11.17.17

Friday links, mid-November edition

Posted in History, Links, السياسة at 5:00 pm by

  • The Biggest Story Nobody’s Talking About: The Recall Of Brian Kemp [Huffington Post, via Jill]

    Our Secretary of State here in Georgia has been terrible—at best incompetent, at worst, criminal—on his watch, state elections data has been hacked twice, and his office has also leaked voter data twice. We’re still using the same voting machines that were introduced after electronic voting was made mandatory, they’re easily hackable, and his office has refused to ask for funds to replace them. Key evidence in a lawsuit to force him to replace the voting infrastructure was wiped 4 days after the lawsuit was filed, and the Attorney General recently announced he was not going to defend the Secretary/the State in the lawsuit.

    The non-partisan A Voice for All Georgia has begun a recall effort; it needs to obtain signatures of nearly 800,000 Georgians who were eligible to vote in 2016 before December 15 in order for the recall to proceed.

  • I, Claudius (TV series) [Wikipedia]

    Noted blogger/software developer Dave Winer recently started a new project to list “bingeworthy” television programs; in a report Wednesday on the early ratings, which included the the classic BBC program, he notes he has never heard of it (it also aired on PBS here in America). I found that a little shocking (we watched parts of it in Latin class in high school, though it was one of the signature public television drama series I was aware of even though I had, until then, never seen it), given the fame and critical acclaim achieved by I, Claudius. One of the interesting tidbits I learned from the Wikipedia article is that the creators of the popular 1980s evening soap opera Dynasty intended their show to be a modern-day version of the series. (And Dynasty itself has now been remade in a more modern version, airing this fall on The CW.)

  • Chinua Achebe’s 87th Birthday [Google]

    On Thursday, Google ran a doodle in honor of what would have been the 87th birthday of famed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, considered the father of modern African literature. His 1958 novel Things Fall Apart is one of the first examinations of colonialism from the point-of-view of the colonized, the people of Africa, and is widely read worldwide. The book portrays, as the title alludes to, how African lives and societies fall apart with the arrival of Christian missionaries and white/European colonial governments. (It is one of the most significant books I read as an undergraduate.)

11.11.17

November 11

Posted in History, Life at 4:37 pm by

Every Veterans Day, I polish the wings of my grandfather, Lt. Norbert R. Porczak, US Army Air Forces, World War II.

⚜︎

World War II Navigator's wings of Lt. Norbert Porczak
World War II Navigator’s wings of Lt. Norbert Porczak

11.10.17

Twitter goes to 280

Posted in History, Software at 6:46 pm by

I am not a Twitter user. I am barely a social media user of any sort. So my main interaction with Twitter is when someone’s blog links to someone else’s tweet because the person doing the blogging thinks the person doing the tweeting has said something useful and important that cannot be found elsewhere. Depressingly, these tweets often take the form of a semi-numbered—or worse, unnumbered—series of approximately-140-character chopped-up thoughts, which Twitter tries to show in a thread but which often are interrupted by replies, discussion, and trolling from other Twitter users. Even worse (at least as far as accessibility and searchability are concerned), sometimes users resort to typing out notes on their iPhones, taking a screenshot of each screen of the note, and then tweeting a collection of screenshot images! (And this is only in English; other languages with longer words—Scandinavian languages are often cited—face even more difficulty with 140 characters.)

A brief history lesson

I am one of those now-old-ish fogies who lived through some of the early-ish days of the web. I lived through web pages that were single images of Arabic text because it was nearly impossible to put Arabic text on the web in a way that both widely compatible and still useful (before browsers widely supported multiple text encodings, before operating systems supported multiple languages and shipped multilingual fonts, and, of course, before Unicode). Often even English text for parts of a site was displayed as an image, sometimes for layout purposes but often to use a specific font (before CSS and web fonts)—I myself have a few relics of this on my own site. Over time, as the web grew and developed, new web technologies addressed these shortcomings and (mostly) banished text-as-image. Today, social media (primarily Twitter, but to a lesser extent Instagram) are the highest-profile remaining holdouts—and as late as last summer, noted blogger/software developer Dave Winer was developing new software to enable more efficient creation of text-as-image for posting to Twitter! From his perspective, it seems, text-as-image is preferable to searchable/translatable chopped-up tweet threads. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that the platform has length problems when smart people think that falling back to one of the most inaccessible parts of the early 1990s web is a good work-around.

