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We had been feeling cross about Uber. This is, by far, the subject about which Steph and I fight the most, as the service’s admittedly poor routing prompts different and conflicting reactions from us. She cannot resist reaching across gaping chasms of culture, language and basic navigational competence to put our drivers on the right path. I prefer, in characteristically nonconfrontational style, to quietly abandon myself to fate, gladly surrendering a few hundred meters or cents if it saves everyone some embarrassment.

This was the first Uber we had taken in Paris–hoofing it from Île Saint-Louis to Canal Saint-Martin seemed unappealing, especially since we’d dawdled longer than we’d planned. Mostly the ride was great. Our driver Radhouan spoke no English but was impeccable at piloting a black sedan while wearing a suit and bald head, in exactly the way that people in movies often do before being beaten up by Jason Statham.

Our plan had been to start at the south end of the canal and pick a restaurant as we walked north. Instead, Uber’s geocoding dropped us closer to the Porte Sainte-Martin.

uber trip in paris :-(

We walked a few blocks past tiny, packed restaurants, many featuring diners sitting outside under heaters. The neighborhood was clearly cooler and younger than the tourist-filled center of the city where we’d been spending our time.

Soon we reached the canal. I thought it was obvious that most of the restaurants would be south of us, but Steph wanted to go left and I was already in hot water for my poor piloting of the Uber app. So left it was. As we walked, a police car’s blaring siren tore past us, headed south, and I made a lame joke about it not being very romantic.

The restaurants were indeed more sparse to the north, so when we found Les Enfants Perdus we quickly went in.

Five minutes, we were told. No problem: the bartender looked like he knew what he was doing. I ordered a Sazerac. Not-particularly-soon-after we were seated uncomfortably close to an older couple, just past the bulk of the bar.

When did it stop being a regular meal? I’m not entirely sure. The wait staff locked the doors at some point, but I thought perhaps dinner service was ending. Waves of additional emergency vehicles sped south, but this was a city, after all. Snippets of English kept reaching us from across the room, containing increasingly alarming words. With growing frequency, the sound system erupted in booming, buzzy hums as the staff swapped out iPhones to take calls and send urgent texts. Bit by bit, we all stopped looking at our companions and food and began staring into our smartphones.

Les Enfants Perdu

I’d drunk enough to want to make off-color jokes on Twitter, so I set about doing that. Steph and I didn’t think there was much to be done but to wait out the emergency, so we ordered more drinks and more dishes, which were slower and slower to arrive.

The rumors in the room and online intensified. We soon heard about the siege at the Bataclan, though not yet the full extent of that horror. But people were saying this was not all, that drive-by shootings were still occurring, that a new attack was unfolding at Les Halles, far from our restaurant but quite close to our apartment. No one denied that gunmen were still at large.

It did not seem safe to go outside. Soon, the staff acknowledged what was occurring: a blonde waiter without much English did some comic capering to lighten the mood, and his colleagues assured us that the restaurant’s large glass windows were bulletproof, which seemed unlikely. The neighborhood was now cordoned from traffic, they said; there would be no taxis. The owner announced that everyone was welcome to stay, but the staff would call the hotel a block away on our behalf if we’d like.

We stayed. Many diners left for nearby cars or short, furtive walks home. Eventually only four or five parties remained. The staff asked us to assemble at one table and assured us again that there was no need to leave. They opened some bottles of champagne, they put on the Beatles’ White Album. The doors were declared to be definitively locked, and cigarettes appeared as if by sleight of hand. The blonde waiter sat down with us, said he had given away his tickets to that evening’s show at the Bataclan, and began weeping. I watched as Steph comforted him. I continued to check my phone.

By two AM, I was thinking seriously about sleep and how glad I was that the restaurant’s back room decor featured padded benches and implausibly fluffy pillows. But our fellow diners were restless. Group by group, they decided to walk. We checked the hashtag that the media had been writing about, the one by which Parisians were offering refuge to those stranded on the street. Useless. Steph called some of the nearby hotels, but they couldn’t help.

So: bikeshare. There is a Velibe station in front of Les Enfants Perdus, but not one that takes credit cards. Our maître d’ led us through a block and a half of empty streets, and then several pages of inscrutable French bikeshare menus. We looked with fear into every car that passed.

I hope I will never see Paris that empty again. Police cars prowled the streets, activating their sirens every other block. And there were people, more than I expected, but all walking in the same direction or huddled in doorways, speaking urgently into their phones.

The Velibe top gear is much better-considered than D.C. bikeshare’s, and we plunged through the streets. Outside a nightclub people were massing, piling into cars. I remember desperately wanting to get away from them, from any group of people, any crowd. But otherwise the ride felt quiet, urgent, unpanicked.

A wrong turn dropped us too far west, in front of a police station across from Notre Dame. Men in police jackets were milling around on the corner, looking unsure of what to do, as if the real cops, headed to Saint-Martin, had told their little brothers to put on ill-fitting departmental jackets and do their best. We biked past the cathedral, finding more police guarding the monument–some sitting near-invisibly in nondescript cars. Ever since landing our Americanness had been reliably detected from hundreds of meters away, and this was no exception. The cops saw us, but melted from our path.

