#teens

Sam Biddle thinks we care too much about teens:

Teens will betray you. Teens won’t even remember your URL. They’ll click whatever’s put in front of them. They’re colliding particles. Would you interview a bee? Should tech investors study a pile of wobbling sea foam? Adult culture has become so obsessed with harvesting youth culture that we haven’t stopped to consider whether or not these kids are basically just gangly, brand-obsessed dorks who drive poorly and have partially formed brains. We’ve been worshipping at the consumer altar of teenagers that we’ve forgotten how little this particular crop has done for us; their cultural pinnacles are EDM and acoustic Vine covers. And why be surprised? Can we resent teens for not being little culture panaceas when their entire world consists of apps, track practice, and their house? We’re the fools for thinking the tiny teen world view really became larger just because it now includes the internet.

But Sam’s wrong: the app-industrial complex’s slavering maw yearns for teens not because they contain a cure for internet ennui, but because it knows they are its next host.

You know how you hate using Facebook? How it’s nothing but a social obligation and professional imposition? That is the feeling of terminal stage brand loyalty. Someone is now making money off you, because your shared business relationship has aged past the point where they have any reason to please you.

If this were a Buffy episode about drugs, now would be the time when you’d be comatose in the back of a hovel, your life force slowly draining away into some monster that delivered mystic euphoria during act one. Except nobody is about to come crashing through the door to liberate you via a poorly choreographed fight sequence.

Today’s teens are tomorrow’s locked-in social network users, and if they seem frustratingly flighty now it only means it will be that much sweeter when they finally fall into the snare.

dead guys

I love my friend Brian Beutler. But I didn’t like his piece calling for a holiday celebrating the confederacy’s defeat or its followup.

Brian is an excellent writer and he makes his argument well. But this kind of Acela Corridor confrontationalism is inherently cartoonish, and it relies on a cartoonish understanding of one’s countrymen. Like this, where the cultural identity of a large chunk of the country is reduced to nothing more than a devotion to white supremacy:

[W]e probably wouldn’t call the region “The South” if its political identity weren’t still interwoven with a glossy conception of the Confederacy.

This is even harsher than usual: ordinarily Southerners are at least granted a nod toward fried food and congregationalist religion before being called racists.

Jokes aside, I can’t help reacting to the existence of these pieces personally. I was born in Virginia. My last name is Lee. The line of my ancestry goes through Robert E. Lee’s father and up to a bunch of other dead guys, all of whom, I’m quite sure, held odious views and did odious things. To a first approximation absolutely everyone in history was an asshole, but it is certainly true that some managed to do more harm than others. My blood contains echoes of a few who were in a position to hurt lots of people, and did.

Brian wants a fresh verdict about the moral obscenity of the Confederacy, commemorated with a holiday and the destruction of monuments venerating Confederate figures. I don’t think anyone should object to the underlying judgment; I agree that the idea of flying a Confederate flag is disgusting. But it’s sometimes hard not to feel that my fellow liberals’ modern desire to relitigate an old war — to emphatically celebrate a victory no one living remembers — is driven more by moral vanity than a considered approach to ending racism in contemporary society.

If those highways were quietly renamed and statues wordlessly removed, I wouldn’t care. A few others might, but I wouldn’t care about that, either. But I do resent the idea that this is *my* problem by virtue of where I was born or who my ancestors were — that it is my responsibility to account for it. People seem to think it is. Brian’s pieces are addressed to everyone in the South, not to Neoconfederates specifically. There’s a reason that he IMed me the link to his article after he hit publish. There’s a reason my high school girlfriend told me not to mention my last name when I met her mom. There’s a reason people sometimes make jokes about owning slaves when they meet me (really). They are demanding that I repudiate a tribe they’ve imagined for me, and that I glorify one that they have implicitly excluded me from. I wonder what their manners are like when they meet someone from Germany or Japan.

