Machine Learning-Augmented Writing

This past weekend, I listened to a Reset podcast episode about AI being applied to writing.

There were two parts to the episode.

The first part dealt with schools using machine learning to grade kids’ essays, and how one parent attempted to figure out how the system was grading his child’s work after their homework kept receiving low marks.

I hope that my girls will be open to me helping them learn how to write better.  Having read a lot of papers and worked within a lot of organizations, it’s wild to me how ineffectively most people write, which can have a massive negative effect on their outcomes.

An ML engineer interviewed on the podcast episode roughly said that the results from utilizing ML for grading papers are highly dependent on how ML was implemented. This is basically saying, “it works on my machine”.

This seems so irresponsible in pretty much any context; what you want are additive tools that are foolproof and which are guaranteed to produce positive outcomes, especially in schools where teachers need tried-and-true tools.  If you can’t guarantee a positive outcome, why would you codify its use at scale?

This is like the attempt to jam computers into schools, without training or applications or even a valid use case to make use of them properly. Again, this produces few observable positive outcomes, but takes a bite out of a district’s bottom line.

The second part of the episode was an interview with Sigal Samuel (who also wrote about it) about using GPT-2 to bounce creative writing ideas off of for inspiration.

This seems to me to be a far more promising use case for ML than what pop culture envisions, which is handing off cognitive overhead of very large systems to AI.

I love the idea that you could have a companion with you, listening to what you’re saying, and giving you flashes of ideas or inspirations or even just keywords that light up new paths of thinking — in many ways this could be therapeutic (or depressing, if you follow the movie Her), it could unleash a lot of creativity (particularly for writers), but perhaps more skeptically, it could lead to suggestability.

That becomes less of a positive trait (help me navigate my ideas into new lands) and more of something that can be exploited (Your Own Littlefinger (TM)). I think Black Mirror sort of touched upon this in its most recent season episode featuring Miley Cyrus, whose digital likeness embodied in a toy figure changes behaviors of the children who own it.

We used to live in an internet time when people didn’t really consider the potential for undermining societies and governments with new technology, as we do now.  Digital utopianism aged poorly.  Now, at least, there are already efforts to explore the negative impacts of GPT-2, according to this OpenAI blog post:

  • Cornell University is studying human susceptibility to digital disinformation generated by language models.
  • The Middlebury Institute of International Studies Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC) is exploring how GPT-2 could be misused by terrorists and extremists online.
  • The University of Oregon is developing a series of “bias probes” to analyze bias within GPT-2.

Still, instead of having a Her/Alexa/Siri reporting home with all my queries, it would be nice to have a cyberpunkish augment that I could maintain myself, tweak as I like, and have it help me make faster, more creative decisions. Having a dialogue with this kind of augment would give me what I always seem to come back to in life and in my work, a blend of human and machine.

Mentorship and Squandered Opportunities

Do you have someone in your life who mentors you personally or professionally?

I spent the greater part of 3+ decades looking for mentors. I wasn’t a great student even through college, but I did recognize fairly early on that it made sense to get mentors. I knew that a good mentor would serve better than a professor, as the mentor would tailor the advice to my own experiences, and not speak generally and overly academically to a nameless student. I knew that a good mentor already had a map for where I could go, and would be able to provide specific feedback for what to do more or less of.

Like a lot of things in my life pre-internet, though, I didn’t even have the vocabulary or community to be able to know how to ask about what I was looking for.

Once I started using the internet, I found work, and with work, I found employers and friends who were unorthodox enough to have identified the internet as being useful, and who were willing to take a chance on a college kid to do the work since it was a limited job market at the time.

So, by the time I joined the Army, which had long-ago established a formalized vocabulary and process for long-term training and mentorship, I had some other people in my life who would look out for my long-term career, and who would keep me on the straight path, and who cared about me as a person long after I stopped working with them.

Eventually I moved into software development in the 2000s, which still did not have a great environment for mentorship unless you worked at large organizations. Hero, 100x, unicorn coders who were assholes but brilliant at coding were what everyone wanted to find. They would get promoted to management by virtue of being brilliant, even if they were toxic.

At my current employer, I advanced to become a manager of managers. For me, without the plethora of information now being posted online and published in books and released as podcasts for new managers, I’d be far less effective at my job and would be employing barbaric management methods that led to the pointy-haired boss stereotypes of the did-not-age-well Scott Adams.

Where did all this excellent management guidance come from? Well, the larger and newer tech companies like Facebook, Etsy, and Google have raised scores of veteran managers who have had to apply traditional management structures to agile methodology and startup pace. These veterans immediately realized the benefit of sharing on the internet and they quickly published what they already knew was a nascent skill in the industry: how to develop software engineering teams into force multipliers.

Rituals are now built in to expectations for software developers: weekly or fortnightly 1-on-1s, career paths, investment in coaching and team management training, etc. Instead of hiring coding savants and letting them do whatever for half a year between check-ins, a close touch and high-empathy/communication is a requirement for promotion.

So, that’s where we are today. If your organization ISN’T like this, it’s going to be lagging behind.

With all that in mind, why is it then that people continue to neglect opportunities to be mentored?

Here are some (but not all) potential reasons:

  • People don’t think they need the help.
  • People don’t know what having a great mentor is like.
  • People are afraid to ask, even when given permission.

People Don’t Think They Need the Help

If this is true, then it could be interpreted in several ways. The job market for engineers is frothy; there’s almost no friction (besides horrible interview processes) for moving from one coding role to another for most people. In many cases it’s the best way to get a promotion or get more money. So people almost never feel the pressure to find a different job, and so why would they ask for extra help?

Another interpretation is that people just think they know all they need to know already. This seems scary to me. Say you’re a decent coder; wouldn’t you want to reach out to others for guidance and help? How do you know what you don’t know unless you research and talk to people? In fact I might go so far as to want to ask someone if they do have any good mentors, because it might indicate if they sought help, and/or if anyone wanted to help them.

People Don’t Know What Having a Great Mentor Feels Like

Mentorship is super hard. For an introvert, it’s one of the most draining things you could do. You have to be engaged, sensitive, and able to produce results if someone is reaching out to you. This isn’t like coaching, where you provide ideas or methodologies that are ultimately on that person to implement and succeed at; mentoring in many cases is opening doors for people and there’s a stronger sense of delivering a win.

A lot of things have to go right for a mentor to resonate with a mentee. They have to have chemistry between each other. The mentor has to be empathetic, and have the respect of their mentee. They have to roughly agree on the perspective and potential options.

So, most people who could potentially be mentors have never been put in a position to work that muscle. As a result, you have mentor relationships which are almost always dictated by power: a more senior ranking person is mentoring a more junior person. Do you have mentors who you’ve never even worked for?

Now, just imagine you knew the market for mentors/mentees better. You had more narratives to read that showed how a relationship like that positively impacted someone’s life. Wouldn’t you take it more seriously as a career path requirement? Wouldn’t you want more people helping you succeed?

As a related example, my employer paid for me to get professional coaching. I was skeptical at first, likening it to therapy (not a new concept in the northeast). But it was transformative. Imagine someone listening to you speak about difficult situations at work and how you can understand what you’re thinking and feeling, and then combine actionable solutions with your own personality. It was a massively enabling experience to me, and it allowed me to figure out how to map what I want with what I’m doing.

I just can’t see that once you’ve worked with a great team or mentor, that you’d ever want to put yourself in a position where you didn’t have that anymore, if you had a choice.

People are Afraid to Ask, Even When Given Permission

If someone says to you, “Hey, reach out to me if you ever need anything,” that’s an open invitation to do so.

The way to frame this is that it is your professional responsibility to ask for help. To stay silent is hurting yourself, for sure, but it’s also hurting those around you, because they’re not receiving the best potential version of you.

So, stop with using this as an excuse. Each of us needs all the help we can get to succeed, and even if it’s against every one of your impulses, you need to reach out to other people.

A Community of Support

I had mentors when I was a web designer in the 90s and mentors when I first started software development in NYC. I didn’t have mentors when I lived in DC doing security/policy or when I was in the Army, but those worlds also had their own strict frameworks that pretty much provided a (less specific) mental map for me to set a direction and head for it. Ultimately I realized their destinations where not where I wanted to go.

I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am without mentors, and I always knew (and still remind myself daily) that I would need mentors to help me become a better person. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t.

