a significantly smaller amount of curation energy per page. On the other hand, isn't the page on the current status of iOS or the Trailblazers or space exploration or feminism a way, way bigger deal than their Wikipedia pages?

On the other other hand, since these wouldn't be places for original comments chatter, it's hard to see how they could grow a community the way, say, reddit does.


Say I want to see what's going on with the Trump-Russia stuff. Where do I look? None of these seem to be giving me what I want:

"Hey, Reddit, what's up with the Trump-Russia stuff?"

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 5.03.58 PM.png

"Hey, FB, what's up with the Trump-Russia stuff?"

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 5.04.32 PM.png

"Hey, Google, what's up with the Trump-Russia stuff?"

This is the best result currently, though it's very "latest story"-focused, rather than "what's the current status"-focused. I'd like to see poll numbers here, pullquotes from prominent players, capsule bios, etc. Note that none of the results are static pages devoted to the core topic.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 5.05.01 PM.png

...Google News is essentially the same as regular Google search, but even more overwhelming. Get me an intern!

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 5.10.05 PM.png

NYTimes results are particularly poor. Don't they have some kind of explainer they could point us to?

…and first result, an op/ed by a not very trustworthy person, with little info made prominent:

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 5.05.47 PM.png

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 5.06.13 PM.png

One more topic: the "Sully" miracle on the hudson landing.

Wikipedia example:

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 5.00.36 PM.png

Reimagined:

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 4.59.59 PM.png


Labels: , , , , , , , ,

From my panel proposal for the 2017 NYC Games For Change festival:

Abstract:

Educational games, edutainment and office tools have formed the bulk of schoolchildren's exposure to computers in the classroom. But what about creative expression? We'll hear from teachers and technologists about the approaches, tools and curricula they're using to unleash broad expression, and share examples of the expressive work students are creating when they are released from digital constraints.

Background:

The number one question I get from teachers when discussing my work is, what tools can they use in their classroom today that students will engage with enthusiastically?

Some of the most popular digital classroom tools, such as websites that introduce brief coding problems or digital robot toys, are unquestionably compelling and engaging, but also greatly limit the role of the student as a producer of creative work.

When students are faced with the sort of blank page typical in art class, their creativity flowers broadly, and they explore unexpected areas of their interests and discover new creative passions.

But for teachers, technologists and parents, this sort of green field creative format can be daunting and uncertain, and can require greater preparatory knowledge and research.

Key questions:

How are teachers finding out about these approaches and tools? Are they working in classrooms? What kind of work are students creating? How can that work be assessed? What are the pedagogical theories and evidence that support a creative and expressive approach to exploring technology in the classroom?

Takeaways:

We'll share stories from the front, examples of student work, projects and units which succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and ones that crashed and burned in the face of the realities of student engagement and assessment. Attendees, whether educators, technologists, students, parents, or just interested parties, will walk away with a deeper understanding of how student creativity is being engaged and unleashed by expressive digital tools, and how to use that knowledge immediately in their own work.

Presentation experience:

I have taught in numerous capacities over the past decade, both as a college instructor, an elementary subject teacher, and a private teacher of groups of children age 4-12. I was also a conference organizer and host for the presidential administration of the nation of Georgia in 2005-6, and a regular speech giver in an NYC chapter of Toastmasters. I recently conducted a 5-day workshop for New York public school teachers through the NYC DoE's CS4All program.

My panelists would be drawn from seasoned classroom teachers, established educational programs such as ScriptEd, Startup Institute and Code/Interactive, and veterans of the educational software industry with speaking experience.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Android podcast apps reviewed

I'm finally giving up on Pocket Casts (after a good 300+ hours of listening), for reasons I've listed before.

The Android podcasting app landscape is badly lagging behind the iPhone, with its stars like Castro and Overcast (which I have plenty of complaints about). So I downloaded the first dozen or so apps that turn up in a search for "podcast" in the Google Play store.

A winner is you, Player FM:

My full research summary is in a Google Sheet.

As just one example of Player FM's design quality, consider the placement of the episode timeline at the bottom of this screen:

Note how the timeline doesn't go all the way from the left to the right. Why? So that you don't erroneously swipe the entire screen right, meaning to scrobble the episode forward from the start.

This may seem like a meaningless detail, but it was a frequent enough problem for me with PocketCasts that I emailed and tweeted to their team about it. There's no reason why one team can do it and another can't; and it's really a mistake not to have this feature, because overlapping and ambiguous touch regions suck!

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, March 09, 2017

The despicable William Buckley

I never saw William Buckley's Firing Line, but I just watched a 1969 debate (part 1, part 2) between Buckley and Noam Chomsky.

I've moved away from Chomsky's positions and towards Buckley's a bit over the years, and I'm sympathetic to Buckley's overall argument, but I'm shocked at the patent dishonesty and bad faith he shows throughout this debate, and many others.

Buckley's craven toolbag includes pretending that points are irrelevant:

CHOMSKY: I'm far more opposed... to the imposition of regimes by foreign troops. Now in the case of Germany, let's say, in the case of France, the, uh, the Petain government, the Vichy government, was supported by German troops. Had the German... they weren't throughout the country, necessarily, there certainly was indigenous support, but there's no question that if German military force had been withdrawn to the other side of the Rhine, uh, then there would have been, uh, an overthrow of the Vichy government, and then France would have had some different form of government. Now in that case, our invasion of France, whether one likes it or not, was in reaction to an occupying, external force. It's just pure confusion to identify that with the case of Greece, where we were trying to "liberate", uh, we were trying to select the kind of society that Greece would have, and we were trying to save the rulers we had designated as appropriate from the population. There was no outside force there.

