Twitter should ban Donald Trump

I live about a mile north of the Capitol in Washington, DC. My wife’s workplace is a few hundred yards from the White House. Our seven month old daughter’s daycare is a few hundred yards past that. I wouldn’t say I was ever in favor of goading a foreign power into launching a nuclear attack on DC. But these facts have made me downright humorless about it.

Sometimes I talk about this danger with friends. I think we all have the same dream of vaporization, borrowed from movies and cartoons. A rising sun, growing brightness, and then disintegration, oblivion. Maybe even catharsis. Not so bad. But that’s just the movies:

Many hibakusha say that straight after the bomb, people tried to get away in the oppositedirection from where the bomb had exploded (the hypocenter); people near Hiroshima Station escaped to the east or to the north, those near Yokogawa Station to the north, those around Hijiyama Hill to the south or to the east. There were, of course, some people who were going against the flow because of their families or jobs.

There were still other people who were coming into Hiroshima from the surrounding communities to help with the rescue work. The Army Marine Transport stationed near Hiroshima Port at Ujina dispatched soldiers from its unit called the “Akatsuki Corps” to the city center to be engaged in the rescue effort.

They saw hideously disfigured corpses which could not be identified; schoolgirls who were desperate for water jumping into the river; people walking about like zombies, with burned and peeled-off skin hanging from their bodies; a boy trying to save his groaning mother who was trapped under fallen walls. Fire was approaching. A man was beating his dying daughter hard with a piece of wooden board, saying, “Your pain will be over soon.” It was hell all around.

Flames and screams filled the city, where refugees and rescue teams were going to and fro. Hanging over them was another evil of the atomic bomb: residual radiation.

Of course a contemporary bomb would be much larger. Maybe there would be less pain. I can’t really understand what the father in the passage above did–though I suppose he knew some things that I don’t, and desperately hope never to learn. It’s hard to even picture: when I think about this I don’t imagine being close enough to face this catastrophe with my family–surely it would all happen too fast. But I can imagine my daughter under the rubble of her daycare, crying for her mama, and me, and milk, until she can’t anymore. I can see that very clearly.

The President has brought this vision closer to reality, and he’s done it with his Twitter account. I don’t think many intelligent people deny this.

So why does Twitter fail to ban or censor him? To do whatever small thing they can to make this future less likely? In my high school’s debate club, nuclear war was the cataclysm used to justify all manner of implausibly connected policies. Debate is pretty silly: it rewards you for twisting arguments to end in any consequence you choose. We picked nuclear war because we couldn’t imagine a more compelling justification for a decision. Why does Twitter not act?

There have been some essays written about this, both by former Twitter personnel and by outsiders. Twitter has also released a statement. These contain a number of arguments against censoring the President.

All of these pieces contain an argument about the newsworthiness of the President’s tweets. The idea that notoriety constitutes an ethical justification is so childish–literally childish, they teach kids not to do it–that I don’t intend to waste any time discussing it.

But there are other rationales in these accounts which are more interesting.

Principle
Applying inconsistent standards to the world’s most famous Twitter user could prompt others to question the reliability of the service as a platform for expression. This makes sense in the abstract, but not in practice. Twitter is already well-known for applying its rules inconsistently and for revising them frequently.

When I was at the Sunlight Foundation, we adopted a project called Politwoops, which was originally created by a clever fellow named Breyten Ernsting. He brought it to us because he thought our profile might afford it some protection: Politwoops was clearly not allowed by the Twitter terms of service, and he was worried about being shut down.

When a tweet is deleted, a signal is sent through the Twitter service. It’s just like a normal tweet, but invisible. Twitter clients must receive and act upon this signal, deleting the indicated tweets. If they do not, Twitter turns off the credentials that the clients must use to access the service and bans the developers from getting new ones. Breyten had escaped Twitter’s attention so far, but he knew his luck would eventually run out.

We turned on the site, issued a press release, and soon received a call from Twitter’s lawyers. They understood our argument–which, ha, was about newsworthiness. (In our defense, none of the tweets we tracked seemed likely to start a nuclear war.) But yes, we said that tweets from public officials were public statements and the public deserved to have them preserved in the way that other records would be. Twitter’s lawyers wouldn’t say so but they clearly thought our project was sort of neat and didn’t want the bad press that shutting down a government transparency effort would attract. But they weren’t going to rewrite their terms for us. Eventually they seized upon a line in the terms about automation that was related to the thing we were doing that we weren’t supposed to do. “What if we made poor Nicko review the tweets manually each day? It wouldn’t be automated!” This, their lawyers said, might be acceptable. They would get back to us. Then they stopped responding to our emails and calls. True to their almost-extant word, we were never sued.

Anyway don’t believe them if they say they have to follow their own rules. They don’t.

Avarice
Say what you will about courting nuclear apocalypse, but it’s compelling content. Perhaps a small chance of ending human civilization looks okay when weighed against a slightly less-small chance of hitting Wall Street’s growth expectations. I don’t believe this one either, though. It’s too monstrous and the plausible upside too limited. Twitter obliquely disclaims this explanation when they say that “No one person’s account drives Twitter’s growth, or influences these decisions,” and I believe them.