Back to the present

Today, for better or for worse, Twitter is a news-delivery mechanism with extensive reach, particularly for individuals. What once would have been a statement released by a publicist, an op-ed submitted to a major newspaper, or, even within the last decade, a post on one’s own blog, is now a tweet made through one’s Twitter account. If someone has something non-trivial to say, however, it’s extremely difficult to do so in a tweet. One must either severely hack up one’s thought to fit in a tweet, losing tone and context indicators; split the thought into multiple tweets, with all the extra effort and care required to do that correctly; or write out a complete thought and post it as an image or set of images, with the extra work again required and the added drawback of the thought no longer being text and thereby not readily accessible/searchable/translatable.

The pushback to Twitter’s increase to 280 characters (which is probably still too few for most of the tweets I’ve followed links to, but at least a step forward) that John Gruber collects and joins feels like the whining of people whose formerly-little-known (“exclusive”) favorite restaurant is suddenly wildly popular and now they have to compete with “newcomers” to get a table. In other words, a loss of privilege of sorts, as well as the inability to see the larger picture—both that this change helps many Twitter users who were overly burdened by the length of words in their languages, and also the fact that Twitter has changed. It’s no longer just a place for people who like the challenge of saying something important in 140 characters and for sharing thoughts among the tech elite, but instead it’s a place—for better of for worse—that people come to say things they want everyone to hear, a news distribution mechanism (Twitter even ran televisions commercials, or at least commercials during online viewing of television programs, to that end during the summer). And most newsworthy things almost always need more than 140 characters to say.

Would I prefer that we went back to sharing our thoughts on our own blogs (or the comment sections of others’ blogs)? Yes, absolutely. But that ship has sailed; unless there are some new technologies currently flying under the radar or invented in the future, blogging is never going to be a true mass-market social media platform like Twitter or Instagram or Facebook (but it’s not going away, either). And, for the moment, Twitter is not going away, so we ought to welcome changes that make it more useful today for what it’s currently being used for (as well as potentially making it a better web citizen by reducing the need for thoughts to be cut up into disjointed threads or posted as a series of text-as-images).

What are they thinking at Facebook?

Posted in Links, Software at 2:38 am by

Michael Tsai posted a link roundup on a new Facebook project designed to stop “revenge porn” on Facebook by asking users to upload their explicit photos to a new Facebook tool before sending them to anyone. With the submitted images, Facebook can create a hash, or digital fingerprint—a small string of characters that uniquely identifies the image contents—of the image and then check newly-uploaded images against the hashes of prohibited images and block those considered to be “revenge porn.” However, Joseph Cox, as quoted by Tsai, reports that before an image submitted to this new Facebook tool can become part of the prohibited photos, a human at Facebook will review the image to make sure the tool is not being abused or used to censor legitimate photos (the example given is the photo of the man in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, “Tank Man”) and so forth.

There are all sorts of problems with this process, from the vague details (the missing information about the human review and about image retention—Facebook doesn’t keep the images, just their hashes) to the need to upload images to Facebook in the first place, to trust and the terribly creepy feel of a giant data-mining tech company soliciting nude images from users. Long-time Mac developer Wil Shipley quickly “solves” most of the problems for Facebook in a tweet:

Facebook could have said: “Here’s a tool for you to create hashes of anything you’re afraid someone might post in revenge. Send us the hashes and if we see matching posts we’ll evaluate their content *then* and take them down if needed.”

