Combosaurus: I don't know what's going on here

I got an email today from OkCupid headlined "Combosaurus knows more about [my username] than [my username] does," which I assumed was just a creepy new way of letting me know they'd found someone thy thought I'd be compatable with. It turns out, Combosaurus is OkCupid's new social network?  They explain:

For most folks, it takes just a few minutes to sign in and tell us what you like (or hate) before we can make predictions. Once you do, we can…

  • Introduce users with similar tastes
  • Predict interests you might like
  • Help you mock or praise your friends’ ratings

Sign up and give it a shot.

I'm hesitant about signing up for a social network that might introduce me to people without checking with me first.  But I'm also really curious.  So I have an account now.

The first thing they had me do was rate loads of things on a five-point scale from D: to :D.After about 100 ratings, I realized it was on infinite scroll.

The homepage lists loads of results form, like, three other people, which I assume is a temporary condition while the site gets up and running.  There's also a "People" tab, which offers a list of people similar to me, and a "You Might Like" tab, which appears to be the D: to :D scale they dropped me on when I signed up.

I'm not totally sure whether this site is supposed to help me meet people or find stuff.  Here's the About page, if it helps anyone else.

Movie Triggers: the best new website I've seen lately

A while ago, I had an idea for a website, that would use a social network/review system to catalog movies with triggering content.  It's a pretty basic idea, I don't think it was stolen or anything, and the hard part is obviously the work on putting something like this together. I'm thrilled to say that someone has actually done that work. is a catalog of movies which, over time, will hopefully accumulate a decent collection of trigger warnings for popular movies.  Right now, most of them say there are 0 triggers -- which, the site stresses, "does not mean that this movie is non-triggering."  (Emphasis theirs.)

Symbols specifically indicate whether more than 10 people have agreed something is triggering, and whether there are comments on the thread, which would hopefully offer a better idea of what the triggering content is, so visitors can make informed judgements about whether they can handle it.

I'm personally looking forward to when the site gets enough traction to start warning about spiders -- I sent a feedback message asking whether arachnophobia was an appropriate tag here's the thread:

[me:] Is there any sort of guideline on what counts as a trigger, or what sorts of things you hope to cover?  For example, I'm arachnophobic -- would it be appropriate for me to add a spiders warning to movies that caused me to panic?  (Right now, my strategy is looking away if spiders show up and letting my partner tell me when it's safe to look back up.)

[Response:] Hi,

Tagging with spiders is completely appropriate. There are no specific guidelines for what counts as a trigger. We specifically left it open ended so people could share their experiences.

Thanks for using the site!

- John

Please, use this site, share it, add your experiences to the catalog.  Including spiders.

Wordpress can publicize to Tumblr now

When I first signed up for Tumblr, I tried to figure out how to cross-post my blog there.  It turned out, it was a massive pain in the aardvark.  So I gave up.  I wanted my posts to be in both places, but I certainly didn't want to cross-post my Tumblr to my Blog, because most of my Tumblr posts are reblogs of amusing gifs. My posts here are usually longer, and more thought out, or at least contain more of my personal opinions.  There's a pretty big separation between my sense of the most appropriate posts for my blog, and the most appropriate posts for my Tumblr.

But there's a big category in the middle, of things I would always cross-post, if it were easy -- mostly, big, long posts that relate intimately to some fandom or another -- posts about the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, thoughts on a Vlogbrothers video, responses to Adventure Time episodes.  Some of the remainder are more personal posts, that seem like they ought to be on my blog, but kind of belong on Tumblr more than here.

What usually happens is I don't end up writing those posts.

But now there's an automatic Tumblr publicize setting, and this post is, in part, a test to see how the hell that works.

Here's an image, just so I have a clear idea of what's going to happen:

No state Pokemon

After the recent response to the We The People petition that the government build a Death Star ("The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon."), reports that the White House has pulled a petition to establish State Pokémon for every state, arguing that it violated the site's Terms of Participation. Jessica R

oy of BetaBeat writes,

Though there are some worthwhile petitions on We the People, many Internet users have glommed on to the tool as an act of trolling. [...]

To be fair, the White House hasn’t exactly discouraged this sort of behavior. Last week, the administration released a hilarious response to a petition to build a Death Star which, while absolutely delightful, was probably not the best use of government time?

I have to say, I strongly disagree.

Granted, it's not directly productive for the government to employ pop culture experts to craft amusing refusals to any joke that over 25,000 people want to hear.  But anything that gets people to the website gets people to an environment that might point them towards issues they care about, that do deserve the government's attention.

