MonthJune 2014

Mutation Vectors 6-14-2014

The Racism Beat

Mutation Vectors is a weekly rundown of my media diet, along with other random thoughts.

Twitter

I started a Twitter sabbatical this week. I gave someone the passwords to both the klintron and techn0ccult accounts, had her change them and promise not to give my access back until July 10. I don’t want to write a lot about why I did it, or what’s like living a month without Twitter or whatever. Let’s just leave it at this: I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by media inputs, and Twitter has started to feel like more of source of aggrevation and distraction than a place that I can keep up with friends and colleagues or find links or information that I wouldn’t find elsewhere. So it’s time for a break. I’ll come back to it with fresh eyes next month and decide what I want do with it then.

Journalism

This week’s must read is “The Racism Beat” by Cord Jefferson. Snippet:

For several years, I made my unofficial beat the stories, struggles, and politics of blacks in America. I wrote about other things, also, but never with the same frequency or interest. I was pretty good at it, and, more than that, I enjoyed it. Eventually, people began to assume that I’d comment when a particular kind of news story bubbled up—generally one about something bad happening to a black person—and I often times would. I wasn’t surprised when a website I liked asked me to write about the case of a white man of little note in New Hampshire calling a hugely powerful black man a “nigger.” But then I realized I didn’t have anything to say.

Or maybe it wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say. Maybe it was the realization that writing anything would be to listlessly participate in the carousel ride: an inciting incident, 1,000 angry thinkpieces, 1,000 tweeted links, and back to where we started, until next time. Perhaps it was a feeling that writing anything would finally be too redundant to bear, a pursuit of too many sad and obvious words to heap onto so many other nearly identical words written down before, by me, by thousands of others.

I read Felix Salmon’s entire interview with Huffington Post and Buzzfeed co-founder Jonah Peretti, and it was worth it evem though he didn’t talk about Deleuze and Guattari. I hadn’t realized how tightly knit Eyebeam and the NYC startup seen was back in the mid-00s. The thing is, though, this article is hella long — Medium estimates it will take 91 minutes to read — and it’s sorta inside baseballish. So if you’re not willing to commit that much time, Nielsen Journalism Lab has a few choice excerpts.

In a much quicker read, Alexis Madrigal points out that most of the hot new journalism startups — like Vox, FiveThirtyEight, Circa, etc. — are focused on how they cover the news, not what they cover. He concludes: “I will say that it seems absurd to say that we need some more publications that are about something. But that’s where we’re at.” My prediction? We’re in for lots of “vertical” publications out of these startups next years.

OK, I think that’s enough media about the media for this post. In other news, scientists say cool kids turn into loser adults. I wonder exactly how the researchers identified which kids were “cool” and/or populor. But more importantly, how can you actually sell kids on this research? I mean, what sort of dork cares about what their life is going to be like when they’re 22? (See also: Rethinking Bullying).

More, more more:

Music

I’ve been listening to the new Atari Teenage Riot album all week.

Also: Buckethead: Day of the Robot, Comets on Fire: Avatar, Suuns: Images du Futur, Merzbow and Jamie Saft: Merzdub, Zomby: Where Were U in ’92?.

What is Webdriver Torso?

Boing Boing calls it the numbers station of the internet. But no one knows for sure. The vast majority of the 80,000+ videos on this mysterious YouTube channel are like the one above: 10 slides in eleven seconds. But there are some… notable exceptions:

The Onion AV Club sums up the speculation:

But the most intriguing mystery by far is the channel’s origins. No one has stepped forward to claim credit for Webdriver Torso; earlier this month, The Guardian thought they had explained the mystery as a series of test patterns used by a European telecom company, but that turned out to be a dead end. Now all eyes are on Google as Webdriver Torso conspiracy theorists claim to have traced the channel back to Google’s offices in Zurich. YouTube’s themed search results for the channel could be seen as a tacit admission of guilt, as could the one comment Webdriver Torso has ever left on a video: “Matei is highly intelligent.” Could the Matei in question be Google Senior Research Scientist/robotics expert Matei Ciocarlie? Is Google developing a sentient YouTube channel that will one day rise up and enslave us all? Is Webdriver Torso secretly communicating with extraterrestrial life? Is it issuing commands to brainwashed operatives à la The Manchurian Candidate? Or maybe, just maybe, is this just some mundane technical exercise that Google isn’t bothering to explain because conspiracy theories are hilarious? Who knows.

Full Story: Onion AV Club: “Webdriver Torso” is either something incredibly sinister or nothing at all

(via Tim Maly)

Update: Turns out Google admitted to being behind this just days before I published this post.

Photos from Midburn Festival, the Burning Man of Israel

Midburn Festival, Israeli Burning Man style event

More Photos: U.S. News and World Report: Desert Ignites in Israeli ‘Burning Man’

In Defense of Trigger Warnings

Scott Alexander on the backlash against trigger warnings:

But this is all tangential to what really bothered me, which is Pacific Standard’s The Problems With Trigger Warnings According To The Research.

