ongoing by Tim Bray

ongoing fragmented essay by Tim Bray

Long Links 1 Jan 2021, 8:00 pm

Happy new year! Welcome to the first Long Links of 2021; this is a monthly curation of long-form pieces that I, due to being semiretired, have time to read. Probably, most people reading this have less time, but perhaps one or two will add value even for a busy person.

The last month of the year is an invitation to best-of pieces. Music is probably my chief recreation so I’m a sucker for this kind of piece. In The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich’s The Best Music of 2020 showed me a couple of musical paths I hadn’t been aware of. Is it weird that every single best-music-of-the-year piece featured 79-year-old Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways? Then over at Discogs there’s The Most Popular Live Albums of 2020; close to my heart, since most of my very favorite recordings over the years have been live. Of particular note: The “Saucerful of Secrets” show that Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason took on the road in 2019 and I enjoyed.

Erstwhile NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is now a publisher. He labels his flavor of activism “Abolitionism” and it’s strong stuff. This is a big collection of big pieces and even I haven’t made time for all of it. Abolition for the People is a good place to start.

The EU’s Digital Markets Act: There Is A Lot To Like, but Room for Improvement by Cory Doctorow and Christoph Schmon, is what it says on the label. Full of useful detail on what they’re up to over there. I read through the list of proposed reforms, reacting with “well, of course” to most, and then as the list got longer and longer and longer I realized how screwed-up the Internet economy is right now and how urgent the case is for radical reform.

Speaking of screwed-up, So *that's* how Breitbart is still making money, on the BRANDED substack, offers a tour of the grimy underbelly of how Internet ads are sold and how unscrupulous operators can arrange to sell ads while making it very hard for buyers to ascertain where their money is going. More reasons, were any needed, to think that the system needs blowing up and rebuilding from scratch.

In 1982, I wrote a hundred thousand lines of COBOL code. That’s not nearly as impressive as it sounds. First of all, COBOL is verbose. Second, this was the I/O module of a big airport-automation system with huge volumes of cut-n-paste code to provide a file abstraction over lots of different sources. In the rearview, I don’t even hate COBOL; there are things it’s good at. The Code That Controls Your Money, by Clive Thompson, is a highly readable tour through the history and culture of the trusty old language. The fact is that COBOL is still the incumbent technology in much of the finance sector, and Thompson has lots of smart things to say about the business effects, some of which surprised me.

Moving from old programming languages to a new one (Swift), here is a long entertaining Twitter thread, which begins “Alright folks, gather round and let me tell you the story of (almost) the biggest engineering disaster I’ve ever had the misfortune of being involved in. It’s a tale of politics, architecture and the sunk cost fallacy [I’m drinking an Aberlour Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch].” It’s a highly instructive tale of how Uber got themselves into big app-development crisis and then back out. Since I generally loathe the whole practice of dressing up labor-arbitrage operations as technology plays, and specifically loathe Uber, I think society might have been better served if they’d failed. But you have to have sympathy with the dev team.

The ergodicity problem in economics by Ole Peters, in Nature Physics, forsooth, is an important piece of work. It argues that current economics math is mostly broken because it makes entirely unjustified (and unjustifiable) assumptions of equilibrium. I did not take the time to stop and convince myself that I understood each equation, nor do I think I fully understand Peters’ alternative approach, but I found his criticism of the status quo compelling.

At the Columbia Journalism Review, Why Democrats lose on social media while Republicans lie and win big is subtitled By dominating Facebook, the world’s largest media platform, the GOP demonizes the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal, which should actually be a pretty easy program to sell, politically, now polls horribly when its name is mentioned. This piece dives into why that is and ends with a plea for progressives to focus on viral storytelling techniques. As a blogger, how can I disagree?

Let’s take an astrophysical excursion. Regular readers have probably noticed that I’m fascinated by the Dark-Matter controversy. Among the most visible of the skeptics, and definitely among the most eloquent, is Stacy McGaugh, a prof at Case Western. Big Trouble in a Deep Void, on McGaugh’s blog but by three guest authors, takes an eye-opening look at the large-scale structure of the universe — there’s good evidence that our galaxy inhabits a billion-light-year-across volume with much lower matter density than the universe’s average; thus the “Deep Void”. The standard Astrophysical model, ΛCDM, says that can’t happen. The discussion quickly gravitates (snicker) to the Dark-Matter-vs-MOND controversy. I think most lovers of science have to enjoy situations where the best available theories totally don’t explain the best available observations because that means discoveries are there to be made. I enjoyed the hell out of this one.

Noah Smith’s Techno-optimism for the 2020s has been pretty widely linked-to and isn’t that long so you may already have read it. I hadn’t thought about the larger-scale subject but the essay makes some strong points. In particular, and I quote, “But now, for the first time since the 60s, technology is going to make energy cheaper. ”

Ladies, gentlemen, and others, Section 230 is very important. As I write this, repealing it has become a Republican priority because it makes much of Big Tech possible and conservatives hate technology because it occasionally reflects progressive values. I’m not going to explain what Section 230 is or what it does, because Sue Holpern does so very well in How Joe Biden Could Help Internet Companies Moderate Harmful Content. The headline is lousy, it should be something like “The pros and cons of Section 230 and some plausible things to do to improve the situation.” Few Internet-related subjects are more important.

Few subjects, generally, are more important than that of truth and lies and how our widespread failure to discern between them is driving most of our important public pathologies. Jonathan Rauch, back in 2018 (but I didn’t notice it then) refers to this as “the problem of social epistemology” and in The Constitution of Knowledge, has really a lot of smart things to say on the subject. To start with: It’s not that, among educated people, we have huge genuine disagreements as to what the truth is; it’s that 21st-century conservatives have discerned that if they entirely abandon any regard for truth, they can score valuable political points by weaponizing falsehood at Internet scale. This piece is big and smart and eloquent. I quote: “There is nothing new about disinformation. Unlike ordinary lies and propaganda, which try to make you believe something, disinformation tries to make you disbelieve everything.”

Speaking of big lies, among the biggest are those that are driving the current Bitcoin bubble. In that menagerie of whoppers, among the biggest are those surrounding Tether. Patrick McKenzie offers Tether: The Story So Far which tells the awful truth (really, it is) in entertaining detail. If you haven’t already dumped your Bitcoin, you will after reading this.

Not all the big lies are about money. For example, QAnon. Reed Berkowitz’s A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon tries, not to explain QAnon because who could, but to examine some of the dynamics of how and why it survives and infests so many minds. Useful.

The antidote to lies should be facts. But that doesn’t seem to be working well. Given that, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds is obviously highly material to our current predicament. I’m not going to try to summarize because it respects the complexity of the subject and doesn’t hurry up in an effort to produce a sound bite. It’s full of quantitative social science; one researcher is quoted as saying “ways of thinking that now seem self-destructive must at some point have been adaptive.” Yep.

Look, I acknowledge that expressions of concern about Facebook and its ilk are not exactly new. But Adrienne LaFrance’s Facebook is a Doomsday Machine provide an excellent overview of the problem. I quote: “The social web is doing exactly what it was built for.” One really refreshing notion offered here is that Facebook, and social media generally, are just too freaking big. I can think of things that could be done about that.

Eric Alterman has been an intelligent, acerbic voice of the Left (and a really good rock-music critic) for many many years. During the last twenty-five of those years he’s been the media critic for The Nation. Look Beyond the Media Frenzy and Focus on the Fundamentals is his farewell column and it says things we need to be listening to. He’s not neutral or balanced at all: “If we look beneath the surface of our elections, we see a culture of plutocracy that has enabled the creation of an autocracy based on a foundation of purposeful dishonesty”.

I’ve long been interested in the economics of Internet publishing, and so should anyone who’s interested in the quality of our intellectual discourse as a civilization. Talking Points Memo is a twenty-year-old progressive-political blog that has morphed into a viable company and stayed alive, which is more than you can say about most such startups. Part of their 20th-anniversary celebration, The Business of TPM looks at how and why they survived while so many others didn’t.

Now for something much lighter-hearted: A fairy tale! No really, with a Cinderella-meets-Game-of-Thrones flavor: Stepsister. The way I found this is by impulse-grabbing a recent issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction from the library, then reading and recommending a nice story by Leah Cypess, which led me to her website, and thence to this story. Enjoy!

Speaking of stories, someone is writing a real-time alternate history of the future on Twitter, called Real-Time WW3 from 2033. It’s a little awkward, you have to start by scrolling all the way to the bottom then working your way back up. Some parts of the story fail my suspension-of-disbelief test, but a whole lot of it is clever, and I find the style vivid.

Late-2020 EV Charging in Canada 30 Dec 2020, 8:00 pm

I haven’t seen my 90-year-old mother since January. I guess by mid-year both she and I are likely to be vaccinated so maybe I could go visit. I’d rather drive than fly. What with Covid I’ve been cooped up so long I could scream, so there are few things I’d rather do than get out on the highway. As a displacement activity I’ve been working out how I could get the electric Jaguar 1734 kilometres from Vancouver to Saskatchewan to see her. Thus this quick survey of the state of the infrastructure in Western Canada, and also trip-planning tools. Some of this info might be useful elsewhere than in Western Canada.

Infrastructure

For this to make sense, you have to realize that while Canada looks like a big tall country on the map, it’s actually a short wide country, mostly cuddled up against the USA, nine thousand kilometres wide and with most people living 500km or less from the border. So for purposes of charging cars, if you have good coverage of Route 1, the Trans-Canada Highway, you’ve solved a big piece of the problem. My drive from Vancouver to Regina, Saskatchewan is along that road all the way.

Back when I got the Jag in January 2019, it’d have been generous to call the coverage spotty. The government of BC, the westernmost province, had scattered fast chargers here and there around the highways, but they were only 50kW (just barely “fast”) and the reliability was poor. Once you got out of BC and onto the Prairies, the story got worse fast.

Now there are two outfits trying to build out good cross-country coverage: Petro-Canada, the gas-station brand of Suncor, a biggish oil company, and Electrify Canada, an outgrowth of Electrify America, a subsidiary of Volkswagen that they launched in 2016 in the wake of their lying-about-emissions scandal to wave the green flag. The Electrify Canada chargers are located at Canadian Tire, an ubiquitous Canadian hardware big-box which specializes in automotive stuff.

Both networks have mobile apps to facilitate charging, and both charge a flat 27¢/minute. Which is a lot more expensive than the kWh I soak up from my Level-2 charger at home, but still plenty cheaper than gas.

It’s at least somewhat true that at this point both of these operations are aspirational, more of an attempt to make a point than make a buck. But EV sales are ramping up and will ramp faster, so I think it’ll prove to have been a smart move.

Both operate modern chargers advertised as offering 200-350kW of juice. Some of the most recent cars, like the Porsche Taycan, are said to be able to make good use of that power and charge amazingly fast. My Jaguar I-Pace can only soak up 100kW and not for that long, it pretty quickly starts backing off and settles somewhere in the 85kW range.

In an online I-Pace discussion group one guy said that at Petro-Canada, he went from 20% to 80% in 45 minutes, which I’d say is adequate, while another one said it took 52 minutes to get from 50% to 94%. These reports are consistent, because as far as I know all electric car charging slows down dramatically at about the 80% point. So it’s considered polite and efficient to charge up to 80% and then move along.

Tools

The networks have their own maps: Here’s Petro-Canada’s and here’s Electrify Canada’s. At the moment Petro-Canada is well ahead; Watch out though, their map includes chargers that are planned but not running yet.

If you want to plan a trip, I’ve run across two useful tools. First is PlugShare, which I’ve been pretty impressed with. You make an account and tell it what kind of car you have and apply filters to the kind of chargers you want to see — for the purposes of a trans-Canada trip, that means “Level 3” DC fast chargers only. Then it has tools to plan a trip — you have to pick chargers by hand and add them. It’ll export the results to Google Maps and do a bunch of other useful stuff. Here’s how it looks.

EV trip plan by PlugShare

Watch out, this map and the other one are huge so you can read the small print; you might have to pan around to see them, particularly on a small laptop screen.

