Simpler times, news edition

The other evening, I was relaxing in my special coffin filled with semiconductors salvaged from 1980’s-era consumer electronics, when I was thinking about how tired I am of hearing about a certain self-funded presidential candidate, or guns, or terrorism … and my mind wondered to simpler times. Not simpler times without fascists and an easily manipulated populace, but simpler times where you could more easily avoid pointless and dumb news, while still getting normal news.

45308

It wasn’t long ago that I read news, or at least “social media” on Usenet, a system for posting on message boards that predates the web and even the Internet. My favorite “news reader” (software for reading Usenet) was called trn. I learned all it’s clever single-key commands and mastered a feature common to most serious news readers: the kill file.

Kill files are conceptually simple. They contain a list of rules, usually specified as regular expressions, that determine which posts on the message board you will see. Usenet was the wild west, and it always had a lot of garbage on it, so this was a useful feature. Someone is being rude, or making ridiculous, illogical arguments? <plonk> Into the kill file goes their name. Enough hearing about terrorism? <plonk> All such discussions disappear.

Serious users of Usenet maintained carefully curated kill files, and the result was generally a pleasurable reading experience.

Of course, technology moves on. Most people don’t use text-based news readers anymore, and Facebook is the de-facto replacement for Usenet. And in fact, Facebook is doing curation of our news feed – we just don’t know what it is they’re doing.

All of which brings me to musing about why Facebook doesn’t support kill files, or any sophisticated system for controlling the content you see. We live in more advanced times, so we should have more advanced software, right?

More advanced, almost certainly, but better for you? Maybe not. trn ran on your computer, and the authors (its open source) had no pecuniary interest in your behavior. Facebook, of course, is a media company, not a software company, and in any case, you are not the customer. The actual customers do not want you to have kill files, so you don’t.

Though I enjoy a good Facebook bash more than most people, I must also admit that Usenet died under a pile of its own garbage content. It was an open system and, after, a gajillion automated spam posts, even aggressive kill files could not keep up. Most users abandoned it. Perhaps if there had been someone with a pecuniary interest in making it “work,” things would have been different. Also, if it could had better support for cat pictures.

Non Vox populi

I liked Vox.com when it came out. The card format is cool, and the detailed yet bare-bones explainers suit my approach to many aspects of news: tell me what I need to know to understand this situation.

At first, I found the decision not to host comments interesting, but not alarming. After all, everyone knows that the Internet comments section is a bubbling cesspool, right?

But I’ve been reading Vox articles now for awhile, and I’ve noticed in too many cases, when they were just blowing it: incorrect or out-of-context facts, telling one half of an argument, or missing a crucial detail. And these are the kinds of things where a letter to the editor, or a stream of informed comments, can really make an article much more useful. I notice this particularly when Vox writes about energy, a topic I have studied in depth.

Here’s an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. In “Ignore the haters: electric cars really are greener,” they cite a new Union of Concerned Scientists report at length. But they never mention that UCS is primarily an advocacy organization, not a research one. Or that, for example, Argonne National Labs has been publishing similar research for years with similar, but with slightly more muted results. Or even that the summary in the UCS report compares EVs against normal gasoline cars, which is hardly a like-vs-like comparison, given that gasoline vehicles execute a range of missions that EVs currently cannot. As it turns out, a PHEV or even a regular hybrid does in fact outperform an EV on CO2/mile in many parts of the country, and the data in the UCS report show it. And there are additional embedded assumptions, like that the electric grid will continue to get greener. That’s probably true, but maybe not, the greening of the grid could accelerate or it could start hitting hurdles that slow it down. At the same time gasoline cars could get better or worse. Hybrids might become the norm, lower carbon fuels could become mainstream, etc. Finally, EVs cost a lot more than gas cars. For the same money, could you reduce your carbon intensity more effectively than by buying an EV? (Answer: yes.) In the end, it’s hardly journalistic to lump everyone who has questions about the superiority of EV’s as a hater.

Getting back to Vox, it’s not just the bias that I don’t like. After all, bias is a part of journalism as organic chemistry is part of life. There’s no ombudsman, there’s no straightforward place to look for corrections. (They integrate corrections directly into cards, usually by changing the text without any notation.) The whole site is a Read Only Memory. In Ezra Klein’s own words on leaving the WP to found Vox: “we were held back, not just by the technology, but by the culture of journalism.”

Indeed. So, this is the improved technology and improved culture? It’s seriously starting to turn me off. Anybody else?

Garbage can strikes again

When I was in policy school, we learned about something called the “Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice,” which for some reason has stuck with me. I don’t want to boil it down too much, but in it, Cohen, March, and Olson (and later, Kingdon) theorize that people are constantly coming up with “solutions” that more or less end up in a theoretical trash bin. Except, nobody ever empties the trash. Instead, it lingers. At the same time, the random stochastic process known as life generates a constant stream of problems. Every once in awhile, a “problem” comes along that fits a “solution” waiting in the trash can, and if there’s an actor who favors that solution who has been paying attention and waiting patiently, he trots it out and starts flogging hard.

In light of the Paris attacks, we’ve been seeing this from the security establishment in a big way. They like tools that let them see and watch everything, and they do not like anything that gets in their way. So, for example, banning encryption that they cannot defeat is a solution that sits in the trash can perpetually. That’s why it’s unsurprising that the ex-CIA director is calling for Edward Snowden’s hanging or Dianne Feinstein and other senators are railing against Silicon Valley for offering its users strong encryption.

It’s all about having an established agenda and seizing an opportunity when it comes along. Politics as usual, move along, these droids are not particularly interesting.