It makes me wonder how no one at Facebook involved with or overseeing this project managed to arrive at Wil Shipley’s solution or the like before announcing the project? “All bugs are shallow” and all that, but the problems with Facebook’s new tool seem like they were sitting in less than a teaspoon of water :P

Shipley’s solution of having the tool run locally on the user’s device and send only the hashes to Facebook is a vast improvement on the privacy and trust sides for the person hoping to use the Facebook tool to prevent “revenge porn” attacks on herself or himself, but his solution is still suboptimal where it gets applied to new Facebook image uploads, for at least two reasons. First, when someone sets out to attack a person with “revenge porn” on Facebook, the “revenge porn” image still gets posted on Facebook first, then flagged. Second, a human still has to review (look at) the flagged image to be sure it’s actually “revenge porn” (or similar abusive use of an image rather than the result of someone having spammed the sensitive-image-collection-system for fun or to try to censor legitimate images) before the image is taken down (it’s unclear how fast this happens in Shipley’s mind; perhaps it’s instantaneous, but it still seems like the image is posted, flagged, evaluated, and only then removed after it’s already been visible on Facebook). If the image posted is really “revenge porn,” the end result is that not only will someone at Facebook still see the victim’s private photo, but so will anyone who can see the attacking post/image before it is flagged and/or removed. This part of Shipley’s solution doesn’t help prevent “revenge porn” on Facebook; it just makes it a little faster to take it down.

I’d propose, instead, that the hash-checking is run as part of the upload process whenever someone tries to post an image to Facebook; if the hash is matched, the image is blocked (never posted) and the uploading user is informed that the image he or she is trying to post has been flagged as “revenge porn” or the like (with a reminder about Facebook’s Terms of Service), but also a notice that if the uploader thinks that this is an error, there’s an appeal process, with a button or link to start that process. The effectiveness of this depends on trusting Facebook and on Facebook having a responsive (i.e., quick) appeals process in order not to censor legitimate images,1 but the benefits make it possible for Facebook to achieve its presumably-intended goal of preventing “revenge porn” on Facebook and protecting people from having their private images—at least those submitted to the new tool—viewed by strangers (both inside Facebook the company and on Facebook the social media platform).2 In other words, this modified on-image-upload process defends and protects the victim, moving the onus of proof to the people trying to post the images, while at the same time also warning image uploaders any time they try to post potentially harmful images. I’d like to believe that most people would not attempt the review process for actual “revenge porn” images, and I hope that the review process is not chilling to the posting of legitimate images like the “Tank Man” (I have limited experience with dissent against powerful and controlling authorities, so it is hard for me to judge). It seems like a better balance, at least.

There are still other issues (attackers using the appeals process—thereby allowing a human at Facebook to to see a victim’s private photo, attackers changing the images to defeat the hash, attackers uploading the images elsewhere on the Internet, whether this entire project is a good idea, the relative merits and “safety” of preemptive censorship, etc.) with Shipley’s and my suggested improvements to the process. However, even working within those general limitations and Facebook’s intended goal, it still seems like it has been very easy for “the Internet” to put its heads together and significantly improve Facebook’s current process to better protect the privacy and security of potential victims and their images from problems and concerns that seemed glaringly obvious to outside observers. Which leads me back to the beginning—what are they thinking at Facebook? How did all of those presumably-smart people involved with or signing off on this project and its announcement not notice these privacy and “creep factor” problems and do anything about them (they obviously put some thought into things because they did take abuse—submitting non-“revenge porn” images–into consideration)? Were they not thinking, or did they not care?

        

1 If spamming or censorship attempts really do turn out to be a problem, the tool that creates the hashes can perhaps even run a local machine-learning pass on submitted images and flag images that don’t seem to match unclothed human bodies/body parts and the like as “low-certainty” images, sending and storing that flag with the hash; then, when someone tries to post one of those images and it is blocked and later appealed, Facebook could move that appeal to the top of the appeal queue based on the fact the sensitive-image-collection-system thought the image was less likely to be a real human nude. ↩︎

2 As security expert Bruce Schneier points out in the passage quoted by Tsai, this system won’t prevent “revenge porn” in general or even all “revenge porn” on Facebook, only the posting of specific images on Facebook. ↩︎

11.03.17

Friday links, early November edition

Posted in History, Links at 7:14 pm by

  • Actress Uzo Aduba on her name and identity [Glamour, on Facebook or YouTube]

    Anyone who knows me knows that I am always interested in issues of names and identity (and I’ve even written about the subject before), so when my friend Maya shared the video on Facebook, it was a must-watch. (I don’t like linking in to Facebook if possible, so I tracked down Glamour’s full “International Day of the Girl Rally” video—because this segment is not one the magazine has extracted elsewhere—and told YouTube to start at approximately the correct timestamp.) Aduba’s mother steals the segment with her quote “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, then they can learn to say Uzoamaka”—which is true; anything less is laziness on our part. All it takes is some time, some sounding-it-out, and some practice—and enough respect for our fellow humans to do those things.