We dropped our bikes at a station next to the Seine and crossed to Île Saint-Louis, immediately feeling safer for no good reason. Soon we were in our apartment.

I kept thinking about what I’d read: that people in the Bataclan had sent messages begging the police to come, that they were being executed one by one. That was the thought that horrified me more than any other. But soon sleep came. I woke up feeling no wiser than the morning before.

ad blockers won’t be a big deal


One of the few downsides to attending a conference in Asia is that when the English-speaking world is waking up and beginning to groggily think serious thoughts, you will have just returned to your hotel from a reception with free beer, which you will have had sort of a lot of. The food here is spicy enough that beer availability is a basic amenity, like electrical outlets or ventilation. Korea is a great country.

Although fundamentally delightful, this dynamic can push your level of Twitter cantankerousness out of global circadian sync. Last night it led me to wade, intemperately, into the Great Media Ad Blocker Freakout of ’15.

This morning I woke up and resolved to be a better, more understanding conversational partner. It was easy enough to identify the pieces influencing everyone’s thinking via the Today in Tabs Media Monoculture. But these pieces are surprisingly bad!

Here is The Verge’s Nilay Patel bringing the kind of tech blogger tunnel vision that can turn a wristwatch into the fulcrum of conscious experience. He thinks this minor iOS feature is best understood as a major chapter in the Manichean conflict between tech company nation-states. Here is The Awl’s Casey Johnston relaxing into the newly-minted blend of evocative GIFs, Marxist analysis and depressive fatalism that has made her employer the web’s most prestigious purveyor of media industry commentary. She never mentions pop-up blockers or points out that non-Safari webviews aren’t affected. The other pieces just don’t make any fucking sense.

Notwithstanding the App Store rankings of the new iOS ad blockers–which are better understood as a measure of download acceleration, not velocity–I doubt that all this handwringing will be justified by the number of ads whose lives are actually cut short. But let’s suppose that’s wrong.

Ad blockers work by preventing your operating system from speaking to ad networks’ domains. Those domains are where the ad network Javascript lives, which gets added to the page and loads the images or video or flash for the ad (among other things).

You could make ad blocking much, much harder by serving this Javascript from the same domain as the page content. Ad networks don’t want to do this for two reasons.

Their first objection is about control. It’s coming from their servers, it’s their Javascript, and they get to make the decisions. Handing these Javascript responsibilities to publications would introduce a big support headache and would require the networks to police the code to ensure it isn’t modified. Their Javascript is often inexcusably shitty, and modifying it would be a great idea, so publishers might be tempted to do so. Personally, I would be very excited to see this devolution of technical power.

Their second objection is about capability. Something called the same-origin policy means that when you visit the site cannot detect that you have visited However, if both pages include Javascript from, your path between sites can be observed. This allows your behavior to be tracked, and enables the networks to assign you to segments like “auto buyer” or “likely golfer” or “pervert”.

You can pull off tracking while serving everything from a constellation of publisher domains, but it’s not trivial to do so. Many publishers would need a hosted solution to handle these engineering details, and this is where the Awl’s paranoia about a totalitarian Facebook dystopia starts to look a bit plausible.

The hypothesized migration toward a central Facebook-like architecture has a cyclical fat/thin client whiff about it, and I suspect the pendulum will swing back before too many of us are forcibly grafted to Oculus Rifts. But then again I earn my living in a different industry and have the luxury of waiting to form a conclusion.

Still, I’m unconvinced that audience segmentation is actually good for publishers. The goal of segmentation is to target ads efficiently. But efficiency means achieving a result with fewer resources than you otherwise might. In this case, those resources are the very things that pay for all those tickets to XOXO. (I’ve meandered toward this point before.)

Besides which, there’s a convincing case to be made that ad efficiency is meaningless. A roughly constant share of the economy goes to advertising:


Maybe some of the spikes in those graphs came from VCRs or loudness regulation or FTC actions or the payola scandal or Tivo or pop-up blockers. But I doubt it.

So. Could ad blockers damage or destroy some publishers? Yeah, this seems possible, particularly for niche publications with geeky audiences.

Could ad blockers hasten Facebook’s ingestion of the media industry? Sure, maybe. Kind of seems like a long-shot but I know a lot of people are freaking out about this.

Could ad blockers shift spending to TV or print, overwhelming trends toward mobile and away from cable? Kind of implausible, don’t you think?

Finally, will ad blockers reduce the size of the ad dollar pool, shrinking the total resources available to content creators? Flatly: no.

ALSO: Matt’s post is characteristically excellent.

rotation is great but someday machines will do something else & it’ll be amazing



Yglesias has just published a great post about robots’ persistent failure to put us all out of work. You should go read it immediately, forsaking any activities that contribute to GDP.

This is part of Matt’s thesis, of course: that information technology is contributing to welfare in ways that don’t show up in productivity numbers. This makes some sense. Right now the digital music player on my kitchen counter is humming some vaguely new-wavey Millennial band, and by doing so offering me both greater control and higher fidelity than its radio forebears. Those differences are not necessarily captured in its price tag.