Fuck all that. My grandmother came down from Vermont and married a Lee, who grew up a missionary’s son in China and spent his declining years writing furiously anti-apartheid letters to the editors of the Washington Post. I remember finding my dad’s old slot car set in their attic, the slower, always-losing racecar labeled “BIGOT” — a household moral axiom clumsily translated into child’s handwriting. I won’t tolerate being told those people bore some kind of hereditary moral contamination, or smile at the idea of assigning original sin on the basis of birthplace. The merits of the long-dead have nothing to say about my grandparents’ failings or virtues. Nor our own.

So yes, no more veneration of the Confederates. But also no more unprompted denigration. No more thirst for confrontation. Just silence. Stop talking about them. Allow their names to fade into meaningless strings of syllables that signify nothing more than where one span of asphalt ends and another begins. Or better: nothing at all.

I’d be a fool to claim that historical grievances have no bearing on today’s injustices. But insisting on self-abasement by the children of wrongdoers has less power to heal than the descendants of the righteous flatter themselves to think. There is more pressing work we could all be doing.

jury duty

the sacred dignity of fashion trendsI had been called to jury duty several times before, but never selected. Steph is an attorney, Charles was an investigator, people in my family have gone to jail, and I’ve seen enough movies to know that the police can be compromised (Blade, for instance).

So I was confident I could weasel out of my latest summons, and all the more so when I learned the case was a DUI. I stood before the judge and stoically recounted the times I had found myself on the hoods of thoughtless motorists. Why, your honor, I half-chuckled, I would have been standing here in November if a driver hadn’t broken my collarbone and driven off.

But do you think that experience would interfere with your ability to judge this case impartially?

No, I replied. I held my gaze steady and locked on the judge, confident that, in the periphery of my vision, the attorneys would see the zeal for bicyclist jihad that was blazing in my eyes. I would surely be struck from the jury pool, freed by my victimhood.

Well, no such luck. I was selected for the jury and spent the next day listening to a very brief trial. The facts were these.

Around 3 AM on a Thursday morning, the defendent emerged from a cab on a side street in Adams Morgan. She walked past three bike cops–unsteadily, though perhaps not staggering–and got into her car. Moments after she had started the engine, an officer was tapping on the glass, asking her to get out. She had some trouble producing her license, and left the car in gear when she first tried to emerge. It lurched and she had to hurriedly swing her body back inside to brake. She never left her parking spot.

She admitted to having a drink, but said she thought she was okay to drive. She then failed the first of three field sobriety tests–the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the one where the officer makes you follow a point with your eyes–displaying six out of six potential indicators of intoxication. She then began to fail the next test (walking a straight line), but refused to complete it, saying it was too late in the evening. She refused the third test as well (standing on one foot), and so was cuffed and taken to the Third Distict station. There she refused to use the breathalyzer, acknowledging on a form that this meant she would lose her driver’s license for twelve months.

So. That was the prosecution’s case. The defense took its turn, but was unimpressive. There was some inconsistency in how the testifying officers described their physical locations on the street relative to the defendent. The newest cop was caught claiming that he could smell alcohol on the defendant from fifteen feet away.

Here, the defense convinced me: the uniformity of the police claims of alcoholic odor and bloodshot eyes were suspicious. I’m not trained to watch for such things, but I don’t think I’ve noticed someone smelling of booze more than a handful of times; other signs of drunkenness seem much easier to detect. In rooms where videos like this one are shown, I have no doubt that officers are told they should always claim these unverifiable impressions.

The extent to which the police had been trained for the courtroom was subtle but impressive. The defense asked if the testifying officer was familiar with a textbook about field sobriety tests; in fact he not only knew it, but could name distinctions between its editions, identified to the month. The tech from the station was eager to explain the difference between the semi-discredited Intoxilyzer and the new and faultless Intoximeter.

More than this, their affect and conduct made an impression. The steady eye contact with the jury; the friendly confidence; the polite references to the defendant; the lack of mistaken use of gestures or imprecise speech, knowing that they were participating in the creation of a written transcript. I couldn’t help wonder whether the second officer–an MPD veteran of several years–was putting us on when he appeared uncertain about how to approach the witness stand or navigate the courtroom’s other logistical minutiae. Surely he had done this exact thing dozens of times in this very building, probably in this very room.