BUCKLEY: But don't you realize that, uh, in your book, uh... that's where, you're not willing to be, to be consistent when carrying out this argument. You, you're constantly talking about our "sattellizing" of places like, uh, uh Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, so on so forth, and yet we never occupied them... ?

CHOMSKY: Oh, but we did...

BUCKLEY: But that is what you talk about...

CHOMSKY: We never occupied the Dominican Republic!? We sent 25,000 troops there in 1965.

BUCKLEY: No no, no, I'm talking about... pre-... I'm, I'm talking about...

CHOMSKY: Well, the American Marines were in there dozens of times, and...

BUCKLEY: No, no, I never...

CHOMSKY: And, and,

BUCKLEY: [Chuckling] Well, look, I think you're being evasive, and [smiling] I... I don't think you want to be!

CHOMSKY: Evasive? No, I...

BUCKLEY: Let me ask you this. Is it possible,

CHOMSKY: I'm not being evasive at all....

BUCKLEY: Is it possible...

CHOMSKY: ...we just simply repeatedly sent troops to Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Cuba, etc., etc.

BUCKLEY: Is it possible...

CHOMSKY: [Gives a resigned nod of defeat]

BUCKLEY: Is it possible... to "satellize" a nation without having an occupying army there?

CHOMSKY: Yes it is.

BUCKLEY: Alright, then there goes your French... your [snickering] tedious French explanation back there.

CHOMSKY: Oh, not at all, because that doesn't happen to be... you see we're talking about a real situation.

BUCKLEY: Yuh, yuh.

CHOMSKY: We could talk about some ideal situation, and have an academic discussion...

BUCKLEY: Yuh, yuh, [Scoffing] I know... therefore, it is possible for the real Vietnam, to "sattelize" South Vietnam, presumably, without even--

CHOMSKY: It's, it's logically possible...

BUCKLEY: --uh, occupying it militarily, in any formal sense.

CHOMSKY: Eh, but it didn't happen, though. So there's no point in discussing it.

BUCKLEY: Well, this is an argument considering which which there is, there are... [very slowly shows both sides of his hand] two points of view,

CHOMSKY: Let's discuss it, then.

BUCKLEY: uh, uh, historically... eh,

CHOMSKY: If you're willing to be serious about it, there's more evidence that South Vietnam tried to colonize North Vietnam, than conversely. In fact, South-- [Buckley presumably makes a face] well, look, South Vietnamese commandoes were going... regular military forces were going North, uh, considerably earlier than we even proclaimed that the infiltration began from North to South.

BUCKLEY: They bump into the refugees coming South? [Laughs, audience laughs]

CHOMSKY: The refugees were coming south in 19... uh, were going in both directions, in fact, as early as 1954, '55. And, according, at least according to Bernard Fall, the commandoes, uh, began going North as early as '56, '57... [Buckley smiles, as if to say "get a load of this guy"] The first claimed infiltration from the North was in '59, and that was South Vietnamese coming, so... so, you know, if one wants to talk about, again, the real world, the first motion, the first motion--

BUCKLEY: Yep, the, the trouble is, you, you don't, your difficulty, mister Chomsky, is you, in my judgment, you [always] know where neatly to begin your historical, uh, sequence...

CHOMSKY: Well, you, you chose the point of beginning...

BUCKLEY: Well, the point, the point really is that, uh, if you, if you're starting to say 1959 was a provocation, because it was...

CHOMSKY: It wasn't a provocation! I don't claim that's when the provocation began!

BUCKLEY: ...and I say how about the people who were going North to South... who were talking about the misery caused by Ho Chi Minh, and so on and so forth... [chuckles]

CHOMSKY: Which people are you talking about, I don't know!

BUCKLEY: ...[Chuckles] well, I'm talking about the Vietnamese people, North and South... your remark is neatly captured in, in, in, the remark made recently by Czechoslovakia, that Czechoslovakia is obviously the most neutralist country in the world, since it declines to interfere even its own internal affairs... [laughs, audience laughs]

CHOMSKY: I'm afraid I don't see the relevance, uh...

BUCKLEY: The relevance is very simply [grins] that you start your line of discussion at a moment that is historically useful to you...

CHOMSKY: That's, that's what I'm saying -- you pick the beginning. You pick the beginning.

BUCKLEY: The grand act of the post-war world....

CHOMSKY: [Nods head in lonely recognition of a point won that Buckley will never concede] ...alright.

BUCKLEY: ... is that the communist, communist imperialists, by the use of terrorism, by the deprivation of freedom, have contributed to the continuing bloodshed... and the saddening thing about it is, not only the bloodshed, but that they seem to disposess you of the power of rational observation! [raises eyebrows and smiles]

CHOMSKY: Yuh... may I say something?

BUCKLEY: Sure.

CHOMSKY: I think that's about 5% true, and about, or maybe about 10% true. It certainly is true...

BUCKLEY: Why do you give that?

CHOMSKY: May I complete a sentence?

BUCKLEY: Sure.

This excerpt hardly does justice to Buckley's tendency to use shifty language, belligerance, and condescension to avoid addressing Chomsky's points.

Here's why I care: What does it mean, I wonder, that the great conservative intellectual is so obfuscating and intellectually dishonest?

