November 11, 2017 in 5,189 words

Russia, social media and Cold War 2.0

Donald Trump was the perfect instrument for Vladimir Putin’s 2016 attack on his long-time nemesis Hillary Clinton

About Russia using social media to meddle in the election — and undermine and disrupt American democracy and the American social fabric generally — maybe we shouldn’t get too holy about it.

Ever hear of The Voice of America? Or Radio Free Europe? Or the United States Information Agency? And they were just the most high profile parts of American efforts to go after the Soviet Union ideologically and politically. There were scads of others, both overt and clandestine.

Were we “meddling” in Soviet affairs, trying to destabilize the regime and tear up the Soviet social fabric? Damn straight we were — even as they were trying to do the same to us, and not just with radio broadcasts, propaganda and cutout organizations. There was a war going on — the Cold War, which included a lot of little hot wars, revolutions, coups and crises — and the media war made a difference in its outcome.

The Soviets used to howl their heads off about our meddling in their internal affairs, even while mounting a massive info-war of their own.

In the end, we won the Cold War’s hearts-and-minds battle because we had a better appreciation of the cultural dimensions of the Cold War. So while Radio Moscow broadcast polemics, the Voice of America broadcast jazz and rock and roll. (The late Willis Conover, who for more than 40 years hosted the VOA’s scrupulously non-political Jazz Hour, had an estimated 30 million listeners behind the Iron Curtain.)

The Neuroscience of Everybody’s Favorite Topic

Why do people spend so much time talking about themselves?

Human beings are social animals. We spend large portions of our waking hours communicating with others, and the possibilities for conversation are seemingly endless—we can make plans and crack jokes; reminisce about the past and dream about the future; share ideas and spread information. This ability to communicate—with almost anyone, about almost anything—has played a central role in our species’ ability to not just survive, but flourish.

How do you choose to use this immensely powerful tool—communication? Do your conversations serve as doorways to new ideas and experiences? Do they serve as tools for solving the problems of disease and famine?

Or do you mostly just like to talk about yourself?

If you’re like most people, your own thoughts and experiences may be your favorite topic of conversation. On average, people spend 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves—and this figure jumps to 80 percent when communicating via social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.

Why, in a world full of ideas to discover, develop, and discuss, do people spend the majority of their time talking about themselves? Recent research suggests a simple explanation: because it feels good.

How Facebook and Google threaten public health – and democracy

The sad truth is that Facebook and Google have behaved irresponsibly in the pursuit of massive profits. And this has come at a cost to our health.

‘Substance cannot compete with sensation, which must be amplified constantly, lest consumers get distracted and move on.’

In an interview this week with Axios, Facebook’s original president, Sean Parker, admitted that the company intentionally sought to addict users and expressed regret at the damage being inflicted on children.

This admission, by one of the architects of Facebook, comes on the heels of last week’s hearings by Congressional committees about Russian interference in the 2016 election, where the general counsels of Facebook, Alphabet (parent of Google and YouTube), and Twitter attempted to deflect responsibility for manipulation of their platforms.

The term “addiction” is no exaggeration. The average consumer checks his or her smartphone 150 times a day, making more than 2,000 swipes and touches. The applications they use most frequently are owned by Facebook and Alphabet, and the usage of those products is still increasing.

In terms of scale, Facebook and YouTube are similar to Christianity and Islam respectively. More than 2 billion people use Facebook every month, 1.3 billion check in every day. More than 1.5 billion people use YouTube. Other services owned by these companies also have user populations of 1 billion or more.

Facebook and Alphabet are huge because users are willing to trade privacy and openness for “convenient and free.” Content creators resisted at first, but user demand forced them to surrender control and profits to Facebook and Alphabet.

It’s time to stop trusting Google search already

Last weekend, in the hours after a deadly Texas church shooting, Google search promoted false reports about the suspect, suggesting that he was a radical communist affiliated with the antifa movement. The claims popped up in Google’s “Popular on Twitter” module, which made them prominently visible — although not the top results — in a search for the alleged killer’s name. Of course, the was just the latest instance of a long-standing problem: it was the latest of multiple similar missteps. As usual, Google promised to improve its search results, while the offending tweets disappeared. But telling Google to retrain its algorithms, as appropriate as that demand is, doesn’t solve the bigger issue: the search engine’s monopoly on truth.

