Some loose thoughts on free speech, platforms, Big Tech, and okay a little sedition

One problem Social Media Companies created for themselves is the use of proprietary algorithms to surface content and suggest accounts to follow rather than allow people to find others organically.

A new user signs up for Twitter and they’re presented with a list of recommend accounts to follow. If Twitter doesn’t do this, then that person may not have a good experience trying to figure out how Twitter works. If there’s no engagement, there’s no advertising. If there’s no advertising, there’s no Twitter.

This is how the President of the United States came to have 88.7 million followers on Twitter. This is how it happens for most accounts with an outsized number of followers.

People with outsized followings start to believe they deserve them. They have outsized reactions to any change in follower count or any change in their ability to publicize their message.

Almost everyone has been force fed and force fed into something that nobody actually understands.

When a sitting President—one who can reach over 88 million people on a single medium within seconds of a fleeting thought, no matter how acerbic or hateful or just plain false—starts using that platform to incite violence, what do you do? Wait weeks or months for the law to run its course or take action and kick them off?

Two opinions of mine thus far:

  • No single person should be able to share something so quickly with that many people.
  • Big Tech—here defined as Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon—should not be the arbiter of free speech. Unfortunately, for now, they are.

In Social Media’s current form, everything is setup for failure.

Big Tech doesn’t moderate until too late. They don’t want to moderate in the first place! So they wait and wait and wait while the problem gets larger and larger. At some point public opinion forces their hand, Big Tech takes action, frothing and celebrating commence.

Instead. A framework should exist to help Big Tech understand how to handle specific situations.

In the United States, the Constitution should provide this framework—free speech is good, yeah?—but it doesn’t actually address reality. When someone with 88 million followers goes rogue, what do you do? Accounts with outsized followings must be treated differently. No one person should have all that power. Freedom of speech is not freedom of amplification.

I really don’t know how this works in practice, or what a best case solution is. Maybe their account is suspended for a predefined amount of time while cases are made through some sort of arbitration process. Maybe the announcement to permanently ban is not made until more than a few people at one company suspect sedition or the incitement of violence.

To be clear: It seems obvious to me Trump was inciting violence; I hope it would seem obvious to others.

And I’m not sure any of those maybes really fix it. People will still have outsized followings and outsized power and there will still be frothing and celebrating whenever a decision is made.

More importantly, Big Tech shouldn’t be organized this way. Twitter, Facebook, and at least the parts of Google that power YouTube should be broken into pieces. Something like:

  • Platform provides the technology for publishing content. This has an API that allows for integration with other 3rd party technologies.
  • Algorithm provides content manipulation and discovery for those consumers who choose.
  • Advertising provides advertising for those consumers or algorithm providers who choose.

In this scenario, the Platform is easier to define as something that can remain relatively exempt from liability. This is a pipe that information flows through.

Algorithm is a separate financial and structural entity. It helps people discover things. Or it curates things like a more traditional media outlet. It is here where some type of liability should be assumed.

Advertising is also a separate entity. We can’t seem to move ourselves away from this funding model, so of course the algorithms will want to inject advertising. It should be as far away from the Platform as possible.

Budding hatemongers may have a harder time finding algorithms to promote their content and may need to settle for the smaller groups they’re able to attract on the bare platform. People in general may need to get used to broadcasting their message to hundreds of thousands of people rather than tens of millions.

Of course the hardest part—I dunno, it might also be a red herring—about all of this is that the President of the United States caused the uproar. However things are structured, stuff is just not going to make sense when you’ve allowed such a horrible person into such an outsized position of power.

“freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness”

– Viktor E. Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning

From the mouths of those in power: silly simple axioms

One thing my brain likes to do is grumble about the misuse of language and/or ideas by people, usually by large organizations or those who are in positions of power.

It’s near the part of my brain that calls teenagers hooligans, but maybe a bit smarter? More annoying? Whatever.

Here’s my first draft of silly simple axioms that I frequently mull over.

1. We’re the most Transparent

The more loudly an organization or person in power claims to be transparent, the more likely they are to be intentionally hiding something.

The truest of transparent organizations just show their work.