Impotence
Of all the excuses in the articles linked above, the most persistent and galling is the idea that moderating the President’s tweeting would just send the messages and their effects elsewhere–that it “would also not silence that leader.” This only makes sense if you believe that the facts of Twitter’s medium have no influence on the messages it contains. But I don’t believe that, and Twitter certainly doesn’t. Go read any of their press materials. Go read their hand-wringing about the change to 280 characters and how they measured its effects on the messages people share. Twitter’s immediacy, its intimacy, its charm and depravity and childishness: so much flows from its brevity. Remove the network effects and that’s all there is left. It’s so simple. It used to even be beautiful.

The President’s statements are shaped by the medium he is using. If he did not have Twitter, he would still say unwise things–the man is clearly unfit for office by temperament, and suffering from some sort of progressive impairment as well. But without Twitter we and he would at least be spared his reflexive expressions, the dangerous wildness that springs from his fraying mind when nothing is around to distract, soothe or contain him. His insults would be revised, his outbursts delayed by more than just geriatric facility with a smartphone. It would be different and safer.

Fear
Twitter is run by sophisticated people. They probably understand social media better than the rest of us do. So I suspect they know that banning the President would assign them an indelible ideological code in our ceaseless tribal sorting. I think this is what they are desperate to avoid. This is why they don’t ban the President.

Quick: was the last pizza you ordered made by Democrats or Republicans? What about the last YouTube channel you watched? How about your coffee machine? No more fraternizing with the enemy: teammates and neutral parties only. Everyone knows that social media platforms are made by Democrats, but they aren’t necessarily for Democrats. Banning Trump would change this instantly. Twitter would be for the Blue Team, its repudiation a primetime pass-time for the Red. This would let us all have a lot of fun being angry, but it’s hard to imagine it being good for business. In fact it could be very, very bad. Twitter is a company that aspires to a level of ubiquity so complete that it thinks it should be streaming NFL games, for heaven’s sake. Writing broadcast license-sized checks to the NFL is surely a powerful remedy for indifference to Republicans’ feelings.

Matthew Ingram’s piece in CJR gestures at this dimension of Twitter’s calculus. He views it as a win for the alt-right, but it’s more important to understand it as a loss for Twitter. I think this is probably the reason for Twitter’s reticence, but even if one were to admit corporate self-preservation as an acceptable reason for failing to stop a war–an idea as morally obscene as it is plausible–it’s a bad decision. President Trump is unpopular, and his tweeting is very unpopular, even among his supporters. The number of Americans who would be genuinely upset by Twitter banning him would be small. Admittedly, the number who would enjoy pretending to be upset about it would plausibly be immense. But at some point you have to turn off cable news and hope that the distinction between the two still means something.

Besides, Twitter is already being inexorably forced toward its inevitable tribal affiliation. Users are not going to stop pointing out the indefensibility of its accommodation of white supremacists. Its heel-dragging reticence when asked to apply its stated standards accomplishes nothing. Pathetic imitators are springing up, unimportant as rivals but proof that the right is not soothed by the slow pace of enforcement. For everyone else, the presence of hate groups has become widely-known and infuriating. What are they hoping to achieve by delay? Some sort of deus ex machina, I suppose. An exogenous event that shifts the discourse. Nuclear detonations might fit the bill, but it’s hard to imagine what else could.

Here’s what is all but certain: there are people within Twitter who feel action should be taken and there are people who disagree. One side is winning. Both are archiving the other’s emails about this fight. And the balance can shift.

(Releasing those emails could shift the balance. Someone should do that.)

Twitter leadership should accept the fate before them. Donald Trump was great for you until he wasn’t. You know, you’re right: everything probably will be fine. But it might not. If it isn’t, history will eventually see those emails, and it will surely never forgive you. Your grandchildren will have to pick new names. Your company will be remembered as a sickness. There won’t just be blood on your hands, it will pour off you in sheets. Murky footsteps will trail you and crowds will part in disgust, clots falling from your lips as they form excuses and explanations. It will go like that until you die, which is when the people camped outside your house will finally erupt in cheers.

None of that is what you signed up for! Remember @dog_rates? Wasn’t that fun?

C’mon. It’s going to be an unpleasant couple of board meetings, I admit. But you’ve had those before. You’re still going to be quite rich, you know. You’ll probably get invited to some rather nice panels and dinner parties about this, too. It’s a shame, not to get to show the world what you could have done for NFL television delivery, if only you’d had the chance. But you’ll still get to raise your family, and maybe so will I.

spiraling inward

Sam Altman’s post about Silicon Valley orthodoxy has everyone on Twitter pretty upset, and understandably so. It’s a mess. Altman’s not brave enough to defy the orthodoxy he feels stifled by, and instead offers a straw man too ridiculous to take seriously. The idea that anti-gay sentiment must be tolerated if we want to accommodate genius is ludicrous; it’s hard to even know what to do with it.I suppose I should admit that just last weekend I listened to an Apollo astronaut admiringly reflect on how no one could build a rocket engine quite like Wernher von Braun. Still. It takes tremendous self-flattery to imagine that the tech industry is built on minds so rare. I don’t think I’m being unfair in supposing that Altman is probably mostly sore about the treatment his friend Pete has received.