Furthermore, the Death Star response was interesting and informative, even if it was silly.  The administration took that opportunity to illustrate parallels between the fictional geekyness of Star Wars and the real-world geekyness of the International Space Station.  They also pointed out what kinds of issues the government cares about, and in what ways they categorize those issues, and what kinds of considerations go into making financial decisions on a governmental scale.  And it's a fair bet that that more people read the Death Star response than any other White House response, even for petitions they responded favorably to.

It's a way in, is what I'm saying.  And it's a cheap-as-hell one.  I consider it an outright poor decision to pull the Pokémon petition.  Instead, they could talk about the importance of national symbol making, the American entertainment industry versus that of our foreign allies, and the interrelationship between government and pop culture.

Or they could have assigned the states official Pokémon.  I mean, seriously, why not?

Grom social: Facebook for kids

So there's this 11 year old kid whose parents kicked him off Facebook.  He responded by inventing his own Facebook.  It currently has over 7000 users.  So, that's a thing.  Via SourceFed:

The good stuff

I have a few problems with the specific implementation, but altogether I think this is a really good idea.  As has been pointed out in just about every conversation about he internet in the last five years, kids these days are jumping into an environment where all their actions might be permanent, and they don't necessarily have the maturity or perspective to understand what that means.

In that sense, kids on Facebook is a terrible idea, and it's good that they have a more monitored, more controlled social network in which to begin to learn what it means to be a citizen of the internet.

As SourceFed points out, it's also good that they won't be exposed to (a.) creepy adults friending kids in a predatory manner, (b.) aggressive normalization of adult content and rude behavior, and (possibly most importantly because it's probably the most pervasive) (c.) normal adults being their normal, whiny, underachieving and petty selves, normalizing being an awful person for all the kids watching how they talk to each other.

Grom's anti-drug policy

As far as problems, they're going for an aggressively anti-drug policy, which I don't think is really going to help these kids.  I mean, I'm not for under-sixteen year olds doing drugs.  That's the area where research really does show that drugs are bad.  But SourceFed calls it a "D.A.R.E.-like program."  The D.A.R.E. program is a well-established failure -- their extremist approach to insisting all drugs are apocalyptically bad, and the implied message "All your friends are doing it" behind the "Don't listen to all your friends when they tell you to do it" message reliably increase drug use and degrade trust in authority.  Which is legitimate -- the authority is lying to the kids, why would they keep trusting it?

Videos like this one equate the dangers of drugs like alcohol and weed to the dangers of drugs like meth and heroin, which is counterproductive.  They also bulldoze over important distinctions like "You shouldn't do this while your brain and body are still developing" vs. "You're not in a good place in your life to use this drug responsibly" vs. "This is a prescription drug, which should only be used at the advice of a doctor," vs. "This drug is seriously dangerous and addictive, and you should avoid it entirely."  (Alcohol, marijuana, ritalin, and cigarettes respectively.)


It's great to see that kids are getting their own social network, that the frontier-attitude of the internet is beginning to break down enough that we're really trying for safe places for people who aren't yet necessarily in a good place to brave the frontiers of the web.  I hope that they employ the drug policy maturely and effectively, but I don't think they're going to -- they have to appeal to parents, after all, and parents are notoriously irrational about teaching kids lessons consistent with reality -- and I think that's going to degrade trust in the network and ultimately lead to its failure.  But it might not, and the website has enough going for it that I hope it doesn't.

In the event of my death

Delete my internet history. No but seriously, what am I going to do with all my data when I die?  I assume it's going to be a very long time from now, but I can't actually be sure.  And I am completely unprepared.

I've been thinking about this occasionally since I read this interview, between webcomic creators Joey Comeau and Ryan North.  North talks about what's going to happen with all his online affairs after he dies.  His answer, too, is apparently nothing:

Joey: Your career is on computers, and probably a large part of your life is, too. Does anyone else have your passwords? What happens if you die tonight? Will your family be able to get into your email and sort out your affairs? Do you want them to? Have you got a goodbye Dinosaur Comic in your will?

Ryan: I've got nothing. I've come close to setting up a dead man's switch: a program where if I don't check in on it once every week or so, it assumes I'm dead, and goes into action. My final Dinosaur Comic gets posted, friends get pre-composed goodbye emails, enemies get a final "HEY SCREW YOU I'M DEAD BUT I'M STILL KINDA CHEESED AT YOU" message, and important passwords get emailed to my family. But I keep thinking, what if it goes wrong? What if it goes off prematurely and starts trying to tie off the loose ends in my life when I'm still around? It's a risk I haven't taken yet. It might make a good subject for a comic though!