The defense amounted to little more than nitpicking. No witnesses, brief cross-examinations. We went to the jury room without much doubt about the evening’s events, but unsure whether they were enough to produce a conviction.

Per the judge’s instructions, two standards had to be met. Was the defendant operating the vehicle in DC? The law says that you merely have to be “in control” of a vehicle. It doesn’t even have to be running! Pushing a car out of the snow or leaving your hands on the steering wheel can qualify. We all agreed that this criterion had been met.

The other standard related to the defendant being “under the influence of alcohol”. This means impairment of her ability to operate a vehicle to an extent that could be perceived. There is no specific threshold or test that divides impairment from non-impairment.

Interestingly, the judge’s instructions stated that the defendant’s refusal to take the breathalyzer could enter into our consideration. Specifically: this refusal could be interpreted as evidence of “feelings of guilt”, which could in turn be taken as evidence of actual guilt. Steph feels this is unconstitutional, and I admit that it felt a bit fishy to me, too. But it was plain as day in the instructions.

The jury quickly settled into a 10-2 split favoring a conviction. One dissenter remained quiet, but the other was happy to argue on the defendant’s behalf. I sat next to this gentleman during the trial, and found him to be friendly and pleasant. But he was a bad juror. He seemed used to being afforded respect and being celebrated for his cleverness. At home I suspect he is considered a man of erudition. Alas, his arguments betrayed an imprecision of thought and an eagerness to use the proceedings for a sort of role-playing.

Among the arguments he brought to the table:

  • “Only one of three tests was administered; that’s 33%. And we know that test is only 77% accurate. That’s only a 25% chance she was impaired!” [In fact, that 77% figure was quoted for observations of 4 of 6 indicators at 0.1% BAC; the defendant displayed 6 of 6. Also this is not how statistics works.]
  • “We have her signature on the form where she declined the breathalyzer. Let’s ask for a current signature and compare [to look for differences due to drunkenness].” To my embarrassment, a note was passed to the judge asking for this new evidence, which he politely rejected.
  • A suggestion–seconded by several other jurors–that we consider the defendant’s appearance and decide whether she looked like an alcoholic. This was particularly revolting to me, and I said as much.

Basically, justice is terrible. Many of the other jurors weren’t much better, confusing facts and engaging in inappropriate flights of speculation before being shut down by their peers.

I don’t know that I was so much better. I could assemble relatively cleaner arguments, but I left the courtroom feeling equivocal about the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt; and I was saddened by the likelihood that the police had watched a drunk woman walk to her car, patiently waiting to stop her until she had–just barely–committed a serious crime. I walked into the jury room thinking “guilty”, but the sense of the majority cemented this from opinion into belief. At some point I stopped bothering to dismantle bad arguments coming from those on my side.

And the rhetorical skills lacking in some other jurors lacked amounted to little more than a clumsiness at manipulation. At one point we received an answer to a question we had asked the judge, and the answer undercut the argument for exoneration. My fellow jurors immediately pounced on the hold-out, browbeating him with this new fact rather than giving him space to admit a change of heart while retaining some dignity. I found myself waving them off, even though I agreed with their position. I wanted to get out of there. I was ready to bend the conversation to that need.

The holdout’s ego survived this attack, and he reluctantly agreed to a guilty verdict. Besides, he noted, he had a lunch appointment to get to. A verdict was read to an impassive defendant, whose life became much (but I hope not disastrously) worse. We were thanked for our service, collected our $4 per diems, and walked out into the cold, mostly confident that we had done something.

lyrics sites are still kind of dumb

Tim Lee is 100% right to situate Genius within a long and failed utopian tradition of annotating the web.

Earlier today I complained about one class of hopeless apps that often applied for grants from Sunlight. It eventually became clear to me that web annotation tools were another. That’s not to say that they weren’t cool–heck, we even built some ourselves. But it’s definitely a low-percentage play.

Consequently I think that Genius’s efforts to expand into a news app are probably hopeless (there’s no money in news apps to begin with, and probably even less in this one). But that doesn’t mean the site hasn’t done something clever.

