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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces



Archive for the ‘In lieu of social media’ Category


no words

I’ve been having a bit of a rollercoaster time at work; nothing you need to bother your giant head about, but this week has been a mix of incredible highs, and also some really hard introspection.

One of them, which will seem silly to regular readers of this blog (who are the only ones left right now, and I’m not even sure what “regular” means in this context), is having to admit to a co-worker that I have terrible writer’s block and have had for… ooh, thirty years or so? I remember reading somewhere that “writer’s block didn’t exist” and I think that added another couple of decades to my refusal to really take it seriously. That and at least two book deals, careers in scriptwriting and journalism, and a perpetual sense that I was failing at the one thing people expected me to do.

Well, you know, I have taken it seriously — lots of therapy where we’d eventually get around to it as a topic, that whole “lifehacks” side-tour, endless agonising and bending the ear and wetting the shoulder of my closest confidants. But I’ve never really said it in a work context as a thing that people need to watch out for.

Mostly, I just say I will try to do better. But I really don’t; this is who I am. To give you an example: these days I’m practically a walking Oral Tradition — I don’t write memos at work, I give hour long internal talks, and fill up meetings with these improvisational marvels of ad-libbed wisdom that amaze me, even as they probably bore or annoy a sizeable chunk of my co-workers (though they are all really nice about it).

Of course, I’ve had that thought where I just go, hey, maybe I could just speak to a microphone, and transcribe all of this genius and magically turn it from mid-brow hand-waving into high-status prose. Somehow it doesn’t work that way.

Anyway, usually this kind of post ends with me dedicating myself to you, regular reader, and promising to blog more, or what have you. Followed by another six months or more of silence. I know enough to know not to say that now, and bring down the curse. But I guess what I am feeling is a sense that even if I don’t write it’s time to saddle up again and try and push the ideas out there, with a keyboard, or a prosc arch or livestream or something. It’s never too late to start, and it’s always too early to end.


capital mood

I’ve been futzing around with LISPs. See how we say LISP like that, all in caps? That’s how I think of Lisp; it has this vague aura of pre-1980s aesthetic where capital letters where either teletype-obligatory, or an actual indicator of futuristic COMPUTER WORLD.

Case in computing is a funny thing, like a binary signal in the ebb and flow of fashion. When and why did Unix (UNIX™) shell commands adopt that lowercase chic? I still write my email address in lowercase, even on government forms that request all caps, out of a defiant alt tone — DANNY@SPESH.COM stinks of AOL, Compuserve, and doing it wrong.

Common Lisp, forged in the eighties, expected, like Lisp itself, to be timeless: Common Lisp has CAPITALS all over it. Not exclusively, though. I guess when you’re Guy Steele and you’re trying to bind together futuristic AI and McCarthy fifties experiments, smashing together upper and lowercase is the least of your temporal concerns.

Will upper case make a come back? MAYBE IT ALREADY HAS.


geek old semi-formal

I love this articleby Christine Peterson about her coinage of the term “open source”, not just for the story (which I’d known about, but never heard in detail), but for the tone of the piece. It’s written in what I generally think of as “Geek Old Semi-formal”: this precise, slightly low-affect, somewhat wry tone that seeks to depict the maximum number of factual points, in a simple but almost shockingly accurate way.

In pretty much everything I’ve done, I’ve fought with the hellish triangle of being readable, entertaining, and truthful. Sometimes you end up flexing the absolute clinical truth for one of the others: for instance, I don’t really “generally think” of Christine’s tone as “Geek Old Semi-Formal”. I just made that term up on the spot. I didn’t quite confess that earlier, because it sounded funnier to imply I’ve used this name, even just internally, for years.

Compared to just describing the tone flatly,  I did very mildly better on the entertaining axis (at least in my own mind), probably just as readably, but really not as true. (It was also easier to write — because a term like that is actually exactly what I need for a title. Great, I’ll paste that into the title box up there, and maybe that will become the hook for others who reblog this.)

Anyway, where was I? Right: so, actually honest documents are rare, mostly unentertaining and largely unreadable. We rarely optimise for the absolute truth, because either one of “readable” or “entertaining” is more immediately valued, and rewarded.