I ask that while admitting that Chomsky is sometimes frustrating to me as a debater as well, such as in his email debate with Sam Harris. For instance, Chomsky often uses the rhetorical device "To take an example at random..." and pulls out, in speaking appearance after speaking appearance, the same one example.

Chomsky is wrong that Nort Vietnam was as benign an instance of socialism as, say, Cuba, Catalonia, or later Nicaragua, Venezuela, or (ever so briefly) Chile; not that most of these didn't have their victims. It's alarming how ready Chomsky is to dismiss Soviet and communist oppression as being some kind of myth. But at least he recognizes that there is a kernel of truth to those claims, and that the Stalin and Mao eras were especially oppressive.

It's more alarming to me what an utter lack of curiosity Buckley has for the US's own imperialist history, which he clearly does not know as well as he pretends (though he chuckles knowingly through Chomsky's historical references as if they were on the tip of his tongue as well). Buckley would rather cut Chomsky off with an insult than allow him to describe the US's own dirty laundry. His refusal to concede a point makes dismiss outright the importance of any possible crimes by US troops or our proxies. Chomsky cries Guatemala; Buckley cries Prague. But it's fair to say that at this point Chomsky had probably gone to pains to learn about Prague and that Buckley had gone to none to learn about Guatemala.

What's also remarkable is that Buckley--like his brethren, an enemy of relativism--has no idea what a perfect demonstration of relativism his own thinking is.

Consider an educated, pro-military Russian, who learned in school about the US's imperialist history in the Caribbean, and not about Soviet crimes in Prague. She could well figure out what was happening in Prague if she had wanted to. But why should she? In her eyes, her government might make mistakes, surely, but it was not the evil one.

Buckley's mindset is no more curious or skeptical or honest than this. He has grown no more than this Soviet has; he has stayed in his provincial place in the relativistic landscape, as she has stayed in hers. If there is an objective truth out there, neither of them has turned their back on their provincialism and pursued it. And why should they? After all, Buckley's stated mission, early on was not to seek out truth; it was to put a stop to the madnesss he saw in America's cultural and political revolutions of the 1960s.

I can appreciate Buckley's desire to pin Chomsky with the label of bad faith, because I want to pin Buckley the same. An accusation of bad faith is marvelously clarifying; it recasts an opponent from a reasoned being whose views must be considered in full, into a charlatan whose basic dishonesty renders all his views moot.

At the same time, I do believe there is a fundamental difference between Buckley and Chomsky. Chomsky is not consistent in all his views, though the worst accusation that I had seen from dedicated Chomsky opponents is that he invested his MIT retirement pension account in those same mutual fund-listed corporations whose influence he condemns. And he doesn't do a good job of admitting his past mistakes, such as an overly lenient view of the Soviet Union in the 60s and 70s that he quietly amended to fit the post-1991 consensus on the left that Soviet imperialism really was an awful, oppressive, corrosive thing.

But Chomsky in this speech with Buckley is speaking essentially honestly. He believes what he says; he acquiesces to yes-or-no questions and answers honestly, even when this hurts his case and helps make Buckley's point; he backs up his assertions with facts, at times admits he doesn't know things, and concedes parts of Buckley's arguments.

The two aren't playing the same game; Buckley is clearly smart, and knows he's being shown up at times, but when Chomsky corrects him on the history of the Greek civil war, or on the history of the many invasions borne of the Monroe doctrine, Buckley hastily changes the subject. Buckley also repeatedly demands that Chomsky answer his questions, while refusing to answer Chomsky's biggest ones--including some that Buckley himself set up, not expecting that Chomsky would be willing to back up his statements. An honest discussant would not so frivilously accuse Chomsky of disingenuously cherry-picking his historical dates, only to change the subject when Chomsky invites him to pick them for him.

If Buckley was at all in search of truth here, he might say "I don't have the command of the history off the top of my head as you do, professor, but I think I'll still disagree after consulting my sources." Instead he pretends -- and hopes the audience will too -- that Chomsky hasn't stepped up to the challenge, and uses that classic tactic of obfuscating job interviewees everywhere: the rhetorical bridge. Caught on the defensive? Time to stop playing fair and change the subject.

That Chomsky beats Buckley so handily is ironic since Buckley is so much more right than Chomsky about the essential destructiveness of the North Vietnamese government. Buckley gets mumble-mouthed and allows Chomsky to assert that before hostilities flared up in the late '50s, the South had as many refugees going North than vice versa. I don't know who claimed what numbers at the time, but the Pentagon Papers (released several years after this debate occurred) estimated that one million refugees had fled South, and further scholarship has suggested that many more tried to flee but were stopped by the communist Viet Minh. I will happily admit I don't know the history well at all, but I don't think the intevening decades have been kind to Chomsky's apologist position.

One of the most dangerous people today is the typical middle-class Russian citizen: educated, intelligent, struggling to make ends meet, nationalist, supportive of Vladimir Putin. If Russia wishes to reassert authority over a former client state, and supplies arms and training to kindle a regional conflict in a destabilizing civil war, will this citizen care? Should she care? Should she learn about it, so as to discern whether the government is acting fairly?

The painful truth is that she will learn little about it, she will trust the government to do more or less the right thing, and she will not give it a second thought. Hence Russia has been involved in at least three low-intensity wars in Eastern Europe over the last twenty years, and one high-intensity war in Chechnya, as well as assorted assassinations in foreign countries, some election meddling, and propping up sympathetic dictators like Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, all with the consent of this acquiescent and incurious Russian citizen.