In particular, they’ve paired excellent technical execution with even better timing. It seems clear that lyrics sites can make at least some money–the web is littered with heaps of garbage like azlyrics.com. They’re benign parasites, the geothermal vent-hugging tubeworms of the internet, thriving in an ecological niche made possible by larger, more popular cultural phenomena. The Genius guys picked just the right genre (hip hop, with its closely associated and copyright-averse mixtape and sampling cultures) and just the right moment (when noncorporate reproduction of others’ IP became a part of everyone’s daily communication habits). This let them become a more polished operation than the fly-by-night SEO lyric farms that had lived and died by the whims of record company lawyers and Russian webhosts. And that, in turn, has let them take investors along for what looks like a pretty fun ride.

The calculated executive outrageousness and appearances on various future-of-news plenaries are meant to distract you from a business model that has always been founded on accidental Google traffic and encouraging visitors to click on popup ads.

Perhaps there’s a plausible escape route. But what seems more likely is the story we’ve seen again and again on the internet: somebody builds a business next to an existing one, the incumbent waits until revenues appear and then throws a fit, and the courts decide if it’s Napster time or Spotify o’clock. Usually it’s a more interesting underlying industry and a less compelling product. But we’ve been here before.

bsg0043

badness

Vox has a nice piece about the nonsensical nature of “detox” diet regimens.

The idea can be opened up a little more, though. I think “auto-intoxication” is a mental tic that goes way beyond our physical well-being. That we are polluted with something that diminishes us is a pervasive kind of neuroticism, one arguably present in everything from dietary concerns to Scientology’s body thetans to the doctrine of original sin. I’ve come to believe it’s an evolutionary feature of humans, one related at the very least to our tendency toward spirituality and perhaps even to the kind of mammalian restlessness that we call “work ethic.”

When applied to food and health this drives me nuts, in no small part because I have had to grapple with my own relatives’ inventions in this genre. For years dad wouldn’t go to a conventional doctor for his disorientation and memory problems thanks to my aunt’s diagnosis of mercury poisoning, which proved robust despite various disconfirming test results. It doesn’t take much to sustain these suspicions. In his case, merely anecdotal observation of how symptoms (sometimes!) responded to nutritional supplements and, perhaps, the ecclesiastical satisfaction to be had through near-hourly observance of my aunt’s prescribed chelation regimen.

In the last few days I’ve seen these mystical habits of mind on a less worrying scale, as a guy I like and respect translated his negative opinion of Wal-mart–developed, presumably, because of their effects on workers and the economy–to guess that the chain’s produce might be particularly riddled with glyphosate, the purported negative health effects of which he had recently been reading about.

Some of this is probably due to the media’s translation of statistical accounts of epidemiological phenomena into stories that are causally simple enough to be understood by everyone. Something does something or it doesn’t; confidence intervals and statistical significance are the first thing to go when we compose a mental synopsis.

But I think much of it is in-built: an inherited need to seek personal purity (even if only in relative terms). I suppose there are worse ways for this to manifest than time spent in Whole Foods.

advertising seems hard

I was saying something dumb on Twitter and stumbled across an old post about the constricting array of tools available to advertisers as consumers become ever more attuned to manipulation. I’m now less sure that this idea isn’t just a product of my own limited imagination. Still, an observation in its favor:

banana republic instagram ad featuring a puppy from the humane society

This is the first Instagram advertisement I’ve seen that attracted anything less than intense vitriol in its comments (“why the fuck is this in my feed”, etc). And you can see why: it’s barely an advertisement at all. It’s just a photo of an adorable puppy (people like puppies) and an invocation of the idea of saving puppies (people like pretending that media consumption can be a form of altruism).

In one sense: congratulations, Banana Republic #brand managers! You’ve cracked the code. This is going to make for a great SXSW panel.

In another: what’s the point? I won’t pretend this ad hasn’t manipulated me to some degree. I no longer have enough faith in human cognition to muster that level of self-flattering defiance. But even if some part of me now feels better about Banana Republic–if we grant that some hypothetical fMRI study could now show a slightly stronger correlation in metabolic activity between my Sweater Cortex and my Puppy Striatum–how easily can this be converted into cash money? There is, after all, a gulf between getting someone to agree that a thing is nice and getting them to give you money for it. I doubt that Instagram clients are keen to reinvent the nonprofit fundraising industry.