Anyway if you're asking for my passwords they're all "ryaniscool" now.

This is on my mind again today because Cory Doctorow posted an article on Locus Online, The Internet of the Dead, last Friday, and I got around to reading it last night.  A friend of his, a much more exhaustively embedded hacker than Ryan North, passed away, and (because no one knew what to do with it) he offered to store the data until his friend's family knew how to deal with it.

Keeping your data on your live, spinning platter means that it will get saved every time you do your regular backup (assuming you perform this essential ritual!), and if the drive starts to fail, you’ll know about it right away. It’s not like dragging an old floppy out of a dusty box and praying that it hasn’t succumbed to bitrot since it was put away.


if you just stick the PC on a shelf or in a box in the basement until you know what to do with the data, there’s a good chance that the data will be lost. When it comes to computers, storage is fraught with peril. The lubricant on the drives’ bearings dries up and the disks seize. They get flooded out, or damp infiltrates them. They get gnawed by rodents, and insects fill them with droppings.

If natural causes don’t get them, then robbery might.

Ultimately Doctorow puts his friend's files on a cloud drive, where they will be held in an archive for 10 years, prepaid.

I'm not good enough with computers to set up my own dead man's switch, and I can't afford to set up my own cloud drive archive of my whole life.  But I have thought about putting together an envelope, perhaps with a password to a ZIP file I will keep updated with all my current passwords -- or, the ones that I don't want to have entombed upon my passing.  An instruction to locate and post a final blog update, messages to my friends and family, documents appointing artistic and digital executors, and a general outline of what to do if I happen to have some kinds of assets upon my death.

And I think it's a fair bet that I've thought this through more than most of the people I know.  Granted, many of them may not have quite as much of their lives on the interwebs.  But what data they do have online means something, and for some of them, it might be lost forever.

Or, maybe most of the people I know just share all their passwords with their parents, and I'm more than usually paranoid about this sort of thing.

Halo 4's potential new zero-tolerance policy

ArsTechnica reports on  an interview with developers on Halo 4, discussing the potential for harsher sanctions than before on sexism in Xbox live games:  they're planning to institute a zero-tolerance, lifetime ban policy for sexist remarks.  From Gamespot's interview:

"As developers, we have a personal responsibility to think about how our games come across," [343 Industries head Bonnie] Ross said. "With Halo 4, we were very deliberate in thinking about who should be female and who should be male in the game, and if we came off stereotypical, we went back to question what we were doing and why."

[Executive producer Kiki] Wolfkill agreed, saying that while games can often reflect the culture of the studio that's building them, the success or failure of games can also reflect consumer responsibility. Part of this responsibility includes changing perspectives about the games industry as an exclusively male-dominated area.

Casey Johnston at ArsTechnica points out the obvious reality that this kind of enforcement can't be 100% effective, but it's still a huge step in the right direction.  She keeps herself muted when she plays online, because her voice makes her an immediate target for harassment.

The more the industry stands against the sexists and for fair and open play space, the less acceptable it will be for these vile behaviors to stick and spread.

1984: new work in ENG102! Yay!

We've just finished Grimm's Tales in my English 102 class, and we're just moving on to one of my favorite books, 1984.  Part of the format of this class is writing essays in response to each reading assignment -- 1984's assignments are divided up one for each of the three sections -- and I have a lot of ideas.  And I'm only 12 pages in.  So here's a bit of an idea dump so I can move on with reading. Oppression, Capitalism, and Architecture

The Ministry of Truth -- Minitrue, in Newspeak -- was startlingly different from any other object in sight.  It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters in the air.

This is the Shard.  It is 306.9 meters tall, according to Wikipedia, and is the tallest building in London by far.  I'll grant that it's not made of glittering white concrete, but it's pretty damn closeto looking like the Ministry of Truth.

That said, it's not the home of the British Government's propaganda wing.  It's a private building, full of offices, restaurants, and hotels.  We're in a weird place, as a civilization, where the biggest construction projects we can manage are not the source of nationally organized collective action for the benefit of all, but private enterprises for the benefit of the very wealthy.  The Shard is for corporate offices, and it is, essentially, a gigantic ad sticking out of the center of London, declaring, "We are friendly to Corporate Offices.  Come put your Corporate Offices Here."