On the other hand, I spent part of Sunday reading a great Wired story about sneaking paper maps out of post-Soviet Russia, smuggling briefcases full of cash into Parisian cafes while trailed by KGB agents. It sounds like it was considerably more trouble than I had this morning, when I researched, located and priced out Slovenian geospatial data from their government’s (non-English) website. It took me about one and a half cups of coffee to get through it, which were much more pleasant than flying across an ocean and maybe getting injected with polonium (the Parisian cafe bit sounds okay).

Still, I think Yglesias is probably right: there’s value showing up off the books, there’s goofing off, there’s overstatement of the importance of the IT-relevant section of the economy, and there’s genuine value being created. And it looks like it’s been a mistake to just assume that the last effect will surely swamp the others.

This makes IT innovations a different beast from affirmed productivity boosters like HVAC and dishwashers. Those things manipulate actual atoms, and seem to produce wealth and surplus time in a way that software might not.

Here’s the thing, though: from a certain perspective, those are pretty much all the same machine. You can create an astounding number of things with a motor and some switches and some surrounding plastic and metal bricabrac, including not only the aforementioned appliances but your dryer, refrigerator, automobile, running water, vacuum cleaner, garbage disposal and washer/dryer. Lately these appliances been tarted up with LEDs and microcontrollers, but they all come down to a fairly simple switch mechanism detecting input and, when appropriate, setting a motor turning. Powered rotary motion has been a great friend to humanity (not least thanks to the satisfaction to be had from an afternoon spent browsing websites about mechanical linkages).

But even the noble rotary motor has its limits, tasks that humans can do but which we cannot plausibly harness the awe-inspiring might of rotation and switches to accomplish. Preparing good meals, cleaning bathrooms, navigating road traffic–all of these require a bit more finesse. Or at least a much more complicated collection of switches and motors. Perhaps we won’t be able to deliver that finesse, but it sure looks like we’re close. The Roomba knockoff in my living room isn’t perfect, but it really has dramatically reduced the percentage of time I spend on certain classes of housework.

I won’t dwell on autonomous vehicles. But c’mon. Even the most curmudgeonly unmanned vehicle skeptic can buy a startlingly cheap drone. Even he must admit that we could deploy slow, unmenacing delivery droids to toddle along our sidewalks today, if we weren’t so convinced that actual cars, with all the inalienable rights American society affords them, were just around the corner. A truly enormous economic class of atom-moving will be converted from labor to capital in short order. It will involve information technology, yes. But this will be no Facebook.

And from there, who knows? I’m not sure that Asimo will be scrubbing my toilet anytime soon; perhaps one of his descendants will lift my withered body back into its goo-filled pod after every fresh organ installation. Moving atoms around is very hard if you’re facing a problem you can’t cheat your way out of with photolithography, and I doubt that a Google Car will be the harbinger of robotic burger chefs.

Still. The car thing. That will be a big one. We’re going to notice it.

VPNwatcher for OS X


Swap out “Transmission” for your own VPN-sensitive client, obvs. Assumes Viscosity or another client that creates a tun0 interface.

while [ 1 ]; do if [ -z "`ifconfig | grep tun0`" ]; then ps ax | grep -i Transmission | grep -v grep | awk '{print $1}' | xargs kill; echo "killed process at `date`"; exit 1; fi; sleep 1; done



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 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.




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.


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:


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:


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.

Flickr users are wrong


creative-commons-flickrA lot of people are upset about Flickr’s plans to begin selling prints of user photos that are available under Creative Commons By-Attribution licenses.

Some people have told me that Flickr’s plans bother them because it changes their understanding of their relationship with the company. Companies are not people, and I will gently suggest that it is unwise to cultivate emotional relationships with them. Doing so invites disappointment or manipulation.

So let’s look at the other reasons that people are upset about this. I think that many people are either behaving irrationally or do not understand what free culture licensing means.

  1. Flickr users are under no obligation to add a Creative Commons By-Attribution (CC-BY) license to their work. It is and has always been easy for users to retain complete control over distribution of their photos if they care to do so.
  2. Just as easily, Flickr users can select a CC-BY-NC license, which allows reuse of their work for noncommercial purposes.
  3. Right now, CC-BY images on Flickr are often used for various commercial purposes. There is nothing stopping anyone, anywhere, from selling a print of your CC-BY licensed work, nor from downloading your CC-BY licensed photo and making a print for themselves.
  4. Flickr’s sale of prints does not deprive photographers of their work or money. Users have the same ability to use their work that they always had. The vast majority would never have taken the steps necessary to profit from their work, so print sales do not deprive them of money. When a user really expects to sell prints, they should avoid Creative Commons licensing, which, as I’ve mentioned, is easily done.
  5. Flickr’s sale of prints provides benefits to other people. People who work for and own Flickr make money. The vendors producing and delivering the prints make money. And people who buy prints get to enjoy works of art.
  6. Some people have earnestly-held beliefs about this last point amounting to a bad thing. But not very many (it’s a difficult trick to pull off without also rejecting most aspects of global civilization). Most people think these are good things.
  7. I suspect that many Flickr users agree that the things in point 5 are good. It’s just that they’d like to have control over when they happen. Maybe it’s okay for the local coffeeshop to use your photos on a flyer, but it’s not okay for Archer-Daniels-Midland to put them on a billboard. I suspect this is how a lot of people feel, because I used to feel this way, too. But if you insist on control, those good things in point 5 usually won’t happen, because it’s too hard to ask for permission every time you want to use a piece of culture. This is one of the main reasons why Creative Commons licensing was invented.