Perhaps this boils down to the same old unanswerable questions about mindshare and brand awareness–ideas that, to an untrained observer such as myself, sure sound like the kind of bullshit you invent when you can’t show your boss any concrete results.

And yet every year the same Coca-Cola ads featuring Santa and, more recently (and pan-religio/culturally) polar bears–issued, presumably, from the vast bunker beneath the Masonic Temple in Alexandria. They must think they know something we don’t about making us know things we don’t think we know. Right?

terror from the skies

Steph got me a quadcopter and it’s awesome.

I haven’t gotten to the point of the manual where they teach you how to add a horrible electronic music soundtrack, so this will have to do for now.

using others’ information

stylized photo of malcolm gladwell

There are defensible reasons for disliking Malcolm Gladwell (too glib!) and bad reasons for disliking him (too successful!). But this is the reason that irritates me the most:

Gladwell has used information from others without attribution, often in language that closely resembles the source. […] There is one possible escape clause for Gladwell here–something that could absolve him of any guilt or plagiarism charge. Many journalists–especially magazine writers–have for decades subscribed to the idea that the use of established facts does not require attribution. […] I’ve long been troubled by the use of unattributed material with the excuse that it’s already been disseminated and established. When does the need for attribution fall away? Where do we draw the line?

The example cited is about the specifics of an old public works project–a particular tunnel’s length and cost, its difficulty and progress. It’s taken from a hard-to-find book of economic history by John E. Sawyer, which was published in 1952. Gladwell could have and probably should have provided attribution to Sawyer–it’s hard to see what the downside would have been.

But it’s also hard to see the downside to what happened. Jack Sawyer has been dead for twenty years. Gladwell’s offense, if there is one, has been committed against our collective sensibilities, not against a person.

There are good reasons to consider plagiarism bad. Enforcing rules of fair play within the writing professions makes sense as an economic necessity. But proof of copying is not proof of deprivation. Adding a moral dimension to the prosecution of victimless crimes requires an unpleasant meanness of spirit.

I feel a bit sad whenever someone is drummed out of office for, say, a lifted graduation speech or some other misappropriation that isn’t the crux of their job. I’m sure that I, too, would be disappointed to learn that the greatness of words I admired was borrowed, and I would want to punish the speaker, to reclaim my misapplied esteem. But why? We can make all the words and esteem we want.

The idea that facts belong to someone is crazy. It’s a fiction we use to ensure that fact-creators keep creating facts. The usefulness of this game of make-believe is obvious enough to have been pithily expressed hundreds of years ago. Maybe it’s because it’s such an old story that so many people have started to believe it’s real.

Perhaps I’ve been radicalized by work–the nonsensical nature of database licensing agreements could drive anyone mad. Ignore, for a moment the impossibility of conjuring a coherent line between “a bunch of facts” and “a legally protected database”. There are other problems!

These licensing agreements invariably prohibit some uses of the knowledge contained in the database, and these prohibitions rarely make much sense. When read with eyes too inexperienced to know what not to see, the text often outlaws the very thing the database is meant to facilitate. When you ask the salesperson about this, they assure you that what the agreement says is not what it means. And they’re right. What it means is: make sure we can keep getting paid. You can let people have this information but not, you know, let them have it. Make sure you tell it to them in a way that ensures they will pretend not to know what they know.

I don’t begrudge this approach. What else can they do? These databases are expensive to create and maintain, and we should all be glad that someone is doing this work. It’s a fiction that we navigate and treat with respect. But it is pretty absurd.

When the process is complete–when the tunnel is done, its specifics related, its chronicler dead–we can drop the pretense. And we should. It’s disappointing to see those who esteem ideas arguing that they ought to be more scarce.

I went to UVA

It was the best school that I could afford, and I think it gave me a good education. But it was never a great fit for me. I met some people there that I really liked and many more that I didn’t. I identified with these kids, not the ones in ties at football games. I seemed to be the only person thrilled that Stephen Malkmus had gone to UVA (including Mr. Malkmus).