You know, I love science as much as anyone, maybe more, but I have grown to dread the phrase “…according to the research”.

They say that “Confronting triggers, not avoiding them, is the best way to overcome PTSD”. They point out that “exposure therapy” is the best treatment for trauma survivors, including rape victims. And that this involves reliving the trauma and exposing yourself to traumatic stimuli, exactly what trigger warnings are intended to prevent. All this is true. But I feel like they are missing a very important point.

YOU DO NOT GIVE PSYCHOTHERAPY TO PEOPLE WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT.

Psychotherapists treat arachnophobia with exposure therapy, too. They expose people first to cute, little spiders behind a glass cage. Then bigger spiders. Then they take them out of the cage. Finally, in a carefully controlled environment with their very supportive therapist standing by, they make people experience their worst fear, like having a big tarantula crawl all over them. It usually works pretty well.

Finding an arachnophobic person, and throwing a bucket full of tarantulas at them while shouting “I’M HELPING! I’M HELPING!” works less well.

Full Story: Slate Star Codex: The Wonderful Thing About Triggers

Mutation Vectors 6/8/2014

Stratfor

Journalism

My favorite things of the week were probably David Graeber’s essay on Thomas Picketty and why capitalism isn’t going to tame itself, and Thomas Frank’s interview with Graeber about bullshit jobs, the divide between anarchists and socialists on work ethic and why the working class resents middle class liberals.

But surveillance was, as it often is, the big theme of the week. For the one year anniversary of the publication of the first of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, superstar investor and Netscape co-founder Marc Andresseen, told the world that he thinks Snowden is a traitor. Rusty Foster then told the world that he thinks Andreeseen is a douchebag. But also recognizes that there’s a douchebag living inside his own head:

When I see Marc Andreessen, what I’m really seeing is this liar in my soul. It knows I always had a leg up, it knows I went to private school, I never had to conform to anyone else’s schedule, I never had to work as hard as anyone else, I always skated by on a good vocabulary and a plausible excuse. It knows all this but it doesn’t care, because it still believes that I’m special anyway, innately, not just that I got to live life on the easy setting and that I happened to be dropping out of college right when the internet came along to support my lazy ass.

Perhaps also in recognition of the NSA leaks anniversary, Vodaphone revealed that it has secret wires into its networks that allow intelligence agencies in various companies tap right in and listen to and record conversations, or collect metadata.

Speaking of phone companies, telcos are astroturfing opposition to the idea of regulating them like utilities, even though they like being thought of as utilities when it benefits them.

And remember the Stratfor hack? It turns out it was orchestrated by Hector “Sabu” Monsegur while he was an FBI informant. So were a bunch of major hacks in Brazil. The FBI could have stopped all of this stuff from happening, but thought it would be better to give the hackers it was watching enough rope to hang themselves, damn the consequences.

Returning to Snowden for a moment: the dude has said that encryption still works. And PGP is probably the best way to encrypt your e-mail. So this week Google released the code for a Chrome plugin that should make it easier to use PGP in the browser, but Ella Saitta explained why that might not be a good thing. One of the reasons was paraphrased by L. Rhodes on Twitter: Google might end up doing to crypto what they did to RSS.

Also from me this week on things that might actually be bad, maybe dumping a bazillion new devices into the environment isn’t such a good idea. But if you must make an Internet of Things thing, maybe you should use Contiki.

Flashback of the week: Generation U by Jason Lubyk, the inspiration for my term “Urchin Economy.”

Television

This week I watched all six episodes of Nathan Barley for the first time. It’s sort of like Portlandia if Portlandia took place in Hackney and was actually funny.

Other

I went to Evan Meaney‘s presentation on glitches and hauntology at Weird Shift, which gave me plenty to think about. A PDF of his standard talk is here and he has a paper here.

The Internet of Things Could Be Bad for the Environment

pollution-getty

A bit more contrarianism from me at Wired today:

The pitch is that the Internet of Things will make our world a greener place. Environmental sensors can detect pollution, the voices say. Smart thermostats can help us save money on our electric bills. A new breed of agriculture tech can save water by giving crops exactly the amount they need and no more.

But this vast network of new online devices could also end up harming the environment. Manufacturing all those gadgets means expending both energy and raw materials. In many cases, they will replace an older breed of devices, which will need to be disposed of (so long, non-smart thermostat). And eventually, every IoT device you buy–and people are predicting there will be hundreds of thousands–will need to be retired too. Since all these devices will connect to the net, we should even consider the energy used by the data centers that drive them.

Full Story: Wired: The Internet of Things Could Drown Our Environment in Gadgets

Previously: The Dark Side of the Internet of Things

Why Google’s New Open Source Crypto Tool Might Not Be Such a Good Thing

From my story for Wired about Google’s new encryption plugin for Chrome “End-to-End“:

Google won’t be able to scan encrypted email messages in order to target advertising. Security expert Eleanor Saitta believes this may lead to Google to discourage most users from actively using encryption. She worries that the End-to-End may simply be a publicity stunt designed to keep Google’s engineers happy while scoring points with privacy advocates.