Choose Your Own Commentator

The next logical step for ramping up our media consumption of pop culture/memes/entertainment is for us to pick which commentators we want to listen to for our event streams.

Right now we’re locked into whoever — god knows the criteria by which they’re chosen — is under contract to be doing commentary. Sometimes you get real winners like Walt Clyde Frazier or Stephen Colbert or the Inside the NBA crew. Other times can be…horrific. Like Mark Jackson.

Who can forget having to listen to years of Bill Walton crush our will to have the ability to hear during the NBA playoffs?

What if you didn’t have to deal with the Boogermobile on Monday Night Football?

Talk to a lot of basketball fans. They’ll tell you that sometimes the best feeds to watch are the ones that don’t cut to commentary or entertainment during halftime and timeouts. They keep the microphones and cameras on the court. There’s not that much direct audio, but you just see so much meta context during the game breaks and you feel like you’re really getting a deeper experience.

The Perfect Time

Streaming on Twitch, Facebook, YouTube, etc. is so widespread right now. It’s part of peoples’ normal routines to the point where they don’t even subscribe to cable, or if they do, they may not even use their cable some days.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Hulu are packed with more content than most people could ever consume already.

Live-tweeting political and sporting events is pretty common, and the experience of consuming these things at home with large TVs and nice audio setups and headphones pretty much outclasses any other experience (sometimes even being at the actual event). For your typical sports fan, you’d probably have a better idea of what was happening in the game at this point while watching on TV than going to the game. So much context is lost unless you know something well enough to pick up on the details on your own, or with your group of like-minded companions.

Choice

Content creators have been experimenting with demographics, being inclusive or exclusive to them. You get embarrassments like terrible pop country acts or silly kid pop music at NBA games, or milquetoast acts like Coldplay at the Superbowl Halftime Show.

Why would it not make sense to be able to tune in to the event of the year but listening to the people you want to hear instead of what the network’s decided for you to hear? If you loathe, say, Jason Witten’s knuckle dragging commentary, wouldn’t you like to be able to tune in to another commentator team’s stream?

What if we could collectively bid on Tony Romo to perform an audiostream for the winning sporting event on a Sunday afternoon?

Some of the gamers I watch will post videos of their own perspectives and audio streams of the same match they’re all playing in. I will watch each of their versions just because I enjoy their chemistry, not because I might see something particular different from their perspectives (although I might, depending on what the format is of what they’re collaborating on).

So the obvious answer I guess is that networks would be afraid of losing control; they also need to provide a consistent ad experience.

Covering All Your Angles

But wouldn’t breaking up the audio into different streams actually help? Sure, the companies with rights to broadcast would not want anyone to be able to hijack their video and add on their own content layer. But the companies you’d think would be able to farm out the commentary to licensed teams, with the stipulation that they all have to go off the same schedule and commercial breaks.

If you carve up the commentators, and try to attract the best talent, now you’re able to provide a view of an event through someone’s eyes that you may be willing to listen to: a casual fan stream, a pop culture stream, a super-technical insider baseball stream, the non-football fan Superbowl stream, etc.

This would be pretty exciting! On reddit you’d see a thread hyping the upcoming Democratic primary, because Jon Stewart just announced he’d be doing one of the live audio streams. Or maybe Bill Simmons is going to cover game 5 of the Celtics-Lakers series. The meme potential can be pretty huge. You could switch between the streams during an event. You could measure performance between the different commentator teams — their own competition, in fact. Shit, with gambling on sports now being legal, you might as well go to the next level of meta and start placing bets on how the commentators will perform that night. In terms of representation, you could get different gender/race combos covering the event.

From a business point of view, it really seems like a way to cut off competitors at the pass as they try to find some unique angle to show the content that your company has for some reason decided not to (or been unable to) cover. If you have 360 coverage of an event (with commentary, with cameras around the entire playing field, with Moneyball stats), there’s not much a competitor could do to chip away at you. Probably a bad thing for consumers, but I’m just trying to figure out why this hasn’t happened yet.

Things I Keep Coming Back To: Extreme, III Sides to Every Story

I’m fully aware that we consumers are products of our teenage years, and that our musical tastes are often formed for good during that same period.

However, in my case, that formation of my tastes also occurred at the exact same period in which big hair rock and rock in general died as grunge became big, and the album died as MP3s, MTV music videos (as much as I love them), and the internet destroyed it.

Having since lost the concept album as well as the music video, I think it’s fair to reminisce back to my adolescence despite the cliché of it.

I mean, here’s some of the new music videos this week (when I wrote this):

Basically, music videos now appear to be photo shoots in video form. A stylist comes in, sets the look, and they just take video of the artist. Instagram set to music. Bite-size content. The music is forgettable, and the video content is forgettable except for the stylist’s portfolio and the director’s résumé.

A lot has been written about the death of the album, and I myself wrote about the death of the music video.

With all that setup, let me then just leave it all there, and start up a new recurring segment of this blog where I try to figure out why certain things have stuck with me over the years.

At some point I wanted to write about the albums that meant the most to me throughout my life, but I sort of realized that I don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of, say, ?uestLove. I should probably just do me.

So, one of the few albums that keeps coming back to me is Extreme’s III Sides to Every Story.

Extreme was a “funk-metal” band from the 80s and 90s. I associate knowing about them solely through BMG and Columbia House as well as from their MTV music videos which were less of their rock songs and more of their ballad-type songs.

From that, I somehow ended up getting this album, bringing the CD with me as I moved, and always wanting to re-listen to it.

It wasn’t until I tried to write a blog post including it that I could make an educated guess about why I enjoy it so much.

The album itself, according to Wikipedia, was one of the last “concept albums” before singles became big.

From Wikipedia:

The album is structured as a concept album in three sections labeled as “sides” — a play on the notion of “different sides to a story” and that of “sides” of an album (in LP and cassette media). The sides, mentioned in the song “Cupid’s Dead” as “three sides to every story” are named “Yours”, “Mine” and “The Truth”, and each features a distinct musical style and lyrical imagery.

Yours is made of hard rock songs, the guitar-centric style which the band had explored the most on their previous albums. Their funk-metal tendencies are present in tracks such as “Cupid’s Dead”, which also features a rap section performed by guest John Preziosa Jr. As a whole, this side deals with political subjects: war (“Warheads”), peace (“Rest In Peace”), government (“Politicalamity”), racism (“Color Me Blind”), media (“Cupid’s Dead”). Summing up these matters, the side closes with “Peacemaker Die”, a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., which features a recording of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Mine, in total contrast, deals with introspective subjects. In accordance, the band departs from its guitar sound and experiments with different arrangements on this side, with Nuno Bettencourt playing keyboards in addition to (and in some tracks, instead of) the guitar. The side opening song, “Seven Sundays”, is a slow waltz with prominent keyboards and no guitars. “Tragic Comic” is a mostly acoustic track telling a light-hearted love story. “Our Father” is sung from the perspective of the child of an absent father (although many interpret the song to be dealing with God as The Father). With “Stop The World”, the album starts to delve into more philosophical questions, expressing existential doubts — a theme that leads to religion, with “God Isn’t Dead?” (written with the verb form as an affirmation but with a question mark — the chorus says “Please tell me God isn’t dead… I want to know”) and “Don’t Leave Me Alone”, a dramatic plea. The latter was not included in the CD version because of lack of space; Nuno Bettencourt recalls leaving it out “was like cutting off my arm”. Despite not being bound by the limitations of the CD format, the version of the album downloadable from iTunes also omits “Don’t Leave Me Alone”.

Finally, The Truth consists of a three-part opus, titled “Everything Under The Sun”, ending the three-part album. This side nods to progressive rock not only in format but also in musical style, with changes in time signature and an intricate arrangement, featuring a 70-piece orchestra. Lyrically, the spiritual theme set up in the end of “Mine” is further developed and Christian imagery is very present,

I fully accept that most people who’ve heard this album would regard it as “garbage”. Like any person who’s ever loved a song, artist, or album, this only makes me more fond of it.

Extreme’s influences were supposedly Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and Queen. Now, I guess every band of their time were influenced by those bands, but I definitely fall into the bluesy-rock family of music with my love for Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Guns n’ Roses.