One nice thing about PlugShare is that it’s got a community thing going, you can click on any charger on the map and see reports from people who’ve charged up recently, on how to find it and how it’s working. There’s an average rating, that’s the little green number badge on each stop.

The other option is something called A Better Routeplanner (let’s say “ABRp”), which is a whole lot more automated and has significant pluses and minuses. By “automated” I mean you just put in your start and destination and it picks all the driving legs and charging stops. It picked almost exactly the same set that I picked by hand in PlugShare. First of all, here’s its map.

EV trip plan A Better Routeplanner

The readout is slicker, it estimates how much charge you’ll need and how long it’ll take at each stop. But there are problems. First of all, it recommends using the Petro-Canada charger in Salmon Arm, but when you click on that, the info-box says it isn’t actually operational yet (PlugShare agrees) — but there’s an older-fashioned 50kW charger there (which PlugShare knows about). Electrify Canada says theirs is coming soon too, so maybe it’ll be fast by the time we can travel again.

I also heard from someone who’s used it that the charging-time estimates are pretty inaccurate, a lot depends on the specifics of charge level, temperature, and apparently the current aspect of Jupiter. For what it’s worth, on this trip it estimated 21 hours of driving and 5 hours of charging.

Now here’s the weird thing. ABRp will give you a URL for your route plan: here’s mine. If you click on that, it’ll take some time, apparently it recomputes the whole thing. What’s weird is that I get different maps in Chrome and Safari. In Chrome, it doesn’t seem to know about the Petro-Can charger in Medicine Hat — thus the orange-line route segment, where it’s telling me that I have to drive slow to conserve power.

Both PlugShare and ABRp have mobile apps that look OK at first glance.

Take-aways

The charging infrastructure in Western Canada is pretty good, or at least will be once they get Salmon Arm filled in. The planning tools are just fine. I can’t wait to get on the road this summer. And to see my Mom.

2020 in a Difficult Lens 27 Dec 2020, 8:00 pm

I’ve said this before in passing, but I’m becoming passionate about it. Increasingly, I believe that if you go out for a walk with a camera, you should consider attaching a difficult, opinionated lens and just leaving it on. Herewith a gallery of ten 2020 photos taken with such a lens, interspersed with preaching on the subject.

A windy winter day on English Bay

A windy March 15th on English Bay, the part of the Pacific closest to Vancouver and what you find yourself in when your boat goes under the bridge and out of protection. It is frequently the subject of grumpy remarks from boaters concerning its tendency to nasty crosscutting waves.

The opinionated lens in all these pictures is the Samyang 135m f/2 (actually 148mm on a Fuji X-cam), without doubt my most rewarding camera purchase in recent years. Follow that link for lots more on the lens.

That picture above shows how an unreasonably long lens can layer mid-range and distant objects in a composition that ordinary lenses can’t but your eyes think they can — they can’t actually, but they switch focus fast enough to fool you.

Purple behind poppies Weathered fence behind purple

Purple behind poppies, and purple in front of a weathered fence. May 10th and 19th respectively.

And of course the big bright f/2.0 does that sharp-focus/soft-field thing that makes your subject stand out and your background background-y. I can’t even remember what the purple behind the orange was, but if you’d been able to see the individual blossoms they would have got in the way of appreciating the poppies. And the weathered grey cedar fence with a diamond lattice behind the pink flower is nothing special to look at when it’s in focus.

When I’m out walking with the big Fuji/Samyang combo, that’s not the only camera I have with me, because the phone’s always there. And given the right subject, it can take pictures that are just as beautiful as the “real” camera.

In fact, the distinguishing feature of the big fat prime is that every single one of the photos it takes is something that couldn’t have been captured with any phone.

Distant mountainside

Of course, another reason to wield big glass is to capture things that are long away away. Those trees are at least ten kilometers across Howe Sound.

Party boat!

Party boat! Maybe 500m away.

Heron

The heron just far enough away that it doesn’t mind my presence.

The last three pictures were captured on the first and second of August. They’re all pretty heavily processed in Lightroom, especially the mountainside. Lightroom’s “dehaze” control is super helpful on almost any photo of something that’s far away, because it’s specifically designed to counteract the effect of a whole lot of air between you and your target.

purple berries

Late-season berries, November 21st.

Once again with the shallow depth of field. And now, once again with the layering, which in this case gracefully collapses a city’s texture and topography into a little rectangle.

Downtown from across Jonathan Rogers Park Dog in Jonathan Rogers Park

From 8th Avenue in Mount Pleasant by Jonathan Rogers Park, downtown across False Creek and a dog playing fetch, both on December 26th.

The big bright glass lets you capture something that’s moving fast on a dull day while still usefully blurring the background.

Now, there are downsides. This is big and heavy and ridiculously out of proportion with the Fujifilm X-T30 it’s screwed onto, unsurprising and sort of OK since I bought the camera to carry along while climbing up and down the Great Wall of China.

And of course it’s manual focus, which makes everything more difficult.

Do Not Refuse

December 27th in Musqueam Park. You can figure out what the sign originally said.

Indeed, I wouldn’t normally take this thing along on an adventure hike. But it seems I never regret setting out with it when I do. Like the sign now says, DO NOT REFUSE.

Hot Winter Tabbouleh 23 Dec 2020, 8:00 pm

This is a recipe I dreamed up that has pleased the family twice now. It’s pretty easy to make and has lots of room for creative variation. The name is probably controversial. Let me lead off with a picture.

Hot Winter Tabbouleh

Wikipedia says Tabbouleh is Levantine but I grew up in Lebanon and I’ve never had really first-rate Tabbouleh anywhere else, except for the version my Mom makes. Tabbouleh is a salad centered around parsley, bulgur, and tomatoes.

What happened was, I had bacon that I was going to make breakfast with but didn’t, and it was my turn to make dinner. I like dicing bacon into little pieces and sautéing them until they’re golden, then they work great in pasta sauces and other settings. I was looking at the bacon blankly and got a sudden mental image of a dish with the bacon amid diced crunchy greens and flashes of red, like tabbouleh.

Ingredients

Sorry, not terribly quantitative.

  1. Thick-cut strongly-smoked bacon. Eight to twelve slices feeds four.

  2. Kale. Thick and crunchy is better. One big bunch is enough, but generally more is better.

  3. Bulgur. A cup or so.

  4. Sun-dried tomatoes. Two or three big dessert-spoonfuls.

  5. Other items, just for fun (see below).

Process

This doesn’t move along that fast so there’s time to make whatever else you have in mind.

  1. Put the bulgur in to soak. About twice as much water as bulgur.

  2. Dice up the bacon, I try for pieces about the size of cornflakes.

  3. Toss the bacon into a frying pan — I swear by our old black well-seasoned cast-iron pan — at medium heat so it’s spitting but not loudly, and ignore it for a while, stirring every so often. It takes me fifteen minutes or more to to get that golden color.

  4. Dice up your kale. In the picture above, I got distracted halfway through and it’s nowhere near finely enough diced. Still tasted fine but looks better if finer.

  5. When the bacon is looking ready, drain off most but not all of the excess fat.

  6. By the time you’ve done all this, the bulgur should have soaked up the water and be pretty soft. Drain off any remaining water and add the bulgur to the pan. Also add the sun-dried tomatoes.

  7. Some fairly vigorous stirring is required to get it all mixed up evenly.

  8. The soaked bulgur is now pleasantly al dente so you only need to cook this stuff for a couple of minutes until it’s nice and hot.

  9. Add your kale and once again it’ll take enthusiasm to get it all nicely mixed up.

I like to leave it in the frying pan and put that (on a trivet or whatever of course) on the table, let people serve themselves.

Variations

The first time I did I didn’t do the sun-dried tomatoes and it was still tasty, the kale/bacon/bulgur play very well together. But the tomatoes were nice enough to become canonical. I also tossed in some kalamata olives, cut up a bit, and that was good too.

For future iterations I’m thinking of ideas including lemon juice and diced sweet potato.

The name

Lebanese and Levantines generally should be forgiven if they are recoiling in horror because this is really not anything like Tabbouleh, which by definition is cool and crisp. But I can’t think of anything better.

@bluesky Identity 1 Dec 2020, 8:00 pm

Twitter announced Project @bluesky back in December 2019. I blogged about it supportively then reached out saying I was interested, and was invited to join the conversation; thanks! Several of us offered proposals; this is part of mine, concerned with how identity might work in a world of diverse federated social networks.

Goal

On the Internet, there are many entities that provide online conversations, whether short-form like Twitter or bulletin-board-esque like Reddit. Then there are a nearly infinite number of specialized communities, for photographers, dog groomers, and the owners of particular types of boats or cameras. Let’s call these entities “Providers”.

@bluesky envisions allowing online conversations to span Providers. Which is to say, from inside Twitter I could follow not only other Twitter accounts, but posts on my boat-owners’ forum. And vice versa. This is a straightforward and easy-to-understand — if not necessarily easy to build — vision, and might be worth doing by itself.

In this simple vision, there’s no linkage between Twitter Tim (“Canadian Web geek with a camera”) and boat-forum Tim (“Jeanneau NC 795 tied up in Vancouver”). For a lot of people that’s probably OK or even desirable. But in some cases, people would like to take their identity, and perhaps their reputation, with them. If you’re a big hot-shot on Parler, you’d maybe like people on Twitter and your horse-dressage conversations to know that you’ve got serious alt-right credentials (shudder).

This is a proposal for a higher-level form of cross-Provider identity.

Provider Identity

Providers who participate in @bluesky have users with identities — they control user access and behavior. Let’s call those “Provider Identities”, PIDs for short. It’s easy to imagine a syntax to express this: I would be twitte[email protected] This would open the door to using OAuth-2 techniques like OIDC ID Tokens for Providers’ identity assertions, which would have the advantage of excellent library support on most programming platforms. For those who care about decentralized identity, it can be represented in the OIDC framework.

Any @bluesky post has an originating Provider. This information would be valuable input to reputation and other filtering operations. It would not make sense to apply the same set of criteria to posts from 4chan as to those from a Pediatric Endocrinologists’ forum.

Bluesky Identity

Most users are likely content to remain associated with their home Provider, but it would be of value to @bluesky to have a global notion of identity that is not tied to any Provider. Let’s call this a “Bluesky Identity” or BID for short.

A BID would typically be associated (“mapped” for short) with multiple PIDs, normally but not necessarily on different Providers. The goal of the Bluesky identity protocol is that multiple parties can easily maintain databases of mappings between PIDs and BIDs suitable for quick lookup, for example in reputation and search applications.

A BID is represented by a globally unique opaque bit string. There are multiple plausible ways to generate them, discussed below.

This protocol assumes the existence of a reliable Ledger service, shared by all Providers, to which arbitrary messages can be committed and which are recorded immutably with strict ordering semantics. There are multiple plausible ways to implement the ledger, discussed below. Note that the transaction load would be read-mostly with a low update rate.

In the following discussion, “structured”, when applied to Provider posts and ledger messages, implies the use of an agreed-on syntax specified as part of the @bluesky protocol, to facilitate unambiguous assertion parsing.

BID Identity Protocol

I propose that Providers offer APIs to facilitate implementing this protocol, but it’s the protocol that matters so I’m focusing on that.

The protocol assumes that the user has access to an account on a Provider which we’ll call P1, and write access to the ledger.

Claiming a new BID

Summary: The user generates a BID, makes a Provider post claiming it, and records that post on the ledger.

  1. The user generates a BID.

  2. The user makes a structured post to P1 containing the BID. Let’s call this a BID-claim post.

  3. Once the post has been created and the user knows its URL, the user commits a structured message to the ledger containing the URL of the BID-claim post.

Now the ledger contains a permanent immutable record of a PID-BID mapping.

Note that there is no particular relationship between a BID and the Provider where it was originally claimed. BIDs can be passed from PID to PID even in the case where the originating Provider has ceased operation.