She also points out Google has history of abandoning projects that don’t make the company money, such as iGoogle and Google Reader. If activists come to rely on Google’s encryption tools, but those tools are discontinued, they will be left without crucial protections. “People live and die by the long-term success and failure of communication platforms — I mean that in a very literal sense,” she says. “You cannot put people in a position where they are depending on a software platform for life safety issues and then simply terminate it.”

Her other worry is that the existence of Google’s own plugin may discourage people from building other alternatives, or make it harder for open source encryption projects to raise funds. For example, Mailpile raised over $100,000 last year to build a new open source email client that works with any email provider, including Gmail, and has PGP encryption baked in from the beginning. But it will need more funding eventually, and Saitta worries that potential backers may not be as motivated to contribute.

Full Story: Wired: Google Renews Battle With the NSA by Open Sourcing Email Encryption Tool

RIP Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin (Jun 17, 1925 – Jun 2, 2014)

Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin and Ann Shulgin by Alex Grey

Psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin, author of PIHKAL and TIHKAL, has passed away according to The Guardian:

Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, who has died aged 88, was a pioneering and fearless scientist, but his chosen discipline – the design and synthesis of psychedelic drugs – was one of the most maligned and least understood. Shulgin invented hundreds of new psychedelic drugs, which he tested on himself, his wife, Ann, and friends, documenting their preparation and effects. But he wasn’t satisfied with mere discovery – he argued passionately for the rights of the individual to explore and map the limits of human consciousness without government interference.

He was most famously responsible for the emergence of one of the world’s most enduringly popular recreational designer drugs, 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, also known as MDMA, or ecstasy. He did not invent it, since MDMA had been designed by the pharmaceutical firm Merck in 1912 in a bid to produce a blood-clotting agent. However, Shulgin was responsible for creating a new and easier synthesis of it.

Full Story: The Guardian: Alexander Shulgin obituary

More Info:

Wired profile from 2002.

Erowid profile with lots of information, interviews and other links.

And here’s a documentary about Sasha and Ann Shulgin:

Shulgin joins other recently departed Technoccult saints H.R. Giger, Steve Moore, Shannon Larratt and Moebius.

The Case Against “Sharing”

Sharing Economy

Full Story: Susie Cagle: The Case Against Sharing

I’ve been calling the “sharing economy” the Urchin Economy, as in street urchin, named for the street kids that are always hanging around in fiction set during the Victorian period, ready to accept a schilling or two to do some chore for a protagonist. They have no job security, no safety net, they’re treated as if they’re utterly disposable. Of course today, there’s always some high-tech middleman looking to take a cut of these transactions.

See also:

The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed

The Sharing Economy Isn’t

I also tried to explore some of these ideas in my short story “The Faraday Bag“:

A bunch of my friends found work through this app where young guys–and it was always guys––could have people come over and clean their dishes, do their laundry, that sort of thing. I did that a couple times. Then a guy complained that he wanted “an American” to do his chores for him. I told him I was born in the U.S. and that my family had lived here for two generations. He gave me a one-star review, and I haven’t been able to find work through the app since.

Thomas Frank Interviews David Graeber

Salon is running a great new interview with David Graeber by Thomas Frank. Here are some highlights (Graeber’s words):

Well, radical elements in the labor movement began embracing such visions from quite early on. After the successful campaigns for the eight-hour day in the 1880s, people immediately started thinking, can we move this to seven, six, or less. Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, and author of “The Right to Be Lazy,” was already calling for something along those lines in 1883. I have a Wobbly T-shirt with a turn-of-the-century style design that says “join the IWW for a new dawn,” it has a sun rising over the rooftops, and on the sun is written, “four-day week, four-hour day.” […]

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go. […]

Call it the revolt of the caring classes. Because, after all, the working classes have always been the caring classes really. I say this as a person of working class background myself. Not only are almost all actual caregivers (not to mention caretakers!) working class, but people of such backgrounds always tend to see themselves as the sort of people who actively care about their neighbors and communities, and value such social commitments far beyond material advantage. It’s just our obsession with certain very specific forms of rather macho male labor—factory workers, truck-drivers, that sort of thing—which then becomes the paradigm of all labor in our imaginations; that blinds us to the fact that the bulk of working class people have always been engaged in caring labor of one sort or another. So I think we need to start by redefining labor itself, maybe, start with classic “women’s work,” nurturing children, looking after things, as the paradigm for labor itself and then it will be much harder to be confused about what’s really valuable and what isn’t.

Full Story: Salon: David Graeber explains why the more your job helps others, the less you get paid

See also:

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

How the “Do What You Love” Mantra Enables Exploitation

An Army of Altruists

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