The first “side” of the album definitely reminds me of Axl Rose’s attempts at artistic narrative in Chinese Democracy (including the obvious audio clips of MLK Jr), while the third side reminds me of GnR’s epics November Rain, Don’t Cry, and Estranged. The second side aligns with GnR’s Dead Horse, Get in the Ring, The Garden, etc.

What I adore about all these songs is that they take me away from where I am, to a world of imagination that I’ve only closest explored when I was a teen exploring BBSs, early online gaming networks, and the mostly textual world of the 90’s/naughts internet. They put me into a contemplative and meditative state immediately.

In the old days, context was added through liner notes, music videos, and interviews in Rolling Stone and Spin. These days, none of those previous things mean anything. But for music, it’s not as though context has just transitioned to social media, at least from the artist’s perspective. The ability for a listener to find new music and control that experience is incredibly easy; just search Spotify, or even better yet, have Spotify’s ML search related songs for you.

Some bands do use fan newsletters, and I guess you could listen to some podcasts (I finally made the leap to listening to podcasts, primarily for engineering management advice and for NBA commentary). But really the conversation with the band and the audience happens even less now than it did before; unless you’re someone who’s been Baned into social media and you also happen to be a musician, you’re not so likely to be able to parlay the 2 worlds together in the same way that, say, Taylor Swift does.

That is to say, really the winners in music seem to be the listener and the marketer — the artist still relies on a lot of hard work and hustle in order to build an organic following, and most artists don’t have the energy, time, or knowhow for it. Social media is such an uncontrollable train that artists can’t really do a slow build. They’re really just bit players in a continually spinning engine of fleeting relevancy.

To me this robs an artist of the ability to transport listeners far away, or to construct a new environment within which to just be — Extreme was able to do this with their album, and I’ll always be thankful for that.

On Humor

If I were to explain my childhood to other people, the most understandable story I could tell would describe my relationship to television.

Both my parents worked, and I generally preferred to spend a lot of time by myself. My parents always had cable TV, and I gravitated towards the typical kids’ shows: Peewee’s Playhouse, Muppet Babies, The Real Ghostbusters, Dungeons & Dragons — pretty much the entire Saturday morning lineup. I think for the weekday lineup I watched a lot of Voltron for some period of time.

But as I got older, I gravitated towards comedy. I watched the Comedy Channel, which eventually turned into Comedy Central. The main draw for me there was a constant stream of clips of comedians’ best bits: Paula Poundstone, Ellen DeGeneres, Larry Miller, Brian Regan, Sam Kineson, Denis Leary, Richard Jeni, Gilbert Gottfried, Kevin Pollak, Sinbad. I knew episodes of Spitting Image and Saturday Night Live by heart. I’ve watched Police Squad, Sledge Hammer!, and Night Court probably thousands of times. The Naked Gun series defined my adolescence, and it was only later that I realized just how poignant the baseball game scene was in Hollywood history.

I was a little too young to understand Andy Kaufman, Garry Shandling, Andrew Dice Clay, the HBO adult series like Dream On (which was a titty landmine for me to navigate if my parents were home). It really wasn’t until I was older that I learned how important Shandling, Joan Rivers, Bob Hope, Redd Foxx, et al were for comedy.

For what it’s worth, I also seemed to skip the generation that was really into MST3K (I felt it was trying to be too clever), Bill Maher, and Curb Your Enthusiasm (too uncomfortable). I loved Jackass but none of its descendents, and I never could get into Impractical Jokers or other awkward-bait.

I used to listen to Howard Stern daily as a high schooler. By sheer good luck, Stern’s show was played in Dallas, and it served as my wakeup at 5-6am and as the tail end of my drive from one high school to another around 9:30-10am.

All this is to say my childhood was saturated with comedy. While at work and school I am overcome with professionalism and trying to be a good role model and being overwhelmed with fulfilling responsibilities, I feel as though privately I depend on comedians to get me through the ugly, intentionally cruel world that I often witness. I think it would surprise a lot of people I know that I love slapstick comedy, puns, and joking around and being silly.

As a life lesson I feel as though growing up in Dallas in a fairly serious academic family, I could not overcome the environment to realize that comedy was a viable option or humor as a desired trait or feeling. My family loves puns but I see this as a degree of intellectualism and showmanship.

I now live in New York City, and for a spell, I lived in East Village. Walking to the Comedy Cellar was a casual thing — I saw Chris Rock try out some early jokes, and I got to know Gary Gulman as the funniest comedian most people don’t know. I got to see Reggie Watts and Hannibal Burress perform at UCB West at a very small show. Louis CK filmed his show in my hood. Comedy is a viable way of life in NYC.

I interned for a writer at The Colbert Report to work on developing software he started to handle script ideation, writing, and production. Being able to watch the creative comedy-writing process in the context of technology was fantastic.

I mean, I get it. We get interns at work who have lived in NYC their whole lives. If you grew up here, you would have had access to industries and domains like comedy, and you would have potentially been able to explore it and see people you recognized get stable careers there. Not that I would have necessarily gone into comedy, but I think it will stick with me for educating my kids that they will have less opportunity perhaps if they’re just exposed to less.

Let’s classify types of people by their humor.

There are people who are intentionally funny and unintentionally funny. You can also focus on slapstick humor or high-brow intellectual humor. But let’s collapse that for the purpose of discussion and focus on the energy certain types of people create to continue humor? Does the humor end with them, or can they recycle it into something funnier, or can they create humor from nothing at all?

Non-Funny People

This is most people. Perhaps they can tell an okay story, or even a joke, and they generally laugh at things, but they don’t create humor out of nothing on their own initiative. If they are exposed to humor at all, they are only passive consumers of it.

Remixers

People who memorize common response humor patterns to questions or prompts (e.g. “ur mom”, “tell that to my wife”). People who read reddit a lot and are attuned to the memes. This would also include people who iterate on memes, or who make self-aware over-played memes to be ironical.

This can go badly (as I will write about below) or produce the latest in internet content (meme lords). I think the latter grew out of youthemannowdog (RIP) and the former became big once reddit hit mega-mainstream circa 2015?

Artisans

Comedians like Gary Gulman talk about how they perfect the telling of their jokes. Each word is chosen for a reason, like poetry. Timing can make or break a joke.

Timing can make or break a joke, as Sacha Baron Cohen talked about. (~8:40 mark)

Story-Tellers

I would also consider comedians like Gary Gulman to be story-tellers. They might tell one story throughout a whole set. The story may not even be funny. But the story acts as a framework that the comedian can go back to. It keeps the audience engaged. This is a decent trick to use for anyone trying to speak in public. Tie it all back together, like Al Madrigal does in his shrimp special, which he sort of describes here:

Careerists

This is one of the benefits of living in NYC. You get a better sense of the different industries you’ve never had exposure to. You begin to realize that people you know are spending years performing, doing improv, doing shows, working through all the permutations of their ideas and talents and opportunities looking to find breakthrough. People like my friend Michael Bird, whose show I’ve only managed to see once but I thought it was some of the most impressive stuff I’ve ever seen.

If you watch shows about comedy, or listen to podcasts, or whatever, you get a feel for which comedians came up together, which generations they were a part of, which clubs they cut their teeth in.

Emcees

Emcees aren’t necessarily funny, but they have enough knowledge of working a crowd to know how to run a performance from start to finish. They can get people involved or cut boring people off. They set the pace and flow. As comedy relies so much on timing, emcees are crucial to maintain a dynamic flow that enables humor to occur naturally.

I’d also include terrible humor emcees here. The people who keep talking, long past the duration people want to hear it, but they are all hostages until the emcee is done. You’ve been in a meeting with one of these.

Therapists

Some say comedians are all in therapy, or need to be pretty fucked up in the head to be funny. But comedians are also the truth-tellers, those who say what no one else will. Patrice O’Neal for me was an exemplar of this.

Goofballs

I’ve known less than 5 goofballs in my life, but if I’m around them, I can’t stop laughing, and, for the most part, other people can’t either. Any little thing they say, even not meant in jest, has me dying with laughter. It’s the timing, the intonation, the inflections, the subject matter, the originality. A rare talent.

Cheetahs

One of the most reliable indicators of humor to me is how long it takes someone to get a joke. Watch this interview with Orlando Bloom, Zac Efron, and Zach Woods.

Bloom and Efron are savvy enough to know how to turn someone else’s comments into something to say, but it’s a) not funny and b) does not lead to more conversation.