The Reactionary Anti-1984

I will grant, unequivocally, that it's a good thing that 1984 didn't come true.  We would not be better off as a world if a lot of countries had ended up going down that road, and I do believe that Orwell gave us the tools to discuss it, and thereby prevent it.

What he didn't do, which is fair enough because we can't expect one writer to fix the whole of the future, was explain how things could go wrong in the other direction.  The use of propaganda in 1984 is oppressive and insane.  But it bred a rabid anti-propaganda culture, where what would have been better in its place is a system of transparent propaganda: more "This is what the government asks of you and why," less "The government has no right to ask anything of you."  Civilization means we're all in this together, and at best the government is our efforts to cooperate, manifest.  In fear of letting it control us, we've completely untoothed it.  Now, we're suffering other kinds of oppression.  (See above: The Shard, corporate overlords.)

Facebook: The self-manifest Telescreen

We're not strictly living in the kind of technological Panopticon that Orwell envisioned.  More like the reverse -- we're living in an increasingly comprehensive environment where, at any time, we could be broadcasting.  See, for example, this blog.

Some of us are hopefully using this for good.  I, personally, see my online presence as a way of holding myself accountable by putting my best self forward and demanding of myself that I live up to my online presence.  But I don't feel like most people have as carefully thought through what version of themselves they're putting forward.

As I've written before, some of our online resources, like Facebook, are engineered to encourage us to put a particular version of ourselves forward.  Facebook encourages us to be nasty, shallow and narrow-minded.  You can use these tools without succumbing to their leanings, but Facebook isn't helping anyone be a better person.

And all your friends could always be watching or listening. The more you use Facebook, the more your silence is conspicuous.

The phenomena Orwell described in 1984 are largely deliberately orchestrated by the Party.  But it's also possible for many of them to occur organically, through the mere existence of the appropriate tools.  Facebook's relevance algorithms encourage everyone to pay closer attention to your relationship status than any other aspect of your life.  Twitter, Tumblre and tagging in general arguably promote a kind of #newspeak.  In this case, the failure of social media companies to make their products actively anti-Orwellian constitutes a failure to prevent the world that Orwell sort-of predicted.


I don't have any ultimate point here.  Any one of these might get expanded into my first paper on 1984, or I might come up with some totally new topic.  I've got like three days to write it, who knows what will happen. (Apart from Google, whose algorithms have presumably already predicted the content of my blog for the next six weeks.)

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.  More information is available at

TED talk: Rachel Botsman on Reputation Capital

I was disappointed, watching this 20 minute long TED talk, that Rachel Botsman did not once mention Whuffie, Cory Doctorow's reputation currency in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  Still, she hit on all the important points -- and she approaches reputation capital from a slightly different angle. In Doctorow's book, reputation had become the medium of exchange because we had achieved post-scarcity -- there was enough stuff for everyone to have as much as they needed.  So value and priority was established, not by an individual's ability to leverage their scarce resources, but by their reputation among their peers and admirers (or enemies.)

In Rachel Botsman's talk, reputation currency isn't a solution for post-scarcity.  It's just a solution for the crappy, rapidly failing system of capital that we've been working with for the last few hundred years.  Technology having caught up to fill the gap in community between small villages and global societies, we can start the process of abandoning the debt-based medium of exchange we use now, and replace it with an inherently positive-sum reputation-based medium of exchange.

The thing I'm most optimistic about in her talk is the fact that she doesn't portray the change as some kind of violent overthrow, or organized and deliberate reshuffling of financial modes.  The reputation economy integrates smoothly into the debt economy in ways that, she points out, are already happening.  Your score on Stack Overflow can get you a job, your reputation on TaskRabbit can earn you work opportunities.  It occurs to me that reputation also figures into the success of Kiva microlending, whereby the reputation of the borrowers is how they get the capital to establish their own businesses and places in their communities.

Change is organic.  It's not easy, and I'm not sure it's possible, to get all of humanity to do something by insisting that it's important.  (Look at climate change.)  There have to be forces that push towards it, and in the case of a reputation economy, the forces of convenience and effectiveness are pushing cash and credit scores aside to make room for star-ranking on eBay and karma on Reddit.

Well, maybe not Reddit.

Aside: the implications of reputation economies on sociopaths

It occurs to me that a lot of horrible people are able to do horrible things because our economy as it exists now rewards them for it.  This thought doesn't really fit into the above post, but I think it's also worth noting that a reputation economy would be more likely to push down people who were likely to hurt others in pursuit of personal gain, which would organically mitigate the ill effects sociopaths would have on their communities, rather than magnifying them.