Geek Old Semi-Formal is readable and true, at the expense of some of the fripperies of language that we associate with entertaining speech. It’s this beautiful upgrade of technical writing to convey conversation, stories, anecdotes, and the communal trivialities of our lives.

As part of my Plan 9 binge (did I tell you about my Plan 9 binge?), I’ve been reading lots of old Unix papers, which all aspire to this style. As the New York Times said in its obituary of Dennis Ritchie:

Colleagues who worked with Mr. Ritchie were struck by his code — meticulous, clean and concise. His writing, according to Mr. Kernighan, was similar. “There was a remarkable precision to his writing,” Mr. Kernighan said, “no extra words, elegant and spare, much like his code.”

I don’t want to say that computer geeks got this from Kernighan; I think that there’s a wide set of folks involved in factual-seeking professions and hobbies that hold similar aspirations, and end up admiring and adopting the same style.

Cover of MICRO Magazine

This morning, I opened a mystery package delivered by the “browsing ebay auctions at 3AM”-fairy. It was a paper copy of this February 1980 issue  of MICRO: The 6502 Magazine purchased for reasons of unstoppable nocturnal nostalgia.

I think even the august editors of MICRO would concede that the writing skills of its contributors were pretty variable. The year 1980 seems to be a seller’s market for 6502 periodical literature: There’s a full-page advert pretty much begging for people to write articles. (They’re paying $50-$100 a page, too, if you want to go back in time.) But for me, that variability is just a great opportunity to watch the Geek Old Semi-Formal style fail and crumble in different ways. The feigned jocularity! The laundry lists! The science paper formalism! I won’t point fingers, but you can flick through this copy of MICRO to see for yourself the rich panoply of Geek Old stylings.

It’s also a style I really have come to enjoy in face-to-face interactions too. There’s just something deeply comforting about sitting and talking slowly and precisely with someone, each of you carefully constructing entirely accurate sentences with little overall variation in tone or pace. Especially by contrast to the usual chit-chat of slapdashing word-sounds together and slinging them out your mouth in order to fill time and show off, between gurning physical expressions  and uncontrollable emotional explosions.

Not that it doesn’t also work for emotions, too. I think of all the times someone I know has flatly, compactly and desperately clearly conveyed their experiences: remaining calm, grammatical and short-sentenced even as the tears stream down their face, and their life fell apart.

I wonder, too, why I associate it with older geeks (older than me, for sure). It smacks a little of the repressed-fifties model of male scientist, though I don’t think of it as entirely gendered; in real life, it seems as strange on men as women. And I see people younger than me adopting it, often comically until they get it right. It’s definitely a bit on-the-spectrum—but I’m not on-the-spectrum and I use it, and aspire to it.

Well, now I’ve felt it so strongly in Christine’s great piece, I’ll start looking for it more, in words and in conversation. And now I have a name to call it!







tiny steps, sixty a second

Started the New Year, as you do, full of pep and determ. Promptly fell on my face with a bout of the … flu? Exhaustion? Ennui? It’s hard to tell, because my response to almost any illness, trauma or minor abrasion these days is to fa ll asleep. That said, I fell asleep for three days, and Liz also contracted a more undeniable flu a day or so later.

I woke from the flu, and very much like getting back into whatever saddle I had in mind for this year. Our New Year’s Eve party had been talking about indigenous histories, Plan 9, and feminist conlangs, so I picked “revival’ as the rough guide.

I set up a beeminder or two, but after the eigenflu, I thought I’d set up one more tentative goal: a small, self-contained creative project a day. I’ve never done one of those, and I think I’d like some sense of completion instead of ambitious abandonment for a while.

So, here’s the first, a 140 character or less javascript animation, for Dwitter. It’s not much compared to the amazing, compact, demos of that site, but I’m okay with that. I finally solved a problem that I remember struggling with in Photoshop in 1994 (how do you do bright, psychedelic, or rainbow colors? Vary hue, but keep the saturation up!).


circling around

Yes, I’m increasingly excited (with an estimated excitement half-life of eight days) about reading lots of academic papers. I always enjoyed hanging out at paper-oriented conferences like SIGCHI, when I was a teenager I would read Nature in the public library and imagined what it would be like to understand a damn thing in it. I remember someone asking Kevin Kelly (pbuh) what he was reading and he said “oh I only read scientific papers these days” which is such a burn. Clearly it is my destiny to read random academic papers and stitch an unassailable theory of life from them. Or at least spend a week lowering my respect for the entire academia.