  • Cosmic-ray particles reveal secret chamber in Egypt’s Great Pyramid [Nature]

    In a report published in the journal Nature yesterday, scientists reveal they have discovered a new chamber in the Pyramid of Khufu at Giza. This chamber was found by detecting an unexpected variance in the number of muons (a type of subatomic particle) absorbed by equipment in different locations in and around the pyramid—essentially using the cosmos as a giant x-ray machine. Isn’t science awesome! (The article at Time.com, where I originally read about the discovery—which, irritatingly, does not link back to Nature.com—contains a video with scenes shot around the Giza necropolis—it was great so see “live” shots of places I had walked—but the news article on Nature.com is far more detailed and includes illustrations of the location of the new chamber.)

10.27.17

Friday links, late October edition

Posted in Links, السياسة at 5:00 pm by

  • Local vandal caught “red-headed” [WSB Radio]

    There is a pileated woodpecker that lives around here, too; he once spent some time on the screen on my bedroom window, but thankfully he didn’t start attacking it!

  • Lego Announces Women of NASA Legos Set [Fortune]

    Very cool! Way to go, Lego. (I think I still have my late 80s or early 90s era Space Shuttle Lego set down in the basement somewhere, just waiting for Sally Ride and Mae Jemison to take a spin.)

  • Republicans Have Stockholm Syndrome, and It’s Getting Worse [Foreign Policy]

    While there are a few reasonably-high profile Republicans who are publicly “waking up” to what is happening to our democracy (Sens. McCain, Corker, and now Flake), the author argues the rest of the Republican Party is doubling down on accepting—and even asking for!—more abuse from a president who is using them for his own ends.

Also, in case you missed it, I have some (many!) thoughts on last Sunday’s Pittsburgh episode of “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown.”

10.26.17

On “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” in Pittsburgh

Posted in History, Links, السياسة at 12:18 am by

I originally had this piece set to be one item in the weekly “links” post on Friday, but as I continued writing it, the piece took on a life of its own and became far too long for a simple links list—and important enough to live in a post of its own.

Last Sunday, CNN aired Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown visit to Pittsburgh1, which was required viewing at the Ardisson household. As a child of a family whose roots in the Pittsburgh exurbs (today probably considered suburbs) and the city itself run back four generations on one side and generations, even to the dawn of our Republic, on others, who made annual trips back there for many years to visit grandparents and cousins, and who still has family there, but who was born and grew up in the South, a product of rising education among the Baby Boomers and of the Steel City diaspora, the program was both personal and fascinating. Though Pittsburgh (and the surrounding area) is not part of my identity, it nevertheless is part of who I am, so I watched as someone who had some familiarity with the city and its general narrative, yet who is still an outsider to the situation, watching from a distance—not impartial, but also not intimately connected.

Although not universally popular in the ’Burgh, the episode raises a number of important issues that are generalizable to our entire country and, as The University of Pittsburgh’s student newspaper The Pitt News argues, challenges the established narrative. I wish my grandparents—especially my grandfather, in this case—were still alive so I could discuss the episode with them. Still, here are a few of my thoughts:

  1. The episode begins with a local historian mentioning that Pittsburgh was the city that made the steel that defeated the Confederacy, built the railroads west and the skyscrapers up, defeated the Kaiser, and defeated the Nazis—and the episode ends with a couple of people (just a couple among many people in a reasonable-sized crowd) wearing Confederate Battle Flag headscarves and blankets at a demolition derby in New Alexandria (pronounced “New Aleck” in Pittsburghese, by the way), a small town 30 miles east of Pittsburgh and about 15 miles east of where my dad grew up and my grandparents lived nearly their entire lives. This is one of those contradictions that are part of America—and, specifically, white, working-class America—today, the adoption of symbols of racism and hate that their ancestors would have taken up arms to defeat.