Still, Altman’s discomfort puts me in mind of my own looming dinosaur status (38 next year!). It’s only happenstance that on the same day I read Altman’s blog I read this piece by Dayna Tortorici in n+1. And while they’re talking about different sets of mores, I think it goes a long way to explaining how and why Altman feels the way he does:

The way they had learned to live in the world — to write novels, to make art, to teach, to argue about ideas, to conduct themselves in sexual and romantic relationships — no longer fit the time in which they were living. Especially the men. Their novels, art, teaching methods, ideas, and relationship paradigms were all being condemned as unenlightened or violent. Many of these condemnations issued from social media, where they multiplied and took on the character of a mounting threat: a mob at the gate. But repudiations of the old ways were also turning up in outlets that mattered to them: in reviews, on teaching evaluations, on hiring committees. Authors and artists whose work was celebrated as “thoughtful” or “political” not eight years ago were now being singled out as chauvinists and bigots. One might expect this in old age, but to be cast out as a political dinosaur by 52, by 40, by 36? They hadn’t even peaked! And with the political right — the actual right — getting away with murder, theft, and exploitation worldwide . . . ? That, at least, was how I gathered they felt. Sometimes I thought they were right. Sometimes I thought they needed to grow up.

This was the deal, right? The culture would move, and you’d slow down relative to it, and eventually you’d be a monster. But not right away. That was supposed to happen around retirement. Things seem to have accelerated. I think this is the root of Altman’s complaint.

What’s interesting to me is the possibility that thins acceleration has been nonuniform, like the gas of a spiraling stellar accretion disc, reaching a screaming white-hot intensity at its center even as its outer edges barely drift. In rural communities we are still working to end the persecution of gay people; in the city we’ve moved on to ending gender. I pick these examples not to signal my sympathy for either but merely to illustrate their distance from one another. I had assumed that although the system’s state was spatially gradient, its velocity was a constant. I now think this is obviously wrong. And differential acceleration means that things grow ever further apart.

It’s easy enough to shrug off whichever part of this picture you dislike. For example, critics reasonably dismiss instances of illiberalism on college campuses by pointing to more prosaic (and urgent) political struggles elsewhere. But these are simply different parts of the disc. The larger question of differential ideological acceleration remains ignored. Presumably it must all be reconciled into a culture, more or less, some day or another, through means disappointing or violent.

Maybe this is how it always was, just another sad minor revelation of age, like culture seeming to become boringly nostalgia-soaked when the seemingly sophisticated references to works that predate you grow rare. But people can self-sort and communicate more efficiently than ever, and that means they can jockey for position within their ideological projects more furiously than before. Spiraling inward, the heat and pressure growing.

juicero and why you can’t just buy things anymore

The Juicero debacle is paying dividends besides simple amusement. This teardown of the (impressively overengineered) Juicero press is interesting and sort of beautiful, and it led me to other writing by Ben Einstein, who works at a hardware-focused venture capital firm named Bolt.

It’s interesting stuff, And while the following isn’t shocking to people who pay attention to startups, it is consonant with the fretting mood I’m occasionally in about excess efficiency. Consider his explanation of why hardware is unattractive for investors. From this post:

Consumer hardware startups need to understand that commoditization of their hardware is not a possibility, it is an inevitability.

As copycats are born, margin structures get compressed and customer acquisition costs increase. Few things protect against this besides a strong brand and retail/channel dominance. […]

At the time, the idea of a wearable fitness tracker was pretty new and it was obvious the concept was good. Each year as Fitbit gained popularity, the number of direct competitors at CES grew rapidly. In 2013, I probably talked to 8 or 10 copycats. By 2014, there had to have been over 100 and in 2015 the number was impossible to count. Every random Chinese company seemed to have an accelerometer on a wristband with a bluetooth app.

Despite hundreds of companies with nearly identical fitness tracker hardware, Fitbit was able to master brand, recurring customer engagement, and retail strategy.

And this one, on the kinds of business models that Bolt likes to fund:

Plenty of companies have built big businesses by selling hardware at a 30% gross margin. Why can’t you just run a Kickstarter and sell a ton of units through Best Buy when to scale up? You can, you’re just entering into a game of diminishing returns with an extremely slim chance of winning in the long-run.

Recurring revenue matters because it fundamentally changes your business. There are good reasons investors are averse to hardware but love software. One of the leading reasons revolves around future revenue. Investors pay huge premiums to own stock in companies betting on the likelihood that future revenue will be drastically larger than current revenue. If you’re in a traditional hardware business, future revenue is confined to cyclic product sales. This roughly means you get one shot at revenue with each customer per product development cycle: each sale must be painfully acquired by building a new product every 18 months or so. […]

This is where the brilliance of the Keurig model shines. The initial sale of a $120 Keurig brewer isn’t that difficult or costly. Keurig doesn’t spend a lot on marketing or advertising and the product isn’t complex to manufacture or service. In my rough estimation, the BOM for a brewer is around $40, giving Keurig about a 25% gross margin on the product. Time from PO to FOB is likely less than 2 months, yet high-margin K-cup sales start immediately and continue for years. Keurig spends less than $0.015 on each K-cup and charges 100% more per unit than bagged, ground coffee. Yet few people complain about this cost.

This is resonant; I was just complaining about Eye-fi moving to a subscription model, after all. Competition in this market has increased to the point where traditional business models aren’t viable — excepting efforts by highly motivated folks who will eventually wish they’d known better.