Chomsky is saying, again and again: we Americans are not doing a much better job of being citizens than this Russian citizen is. Buckley never addresses this question -- and by his avoidance, proves it true.

And what about the American counterpart to this citizen? If the future of the world depended on Buckley's intellectual leadership directing her to grow in her citizenship and to assert a moral direction for her country, would we have a prayer?

Labels: , , ,

Climate change denier doth protest too little

Climate change politics isn't a choice between A) "We're 100% certain we know exactly what's happening and going to happen and why and how much humans are contributing" and B) "We don't really know anything and the jury's still out".

There's also C) "We have many separate sets of evidence that independently confirm the same basic thesis, and even though systems this complex are not completely understood and there's some chance the thesis of human causation could be wrong a lot or a little, the balance has long tipped overwhelmingly towards having enough evidence to act."

Irresponsible shills like Scott Pruitt don't want the public to consider C, so they denounce A over and over. Their refusal to even articulate their disagreement with C shows their lack of confidence that C is false, and their lack of confidence that B is true.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Russia's bizarre apologists

Masha Gessen's latest deflection of the Trump-Russia conspiracy charge is mystifying. (Just as her last two pieces making some of the same points were.)

You don't need to scoff that people are imagining something nefarious. We know the basics, from extensive investigative reporting and leaks:

  • the Kremlin and its oligarchy have invested heavily in Trump for at least a decade, both above and below board;
  • Trump, in that time, has constantly inserted himself into presidential politics;
  • Russia meanwhile has been much more imperialistic and militarily aggressive, invading two neighbors outright, but they have been somewhat limited by the McCain and Obama Russia hawk camps, and it's been costing them billions;
  • even before Trump announced, thousands of Russian propaganda Twitter accounts switched over to promoting Trump;
  • Trump lives in the same building as Russian oligarchic criminals' massive headquarters, which he provides to them, and has been accused credibly with helping Russian oligarchs launder hundreds of millions of dollars;
  • Trump's inner campaign team was filled with the US political world's most pro-Russia operatives and officials;
  • on the same day that Sessions met with the Russian ambassador, Putin announced, uncharacteristically, that he would not react to Obama's sanctions, but wait for the new administration;
  • Flynn, a disgraced nutcase who was paid $40k by Russians tied to the Kremlin to sit next to Putin at a gala to celebrate propaganda network RT, is made National Security Advisor by Trump, but lies about his contact with the Russian government to Pence, the only inner Trump team member who hasn't been part of the inside all along and has no ties to Russia.

In short, even leaving out so much, we know Trump has been working for the Kremlin and its oligarchs, and that he owes much of his prosperity and political life to them. They also clearly expect his election to serve them well, and not because of any policy positions he holds. They are a joint criminal enterprise whose businesses are mutually dependent and entangled.

How on earth is that not bad enough to matter?

I fear that the New York Review of Books, once again, is proving the spinelessness and imperialist apologism of its deeply outdated defense of Russia, just as it has in pieces over the years that warned against intervening against Milosevic and painted Georgia as an oppressor of Russian citizens.

I wrote a letter of complaint to the NYRB about this problem years ago, but was warned by a colleague that there was zero chance they would print it.

The NYRB has a skepticism of anti-Russian rhetoric that dates to the many decades when anti-communism was used by jingoistic American conservatives to profiteer at public expense. They were never communist, but they have long been aligned with the views of pro Russia outlets like the British Helsinki Group. It's a weird international network, with former USSR supporters (not actually really communists themselves) and far-right nationalists working with the non-existent communist but anti-US-imperialist left. Some of it is funded by Russian natural resource cash, some is just along for the ride out of inertia.

Of course American and British cold warriors are very much to blame for eroding all trust that opposition to Russian imperialism is really about human rights and such.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, February 27, 2017

Honesty, the constitution, and "Show me your papers"

I disagree slightly with Garrett Epps's interpretation of 1991's Supreme Court case, Florida vs. Bostick.

It seems clear that while the Supreme Court didn't identify a specific requirement that officers state that people being questioned may refuse to answer, it did state that their "conduct" must give people "no reason to believe that they would be detained if they answered truthfully or refused to answer".

It seems clear that the conduct in question failed this constitutional test, and was thus unconstitutional per standing court precedent.

Meanwhile, the Santa Cruz, CA police department is claiming that Homeland Security misled them about the nature of recent raids, which appear to have been partially intended to identify and capture illegal immigrants not suspected of criminal activity. The Constitutional implications of this are unclear to me; does misleading the government negate jurisdiction in some way? Can California refuse some federal immigration enforcement, on top of the refusal to report some information that some of its sanctuary cities already promise to do?

Luckily for us, not every possible government police or military action is legal or constitutional. For instance, the government may not monitor the content of individual phone calls without a warrant; government officials may not explicitly misrepresent their identities or roles in the course of investigating illegal activity; and government officials may not make people believe they are legally obligated to take some action, such as producing ID or submitting to a search, if they are not actually legally obligated to do so.

When Melania Trump became an illegal immigrant by violating the terms of her visa and performing paid work in the US, as all available evidence suggests, I am glad the laws and constitution were there to provide her some peace of mind that the government would not have carte blanche to use every means at its disposal, such as unwarranted wiretaps, false threats, false impersonation, and illegal demands to pursue and arrest her.