Open licensing is about giving up control so that other people can benefit. That’s all it will cost you: control. Having control feels nice. But you should ask yourself what it really gets you. And you should think about what others might gain if you were able to let go.

Think carefully and decide what you need. No one is going to make you tick that Creative Commons box. But when you do, it’s a promise.

LEDs for halloween


I’ve continued to drift away from my commitment to dressing as villains. In my defense, Cyclops is kind of a jerk.

I worry that I’m beginning to stagnate: my palette of duct tape, under armour and LEDs is flexible enough for a variety of comic book characters. If augmented with adhesive velcro strips and the choice of a pouch-laden Rob Liefeld character, it’s even sort of convenient.

The LED components are always a hit, and I’ve seen more costumes incorporating them in recent years. I’ve added light to my costumes with a variety of different systems in the past, but they always had shortcomings. This is the first year that I achieved a well-engineered yet simple implementation, so it seems worth writing up how best to do it.

LED strips

China now produces these in great volumes, and they’re both cheap and easy to work with. Tons of different colors and configurations are available from eBay and Amazon, invariably arriving on black plastic spools and with peel-off adhesive backing. Besides color, you’ll have to decide on brightness, which varies both LEDs per meter and LED type, and waterproofing. For a halloween costume, pretty much anything will be fine — which is to say blindingly bright.

The strips can only be cut in certain spots, but these are clearly marked. Solder tabs are present if you want to connect strips together. You’re going to need a soldering iron to connect the strip to power, but it’s about the simplest soldering job imaginable.


The strips aren’t just LEDs: they also have integrated resistors that are rated for 12 volts, presumably because this is the voltage at which automotive systems run. That’s what you’ll need to supply to the strip. You have a few options:

  • Batteries’ voltage is summed when wired in series. Alkaline batteries like AA cells, AAA cells and D cells are all 1.5 volts per cell, meaning that 8 placed in series will give your LEDs the power they need. You can find appropriate battery cases at Radioshack or eBay (you might need to chain two four-battery cases together). This is arguably the easiest of the approaches listed here, but also the shortest-lived and the one most likely to cause problems if asked to power too many LEDs (particularly with AAA cells, which I don’t recommend).
  • Lead-acid batteries are rechargeable, can hold a ton of power, and come in 12 volt or 6 volt varieties. Avoid the latter, buy a cheap trickle charger, and connect directly to your LEDs. The downside, as the name suggests, is weight (and price — a small battery will probably run $30). Any lead-acid battery is likely to be 10 or 15 pounds. For the right costume, this is no problem. For others, it’s a huge pain in the ass. If it suits your needs, though, a lead-acid battery can be a handy thing to have around: keep one charged and one of these doohickeys on hand and you’ll be able to power your cell phone for a solid week when civilization finally collapses.
  • Lithium-polymer USB batteries are rechargeable, pack a lot of juice, are compact and lightweight, and can now be had for less than ten bucks. They’re ideal for costumes, and they often wind up being useful cellphone supplements after the holiday. Their downside is complexity. USB power is always 5 volts. That’s not enough for a 12 volt LED strip. Chaining these batteries together isn’t a great idea, either. There are already electronics in play in those enclosures; and anyway 12 isn’t divisible by 5. We need a way to turn 5 volts into 12.

Boost converters do this pretty efficiently, and cost just a few dollars on eBay. You’ll need a few more things to use them, though: wirecutters, a USB cable you don’t mind ruining, and a multimeter. This last tool might sound intimidating, but a crappy $10 multimeter will work just fine.

At this point your mission is to cut the USB cord in half and expose conductive portions of its four wires. Plug the USB connector into the battery and use the multimeter’s probes to test the wires until you find a pair that gives you a reading close to 5 volts (it might not be exact, but it should be within a tenth of a volt or two). If your USB cable was designed by good people, these wires will be red and black, like the probes of your multimeter almost certainly are. But maybe they won’t be. I’ll assume they are.

Disconnect the USB plug from the battery. Then solder the USB wires onto the boost converter. Red is positive; black is ground. They go to the IN(+) and IN(-) solder terminals of your boost converter, respectively.

Now reconnect the cable to the battery and use the multimeter to probe the output terminals of the boost converter. There’ll be tiiiiny screw on top of a plastic box on the boost converter. Turn it while reading the measurement from the multimeter until it reads twelve. It can be tough to do all of this with only two hands, so finding someone to help is recommended.

Once your boost converter is set to twelve volts, you can solder your LED strip’s connection to the output terminals. Simple.

You can avoid the multimeter hassle by buying one of these units and using its integrated display to set the voltage.

This is both more expensive and a waste of energy (the display will remain on while powering your costume). It’s also not something I’ve personally tried — I’ve only used these to step down voltage from 12 to 5, not to step it up. I think it should work, but I can’t make any guarantees.Either way you’ll need to chop up a USB cable. And a basic multimeter is a handy thing to have around.