Zach Woods, the least famous person on the stage, however, is captivating. He’s truly listening to the conversation and creating avenues for more.

Whenever you watch interviews involving comedians, just pay attention to how much faster they react to the joke. They’re major league hitters used to hitting fastballs.

Another venue for this: watching films, particularly comedy films. See if the audience laughs immediately, or avalanches onto laughter once enough people start laughing.

Ghosts

Ghost comedians can only be seen by certain people like Bruce Willis. They talk about something, crack some jokes, and no one’s laughing except that one person, who’s dying with laughter.

Alright, so where was I going with all of this?

Humor as a profession is at new heights right now. We live in seemingly dark times, across the political spectrum. Humor for me is an escape; I don’t particularly enjoy watching horror movies, or the local news, or cable news, or whatever. Comedy keeps me going. Captivation keeps me going. Innovation and trying new things keep me going. I spend a lot of time in meetings now and have talked to tons of people in the past. Now I’m getting a lot more deliberate about how I spend my time and I’m just really appreciating the people with the skills, experience, and talent to inject humor into my day. To better understand why they make my days much happier, I just want to disaggregate them a bit and get to know what it is that gives me so much joy.

Ethics in Software Engineering

Been a while since I’ve written. This blog isn’t a safe space for me anymore, for various reasons. Blogs written under one’s own name are not what they used to be. Personal blogs for shooting the shit don’t exist anymore; there are other places you do that now, while blogs exist as a long-form medium, and as a luddite refuge for those abandoning social media and returning to self-hosted.  Remember finger .plans?

I’ve wanted to write about ethics in software engineering for a long time. But afore-mentioned safety and familial/work priorities have consumed me. Also, once I started to gather links for writing about this, it was not soon thereafter that the whole Google employee mini-revolt happened, and those people spoke to everything with far more authority and experience than I or anyone I knew could.

Later I wrote a draft of this but didn’t publish it. Now I’m just banging out something quick, with less fucking boring writing flourish.

Let’s just state up front that cohesive industry ethics in software engineering is a non-starter. Doesn’t exist now, won’t demonstrate much power in the future. The idea that engineers can influence the course of industry is hopeless. My having worked with software engineers, most are either too self-centered, weak within the industry, soon to be cast asea by a wave of over-saturation, or demotivated to be significant influences on anything in general.

Though, it might be overstated that engineers are assholes for the most part. Individually the engineers I meet are cool, and they generally want to do no harm, and it’s usually they themselves who get in, well, get in their own way more than anything else.

The main problem I see is that engineers overlap a lot with the type of people who disengage. You know what I mean? Too jaded, too measured to actually join a party or pick a religion or take any sort of affiliation. On the sliding scale of “radicalization”, a Facebook post is the lowest bar to entry, while silence in the light of fretting over NYTimes and The Economist articles is the majority middle, and then marching is the pinnacle of activism. Those who have ambition for more are, usually, sociopaths whether they realize it yet or not.

So you have a bunch of engineers who actively avoid grassroots community, who shun all the major political blocs of power such as unions, religions, local government, etc. And not because they don’t have time (myself being a parent who’s struggling to stay on top of his own life, let alone anyone else’s), but because they lost faith in those institutions.

We’re going to expect these people to defend the rest of our institutions? We expect these people to not take a salary if it means compromising our own privacy, which is being used against us and weaponized by people who don’t give a shit about “good faith”?

I identify with a un-mobilized Gen XY group of people who remember the unbridled optimism for extreme sharing of personal information, when the Twitter API stoked the imaginations of developers everywhere and early adopters wanted to share anything and everything to explore where we could aggregate information for the public good.  It also seems so naive now, now that not only everyone and his mother have weaponized that data against weaker people, weaker institutions, and weaker voting districts.

After the revelations about Uber actively building tools to troll and confuse its competitors (e.g. Hell, which spied on Lyft drivers) or even cops (Greyball, which identified law enforcement and avoided them), and Cambridge Analytica sucking out data from Facebook’s API before Facebook began to lock it down more, thus allowing even an intern to work on simple scripts to calculate how best to gaslight specific demographics of voters, it just seems like we need to accept that it just takes a handful of engineers who don’t give a fuck to compromise the way of life of decent folk who just want to aspire to something a little better than what they had before.

Let’s just prepare for the worst.

Higher impact from an extremely small number of engineers means that you can’t hope that organizational friction will prevent people who don’t give a fuck about society and the social good from fucking up your life. At best, engineers want to work on cool problems with a cool company that’s going to net them a lot of money. At worst, engineers who know where their bread is buttered will do whatever it takes, even if the code they write is morally and ethically dubious.

To some degree they will chase whatever the “in” problem is.  Right now, the “in” problems are machine learning, deep learning, artificial intelligence, big data.  The distribution of easier and easier open tools to handle these problems (like TensorFlow) combined with the ease of using cloud computing dramatically drops the barrier to entry for developers.

Even if most engineers chose not to use these tools to manipulate governments or citizenry, or to allow paramilitary or military to control citizenry more, there will always be enough engineers to cobble together something that can accomplish the goal.

The common good of algorithmic and tooling leveling up by companies such as Google, Uber, etc. are going to be weaponized by authoritarian governments as well as people who never succeeded at anything at life unless it was defrauding other people.

Engineers for the most part don’t even need to willingly write code that can be used against ethical boundaries.

Engineers can easily deceive themselves into seeing code without any humanistic or moral concerns. And it will be easy to justify the widespread abuse of androids once we have them; people are easily cruel, and Spielberg’s A.I. is no exaggeration of our inevitable future, if we can’t even treat refugees, poor, and minorities with human decency. Engineers will help sow the seeds of discontent.

Engineers can solve most of the difficult problems in completely unrelated realms of knowledge; all it takes is someone with the knowhow to cobble that code together, remixing and repurposing it for whatever nefarious task s/he wants.

This is the core inevitability of technological progress: the massive, rapid tearing down of barriers to entry.

So, I am pessimistic about engineers, who are not unionized and who have nothing like the Hippocratic Oath.  I doubt that there will be a unified stance against obviously morally and ethically wrong projects, let alone morally ambiguous projects.

On April 12, DefenseOne published an article that landed like a bombshell within Google. Drawing upon conversations with Pentagon officials, it revealed that Project Maven was actually a pilot project for future collaborations between Google and the military. In particular, Project Maven was part of Google’s push to win the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract.

JEDI is the military’s next-generation cloud that will network American forces all over the world and integrate them with AI. It’s basically Skynet. And all the big cloud providers want to win the contract because it’s worth $10 billion.

Google engineers from several different parts of the company — cloud, AI, communications, the Google Brain team, and DeepMind, among others — strongly objected to Project Maven, which would have provided machine learning assistance for military drone targeting.

As they can. They have the luxury of a job for life, for their resumes grant them free passage throughout the kingdom. Google on your resume means you’re golden.

Despite the ethical issues, it’s hard to blame companies like Google and Amazon for taking dubious contracts or working in China or whatever. It makes a lot of sense in the long run. Those companies have no obligation to take a stand, even after the CSR movement.

Like most fucking things in life, everything happens according to the easiest plan, except those things that don’t: underdogs, the exceptions to the rule, the times when people said fuck it.

Those are the things I want to care about and focus on. Who fucking cares if it’s ultimately successful? It’s drawing your red line, and sticking to it. Those are the moments worth remembering.

But Google will eventually be over-run. Facebook already has been. Twitter already has been.

What’s worth remembering in that story? Perhaps the morsel that there were Google engineers who became known as the “Group of Nine”.  I wasn’t able to find much on who they are, but perhaps Tyler Breisacher and Liz Fong-Jones were part of the movement.

Let’s also give Rekognition to Amazon employees for their letter, which demanded that Amazon ban Palantir, “the data firm that provides intelligence to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), from using AWS in light of widespread outrage surrounding immigrant detention practices at the border.”

Microsoft?

“Microsoft C.E.O. Satya Nadella, on the other hand, has defended his company’s work with ICE, saying that Microsoft assists the agency only with “legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads.” And even if some Silicon Valley companies step aside, others will inevitably arise to take their place. Palantir, NBC News reported this week, made more than $4 million last month alone from its ICE contract, which began in 2015. In March, Thomson Reuters Special Services reportedly signed a $6.8 million contract with ICE, using data targeting to help “locate, arrest, and remove criminal aliens.” And Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which publicly denounced the Trump administration’s child-separation policy, signed a $75 million contract in September 2017 to run the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s network operations center.”