While I wish the Supremes had gone further and established an analog to Miranda rights, they did make it clear that not only are government agents violating your rights if they lie to you about them, they are violating your right even if they imply false information about your rights by their words or actions.

Routine violation of constitutional rights should be a criminal offense punishable by jail time, in my opinion. But I know the Supremes aren't with me there.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Towards the validity of gender expression and perception

Angus Johnson linked to this American Conservative piece by Natasha Vargas-Cooper about Mount Holyoke's cancelling The Vagina Monologues in the face of pressure due to its perceived cisgender bias.

I have no idea of the details of the Mount Holyoke case, or of how accurately Vargas-Cooper is representing it; given my past reading of TAC, I don't trust them to give a fair hearing. And before the halfway point in the article I disagreed plenty with her aggressive traditionalism. But in the first dozen or so paragraphs, I thought she made a lot of sense.

I think there's a strange traditionalism embedded in new PC norms around trans identity. Far from seeing gender as fluid, the new norm demands that we simply shift inclusion in old gender binary systems. Contra, eg., RuPaul, who celebrates expression that transgresses these boundaries freely. (He makes his point cogently in a recent episode of Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham's podcast, Still Processing)

Expressing and feeling maleness or femaleness can be valid always -- whereas there are those who would formally scold me if I responded to the male aspects of Caitlyn Jenner's expression, as if she has merely jumped from one gender straitjacket to another.

The regulation of pronouns is not a problem invented by shrill right-wingers -- it's really happening, and I think it is distinctly wrong. I find criticism of the Ontario Human Rights Commission policy overblown; its guidance focuses on acceptance and inclusion, and not on speech. But the New York City Commission on Human Rights's guidance is specific to speech and pronouns, and could lead to fines for those who don't use a trans person's preferred pronoun.

In practice, these speech violations won't necessarily conform to the stereotypical scene of a troglodyte looking a muscled and bearded lumberjack in the eye and snidely calling him "her". They could instead involve, say, a longtime coworker who mostly expresses as male asking to be called by a recently introduced pronoun, and well-intentioned coworkers repeatedly slipping up to the point that they have to be penalized or fired because of the lawsuit risk this introduces to the company.

The core problem is that gender identification is simply not the only component of gender, any more than author intent is the only component of reader experience. Aspects of cisgender like menstruation, genetalia, and erections are easy to make fun of as insufficient to withhold gender identity from people. But it is not them, in and of themselves, that dictate gender. Rather, they are aspects of complex systems of genetic and epigenetic expression of gender that affect bone structure, voice, hormones, sexual excitement and desire, and possibly more elements of development that we do not understand well. Every aspect of these expressions is malleable and has exceptions, and operates on a continuum; none of us is born wholly one gender or another, and taking hormone supplements really does shift one's gender expression, and therefore really does shift, expand or contract one's gender.

But these aspects are not meaningful only in one direction, valid only when reduced or acted on to bring expression in line with identity. As someone chooses, through identity only or through active alterations, to change their gender expression, aspects of their previous gender expression remain. To perceive these cis aspects is not, in and of itself, a betrayal or an act of denial of a trans person's identity. Expressing that perception may be done aggressively and dismissively, or it may be done unsupportively, or ignorantly, impolitically or merely out of familiarity with a trans person's older cis expression. There is a big difference between these; I care immensely about how I express this perception, and I think others should too. But that doesn't mean that subjectively perceiving these cis aspects is wrong. Neither is speech which reflects that perception wrong.

I certainly go out of my way to embrace and support the gender identification of trans people. I call Chelsea Manning "she", because she's a woman! (She's also a hero, for the record.) But Chelsea Manning is also a man, in ways that are significant. And if I say "he" once in a while, I'm not wrong. I am doing so, in fact, out of perceptiveness and attentiveness to Chelsea's expression, not out of stubbornness and ignorance. Even moreso if I call someone "he" or "she" who has asked to be referred to by a non-gendered pronoun, a word whose role as a shortcut is simply not part of a language I'm fluent in.

It is alarming to me that people are being expected not only to affirmatively try to embrace trans identities, but to shut off that perceptiveness. It really is demanding newspeak to rule that a building block of speech such as pronouns must be adapted to a feigned perception, or be judged hateful.

If you disagree with me, I have some sincere questions I'd like to know your answers to. I'll continue to refer to Chelsea Manning, she being someone we probably have similar information about. Before openly transitioning, but while internally feeling herself to be a woman, would you say that there was any significant way in which Bradley Manning was a man? If so, what are those ways? Cultured experience? Gender privilege? Physical development? Hormones? Did absolutely every aspect on that list cease to exist when she transitioned? If not, is it possible that perceiving Chelsea in some ways to be a man is valid, rather than prejudiced?

If you don't think there was any significant way in which Bradley was a man, why do you think most people who encountered Bradley thought of Bradley as a man? Predjudice?

If someone doesn't yet know that an acquaintance asks others to use a new, recently invented pronoun to refer to them, are they acting merely from prejudice if they use a gender pronoun to refer to them?

Someone made the point to me that a cop perceiving a black man as violent may also be being honest, but that doesn't make his predjudiced perception valid. I agree. I think the distinction is in the accuracy of the basis for the perception. If you look at a South Asian person and perceive them as Muslim, without knowing anything about their religion, your perception is based on false information; there is no evidence, in what you perceive, to indicate that this person is Muslim. But someone born cis female who transitions to male really did have female aspects in his early life, and will, often, retain some. To perceive those is not false prejudice. To fail in speech to override that perception may be unsupportive, and feel deeply hurtful, and that's why I try not to fail at that. But it is not actually incorrect, isn't immoral, and shouldn't be illegal.