Surveys suggest that, at least in theory, very few people unconditionally believe news from social media. But faith in search engines — a field long dominated by Google — appears consistently high. A 2017 Edelman survey found that 64 percent of respondents trusted search engines for news and information, a slight increase from the 61 percent who did in 2012, and notably more than the 57 percent who trusted traditional media. (Another 2012 survey, from Pew Research Center, found that 66 percent of people believed search engines were “fair and unbiased,” almost the same proportion that did in 2005.) Researcher danah boyd has suggested that media literacy training conflated doing independent research with using search engines. Instead of learning to evaluate sources, “[students] heard that Google was trustworthy and Wikipedia was not.”

Google encourages this perception, as do competitors like Amazon and Apple — especially as their products depend more and more on virtual assistants. Though Google’s text-based search page is clearly a flawed system, at least it makes it clear that Google search functions as a directory for the larger internet — and at a more basic level, a useful tool for humans to master.

Google Assistant turns search into a trusted companion dispensing expert advice. The service has emphasized the idea that people shouldn’t have to learn special commands to “talk” to a computer, and demos of products like Google Home show off Assistant’s prowess at analyzing the context of simple spoken questions, then guessing exactly what users want. When bad information inevitably slips through, hearing it authoritatively spoken aloud is even more jarring than seeing it on a page.

Americans! Were you the target of Russian propaganda? Check here

Nearly a year after the last US presidential election, Americans can now finally take a look at the Russian-linked accounts that may have targeted them on Facebook and Twitter.

While US intelligence agencies said in January that the Russian government used ads on social media to try to influence the election in favor of Donald Trump, online evidence of this activity has long been erased. But today, Congress released a trove of the advertisements.

Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat, released them before a House Intelligence hearing with Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Senators on the intelligence committee also made some ads available after a similar hearing.

The ads targeted a widely disparate group of people, and often didn’t even mention the US election. Instead, they seemed created to stoke rage and division in the country. What Facebook and Twitter have found is probably only a tiny part of the Russian disinformation campaign, senator Mark Warner believes. Here’s who we know were targeted so far

Something is wrong on the internet

I’m James Bridle. I’m a writer and artist concerned with technology and culture. I usually write on my own blog, but frankly I don’t want what I’m talking about here anywhere near my own site. Please be advised: this essay describes disturbing things and links to disturbing graphic and video content. You don’t have to read it, and are advised to take caution exploring further.

As someone who grew up on the internet, I credit it as one of the most important influences on who I am today. I had a computer with internet access in my bedroom from the age of 13. It gave me access to a lot of things which were totally inappropriate for a young teenager, but it was OK. The culture, politics, and interpersonal relationships which I consider to be central to my identity were shaped by the internet, in ways that I have always considered to be beneficial to me personally. I have always been a critical proponent of the internet and everything it has brought, and broadly considered it to be emancipatory and beneficial. I state this at the outset because thinking through the implications of the problem I am going to describe troubles my own assumptions and prejudices in significant ways.

One of the thus-far hypothetical questions I ask myself frequently is how I would feel about my own children having the same kind of access to the internet today. And I find the question increasingly difficult to answer. I understand that this is a natural evolution of attitudes which happens with age, and at some point this question might be a lot less hypothetical. I don’t want to be a hypocrite about it. I would want my kids to have the same opportunities to explore and grow and express themselves as I did. I would like them to have that choice. And this belief broadens into attitudes about the role of the internet in public life as whole.

I’ve also been aware for some time of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between younger children and YouTube. I see kids engrossed in screens all the time, in pushchairs and in restaurants, and there’s always a bit of a Luddite twinge there, but I am not a parent, and I’m not making parental judgments for or on anyone else. I’ve seen family members and friend’s children plugged into Peppa Pig and nursery rhyme videos, and it makes them happy and gives everyone a break, so OK.

But I don’t even have kids and right now I just want to burn the whole thing down.

