Apr 11, 2014
He had been very casual about the whole thing. She said she knew a guy just over the river in Allston who sold high-resin dope in moderate bulk, and he’d yawned and said well, maybe, well, hey, why not, sure, special occasion, I haven’t bought any in I don’t know how long. […] This arrangement, very casual, made him anxious, so he’d been even more casual and said sure, fine, whatever. Thinking back, he was sure he’d said “whatever”, which in retrospect worried him because it might have sounded as if he didn’t care at all, not at all, so little that it wouldn’t matter if she forgot to get it or call, and once he’d made the decision to have marijuana in his home one more time it mattered a lot. It mattered a lot. […] Once he’d been set off inside, it mattered so much that he was somehow afraid to show how much it mattered.
David Foster Wallace, “Infinite Jest”
Apr 8, 2014
Adding to the ambiguity, “open government” might just be a euphemism for “small government.” After all, its rhetoric is continuous with some ideas of an older administrative philosophy of new public management, one popular during the Margaret Thatcher era, that argued for maximizing the efficiency of public institutions by turning them into consumer-oriented for-profit entities while outsourcing supervisory, quality-checking, and auditing functions to third parties, of which citizens are now just one emerging part. When everything can be run like Wikipedia, why bother with big government? It’s far better to rely on Cameron’s “big society,” starve the public sector, and expect that the “armchair auditors” will be as effective as the Leveson Inquiry.
Evgeny Morozov, “To Save Everything, Click Here”
Apr 3, 2014


we found that this feature in your smoke alarm causes a potential life-safety issue

within the next 24 hours we will silently patch this functionality out

do not ask why we thought it was good to release, or what this means for the other functionality of this same expensive product you bought

do not ask why we can silently modify your smoke alarm, a device you rely upon to save your life

everything will be okay

Apr 2, 2014

emoji: a cautionary tale

in the beginning, a Japanese cell phone carrier added proprietary extensions to Shift-JIS as a competitive selling point for their cell phone service.  seeing the value in these emoji, that carrier’s competitors added support for them.

"let’s standardize emoji, so everyone can enjoy them!", said the Unicode Consortium, and only three years of implementation later, it became a specification.

except the major Western vendor that took the lead in implementing emoji accidentally encoded a lot of assumptions about whiteness-as-default into their pictographs, and because of those assumptions, the entire standards body is probably going to have to add even more of them.  

and emoji support has been broken for 3.5 years in the web browser of record, so web sites have to spend a bunch of dev time implementing emoji individually.

but other than that, it worked out great.

Mar 28, 2014
Technology companies have long understood that our Enlightenment-era pro-information bias works in their favor. This is one reason they are perceived as doing something far nobler than the rest of corporate America; unlike ExxonMobile or McDonald’s, Google is in the enlightenment business—and that in itself entitles it to different treatment. Google knows this too—hence its mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” This mission betrays no awareness that perhaps some information, even if it’s in the public domain already, shouldn’t be organized or “made useful.” Questions of ethics—of whether it’s right or wrong to organize information and increase its usefulness—are never posed. […] The quest to organize the world’s knowledge cannot proceed without doing at least some violence to the knowledge it seeks to organize; making knowledge “legible,” to borrow James Scott’s phrase, is tricky regardless of whether a totalitarian government or a Silicon Valley start-up does it.
Evgeny Morozov, “To Save Everything, Click Here”
Mar 27, 2014
Rare is a reader of technology blogs or an attendee of technology conferences who has not heard the admonition that some dark, evil force—Hollywood, the National Security Agency, China, Apple—is about to “break the Internet.” Technologists and geeks—the group that spends the greatest amount of time philosophizing about “the Internet” and its future—constantly remind us that “the
Internet” is unstable and might fall apart. Save for the occasional proclamation that the world will stay as it is minus all the fun and convenience, no one seems to know what awaits us once “the Internet” does break. But break it will—unless some drastic change is taken to maintain its current state. Hence the greatest irony of all: one day we are told that “the Internet” is here to stay, and we should reshape our institutions to match its demands; another day, we are told that it’s so fragile that almost anyone or anything could deal it a lethal blow.
Evgeny Morozov, “To Save Everything, Click Here”
Mar 27, 2014
[T]he fact that Kickstarter offers a more efficient platform for some projects to raise more money more effectively—bypassing the bureaucrats and increasing participation—does not mean it will yield better, more innovative art or support art that, in our age of cat videos, might seem old-fashioned and unnecessary. Sites like Kickstarter tend to favor populist projects, which may or may not be good for the arts overall. […] Besides, it’s not at all obvious whether this new system will promote fairness and justice. Contrary to what most Internet cheerleaders think, virality is hardly ever self-generated and self-sustaining. Memes are born free, but everywhere they are in chains—those of PR agencies and freelancing solo artists.
Evgeny Morozov, “To Save Everything, Click Here”
Feb 9, 2014

the sharing economy, defined

democratize (v.): pretend that you’re going to remove traditional gatekeepers and allow sellers to interact directly with buyers; in reality, interpose yourself in every transaction instead of a patchwork of smaller businesses, take a cut off the top, and disclaim any responsibility for when things go wrong because after all it’s just a network of sellers and buyers, we can’t do anything about it!

Feb 4, 2014

a koan about computers and bad decisions

to install software on some kinds of Linux, you use a program called “apt”.  for largely unimportant reasons, to search for a piece of software, you type apt-cache search, then some piece of text in that software’s name or description.

there’s a program called “g++”.  it’s a program that turns C++ code into something your computer can run.  say you want to look for it in apt.  a reasonably cool, hip, with-it person would type:

apt-cache search g++

that reasonably hip person would immediately be overwhelmed with a list of irrelevant results.  apt-cache search interprets “g++” as a regular expression, basically a recipe for building text. “g++” is a recipe that means “the letter g, one or more times,” and since very, very many things contain the letter g, you see every piece of software under the sun.

there’s a pattern in nerdy computer systems going back thirty or forty years that, when a computer interprets your text in “too smart” of a way, you can put a backslash (\) before it to make it think less.

a reasonably hip person with that cultural context would then type:

apt-cache search g\+\+

to try and be more explicit to the computer what they wanted to do. unfortunately, there’s a piece of software called a “shell” in between them and apt-cache search, which eats those backslashes itself.  and so, this does nothing to solve the reasonably hip person’s predicament.

at this point, a reasonably hip person would sigh and tell the shell to ignore the backslashes as well, by typing:

apt-cache search g\\+\\+

at which point the computer would do what they intended it to.

neither the person who named g++ “g++”, nor the person who decided apt-cache search should accept regular expressions, nor the person who decided the shell should ignore backslashes before non-escape characters, made bad decisions.

but all of them made a bad decision together.

Feb 3, 2014

table 1: Amazon self-publishing romance subgenre

roll (1d6+1)d10 on the following table to generate your own romance novel subgenre:

1: BBW

2: teenage

3: paranormal

4: shape shifter

5: vampire

6: pirate

7: zombie

8: historical

9: billionaire

10: werewolf

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