How Much Power?

It’s a drag, but if you’re powering more than a dozen LEDs, you should do at least a little math to ensure longevity and safety. Batteries can get dangerously hot when they’re drained quickly. Besides, you wouldn’t want to run out of power before the end of the party, would you?

We’re concerned with amperage — milliamperage, to be more precise. A liberal estimate of an individual LED’s power consumption is 30 milliamps. This level of current draw, held for an hour, equals 30 milliamp-hours (mAH). Conveniently, this is also the unit that battery capacity is measured in.

If your battery assembly’s output is 12 volts, the math is really easy: just divide the mAH rating of a your alkaline battery type by the number of LEDs in use multiplied by 30. A typical AA battery might hold 1200 mAH (check the label). Given that rating, a 12-volt assembly of them (8 in series) could power 40 LEDs for an hour.

If you’re using a single lead-acid battery, it’s just the same, except your battery’s capacity might be measured in amp-hours. One amp-hour equals 1000 milliamp-hours. That means a 6 amp-hour lead-acid battery could power 200 LEDs for an hour.

With varying voltages, like we’ll encounter with a USB lithium battery, things get slightly trickier, but only slightly. We need to figure things out in terms of energy, not just current — that means watts, which are amps times voltage. Here’s how it works out:

(5 volts * USB battery milliamp hours) / (12 volts * number of LEDs * 30 milliamp-hours)
number of LEDs

The boost converter we use with the USB battery isn’t perfectly efficient, so we should include a fudge factor. Let’s be conservative and say it’s only 90% efficient:

(0.9 * 5 volts * USB battery milliamp hours) / (12 volts * number of LEDs * 30 milliamp-hours)
number of LEDs

A small USB lithium battery might hold 2400 mAH (the packaging will usually say). Using the above math, that means such a battery could power 30 LEDs for an hour.

Of course, you probably want to power your costume for more than an hour. In fact, you should make sure of it: asking a battery to dump all of its power in an hour is fairly aggressive, and might make it heat up more than is comfortable or wise. Use the above to figure out the capacity you need per hour, then double it. Remember, you can always swap out batteries. Or, for the alkaline and lead-acid otions, you can increase capacity by adding more cells in parallel (don’t do this with the USB lithium option — just plug a new one in, or power different sections of LEDs from different batteries).

The above estimates are conservative. Boost converters are generally more than 90% efficient, and the types of LEDs I’m suggesting you use generally draw 15 or 20 milliamps, not 30. But it’s good to employ a generous fudge factor. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by how long my batteries hold out. You’ll probably want to give your rig a test run before the party, anyway.


The first time I tried to dim the LEDs in a Halloween costume it didn’t work very well. I had attached a potentiometer: a knob that can add resistance to a circuit when you turn it. Increasing the resistance lowers the voltage that gets to the LEDs. A lower voltage does dim LEDs, but the behavior isn’t very smooth. At first the change is almost imperceptible, then it’s very sudden, and then the LEDs just turn off completely. This is because LEDs emit photons in response to voltage in a nonlinear way; even worse, humans perceive brightness in response to number of photons in a nonlinear way.

The solution is not to alter the brightness of the LED, but to change its duty cycle: how much of the time it’s turned on. If an LED is only turned on every third microsecond, it will appear 33% as bright as if it were on steadily. LEDs turn on and off very quickly, so it’s easy to make them strobe so fast that the human eye can’t notice the flicker.

The way to do this is beyond an introductory blog post, but the short answer is: a MOSFET, an Arduino, and the analogWrite() function. The first two can be had for less than $5 combined, and the last is free. If you decide to try this but have no idea what you’re doing, get in touch with me and I’ll try to help.

A nice side-effect: by adding an Arduino you can easily start programming strobing or fading effects. You could even make your costume respond to the partygoers around you.

EL Wire

LEDs aren’t your only options for lighting a costume. Electroluminescent wire, strips and panels are fairly cheap and generally come with their electrical systems prebuilt, thanks to their unusual power requirements (very high voltage and frequency alternating current at very low amperages). Those power supplies generally run off of just one or two alkaline batteries and can last for many hours.

The downside to EL systems is how difficult they are to manipulate. EL wire and panels can be cut, but they can’t be spliced without unusual tools and more skill than I can muster. The power supplies also tend to be made cheaply, and when they are they emit a quiet but high-pitched whine which might be annoying in environments that are supposed to be silent and spooky, like a haunted house.

building artificial minds is going to be the most important thing our species ever does


And you shouldn’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

I’m prompted to write this by my friend Tim Lee’s new piece on Vox: Will artificial intelligence destroy humanity? Here are 5 reasons not to worry. It is characteristically smart, but I disagree with most of it.

Tim’s first and second points concern the difficulty of interfacing artificial minds with the physical world. This is accurate, but decreasingly so. The internet now provides programmatic means by which I can command a huge variety of commercial activity (Amazon, Uber, Push for Pizza); puts most of the people on Earth within easy communication range (email, SMS, POTS); and, in rich countries, is increasingly connected to ubiquitous telemetry (traffic cams, fitbit, mobile phone location trackers).