Grant a BID from one PID to another

The protocol assumes that the user is executing on a computer with access to accounts on two Providers, P1 and P2, and also to the ledger. Summary: a user creates a zero-knowledge proof that the owners of the two accounts know a shared secret, posts the proof to both Providers, and records the URLs of the posts on the ledger.

  1. The user creates an asymmetric keypair. Unusually, no special care need be taken to secure the private key, which only needs to exist in one computer’s memory for a few seconds.

  2. The user creates a nonce, signs it with the private key, and makes a structured post to P1 containing the BID, the public key, the nonce, the signature, and the P2 PID which is to be mapped to the BID. Let‘s call this a BID-grant post.

  3. The user creates a different nonce, signs it with the private key, and makes a structured post to P2 containing the BID, the public key, the nonce, the signature, and the PID on P1 which granted the BID mapping. Let’s call this a BID-accept post.

  4. The user forgets the private key, presumably by overwriting it in memory.

  5. Once both posts have been made, the user commits a structured message to the ledger containing the URLs of the BID-grant and BID-accept posts. Let’s call this a BID-grant transaction.

Now the ledger contains permanent immutable evidence backing the mapping of a BID from one PID to another.

Unmap a BID from a PID

Suppose the user’s PID at Provider P1 is bound to a particular BID.

  1. The user makes a structured post to P1 containing the BID. Let’s call this a BID-unclaim post.

  2. The user commits a structured message to the ledger containing the URL of the BID-unclaim post.

By processing the ledger in sequence, any software agent can build a consistent mapping between PIDs and BIDs.

Single-use keys

The protocol asserts one more rule: No key-pair can be used more than once in BID-grant operations. That is to say, a software agent building a BID/PID map MUST remember which keys it has seen and ignore any BID-grant transactions which re-use a previously-used key.

Implementation notes

  • To be useful, Providers and other interested parties would use the ledger to generate and maintain a database of mappings between PIDs and BIDs. Presumably it would be keyed by both PID and BID.

  • The protocol requires a single-use keypair. It is assumed that storing and securing private keys is difficult and probably beyond the capabilities of many users of these APIs. Should a private key leak, it would allow an adversary to assert PID-PID linkages.

  • This description of the protocol assumes User Agents writing directly to the ledger. In practice, write access would be better limited to Providers, which would provide APIs such as ClaimBID, GrantBID, and UnclaimBID, which could take care of enforcing protocol constraints (such as single-use key-pairs) and correct structuring of messages, while reducing ledger spam.

  • A Provider might limit a PID to a single BID claim.

BID generation and ledger implementation

Ways that BIDs could be generated:

  • A BID could be a 128-bit integer, the first 64 bits identifying the Provider where it was claimed. Any provider joining the @bluesky protocol would be given a 64-bit range and hand out BIDs in sequence.

  • Some organization could hand out BIDs as a service, for example a @bluesky nonprofit, IANA, ISOC, or the ITU.

  • A BID could be a 64-bit integer, pick one at random and if there’s a collision, discover at ledger commit, give that one up and retry with another.

  • If the ledger were implemented as a blockchain, the BID could be the transaction hash for the transaction recording the BID claim.

Ways that the ledger could be generated:

  • An organization such as a @bluesky nonprofit, IANA, ISOC, or the ITU could offer it as a service. It would not be particularly technically challenging.

  • The ledger could be operated in a decentralized fashion based on blockchain technology. Since write transactions are rare, the poor update throughput typical of blockchain implementations shouldn’t be a problem.

Conclusion

I’m not sure this is the optimal scheme for establishing a higher-level shared-identity construct in a @bluesky-like federated system. I might be prepared to argue that this is the simplest thing that could possibly work.

Credits

The notion of using social-media posts to establish key ownership was originated by keybase.io back in the day. Paul Hoffman and Lauren Wood contributed comments that led to significant clarification.

Long Links 1 Dec 2020, 8:00 pm

Welcome to the Long Links offering for November 2020, in which I take advantage of my lightly-employed status to recommend a list of long-form works that I had time to consume, acknowledging that while you probably don’t, one or two of them might reward the time it would take you to absorb. This month’s highlights: Election rear-views, Siberia, blueswomen, the Orlando NBA bubble, and a lovely lecture about software and music.

As you might have heard, there’s this large Anglophone country south of Canada where they had an election last month. The next few long-form recommendations consider what it might have meant.

Let’s start with Rebecca Solnit’s On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway, a pretty hardass take: “If half of us believe the earth is flat, we do not make peace by settling on it being halfway between round and flat.”

More: What Trump Showed Us About America offers short pieces from 35 “thinkers” (what’s one of those?) and the subject is obviously important. Some are lightweight but plenty isn’t.

More: How Trump Changed America is by Clare Malone over at Five Thirty Eight, and is unironically heartfelt. She deploys the words “hollow” and “hollowness” in considering the Trump years and I think this points at several important truths. There’s a lot of good writing and clear thinking in here. I quote: “So what is America after Trump? A nation figuring out how — and whether — to engage and whom to love: the stranger or the self? I know the cynic’s prediction of which we’ll choose, but pure cynicism is boring.” Yeah.

More, still at Five Thirty Eight: Are Blowout Presidential Elections A Thing Of The Past?, by Geoffrey Skelley, isn’t actually a long-form piece but raises a long-form problem: The 2020 US Presidential election was the ninth consecutive one in which the popular-vote margin was less than 10%. Which is numerically weird. It wouldn’t be crazy to think that there’d be random variation in the margin, but if that were true, you’d expect one candidate to win double their opponent’s vote two-thirds of the time (do the math, it isn’t hard). What are the forces that systematically and repeatedly make these elections so close? I don’t know and neither does the author. But I’d like to.

More: I’m a big fan of Peter Beinart, especially his writings about Israel and its neighbors and problems, full of clear vision and obviously on a subject that requires extreme courage. In How Trump Lost he makes the point (as have others) that if Trump had actually delivered the program he ran on in 2016 he’d probably have won in 2020. Progressives like me ignore the attraction of alt-right populism at our nations’ peril, and we can’t always count on its having standard-bearers who are clueless buffoons.

More: Joe Biden Must Be a President for America’s Workers offers a straightforward argument that the new administration needs to start with inequality and the increasingly dire position of blue-collar America, and offers practical suggestions on how to do that. I can hear voices muttering “class reductionist!” but I don’t care, I agree with pretty well every word.

No more!

Enough about that election. Let’s move on…

In the New York Times, Along Russia’s “Road of Bones”, Relics of Suffering and Despair tries to wrap words and pictures around the unimaginably vast and harsh expanses of Eastern Siberia. I learned one time, on an endless pain-filled flight from Tokyo to Paris, that there remains a part of the planet where you can look out of a plane for an hour at a time and see no marks left by any human, and ever since then I’ve been fascinated by Siberia. But I don’t think you need such a fascination to enjoy this piece.

The Most Magical Place on Earth (in GQ, forsooth) is by Taylor Rooks, a Black woman sportswriter whom I’d never previously encountered. This is about life in the Orlando Disney NBA anti-Covid bubble and I really enjoyed it. When you drop the NBA players and staff and coaches and media into three hotels for a few months and seal them off from the rest of the world, they all get to know each other in new and interesting ways. Add drama following on George Floyd’s murder, and then there’s the general Covid-angst backdrop, and it all adds up to a very engaging read. I’m going to have to track down Ms Rooks and read more.

Inside YouTube’s plan to win the music-streaming wars: The title says it all. I am currently a YouTube Music customer, and enjoying it as the service learns to understand my admittedly unusual tastes. But this made me sad, because the music world (actually, the world in general) does not need another extrusion of the vast Google amoeba oozing in and sucking the life and profit out.

The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free — subtitled “The Political Economy of Bullshit” is, like the last Long Link, exactly what the title says, and correspondingly sad, at least initially. But it’s a refreshing read, takes a serious detailed look at the shape of the problem and offers lots of practical think-big ideas about useful paths forward. Also, the closing line is “The truth needs to be free and universal”, a sentiment that should warm many hearts.

The future of work is written is by Juan Pablo Buriticá at increment — hadn’t previously heard of either the author or the site. It addresses the future of remote work and since so has everyone else you might resist the temptation to read it. But check out the title: Buriticá dives deep on the strengths of collaboratively-written asynchronous communication in the remote-work construct. He considers the IETF in general and the “RFC” notion in particular. I’m obviously sympathetic to that, and my most recent employer thrived on written communication and document-based decision making, so I think there’s a lot to study here.

The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done looks at the issue of what “Productivity” means for knowledge workers, and how to improve it. This field of study was invented by Peter Drucker who gets some attention here, but the piece looks most closely at Merlin Mann, the inventor of “Inbox Zero” (I personally prefer the low-stress inbox approach) and the term “productivity pr0n”. There’s reason to suspect that trying to do anything useful in the face of an overwhelming flow of input, much of it claiming to be high-priority, is a fool’s errand, and part of the solution has to involve disconnection. Useful!

There’s this person named Paul Ford whom I’ve known about for years, he seems to earn his living doing technology but in my mind he’s a writer, and when I see something new from him, I’m inclined to stop whatever I’m doing and read it right then. Tech After Trump is what it says on the label and I find little to disagree with. In Web Conversation From the Other Side Paul imagines a dialogue between the technology of 2000 and that of 2020. Probably mostly of interest to technologists, but really extreme interest for a lot of us.

If you’re convinced (like me) that monopolization is a central problem afflicting many sectors of our economies and wondering (like me) what to do about it, the problem of defining the term “market share” becomes very important. Benedict Evans’ Market definitions and tech monopolies addresses this question. Unfortunately he offers more questions than answers, but they are good, challenging questions.

Now let’s close with a few musical offerings. I really enjoyed Women created the blues. Now they are taking it back, and it led to the discovery of some terrific music, notably by Samantha Fish. I have big soft spots for woman blues singers and loud electric guitar and if the woman’s also bashing the guitar well what’s not to like?

Not all the good guitarists are women. But my mental list of Guitar Players That Matter had never really included George Harrison even though I kinda liked that band he played in and he wrote one of my favorite songs. But Notes You Never Hear: The Metaphysical Loneliness of George Harrison argues that I’m wrong, that his contribution to all those records we’ve all heard so much is a Really Big Deal. I’m not sure I’m convinced, if I were launching a fantasyland rock&roll band and could only hire one Beatles guitarist it probably wouldn’t be George. But I still enjoyed this a lot.

Finally, I offer a 51-minute lecture by Alice Eldridge, a keynote at the “AI Music Creativity 2020” conference. It’s beautiful albeit annoyingly academic in that it keeps referring to other scholars by name and assuming we know who they are. Did I say beautiful? And extremely intellectually stimulating. She makes heavy use of the gerund “musicking” which I kind of like. There is geek mind-candy including a few flashes of source code and exotic music hardware but that’s not why you should watch this, you should sit down with an adult beverage when you’ve nothing else to distract you and listen carefully to what Dr. Eldridge has to say because every word carries carefully-considered weight and many of them are also beautiful.

Editing Francesca 29 Nov 2020, 8:00 pm

This is a story about researching Russian music, about Italian adulterers in Hell, and about pulp sci-fi featuring fairy-cursed princesses. To be honest, it’s also about editing Wikipedia, why that’s fun and rewarding and maybe you should try it.

What happened was, on Friday there was a Twitter challenge: “What's a great song that is over 10 minutes in length?” I replied “Francesca da Rimini” and without thinking too much switched over to YouTube and, since I was about done with things and ready for bed, dialed up this pretty good performance by Igor Manasherov and the Moscow Philharmonic. While I was enjoying that, I had a glance at the Wikipedia entry (that’s a pointer to the entry as of Friday night) and was saddened — it opened with three windy paragraphs about themes and influences which lacked even one citation, some rando injecting amateur-music-critic opinions into Wikipedia. Obviously had to be fixed.

A word on the music

I’ve loved this piece since I stumbled into a live performance in Switzerland at the Lucerne festival while on a business trip sometime around 1990. If you want to know more about it, I enthused about it back in 2006, and the improved Wikipedia entry (see below) is full of well-cited factual material, including descriptions by contemporary critics and praise from Saint-Saëns.

