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Sunday, September 08, 2019

The MIT Media Lab's greatest hits

With the MIT Media Lab in the news, friends have been asking me questions about it.

One common question is, what are the Lab's greatest accomplishments? It's easy to see its open academic model as vague and prone to hot air, and that's not always wrong. If you compare the Lab's output to most similar-sized departments at elite universities, the record seems impressive. But of course the more immediate and common comparison is to hard science departments at MIT, and that's a tall order.

The Lab's mission is to avoid incremental work within existing lanes of research, and to explore the possible future in more ambitious and inter-disciplinary ways. (Or, as former director Joi Ito has put it, anti-disciplinary ways.) The hope is that this widening of perspective can open up new kinds of possibilities, ones that might not be conceivable if the faculty were subject to the traditional mechanisms by which departments use research to demonstrate their value.

All that said, here's my short list of greatest hits:

* CRISPR (teams there are among the many teams around the world that contributed to its discovery and refinement)
* One Laptop Per Child (no one thought a $100 laptop was close to possible, but they shipped tens of thousands of them, pushed innovations that demonstrated that devices like the Chromebook could be built and had a market, and several Central and South American countries still use the actual OLPC device)
* the Kindle (key e-ink research was done at the ML)
* Scratch (where I work now; programming website for kids; about 10mm monthly active users in 100+ countries, and around 50mm kids per year create projects, mostly in school)
* LEGO robotics (developed through a 30-year partnership with Scratch's group)
* tons of innovations in mechanical prosthetic limbs
* innovation in airbags that was used in improving their rate of false deployments
* Guitar Hero (first created at the lab and then spun off)
* BuzzFeed (lots of Jonah Peretti's research on viral storytelling was at the lab)
* AdaFruit (hardware and custom microcontroller store, created by ML alum Limor Fried, aka LadyAda)
* Sifteo cubes
* the Computer Clubhouse Network of international, free creative tech learning centers for kids
* RFID research that led to ambient RFID being usable, hologram research that is used in most holograms
* the UI ideas that were used in Minority Report
* some of the core research in collaborative filtering
* wireless mesh networks
* the MPEG-4 video codec
* and the "Stop SOPA" campaign.

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Thursday, September 05, 2019

Questions for the Media Lab

My current questions for the Media Lab, in the wake of the scandal around having solicited, and received, donations from Jeffrey Epstein:
  • Is it possible that Epstein's involvement in Joi Ito's funds created a relationship where it was harder for him to see the question of soliciting, or accepting, Epstein's money for the Media Lab in an independent light? Harder, that is, than if the ML had a policy of not soliciting or accepting donations or investments for both the Media Lab and the director's own funds from the same donors?
  • Did Epstein invest in Joi Ito's outside funds before his Media Lab funding? During? After?
  • Did Epstein ever appear on the various public lists of funders of the ML? If not, was his absence unusual? Are there other funders who are not listed now, even as an anonymous donor?
  • In what forms would it have been possible for professors or students in the ML to see that Epstein was funding the ML, before Ito's email? Is it fair to call the funding "secret"?
  • When did other people in the ML communicate with Joi Ito about whether or not to accept Epstein's funding? Were there any group or public discussions?
  • When discussions did take place between Joi Ito and other ML people about whether to accept Epstein's funding, at those times did Ito already have an outside financial relationship with Epstein? If so, did Ito reveal this during the discussions?
  • What is the nature of the funding and support from Epstein that Push Singh's 2005-ish dissertation refers to? Did Singh ever travel to an Epstein property?
  • While visiting Epstein properties, did Ito ever hear about or see evidence of Epstein getting a massage? Was Ito ever offered a massage, and did he ever receive a massage?
  • According to some sources, there was at least one press release by Epstein that claimed he was funding something Media Lab-related, which he wasn't. The ML denied it, and I've read elsewhere that it was a total fabrication by Epstein. My question is, what was the ML's internal response to this? It strikes me that a former criminal, lying about funding the Lab, is something of a red flag. Were there ever discussions about cutting him off from further funding?

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Thoughts on the Media Lab's all-hands disaster

Here are my thoughts, coming out of the Sept. 4th, 2019 Media Lab all-hands meeting (which you can read about here), which I attended.