Today, I read (which is to say skimmed), Cowgill, Bo, and Eric Zitzewitz. “Corporate Prediction Markets: Evidence from Google, Ford, and Firm X.” The Review of Economic Studies (2015): rdv014, and Rachel Cummings, David M. Pennock, Jennifer Wortman Vaughan. “The Possibilities and Limitations of Private Prediction Markets”, arXiv:1602.07362 [cs.GT] (2016). Look at me, I’m citing.

The main thing I learned is that Google’s internal prediction market worked by letting people turn their fake money won on the market into lottery tickets for a monthly prize (with another prize for most prolific speculator). Clever trick to incentivize people but not turn it into an underground NASDAQ or somesuch.

Meanwhile, I recalled last night the Enron Email Dataset, a publicly available pile of 500,000 emails from 1999-2004. Will it corroborate my evidence that subject lines get longer every year?


This is a steeper trend over the time period than my own corpus — 2.63 extra characters a year! I’m fretting a bit that it’s some artifact of a rookie statistical mistake I’m making, or the fact that there’s simply being more email over time. Someone who knows more than me on these matters, drop me a line — preferably a very long and descriptive one.

I’ve updated the code to include a function that can parse the Enron Depravities. You can get the latest Enron dataset here (423MB).


academic problem

I was wandering around my PGP key neighbourhood last night, and found  Isis Agora Lovecruft’s distributed aggregating library, which I am immediately envious of (even though I suppose anything I could covet there I could just take with me). It is a library in the sense that it is a collection of books and papers, (although the other usage, as in  “code library” might work perhaps literally as well as metaphorically.)

Mostly it prompted me to see what it would take for me to develop an academic paper habit. I don’t have a guide here, so I immediately started uncovered mad evolutionary psychology papers that could so easily convince me of anything I wanted to believe was true. So in that corner at least, academia is less the sum of human knowledge and more another set of paths which takes you on a tour of the local ideas around your starting point. How do you get out? How do you see the shape of the whole thing? What happens when you bump into somebody coming in the exact opposite and contradictory direction?

It is also making me think about individual tools to manage vast personal data sets. We sort of faded out on this problem when the Great Centralisation began, and everything began ascending into the cloud. I think it might be where we should start, so when everything starts falling out again, our books and photos and films and songs and lives, we’ll know where to put it, and where to find it again later.

Isis is probably one of those few people who are close to the invariants of my personal politics, though I seem to remember that we had a blazing argument about basic ideological axioms within minutes of meeting (edit: I should note that my idea of blazing argument is most people’s idea of mild disagreement). Well, she signed my key regardless. You should sign my key too! To hell with all this passport and identity card waving. You know it’s me! It is! I’m in here! It’s me!


a spectre is haunting internet

I am diving a little further out on the Net, now, and seeing a few patterns. I don’t really know how pervasive those patterns are. For most purposes (beyond my guilt), that doesn’t really matter. There’s always going to be limits to how far culturally you can wander. I can’t just go to a random place on the Internet and wander around from there, because you can’t deduce the significance of that place just from turning up. You need to know something of the path to that place.

What I’m always looking for is cultures or ideas or places that are generative. Places that lead to other places; spreading ridges in earthquake zones, creating more land under your feet. I’m lucky, because where I start out from these days is almost always toward somewhere imminently popular, or famously unpopular, or universally-declared-as-interesting. And I get to be “lucky” in searching for these, because before and after I get to these places, a whole crowd of invisible people who are just like me, but richer and more powerful and influential are also turning up, because we share a lot of common history and traits. And they’ll uplift what I find and suddenly it will be universally-declared-as-interesting. So you get to be an amazing prophet of trends.

You have to be aware of your cohort. You have to be aware that you are more-or-less identical with a huge subset of humanity, and when you like something, there’s a certain number of people who will not only like it when you show it them, but probably liked it before you got there. You are never the first, but you might be the first to talk about it among your friends.

Anyway, what I’d like to note here is the rise of communism.