You can still be successful in investor-backed hardware ventures, but the models seem to have become more complicated:

  • You can achieve a level of sophistication and vertical integration that makes profitable competition against you impossible. This grows more difficult by the year, though. Companies like Apple can design their own silicon or purchase market-shifting quantities of aluminum-milling robots, but this is not a viable strategy for most.
  • You can “dominate the retail channel” which I take to mean some combination of anticompetitive practices and managing consumer perception — here’s the Bolt blog approvingly discussing the success of Beats headphones:

    I estimate that the COGS without labor or shipping is $16.89 – yet Beats is able to successfully retail these headphones for $199+. This is the power of brand; Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine have leveraged their personal backgrounds and a sleek design to launch a remarkable brand that’s become fundamental to music pop culture.

    There’s nothing wrong with selling people a brand experience, except insofar as the creation of those experiences can be done more or less cheaply, freeing resources for stuff that has to cost money.

  • Or you can create a business with recurring revenue by ensuring your product’s usefulness is tied to ongoing payments, like the Keurig.

I think most of us amateur observers are used to thinking about globalization in terms of its impact on labor and consumer prices — not its affect on how we relate to products or the business models that shape those relationships. As we collectively revisit the antiprotectionist consensus of the last few decades, it’s interesting to consider the other impacts that increased international economic friction could have. I am no expert, and I wouldn’t dare guess whether such measures could boost manufacturing employment. But it’s fascinating to consider how a moderate level of protectionism could — paradoxically — reinvigorate business models with a simpler, more transactional and less predatory relationship to customers.

Neuralink is horrifying

This is the craziest thing I’ve read in a while. I may be missing context, but it seems that Elon Musk’s various ventures have settled on giving important product announcements and exclusive access to a cartoon science blogger named Tim Urban (Randall Munroe was presumably too expensive or inquisitive). Over many, many words, Urban explains the idea behind Musk’s newest astoundingly ambitious venture: Neuralink, which aims to accelerate the development of direct brain-to-machine interfaces.

It’s impossible to know the extent to which Urban’s account actually reflects Neuralink’s plans. It’s built on the kind of homunculus-riddled explanations of cognition that one is warned against repeatedly, even in the undergrad classes that make up the entirety of my education on these questions. But from Neuralink’s perspective this might be a feature, not a bug: Urban can’t have gotten it quite right, so everything is deniable.

To the extent that it is accurate, the essay itself perfectly recapitulates Neuralink’s strategy: just as the reader must slog through tens of thousands of unobjectionable words before reaching the punchline, Neuralink’s real aims are buried beneath a bunch of shorter-term medical goals that are unquestionably admirable. Sensory prostheses, cures for paralysis–only a monster would object to these. But that’s not all they want to do. Ultimately, they want to connect human minds seamlessly to digital communication technologies. Memory and computation would be partially offloaded to computers. Nonverbal forms of interpersonal communication might be possible. Collective forms of cognition could arise.

Given the power of network effects and the pathetically small incidence of technological abstinence in our society (picture a Western teenager without a smartphone) is it plausible that such a change could really be called optional? Can there be any doubt that this would transfigure humanity into something unrecognizable? Can there be any argument that this would constitute the end of our species’ current intellectual and cultural history?

And who gets to make this decision, anyway? An overextended Silicon Valley weirdo? His board of venture capitalists? I spent years of my professional life working to transform American political institutions on behalf of a billionaire philanthropist who was so-empowered because he happened to write some early auction software. All I can say in defense of this decisionmaking system is that we were not all that effective.

A good response to this is that there has never been a deliberative process for these sorts of things: humanity blunders into new technologies and always will. The best you can hope for is some queasy retrospective essays about the Manhattan Project. I don’t have an alternative to suggest, but I find this insufficient. My sense is that we were enormously lucky that nuclear weapons happened to be developed in cultural and social systems that turned out to have brinksmanship as their equilibrium state (so far, anyway). Our species has occasionally invented societies that do not work that way.

But back to the matter at hand. Naturally, the justification offered for destroying humanity is that this is the only way to save it: Musk says he’s worried that we’re about to invent vengeful superpowered AI, and that a hivemind superconsciousness is the only path to protecting ourselves. It’s hard not to notice that this theory contains a number of things that are optional, unlikely or could simply not work.

Personally, I think a more parsimonious explanation is that Musk suffers from a psychosis by which he finds various science fiction-y ideas utterly irresistible and is compelled to do everything in his power to realize them. I say this with both horror and admiration: if even one of his various non-Hyperloop projects works out, he will have made himself into a figure of world-historical significance. Even if I had the talent to do these sorts of things (obviously I don’t), I think the wiser and more ethical path is a family, a career, a home, and then historical oblivion. But it’s hard not to marvel at someone who is actually able to live your daydreams.

The crucial difference is that electric cars and solar panels and batteries and rockets and terraforming Mars all seem like good or at least sane ideas. This is not obviously true of Neuralink.

I won’t bore you with obvious arguments about such technologies’ capacity for totalitarian control or simple hacking. Instead I’ll ask: how is the electronic communication project looking, do you think?

Brain-to-brain interaction could easily be a singularity-level development, something with consequences that cannot be anticipated. It could even have Fermi Paradox implications! Reasoning about it might be impossible. But apparently we have to, and so we should probably start by asking what has happened over the last century as we learned to use electricity to make communication instantaneous, then digital, then networked.