None of this is meant to reflect the thoughts or experiences of my employer or anyone else.

First, Nicholas Negroponte's outburst is overshadowing the broader questions and concerns about how this meeting was organized, conceived and executed, but there were major problems there.

Others have other particular complaints, but to me the most tone-deaf aspect were the repeated dismissive remarks about social media and "extreme" voices. If someone is legitimately furious, they have every damn right to speak their mind, and social media is just other people who listen. It might not be a great forum for everyone to debate -- god knows -- but is in-person argument necessarily better? I felt insulted, not least of all because it had taken weeks for this carefully designed, officially sanctioned forum to take place.

Second, the feeling in the room when Nicholas Negroponte spoke up was awful. Seriously, he is supposed to be a leader, and his unscheduled speech and bickering was the worst example of leadership I've ever witnessed in person. It's important to point out how extremely precise the speaking order, and list of speakers, were. Yet when he called for an unplanned turn to speak, he was given a microphone immediately.

That's not to say that he wasn't honest, or that his remarks weren't valuable -- though, I think, not in the way he intended. I thought the portrait he painted of the reality of fundraising, and the deep coziness of the wealthy and powerful with those who, like Nicholas, can dispense meaning and purpose for their money, was revealing. As was his full-throated defense of the decision to take Epstein's money. It peeled back the veil on how power and money and gender operate -- in ways I don't think he intended to reveal.

In a sense, Joi Ito had been saying taking Jeffrey Epstein's money had been a departure from his values, and the Media Lab's values.

Nicholas was saying the opposite.

And in a way, that supports the students and faculty who are pressing for deeper, more substantial change. If this episode was part of the inseparable spine of the institution, and not just a boil, you can't exactly just lance it like a boil.

It also felt much clearer to me in his heated exchange that this episode is tied, for many, to long trends of how women are used and excluded in the institution. Joi and the admin team deserve immense credit for improving that, particularly with the percentage of Media Lab students who are women. But it felt clear to me that there is pressure, and need, for a deeper reckoning with the ways the billionaires' club and fundraising not just didn't include women, but didn't imagine women's concerns and voices. There is pressure and need for a deeper reckoning with the ways sexual harassment, assault and exploitation have been treated as a side issue, rather than one that -- absent a public relations crisis -- needs all-hands attention.

It may be that the Epstein money is getting that attention not because it's worse than what has been going on, but because it became part of the zeitgeist to the point that donors are skittish. Emblematic of this is that after the meeting, when Nicholas approached someone to resume arguing (not trying to be cagey about names, just not trying to tell someone else's story), there was quickly a group of several women pleading with him to stop. But it wasn't until Joi came and led him away that he actually did stop.

What if they had been men? What if they had been professors? What if they had been billionaires? And what if the women who Media Lab professors have hurt with their sexual exploitation were professors? Were the Provost? Were on the MIT board? Were billionaires?

What I keep thinking of is Joi Ito's promise to approach healing the Lab through "restorative justice." For that to be more than a catchphrase will take some serious work. How do you interrupt and rewrite the patterns by which mostly white men circulate power, permission, and authority? Should Joi bring women and people of color to those meetings with billionaires? Should he resign and be replaced by a leadership of women and people of color?

I also think it's important to realize how many people don't think taking the money was such a bad thing. That was only briefly alluded to.

Everyone has lines they won't cross. Everyone. It's just a matter of what outrages you, infuriates you and disgusts you to the point where you can't do business with someone -- even if the public will never find out. It's mind-boggling to me that Nicholas Negroponte still doesn't see that not only was it a strategic mistake for him to court Epstein as a donor and as a personal associate, but it is a sign that he, and the institution he built, were deficient in human understanding and ethics at the time.

And, clearly, still are.

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Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Complicity and civility

I'm struggling with this question right now: where is the line between making change through relationship, and enabling abuse?

I think it's a mistake to hold onto surface civility at all costs. And, I think there's a real tendency in the left to recast our own exclusion of others, dehumanization of others, and political violence in self-righteous terms.