To the library!

We had some running around to do on Saturday so I tacked on a stop at the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch. I’d already poked around and found three respectable Tchaikovsky biographies that were said to have good coverage of the music, including one (Tchaikovsky: A Self-Portrait by Alexandra Orlova) which is an assemblage of Tchaikovsky’s own writings.

In normal times I would have gone to the library, grabbed the books off the shelves, sat down with my computer at a quiet table, and done my editing there and then.

But the stacks are closed because of Covid so you have to talk to a person at the Info desk to order the books you want and somebody brings them to you after a few minutes. Which is time to walk around the main floor and look at the new books and comics and magazines. My eyes were captured by the cheerful luridness of the September-October Fantasy & Science Fiction cover. So on impulse I brought that home, along with Tchaikovsky.

Books

Editing

One of the biographies turned out to be useless, but the other three each had a good index, so I could skip through all the mentions of Francesca. It was only an hour or two’s work to pull citations together and reorganize the entry. Now, rather than offering opinions about Tchaikovsky’s influences, it quotes his own remarks on the subject — yes, he was influenced by Ring of the Nibelung which he’d seen at Bayreuth, even though he found it “very antipathatic”.

Bonus!

After I’d finished editing I picked up Fantasy & Science Fiction, feeling all nostalgic. About 300 years ago, as an undergraduate I lived in a student house full of Sci-Fi hounds and we bought F&SF every month, along with Asimov’s Science Fiction, and passed it from hand to hand. It’s still got unironic Space Opera covers entirely unrelated to any stories inside. It’s still got klunky typography on cheap paper. It’s still got lots of reviews and amusing classified ads.

What’s different is that the stories are 100% free of the egregious sexism that marred twentieth-century sci-fi and fantasy.

I really enjoyed, and unhesitatingly recommend, Of Them All, a novella by Leah Cypess. It’s good old-fashioned fantasy about two princesses, neither particularly lovely, one fairy-cursed at birth: “You will be beautiful only to those who wish you harm.” What a great premise! And nicely developed.

Downside

I’ve loved Francesca da Rimini for thirty years but it’d never occurred to me to wonder who Francesca might have been — a real person, it turns out. The work is inspired by Dante Aligheri’s description, in Inferno, of the eternal punishment in Hell of Francesca and her adulterous lover. Which was pretty gruesome, and now that I know about it, I have to grant that Tchaikovsky did a fine job of painting the picture musically. Which is not helping my enjoyment of the music, but I’ll probably get over it.

You can too

Edit Wikipedia, I mean. Everybody is an expert in a few things, at the very least the neighborhood they live in, some aspects of their profession, and likely one or two extracurricular interests.

It’s this simple: Whenever you see something wrong in Wikipedia, just fix it. It doesn’t need to be time-consuming and I never find it tedious. Plus, you’re enriching the world that everyone lives in.

The Devourers 24 Nov 2020, 8:00 pm

I was reading yet another lament at the death of a much-loved publication because advertising doesn’t work any more and they couldn’t execute the pivot to subscription (fewer and fewer can). Ads no longer work because of the Google/Facebook duopoly; suddenly I was thinking “This reminds me of something.” After wandering the dusty back corridors of memory I came up with names that will be familiar to a few oldsters: Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. No, really.

Bazaar of the Bizarre

Our Heroes

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, heroes both, appeared in stories written by Fritz Leiber between 1939 and 1988 (!). This is classic sword-and-sorcery stuff with all the usual flourishes. Yes, they’re sexist as hell (see the cover above) but not racist (despite the cover). In my youth, few fantasy worlds (and I visited a lot) offered me more pleasure.

It’s easy to understand why. The swordfighting is tasty, the sorcery is richly painted, and our two heroes are the most charming rogues imaginable. Also, none of the stories take themselves seriously in the slightest. For a combination of adventure, treachery, and laugh-your-face-off, you just can’t beat my favorite story in the series, Lean Times in Lankhmar, featuring that down-on-his-luck deity Issek Of The Jug.

You’ll notice that I haven’t linked to any opportunities to buy these stories. If you want to it’s not hard, Fafhrd and the Mouser have been anthologized any number of times and bootleg versions are out there. But I recommend dropping by your local library and checking a few out. After all, Fritz died in 1992 and doesn’t need the money.

The Devourers

They are the villains of a story entitled Bazaar of the Bizarre, first published in 1963. They arrive in the mighty and degenerate city of Lankhmar and set up an attractive storefront in the Plaza of Dark Delights.

It turns out they’re from another universe, and are described thus: “The Devourers are the most accomplished merchants in all the many universes … meaning simply that they sell and sell and sell! —sell trash and take good money and even finer things in exchange … they want all their customers reduced to a state of slavish and submissive suggestibility … eventually the Devourers’ customers will have nothing wherewith to pay the Devourers for their trash.”

Fafhrd and the Mouser end up tasked with expelling the Devourers. It turns out that the brightly-lit shop is full of exquisite and wonderful books and jewels and telescopes and pretty girls in cages, which are revealed, when Fafhrd dawns the Veil Of True Seeing, to really be noisome rotting rubbish. And giant spiders. The Mouser, without the advantage of the veil, is being led to his doom by the illusion. Then the iron statue awakens and… well anyhow, go read it if you want.

The Devourer duopoly

That’s what Facebook and Google are. They will sell ads to target any conceivable human interest, not on the quality publications that care about that interest, but on random lowest-possible-cost sites that are visited by what AdTech guesses is the same audience. I’ve linked to this before, but the best description of how this works is Data Lords: The Real Story of Big Data, Facebook and the Future of News by Josh Marshall.

Like the Devourers in Lankhmar, they will suck out the profit and the life from all the publishers with heart and replace them with AdTech, which I’d argue proffers the same kind of trash the Devourers in the story sell.

And like the Devourers, they’re destroying the ecosystem that they’re farming — eventually all the quality storytelling on the Internet will retreat behind the paywalls of the very few operations that can manage the pivot to subscriptions. Which, among other things leads to a future where The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free, not exactly what our society needs right now.

The difference is that, unlike the Devourers, Facebook and Google can’t skip off to another universe after they’ve finished despoiling this one. That’s why busting them up and slapping a fierce regulatory framework on AdTech is among the single most important policy moves that our governments ought to be getting to work on, and I mean right now.

Because there are no vagabond swordsmen with wizardly mentors coming to clean out today’s Devourers.

Not that that wouldn’t be cool.

Facebook Market 7 Nov 2020, 8:00 pm

In the last few days my fear of Facebook has been ramping up and in my mind the case for breaking it up got stronger. What happened was, I sold the old family minivan on Facebook Marketplace and it’s a juggernaut.

We bought a reasonably-well-equipped Honda Odyssey in 2007, a few months after our second child was born. Minivans, they really do the trick when you’ve got multiple kids. It’s carried little-league teams and birthday parties and construction materials and everything the family needs at the cabin for a week. It’s taken the two-day drive over the mountains and across the Prairies to Saskatchewan, twice. It ain’t sexy and it ain’t sleek, but if you’re gonna spend a lot of hours schlepping stuff and kids around, there are way worse places than the big high comfy driver’s seat.

Anyhow, we don’t need it any more — our kids are 21 and 14 — so we decided to sell it. Since it’d been driving kids around, it was plenty grungy inside, so I got it detailed inside and out. When I picked it up from Ahmed the car-detail dude I said “This puppy’s going on Craigslist this afternoon.” Ahmed said “No, man, put it on Facebook Marketplace, it’s ten times better. Anybody in the business will tell you the same thing. Hussein over there just sold a bunch of snow tires the same afternoon.”

The experience

So I did; thanks, Ahmed. The listing experience is excellent. It got me to give it the VIN and from that it filled in the model, make, year, and so on. It knew what region the listing should focus on. Upload a couple of pictures and write a blurb and you’re done. It wondered if I wanted to promote the listing, starting at $4, but I bypassed that.

Facebook Marketplace front page

[Maybe worth noting: I don’t use Facebook except for a couple of affinity groups, but I do hit those a couple times a week, and I have one or two occasional contacts that want to chat with Messenger. So my Facebook account is kind of up to date, in case that’s relevant.]

I listed it Thursday afternoon. Facebook says nearly a thousand people looked at the ad, and thirty or so reached out to me. The outreach comes through FB Messenger, with the person’s face replaced by one of my van pictures. I made dates with seven people to look at it, five showed up, the fifth bought it, and we did the papers and money Monday evening.

Running everything through Messenger was clever, although I found it a bit overwhelming on my phone, really needed to use a big-screen browser to stay on top of the traffic. Here’s an interesting sidelight: When I eventually marked the deal closed, which you can do right there in the chat, all those people vanished from my chat history.

I learned a few things. First of all, I carefully researched prices by looking at comparables, set a reasonable price, and stuck to it. Probably could have sold faster if I’d put it like 15% higher and been willing to come down — people really want to bargain.

Basically all the people who showed up to look were pleasant. There was this one pair of dudes who were grumpy but they had made the best offer until the fifth party took it. Another guy was fresh off the boat from Taiwan, almost no English but he din’t let that bother him, had a translator app on his phone and we got along. On the test drive he scared the crap out of me, driving like a madman.

Why worry?

I mentioned to a couple of the folks that I’d never sold anything on Facebook before and wow, it worked pretty well. They smiled at me understandingly — old guy, they were thinking, not Internet-savvy — and agreed, wondering why anyone would use anything else.

At which point my internal alarm bells started ringing. The Internet does not need the giant Facebook amoeba expanding into online retail. I already believed passionately that we need drastic action ASAP to smash up the Google/Facebook ad duopoly and bring life back to advertising-supported publishing as a category.

Monopolies start small and then when you notice them, it’s usually too late. I don’t think it’s too late in this case.

Autumn Yellow 1 Nov 2020, 8:00 pm

This is my least favorite of the seasons, because I can’t help thinking of the looming cold and dark. This weekend — when the timeshift robs us of an hour of late light — feels particularly onerous. But you have to admire those trees.

Autumn Yellow

I’m still shooting with the the Fujifilm X-T30. My honeymoon with this eighteen-month-old camera is somewhat over. I miss the mammoth electronic viewfinder of the flagship X-T models and the minimal grace of the X-E models. For pictures like the ones in this fragment, I think of the mighty GFX100 and big poster-sized prints. Except for, Lightroom Classic on the Mac is painful enough with these 26-MPixel shots.

Autumn Yellow

Having said all that, the X-T30 with a couple of the smaller X-series lenses makes for a damn light camera-bag. Today I was out with just the two lenses I bought with my first Fujifilm back in 2013, the 35mm and 18-55mm zoom. It’d be hard to think of an autumn-trees photo opportunity where I would have wanted anything else.

Also, the X-T30 looks cool. This afternoon some people chatting in their front yard saw me coming with the camera. One was saying to the others about how he’d been shooting leaves too earlier that day, then when I got nearer said “Oh, wow, a real film camera!” with that endearing “fillum” pronunciation. I smiled and said no, it’s modern, just a bit retro looking, and we exchanged a few socially-distanced words.

Autumn Yellow

Wooden arch!
(Please ignore the wires.)

News

Flow through this blog is apt to be a bit disrupted because, um, I’m trying to write a book. When I became briefly infamous back in May, I got outreach from publishers and literary agents along the lines of “Wow, you write a lot. How about a book?” As of now I have about a third of a book’s worth of Word files and am about halfway to convincing myself that something good potentially exists of which they’re a part. That’s all I’m saying about it for now.

Long Links 1 Nov 2020, 8:00 pm

This is the fifth “Long Links” episode, a monthly curation of good long-form essays from around the Internet that nobody who (unlike me) has an actual job has time to read all of. A glance through this might turn up one or two pieces that would reward even a busy person’s time.