I used to work for a sub-contractor for DHS — while there are definitely worthwhile projects going on within DHS and its agencies, there is little in the way of a moral compass guiding projects which could easily slide into abuse as opposed to safety.

Okay, so there’s no middle ground. The industry is doomed to provide its brightest minds to enable the most evil of intentions. Where do we go from here?

Some people think we should pledge to whistleblow and refuse to take part. I think it’s rarely this clear-cut; typically you’re in too deep before you even realize you were a part of it.

I think the solution is to swear to a Hippocratic oath (ACM has a code of ethics, as an example) and build parallel institutions, starting from zero participants and only taking in those who not only want to work for ethically-minded companies, but companies themselves who only pursue ethical businesses and internal practices.

It’s the only way to actively dissuade profiteers, as well as to keep out and identify information operations geared towards bribing those profiteers and wedging them between everyone else.

It allows communities with fewer controls and less rigid oversight to let edgelords and trolls know that they are not welcome even if they’re just joking around lol.

It allows us to break away from trying to convince people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey that their complacency with their platforms are enabling the most evil of society while harming the weakest of society.

It helps create a foundation for markets which don’t need to rely on inherently morally dubious business to succeed.

It helps engineers and companies refuse to hire assholes, destructive opportunists, and mercenaries.

It forces people who want to take part in a better society to actually stake their claim to it, and take a stand.

It gives individuals some leverage to begin saying to more powerful people, “You fucked with me. Now you’re cut off. For life.”

Where do I fucking sign?

A List of Books I Read in 2018

  • 2018 Goal: 25 BOOKS
  • 2018 Actual: 27 BOOKS

Books I read in 2018:

I spent 2018 trying to learn as quickly as I could for new roles: father of a 1-2 year-old, an engineering lead and manager, and director of engineering needing to contribute to product vision and roadmaps.

As a result, my book-reading was oriented towards that. I ended up re-reading Phoenix Project and Game Programming Patterns; they’re just so, so good and so applicable.

I rated 6 of the 27 books as 10s. The number of women I read this year was extremely low, unfortunately. Books on tech continue to be lackluster, and I rely on a layered approach of reading dozens of articles in order to figure out how to use new technologies. Info ops and the reporting on them are out in the open now — it would have been hard to imagine that stuff maybe 5 years ago.

Next year I’m going to have another child in the apartment, but I think my contributions at work will begin to hit a good stride and hopefully my team will begin to unlock its force multiplication effects.

As a result I’m going to just re-use my goal for 2019 at 25 books again.

And once again, if you can suggest books written by good journalists, I’d love to hear about them!

A List of Books I Read in 2017

  • 2017 Goal: 15 books
  • 2017 Outcome: 21 books

In 2017, I spent my first full year as a father, and I was busy at work helping to build a lot of infrastructure.

There were a lot of books I rated as a 10 this year (8/21).  I was surprised at how stellar these books were; true delights to read.  A full 1/3 (7/21) of the authors were female, the highest percentage for me to date.

In terms of my reading habits, I’ve fully transitioned away from reading a dedicated Kindle tablet to reading on my iPhone’s Kindle app on the slightly longer Brooklyn-Manhattan commute.  I also began reading way more news links via my phone (versus my PC) than I used to, but Twitter is still the primary source of reading material.  In general I’m reading fewer links from Twitter and social media in general as I don’t have much time to browse at work.  I stalled out trying to read some highly-rated scifi novels (generally a bad move for me) and some cooking memoirs that were busts.  I tried to augment my parenting education with some fairly popular books.  With regards to software engineering, I find that blog posts have become indispensable and excelsior sources of information, as different companies’ engineering departments tend to have pretty competitive and detailed blogs.  I have a backlog of hardcopy books because I don’t have many opportunities to read them (it’s tough for me to read an actual book on the subway since it typically requires 1.5+ reasonably available hands).

I would suspect in 2018 I will read more books than last.  Work will be less of research and experimentation than it was last year, so I should have more time for recreational learning instead of work-focused learning.  I’ll set 2018’s goal to 25.

Feel free to look through my previous years’ lists of books.

Root Cause Analysis

Let’s talk about America and the gutting of its civic institutions for power and profit in the name of patriotism.

The overarching theme in my sparse blogging history since I left the military has been the exploration of what it means to be a patriotic American, gradually stripping away and discarding potential partial definitions in search of a distilled essence:

Basically, after PCSing out of the military, I wanted to reinforce in my own mind the integrity of the term “patriotism” in the face of a commandeered chickenhawk interpretation of American patriotism where he who waves the flag hardest is the most patriotic, regardless of any of his other actions.

Sacred cows have been slain in the last decade because of never-ending war, polarization in politics, and the battle to own the term “patriotic”; July 4th has become a vaguely gauche holiday, standing or kneeling for the anthem is a politically divisive act, and even hearing the phrases “thank you for your service” or “respect the troops” have veterans and servicemembers hearing red flags.  Good people have abandoned ritual, leaving it to scoundrels and opportunists.

What could I strip the definition of American patriotism down to, such that even the least principled, most opportunistic chickenhawk or troll couldn’t pollute it?

Meanwhile, professionally, I spent some years unifying my experience being an internet-American comfortable with social media with my career in analysis/intelligence.  For a couple years, I was full-time watching social media for emergency management.  In that position, part of our advantage was being able to suss out what was old news, what was poor eyewitness reporting, and what was truly new news.  In that time, the spread of social media into the daily consciousness was a benign thing in all ways except the distraction of checking one’s cellphone.  Fake news was not weaponized yet; fake news was unintentional, such as poor media literacy or poor eyewitness memories and testimony.  Our job at that time was to assess mostly reliability, whereas someone in the same role now might also have to assess malicious intent at a troll level or even at a state actor level.

After what I perceived to be not only a disastrous election result but also a deeply confusing one that I did not see coming, I was thrown for a loop.  What was wrong with how I perceived reality?  I am fairly skeptical in my prediction-making and assessments, but I misjudged this one pretty bad.  Why?  And how?  This had occurred even though I was deeply troubled after Obama won re-election, stating this on Facebook amidst a taunting, mostly liberal friend feed.

My friend feeds reveling in Republican loss but we're still a nation divided on core issues (how to provide economic…

Posted by Ben Turner on Tuesday, November 6, 2012

As a result of getting married, I gave up my Texas citizenship and changed my residency to New York.  I also enrolled in the Democratic Party.  Running up to the primaries and general election, I received several of the same survey in the mail, even after I submitted my answers.  The questions were all focused on the Republican party, and did not question Hillary’s nomination.  Most importantly, the options for which issues the Party should run on (the Democratic party!) did not include anything on education or single-payer/universal health care, despite evidence that there is hunger and precedent for it amongst Democrats.  Why would the Democratic Party leadership make such stupendously foolish decisions?

Now, months after the election, the news cycle is converging around a narrative where much of the confusion can be blamed on dezinformatsiya, a substantial and tremendously successful, yet low-cost disinformation campaign by Russia in an attempt to destabilize the United States and a world order which threatens Russian security, e.g. “How Russia Created the Most Popular Texas Secession Page on Facebook”.  While the scope of the campaign is not yet known, it involves Russia’s push for RT in American, Twitter bots, astroturfed protests, fake Americans, Facebook groups, etc. Essentially focusing American social media’s energies against itself. Weaponizing it. Sowing discord and discontent.

Fortunately, it appears that there are well-reasoned, stable, legitimate investigations into the degree to which these campaigns affected US elections. Personally I want to have a betting pool on which day we’ll inevitably label as Mueller Day, an annual day where we celebrate Mueller’s principled investigation toppling the Trumpist movement.  But that may never happen.  In the meantime, the US intel community provided some background on how to assess the impact including these crucial judgments:

Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations. We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.

We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.

Moscow’s approach evolved over the course of the campaign based on Russia’s understanding of the electoral prospects of the two main candidates. When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency.

Further information has come to light since Election Day that, when combined with Russian behavior since early November 2016, increases our confidence in our assessments of Russian motivations and goals. Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin.

Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US presidential election, including targets associated with both major US political parties.

We assess with high confidence that Russian military intelligence (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate or GRU) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data This report is a declassified version of a highly classified assessment; its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment but this version does not include the full supporting information on key elements of the influence campaign. iii obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets and relayed material to WikiLeaks.

Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. DHS assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.

Russia’s state-run propaganda machine contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences. We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.

It is tempting to lean wholly on this narrative of Russian complicity with Trump and the GOP — it explains a Trump victory, it explains what Putin has been up to to counter American hegemony, it explains the increase in vitriol online, where most normal people don’t have time to engage so much.

It is tempting to write off all blame on Russian interference, instead of questioning gerrymandering, or the internal divide in our politics, or the pervasive sense of injustice, or why our system was weak enough to be affected, and why we were not on alert enough to know what to look for, and why we did not protect the sanctity of our institutions.

For the Democrats, they were blinded by a sense of entitlement; Hillary is by far the most qualified candidate, so QED, she will win. But she had a high unfavorability among even loyal Democrats.  Bernie was attacked not only by core Democrats but also identified as a threat to Hillary’s nomination where it was more certain she would lose to a Republican candidate.  Debbie Wasserman Schultz inconceivably screwed up not only handling the email scandals, but hiring sketchy IT people, ignoring her constituency, and overall just perpetuating the illegitimacy of Florida politics. Her removal was a reactionary move and not a positive outcome.  She had burned all her capital.

Angela Nagle’s excellent book “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right” mentioned a provocative theory that the politically correct identitarian politics that dominated the left and annoyed the right for so long, peaking on Tumblr, caused a vacuum of other voices on the left, and this vacuum was eventually filled by the alt-right, and alt-left, who, somehow, had made conservatism cool, and even punk (!) by challenging cultural norms and thriving on irreverence and post-irony.

 

A Historical Aside

Let’s take a step back and think about how far the internet’s come.

I got my start on online networks using BBSs, Prodigy*, The Sierra Network/ImagiNation, and eventually MUDs via university telnet. Eventually web browsers unlocked a world not only of web pages but also of the ability to create your own pages. But there was no commercial incentive, the graphics still sucked, and everything was still primarily text-based. The dotcom era was a perfect storm of more interactive web sites, more consumer bandwidth, and unbridled optimism for social networking and the promise of profit.

In 2007-2009 or so, social media had advanced past the dotcom and bust stages of Gold Rush open API euphoria to a more stable, yet more walled garden-ish ecosystem of services which, at least in my career, was organized and standardized enough to be used to respond to emergencies and crises faster.  The main concern for my job was ignoring innocent bystanders who posted bad information because they didn’t know what they were talking about, and assessing who would be in unique positions to have a direct view of an emergency as it unfolded.

Another concern was having to manually link together disparate spheres of knowledge.  Jihadis were prolific in using social media because it helped to tie together their community across multiple countries without official channels.  But journalists were not yet on Twitter the way they are now.  Academics who may have known a lot about jihadi or criminal cultures certainly didn’t use computers or the internet any more than they had to.

The post-dotcom boom Internet up until 2014 or so represented the normalization of the online world amongst the broader population.  Dating online became more accepted. Buying food online to have it delivered became something you would sensibly do to save time. Amazon and Target deliveries changed regular spending and shopping habits. Obama-era campaign parties provided a left-wing answer to the more focused grassroots single-issue communities on the right.

Culturally, “normies” gentrified online communities of “casuals” and “autists” and the backlash came with the emergence of the ironists and trolls, who sought to exclude the newcomers from long-established communities online.

Meanwhile, internet architecture had improved such that more data could be organized online, and processed wherever.  More people relied on data being available to them online, too.  Hackers still have a field day to this day with unsecured systems.  Mostly all it took was will in order to get access to secret data.

Vulnerable Surface Area

For hackers, the proliferation of data and increased bandwidth and lagging security controls meant easy money.  For Russia, this meant a sensible, low-risk attack vector against a trusting, open internet and an American population conducive to sharing their opinions on it.  In 2008, a Russian KGB/foreign affairs/information warfare expert, Igor Panarin, got a lot of press for his theory that there would be a pending breakup of the United States into several different regions.

His background:

Panarin graduated from the Higher Military Command School of Telecommunications of the KGB (now the Academy of Federal Security Guard Service of the Russian Federation) in Oryol and the Division of Psychology of the Lenin Military-Political Academy (with a gold medal). In 1993 he defended his thesis for Candidate of Psychological Sciences, titled “Psychological Factors of the Officer’s Activity in Conditions of Innovations”. His Doctorate in Political Sciences was awarded by the Russian Academy of Public Administration in 1997 for a thesis titled “Informational-Psychological Support of the National Security of Russia”.

Panarin began his career in the KGB of the Soviet Union in 1976. After 1991, he worked in the FAPSI, then the Russian equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency, reaching the Colonel rank. His field of activity was strategic analysis and integration of closed and open information streams, information stream management in crisis situations, and situation modelling of global processes. He did strategic forecasts for the then President Boris Yeltsin. From 1999 to 2003, he worked as the Head of the Analytical Division of the Central Election Commission of Russia. From 2006 to 2007, Panarin was the Press Secretary of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos), the Russian analogue of the U.S. NASA.

Prof. Panarin started his teaching career in 1989 and has taught in the Moscow State University (MGU), the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University), the Russian Academy of Public Administration, and the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, where he has worked since 1999. He also carries out activities on his own. In 2004, he launched his official website.[citation needed] In April 2008, his first training seminar called “Information warfare – technologies for success” was held. It was targeted at top managers of state and business structures, press service managers of authorities and large corporations, anti-crisis management experts, and decision makers in time-deficit situations. On 20 May 2009, Panarin started World politics – his own weekly radio programme on the Voice of Russia radio.

Panarin is currently the dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s school for future diplomats and appears regularly on Russian television channels.

Legit af.

It would be interesting to me to have more access to his (mostly Russian-language) works.  I would wonder how much his ideas have permeated Russia’s operational plans, or if we are falsely attributing him to current events.

Post-Frontier West

So here we are. The internet has already lost its innocence after toxic corporatization of public spaces online, but now it has been violated by directed state-sponsored attempts to undermine the country under which much of the internet’s companies operate out of.

Memetic warfare, somehow (!!), is an actual thing!!

We have Mark Zuckerberg addressing the nation in a close-shot video that is akin to an apology video meme, while his company laid out a Root Cause Analysis and Performance Improvement Plan for itself in a classic engineering-focused style.

The Gold Rush of the dotcom era gave way to where we are now: a Wild West frontier where bandits pillage defenseless villagers and groups with ambition seek to wipe out all those who could stop them from taking over.  Social media companies have been exposed for having put off their social responsibilities for as long as possible under the guise of freedom of speech and non-responsibility for what content is posted on their neutral networks.

What happens next?

If you presume we do not have a government hostile enough to the fact that social media may have been corrupted to subvert American interests, then you wouldn’t expect the federal government to flex its muscles the same way it might have with the famed US Marshal Service, whose Marshals provided the only law some towns had in the Frontier West.  You might hope that social media companies do more to combat active state-actor disinformation and subversion efforts.  You would presume social media companies and governments would begin to officially share more information, as it appears they’re beginning to do now.

I enjoyed reading Nabiha Syed’s framing of the issue of how to confront fake news and promote free speech, particularly this (incomplete, as she points out) theory:

Third, and far less fashionable, is the idea that the First Amendment exists to promote a system of political engagement. This “collectivist,” or republican, vision of the First Amendment considers more fully the rights of citizens to receive information as well as the rights of speakers to express themselves. Practically and historically, this has meant a focus on improving democratic deliberation: for example, requiring that broadcasters present controversial issues of public importance in a balanced way, or targeting media oligopolies that could bias the populace. This theory devotes proactive attention to the full system of speech.

The republican theory, which accounts for both listeners and speakers, offers an appealingly complete approach. The decreased costs of creating, sharing, and broadcasting information online means that everyone can be both a listener and a speaker, often simultaneously, and so a system-oriented focus seems appropriate. But the collectivist vision, like the marketplace and autonomy approaches, is still cramped in its own way. The internet—replete with scatological jokes and Prince cover songs—involves much more than political deliberationAnd so any theory of speech that focuses only on political outcomes will fail because it cannot fully capture what actually happens on the internet.