I find that people are super-interested in communism, and that interest is permeating in a familiar way. Look at Reddit’s me_irl. Me_irl is one of the larger reddits, and it’s sort of broiling with strange memes, like 4chan used to. My aged instincts tell me the source for its generativity is offstage somewhere, and me_irl is actually the most boring, old receptacle for that output. I can definitely click around and swiftly people who are pissed off with me_irl, that it’s been taken over by social justice warriors or fascists and that you should got somewhere else for the real fun.

Nonetheless, me_irl, is really interested in communism. Just to double-check I’m not on crack, I went there just now, and clicked on the first “me☭irl” link I found. It was this, with these comments.

Clearly, in those comments, bystanders are irritated that me_irl, which should just be a random meme palace for people’s metaphorical depiction of their sad but ironically funny lives, has somehow veered into a constant reposter of Marx and Engels jokes. They also get annoyed that me_irl becomes regularly obsessed with scary skellingtons.

I am, for some reason, not going to construct an elaborate theory about the scary skellingtons. But I do find, when it comes to communism, that the tiny overlords of me_irl are wallowing in hints of a broader generative trend.

Now whenever I look around elsewhere, I really see a lot of people fascinated by communism. This is not in the sense of selling Socialist Worker at street corners, but mostly making rather sophisticated in-jokes about the bourgeoisie and commodity fetishism and Hoxhaism, and having others riff on those jokes. You can make endless jokes using communism as a source material, and also kick off many 3AM conversations or shower thoughts. Generative!

This really isn’t that surprising: communism is a pretty deep subculture (a bit less than catholicism-level deep, perhaps?), its source material gets translated a lot, it speaks to the human condition, it is explored in vivid amounts of detail in the further education that almost everyone has to attend to these days. It is pretty fertile, alien but approachable, old but new. Also everyone is grumpy at capitalism right now.

This is notable to me, though, because I grew up in communism’s lowest ebb. From 1989, onwards, communism was really the least generative ideology around, just because it had taken a gut punch from history. I remember walking around with Mackay and Cait in New York in the late nineties and finding a garbage pail full of old Marxist analysis, leaving us to  simultaneously cry out “look! the dustbin of history”!

You could certainly be into communism in the late 20th century, but I don’t think anyone was seriously expecting it to be the ur-source of new ideas right at that point.(And by “anyone”, of course, I mean “people less than a certain subcultural circumference away from me.”)

I’m thinking on a wider theory about what this means about subcultural flows across generational timescales, but unfortunately that idea needs a bit more javascript. So I’ll just leave this here and say that if in the next 5 years, we all start having more communist revolutions, you heard it here first. Well, here, and in_rl.


new estonia

I spent some time last week with people slightly above my pay grade in the International Political Relations space talking about the future of the Internet. The event used Chatham House Rules, which are like the Three Laws of Robotics, except for dignitaries, so I can’t say who said what. I can exclusively reveal that some people aren’t happy with what Apple has done in response to the San Bernadino court order, while a lot of other equally powerful people think they are exactly right. You heard it here first.

My less shocking (but not by much) observation was that politicians and diplomats who like the Internet (or, at least, understand the Internet) aso like Estonia. A lot. You rarely find people of this ilk going on about the greatness of a country that is not their own, so that stood out to me. There may even have been a little Estonia envy going on. It is also possible that there was some patronising “plucky little country that I can acknowledge without any further ramifications”, but I think it was mostly genuine admiration. No-one was very specific about why Estonia was doing the right thing, and I think I will leave it at that.

Another theme was many people’s disappointment with their governments’ lack of a defensive posture regarding Internet security and privacy. That is, there was plenty of talk of the rights and wrongs of states hacking into endpoint devices, or requiring backdoors, or circumventing encryption — but many people were concerned that no state was doing enough to protect its citizens and organizations from attacks.

The criticism, just from its origins, seemed to center on the United States. But it occurred to me that actually the current budget for supporting basic infrastructural security work, such as ISC and OpenSSL and so on is currently so small that even a relatively small nation state could add an order of magnitude or two to it. In fact, given many technologists’ suspicions of the more heavily-resourced states, it might be politically more acceptable for an Estonia-level state to be a benefactor.