  2. Bourdain also obliquely points out the often-racial undertones of mid- and late-twentieth century urban renewal: bulldoze an economically depressed area of a city—often one that is predominantly African-American and with little political clout—displacing the current residents, and build something new, perhaps (as in the Pittsburgh case, with the old Civic Arena hockey stadium) something that brings people from other areas of the city or outside of the city in for a few hours on weekends or evenings. The parts of the neighborhood that were not demolished find themselves fragmented due to population displacement and perhaps cut off from each other or the rest of the city due to the new development, but that new development does not bring real economic revitalization or opportunity to the area, just more traffic and parking lots. Look in any major American city and you will likely see something similar—I don’t know all of the specifics, but I’ve seen some of it in both Washington, DC and Atlanta.

  3. The flip side of that is that revitalization often takes the form of gentrification, where new, more-well-off residents come into a neighborhood and begin buying up homes and storefronts and begin to price the long-time (working-class) residents out of the area. New, trendy restaurants and boutiques replace the former bread-and-butter businesses, and fancy cars from outside the neighborhood begin taking up the neighborhood’s parking spots when their owners come to shop and eat. In Pittsburgh, this process has been facilitated by the boom in high-tech and medical research that has replaced the steel industry as the cornerstone of the region’s economy. Somewhere there is a fine line that produces a balance between revitalizing a neighborhood and gentrifying it, but the program implies that many people in Pittsburgh think that balance has not been achieved.

  4. When I was young, I remember seeing all of the derelict (and probably closed) mills and buildings of J & L (roughly “jay-nell” in Pittsburghese) and other steelmakers along the Parkway (I-376) as we drove through Pittsburgh on our way home. When I came back around the turn of the century for the first time after about a decade away, those old mills had been replaced by gleaming buildings of glass and steel, housing offices and research centers of the new Pittsburgh. The bust from the collapse of the American steel industry was over, and Pittsburgh was experiencing a renaissance—new, well-paying tech and research jobs, new (re)development, and the like. I remember being so thrilled seeing viable economic opportunity in the city again and replacing the derelict buildings of the steel industry (though of course also a little nostalgic for the loss of the Pittsburgh I knew growing up, because, after all, I am me).

    What I had overlooked then, and what Bourdain and several of his interviewees pointed out, however, is that while these new industries brought new tax dollars, new jobs, and better economic conditions to the city—the political entity—the people filling those buildings are largely newcomers. They’re not from Pittsburgh (although certainly many of them have studied at Carnegie Mellon University—by the way, that’s pronounced “Car-neigh-ghee”, not “Car-nuh-ghee”), not the children of the millworkers and mine workers and life-long residents of Pittsburgh. They’re not the (mostly white, but in Pittsburgh certainly African-American, too, according to Bourdain interviewee Sala Udin, whose father dropped out of high school but still found good work that allowed him to support a family of 12(!) children) working-class Americans who saw the loss of their livelihoods with the collapse of the steel industry, endured the bust and stayed in the city and neighboring towns, cheering on the Steelers and Penguins and Pirates through it all, and then saw an economic recovery that had no place for them, or their children, in it. Politically, these long-time residents of Pittsburgh and the surrounding towns made possible by the steel industry would have voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the last election. If you had lived through an economic recovery that had no place for you in it, the jobs in the Hillary Clinton/Democratic Party platform would seem like more of the same, jobs for outsiders from wealthier, urbane coastal cities, and no help—or hope—for you.

  5. I agree with the criticism offered by many Pittsburghers that Bourdain did give short shrift to the economic recovery in technology and related fields, and I think that by almost glossing over that accomplishment, it weakens the critiques (implied or otherwise) of that recovery (e.g., gentrification and the lack of opportunity for the working-class Pittsburghers that did not leave during or after the steel bust—see particularly the penultimate segment on Braddock) that encompassed the majority of the episode. But it is food for thought for those of us thinking about the future of our country (and especially the so-called “urban liberal elites”)—we must have a real plan to address the plight of our working-class neighbors and friends; promising more new jobs in technology and research isn’t a viable solution (certainly not in the short and intermediate term), even if those jobs can be made to appear.