I’m not sure whether or how to count world wars against being able to Facetime with your grandkid, so let’s just call that stuff a wash. I find the very recent history of many-to-many, pan-society frictionless communication to be extremely discouraging. Social media makes us less happy, as our evolved impulses for status competition and tribalism are supercharged. At a larger scale, the U.S. media and political ecosystem seems to have been successfully manipulated to a mind-boggling conclusion by a foreign power during our last election, despite the fact that the manipulation was detected as it was in progress. We can quibble about which part of this era of unprecedentedly efficient communication is responsible for our seemingly unstoppable descent into bitter factionalism and individual discontent; whether technologically enabled forms of suffering are new or merely more humane substitutes for older torments; whether the humanitarian benefits still being realized by technological diffusion outweigh the ennui that sets in after its arrival. But I don’t think many would disagree that the hedonic, intellectual, spiritual and institutional returns to a fully networked contemporary lifestyle are looking pretty suspect.

This is a tragedy. You could not find many people more enthusiastic than my younger self about the cathartic deliverance that perfect communication would provide. I ran a BBS as a kid; I built grandiose, essay-filled websites; I was consumed by technology and absolutely convinced that millennia-old liberal ideals about knowledge and deliberation would finally reach their apotheosis now that an age of universal democratic access was dawning. I count the failure of this vision as one of the great disappointments of my life.

In my younger self’s defense: it’s still early days. The jury is out on all of this. Yes, we are responding to social media and institutional decentralization badly, but populations sometimes evolve resistance to new pathogens after an initial wave of devastation. It’s possible we will develop the cultural practices necessary to avoid the helpless emotional and social debasement that currently pervade a fully wired existence.

(On the other hand that lifestyle still only reaches a tiny fraction of very wealthy people. Things will probably get much worse in the short term.)

I have no idea how this will work out in the future, but it seems obvious that blithely accelerating these processes today is unwise. If we do learn how to endure this changed way of living, I will agree it’s a shame that Elon and I will have missed our chance to be a part of its completion. But we all owe each other caution and care on matters this enormous, and maybe this is the cost of that duty. All that history owes us is oblivion. If Elon cannot learn to be content with that, I pity him. But not enough to release him from his responsibility to me.

DIY eye-fi server: docker, flickr, all sorts of good stuff

The Eye-fi is an SD card with an embedded wifi chip. Configure it, put it in your camera and it can wirelessly upload photos without human intervention. It’s a neat gadget, even if I never did manage to get my mother’s working for her.

Alas, Eye-fi’s software accomplishes this feat by running in the background of an always-on desktop computer. Worse, they’ve been steadily eroding their services’ capabilities, stripping away integration with photosharing sites people actually use in favor of their own cloud photo service (don’t worry, the first year is free).

A few intrepid geeks reverse-engineered the early Eye-fi cards, but enthusiasm seems to have diminished as Eye-fi’s services changed and their early-gen cards stopped working. Nevertheless, the techniques they discovered and software they wrote still work… well, they almost worked. There were some rough spots.

I have a baby on the way (did I mention that?) and expect to be generating lots of photos. So I have taken one low-dependency-count open source project and given it a fresh coat of paint. In addition to the satisfaction of knowing you are running slightly more reputable Python, the system is now able to upload your photos to Flickr, if you let it. And it runs in Docker (renamed as of today to Moby, ugh), which should remove many of the idiosyncratic configuration headaches that would otherwise make sharing a project like this a masochistic declaration of one’s intent to provide free tech support, forever.

If any of this sounds useful I hope you’ll give it a look. It has already happily uploaded many debug photos of my coffee table to Flickr from my a household Raspberry Pi. Perhaps it will prove equally helpful to you.

bike hack night

I gave a talk at Bike Hack Night a couple of weeks ago, and have finally managed to put the audio and slides online. It runs about 12 minutes long and describes how I used the ESP8266 wifi microcontroller, ultrasonic rangefinding sensors, a homegrown iOS app and some data analysis to examine how much space cars afford me when passing me as I ride my bike.

It was a fun project! The big takeaway for me was the accessibility of these tools, both in terms of learning the technology and in terms of price. If you assume a smartphone is already handy, total bill of materials doesn’t even hit the $20 mark.

You can find the slides and audio here: https://s3.tomlee.wtf/bike-hack-night/.

I watched some CBS shows and you should probably ignore me

I got horribly sick around 10pm on Thanksgiving night. It wasn’t the food (no one else got sick) but by early afternoon the next day I was in the ER getting IV fluids and a CT scan to ensure my appendix was in one piece. It was! But the rest of the stuff in there remained unhappy and I didn’t eat anything but gatorade and two bananas for the next 48 hours. I’m feeling much better now but the recovery process has involved watching a hell of a lot of TV. Which reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time. Specifically: the cultural salience of the CBS primetime lineup. It’s the key to everything. Bear with me.

CBS’s loud claims to being America’s top network need to be taken with a grain of salt. The numbers are actually pretty close, and the rankings switch around if you start removing sports from the equation. Still, their shows are indisputably popular. And indisputably stupid. Very, very stupid. This is the network that made America’s top comedy a show defined by the catchphrase “Bazinga!” — a detail so on-the-nose that it reads like Pynchon losing a step.