Again, I find myself pleading with fellow progressives not to cede ground so easily to conservatives. The core tenets of progressivism are a bedrock that the vast majority of people support; it is foolish, and wrong, to push our principles with scorched earth, without balance and humanism, and thus to alienate and even punish would-be allies.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The jackboot and the concern troll

A contrarian friend, whose contrarianism I have been pushing against since the election, linked approvingly to this essay by Liane Carlson on "moral luck".

I find this piece very much not true for me. I would much rather the madmen not be in power than that I feel heroic. If what she were saying were true, I think I'd hear friends expressing clarity of purpose and appreciating the soldier's role in a righteous war, more than I'd hear them ask for help with managing panic, weeping because their children are hated by the rulers, and asking for mental health recommendations.

Unfortunately, the opposite seems true, at least in my world.

Going further, I read this piece as applying a  lens I have long felt is ignorant and even complicit with oppression. That lens could be described as "what's really interesting about this power struggle is its epistemology".

You see the problem, for example, in reports about studies of bias that appear to lump liberals and conservatives together, without entertaining the question of what if would mean for evaluating the study to consider whose beliefs are, in the objective world, actually true. There is a genteel elitism in the perspective, from above the fray where the actual battles don't matter day to day; the worst perpetrators of this are the David Brookses and David Frums who hand wring about details while the world burns.

Even the Gaugin example trades in this sort of nonsense. The notion that his success as a painter bears on the morality of his family life is cocktail party flatulence.

Honestly, it's offensive to blather about moral luck like this. An autocratic leader and his horrendous cronies have taken power. Who gives a fuck if people are comparing him to Andrew Jackson or Hitler? The preoccupation with this or that nuance of people's epistemology is some bullshit.

Wake the fuck up.

Labels: , ,

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sending an abundance of love, light and positive energy

The incredible Jeroboam Bozeman of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater visited my daughter Carmen's 2nd grade class today.

I knew the visit would be special; in corresponding with him beforehand, he would sign off with variations of "sending an abundance of love, light and positive energy." I couldn't wait to see that energy in person.

And I'm so, so glad I did. I really think every child in the classroom felt his energy, light and love. Jeroboam engaged the kids right from the start, asking them questions about their lives, dreams and opinions, and getting every single child talking and responding.

He asked them to tell him their names when they spoke, insisted on getting their names right, and then complimented each child on her name. "What's your name?" "Alice." "Alice. What a wonderful name." He did this with child after child.

He spoke about the life-changing experience of seeing the Alvin Ailey dancers perform when he was a child, and seeing men like him performing with phenomenal strength and grace.

His path to the highest and most prestigious dance stage was anything but easy. He told the students about his family's struggles with housing, the bullying he faced for not conforming to expectations as a boy, and about the many times he auditioned for the Ailey company and was rejected.

No question was too small or too obvious: he took each child seriously, whether they were asking his favorite ice cream (Talenti gelato), how he felt when he was not picked as a dancer (disappointed but determined to work so hard they'd say yes the next time), or whether Ailey is only for black people (it was created to embody and reflect the black experience in America, and has a majority black company, but there are dancers, and audience members, of all kinds, and from all over the world).

He closed by having the children repeat a refrain:

I am a positive leader
My possibilities are endless
I can change the world

And had them say it again:

I am a positive leader
My possibilities are endless
I can change the world

Just imagine a room full of 7 year-olds, from all walks of life, repeating those words! What a crucial message, for any time or any age. In my mind, it was echoing together with the focused blend of joy, strength and determination I saw and felt at the women's marches last weekend.

Sending an abundance of love, light and positive energy!

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Is the left closed-minded?

I often scoff at conservatives' whining about the "PC police" and such, since such claims are often overblown and strike me as a cover for a refusal to take responsibility for stopping racism and sexism.

But, mostly privately, I know what they're talking about. Or rather, there's some overlap between my view and theirs, where we would both agree the left has some worrying traits.

I agree that there is a closed minded humorlessness that has become so rigid on the left that it shuts down productive conversation and turns away allies. I see so much "you don't get to say that" on Twitter and to a lesser degree Facebook, perhaps because Twitter operates more as a large continuous echo chamber, and Facebook more like an archipelago of somewhat separate echo chambers.

A reasonable person to engage in dialogue, like the Yale dean who wrote the letter saying there was developmental value in transgressing norms and that she didn't think she should be dictating costume choices to students, gets treated with the sort of absolutist opposition that was once reserved for the cruelly oppressive. Lena Dunham mentions in an interview that because of her looks, she felt Odell Beckham Jr. couldn't even register her as something you'd have sex with, and gets raked over the coals because of the problematic assumptions about black make sexuality her comments bring to mind.

It's not that I always disagree with the progressive analysis--far from it. But the absolute worst is always immediately assumed, and when people chime in with a "yes and, maybe they do have a point too" they are assumed to be an enemy. The Yale dean and Lena Dunham's words and actions are problematic, I agree. But I also think they are well within the realm of reasonableness. You can have disagreements, issues, and questions, without losing sight of the large overlap between their points of view and ours.