    This backbone of society, the men and women who made the steel that built America and saved the free world, can’t just drop into those jobs. In the Ardisson family, it took four generations to get a college degree and make the move: from the mine (and farm), to the factory (and later a family business), to the military and civil service, to, finally, a college degree and a middle-class office job at the dawn of the computerization of the field. I’m sure it is possible to accelerate that timeline in the twenty-first century, but there is still a generation or two that needs opportunity now, and workable ideas aimed at providing that opportunity seem few and far between (and not at all guaranteed, as seen by the failure of Braddock mayor John Fetterman and Steelers great Franco Harris to obtain the medical marijuana cultivation permit they hoped to use to provide jobs in Braddock). I don’t have the answers (and neither does Bourdain), but it is critical that we have good, compassionate minds working on this problem2 so that we can move our country forward again.

If you care about this country and its future—even if you have no interest in Pittsburgh itself—I urge you to check your CNN listings and catch the episode whenever it airs again. It’s solid and thought-provoking, even with its flaws, and important for understanding today’s America and for figuring out a path forward.

        

1 Having never seen an episode of the program before, I had no idea what to expect and have no idea whether this episode was typical or not. I only knew of Bourdain as one of the “celebrity chefs,” but food, while present, was a background element. ↩︎

2 Coincidentally, on Wednesday morning I got an email from the Obama Foundation about one of the “speakers” at the Foundation’s upcoming summit: Paul Green from eastern Kentucky, whose son wanted to learn to program but had no educational resources available to him. So Green created a program to provide advanced STEM educational opportunities for his area of Appalachia. Programs like his won’t be a silver bullet and solve all of the problems of economic opportunity for working-class Americans, but they are a step in the right direction towards that goal, at the very least providing new outlets for the young, rising generations. ↩︎

10.25.17

Writing, writing, writing

Posted in Life at 2:25 am by

I worked on three separate posts on Tuesday evening (two full posts and a weekly links post). I hope to have them all up by the end of the week—cross your fingers. It feels good to get my brain working constructively on prose I can actually finish every once-in-a-while! :-) (My “Drafts” is an enormous, sad graveyard of ideas I never was able to bring to fruition or completion. :-( )

10.13.17

Friday links, mid-October edition

Posted in History, Links, السياسة at 5:09 pm by

Once again, just link singular.

  • “On Being White….And Other Lies” (1984) by James Baldwin

    My friend Michael posted this on Facebook earlier this week, and it’s the only thing I’ve read all week that is still bouncing around inside my head. In part that’s because Baldwin briefly touches on the Middle East (with which there are many parallels that scholars in the field are quick to see), but mainly because he offers a compelling argument that what we over a dozen or so generations have constructed is not an American society or identity, but a white one. Sitting here in 2017, in some ways it seems superficially, culturally, less true, but certainly politically and socially more true than in 1984. I wish I would have read this in AP US History, or in American Literature, in high school; it is a mind-opening perspective that was sorely lacking.

10.12.17

New “Writings” section on al-Qāhira fī Amrīkā

Posted in History, Life at 9:00 am by

For the first time in more than a decade and a half, there is a new page—a new section, even!—on the website: الكتابة (“Writings”), which attempts to collect many of the things I have written over the years in one place. Some were, once-upon-a-time, found at various locations on the Internet but have long since gone missing; others are making their web debut (even though, in some cases, their HTML files were generated years ago!).

It’s also the first (non-testcase) page I’ve written from scratch since CSS became a useable web standard :o The styles employed aren’t fancy, but they’re there, and they’ve been designed so that one day, if I ever get around to it, I can CSSify the entire al-Qāhira fī Amrīkā website.

I have no delusions, though, that any of my planned “remodeling” work on the site will happen any time soon; for now, al-Qāhira fī Amrīkā remains a living, breathing, decaying example of mid-to-late 1990s web design, of more (dubious) historical value than anything else.

But, for the first time in ages, there is something new there, and I’m happy about it—and especially happy to finally start collecting scattered writings and making them available for reading once again.