The strategy is boringly obvious: lowest common denominator. Some of this is simple, like cloning successful formulae into new franchise spinoffs or using the hoariest TV tropes (their newest show’s tagline: “he’s not a lawyer — he’s a trial consultant”). Normally this is merely banal and unworthy of notice. But now, in a year when we’ve all learned some horrifying things about what appeals to the masses, I find myself pondering what else they might like.

Identifiability is clearly important to these shows’ success. Leads wear casual clothing and are often unshaven. They are not cerebral except when they are specifically meant to be nerds. Credentials are never mentioned (well, except badges). Not to be unkind, but there are quite a lot of fat people. Some shows seem specifically engineered to have no distinguishing characteristics except a cast as heavy as its audience. For a long time I couldn’t figure out why a formerly cut-up action star like Chris O’Donnell led a top action series behind a doughy torso and loose neckline. Now I think it might be more of a feature than a bug. These are shows for an audience that has let itself go. Or has had to.

It’s also a set of shows expressing personal dynamics so anachronistically conventional that it feels like they must be there specifically for reassurance. The shows are overwhelmingly white, but then it’s not uncommon for television networks to target racially-defined audiences. The treatment of women is sexist — plenty of comments about how sexy everyone is — but always with plausible deniability (it’s mostly villains or rakish one-off characters making the remarks). Slightly more unusual is the frequency with which these series are anchored by a somewhat weatherbeaten white guy who’s generationally separate from the rest of the cast. I take this to be a promise to an aging audience that virility hasn’t left them entirely behind. That they’re still in charge.

But this is so much pointy-headed snobbery. Less important than how the viewers see themselves is how they see the world.

There is a larger military presence on CBS than the other networks combined. So many characters who used to be in the service; not too long ago, so many shows structured around weirdly civilian corners of the armed forces. Arguably this is merely a twist on TV’s love of police departments as a means of structuring four acts and a teaser: martial rather than municipal. Still, pair it with an utterly blase attitude toward and presumption of omnipresent surveillance, and it all starts to feel a little authoritarian and bad.

Finally, while I think the moment has passed, I got started on this line of thought during the burst of forensic investigator shows–CSI, Bones et al. Some of this is just the usual network copycattery. Still, it’s remarkable to see America fall in love with shows obsessed with human remains as religious affiliation (and, presumably, belief in an afterlife) falls off a cliff. CSI debuted in 2000; the correlation with this methodologically questionable index is probably too good to be true. But the broader trend is hard to deny.

I don’t have any grand observations to make about all of this. That’s probably why it’s never made it past the drafts folder before now. Still, it’s striking how different media looks when it’s only courting an audience, only chasing dollars. And winning.

(I should acknowledge that overthinking these shows is not an idea that’s wholly mine. Years ago my friend Matt tried to pitch a TV recap series about the top (dumb) broadcast shows at work, as a fun differentiator from the overwhelming mass of prestige cable recaps. Alas, I understand it went nowhere. I was already noodling on some crackpot theories about the above but his argument made me resolve to write them down… someday. It’s worth mentioning that CBS shows’ dialogue and the marketing specifically recapitulates his thesis about the family unit’s renewed primacy in entertainment.)

AirBnB

Steph and I have been AirBnBing our guest bedroom for about a year and a half now, and it’s been mostly great. It’s not a ton of extra money, but it’s not an insignificant amount, either. We occasionally meet interesting people. We are regularly reminded that the world is full of people unlike ourselves, and that it’s possible to get along with them, at least when the interaction is supervised by an app’s influential reputation system.

And it seems like it’s probably good for us. I love my job dearly, but it does involve a lot of playing with computers and eating free snacks. Spending a few hours a month scrubbing toilets for money makes me feel like I might have at least a slim chance of surviving the revolution.

The aforementioned reputation system does a good job of driving nearly everyone within it toward neurotic approval-seeking. You are not just supplying a service for money; you are also hoping your guests will have a good time and compliment your home and be impressed with your lifestyle. They are not just paying for lodging; they are trying not to be a bother and giving you coffee from their home country and making implausible offers to put you up if you ever visit COUNTRY/CITY X. It’s all a little bit charming and let’s be honest more than a little pathetic, but the five-star ratings really do seem to weed out the sociopaths. It works pretty well.

Despite their business being built on overeager social fumbling, AirBnB is taking steps to make interactions more impersonal through the use of their Instant Book feature, by which hosts relinquish their ability to approve requests from prospective guests one by one. They have both good and bad reasons for this. Good, in that there is strong evidence of racial and no doubt other forms of iniquity in how hosts accept guests. Bad, in that they were pushing Instant Book well before the bias conversation, presumably because lowering coordination costs leads to more transactions and revenue.

I am in favor of systematizing away opportunities for human odiousness, but Steph and I are unlikely to enable Instant Book. In our experience, the worst AirBnB interactions occur when expectations are mismatched. A first-time user with poor English expects to get a full condo, rather than just a room, for eighty bucks a night. A high school kid from suburban Maryland expects to stay at our place with his girlfriend. A couple of friends expect a third to maybe join their weekend trip on a whim and crash on our living room couch. A new graduate’s parents have never been out of China before and expect to order room service. Or maybe Steph and I just have an inkling of plans for a week we haven’t thought to block off yet. Reviewing potential guests allowed us to avoid several of these catastrophes. Plus the silly letter the guest has to compose gets the stilted courtship described above off on the right foot.