A terrifying prospect: Facebook's search engine

I think I'll probably stop talking about Facebook soon -- after a certain point, I'm going to be sufficiently detached from it that I won't know what I'm talking about.  But this, I have to mention. Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg has said some scary things.  In my Quitting Facebook post, I quote a line that almost perfectly captures Zuckerberg's egocentric approach to relevance: "A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa."

He said something else recently, reports TechCrunch, that scares the crap out of me.

“we’re basically doing 1 billion queries a day and we’re not even trying. [...]Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer the questions people have. At some point we’ll do it. We have a team working on it.”

He explained that users really do look to the social network to answer questions, such as where to eat sushi. This is what people want out of search, not a pile of results. “Search engines are really evolving to give you a set of answers, ‘I have a specific question, answer this question for me.’”

This isn't scary because it's bad to have a search engine that's really good at answering your question.  That's Google's goal, and I fully support it.  (Though I really hope they get even better about locking down ethical use of our personal information, and saving as little as possible while maintaining their product.)

It's scary because it's Facebook.  It's scary because (a.) Facebook has the worst track record on privacy of any major company I'm aware of that's still in business, (b.) Facebook is continuing to try to take over the whole of its users' web experience, and (c.) I don't like the idea of a world where the majority of web users get their search results from a site that proactively steers them away from challenging or important information if it will make them feel bad.

I'm going to close out with a piece of advice that I've been giving a lot lately:  Diversify your social network.  I know that most people can't or aren't willing to take on the social costs of leaving Facebook.  That's fine -- if you can, please do, but if you can't, just being active on some other social networks is enough.  If Facebook doesn't dominate your online presence and your connection to your friends and family, it can't do any of the horrible things that I'm afraid it will do.

So find your friends on Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter, Google + or wherever else you want to try.  You'll get exposed to different styles of different content streams, you'll find there are more ways to communicate with the people you care about than you had access to on your and their walls, and you'll never be faced with having to stay on Facebook because they're holding your friends hostage, or preventing your friends from leaving for fear of losing you.

So I got Instagram

My partner and I were exploring the various options for smartphone apps last night, and after a series of random downloads, I ended up getting Instagram.

I've been thinking a bit about that decision.  I don't have anything against Instagram, but I'm pretty sure the only reason I didn't get it before now is that I'm aware of the substantial negative reaction to it online.  I've been thinking about that because I feel a little guilty for, not actively rejecting it, but sort of dismissing it.

I figured I should try to know what I was talking about, so I googled "Instagram sucks" and read the first article that showed up.  It's called Why Instagram Sucks, by Ryan Pinkard.

Instagram is bad for photography and bad for art.

I will admit—I’m a college-level photography student, I use Instagram recreationally and I was quickly charmed by its accessible allure. As a consequence of my generation’s nostalgia, I like old, flawed images to a degree I can’t quite explain. I understand the success of the app entirely, and still find amazement in how it can improve a lackluster cellphone image to my tastes.

So what’s my issue?

People have called Instagram a democratizing force, empowering anyone to be creative. I have a problem with this—I don’t think it works. Throwing a filter over an otherwise everyday image is not creative, it’s borderline lazy. A hypersaturated picture of your breakfast cereal is still a picture of your breakfast.

This section (and some lines from the following section -- "Whether you tweet it or Instagram it, no one really cares what you had for breakfast. And given this social media aspect, is art also supposed to be a popularity contest where the “likes” determine the image’s success?") helped me figure out why people dislike it, and why those people are wrong.

The short answer is that it's elitist.  The long answer is that it's a particularly toxic kind of elitism that's simultaneously anti-amateur and anti-intellectual.  It's anti-amateur for obvious reasons -- people of limited skill or training are still able to make certain kinds of pictures very well using Instagram that would otherwise require a certain amount of expertise, or at least of having been a certain age and in a certain place (and have owned certain things, and have known better how to use them, and have kept them.)

It's also anti-intellectual, for two reasons.  One, critics presume that the content on Instagram isn't worth serious contemplation.  "No one really cares what you had for breakfast."  John Green criticized this style of dismissal in a Swoodilypoopers video called Why I Like Art:

A frequent criticism of contemporary art is that it isn't really art because 'I could do that' misses the really vital fact that that's something that you say when you aren't paying attention[... .]  That's something you say when you're trying to [dismiss] something intellectually, and [not] think hard.