It’s not clear what actions will be taken by these large entities, but a few things seem crystal clear to me:

One: the US as of 2017 has no plan to actively combat disinformation attacks and voting integrity hacks for any near-term elections, leaving us at risk for larger campaigns seeking to destabilize American interests. These campaigns could also be extended to other countries, since it worked so well in the US and perhaps for Brexit.

Two: the disillusionment with Silicon Valley has teeth. Before, the sentiment was constrained to people who wanted to cut the cord for cable, or who hate cellphones at dinner, or who want you to get real friends instead of talk online all day. Now, Silicon Valley will be perceived in a similar vein as Big Business, enabling the worst behaviors of monied interests who seek to take more and more away every year.  Companies will hide behind their algorithms, and poor decisions made now by humans will eventually be poor decisions made by AI, removing humans from feeling responsibility for their actions. How long will it be until engineers and developers seriously propose something like the Hippocratic Oath?

Three: the loss of American identity. American identities can be recreated for pennies by Russian intelligence operations. Valid American identities are sold on the deep and dark web for dollars. Because of things like Citizens United, now more money than ever can be represented as individual Americans just hoping to get you to change your view on something. If voting machine hacks actually happen (and we certainly know they can, given how easily and ubiquitously they have been hacked in the past), oops, all the sudden your legitimate vote was just used to vote for someone else.  Where are the protections for the atomic unit of American democracy, the American citizen?

Am I who I say I am, or am I really a Kevin Durant sockpuppet saying you suck for criticizing Kevin Durant?

Or am I the NFL commissioner’s wife attacking her husband’s detractors with my own sockpuppet account?

The tenor of online culture has changed, and it’s uglier and colder; read Mike Monteiro’s history of Twitter:

Twitter would have you believe that it’s a beacon of free speech. Biz Stone would have you believe that inaction is principle. I would ask you to consider the voices that have been silenced. The voices that have disappeared from Twitter because of the hatred and the abuse. Those voices aren’t free. Those voices have been caged. Twitter has become an engine for further marginalizing the marginalized. A pretty hate machine.

Biz Stone would also believe that Twitter is being objective in its principled stance. To which I’d ask how objective it is that it constantly moves the goal posts of permissibility for its cash cow of hate. Trump’s tweets are the methane that powers the pretty hate machine. But they’re also the fuel for the bomb Twitter doesn’t yet, even now, realize it is sitting on. There’s a hell of a difference between giving Robert Pattinson dating advice and threatening a nuclear power with war.

American Patriotism

Okay, so back to defining American patriotism.

What if I referred to the Army values: LDRSHIP, or Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Self-less service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal courage.

Is loyalty patriotic?  Not particularly.  In fact probably everyone values loyalty at some level, or at least justifies it to himself as being loyalty.

Duty? Respect? Honor? Personal courage? I think these values are easy to co-opt for your own interests and to look good when you want people to look at you. Think about Congressmen saying they are fulfilling their duty by “serving” in the House or Senate. Think of the “honor” of scumbag servicemembers or the personal courage of always voicing your opinion against a corrupt mainstream media or government.  These definitions can easily be twisted.

Well, what then about self-less service? This one is interesting to me. The removal of self from the equation, along with service (to others), means the calculus changes. I guess you could enhance your brand by volunteering, or you could be assuaging your own guilt about something, but the time element with no monetary reward means that you are sacrificing potential profit for helping someone else.  This is less easy to fudge or to fake.  You have to put in the time.  You’re not writing off profits from your taxes by donating.  You’re not a “not-for-profit” income-tax-protected-class church raising money but then squirming through explanations of why your church didn’t open its ginormous doors to displaced families like Joel Olsteen’s infamous interview (note the apologetic style similar to Zuck’s).

But would you define American patriotism as selfless service?

Making Sense of It All

In light of the evidence presented on a daily basis, and assuming Trump is a rational actor (I feel like this has to be stated; somewhat similarly most discussion about North Korea is most productive when it assumes North Korea is a rational actor and not just some crazy fat man-child with one finger on the button), the only theory that makes sense to me (and I have to make it clear that I don’t really think this could be possible) is that Trump, clearly a type who wants to make money at all costs and at everyone else’s expense, also is particularly vulnerable to flattery and machismo. Vladimir Putin’s overtures to Trump early on were highly successful, and Trump became open to suggestion. Putin, who is probably left with a lifelong scar of bitterness for the breakup of the Soviet Union, still profited off of the USSR’s breakup handsomely along with the other infamous oligopolists who took shattered government assets and assumed them for nothing, consolidated properties, and became massively rich.

To me, Trump’s willful animus towards American tradition and history does not come so much from deep Republican distrust of government spending, but because Trump has been convinced at some level by Putin that what happened in the USSR could stand to handsomely enrich him if it happened in the US.  Trump is certainly a member of the cosmopolitan class and so destabilization at the national level would hardly affect him — like most cosmopolitans, they could live happily and with identical lives in just about any major city in the world these days. His disdain for minorities would not be challenged, his lust for money would be sated, and his statements that are divisive with no seeming logic or theory behind them would make more sense.

Again, I don’t really believe this has happened, but it’s the only narrative I can think of that makes the most sense given all the evidence.  I just wanted to lay it out here because, well, what the fuck else am I going to do except worry about the country I love?

American patriotism, I think, partially involves optimism for the future.  Obama correctly and intuitively perceived this to be Hope.  Other countries do not necessarily have this vast wellspring of belief in optimism, because their geopolitics and culture do not allow it as well as America, with its relatively peaceful continent and bountiful resources, does.

But let’s go a step further and say that regions like the EU believe in a somewhat different form of hope.  They do see sense in policies that target poverty reduction, increase in education levels, etc.  This certainly qualifies as optimism for the future for all people, not just oneself, though it comes with a tinge of “this solution comes as a result of suffering and of trial and error”.  American optimism, I think, is embodied in Neil Armstrong’s partial quote, “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. How ever he actually intended that quote, the US seems to undertake grand projects that help mankind, but through ambition and wanting to leave one’s mark on the world, and less of a humanitarian purpose.

Would we ever see a grand project for eliminating poverty?  Perhaps if there were a technological solution for it.  But otherwise there is no compassion for the poor, no safety net for the unlucky, no sense of moral purpose to protect the innocent.  Being poor is being guilty before being proven innocent in the US, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

American optimism as a high-level concept is personified in leaving a grand mark upon history, but optimism for many of its immigrants, illegal and legal, is for a better future for one’s children.  What does that disconnect mean for us?

Russia and China obviously identified American optimism as a critical blindspot long ago. China saw the internet as such a threat that it constructed the Great Firewall to close off its internet from the rest of the world. It has since focused on shutting down key nodes in the resistance’s social graph, preventing influential protesters from organizing in realspace but allowing other meandering complaints to occur with freedom. Russia, stereotypically paranoid about its own insecure borders and withholding as much information as possible, sought to exploit America’s — and its citizens’ — free and somewhat irresponsible handling of information.

This is akin to projection psychology, and, if you subscribe to that theory, it makes it fairly easy to predict Chinese and Russian moves, particularly since it suggests they are actually doing the hard work of identifying their vulnerabilities (and yours) and then mobilizing to protect themselves while attacking you at it.  If China or Russia make a move against their people, then they have identified the exploit for it as being valuable enough to use on you.  It applies even here at home; how many times do we need to listen to calls for increased legislation around marriage, sex, the female body, sexual affiliation, etc. while seeing the people in power who propose it be convicted of offenses in the similar area? They are legislating in an attempt to contain their hardly controlled desires and impulses. Pray the gay away. Make women wear head scarves because you can’t control your dick. Censor the internet because your policies are unpopular. Repress guilt for your adultery by preventing even the most benign divorces.

This doesn’t come out of a valid, rational, well-evidenced alternative, this comes out of fear and insecurity about one’s own impulses.

I grew up in Dallas believing that the US was post-racial divide, sure, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that certainly is not the case.  Police brutality, and the kneeling for it, along with endless reports of sexual harassment of women, along with having lived in the southwest and in the northeast, have opened my eyes, even if I did not always want to see.