I also think we undervalue the norms of surface civility that the cruel and hateful do often stick to. I think we're often dealing with people on the right who have a significant amount of desire watch the world burn, and make others as miserable as they are themselves; in other words, they're much more in the market for incivility than we are. I think from their perspective, an incivility arms race is winnable, whereas from ours it is not.

Most of all, I think it's a bit dangerous for us to act as though there is an easy answer to the question of what to do about all the powerful people motivated by cruelty. Don't appease and enable them! Of course. But then, what? What's the plan? Does the racist gang calling itself a militia really cower in the face of the show of force? Or does that mostly give them license to do much worse?

I think one of the most significant casualties in the Trump era is the rigor of thinking on the left. We are so obviously, incredibly obviously on the right side of history, I don't think we're doing much entertaining tough questions about how to win and hold power and what to do with it. Why was the CFPB so vulnerable to an illegal takeover by a Republican administration, when other federal offices aren't? What are the most important structural changes we could win to peel back the legal entrenchment of disproportionate Republican and white voting power? Do we want to make DC and Puerto Rican statehood core parts of our agenda? How do we pursue entitlements so that they will receive the widespread support that Social Security does, instead of the widespread derision that AFDC and WIC do? How do we use wedge issues like gay rights to our advantage, now that most Americans agree generally with the left? How do we incubate the next few generations of democratic leaders, so we don't wind up with so many lost opportunities to run competitive congressional and Senate races? How do we take seriously the ways that regulatory complexity allows large, powerful players to navigate the system better than new entrants?

I just see a dozen self-congratulatory posts about how awful the Republicans are right now for everyone that is asking difficult questions of Democrats or progressives.

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Thursday, August 29, 2019

Educational apps I recommend

A fellow parent recently asked me to recommend educational video games for an eight year-old, saying "her own research is being dictated by North Korean programmers as far as I can tell."

I asked if he meant educational as in "this is what i think would have developed my brain most at 8", or educational as in "pretty clearly is a version of school"? He said the former.

Here is my rough list. It's iPhone-centric, but many of these are available on Android too:

  • Music: iPhone: Beatwave, Keezy Drummer, Clapping Music
  • Coding: iPad: Cargo-bot, Code Monkey, Lightbot; web: Scratch,, CodeHS, Lightbot
  • Video creation: iPhone/iPad: iMove, My Create
  • Art creation: iPad: Tayasui Sketches School
  • Interactive art: iPad: Plug & Play, Metamorphobet; iPhone: Device 6
  • Social games: iPhone: Bounden, Heads Up
  • Physics and puzzles: iPhone/iPad: Build a bridge!, Monument Valley, Blackbox, I Love Hue, Time Turner
  • Math: iPhone/iPad: Dragonbox, Splash Math

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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, or that we know of no compelling 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.)


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?


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!
Blogger Ben on Thu Aug 29, 09:28:00 AM:
1. I think pawn shops tend to focus on a narrow range of items that are physically small for their value (and thus easy to store), do not degrade (contra, say, comics), and are resaleable (because people come to shop for jewelry in general). The type of business I'm describing would be much more logistically complicated, but would save money by not having to rent retail space. Is it possible to make money in that business? I'm not sure. Not easily, at least.

2. I've used a UniFi router for 8 years or so; it allows separate open and closed networks, with traffic limits. But the traffic limits are only per-connection, not per-network, so many simultaneous freeriders could render my wifi unusably slow to me.

3. I'm not complaining about yelling! In fact, I wish cafe workers were much more creative and/or aggressive about getting me my coffee. They seem to be very tepid about it! I'm just surprised it's not more of a solved problem.

4. That sounds great! Chipotle does this too, and that would basically be the solution if they were open in the morning and had a morning menu. However, I want to go beyond having to affirmatively order the meal; ideally I could just swing by the location on a whim, and it would know me and charge me.

5. This isn't in Google's DNA, but it is in Amazon's. I'm curious if there's a project along those lines -- a two-sided marketplace that makes it easy to provide data and make money from it, and easy to spend variable amounts of money to consume it.

6. Yeah, there are many ok answers, but no central, reliable one

7. This is actually the one I think about most often!

8. Ambitious, but risks reinforcing existing power dynamics, and incentivizing trivial hacks, as demonstrated in the Bryce Dallas Howard Black Mirror episode!

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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