(To be absolutely clear, John Green was defending professional contemporary art, not Instagram, and I don't know for certain that he would agree with this application of his argument.)

Instagram may not consist of people spending weeks or months of time composing pictures.  It does, however, consist of pictures people choose to take for reasons that are important to them.  You may disagree -- you may think that some photos reflect values you think are wrong.  I think Ayn Rand's philosophy is irrational and insane.  But I don't reject the Fountainhead by claiming it's not art.

Two, it argues for art as a sort of walled garden arena.  Something you have to earn your way into.  I don't know if Ryan Pinkard believes this, but I've heard a lot of artists quote Picasso's line, "Every child is an artist.  The problem is to remain an artist once we grow up."

Media like Instagram let more people than ever before express their sense of art.  It lets more people than ever remain artists.  You certainly don't have to try to consume all the art on Instagram -- it would be impossible, it's impossible to consume all of any media now -- but dismissing it as not-art, sub-art, anti-artistic or degrading is misanthropic, anti-intellectual and elitist.

Ryan Pinkard ultimately recants the premise of his article, so I guess he's not that bad.  It seems like he just found a niche for an angry rant, and found a way to write it then create plausible deniability for himself.


I deleted my Facebook today

Hi Thomas,<BR><BR>We have received a request to permanently delete your account. Your account has been deactivated from the site and will be permanently deleted within 14 days. <BR><BR>If you did not request to permanently delete your account, please login to Facebook to cancel this request:<BR><BR><BR><BR><BR>Thanks,<BR>The Facebook Team

It is done.

That's not a formatting error, by the way. That's how the text looked when Facebook sent it to me.  Or, I guess, it is a formatting error, because Facebook doesn't bother to check the quality of the formatting on their account deletion email.  Huh.

With all the anxiety about this I've been feeling in the past couple weeks, I'm surprised that I didn't have any sudden, dramatic second thoughts when I logged on to actually do it.

Also -- downloading a backup of your account takes like two hours.  Maybe it has to, but I sort of suspect they just make it take forever on purpose.

Obama on Reddit

President Barack Obama did an IAmA on Reddit today.  (IAmA stands for "I am a...", a variation on AMA, "Ask Me Anything.")  The best two answers were near the end:


We know how Republicans feel about protecting Internet Freedom. Is Internet Freedom an issue you'd push to add to the Democratic Party's 2012 platform?


Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody - from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although there will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won't stray from that principle - and it will be reflected in the platform.

It's great that he's passionately in favor of internet freedom, and I know he opposed SOPA.  I worry about what "occasional disagreements on the details" means, just because it's vague enough that it might mean "I'll disagree with my colleagues sometimes," and "I disagree with the internet."  Still, vague doesn't mean bad.  It's just, you know, vague.


Are you considering increasing funds to the space program?


Making sure we stay at the forefront of space exploration is a big priority for my administration. The passing of Neil Armstrong this week is a reminder of the inspiration and wonder that our space program has provided in the past; the curiosity probe on mars is a reminder of what remains to be discovered. The key is to make sure that we invest in cutting edge research that can take us to the next level - so even as we continue work with the international space station, we are focused on a potential mission to a asteroid as a prelude to a manned Mars flight.


American Belief Statistics

Browsing EurekAlert, I noticed an article titled Canadians Overwhelmingly Believe Climate Change Is Occurring.  The article claims that only 2% of Canadians deny the existence of climate change.  The survey report breaks it down further:

Canadians most commonly (54%) believe that climate change is occurring partially due to human activity and partially due to natural climate variation. One third (32%) believe that climate change is occurring due to human activity while one in ten (11%) believe that climate change is occurring due to natural climate variation or that climate change is not occurring at all.

Comparatively, according to a Gallup report this year 15% of Americans believe that the effects of global warming will never happen, and another 15% say that its effects won't occur within their lifetimes. About half of Americans believe what scientists in the field are saying about the heat lately:  global warming is already happening.

Reading this, I got curious: what are the percentages of some other conspiracy-style, anti-sense beliefs in the US?

According to Wikipedia, somewhere in the area of 15-30% of Americans believe that the US government at least had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attack plans, and chose to let it happen.

As of 2001, somewhere between 6% and 20% of Americans believe that the moon landings didn't happen.

In 2011, after the release of his long-form birth certificate, about 10% of Americans still believe that President Obama was not born in the United States.  Among only Republicans, it's at 23%.