2. It’s Orwellian!

The more loudly a person in power claims something is Orwellian, the more likely they have been working to rewrite the truth or oppress a people for their own gain.

We’ve always been at war with Eurasia!

3. Occam’s razor

The more quickly someone invokes Occam’s razor, the more likely they have chosen one of the least simple explanations.

They’ll probably also make sure you know what “Occam’s razor” means too…

4. I’m an Originalist

The more a person claims to be an Originalist—without also having access to time travel, the more likely they are to inject their own personal belief system into the interpretation of a law.

Note to self: try invoking “Orwellian” more, but in the context of Burmese Days or A Clergyman’s DaughterI’m an Orwellian Originalist! 🤔

A year of crosswords

I think it was right before the flight from Seattle to St. Louis took off last year when I decided I would like to try regularly doing the NY Times crossword puzzle. I opened the app on my phone, downloaded a few puzzles before we took off, and didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I completed a ton of minis first, because they’re quick and generally simple. They also come with a leaderboard, which provides for competition, which provides for more fun.

Over the next month or so I poked around a bit and tried to figure my way around. I had a chat with Boone around that time and he gave me some great advice along the lines of “being good at crosswords doesn’t mean you’re smart, it just means you’re good at doing crosswords.” This helped frame things for me in a way that made me just start doing crosswords. Over December and some of January I went back and did every Monday puzzle from 2019 as practice, while also attempting many of the daily puzzles.

The NY Times crossword app provides a fun archive view that shows which puzzles you didn’t start, which you did, which puzzles you finished, and which you finished on the day they were published. The general target, if you’re slightly obsessed, is to maintain a streak of puzzles that you finish on the day they were published.

Here’s what December of 2019 looked like:

A screenshot showing the status of various crosswords published in December 2019.

I was doing pretty good on Mondays and Tuesdays. Wednesdays were still difficult. The rest of the week was still terrifying. I don’t know why I didn’t even start a Thursday. Of course now I don’t know why I do.

Things continued to get better. By March I was attempting most puzzles. I completed my first Thursday, Friday, and Saturday puzzles—some of them even on the same day. And look at that nice 4 day streak to close the month!

Doing the crossword every day became a nice break from the pandemic and a way to zone out with words for a small chunk of time. It was around March and April where it probably became somewhat of an addiction.

April, May, and June were each progressively better, but I’ll skip ahead to July, where things really clicked.

A screenshot of my crossword progress from July 2020.

For the first time, I finished every puzzle of the month on the day it was published! This was part of a 53 day streak and I was starting to feel like I had made it. If I could do the puzzle 53 days in a row, I could do it for thousands!

But at the same time, I was kind of stalling out. I could complete Monday and Tuesday just fine, but would look up a few things on Wednesdays and then lean on Google, Wikipedia, and the NYT Wordplay blog to fill in several leftover blanks on Thursday through Sunday. In general, I would get tired of doing the puzzle if it started reaching that 45 minute mark, but also didn’t want to end any streak I had going.

I had two incompletes in August, one in September, and finished with a perfect October. Then everything fell apart.

A screenshot of my crossword progress in November 2020.

Things got really busy in November. At the same time there was a Wednesday puzzle (I don’t remember which) that kicked my ass in a way that made doing puzzles not fun all of a sudden. I kind of gave up on the harder puzzles for a few weeks and focused on the more relaxing Monday through Wednesdays.

I also decided that if I wanted to pass this plateau, I needed to stop looking things up as often. So I ditched the streaks and got bad at puzzles again.

A screenshot of my crossword progress from December 2020.

This turned out to be a liberating process! I was no longer stressed about finishing a puzzle by the end of the day and no longer stressed about whether they were complete. For a bit of November and for all of December, I started treating each puzzle as ongoing. I’ve gone back to each unfinished puzzle in December several times now, trying to work out those annoying little sections as if they were part of a puzzle rather than an answer to lookup.

The progress has come fairly quickly. Each completed puzzle in December was done without lookups during the initial fill. My general rule has become: fill the entire puzzle and only then try to complete it with a glance at the Wordplay blog and comments.