Progress in robotics seems to be accelerating, and is still temporarily constrained by discontinuities between the field’s capabilities and its market size. There are only so many buyers for automotive welding robots and creepy robot dogs, after all. The consumer market is currently mostly about robot vacuum cleaners that sort of work. But we’re on the cusp of ubiquitous robot cars, and it seems plausible that geriatric caregiver bots will be viable in my lifetime. If a machine intelligence has a strong desire to interact with the real world (which it might not), it’s hard to imagine the physical interface remaining a substantial obstacle for much longer.

The third bullet is the meatiest, but also runs into the most problems:

Digital computers are capable of emulating the behavior of other digital computers because computers function in a precisely-defined, deterministic way. To simulate a computer, you just have to carry out the sequence of instructions that the computer being modeled would perform.

The human brain isn’t like this at all. Neurons are complex analog systems whose behavior can’t be modeled precisely the way digital circuits can. And even a slight imprecision in the way individual neurons are modeled can lead to a wildly inaccurate model for the brain as a whole.

Yes, neurons are complex. But their behavior seems to be computable in a Church-Turing sort of way. You can consider digital music playback as an analogy. Music exists as a continuous and extremely complex transformation of air pressure. It is very dissimilar to how digital circuits work. But those circuits can operate so quickly that trains of on/off pulses can recreate an arbitrary piece of music perfectly. So it is, plausibly, with neurons.

Although brains are very complex mechanisms, it is overwhelmingly likely that you can strip out much of their functionality without any impact on their computational capacity. Most of the cells in the brain are glia, responsible for things like immune function, garbage collection and building myelin sheaths. As far as anyone knows they’re just there for biological support. How abstract can you make your model’s neurons before they lose any hope of spawning a mind? Nobody knows. Neurons actually are weirdly computerlike, in that an action potential firing down an axon is an all-or-nothing event. But the threshold excitation that triggers firing is manipulated in lots of subtle ways (both temporarily and over longer time periods), and no one knows how many will have to be simulated or how accurately. Still, you can certainly perform recognition tasks with highly stylized approximations of neurons.

It’s also not clear that we need a particularly accurate simulation of the brain to create a mind. Tim:

A good analogy here is weather simulation. Physicists have an excellent understanding of the behavior of individual air molecules. So you might think we could build a model of the earth’s atmosphere that predicts the weather far into the future. But so far, weather simulation has proven to be a computationally intractable problem. Small errors in early steps of the simulation snowball into large errors in later steps. Despite huge increases in computing power over the last couple of decades, we’ve only made modest progress in being able to predict future weather patterns.

Simulating a brain precisely enough to produce intelligence is a much harder problem than simulating a planet’s weather patterns. There’s no reason to think scientists will be able to do it in the foreseeable future.

It’s really hard to predict the exact sequence of a particular weather pattern. But modeling a plausible weather pattern is pretty easy. And neural systems seem to be able to operate in a really huge variety of configurations. Not only is every person’s (presumably) conscious brain different, but they keep operating in mindlike ways after suffering severe alterations to their performance characteristics. Drugs! ALS! Concussions and lesions! Lobectomies, for pete’s sake! Not to mention the seeming likelihood of many or most animals having substantial phenomenal experience despite wildly varying biologies. Once we figure out how to do it, there will probably be a considerable fudge factor in building minds.

Tim’s fourth argument concerns the importance of human relationships. This is fair: there’s good reason to think human social behavior is one of our most evolved and convoluted systems, and one that a machine might have a hard time figuring out quickly. But although our behavior is complex it’s also fairly predictable–we have already systematized a surprisingly large amount of this knowledge in fields like marketing and political campaigning. There’s every reason to think that a machine intelligence that’s immune to fatigue, moodiness, territoriality, jealousy and other human social impairments could master relationship-building.

Tim’s final point is an argument about the falling value of intelligence in a world where superintelligent machines proliferate. I’m not sure it makes a ton of sense to treat cognition as a simple commodity, but even if it does, this ignores the potentially trivial relative value of human minds in such a world.

It’s important to remember just how lousy our neural hardware is. When a neuron fires, it does so by opening channels along its axon, which allows an uneven gradient of sodium and potassium ions (maintained by a ceaseless cellular pump) to equalize between the inside and outside of the cell. This opens up adjacent channels, flowing down the length of the axon, stimulating the release of neurotransmitters at its synapses. The whole thing takes about a millisecond, which is several million times slower than a transistor. That our brains work despite this sluggish mechanism is a testament to the power of parallel computation, of course. And neurons perform analog operations (summing excitation, for instance) that would require many transistor switchings to simulate. And there are about twenty billion neurons in the human brain.

So simulation isn’t easy, exactly. But if a workable hardware configuration can be found, one can imagine scaling scenarios that transcend biological limits on sentience very quickly indeed. If your neurons had the switching performance of contemporary transistors, you could plausibly experience two lifetimes in an hour. You’d also be able to throw away a bunch of subsystems devoted to autonomic processes and other unnecessary biological and social functions, simplifying the problem further.

I have no idea if we’ll build machine intelligences. I think it’s pretty likely that consciousness is an epiphenomenon free-riding on top of a powerful neural network, and that some aspect of causally isolated panpsychism is a basic component of the universe. But there’s a mystic in me that wants the real source of our minds to retreat away from our plausible guesses.