[Geeks only.] Microservices — architecture nihilism in minimalism’s clothes, by Vasco Figueira, comes with a provocative title and really a whole lot of different angles on the problem. I certainly don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but some of the angles are new to me and I suspect would be to others as well. At AWS it’s sort of written in the stars that all of the services have microservices inside: control plane vs data plane, stateless vs stateful, serverless vs serverful, etc. Good stuff.

The Niskanen Center presents itself as the natural home of that highly-endangered species, the American centrist. Faster Growth, Fairer Growth, their manifesto, is really long, verging on book-length — no, even I haven’t read all of it. The parts I have read are sensible, logical, and sound to me like what rational Republicans would probably say (there aren’t any of those, current Republicans are just the embodiment of Trump, no more and no less). Obviously, I would come down considerably to the left of this viewpoint — for example, there’s nothing about applying criminal sanctions to business miscreants, nor about directly strengthening working-class power. On top of which, I don’t believe that GDP growth is the best, or even a very useful, measure of the goodness of an economy. But still, if the Republicans ever manage to get clear of the Trump toxins, these are the pathways they should be investigating.

And now for something completely different: Grapefruit Is One of the Weirdest Fruits on the Planet. There’s lots to learn about the citrus-fruit family tree, where the name “grapefruit” came from, and the bizarre way this delicious package of flavor interacts with your digestive system and (potentially dangerously) with whatever prescription you might be on.

Yanis Varoufakis was a wildly controversial Greek Minister of Finance, when Greece started digging out from its entirely-insupportable public-debt load. He tried defying the European financial establishment and got squashed like a bug. He’s an interesting guy, and Capitalism isn’t working. Here’s an alternative is an interesting piece. Here are the first two paragraphs:

When Margaret Thatcher coined “Tina” – her 1980s dictum that “There is no alternative” – I was incensed because, deep down, I felt she had a point: the left had neither a credible nor a desirable alternative to capitalism.

Leftists excel at pinpointing what is wrong with capitalism. We wax lyrical about the possibility of some “other” world in which one contributes according to one’s capacities and obtains according to one’s needs. But, when pushed to describe a fully fledged alternative to contemporary capitalism, for many decades we have oscillated between the ugly (a Soviet-like barracks socialism) and the tired (a social democracy that financialised globalisation has rendered infeasible).

That certainly grabbed my attention. This piece doesn’t actually lay out his alternative, it lays out a few very interesting highlights, and plugs his book Another Now. Which worked; it’s now in my to-read queue.

Back in 2018, Benedict Evans asked Is Tesla disruptive?, a question which is increasingly material as Tesla’s valuation balloons to increasingly intergalactic levels. His answer is mostly in the negative. I find this easy to believe, because I drive a modern electric car (a Jaguar I-Pace) which shipped in late 2018 and which I wouldn’t trade for any currently-shipping Tesla. So maybe I’m prejudiced. But I sure wouldn’t be buying any Tesla shares right now.

You’ll be reading this right around the week of the 2020 American election. Suppose it pans out as the election modelers predict, with a well-deserved defeat for Trump specifically and Republicans in general. A question then arises, captured nicely in the title of Brian Beutler’s recent piece on Crooked (a site I haven’t previously encountered): What to Do About GOP Bad Faith After Trump. A large proportion of viewers of US politics have come to conclusion that current American conservatism is without truth, without honor, and without decency, and if there is any concern for justice, must be made to pay a price. Beutler doesn’t offer a lot of what-to-do specifics, he simply makes the case that a possible future Democratic majority should stop treating Republicans as good-faith adversaries or decent people, because they are neither.

Just because you can’t pretend that 2020 Republicans as principled or intelligent conservatives doesn’t mean that such things can’t exist. Government Of, By, and For the Elite is a discussion between J.D. Vance and Chris Arnade. Arnade’s politics don’t fall into any neat bucket but Vance is definitely conservative, and while he does suck at the teat of the right-wing noise machine, is not self-evidently corrupt and malevolent. I’m not going to try to summarize their discussion but here’s a nice out-take from Vance, describing the whole US political establishment as “a uni-party that governs culturally a little bit to the left of the American people and economically very much to the right of the American people.”

Now let’s take a quick hop across the Pacific for Victor H. Mair’s How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language, which is mostly about the fact that Taiwanese, spoken at home by many in that nation, has no written form. While I’m not equipped to understand many of his points about Han ideographics, I am interested in the intersection between language and culture and I think this would be interesting to most who share those interests. Being Putonghua-literate would increase the chances of finding this fascinating.

As a long-time skeptic concerning Bitcoin in particular and blockchain in general, I always like a good anti-blockchain rant, because, to my amazement, there still seem to be people out there who see it as The Future Of Everything. Jesse Frederik’s Blockchain, the amazing solution for almost nothing is a useful refresher course on the claims of the blockchainers and why they’re almost certainly wrong. On top of which, it’s readable and entertaining.

Back to the Niskanen center, where we find Philip K. Verleger’s The Energy Transition: How Fast?, which dives deep on a single argument advanced by defenders of the high-carbon status quo in the energy economy: That the transition to renewables is going to be slow because of the heavy existing investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure. This argument is ridiculous (uh, “sunk costs”, anyone?) and Verleger dunks on it in elegant, evidence-based style.

One of the central problems of our era is the profusion of falsehood, with the Internet serving as a global-scale lie amplifier. I think anything that promises to mitigate this awfulness, even a little bit, deserves serious attention. Amy Yee’s To Recognize Misinformation in Media, Teach a Generation While It’s Young makes a strong case that spotting lies is a skill that can be taught to young people. Let’s do that! She links to Exploring Media Literacy Education as a Tool for Mitigating Truth Decay, a useful RAND report on the subject.

From back in July in New York magazine, David Shor’s Unified Theory of American Politics is a hell of a read. Mr Shor has a whole lot of smart things to say about how American voters vote and what, specifically, the Democratic party should be and do.

Wired addresses another subject close to my heart in Ad Tech Could Be the Next Internet Bubble. Subtitle: “The scariest thing about microtargeted ads is that they just don’t work.” If you care at all about the Internet economy, that should be enough to grab 100% of your attention. The article focuses on a book by Tim Hwang, Subprime Attention Crisis: Advertising and the Time Bomb at the Heart of the Internet (Amazon affiliate link, feel free to buy elsewhere). Think I’m gonna have to read that.

Let’s finish on an upbeat note. Stephen O’Grady is a really smart industry analyst, whose analysis work seems to have followed me around over the years, which is to say the stuff he’s mostly written about at any one time seemed to be the area I was working in. I’ve hoisted a few beers with him and enjoyed a lot of his writing. Much to everyone’s surprise, he has now published This is the Way, fifty pieces of advice on what a good life is and how to live it. It’s exquisite. Go read it.

Google Antitrust Notes 20 Oct 2020, 7:00 pm

I just read the US antitrust “Complaint” against Google. This is obviously just the first chapter of a very long story, but here are early observations.

Don’t get upset that this is going to take years to work through. Figuring out how to unclench Google’s stranglehold on the Internet wouldn’t be easy even without their army of excellent lawyers fighting tooth and claw every step of the way, which they will be. It’s still worth doing.

I found the Complaint document to be well-written and well-argued. You don’t need to be an antitrust attorney, or any kind of lawyer at all, to understand its argument. I recommend reading it; It’s not that long and I certainly learned a few things about the shape of the search and advertising business, and you probably would too.

To my surprise, a few members of my tribe were pushing back against this lawsuit. The first argument was “This is an operation of the corrupt and malevolent Trump administration, whose real target is their dorky notion that social media is biased against conservatives.” Well, no. Even granted the cosmic awfulness of the current administration, the complaint is still coherent and sensible, and none of the anticonservative-bias fantasyland makes an appearance. Sometimes bad organizations do good things; deal with it.

The second pushback is along the lines of “It may be a monopoly but Google is a damn good search engine, and it’s free. So how can that be bad?” Which raises a very sensible question…

Who is harmed?

I agree: It’s not obvious that end-users are hurt directly. Google provides, at the end of the day, a pretty awesome search service. It meets my needs well, and they seem to fix breakages when they’re reported.

The problem is (to steal a phrase from the Complaint) “monopoly rents from advertisers”. Search advertising is a context where you know exactly what the user is looking for, and it’s amazingly effective, and Google enjoys a monopoly, which means they can charge what the market will bear, and they do. Here’s ¶168:

Google’s exclusionary conduct also substantially forecloses competition in the search advertising and general search text advertising markets, harming advertisers. By suppressing competition, Google has more power to manipulate the quantity of ad inventory and auction dynamics in ways that allow it to charge advertisers more than it could in a competitive market. Google can also reduce the quality of the services it provides to advertisers, including by restricting the information it offers to advertisers about their marketing campaigns.

While the Complaint doesn’t mention it, Google has used the insanely-effective AdTech machinery they’ve built around Search to go after the rest of the online advertising market. They and Facebook now enjoy an effective duopoly, which they’re using to ingest a larcenous proportion of the money flowing through the system, thereby wreaking devastation on the publishing industry. Which is to say, intellectually impoverishing our civilization.

The phone builders

The investigators did a really good job digging into the tools Google uses to wrangle the companies who make Android phones. There’s a carrot and a stick. The carrot is that if you play nice and give Google all the search business, they’ll pay a you a commission on the billions they get in revenue.

The stick is the Google Android apps, in particular Google Play Services. Android may claim to be open-source but that’s smelling increasingly like a big fat lie, since apparently more and more essential features have migrated into Play Services, including notification capabilities and OAuth.

I was actually in the Android group when we shipped Play Services, and I thought it was a brilliant idea because we could add value to the platform without having to convince phonemakers to adopt a whole new release of Android, something they were famously bad at. I feel clueless for having missed the lock-in angle.

The Apple Angle

The Complaint says that mobile traffic in the US is 60% iOS vs 40% Android, which I hadn’t known. Apple routes all the search traffic to Google, which in return routes billions of dollars to Apple. The arrangement works great for both of them. As for the advertisers and publications, they’re just roadkill.

Disappointment

Section VIII, at the end of the Complaint, is entitled “Request for Relief”. It doesn’t even fill one of the 64 pages. It asks the court to (a) agree that Google is behaving illegally, (b) “Enter structural relief as needed to cure any anticompetitive harm”, (c) force Google to stop doing these bad things, (d) do what it takes to restore competitive conditions, (e) do whatever else the Court finds just and proper, and (f) cover the plaintiffs’ expenses.

I’m disappointed. Maybe this is a symptom of me not being an antitrust lawyer, but I’d have hoped for some specific, creative ideas on how to accomplish these good things.

Since the plaintiffs didn’t bother, let’s look at what they could do.

Regulation

If we don’t like what Google’s doing to the advertisers and the phone builders, we can pass new regulations to forbid them, or enter a Consent decree whereby Google agrees to stop doing those things. This is how the big Microsoft monopoly litigation was settled in 2001.

I hate it. You need to write these things carefully and the second the ink is dry the company will start working to game the system. Then there’s the risk of regulatory capture, where the people who are supposed to enforce the new rules start sharing Google’s worldview and basically just don’t. Finally, if new regulations apply to everyone not just Google (which they should) they can be turned into an advantage if they’re so cumbersome that only a giant company can afford to comply with them.

Breakup

One big problem with monopolies is that they use their locked-in profits to invade other business sectors and compete unfairly because they can afford to forego profit. The classic solution is just to break the monopolist the hell up.

I’m pretty sympathetic to this approach and wrote a whole blog piece talking through this in detail. While I stand by every word, reading the Complaint raised my consciousness on the mobile front, which probably affects important details of the breakup.

Utility-style regulation

So if you want to break the company up but you still want excellent search and you want to restore sanity to the advertising business, what else could you do?

You can make a case that Web search is a natural monopoly. Running the crawlers and indexers and servers is freaking expensive, requiring monster capex and operational expenditure. It’s not obvious to me that the world needs more than one.

The counter-argument would be that competition drives innovation. Speaking as a person who spent some years of his career working on full-text search, I doubt that there’s much left in the way of low-hanging fruit. But I might be wrong.