5 Famous News Stories You Didn’t Know Had Insane Epilogues

The news cycle tends to operate with the attention span of a coked-up fruit fly. Things happen, things get reported, let’s move on to the next thing. But life doesn’t stop going on just because the media turns its watchful eye away. Sometimes, what happens after a huge news story you may half-remember reading about is as interesting and/or insane as the original story. Stories like …

5. Alexander Litvinenko’s Assassination Led To The Most Dangerous Autopsy In History

The Story You Know:

Alexander Litvinenko was a former officer of the KGB and FSB who had escaped court to Britain and received political asylum. As a high-profile Kremlin critic, he was precisely the kind of figure who gets a knife in their back 15 minutes into a spy movie, prompting Sean Connery to say something like “Well, Q, Litvinenko always was a little … too sharp.” And that’s fairly close to what actually happened. In 2006, the world could only gawk as Litvinenko painfully perished to multiple organ failure brought on by a cup of tea which was poisoned with a radioactive polonium isotope.

The Insane Aftermath:

The thing about dead guys is that you can’t just leave them lying around, especially if they were murdered. There are all sorts of questions that it takes an autopsy to answer. In Litvinenko’s case, this presented a problem: By the time he died on November 23, his body was so radioactive that the hospital just sort of left it on the bed for two days afterward, still hooked up to all the drips and life support machines. He was full of polonium-210, a substance that can excruciatingly murder your ass with just a few nanograms. And someone had to do the postmortem, which is kind of like asking a person to spoon an atom bomb.

The unenviable task of what serious professionals straightfacedly refer to as “the most dangerous autopsy in history” fell on consultant forensic pathologist Dr. Nathaniel Cary. Wisely, he approached the task in the time-tested “wear a second condom, just in case” fashion. Wearing not one but two protective suits, two pairs of gloves, and a shitload of tape to secure the wrists, he ventured into Litvinenko’s hospital room and carefully disconnected the body from the machinery, put it in two body bags (notice the theme?), and took it to wait for autopsy in a recovery operation he doesn’t elaborate on but adamantly calls “very hazardous.” This leads me to believe that the situation played out like that old Laurel and Hardy sketch wherein they try to move a piano up a giant flight of stairs. Just a couple of increasingly panicked doctors in hazmat suits running after the body bag as it tumbles around in increasingly slapstick fashion.

The Republican party is about to face the Weinstein test

New Normal

Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for senate in Alabama.

The Washington Post reports that judge Roy Moore, the Republican front-runner in Alabama’s senate race, romantically pursued several teenage girls when he was an assistant district attorney, and initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old. He says the stories are “very definition of fake news.”

The women who told the Post their stories are part of a growing reckoning with the sexually abusive behavior of powerful men in the United States. Last month, multiple accounts of sexual abuse by producer Harvey Weinstein cost him his job and prompted a criminal investigation. Now, women and men coming forward to describe similar abuse have been taken more seriously than before. Powerful people have begun to face consequences across the entertainment and media industries.

Will the same thing happen in national politics?

For a long time, Republicans and Democrats alike looked the other way when faced with accounts of sexual harassment by leading figures, from Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton, to Clarence Thomas and Donald Trump—in fact, accusations of sexual abuse by 16 different women failed to dissuade Americans from voting Trump into the Oval Office. But attitudes seem to be changing; #metoo stories recently forced a high-ranking Kentucky Republican to step down, as well as Democratic campaign operative in California. More will undoubtedly follow.

Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway.

In a depressed former steel town, the president’s promises don’t matter as much as they once did.

Pam Schilling is the reason Donald Trump is the president.

Schilling’s personal story is in poignant miniature the story of this area of western Pennsylvania as a whole—one of the long-forgotten, woebegone spots in the middle of the country that gave Trump his unexpected victory last fall. She grew up in nearby Nanty Glo, the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners. She once had a union job packing meat at a grocery store, and then had to settle for less money at Walmart. Now she’s 60 and retired, and last year, in April, as Trump’s shocking political ascent became impossible to ignore, Schilling’s 32-year-old son died of a heroin overdose. She found needles in the pockets of the clothes he wore to work in the mines before he got laid off.