My favorite take away from the last couple months has been finally being able to treat the puzzle as designed—a puzzle—rather than a series of words I need to memorize. The memorization and repetition helps, which is why doing all the Mondays from 2019 was a good idea and completing all of those Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be good practice next. But now that my brain has entered puzzle mode when approaching a crossword, I’m looking forward to the progress I’ll see next year.

Some stats that I may care to compare at the end of 2021:

  • Total puzzles solved: 426
  • Total puzzles started: 504
  • Solve rate: 84.5%
  • Longest streak: 53

And the current best times/average times by day:

  • Monday: 5:50/12:54
  • Tuesday: 9:24/19:16
  • Wednesday: 11:59/25:31
  • Thursday: 10:35/33:53
  • Friday: 19:30/32:50
  • Saturday: 21:26/37:02
  • Sunday: 40:49/59:08

I’m hoping that by the end of next year my current best times will have become my regular times for those days. Puzzles are fun, but spending less than 20 minutes on them is much more fun than 45.

Thoughts for the week’s end

Or: Thoughts for the year’s end.

Or: Thoughts for the week’s end, 31/31.

This is probably my dozenth attempt at a “what would it look like to track some notes over the week and schedule it to publish on Friday” post. We’ll see if it works.

Thoughts for the week’s end – December 20, 2019

A little over a year ago, I wrote the above at the bottom of the first of this series. A little over a year later and I’m generally happy with how it’s turned out. 31 posts over ~54 weeks means I probably did a bit better than I expected with “we’ll see if it works.”

There was a real groove at the beginning. Nothing felt forced and I felt comfortable with the mostly Friday schedule. Thursday evening is a nice time to sit and collect the thoughts of the week into some blurbs to look back on one day.

As years go, things got busier and then slower and then just continually weird as the COVID-powered clock seemed to blur things together for months at a time in simultaneous slow and fast motion. Things started to feel a bit forced every time I sat down to write something after not doing so for a couple weeks.

I had already given thought to rebooting things at the end of the year when I ran into Robin Sloan’s Advice for newsletter-ers, in which he suggests: “A personal email newsletter ought to be divided into seasons, just like a TV show.

This is personal, though it’s not an email newsletter. I write for myself—mostly—because I like going back and checking in on how things were. I also write some things in the hope that specific people end up reading them. It’s fun to casually share thoughts as we maneuver through, uh… life?

Anyhow. I like the idea of mixing things up.

So this is the last in the series of thoughts for the week’s end. Future thoughts will be reborn as something(s) else in the new year. If you are reading this, thanks for tuning in over the last year! 🥃

My work-related treat to myself last year was one of these fancy UPDESK adjustable standing desks. It’s been fantastic and has led to a nice routine where I start the day off on my feet and then switch to chair level sometime after lunch.

The desk came with a monitor arm and for some reason I postponed its installation when I put the desk together and stuck with the tried and true method of “monitor resting on books” instead. This week I finally cleared things off and installed the monitor arm! It’s been a little funky to get used to, but has created a whole bunch of room for clutter to start gathering on the back half of the desk.

I finally upgraded to Big Sur this week. Skipped Catalina entirely!

This may have actually been the smoothest my dotfiles setup has worked out since I first started using it in 2016. Of course I haven’t actually tried to do any development yet. I’m sure I’ll start grumbling soon!

I used to play guitar a lot, now I play not so much or at all. But someday I’ll play guitar a lot again.

Me, in my MySpace profile, many years ago. Maybe 2006?

In the process of backing things up before the upgrade, I started browsing through old archives and found a text file with a copy/pasted version of my last MySpace profile that contains these hopefully prescient words.

The new guitar, a Gibson SG Standard ’61, arrived at the end of last week. The new amp, a VOX AC15, arrived yesterday.

They’re beautiful. I’m so stoked.

I’ve so far been able to resist making the neighborhood hate me. Luckily the VOX has a separate volume control for the preamp so you can play with the tone without going all out. I played along with Daytripper about a dozen times and just couldn’t get enough. 😍

The snow snowed in earnest today! We headed out to the WSU Arboretum for a great hike in boots. It was almost deep enough to enjoy with snowshoes, but a bit thin in some places. We were the first to touch a few of the trails in the trees, which made the setting that much more peaceful.