Also in 2011, a health poll conducted by Thomson Reuters and NPR concluded that 21.4% of Americans believe that vaccines can cause autism.

A criticism I hear a lot about America, which I personally believe, is that Americans believe that they are not obligated to consider evidence when it conflicts with their views -- that facts are just as subjective and malleable as opinions.  Unfortunately, the broader cultural trends in America seem to reinforce this position.  Mainstream news media's Balance principle pushes them towards giving coverage to verifiably wrong positions, and pseudo-educational media outlets like The History Channel produce shows like UFO Hunters, Ancient Aliens and The Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon.

Also unfortunately, the web as it's currently structured makes this worse.  Most peoples' major portals to content online, Facebook and Google, filter the content they show the user based on past trends of liking, clicking, and otherwise positively responding.  Then, we all head off into media outlets that target our own demographics, pretty much exclusively.

But, obviously, America is getting it wrong more than the rest of the world.  Our climate change blindness is at 30%.  Canada's is at 2%.

I've depressed myself now, so I'll end it there.

TechCrunch explains how Facebook is getting even worse

Yesterday on Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow posted a link to an article on TechCrunch, breaking down the ways that Facebook's new app interface is more manipulative and dishonest than their previous ones.  I haven't actually seen the new interface, because I've logged into Facebook about three times this month, and that was only to check for messages after someone told me they'd sent one. The article, 5 Design Tricks Facebook Uses To Affect Your Privacy Decisions, is an easy read, and has accompanying pictures to illustrate the problems.  The writer, Avi Charkham, points out:

Facebook keeps “improving” their design so that more of us will add apps on Facebook without realizing we’re granting those apps (and their creators) access to our personal information. After all, this access to our information and identity is the currency Facebook is trading in and what is driving its stock up or down.

Facebook's stock has not been doing well since the company went public.  It seems like the company's approach to solving this problem is going to be to try and extract even more personal information from its users.

For the record, Tumblr, Reddit and Twitter all have a very good track record for not exploiting their users.  If you're not ready to quit Facebook, a good first step is picking some of these other sites and getting active on them, as well.  Get your friends to do it, too.  Diversify your social presence online.  That way, no one service can hold hostage relationships that are important to you.

Some more about Facebook

I logged into Facebook again just now, and it made me nauseous.  I'm a few days away from shutting it off, and the unpleasant feeling that I got looking at the page and thinking about that fact reinforces my desire to leave.  Here are some of the reasons: The top post on my timeline involved people talking about me -- or, at least, about something I posted.  My mother quoted this piece on my blog, listing quotes by Republicans on rape.  There was a discussion going on.  The next one down was a post from one of my closest friends.

The six notifications that I hadn't checked were mostly about events that I had no intention of attending, no ability to attend, or already missed. The last one was an invite on some game.

I also had a friend request waiting for me.  It looks like one of my close friends remade her Facebook profile, and she sent me a friend request.  It makes me feel awful not to accept that request.  It makes me feel awful knowing that it's going to go unaccepted, because my account isn't going to be there in a few days.  It feels physically painful.  I feel sick.

I'm not okay with the websites I visit making me feel sick.  I don't want to feel like I'm unable to leave a website, for fear of losing my whole social life.  And I know that's true of Facebook -- that company does everything they can to organize my entire life, and my friends' and family's entire lives, to rely on it.  I refuse to continue using a website that seeks to hold my social life hostage while it feeds my information to advertisers and governments.

The attitude a lot of people have about the 'dangers' of the internet, the risk of internet addiction or obsession, annoys the hell out of me.  It's a paranoid, hyperbolic fear.  But it's not based on nothing at all.  The minor horrors that some people like to blow way out of proportion do exist, and while I don't believe they'll take root enough to do permanent damage to humankind, I think that's the case because enough people will notice and shake them off while they're still small.

In the scale of all human life, Facebook is still very small, and now's a good time to shake it off.

The moral problems of Big Data

Cory Doctorow linked to a great article about the civil rights implications of data collection. By the way, data collection is totally a civil rights issue.  Alistair Croll explains,

“Personalization” is another word for discrimination. We’re not discriminating if we tailor things to you based on what we know about you — right? That’s just better service.

There's a lot of information you can get out of the amount of data that corporations gather about their customers -- and a lot of ways that information can be used in damaging ways.  There was a case in which Target accidentally outed pregnant teens to their families by mailing them personalized catalogs close to entirely about things like baby carriages and diapers.