I think he’ll be disappointed, though. If we do create a thinking machine, it’s hard to imagine what it will want or do. It will be designed by our hands, not by evolutionary processes. So I don’t think there’s any particular reason to expect it to want to reproduce or grow or consolidate power or even avoid death. Perhaps it will have no volition at all.

But if it does constitute a conscious being in a way that we can relate to, I think we should expect to be surpassed by it pretty quickly. Whether that presages extinction, irrelevance or transcendence, I couldn’t say. But it’s certainly going to be a big deal.

arduino class notes


For the last four weeks I’ve been teaching an Intro to Arduino class at Sunlight. It’s been fun! I’m hopeful that the participants have gotten a new hobby out of it. Being able to translate your software skills into the physical world isn’t exactly sorcery, but it’s the next best thing.

The notes are available at the links below. And the class Github repository can be found here.

It’s safe to say that this curriculum isn’t too different from other Arduino classes. The extent to which it relies on the sample code that ships with the Arduino IDE is proof enough of that. But in my experience the hardest-won pieces of knowledge in any technical hobby are the bits of folk knowledge that don’t rise to the level of Timeless Principle. What vendors have the best deals? What’s the name of that kind of connector? Which stuff do I really need to know, and which stuff is just there because the instructor thinks it’s good for me?

I tried to focus on these questions in the notes attached to these slides. Hopefully you’ll find them useful! Based on student response, I think that lesson 3 needs some touch-up work for non-Python users, but otherwise they’re probably in pretty okay shape.

advice for an aspiring programmer


Last week we interviewed a candidate who we really liked but who was much too green. He asked for some advice, so here’s what I wrote — might as well put it online. Hopefully it’s a little more specific and opinionated than these things tend to be.


It was a real pleasure to meet you, but your instincts are right: at this point we have to invest in people with a bit more experience under their belts. I do want to stress, though, that your enthusiasm and interest in software engineering came through clearly, and made us all enthusiastic about the developer you will no doubt become.

Toward that end, let me offer a little more advice than I usually put into these sorts of emails:

  • Pick a technology and invest time in it. There is tremendous value to understanding the repetition of patterns across engineering domains, but you need to gain deep expertise in one before you can do so effectively.
  • I’ll be more specific: pick one of these technologies — Ruby, Python, Node/Javascript. All have vibrant open source communities from which you can learn a lot for free. All have bustling job markets. All have bindings in a huge variety of domains. All are abstract and widely supported and will spare you many of lower-level languages’ headaches. All have robust web frameworks. Personally, I’d suggest Python, because it is the most stable and widely supported. It’s everywhere– it is Google’s noncompiled language of choice, for instance, and widely used in scientific computing and a huge number of other areas. But its community is less fun and accessible than the others, and it’s more sedate. The others will take you on a wilder ride, but you will probably have to learn things a few times as the community changes its mind about how to solve a problem. This is extra true for Node and less so for Ruby — which reflects each community’s age.
  • There is a premium for mobile dev work, but I wouldn’t invest in that right now because it’s too specialized to be a great way to learn. Also iOS will be in turmoil thanks to Swift, and Java dev is a drag outside the genuinely-exciting opportunities of Android.
  • Focus on the web and the key tasks associated with it. Skim the topics that other languages’ web frameworks cover — they all solve the same problems in slightly different ways. Invest a little time in learning jQuery — being able to build out web templates is a very plausible starter job, and one you can get good at fast. Also, make a point of learning regular expressions and the network libraries and functions necessary for using APIs.
  • You do not need to know much about data structures, compiler design, sorting algorithms, recursion or most of the other things that they teach you in a CS program.
  • Microsoft technologies can earn you money but will never fully integrate with the world of open source software, which is where the best engineers and most exciting projects exist. I have written Visual Basic for a living; I don’t think you should write any more of it. The .NET frameworks are okay but basically a less-open version of Java. Everyone hates Java.
  • I wrote PHP for many years professionally and still think it is a cheap, useful tool. It gets zero respect in programming circles, though — I would not suggest spending more time learning it until/unless you have mastered something more prestigious and just want it for quick personal projects.
  • You should probably learn with a good text editor (but not an IDE) and the command line as your primary tools. On OS X I like Sublime Text 2. Speaking of which: you should be developing on OS X or Linux (people around here tend to favor Ubuntu or Mint). If you’re on Windows now this will be painful, but you will never fully connect with the open source world and its idioms unless you get used to the *nix command line interface.
  • There is no substitute for working with engineers who are better than you are. This is tough until you get yourself hired somewhere, though! On the far end there are code bootcamps, but those cost money. On the near end there are technical meetups — shop around and find one that seems technical enough to teach you things. Contributing to open source projects is a good idea, too — writing an IG scraper for Sunlight might be an approachable task (he said selfishly). Online tutorials can take you a long way if you put in the time.
  • Get active on Github! Follow how people like Eric Mill (@konklone) and Tom Macwright (@tmcw) and Josh Tauberer (@govtrack) do their work. Recognize that filing tickets is a valid way to contribute, as long as they are well-informed. It doesn’t have to all be pull requests.
  • Master the art of googling for error messages. Using search engines, Stack Exchange, mailing lists and IRC properly to uncover unknown answers is maybe the most important skill in real-life programming.
  • Once you identify superstar programmers, follow them on Twitter or their blogs. The writing of people like Ian Bicking will get you familiar with the cultural context surrounding your programming language of choice. Speaking of which: conferences can be pricey but once you’re ready they can be a really good way to learn — if you pick the right one. Pycon is excellent. I know less about the other languages’ marquee cons.
  • Spend some time reading about diversity in technology. The situation is not good, and a lot of people are working very hard to change it. This is a huge topic of discussion right now and you need to be able to talk about it intelligently.
  • If someone mentions linked data or the semantic web and they have never held a job at Google, assume they are about to waste your time.