How about declaring that some parts of search implementation are monopolies, and that’s OK, and they should be regulated as such, in exactly the same way we regulate power and water and other natural-monopoly utilities.

You’d require that the monopoly offer a straightforward full-text-based document retrieval API that implements several different ranking algorithms and charges per search. You’d forbid it from engaging in any advertising businesses. Then you’d free up people to build consumer-facing search interfaces and compete to sell advertising on them. They could also compete on enriched search, the kind of thing Google does where it converts units and currencies, does arithmetic, knows timezones and populations and capital cities, and branches to the right Wikipedia article while you’re still typing.

You could have one of these things that runs no advertising at all, just charges you a (pretty damn low) fee per search. On top of which it’d be faster. I could see myself paying for such a thing.

It’d be tricky to work out. But it might give us a much, much nicer Internet. And a richer intellectual landscape.

Trickster 15 Oct 2020, 7:00 pm

This is a recommendation for 2½ books and a just-launched TV series, and for the books’ author, Eden Robinson. As a consequence of watching the TV pilot I’m now re-reading the books, which is strong testimony. While this is pretty Canadian stuff, I think the story of a disadvantaged and hard-pressed young aboriginal person, lost in strange spaces, would resonate in plenty of other landscapes. Anyhow, it’s dark and entertaining, with sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll and supernatural creatures you would not want to meet on a dark night. These are page-turners, keep-you-up-too-late stuff.

Son of a Trickster Trickster Drift

The books are Son of a Trickster (2017), Trickster Drift (2018), and the “½” is because the third book, The Trickster Returns, isn’t out till next spring. But boy will I ever snap it up.

The TV series is on CBC (Canadian public TV); here’s a pointer which I’m not 100% sure will work outside Canada. If it does, the shows are free but there are ads. I thought S1E1 captured the spirit of the books perfectly and I’ll be spudding out. Sorry, it’s real actual TV so you’d have to wait a few months to binge it.

Our hero is Jared, a Native high-schooler whose family is deeply, spectacularly dysfunctional.

Drugs, violence, you name it, all the usual marks are checked. The locus of chaos at Jared’s place is his mother, who’s all about trashy men and bad drugs, with a casual attitude toward rent, utility bills, and education. Granted the difficulties she’s sort of lovable, and definitely to be feared not pitied. Jared’s Dad (not situated locally) is a wastrel of a different flavor.

The thing about Jared is he takes care of people, whether or not they deserve it; it seems he can’t help it, it’s just who he is.

Which means Jared has a high-stress life. It helps that he’s bright and well-organized and actually makes enough money to keep the family afloat. (Not legally, but still.) He’s got his own substance-abuse issues and suffers from typically-toxic high-school culture.

Now mix in the Trickster of the title, not a natural creature at all, except sometimes a raven; there are strong roots here in our Pacific-Northwest Native story culture. Trickster has a name: Wee’git.

The supernatural bulges through the surface of reality in horrifyingly believable ways; its inhabitants are not cuddly and not friendly and are apt to bite off pieces of human anatomy, given a chance. The first book is set in a mid-coastal town and the second mostly in Vancouver, my hometown, which I disclose because it may have contributed to my being completely taken with these stories.

It seems very unlikely that the TV series will achieve the full dark craziness of the books, but early indications are positive. The actors playing Jared his his mother are razor-sharp.

Hmm, I seem to have got way down here without talking about the underlying social issues. Canada has systemic racism just like everywhere else. In particular there’s no getting away from the fact that Canada is substantially built on stolen land. The abuse of our indigenous people has been explicit and multigenerational and brutal. So, unsurprisingly, a lot of them are really hurting. These stories inhabit that reality and show you things you can’t unsee, with awesome clarity but without ever giving you a feeling that you’re being lectured. A lot more Canadians would benefit from learning the truths on display on these pages.

Oh, and a word about the author. She has a couple of other books which I plan to read, and when you hear her on the radio or YouTube or whatever, she’s a scream, with a big laugh and an endless line of good-humored stories about Native life and writer’s issues and, well, everything. I think she’d be a delight to hang out with

[Disclosure: The buy-this-book links above are Amazon Associate tagged and if you follow them I might make a buck.]

Long Links 4 Oct 2020, 7:00 pm

Welcome to the fourth monthly “Long Links” instalment, in which I take advantage of my lightly-employed status to enjoy high-quality long-form pieces and point out a few that seem worthwhile in the hope that you might fit one or two into your busier lives.

Truth has long been one of my obsessions and is a recurring theme in this blog. I’m contemplating something really long-form on the subject. It occurred to me that there might be a Wikipedia entry on Truth and wow, is there ever. I enjoyed reading it.

The only systems of thought I know of that dare a claim to dispense absolute truth are religions. They are growing small and weak, as described by In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace from the Pew Research Center. I’m not religious and have little sympathy for the intellectual gymnastics of those who defend their faiths, but our society’s architecture assumes the power of religion in mostly-unspoken ways, so we can’t expect its diminishment to be entirely side-effect free.

The Internet is for End Users is a document that Mark Nottingham, long time co-chair of the HTTP work at the IETF (pretty important stuff), has been circulating for a while and is now RFC 8890. I quote: “When there is a conflict between the interests of end users of the Internet and other parties, IETF decisions should favor end users.” Sounds simple but the implications are profound.

Recently the acronym “WEIRD” has been getting traction. Read about it in Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory which is a review of The Weirdest People in the World; How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich. The acronym stands for: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.

One of the Internet’s biggest problems, thus also a concern for society, is the deeply dysfunctional state of online advertising, which has made it essentially impossible to build a new ad-supported publishing operation because the Google/Facebook duopoly has sucked all the profit out of the system. Anything that can ameliorate this is a Big Deal. In Wired, Can Killing Cookies Save Journalism? describes an experiment that suggests a way forward, and also includes a useful explainer on the shape of the problem.

Another dive into the troubled waters of ad-supported anything is Facebook-Google Duopoly Won’t Crack This Year in eMarketer. Quote: “By the end of next year, nearly 70% of US digital ad dollars will end up with one of the three leading ad sellers.” Ouch.

There are plenty of ideas out there on reconstituting the journalistic ecosystem and I suppose a Socialist approach deserves a look; so look no further than Big Tech Can’t Save Journalism. Democratic Socialism Can. In Jacobin because of course.

My former employer has certainly become a hot target for aggressive journalists and civic-society activists. Being the world’s most powerful company, and simultaneously one that touches nearly everyone’s life, will do that. I still think that Amazon is a symptom not the problem, so I enjoyed Amazon’s Unrestrained Power Is a Threat to the European Social Model, a set of recommendations from a cross-European labor congress, whch echoes that message. The piece begins, and I quote: “Using Amazon as an example of how dominant online platforms use their vast market power to avoid taxes, squeeze small and medium-sized businesses, engage in price dumping and drag down labour conditions…”

Amazon may be just a symptom, but sometimes the symptoms can hurt pretty badly. Writing at the Center For Investivative Reporting’s Reveal, Will Evans offers How Amazon hid its safety crisis, which subsequently featured on the front page of the Seattle Times. It is very damning, and easily explained as a consequence of the pathologies I wrote about in Just Too Efficient.

Have you ever done arithmetic in a calculator, either a physical one or the app on your phone, and got an answer that should be simple but ends in .00000001 or .9999999? Adrian Colyer’s Toward an API for the real numbers, in his wonderful the morning paper blog, discusses a paper by Hans Boehm that explains how to avoid those funny numbers. Now unless you’re pretty damn geeky, this is going to go right by you. But a whole lot of computer programmers (including me) have learned painfully that the base-2 numbers inside our computers have an often-dysfunctional relationship with the base-10 numbers inside our brains. Boehm’s work is a mathematically rigorous assault on the problem and includes a practical exposition, namely his code, currently working well in half a billion Android devices, producing no .000001’s or .99999’s.

Remember the “Cancel Culture” letter in Harper’s back in July? I think I’m not alone in having intense discomfort around aspects of this debate. The vast majority of people who got deplatformed seemed to pretty clearly deserve it. And many of the people shouting “cancel culture!” are doing so in bad faith. On the other hand, any system where changes of direction occur is subject to hysteresis, and there have been cases where I thought the trigger fingers a bit over-itchy. It’d be nice to draw general conclusions but I don’t feel smart enough. Apparently the people who signed the Harper’s letter did feel that smart. John F. Harris, in Politico, offers Head Cases: The Psychology Behind the Cancel Culture Debate, which is considerably more nuanced than the typical words on the subject. I felt better informed after reading it.

Politics these days is exciting, and not in a good way. Here’s a calming but radical idea in The New Republic, well summarized by its title: What If Democrats Just Promised to Make Things Work Again?. Government is (or should be) much more about administration than ideology, so administering well should be a key goal of anyone who claims to care about Good Government. To be fair to the Republicans who’ve been mismanaging America to the tune of a couple hundred thousand fatalities, they’ve never really acknowledged that Good Government is actually a thing.

Finally, Sabine Hossenfelder is one of the most lucid science analysts out there. She’s a physicist and cosmologist and usually stays pretty close to home. But not always; an example would be Path Dependence and Tipping Points, which explains some important and not-well-known-enough math but ends up with extremely sobering observations about the Climate Emergency and the IPCC’s work on it. Deep stuff.

I Hate My MacBook 2 Oct 2020, 7:00 pm

In March I bought a 16" MacBook Pro, reasonably well tricked out: 2.3GHz 8-core Intel i9, 32G RAM, Radeon 5500M with 8G, 4T of disk. I hate it. It is slow and buggy enough that I wonder if maybe it’s a lemon? Herewith the gripes, for no particular reason other than it makes me feel like shouting at the world.

Bluetooth

It’s lame. I tried to broadcast music to the audio system in my boat and it sounds like dogshit and disconnects all the time. The car/boat audio guy said “Oh yeah, everyone knows the Mac Bluetooth is useless.” At this price it’s not OK to be useless.

Also my bluetooth mouse (Logitech) and keyboard (Apple) randomly unpair and have to be re-paired. I went and dug out an old Apple USB keyboard which has better keyfeel than the current “Magic” board anyhow, and doesn’t lose its mind.

Performance

It just doesn’t feel any faster than the 2014 15" MBP it replaced. The place this is killing me is Lightroom. Maybe the single most important keystrokes in Lightroom are “R”, which means “Bring up the tilt/crop control” and “D”, which says “Switch to Develop mode.”

When I hit either, sometimes it switches right away. Other times, the screen goes black for multiple seconds first. My images are either from my Pixel 4 or my Fuji X, both of which are twenty-something megapixels, i.e. not that damn big by the standards of modern cameras. I totally can’t spot a pattern of what makes them slow or fast.

The other irritant is when I make a change in the code that underlies this Web site, and republish the whole thing, that is the local version here on the Mac. This takes minutes, which is acceptable since as of this moment there are 5,112 entries. It’s a Perl script that reads and writes a whole lot of files and updates a Mysql instance.

It runs about as fast as it used to in 2014. Except for Perl and Mysql and Linux filesystems should all be faster in 2020 than they were then. The unremarkable Linux virt that runs tbray.org in 2020 is sure as hell faster at this than the 2014 incarnation was. Bah.

Video and browsers

I am afflicted with the well-known Chrome/Mac video glitching, which apparently Apple and Google are blaming each other for. BTW it also affects Microsoft Edge. Which means that for lots of pages I have to use Safari or Firefox. So far I’ve been trying Safari, which is alleged to be a fine demonstration of Cupertino engineering prowess. And while it’s got some nice features (CMD-Shift-\, followed by CMD-F), there’s a lot to hate. Time after time, it just locks up or goes unresponsive on some multimedia-intense site or another (especially Twitter) so I sigh and switch back to Chrome, where it Just Works. Except when the video goes haywire.

Plus when I hit a previously-unvisited URL I get horrible initial latency that smells like DNS to me. Plus I get really annoying spurious refreshes; after Safari has laboriously loaded a big complex image it’ll refresh it just to make sure.