Most guests are nice but boring folks. They typically hole up in the room they’ve let and do their thing without much bother. We have learned to identify risk factors for those who will spend a bunch of time at home (when they do this you have to pretend not to mind):

  • Those at the end of very long trips will be exhausted and will just want to surf the web rather than continuing to fake enthusiasm for seeing cultural treasures or whatever.
  • The young will be too poor to spend time outside of the house except for whatever their Big Planned Event is. Also their blase attitude toward their creeping mortality makes them feel like they have all the time in the world to visit the National Archives someday, but you know what, young man, you don’t.
  • The old, particularly those who have clearly been dragged along by their spouses, might just want to watch TV, which in our household often requires moderate-to-advanced skill at TCP/IP network configuration. We try our best but some of them don’t even know how to run a traceroute.

We have been charmed by several guests. There was the Parisian atmospheric scientist who flew planes to take air samples, who Steph still pines for. There was the bartender who was back to take the bar for the third time after missing the date for the one near his home in New York City. There was the Eastern European flight attendant who met his internet language-learning community girlfriend for the first time in our house on Valentine’s Day, followed her home to Southeastern Virginia, proposed, was not allowed to meet her family, flew home without a ring or engagement, and was still so polite as to respond to our thirsty AirBnB requests for details about how it all went. I think fondly of all of them.

But if I were to offer only one piece of advice about how to charm your AirBnB host it would have to be this: try not to leave too much hair behind. Honestly, this is all I care about. Maybe avoid putting wet garbage in the bin, too, so I can reuse the liner after I empty it. Otherwise, go nuts. My dream guests are an aging and profoundly bald gay couple. No stray hairs, in bed at a reasonable hour, and maybe they can tell us some good stories over a glass of wine. God bless them.

If you are considering AirBnB hosting, I have a longer list of suggestions:

  • Consider the cost of room turnover and the cost of guests letting their guard down and beginning to transgress boundaries. For us this means bookings of 3-5 nights, which is a narrow window that probably hurts earnings but minimizes stress.
  • Use AirBnB’s free photography service. It makes your place look great, though it can take a while to get an appointment and our listing makes it look like we have a Christmas tree up year-round.
  • Buy some makeup removal wipes and leave them in a prominent spot, or else you will eventually wind up with some destroyed towels. The first time you see a guest heading out for the evening in unexpectedly high heels you should immediately buy another towel set on Amazon.
  • Get some programmable door locks or a key lock box, obviously. Alternately, prepare yourself to get upset over guests not respecting your arrival policies. You will be irate but they will not understand the problem at all, like a dog getting yelled at for drinking out of the toilet. It’s water, isn’t it? I don’t see what the big deal is.
  • Ask existing hosts for testimonials to get over the “is this new listing a scam that will steal my kidneys” hump.
  • If your guest shower has a hose sprayer, great, bully for you. If not, get one of these things. It will make your bathroom cleaning so, so much faster. A little handheld vacuum is also a substantial time-saver.
  • It’s maybe overkill but we installed some fan timers and USB outlets to encourage non-moldy bathrooms and fewer questions about borrowing chargers.
  • We’ve found that guests leave reviews about how much they like having a good neighborhood guide, a comfy bed, immaculately clean bathrooms and an electric kettle in the room. They don’t seem to care about the cheap Trader Joe’s wine we gave away for a while. I guess we weren’t fooling them.

Sometimes we are attentive, sometimes we are busy, sometimes we are maybe even a little surly. The guests don’t seem to notice. The AirBnB review is by now a well-understood compositional form. Give them a fair deal and they will write you one, like a traveling bard composing a song. You’ll meet some strangers and it’ll basically be okay, sometimes a little worse but often better than you’d think.

black hat and def con

A week ago I was in Las Vegas, surrounded by thousands of people attending Black Hat and DEF CON, the computer security industry’s two most important US gatherings. I had never been, and I loved it. I loved it.

What could be more hyperbolic than an army of hackers building a hive within Las Vegas, a place that is already a cartoonish, predatory and vacuum-sealed daydream? We have all watched decades of hacker movies and shitty quasi-martial CBS procedurals where geeks have piercings and weird hair and (when in front of a keyboard) superpowers. My expectations had been set by portrayals I knew to be bad. Surely the reality would be different, which is a euphemism adults use for “disappointing”.

But it wasn’t. It was a wonderland. Those production designers did a better job than I thought. And the superpowers are real, albeit demanding of much more time and tedious scrutiny of IDA Pro output than can comfortably fit in three acts and 46 minutes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I did not understand the difference between Black Hat and DEF CON before going. Black Hat is more professional, I had heard. DEF CON is cheaper. A lot of the same people go to both. All of this is true, but it’s a shallow explanation.

Black Hat is an expertly-produced conference for security professionals, a category that includes researchers, software vendors and surely more than a few cybercriminals. Its escalatingly expensive tiers of access allow participation in the frenzied vendor hall; attendance at the “briefings” where new and sometimes dangerous research is presented; and “classes” where specific attacks are taught–to use a not entirely hypothetical example, a fun class exercise might involve bringing Iran’s IP address block to its knees for an hour or two.