There! I think that’s all the advice I can come up with for someone in your shoes. Ask me questions when you have them. And good luck.

the thing about the Internet of Things


thingsWired makes a yeoman’s effort at turning a basically boring Pew report about the Internet of Things into something worth wringing your hands over. If you actually read the report, the experts seem much less worried (and quite a bit less compelling) than Wired wants us to think.

Partly this is because only a few of them seem to know much about it. There are a lot of very impressive people on the list of respondents, but at a glance they seem to mostly be drawn from the Internet’s Elder Statesperson class. And this IoT business has less to do with the internet than the name implies–it’s really about hardware, sensors and microcontrollers. So we wind up with some warmed-over and implausible futurism from the guy who runs the Webbys.

I think the milquetoast ambivalence flows from this: we understand what we’re facing. We’ve been at this industrial revolution business for a while now, and it’s mostly apparent how it works. We’ve all lived through the advent and democratization of various manufactured technological conveniences, and we are confident both of their steady pace and their limited capacity for delivering transcendence. Consumerism: we get it.

This was not the case with software! Infinite abundance, communication and human potential — you could tell a really amazing (and, alas, often overblown) story about what this would mean for all sorts of social institutions. Something truly new was happening, emergent forces were emerging, and nobody could tell how it was going to end. It was unclear why your boss was paying for you to get drunk at SXSWi but he was and it was awesome and everything was surely about to change.

This is not the case with the Internet of Things. With the exceptions of miniaturized-yet-affordable PCB manufacturing and solid state accelerometers, most of the central technologies have been achievable for a while. They just haven’t been used. For example, the idea of a home thermostat you can set from your office is sort of neat, but such products have existed for decades. Why are we excited about this now? Well, prices have dropped, the gadget-purchasing habit has been solidified, and control interfaces have improved (thanks, smartphones). Ubiquity is newly practical.

But we still don’t have many really compelling stories about what it’s all going to do for us. The benefits to these use cases are known, or at least can be imagined. It’s nice to have a door open itself for you or an alarm clock that knows when you’re sleepy, but how much is it really worth? We’ve been able to network appliances for quite a while. We did it a long time ago for cardiac monitors in hospitals, because in that application it’s worth the money. Giving your fridge an IPv6 address? We can certainly do it, and we probably will. But don’t kid yourself about the scale of the benefits that will flow from this innovation.

(One exception: the quantified self movement *does* have a bunch of compelling stories about gigantic improvements to health that careful self-measurement can deliver. Given the enormous amounts of money we invest in not-very-effective healthcare interventions, it seems safe to say that if this idea could deliver a fraction of what it’s being used to promise, our failure to implement it already would represent one of the greatest market failures in history.)

I love playing around with hardware, so don’t mistake my skepticism about IoT futurism for a lack of enthusiasm. Filling the objects around us with dancing grains of sand that we’ve etched with runes and whispers of ions, so that they might ceaselessly observe and manipulate the environment for our convenience: I think that’s a lovely thing for a species to do, and often a pretty fun art project. And I suppose emergent network effects are always possible. Seems a little far-fetched to me, though, at least so long as we’re mostly talking about thermostats and pedometers. But my imagination is admittedly terrible.

I’ll boil it down to a few things, I guess:

  • The adoption of ubiquitous computing is a function of physical technology’s ever-falling price versus the benefit it confers. There are many applications enabled by lower prices that are just now achieving market viability. But that’s because their benefit is meager, not because the tech was impossibly pricey. This may not be universally true, but it’s probably true for the anticipated uses that are currently being used to sell this phenomenon: quantified self and home automation.
  • Concerns about maintaining the software in a zillion different devices seem legit (though people are underestimating just how awful embedded tech can get away with being, and overestimating both the incentives facing bad actors and the threat surface present on devices that are designed to be *extremely* limited). Partly for this reason, functions will continue to accrue to your phone whenever possible (we’re running low on compelling sensors at the moment, but IR photography and laser rangefinding might sell some iPhones). Some will try to achieve a profitable, lock-in-driven business through proprietary solutions to this headache, but I doubt they’ll succeed.
  • The most interesting questions surrounding these issues concern transhumanism.

UPDATE: You know, I did leave off one huge thing–the sharing economy (with apologies to Tom Slee). Uber, Bixi, AirBnB–using technology for access control really is only recently possible, thanks to the evolution of IT payment and identity systems. And it really can make our collective use of property hugely different and better.