Say a friend confided in you, sighing, that she felt worthless when she dressed up and put on makeup and sat near a handsome and fit male celebrity, whose glance seemed to deny her a shred of seductive attraction. Part of you would register how her reaction is different from yours, how much she's assuming about his experience without knowing it, how she's not attuned to the possible historical echoes of a white woman presuming a black man should see her as a potential sex object. But wouldn't much more of you figure that her experience is substantially real, and that your criticisms are only part of the story? Wouldn't you keep in mind that you weren't there, and that her take might describe what happened accurately?

Alice has pointed out, when I have expressed similar concerns, that I sort of bend over backwards to come up with counterfactuals to extend doubt to otherwise solid criticisms levied by progressives. Maybe I do. I like to think that I will bend over backwards to imagine what version of the other would seem familiar; what alien concepts would feel like if they were native to my mind; how I would see an enemy if she were a friend. Am I denying that generosity to the progressive critics I'm denouncing now?

Again, maybe I am. I'll think about it. In the meantime, I do think the problem is asymmetrical. Dunham is saying ill of Beckam Jr., but she's hardly raking him through the mud. She felt that she didn't exist to him because of her looks. That's it. It's a mild drive-by criticism, not a relentless attack.

And there are, indeed, irrationally relentless attacks being made by the left. I got into a Twitter spat recently with a progressive woman whose writing I adore, just because I cautiously defended someone's point that the Clintons operate in a world of the powerful, with a vantage point from which it's hard to realize how bad some of their actions will appear.

I think you can fully support Hillary Clinton and oppose Trump, and still acknowledge that. Not so with this writer, and it took me repeating several times that I supported HRC, had volunteered for the campaign, and had brought both my daughters to another state for 3 days to volunteer, before she stopped insulting me.

I think that's a symptom of a significant vein of impenetrable certainty and scorched earth which is a big problem in progressive thinking and culture.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, January 09, 2017

Desert Island Discs, as of 2017

I recently came across a Desert Island Discs post of mine from 2007, a decade ago.

I wondered right away, how would this list have changed? And stopped myself from looking at the old list so as not to bias my present self!

Here are the current 10 albums I would take to a desert island. Note that these are the ones I would take, not the ones I recommend most to others! That means they're biased towards ones that evoke a time in my personal life, and which I could keep listening to forever, as opposed to albums I appreciate having listened to in the past. There are many great albums which fail the test of whether I could listen to them 100 more times without slitting my wrists!

For each album I considered, I tried to imagine no one else had ever heard of it, to reduce my bias towards the familiar. As the saying goes, no one ever got fired for buying IBM. No one ever got laughed at for having an obscure record other people couldn't judge on their lists, either.

So go ahead and laugh at Indigo Girls and Buffalo Tom being on my list!

Here they are, numbered for clarity but in no particular order:

  1. Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
  2. Joni Mitchell: Blue
  3. Roger Waters: Amused to Death
  4. Outkast: ATLiens
  5. Nirvana: Nevermind
  6. Patti Smith: Horses
  7. Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation
  8. Indigo Girls: Rites of Passage
  9. Buffalo Tom: Big Red Letter Day
  10. Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks
...And, showing no discipline, I can't resist a second set of 10:
  1. Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?
  2. Arcade Fire: Neon Bible
  3. Jay-Z and the Roots Unplugged
  4. Aretha Franklin: Sparkle
  5. Handsome Boy Modeling School: So, How's Your Girl?
  6. Dujeous?: City Limits
  7. Orchestra Baobob: Specialist in All Styles
  8. Bjork: Vespertine
  9. Erykah Badu: Mama's Gun
  10. Amadou and Miriam: Dimanche a Bamako

Labels: , ,

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Best everything of 2016

My best of 2016:

Music: A Seat at the Table by Solange, fresh and loose and urgent

Book: Superintelligence: almost unreadably dry, but the single most perspective-altering thing I’ve ever read.

Comics: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew: astonishingly ambitious and virtuosic, like an artifact imported by Borges from a parallel universe

Art: Alexander Calder room at the National Gallery in DC, a perfect meeting of art and architecture and curation

Tech: Cannabidiol (CBD oil), as close to a cure for my pain as I’m going to get. Who needs the FDA?

TV: Happy Valley: an unforgettable lead performance, in a nuanced world

Film: The Lobster, weird and unforgettable

Theater: The Wolves, accessible and current and deeply real.

Reporting: David Fahrenthold, 21st century reporting-in-public meets old school pavement pounding. Thanks, Jeff Bezos

Commentary: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me was unforgettable, and his exit profile of Obama was incredible and much more insightful than David Remnick’s.

Cartooning: Randall Munroe, XKCD. As he gets older and loses that initial creative urgency, he’s moving into more reflective and less cute material4.

Criticism: Emily Nussbaum, still the best

Email newsletter: Stratechery, brilliant and thought-provoking week after week

Meme: #CarefreeBlackKids2k16 by the glorious Heben Nigatu

Podcast: The Ezra Klein show: smart and curious host, smart and curious guests

Podcast episode: Adrien Chen on Longform, providing the earliest warning of Russia getting behind Donald Trump

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Sounding the awkward and embarrassing AI alarm

I'm irked by Maciej Ceglowski's essay "Superintelligence: the idea that eats smart people".

Like so many who roll their eyes at AI alarmists like Nick Bostrom (and me), he seems to assume that we are imbuing the AI we imagine with evil will, and assume it will be some sort of enemy.