I’ve started poking around Firefox, maybe it’ll be better.

Interfaces

To make professional use of a MacBook Pro, you need a CalDigit TS3+ or equivalent Thunderbolt hub. It’s not exactly exotic to want an outboard screen and some USBs for keyboards and mice, and to look at SD cards, and to talk S/PDIF or line-level for high-quality music. You might get lucky and have them all be USB-C and there be 4 or less of them, but I’m not.

Most of us work from our sofa or a café sometimes, but much professional time happens at a desk that has a keyboard and mouse and screen and audio and so on waiting to go. With the CalDigit, you plug one wire into your Mac and you’re good to go.

Apple should bloody well buy CalDigit and ship one of these with every high-end MacBook because it’s just not a complete product otherwise.

MacOS

I’d like Apple to gather all the Product Managers for this software and put them on paid leave for a couple of years with no network access, to stop them pissing in the swimming pool. In particular the ones who work on Finder. It’s still the best general-purpose computer user experience available from anyone, but I see little evidence that anyone with their hands on the steering wheel understands why the good parts are good. I can’t think of any really great Mac apps aside from Preview and Keynote.

Meh

Yep, the screen has loads of resolution (not sure if there are more bits than the 2014 model) but the brightness could be way better, this is not a thing you can hope to use anywhere near sunlight. You still can’t play any meaningful games on it.

The keyboard is neither better nor worse than my 2014 machine. Shouldn’t I expect progress in five years?

The case is an ostentatiously neutral gunmetal grey. By the time I bought this I was on the way out of Amazon and thus it is unadorned by any stickers. It’s certainly not offensive but I can’t imagine anyone looking at it and thinking “that’s cool.”

Good stuff

The speakers are remarkable. They are not terribly accurate — that would be too much to expect from this form factor — but they include the important parts of speech and music and omit things that are omissable, while generating remarkable volume when that’s what you need.

The thing that’s called a “Touch Bar” at apple.com but “Control Strip” in the System Prefs (a little amateurish, that) is pretty brilliant. Lots of people have apparently not customized its system area. I have and you should; mine shows Sleep, Mute, Volume, and Brightness. It could be a touch more responsive, I have to tap a little harder than I’d like. And quite a few of the apps haven’t figured out how to make good use of it.

I could forgive all this shit

Yep, if only it were faster. Is it possible I have a lemon?

Won’t Subscribe 25 Sep 2020, 7:00 pm

Since I’m lightly employed these days, I enjoy keeping up with the news. In recent weeks, I’ve been blocked by the paywalls of the Wall Street Journal, Globe & Mail (closest thing Canada has to a national newspaper), the Times/Sunday Times (of London), the Telegraph (also UK), Business Insider, and Bloomberg. Recently I got a bit of inside info on how these publications think about the economics, and I’m here to explain why they’re wrong.

Background

As a family we already subscribe to the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Vancouver Sun, the Economist, Talking Points Memo, Heated, and The Tyee.

Here’s a table of a few publications and their subscription prices, normalized to US$/year, sorted in order of ascending cost:

Business Insider$99.00
Washington Post$100.00
Wall Street Journal$119.88
New York Times$221.00
Guardian$240.00
Globe & Mail$272.61
Telegraph$399.36
Bloomberg$419.88
Times of London$665.60

Discovering these prices was nontrivial; many are hidden behind an “intro rate”. Also, they’re quoted per week, per month, per quarter, per four weeks (really?!), and per year. Where multiple rates are quoted, I took the yearly one.

Looking at this, I think I see an immature market; which is to say, the mapping between price and value is not orderly.

How they think about it

Earlier this year, I had a lot of chances to talk to journalists. More than once, this happened. Journo: “I’ll send you a link when this publishes.” Tim: “Yeah, but I won’t read it, you’re paywalled.” On these occasions, if the journalist seemed capable of hearing, I gave them a lecture about how, since I wasn’t going to subscribe, there should be a way for me to pay a bit and read their piece. One of them, I forget who (sorry), explained How Management Sees It.

First of all, they’ve got a figure in their mind of how much they’re going to make if they can get me to click on that “Subscribe” button. They’ll have a model where a certain number will unsubscribe during the initial-rate period, a few will drop off later in the first year, and some will become long-term subscribers. This journo suggested that the figure in management’s mind looks something like half a year’s subscription. Which, looking at the table above, is a figure in the rough range of $50 to $300. Part of the calculation includes the fact that most of us are lazy and administratively incompetent and just won’t get around to unsubscribing, even if we want to.

The next step in their thinking involves an estimate of how much they could get for an individual article view. It’s hard to imagine anyone being willing to pay more than a buck. Minimum price… Who knows? Our current bank infrastructure isn’t good at micropayments, which makes it harder. Of course, you could imagine some sort of intermediary service which pools per-article payments to many publications and could probably do micropayments, but nobody’s gotten traction with one of those yet. Furthermore, this intermediary starts to smell like Doordash, a service that controls access to your clients and charges you an onerous revenue slice. Every restaurant hates them.

Thus we get to The Ratio. Let’s be generous and assume you could get a buck for access to your article. Then ask yourself, “How many of those to I have to sell to make as much money as I would with a subscription?” Dividing that dollar into the that half-a-year-of-subscription number, the subscription is going to be worth somewhere between 50 and 300 times more valuable than the article.

So, says Mr Manager, “Why on earth would I invest in selling individual articles when a click on the “Subscribe” button gets me a hundred times the revenue?”

Why they’re wrong

Their arithmetic didn’t consider their chance of getting me to click on “Subscribe.” In my particular case, that chance is almost exactly Zero. I subscribe to enough things and I am acutely reluctant to give anyone else the ability to make regular withdrawals from my bank account. I don’t think I’m unusual. People may not be financially sophisticated, but they’re smart enough to see through the “initial-price” flim-flam and a lot of us are highly conscious of our own administrative futility and the fact that we might just not get around to unsubscribing. I’ve seen this called “Subscription fatigue” and I think that’s a decent label.

“But wait,” says Mr Manager, “you already subscribe to five publications, so you’ve proved you have a propensity to subscribe! You’re exactly my target market!” Wrong. It’s exactly because I’ve done some subscribing that I’m just not gonna do any more.

“Hold on,” he says, “I’ve got an excellent publication, full of great journalism and delicious writing. I should be able to compete with those other things and maybe displace them!” He’s got a point, and it’s not fair, but he’s still wrong. Maybe it’s just that those other guys got there first. Maybe it’s just my administrative inadequacy. Maybe you’re just not quite as valuable as those others just yet. But de facto, your chances of replacing any of them are pretty damn small.

The way forward

Note that this section will, like the rest of the piece, completely ignore advertising. The life has been entirely sucked out of advertising-based publishing by the Facebook/Google duopoly, and absent vigorous antitrust energy from various governments, it ain’t coming back. Actually, I think there’s hope. But hope isn’t a business strategy.

So I think the only way forward is to figure out how to sell articles. It’s not gonna be easy, and if I were the publications I’d also really not want the equivalent of a Doordash getting in the way.

It dawns at me that if I were still at AWS, I might propose offering Digital Content Volume Sales as a Service. “Simple Article Sales Service”, SASS. Maybe I should write a PR/FAQ.

Workflows in AWS and GCP 21 Sep 2020, 7:00 pm

Recently, Google launched a beta of Google Cloud Workflows. This grabs my attention because I did a lot of work on AWS Step Functions, also a workflow service. The differences between them are super interesting, if you’re among the handful of humans who care about workflows in the cloud. For those among the other 7.8 billion, move right along, nothing to see here.

Context

The Google launch seemed a bit subdued. There was an August 27th tweet by Product Manager Filip Knapik, but the real “announcement” is apparently Serverless workflows in Google Cloud, a 16-minute YouTube preso also by Knapik. It’s good.

On Twitter someone said Good to see “Step Functions / Logic Apps” for GCP! and I think that’s fair. I don’t know when Logic Apps launched, but Step Functions was at re:Invent 2016, so has had four years of development.

I’m going to leave Logic Apps out of this discussion, and for brevity will just say “AWS” and “GCP” for AWS Step Functions and Google Cloud Workflows.

AWS Step Functions Google Cloud Workflows

Docs

For GCP, I relied on the Syntax reference, and found Knapik’s YouTube useful too. For AWS, I think the best starting point is the Amazon States Language specification.

The rest of this piece highlights the products’ similarities and differences, with a liberal seasoning of my opinions.

YAML vs JSON

AWS writes workflows (which it calls “state machines”) in JSON. GCP uses YAML. Well… meh. A lot of people prefer YAML; it’s easier to write. To be honest, I always thought of the JSON state machines as sort of assembler level, and assumed that someone would figure out a higher-level way to express them, then compile down to JSON. But that hasn’t happened very much.

I have this major mental block against YAML because, unlike JSON or XML, it doesn’t have an end marker, so if your YAML gets truncated, be it by a network spasm or your own fat finger, it might still parse and run — incorrectly. Maybe the likelihood is low, but the potential for damage is apocalyptic. Maybe you disagree; it’s a free country.

And anyhow, you want YAML Step Functions? You can do that with serverless.com or in SAM (see here and here).

Control flow

Both GCP and AWS model workflows as a series of steps; AWS calls them “states”. They both allow any step to say which step to execute next, and have switch-like conditionals to pick the next step based on workflow state.

But there’s a big difference. In GCP, if a step doesn’t explicitly say where to go next, execution moves to whatever step is on the next line in the YAML. I guess this is sort of idiomatic, based on what programming languages do. In AWS, if you don’t say what the next step is, you have to be a terminal success/fail state; this is wired into the syntax. In GCP you can’t have a step named “end”, because next: end signals end-of-workflow. Bit of a syntax smell?

I’m having a hard time developing an opinion one way or another on this one. GCP workflows can be more compact. AWS syntax rules are simpler and more consistent. [It’s almost as if a States Language contributor was really anal about minimalism and syntactic integrity.] I suspect it maybe doesn’t make much difference?

GCP and AWS both have sub-workflows for subroutine-like semantics, but GCP’s are internal, part of the workflow, while AWS’s are external, separately defined and managed. Neither approach seems crazy.

The work in workflow

Workflow engines don’t actually do any work, they orchestrate compute resources — functions and other Web services — to get things done. In AWS, the worker is identified by a field named Resource which is syntactically a URI. All the URIs currently used to identify worker resources are Amazon-flavored ARNs.

GCP, at the moment, mostly assumes an HTTP world. You can specify the URL, whether you want to GET/POST/PATCH/DELETE (why no PUT?), lets you fill in header fields, append a query to the URI, provide auth info, and so on. Also, you can give the name of a variable where the result will be stored.

I said “mostly” because in among all the call: http.get examples, I saw one call: sys.sleep, so the architecture allows for other sorts of things.

GCP has an advantage, which is that you can call out to an arbitrary HTTP endpoint. I really like that: Integration with, well, anything.

There’s nothing in the AWS architecture that would get in the way of doing this, but while I was there, that feature never quite made it to the top of the priority list.

That’s because pre-built integrations seemed to offer more value. There are a lot of super-useful services with APIs that are tricky to talk to. Some don’t have synchronous APIs, just fire-and-forget. Or there are better alternatives than HTTP to address them. Or they have well-known failure modes and workarounds to deal with those modes. So, AWS comes with pre-cooked integrations for Lambda, AWS Batch, DynamoDB, ECS/Fargate, SNS, SQS, Glue, SageMaker, EMR, CodeBuild, and Step Functions itself. Each one of these takes a service that may be complicated or twitchy to talk to and makes it easy to use in a workflow step.

The way it works is that the “Resource” value is something like, for example, arn:aws:states:::sqs:sendMessage, which means that the workflow should send an SQS message.

AWS has a couple of other integration tricks up its sleeve. One is “Callback tasks”, where the service launches a task, passes it a callback token, and then pauses the workflow until something calls back with the token to let Step Functions know the task is finished. This is especially handy if you want to run a task that involves interacting with a human.