The conditions at Palouse Divide are looking excellent. The road is currently snow covered and the trees are looking fluffy on the road cam. We may still get some snowshoeing in before the end of the year! ❄️

Thoughts for the week’s end

Lyrics can mean a lot of things, but it’s great when you can find a meaning that fits for you for a time. Thirteen years ago, Dave Grohl wrote this chorus to The Pretender:

What if I say I'm not like the others?
What if I say I'm not just another one of your plays?
You're the pretender
What if I say I will never surrender?

We watched the video by chance on Friday night—after enjoying the latest from The Hanukkah Sessions—and it creates this fantastic scene where the band faces off against a line of riot police. That visual combined with these lyrics made the song feel perfect as an anti-grift anthem.

We’re not one of your plays. We’re standing our ground. Move along.

Is it ‘Grifter’ or ‘Grafter’? Probably both!

The sun’s path has moved so far to the south that it now shines in my eyes through my south facing window at 11:20am and I have to close the blinds.

Further encouragement to stay standing until after lunch. Thanks, sun!

An errant pingback led me to reread my series of deployment workflows that I wrote up way back in 2015.

Two thoughts: Oh how great it would be to go back and redo all of those with new knowledge and GitHub Actions. And, I still love this quote from the Guardian’s development team:

We view an application with a long uptime as a risk. It can be a sign that there’s fear to deploy it, or that a backlog of changes is building up, leading to a more risky release. Even for systems that are not being actively developed, there’s value in deploying with some regularity to make sure we still have confidence in the process.

We really enjoyed Babylon Berlin on Netflix a few weeks ago and cruised through both seasons.

One great line from a journalist in the show, complaining about the preference for flashy headlines in the paper rather than real, meaty news: “We used to have readers, now we have lookers.

An Allen Ginsberg poem, ‘Back on Times Square, Dreaming of Times Square’, from 1958, includes the following lines:

The movies took our language, the
             great red signs
        Teenage nightmare
    Hooligans of the moon

This poem set me down a road, listening to recordings and recordings of Ginsberg reading the poem to learn the pacing for those lines.

I’m not sure what would be cooler: Two movies, one titled “Hooligans of the moon“, or one movie titled “Teenage nightmare hooligans of the moon“.

I’m 41 now, so I refer to all teenagers—in jest!—as hooligans or hoodlums. It’s a fantastic thing that comes with age.

I’ve mentioned The Guardian’s Books that made me series before, and I still look forward to reading it every week. The app now notifies me when it appears for Friday, so it’s become slightly less happenstance.

I recently found the similar By the Book series in the NY Times. It hasn’t been as interesting as Books that made me, but it’s still fun to read what others are reading.

The only downside is how quickly the ‘want to read’ list grows.

I hope nobody is planning a large vaccine heist, but I also hope that someone is writing an excellent vaccine heist movie.

A clatter interrupted Smiley’s reverie. In the kitchen, Mostyn the boy had dropped a plate. At the telephone Lauder Strickland wheeled round, demanding quiet. But he already had it again.

Smiley’s People

John le Carré passed away today.

I started reading the George Smiley series on the flight back from WordCamp US in 2017. I got on the plane in Philadelphia, opened my kindle, started The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, and finished it as we started our descent into Seattle. It was the first time in a while I had read a novel in one sitting and it was so much fun.

Soon after I cruised through six others in the series and then just stopped. I’ve had The Secret Pilgrim waiting on my Kindle for a couple years now, ready to go. Now is as good a time as any to pick it back up!

If all goes well, this next week is the last work week of the year. I’m looking forward to a couple weeks of reading, tinkering, maybe upgrading my laptop from uh… Mojave.

Maybe forgetting the computer exists most days.

We’ve just had our first “hey, I’m pretty sure this snow is going to stick around this time” snow of the year. The cameras on the road heading up to Palouse Divide seem to show snow piling up.

My hope is that snowshoe season is arriving and we’ll soon be out having some powdery fun. ❄️ 🥃