This is actually the opposite of how Bostrom sees things. He worries that humans will be endangered as a side effect of the rise of AI and its decisions about how to make use of the matter and energy available, not because of the sort of malevolence with which we're used to thinking about danger from other intelligences. In fact, Ceglowski's mocking is a perfect illustration of the problem!

So many people don't realize just how deeply we social creatures see the world through a social lens. The sort of brakes that stop a malevolent or militaristic human from killing more than a few thousand or million people simply don't exist for computers. They don't qualitatively distinguish between killing one person and every person; nor do they have to even notice anyone's died at all.

As Bostrom points out, an AI that surpasses us in intelligence does not have to go through a stage of human-like mentality on the way to unimaginable problem-solving effectiveness. It can be something that seems curiously crippled and incomplete to us, far more alien than the parade of earthlike aliens we congratulate ourselves for imagining in our entertainment. ("What if they have... SEVEN legs! And their writing is... wait for it... blotchy ink circles! Crazy, huh?")

The case for AI alarmism, as I see it, is that AI-powered communications and robotics are going to proliferate to a degree that makes it hard to imagine there won't be many instances of effects fatal to humans. You don't need some specific, monolithic series of events for there to be existential danger. Instead, for there not to be existential danger, you need every single instance of highly intelligent AI, ever, to be limited in many crucial ways.

Self-replication plus proliferation of cheap components plus proliferation of AI algorithms equals a time when a script kiddie or a stray bug can mean every last fragile sack of meat and water gets punctured or irradiated or whatever. That's just what occurs to this limited human mind, several paradigm shifts short of understanding the full breadth of AI and microtech capabilities.

Imagine an ecological VR MMORPG with good physics simulation, with a reward for finding a way to get a self-replicating robot building AI within it to kill all the animals in its world. If it can be done eventually in in such a sim, it can probably be done in real life. If it can be done with willful human intention there, it can be done with either human intent, or nonhuman intent, here. And if it can be done with that killing as a specific goal, the killing can certainly happen as a side effect of another goal, or even just a routine glitch or programmer oversight. (And we already know that militaries will be working hard on the deliberate killing front.)

All Bostrom and other alarmists are saying is that it's very hard to see why something like this can't ever happen. That position is based on a few assumptions, I'll grant you. But Maciej and other AI skeptics are saying, confidently, that it's foolish to think it could ever happen. That position seems to assume far more, and I think their essays don't show the rhetorical care and agnosticism that Bostrom's writing does.

In a way, this debate echoes Richard Dawkins's observation that if there are 10,000 religions, even the most devout among us believes 9,999 are false. For instance, a Christian can readily see that the teapot-worshipping sect is obviously just the result of human pattern recognition and the search for meaning gone wrong. Aphrodite and Hercules are obviously just neat stories that people made up. So an atheist like Dawkins agrees with religious believers almost entirely, since he too disbelieves in those 9,999 religions; he just disbelieves in one more!

Similarly, I agree with AI skeptics that most of the specific scenarios described by AI alarmists won't come to pass; the skeptics just disbelieve in a few more. Maybe that makes me like a religious believer who thinks foremost that there is some godlike power, whatever the true mythology.

I prefer to think of it like global warming skepticism. There's still much we don't understand about the climate, and that makes it easy for climate change skeptics to mock our certainty that global warming is man-made and progressing rapidly. But informed analysis can be on firm ground in identifying a trend and general causation, even if it's still shaky on many particulars. This is especially true when that analysis doesn't claim much certainty, just a strong likelihood of meaningful danger.

Our demise won't be like a movie where the ticking time bomb works on a human timescale and always has a humanlike weakness. Comparing this threat to nuclear weapons is silly. It's more like we're on track to issue every person in the world a "kill or help between 0 and 7 billion people" button that's glitchy and spinning up 1,000 4chan chains with advice on tinkering with it. What could go wrong?

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Theater recommendations for the end of 2016

The Wolves is PHENOMENAL but also very sold out. Hoping it will be brought back for a third run!

saw and loved Anna Deveare Smith's Notes From the Field.

Her one-woman shows are the result of years of interviews she conducts and records, then performs as each subject. She becomes, in body language and verbal style, first a protester, then a convict, then a teacher, then a congressman.

The subject of this show is the relationship between education and incarceration, and what that means for racial justice and the soul of America.

We were wondering beforehand if she would openly address the election. She didn't have to--the whole thing felt urgently topical, and I doubt anyone hadn't cried by the end.

Highly recommended.

saw and loved Sarah Jones's "Buy Sell Date", a one woman show (she was greatly influenced by Anna Deavere Smith) in which she becomes different characters--fictional, but based on observing many nuances of speech and manner--all of whom talk about sex, prostitution and porn, with a speculative fiction twist. Brilliant and hilarious.

http://shows.manhattantheatreclub.com/sell-buy-date/

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a funny and devastating play by Martin McDonough (In Bruges) is being revived at BAM. Don't know this production, but I recommend it sight unseen! I saw it in 1998 or 9.
http://www.bam.org/theater/2017/the-beauty-queen-of-leenane?utm_source=situation&utm_medium=sitdisplayad&utm_content=beauty-queen-ad-2016-12-02%20&utm_campaign=promo

I saw Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway this week. Very good and touching and very funny, and appropriate for a mature 12 year old and up. (We took Kate's nieces and nephews, and now they're totally Broadway fans!)

Not earth shattering in its voice or music, but memorable and special and entertaining. 100% of the audience loved it and came out glowing. At least 30% cried including yours truly :)

Labels: , ,