But there is actually something a bit interesting going on here. The actual facts and circumstances right now do not support the panopticon theory of governance favored by intelligence and law & order types. The terrorists in this case did not use encryption. They sent each other SMS and other messages completely in the clear. If you look in the Internet, you will find article after article debunking the notion that controls on encryption would have made a difference in these attacks at all.

In fact, given the circumstances of this particular case, it looks like the intelligence agencies already had all the tools they needed to stop this attack. They just didn’t. This, if anything, should be the actual story of the day!

Okay, so this is perhaps also not interesting to the jaded news junky. Maybe it’s a bit further down in the playbook, but we’ve all seen people who should be on the defensive go on the offensive in a big, loud way. But I still find it disturbing that the facts are not steering the debate at all. If you enjoy making fun of fact-free conservatives, then this is not the circus for you, either, as powerful Dems are behind this crap.

Various media outlets, even mainstream ones, are calling out the bullshit, but the bullshit continues.

Same as it ever was, or new, disturbing political discourse untethered to reality. You decide.

Oh, and just as an aside: you can’t stop the bad guys from using strong encryption. So what are you actually calling for?

 

 

 

Un-American Things

Barack Obama and Ted Cruz are currently having a bit of a one-sided insult match in response to the president suggesting that rejecting Syrian refugees, or only letting in refugees in who meed certain religious criteria, is un-American.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I think The President is right, of course. Our highest ideals are of opportunity and openness, and I think we all want to live in a country that is the destination for those in need to rebuild lives shattered through forces beyond their control.

But the president is also right in another way that I think is interesting. This country does not have a culture of risk-aversion. Or at least it doesn’t regarding most new things. I mean, let’s grant for the moment that letting in Syrian refugees means we are opening ourselves to some non-zero incremental risk of violence. Why shouldn’t we take that risk? We’re risk takers.

This is not a country that adopts the precautionary principle to food and environmental regulation. We don’t stop Uber and Airbnb before they get started because they might be unsafe. Nobody (federally) says, “sure, you can have a gun, after you show us you can handle it safely.” You want to use some new chemical you just invented in your industrial process? Have at it (generally), until we know it’s dangerous. So it goes. Nuclear power, moon exploration, homesteading the West. In the cases where we do have regulation, I think you’ll find 100% of the time that it came after something bad happened regarding the very thing being regulated.

And I think that’s more or less a fine, and certainly, very American philosophy. We’ve had some very bad outcomes here and there (leaded gas), but on average, the risks have worked out in our favor and we get more benefit than harm. In the case of Syrian refugees its a question of compromising our ideals to gain a little safety. Totally un-American.

 

Throwaway knowledge

I was recently tasked with writing an pretty useful extension for Chrome that would enhance Google Calendar so that room numbers on our campus would show links that would take you to campus’s internal map tool. Google Maps does not understand this campus, so the normal map link provided is not helpful.

This task took me the better part of a day and a half, and the whole time I was gripped by this awful feeling that in order to solve this simple problem, I had to learn a bunch of random stuff that would be mostly useless as soon as I was done.

For example, I needed to learn how Chrome extensions work. For that, I needed to familiarize myself with the Google Chrome API — at least enough to get this job done. I can say for sure that even in the small amount of time I spent on that task, I could tell that this API is not stable. They change it as often as they feel like, adding this, removing that, and most ominously “deprecating” some other things. Depracation is the worse. It means “we’re not taking this function way today, but we are taking it away, probably when you least expect it.” And, in any case, how many Chrome extensions is the average programmer going to write?

Furthermore, getting into Google Calendar enough to insert my links was an exercise in pure disposable hackery. I had to reverse engineer enough of Calendar to figure out where to scan for locations and where to insert links. And I needed to understand how Calendar works well enough to know when it is going to change up the document model and set event handlers for that.

This script works today, but it’s obviously going to break, probably very soon, because Google can and will change the internal guts of Calendar whenever they please. Unlike the extension API mentioned above, they are under no obligation, not even an twinge of guilt, to hold their internal implementation of Calendar to some fixed standard.

All this points to some rather sad facts about the future of coding for the web. You’ll  absolutely have to work through the supported APIs, and when they change, that’s your problem, and if they are not offered or are incomplete, that’s also your problem, and if they go away, also your problem. Compare that, for example, to a piece of software on your PC. Maybe you wrote an ancient MSDOS .bat file that does something with the input and output of an old program you liked. If the company that made the program makes a new version that breaks your script, you could upgrade to it when you want to — or never, depending on what was convenient for you.

I’ve already been bitten by this. I made an alarm clock that interfaces with Google Calendar using a published API. It is a nice alarm clock with a mechanical chime handmade by hippies from Woodstock, NY. It worked, just fine for years, until, one day, it stopped working. Google had deprecated, and then dropped the API the clock was using. There was a new API. I had to go to my years-old code and rewrite it (to use a substantially more complicated API, by the way).

I guess that’s life, but people who make alarm clocks for a living may be surprised that users want them to provide active support and software upgrades forever. Or maybe we’ll just throw out our clocks after a year or so, like a phone.

But this is a mere annoyance compared to my main concern: unstable platforms discourage the development of knowledge and expertise. Why learn anything well if the entire API, or hell, the only supported programming language, or even the entire theoretical framework for working with the API (does anybody seriously think REST with PUT, GET, and POST is going to last forever?) is going to change next Wednesday? Perhaps that’s why in my interviews with Google nobody ever seemed to care one whit about any of my knowledge of experience.

I, for one, welcome the coming generations of ADD-afflicted software engineers and am excited to see the wagonloads of new “wheels” they’ll invent.

Yippee!