Croll raises the issue of that sort of information being figured into issues like bank loans or housing.  That's a big problem -- it means existing trends of social dysfunction will implicitly get reinforced.

If I collect information on the music you listen to, you might assume I will use that data in order to suggest new songs, or share it with your friends. But instead, I could use it to guess at your racial background. And then I could use that data to deny you a loan.

It doesn't even matter if they actually try to guess your race.  If the trends among fans of a particular band is that they're less likely to make their loan payments, then being part of a particular musical subculture can unfairly affect your ability to get loans.  And musical taste often does break down along the traditional lines of discrimination -- race, gender, sexuality.

Eli Pariser discussed this issue in his book, The Filter Bubble, which explores a huge variety of the ways in which the massive amount of data companies gather about us is potentially (and often practically) a very bad thing.

Ideally, citizens on the internet need to be empowered to decide how their data is used.  But Croll points out that it's a lot easier to say that's a good thing than to actually make it happen:

The only way to deal with this properly is to somehow link what the data is with how it can be used. I might, for example, say that my musical tastes should be used for song recommendation, but not for banking decisions.

Tying data to permissions can be done through encryption, which is slow, riddled with DRM, burdensome, hard to implement, and bad for innovation. Or it can be done through legislation, which has about as much chance of success as regulating spam: it feels great, but it’s damned hard to enforce.

Croll calls it the civil rights issue of our generation. I think LGBTQ rights still tops it for urgency, and none of the old civil rights problem are really gone, entirely, but he's right that this is a massive issue, and it needs more attention.  Organizations with a lot of power have a bad record for looking out for the rights of the people they have that power over.

Forbes illuminates cultural bias towards Facebook

(via Reddit) Following the Aurora, CO shooting, one of the points that have been raised is that the shooter didn't have a Facebook page. He wasn't on any social network, in fact, except Adult Friend Finder.  Slashdot has pointed out an article that highlights the fact that mass-shooter Anders Breivik was on MySpace, rather than Facebook.

Forbes expands on these arguments, pointing out that not having a Facebook is becoming an acceptable red flag for people across culture:

It’s not just love seekers who worry about what the lack of a Facebook account means. Anecdotally, I’ve heard both job seekers and employers wonder aloud about what it means if a job candidate doesn’t have a Facebook account. Does it mean they deactivated it because it was full of red flags? Are they hiding something?


But it does seem that increasingly, it’s expected that everyone is on Facebook in some capacity, and that a negative assumption is starting to arise about those who reject the Big Blue Giant’s siren call. Continuing to navigate life without having this digital form of identification may be like trying to get into a bar without a driver’s license.

This article hasn't dissuaded me from leaving Facebook, still scheduled for the end of this month.  In fact, it only bolsters my motivation to leave -- we've let one private company take such dramatic control over our social lives that it's transcended being convenient to have an account -- it's become a liability not to.

It's not okay for one private company to have this kind of grip on the social lives of people.  It's becoming more and more clear that the internet and social networks are more like a utility (like water or electricity) than a free-market product (like McDonald's or motorcycles.)

Facebook gets away with massive ethical violations all the time because we let it have that much leverage on our lives.  I strongly urge my readers to leave Facebook, and diversify into other social networks.  Get on Tumblr, Reddit, Google+, Twitter, get your social needs met in a variety of places so that if any one starts trying to control your social life or abuse your trust you can drop out of it without disrupting your social web.

Facebook founder's family member announces via Twitter that she works for Google

(via Ana Ulin on Google+) Randi Zuckerberg, Mark Zuckerberg's sister, tweeted yesterday that she's working for Google now, after the company she works for, Wildfire, was acquired by Google.

Wildfire is an advertising app that helps organize companies' social presence or a more successful, targeted marketing campaign.  My main focus for this story is that the tweet was funny, but I also want to talk about the existence of third-party marketing organizations, especially backed by Google.

Unlike a lot of people on the internet, I don't think advertising is outright evil.  It needs way more ethical oversight than it has now, but there's a gem of value in there.  If you assume the basic goal of advertising is to connect a customer with a product they would benefit from, then advertising is a mutually beneficial relationship.  With more ethical guidance, the better the targeting, the more valuable the ads are to both the advertiser and the consumer.

We're not moving in this direction now, and even if Google wanted to, their obligation to their shareholders would probably prevent them pushing towards more ethics in advertising.  But I think it's a direction worth pursuing -- even more now that there are companies who specialize in organizing ad campaigns, so the advertiser companies can focus on the quality of their product.