When I read the Rolling Stone article, I believed it. I had known and disliked the callous frat culture. I had been disgusted by the university judicial system’s failure to grapple with the beating of Sandy Kory, and was unsurprised to hear that it had failed Jackie, too. And I believe that sexual assault is an enormous problem on American college campuses. I didn’t bother to finish reading the story, to be honest. It only took a few hundred words to bring me to despair, and I knew what the rest would say.

When critics raised doubts about the story, I believed them, too. I knew and was friends with people in frats — the stoner and geek frats, but frats nonetheless. I even rushed one, briefly! At a school like UVA these connections to the Greek system are all but unavoidable, particularly if you are underage and keen on drinking. Although their culture was sexist and aesthetically distasteful, it never seemed violent to me. Individuals behaving despicably was and is all too believable. But a premeditated, group-level endorsement of predatory violence seemed unlikely, particularly given the frats’ years of experience projecting the most upstanding image they could manage to help keep the party going.

And of course there were other problems, some of which will only make sense to alumni. Gawker’s dismissal of the timing of fraternity rush as a salient factor seems unwarranted, for instance.

I was unsure what to think. Because of conflicting evidence and heuristics? Only superficially. In truth, it’s because I have competing self-conceptions that can justify themselves in different ways depending on what we collectively decide this episode’s moral will be. I am a supercilious iconoclast who disdained the frats, even as he let them buy him oceans of beer. And I am a UVA graduate who thinks but does not say the phrase “public ivy” and who doesn’t want people to think of rape when he tells them where he went to school.

My thoughts are ambivalent but they are uniformly tainted by emotion and vanity. And although their reasons are different, I think this true for most people discussing this case, and everything else, on the internet.

How could it be otherwise? We don’t have enough information to judge the truth. There are endless explanations and additions that could modulate every atom of the narrative, but no amount of reporting is likely to let us access them satisfactorily. Luckily, we don’t care that much. Instead we will settle for asserting, by fiat, how the world must have worked in this instance, reasoning from first principles: we are good, and the people we dislike are bad, and reality, in the long run, must surely reflect this distinction.

I no longer believe that I have a right to hold an opinion about what it was or when it happened, but I am pretty sure that something very bad happened to Jackie and that she’s suffering because of it, and because of this she deserves sympathy and help. I believe it’s her right to go to advocates for support or to the police for justice, but I don’t believe that the rest of us deserve to continue gawking at her horror — particularly now that the conversation surrounding it has lost any plausible claim to preventing future violence.

genies, bottles & GPS

Over the past few months I’ve been idly picking my way through You Are Here, a review copy of which was generously sent to me while I was still at Sunlight and in the wrong industry to review it. It’s enjoyable!

Inertial navigation — tracking position by keeping a careful tally of acceleration (originally, by using gyrocopes) — is particularly badass.

giphy

This is even more amazing now that we have solid-state accelerometers in our phones and wiimotes and laptops.

The RoomScan app uses these techniques to let you build accurate models of interiors by sliding your iPhone along the wall. Using it during the home-buying process was an I’m-living-in-the-future moment. (Making light saber noises is also good.)

The two things that jumped out at me from the book were about the GPS system and the silliness of politics. First, on the popular myth that Ronald Reagan’s bold vision is the reason the military-built GPS system was opened to civilian use:

reagan_gps

And second, on the idea that Bill Clinton’s brave decision to unlock the GPS system’s full precision to civilian uses is what delivered our current era of accurately-positioned benefits:

coast_guard_gps

It turns out various other agencies were successfully building systems to defeat selective availability, too, notably including the FAA. But good for you, Coast Guard. This might have been the highest-altitude DRM system of all time, but it didn’t work any better than the rest.

Our positioning is going to get even better, incidentally. iPhone chips can already use not only GPS signals but those of GLONASS, Russia’s competing (and never-crippled) system. The EU is launching Galileo, which promises to improve accuracy even further. In fact, its (paywalled) commercial version will allegedly deliver precisions of just a few centimeters.