Desperate for change, Schilling, like so many other once reliable Democrats in these parts, responded enthusiastically to what Trump was saying—building a wall on the Mexican border, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, bringing back jobs in steel and coal. That’s what Trump told them. At a raucous rally in late October, right downtown in their minor-league hockey arena, he vowed to restore the mines and the mills that had been the lifeblood of the region until they started closing some 40 years ago, triggering the “American carnage” Trump would talk about in his inaugural address: massive population loss, shrinking tax rolls, communal hopelessness and ultimately a raging opioid epidemic. When Trump won, people here were ecstatic. But they’d heard generations of politicians make big promises before, and they were also impatient for him to deliver.

America’s cruel way to punish poor debtors: take away their driver’s license

The story of license suspensions in the US reveals the extent of the injury states are willing to inflict on low-income people in order to balance their books.

‘Those without means are trapped in the vicious circle of repeated suspensions and ever deepening debt.’

Damian Stinnie is one of the millions of people in America who have had their driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid debt. Despite spending much of his childhood in foster care, Stinnie graduated from high school with a 3.9 grade point average. While seeking work after losing his first low-paying job, he received four traffic violations and racked up $1,000 in fines and costs.

Because he was unable to pay the full amount within 30 days, his license was automatically suspended. As is routine in many states, including Virginia, where Stinnie lived, no one asked him if he could afford to pay. So, like three-quarters of those suspended, Stinnie lost his license essentially because he was poor, not because of the infractions themselves.

At that point, Stinnie joined the millions of Americans who face the dilemma of getting to work, taking a sick child to the hospital, or buying groceries while risking penalties for driving with a suspended license.

Needless to say, many people take the risk because they have no choice; at least 75% of those who have their licenses suspended keep driving. So the debtor may be arrested again for driving without a license, this time to be incarcerated and certainly to be hit with another set of fines and fees.

Trump’s CNN attacks may hobble legal case to block AT&T-Time Warner deal

President Donald Trump’s broadsides against cable network CNN may complicate the U.S. government’s legal case if it decides to block AT&T’s deal to buy media company Time Warner, according to legal experts.

Trump’s repeated claims that CNN produces “fake news” and other criticisms of the network could hurt legitimate legal arguments the Department of Justice may use to show the deal gives the company too much power over media rivals and is bad for consumers.

“His comments have soiled the process,” said John Kwoka, an economics professor at Northeastern University. “If I were AT&T’s lawyers I would certainly introduce them into the evidentiary record as meddling with what is really a law enforcement process.”

The fate of AT&T Inc’s (T.N) $85.4 billion deal to buy Time Warner Inc (TWX.N), hatched in October 2016, looks set to end up in court as the two sides have so far failed to agree on what conditions AT&T needs to meet in order to gain antitrust approval.

Justice Department staff have recommended that AT&T sell either its DirecTV unit or Time Warner Inc’s (TWX.N) Turner Broadcasting unit, which includes news company CNN, a government official told Reuters on Thursday, on the grounds that a combined company would raise costs for rival entertainment distributors and stifle innovation.

Are Aliens Leaving Wooden Wieners In The Alps?

I know what you’re thinking: dick aliens. I entertained that idea briefly, but realized that if this was the mark of a species of wiener-shaped aliens, it would have already been confiscated by government spooks. No, this was the work of a human. An indomitably determined one. Imagine the effort that went into this dong. First, they lovingly carved a piece of timber into the shape of a circumcised johnson.

Once sanded down and polished to a smooth finish, the wiener was lugged up to the over 6,000 foot high peak. This was no light, easy-to-transport weenie. It was a huge donger, one that appears to be about 4 feet high, and made of solid wood. It must weigh at least 80 lbs.

The ardent Disciple of the Penis who chose to carry this up into the alps had quite a hard task. I imagine they must have had it slung over their shoulder, like Christ carrying the cross, as they dutifully ascended to a peak high enough to be a worthy platform for the majestic statue. And there it stands, triumphant, and with an erection that has definitely lasted more than 4 hours. Someone should call a doctor.

Monks For A Month: College Kids Give Up Talking — And Technology

Imagine a college course that requires students to give up computer and cell-phone technology for a month — and, in fact, to cease speaking entirely for that period.