I was surrounded by khaki pants and polo shirts and a pervasive air of menace. My most vivid memory of the conference is among my first: walking into the keynote, an impossibly vast space even by Vegas’s improbable standards. Far above me the ventilation system exhaled a low, cavernous breath. The only light came from the projection screens that relayed the distant speaker’s image, bright like windows in a spaceship orbiting a blue-white star. By that light I could make out the silhouettes of the audience, thousands and thousands of them sitting in shadow, waiting to learn something new and frightening. You don’t take photos of other people at Black Hat, but in a room like that it would be hard, anyway: they’re not even lit by their own screens. Bringing a computer into such a hostile network environment is considered by most not to be worth the risk. I’ve never seen fewer computers in a conference audience than at this computer security conference. Everyone there learned long ago that if you are in the business of having prey you are also in the business of being still and unnoticed.

It freaked me out. Black Hat’s lightning talk track is called “Arsenal”; on Twitter, observers complained about talks that didn’t come with working code. This is not an academic conference.

DEF CON begins as Black Hat ends, and it is fundamentally a social gathering. The Black Hat attendees slip into a less stony kind of crypsis, cheerfully blending in with people whose skills and interests are similar to theirs but who possess vastly less discipline. Things become a lot more fun. $240 — cash only — at the considerably seedier Bally’s got me a skull-shaped electronic entry badge with ciphertext printed across it, connection pins that would whisper more secrets if hooked to the right hardware, and absolutely no instructions. If you solve the puzzles built into it and the lanyards and the conference signs and the schedule booklet and a hidden subdirectory on the welcome CD-ROM and who knows what else, you win free entry for life.

This was just one of many badges. I stood in line to get a kit that let me build a different badge, this one associated with an annual cyberpunk role-playing game. I soldered it together at the hardware hacking village’s free workstations; afterward I could use its infrared LEDs to trade handles with other players, then send them radio messages. There were badges that could connect to your car’s diagnostic network, badges for the LGBTQ and women-focused subcons, and badges made by groups of friends where you just had to know a guy to get one. They blinked LEDs, and paired with each other, and had secret accessories.

The badges are only a small part of the con, though. In a little over 48 hours I learned about beating airport wifi portals, lockpicking, dumping and decompiling router firmware, messing with tamper-evident seals and hacking Italian parking meters. The vendor hall was full of booths devoted to hawking t-shirts rather than to collecting CISO emails; I bought gadgets to let me spy on Bluetooth network traffic and a USB thumbdrive that injects exploit code at a thousand characters per second. Around midnight on Friday I found myself in safety glasses, a nylon net cage, a 26th floor suite, and a state of considerable intoxication, all at once, as I prepared to pilot a drone against three other people vying to be the first to pop a balloon at the cage’s center. Across the hall you could get an RFID chip implanted in your hand for $60.

I was jealous of the kids whose parents had brought them. They were finding this place so early. There is a certain type of person with certain types of interests and this is where they occasionally gather, like migratory animals, for those rare experiences unmediated by LCD screens.

My ebullience at finding so many people of the same type as myself powered me through most of the weekend. But at some point I had to start asking myself what type of person that was, exactly.

On Saturday my badge was malfunctioning. It wouldn’t blink the way it was supposed to. I had no relevant tools to tinker with, and was eventually referred up to one group’s suite for help. There an exhausted man behind a mountain of soldering equipment and several empty Surge tallboys was explaining, to a semicircle of my fellow newbies, how he had designed and thought about the group’s badge. No, the group wouldn’t accept sponsorship, he said. They paid for it out of their own pockets. To get a badge you had to be cool, that was it. They never had as many to give away as they would like. He didn’t want to see them in the hands of certain people, people whose names I had never heard of but which he practically spat. No, this wasn’t his day job, he–he trailed off. “I don’t make a lot of money,” he said, breaking eye contact.

He was generous with me, and after attending to a long line of questions and requests for aid that had arrived ahead of me, he performed a simple diagnostic test and declared, reasonably, that the repairs I needed were beyond the tools he had present.

It was about five minutes into our interaction before I realized he was open-carrying a glock on his hip. That’s the kind that doesn’t have a safety. This made me pretty uncomfortable, but of course I didn’t say anything. I was his guest, in his and his friends’ suite. I thanked him earnestly and honestly and left to find someone else to help me with my badge.

That gun was jarring to me, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. What are all of these exploits, these network packet captures, these lockpicking sessions about, anyway, if not having power over others? All of us there wanted secret knowledge to make ourselves stronger. For some it’s because we can’t forget being weak before. For others it’s probably something uglier. But it’s hard for me to imagine any of it being born of an impulse that’s particularly noble.

At best, it can be enough to know when you have gained that strength, to limit its expression to sly winks and low-grade mischief shared with the similarly afflicted. That’s DEF CON. If you begin using that new strength for a living, or find yourself forced to face the people who do–Black Hat. Worse things, if you ask me.

Well, I might find its emotional foundation suspect, but DEF CON was a hell of a lot of fun, and I will be back. Eventually, I’d like to better understand why I want to go so badly. But my short-term goal is just to get faster with my new lockpicks.