How much did it take for football players to lose their memories, or to lose their credibility as deeply-thinking human beings, in order for people to care about CTE and Colin Kaepernick‘s and Eric Reid‘s abilities to have informed opinions? It took a Trump election to change it for liberals. Would Ta-Nehisi Coates’s profound book be as powerful as it is now instead of yet another protest similar to reading a Greenpeace or PETA campaign? Would people still have responded as desperately to many of today’s issues if Hillary had won, and we could rest more assured that the arc of moral justice bends towards progress?  Now, are you as certain that that bending is true?

Imagine how other peoples’ perceptions of the above photo has changed since it first happened, after the repeated fatilities from police brutality, the Trump election, the “disrespect of the flag” debate, the dragging of veterans for some reason into this discussion.

Are we really certain of our principles and opinions on issues?  If we just got rid of the National Anthem at sporting events, perhaps this is a logical move since, well, why the fuck is it there to begin with? But have we enriched our culture by taking it away, or just leave an empty hole? Or is this like removing Confederate statues where some would say we should remember the past and others would say we should not celebrate the past. Would we have opinions on these matters that would shift in different contexts?

Proposal

I propose that we as a culture reaffirm the power of the individual vote. Just focus on that. Some (I don’t think I do, given studies that don’t necessarily show it helps) believe we should get a day off to vote. Enact measures that increase the percentage of eligible Americans who can vote. Enact policies that encourage non-voting blocks who long gave up on the system to re-engage. Put research, people, money, and innovation into secure voting methods and machines (or paper ballots if those make more sense) that implement modern-day advances in social media (the complaint about American Idol being more reliable than our voting systems). I would imagine the Electoral College is a disincentive too towards any reaffirmation of the power of the vote. Halt Citizens United and require transparency in campaign funds, even if just temporarily to solidify the mission around individual votes.

I know that is an unrealistic proposal and it probably weakens the rest of this essay for some readers, but to me it is the most actionable, most grassroots political, most confidence-inspiring thing that could be done, rather than high-up deals made behind closed doors between groups that have no connection with the American people anymore.

As for foreign corruption of our institutions, well that seems like it hardly needs to be mentioned. And we are still dealing with the shock that it even needs to be addressed. Can we not conduct politics in such a way that we need to collude with hostile foreign nations in order to succeed? That seems like pretty low-hanging fruit to me.

An Ode to Coke Zero

Back when I was in grad school in Washington DC, I wrote a brief blog post about my love for Coca-Cola Zero.  I didn’t get into much detail there, so 9 years later, as I still drink Coke Zero regularly, I wanted to revisit the topic in greater depth.

I wanted to cover it especially before the rumored sunsetting of the Coke Zero branding, which is being replaced (allegedly), with Coca-Cola No Sugar, which will taste more like regular Coke but is otherwise the same except for lacking sodium benzoate.

To establish my cred, I probably drink Coke Zero every day.  It’s a regular staple of my diet.  If people finally discover it contains carcinogens, I’m most likely a dead man.  I’m sure I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on this stuff.  I’ve got my wife hooked onto it.  At Georgetown, several classmates got hooked on it.

History

I don’t know much about the history of Coke Zero, but according to its wiki page, it was created to be primarily targeted towards men, since Diet Coke was seen as a product for women.  It was released in 2005 but was piloted in several different iterations prior to that.  It got an early start with white packaging.

The Taste

Taste of course is the primary reason I love Coke Zero.  Function is crucial.  For someone who doesn’t want to drink just plain water, who doesn’t like seltzer, who doesn’t like tea or coffee (despite British parents who have long since assimilated into American society), but who needs caffeine for 18-20 hour days, who enjoys a sweet drink paired with even the most sophisticated meal, Coke Zero delivers in every way.  In a post HFCS world, where my taste buds are no longer receptive to 20-35g of sugar in a beverage, the artificial sweetener in Coke Zero (aspartame), is a modern solution to a 90’s and naught’s problem.

In short, we have a sugar-free caffeinated sweet all-purpose beverage.  It checks all the boxes.

And yes, Coke Zero on-par with Diet Coke.  At this point, the main differences between the two come down to taste and availability.  Diet Coke is almost always more available than Coke Zero, but I prefer the taste of Coke Zero.  Diet Coke apparently contains more caffeine than both regular Coke and Coke Zero.

The Bottle

The primary vessel for drinking Coke Zero, at least for me, is the legendary 20 fl oz bottle.  According to Coca-Cola’s official chronology, the contoured bottle first came into production in about 1915.  The plastic variant emerged during the rise of plastics in the 90’s, in 1993.

The perks of this perfect design? The contoured design (along with textured bumps) fit the hand naturally, allowing for less slip and more grip.   The design is a disadvantage for packing and space management, since there’s more wasted space in the silhouette than, say, in the aluminum can footprint.  But that’s not my problem.

The cap of a bottle is crucial.  For me being on the go in school, in NYC, popping my Coke Zero bottle in my bag while on a flight or on the subway, the screwable cap means I can save my drink without having to finish it in one go, like I would with a can.  And as my life is primarily sitting in front of a computer writing code, having a cap means that any slip ups I have won’t spill Coke Zero all over my laptop.

The Branding

Regular (Classic) Coke has traditionally had a red background.  Diet Coke took a silver backdrop to denote its lack of sugar.  The Coke Zero line has been predominately black in color.  Coke Life, added recently and using cane sugar (who cares?), is primarily green.  Coke No Sugar appears to still be predominantly black but with a large red element.

Within those primary delineations, sub-flavors will add minor color hints, such as the Cherry Coke Zero adding a cherry image, or Vanilla Coke Zero adding a vanilla-ish yellow-tan color.  In doing some research for this post, I also discovered that in Europe there’s a blood orange variant, Coca-Cola Light Sango, evidently existing because Holland loves Coke:

I have no real opinion on the branding for the products except that colors largely seem to make sense.  I talked about the Coke Zero label in the past blog post being a designer’s worst nightmare, what with awkward kerning and lettering that gradually increased in thickness from fat to thin from left to right to denote fewer calories/carbs.

Coke has since dropped that original amateurish Coke Zero label and brought the design into the main Coke design fold, but with a black background.

My Coke Rewards

For a while in 2016, I figured I might as well take advantage of the number of bottles I was buying and thus take part in the My Coke Rewards program.

Basically Coke developed a web site where you could enter codes off Coke products in order to translate your purchases into reward points, which were eventually redeemable for Coke-themed products, cash/vacation/etc. lotteries, etc.

I was pretty impressed that Coke was able to put together a team which built this online platform and had it working fairly well.  The site was slow to a degree (as is common with leviathan companies which create promo sites) but it worked for the most part, though I’m fairly sure its internals felt like a mid-naughts-era web design stack.

I entered a ton of codes, which meant I had to sit there with bottle caps on my desk and type in all the codes on them.

Obviously this became too laborious and I was pretty much entering sweepstakes with my points anyway, as the platform had little stickiness or payoff.  I eventually stopped using it.

Availability

This is the biggest thing that sticks in my craw when it comes to Coke Zero.

Why is it that pretty much any store I go to, there are shelves and shelves of classic Coke and maybe Diet Coke, but there’s always a sold out shelf of Coke Zero?  If you were selling your product at stores, would you not readjust your inventories to reflect customer preference?  Would you not allocate more shelf space towards Coke Zero and stock less of the other versions of Coke?

This has happened to me at enough different, scattered locations that there is only one explanation:  either Coca-Cola or the stores who sell its products do not see Coke Zero as a viable product outside of being an alternative to classic Coke to capture a specific demographic, or Coca-Cola believes that even its own alternative products (Coke Life, Coke Zero), are threats to the sanctity and bona fide original classic Coke flavor.

I could understand that if, in Coke’s world view, a Coke product became more popular than the flagship classic Coke, then this would spin the company into an identity crisis where it was no longer known for whatever “Coke” means these days as an international brand but instead as a beverage company rotating through easily replaceable drink brands.

Whatever the motive, this often means that I have to plan out at least a small bit about which store I go to, depending on the reliability of that store to stock Coke Zero for me whenever I may want it.

Final Words

For me, Coke Zero is one of those few consumer goods I would legitimately classify as deserving of brand loyalty and fanaticism; it hits the mark in every category.  While we live in an era of unlimited choice, what that often means is we’re forced to make compromises.  But Coke Zero is a legitimate 10 out of 10.