Then imagine that the class is super-popular, with students clamoring to get in.

This scenario fascinates me because, if successful, it would be the polar-opposite situation to the one I wrote about last month, in which psychology professor Larry Rosen urged his colleagues to give students “tech breaks” to check their cellphones during college classes. On this view, traditional-age college students’ brains are not yet fully developed and, thus, highly distractible.

Rosen’s work, as he describes it in a Psychology Today post, has showed that when observed studying, university students (as well as students in younger grades) “were only able to focus and stay on task for an average of three minutes at a time and nearly all of their distractions came from technology.”

Rosen goes on to write, based on interviews with thousands of students:

“When alerted by a beep, a vibration or a flashing image they feel compelled or drawn to attend to that distraction. However, they also tell us that even without the sensory reminder they are constantly thinking internally, ‘I wonder if anyone commented on my Facebook post; or ‘I wonder if anyone responded to my text message I sent 5 minutes ago’ or even ‘I wonder what interesting new YouTube videos my friends have liked.'”

What a dismal picture!


Get Low

A young boy in Delhi, India looks pretty comfortable in this posture.

Sentences that start with the phrase “A guru once told me…” are, more often than not, eye-roll-inducing. But recently, while resting in malasana, or a deep squat, in an East London yoga class, I was struck by the second half of the instructor’s sentence: “A guru once told me that the problem with the West is they don’t squat.”

This is plainly true. In much of the developed world, resting is synonymous with sitting. We sit in desk chairs, eat from dining chairs, commute seated in cars or on trains, and then come home to watch Netflix from comfy couches. With brief respites for walking from one chair to another, or short intervals for frenzied exercise, we spend our days mostly sitting. This devotion to placing our backsides in chairs makes us an outlier, both globally and historically. In the past half century, epidemiologists have been forced to shift how they study movement patterns. In modern times, the sheer amount of sitting we do is a separate problem from the amount of exercise we get.

Our failure to squat has biomechanical and physiological implications, but it also points to something bigger. In a world where we spend so much time in our heads, in the cloud, on our phones, the absence of squatting leaves us bereft of the grounding force that the posture has provided since our hominid ancestors first got up off the floor. In other words: If what we want is to be well, it might be time for us to get low.

To be clear, squatting isn’t just an artifact of our evolutionary history. A large swath of the planet’s population still does it on a daily basis, whether to rest, to pray, to cook, to share a meal, or to use the toilet. (Squat-style toilets are the norm in Asia, and pit latrines in rural areas all over the world require squatting.) As they learn to walk, toddlers from New Jersey to Papua New Guinea squat—and stand up from a squat—with grace and ease. In countries where hospitals are not widespread, squatting is also a position associated with that most fundamental part of life: birth.

Buses Have a Branding Problem

A new “trackless train” shows that commuters have a long way to go before embracing a perfectly good form of transit.

It’s the shape of a swoopy modern streetcar, but it’s got the rubber-shod wheels of a bus. Also, there’s no driver—it’s automated like a tram. The “trackless train” is sort of a jackalope of public transportation.

Or maybe it’s more like a donkey than a truly mythical creature; unlike a certain infamous straddling bus, this hybrid transportation innovation is for real.

Since late October, oblong, self-driving vehicles have been using sensors to follow markings painted on the streets of Zhuzhou, China. Operators are behind the wheel for now, but the idea is that they won’t be needed by the time the city builds a network larger than the roughly two-mile test track, a dedicated lane on a heavily trafficked boulevard. Word of the apparently successful pilot reached Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, who was so impressed by videos of Zhuzhou’s system in action that he says he’s planning a trip in person to see if it would make sense as an answer to his city’s transit challenges. “It’s a solution we can implement now,” Gimenez told the Miami Herald last week. “Not one that will take decades to complete.” (All aboard the “Commie bus,” is how one none-too-impressed local columnist interpreted Gimenez’s response.)

Battery-powered and capable of speeds up to 43 miles per hour, a three-carriage trackless train can hold more than 300 passengers. CRRC, the Chinese transportation company that manufactures the vehicle, estimates that building and running a network of robo-rail-buses would require only about 20 percent of the cost of a subway system, according to the design publication Dezeen.

