Today’s jumbo-sized links edition is brought to you by Nero fiddling while Rome burned…
- In the Bones of a Buried Child, Signs of a Massive Human Migration to the Americas [New York Times]
The year I was his TA, Dr Voll taught African History, and he began the class with a unit on the role of Africa in human origins and the different theories of migration of populations. I haven’t kept up with the state of the field, but whenever an article like this about a discovery does cross my path, I always find it fascinating.
- #WWDTogether_Immigration [Women Who Draw, via Jean MacDonald on Micro.blog]
You could tell me immigrant/immigration stories until the end of the world and I still would not be bored. I love the art and stories these women created for this theme.
- Farooq Butt on the fragility of civilization [Twitter, via Dave Winer]
Two separate points about this tweet-thread. First, he’s absolutely correct. Also, although in the European Dark Ages a good chunk of Greek and Roman knowledge was preserved in the Islamic world, the world was much less connected then. In today’s world, the collapse of civilization is likely to be global, with fewer chances of refuge, and for less information.
Second, this is absolutely the kind of thing that needs to be its own blog post. It’s an important argument about an important subject worthy of a real “home” on the Internet. The presentation at Twitter is awful and clunky for this purpose; eight separate tweets (and two images, which could have been linked to their sources on a real blog). For “posterity”, in case Twitter ever changes its display UI or algorithm: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. And instead of reasonable discussion or Q&A, the bulk of the replies shown by Twitter are trolls; on a blog, one could block trolls and delete their comments and keep the discussion from getting lost in the weeds.
- Digital Resource Lifespan [xkcd, via Jack Baty on Micro.blog]
I saw this shortly after I saw the tweet-thread above, which just serves to drive the point home. Civilization and knowledge are fragile and need to be defended constantly.
- Explore The Largest Early Map Of The World [Co.Design, via arzoriac on Micro.blog]
I love a good map story. “Fun” fact: the author of the article is Jesus Diaz, who is one of the people involved in Gizmodo’s reporting on the stolen iPhone 4 prototype it purchased.
- Hey Oregon! Pumping gas is not that scary! [GasBuddy]
Change is scary.
Hopefully the good people of Oregon will adapt to this bit of change without too much disruption.
Well, link singular once again.
- “What colonialism does is cause an identity crisis about one’s own culture.” —Lupita Nyong’o [Vogue]
I don’t know that I have ever seen such a succinct, powerful summation of the effects of colonialism (and thus Western modernity) on indigenous cultures.
There is a brief but interesting and important section of the interview fairly early on where, in the context of discussing the Black Panther movie, Ms Nyong’o talks about Africa, colonialism, and modernity. I wish they had spent more time on the subject.
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
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. ↩︎
- 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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ↩︎
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.