I don’t have an opinion on whether this would be a good idea or a bad idea (for the record, I do not believe donations from Latveria should be accepted at this time). I’m just noting that if a small state wanted to be the new Estonia of the Internet before the old Estonia of the Internet had even got a chance to settle into the throne of cyberspace, this would be a fine way of doing it.


home server

Well, that was an embarrassing amount of time having to engineer around forgetting a password. Nothing important lost, but an important lesson: if you write down a password (and you should write down a password), write it down correctly. Being clever and elliptical in the past is just frustrating in the present. Also true of secret societies. Lighten up!

Anyway, the password was for an empty Debian install onto a chromebox which I’d set up, but not actually populated with files and such, so no great loss. Except I had to learn how to install Debian on a chromebox again (shades of “Flowers for Debian” again).

It remains a very promising base for a home server though. Asus Chromeboxen are still around $150, can be upgraded pretty easily, and installing a free operating system on them only costs you 3 sanity rolls, max. The machine is very quiet, tiny, and I think powerful enough if you stick some more RAM and SSD into it. My last home server has been happily doing its thing for a decade, and this, which I’m eying up as a replacement, has the same feel to it.

To be honest, the most exciting part of it was working out a way that I could encrypt its root hard drive, and but somehow let me ssh into it to type in the magic passphrase even before the thing had finished booting. This is a pretty good guide to doing that. Feels like magic to connect into a thing that hasn’t even booted into full Linux.


the inhuman search engine

There was a time when you could parlay a decent understanding of Google search (or any search) into a journalistic career. Journalists were, on the whole, trained to collect information through contacts and telephone calls, but at that time, they didn’t yet have a consistent grip on how to piece together stories from the Net. The majority of stories were built from legwork, not basic Internet skills. The pendulum is swinging the other way now I think. Many, many articles are now written that were spun from forwarded screenshots and searches. You can still get ahead a little from having advanced knowledge: there still remains a benefit, I believe, for journalists who know a little coding or a little statistics. But with the home base of journalism moving online, here’s almost certainly an emerging premium now for people who can simultaneously talk to computers and humans in languages they understand. Or maybe can use the Internet to peer into motivations and other intimacies, rather than uncover facts.  A good example is Gwern and Andy Greenberg’s piece on the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto. There’s some serious understanding of a lot of tech in their research, but it was mostly undone by underestimating how strange human motivation can be. Why would someone try to plant a trail suggesting they were Nakamoto, with no obvious benefit? Strange motives sink plenty of research projects. But perhaps one of the conclusions of anyone who swims in the large scale view of conspiracy theories and fraud that the Net offers is that, absent a permanent cost, motivations can be truly random.

I was thinking this today, just because I got caught up in an excursion into fact-checking. Someone said something on a forum; I was mildly curious who they were. The forum didn’t publish names or emails, and the username was not unique or lead anywhere. But the forum used gravatars: those little icons that either show patterns or a user-configured image next to your post. Gravatars are based on your email address which you enter to get a confirmation note when you post to some forums. The icon image itself is served from, based on a MD5 hash of your email.

There’s no known mathematical way to get from the hash to the email (touch wood). But the hash still leaks information. You can generate hashes from a set of possible email addresses. You can confirm a person has used a particular email address by checking that emails hash (note there’s no guarantee someone is using their own email address — strange motivations can lead you down wrong paths). In this case, though, I was able to just search for the hash itself. I quickly found another account on a separate site using that same hashed gravatar, and where the user had used a more personal username. From the username I was able to try out an email address that matched the hash. And from that, I found a site that listed the person full name and address. All of this took me less than ten minutes.

I hadn’t really thought about using gravatars to expose identities before (others have). It would be a useful skill to have in a modern journalist’s toolkit though. I guess more intriguingly, it might be a tool that one could provide to journalists. I keep thinking about the narrow subset of all possible characters that the world’s email addresses, and indeed human names inhabit. If you were to set about compiling and de-duping the world’s known spamming lists, how many of the world’s emails could you collect? How quickly could you brute force everyone’s full name, or a reasonably high percentage? Over 90% of the US population are covered by 200,000 surnames: how quickly could we get high coverage by combining those with the  most popular first names? (I admit to first considering this when thinking about how one could independently track the extent and use of the Right to be Forgotten in the EU. Programmatically generate a significant percentage of all the possible names in the European namespace, then check the affected and unaffected search engine results for each.)

I would like journalism to be about creating new facts about the world, instead of reporting pre-existing facts or just propagating novel speculation.


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.