In essence, trackless trains hit every objective high-quality transit systems should: They fit lots of people, run in dedicated lanes, are electric-powered, and are relatively cheap and easy to build. In other words, they are nearly identical to buses, with a crucial, and arguably worrying, distinction: They’re called trains. (Or, in the case of a video the Miami-Dade administration recently showed business leaders, “rapid transit service.”)


Aaron H. asks: Before sewer systems, did people in England really toss their poop into the streets?

Although Medieval Britons weren’t exactly the cleanest lot by modern standards (though contrary to popular belief, despite some well-known exceptions, they did, in general, bathe in some form or another relatively regularly), the idea of them just dropping trou and dumping half a pound of fecal matter into the street below isn’t exactly a fair or representative image. In fact, while Medieval Britons weren’t yet aware of how festering feces contributed to disease epidemics, they did know that it smelled really, really bad and, eventually, there was even some thought that said stinky fumes caused the spread of disease; thus, they made efforts to ensure the offending odors were kept as far away from their homes as possible.

Now, to be clear, generalizing about what a large and diverse group of people did over a millennium time span is extremely dodgy business, and we’re not saying that some Medieval Britons didn’t sometimes toss their solid waste out the window. (After-all, laws against doing just that, which we’ll talk about shortly, didn’t come from nowhere; and there certainly are many documented accounts of people doing this in said massive time-span, though you’ll note that many of said documented instances describe liquid, rather than solid waste.) We’re simply saying that the documented evidence at hand seems to indicate it was nowhere near as commonplace in Britain as pop culture would have you believe.

To begin with, particularly in the age when one-story buildings were the norm, tossing your own stink out the window meant you’d have to smell it any time you chose to open said window- not a recipe for a good time in the summer, particularly, but also just a recipe for a crappy time whenever you chose to step out your door… There your poop would be, staring you in the face, perhaps kept company by your neighbors’ latest expulsion. Needless to say, even without laws against such a thing, it’s not surprising that defecating out the window doesn’t seem to have been most people’s go-to location to dump their latest dump.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Bill discusses the sexual harassment allegations against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and Trump’s softening stance on China in his Real Time monologue.

Bill takes a hard look at the accomplishments of Jared Kushner and the rest of President Trump’s team.

THANKS to HBO and Real Time with Bill Maher for making this program available on YouTube.

To get ahead of your ex posting ‘revenge porn,’ Facebook is asking you to submit more than a profile picture.

After Pope Francis voiced his displeasure with his congregations spending services on their cellphones, Stephen turns to God for a reaction to distracted churchgoers.

THANKS to CBS and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert for making this program available on YouTube.

For a certain era, movie quicksand was the ultimate plot trap. In real life – quicksand doesn’t work that way. Except for the part where you definitely shouldn’t dive in head first. That’s still a terrible idea.

CAUTION: Some language may not be appropriate for work or children.

Here’s me commentary on WTF Happened in October. An aussie gets his first goal in the NHL, a new Rubik’s Cube world record, and Harvey Weinstein goes down.

Do we call it determination of just good old stubbornness?


No truth

The individual perceptions in ‘Neo-Cubism’

The paintings of William Stoehr are clearly faces. Some have two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Yet upon further inspection, one eye might be pointing one direction, while the other points the opposite way. A nose might be too small compared to the other facial features, or one side of a mouth doesn’t match the other. Some paintings feature a face within a face, sometimes within even more faces.

But overall, they’re still faces. Stoehr just gives the essentials, and the rest is up to the viewer. It’s a technique indicative of cubism, Stohr’s chosen style of painting.

“I love this concept of the mind assembling the image,” Stoehr says. “Cubists give you cues to help you do that — not giving you the finished piece, but rather engaging you in the completion of the piece. I’ve given you all these ideas for you to pull them back how you want them.”

In Neo-Cubism: A New Perspective, showing through Dec. 3 at the Dairy Arts Center, Stoehr’s work hangs alongside the sculptures of Roger Reutimann. In the show, the two Boulder-based artists question reality by using abstraction, specifically cubism, to explore the multiplicity of truth.

Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?