Finally, AWS has “Activities”. These are worker tasks that poll Step Functions to say “Got any work for me?” and “Here’s the result of the work you told me about” and “I’m heartbeating to say I’m still here”. These turn out to have lots of uses. One is if you want to stage a fixed number of hosts to do workflow tasks, for example to avoid overrunning a relational database.

So at the moment, AWS comes with way more built-in integrations and ships new ones regularly. Having said that, I don’t see anything in GCP’s architecture that prevents it eventually taking a similar path.

The tools for specifying what to do are a little more stripped-down in AWS: “Here’s a URI that says who’s supposed to do the work, and here’s a blob of JSON to serve as the initial input. Please figure out how to start the worker and send it the data.” [It’s almost as if a States Language contributor was a big fan of Web architecture, and saw URIs as a nicely-opaque layer of indirection for identifying units of information or service.]

Reliability

This is one of the important things a workflow brings to the table. In the cloud, tasks sometimes fail; that’s a fact of life. You want your workflow to be able to retry appropriately, catch exceptions when it has to, and reroute the workflow when bad stuff happens. Put another way, you’d like to take every little piece of work and surround it with what amounts to a try/catch/finally.

GCP and AWS both do this, with similar mechanisms: exception catching with control over the number and timing of retries, and eventual dispatching to elsewhere in the workflow. GCP allows you to name a retry policy and re-use it, which is cool. But the syntax is klunky.

AWS goes to immense, insane lengths to make sure a workflow step is never missed, or broken by a failure within the service. (The guarantees provided by the faster, cheaper Express Workflows variant are still good, but weaker.) I’d like to see a statement from GCP about the expected reliability of the service.

Parallelism

It’s often the case that you’d like a workflow to orchestrate a bunch of its tasks in parallel. AWS provides two ways to do this: You can take one data item and feed it in parallel to a bunch of different tasks, or you can take an array and feed its elements to the same task. In the latter case, you can limit the maximum concurrency or even force one-at-a-time processing.

GCP is all single-threaded. I suppose there’s no architectural reason it has to stay that way in future.

Workflow state in GCP

Now here’s a real difference, and it’s a big one. When you fire up a workflow (AWS or GCP), you feed data into it, and as it does work, it builds up state, then it uses the state to generate output and make workflow routing choices.

In GCP, this is all done with workflow variables. You can take the output of a step and put it in a variable. Or you can assign them and do arithmetic on them, like in a programming language. So you can build a loop construct like so:

- define:
    assign:
        - array: ["foo", "ba", "r"]
        - result: ""
        - i: 0
- check_condition:
    switch:
        - condition: ${len(array) > i}
            next: iterate
    next: exit_loop
- iterate:
    assign:
        - result: ${result + array[i]}
        - i: ${i+1}
    next: check_condition
- exit_loop:
    return:
        concat_result: ${result}  

Variables are untyped; can be numbers or strings or objects or fish or bicycles. Suppose a step’s worker returns JSON. Then GCP will parse it into a multi-level thing where the top level is an object with members named headers (for HTTP headers) and body, and then the body has the parsed JSON, and then you can add functions on the end, so you can write incantations like this:

- condition: ${ userRecord.body.fields.amountDue.doubleValue == 0 }

(doubleValue is a function not a data field. So what if I have a field in my data named doubleValue? Ewwww.)

Then again, if a step worker returns PDF, you can stick that into a variable too. And if you call doubleValue on that I guess that’s an exception?

Variable names are global to the workflow, and it looks like some are reserved, for example http and sys.

…and in AWS

It could hardly be more different. As of now AWS doesn’t use variables. The workflow state is passed along, as JSON, from one step to the next as the workflow executes. There are operators (InputPath, ResultPath, OutputPath, Parameters) for pulling pieces out and stitching them together.

Just like in GCP, JSONPath syntax is used to pick out bits and pieces of state, but the first step is just $ rather than the name of a variable.

There’s no arithmetic, but then you don’t need to do things with array indices like in the example above, because parallelism is built in.

If you want to do fancy manipulation to prepare input for a worker or pick apart one’s output, AWS takes you quite a ways with the built-in Pass feature; but if you want to get fancy and run real procedural code, you might need a Lambda to accomplish that. We thought that was OK; go as far as you can declaratively while remaining graceful, because when that breaks down, this is the cloud and these days clouds have functions.

While I haven’t been to the mat with GCP to do real work, at the moment I think the AWS approach is a winner here. First of all, I’ve hated global variables — for good reason — since before most people reading this were born. Second, YAML is a lousy programming language to do arithmetic and so on in.

Third, and most important, what happens when you want to do seriously concurrent processing, which I think is a really common workflow scenario? GCP doesn’t really have parallelism built-in yet, but I bet that’ll change assuming the product gets any traction. The combination of un-typed un-scoped global variables with parallel processing is a fast-track to concurrency hell.

AWS application state is always localized to a place in the executing workflow and can be logged and examined as you work your way through, so it’s straightforward to use as a debugging resource.

[It’s almost as if a States Language contributor was Functional-Programming literate and thought immutable messages make sense for tracking state in scalable distributed systems.]

GCP variables have the virtue of familiarity and probably have less learning curve than the AWS “Path” primitives for dealing with workflow state. But I just really wouldn’t want to own a large mission-critical workflow built around concurrent access to untyped global variables.

Pricing

GCP is cheaper than AWS, but not cheaper than the Express Workflows launched in late 2019.

Google Cloud Workflows pricing

It’s interesting but totally unsurprising that calling out to arbitrary HTTP endpoints is a lot more expensive. Anyone who’s built general call-out-to-anything infrastructure knows that it’s a major pain in the ass because those calls can and will fail and that’s not the customer’s problem, it’s your problem.

Auth

This is one area where I’m not going to go deep because my understanding of Google Cloud auth semantics and best practices is notable by its absence. It’s nice to see GCP’s secrets-manager integration, particularly for HTTP workers. I was a bit nonplused that for auth type you can specify either or both of OIDC and Oauth2; clearly more investigation required.

UX

I’m talking about graphical stuff in the console. The GCP console, per Knapik’s YouTube, looks clean and helpful. Once again, the AWS flavor has had way more years of development and just contains more stuff. Probably the biggest difference is that AWS draws little ovals-and-arrows graphic renditions of your workflow, colors the ovals as the workflow executes, and lets you click on them to examine the inputs and outputs of any workflow execution. This is way more than just eye candy; it’s super helpful.

Which workflow service should you use?

That’s dead easy. You should use a declaratively-specified fully-managed cloud-native service that can call out to a variety of workers, and which combines retrying and exception handling to achieve high reliability. And, you should use the one that’s native to whatever public cloud you’re in! Like I said, easy.

Slow Drone Soar 13 Sep 2020, 7:00 pm

I recently invited you to read a thousand-page novel without much in the way of sentences, so I think it’s perfectly reasonable to point you at a 69-minute drone-metal album that largely lacks melody and rhythm. I refer to Life Metal, a 2019 release from Sunn O))). Because in 2020 we really ought to be sharing good things with each other, and this is a good thing; the new music I’ve enjoyed most this year.

Sunn O)))

Lots of people probably don’t think they’d like drone metal, just from the name. I think they might want to think again. This is extremely serious music and works both as background and for careful listening. I like the tones and the chords and the treatments, but what I like most is that the best of this kind of music, including this album, is full of serenity.

Life Metal lives in a tradition that’s almost exactly fifty years old, measuring from the release in February 1970 of Black Sabbath’s debut album Black Sabbath. Its opening song (also Black Sabbath), after 37 seconds of church bells in a thunderstorm, opens with a huge, rumbling, low-string tritone riff, and that moment is generally considered to mark the birth of heavy metal. This music is like that, boiled down to the purest essence.

Enough general rambling about metal, because I had great fun with an ongoing piece on the subject a couple of years ago; it includes groovy pix.

Life Metal by Sunn O))) album cover

One quarter of the Life Metal LP cover. The graphic, lifted from their Bandcamp site, is posted in only one size: 666x666. Because metal.

The music

It sounds like other Sunn O))) music only, well, brighter. (Which isn’t actually bright since this music is supposed to be dark.) A little research reveals that Anderson and O’Malley, Sunn O)))’s leaders, have been enjoying raising young families and feeling generally upbeat about things. Thus the name Life Metal, obvious “Death Metal” counterpoint and apparently a bit of a running joke here and there in the metal community.

A few words for those who are new to the genre: It’s a slow-shifting landscape of huge low-pitched high-distortion electric guitar chords, with occasional interjections of voice, other instruments, and rare (but very dramatic) high-note sequences. I personally find the melodious downtuned guitar roar immensely pleasing, and enjoy the vast sense of space; there’s no hurry anywhere and the riffs are lingered over endlessly for their own sake. It’s designed to be played absurdly, crushingly loud so it’s a whole-body experience.

Life Metal seasons the guitar noise with occasional pipe-organ and an actual song that’s sung not shrieked, lyrics translated from ancient Aztec verse.

The sound

Here’s where it gets special. For this outing the band teamed up with legendary producer Steve Albini and used entirely analogue technology, which you can experience end-to-end if you buy the vinyl version, which I did of course.

When I listen to it in the car or the boat/office, it sounds good and I enjoy it. But a couple of times I’ve pulled up a chair in front of the big speakers and put Life Metal on the record player, turned it up pretty far and… wow.

I don’t know what Albini did, but suddenly the whole room was full of gigantic musical serpents dancing slow, scales glowing blackly, rays of dark musical fire radiating in every direction. The music felt endless in scope and width and height and length and volume. Remarkable music, remarkably performed, remarkably produced, remarkably delivered; so intense.

No, I wasn’t doing any drugs! But if I’d had any I’d have been tempted.

Long Links 3 Sep 2020, 7:00 pm

I seem to have fallen into a monthly rhythm of posting pointers to what I think are high-quality long-form pieces. One of the best things about not having a job as such is that I have time to read these things. My assumption is that most of you don’t, but that maybe one or two will reward an investment of your limited time.

In The New Yorker, Jane Hu writes The Second Act of Social-Media Activism, subtitled “Has the Internet become better at mediating change?” People like me would like to believe this; back when the Arab Spring was first a thing, we did. Now, that belief is weak; maybe the Internet is a better vehicle for fascism than progress. Even endless live video of police violence doesn’t seem to build support for a common-sense redesign of policing which would route a lot less money to bossy people with guns and more to good listeners who are qualified at dealing with social-health issues. Hu’s take is level-headed and not entirely pessimistic.

These days, I subscribe to Utility Dive, which mixes arcane expositions of utility-regulation politics with the occasional really fresh and smart take on energy economics in the face of the onrushing climate emergency. Sheep, ag and sun: Agrivoltaics propel significant reductions in solar maintenance costs is probably not terribly important to your understanding of the big picture, but it’s a fun read. Suppose you have a solar farm and it’s not in the desert, it’s in a place where plants grow. Well, they might grow up over your panels and get in the way of the sun. What do you do about that? Well, you treat your farm like a farm and bring in grazing animals to eat the plants. Turns out you have to pay the animal providers, which as a farm boy feels odd to me. Now, when there are untended sheep, there are pretty soon going to be predators. You might be able to afford sheep but nobody can afford shepherds, so instead you might hire some Great Pyrenees hounds to tend them. Then you might find yourself with a liability problem when the hounds (they are very protective of their woolly charges) mistake a passerby for a predator. I wonder what solar farms of the future are going to end up looking like?

Back to The New Yorker, where Bill McKibben has been leading the climate-emergency charge — they’ve a great newsletter you can sign up for. McKibben wrote North Dakota Oil Workers Are Learning to Tend Wind Turbines—and That’s a Big Deal, which is good. A lot of people are pointing out that a Green New Deal program would offer a lot of major investment opportunities — there’s gold in them thar renewables — but it looks like petroleum-engineering skills are going to be transferable to the sector. Which is a damn good thing, because capital investment on the oil-company front is falling like a stone and I’m not seeing evidence that it’s coming back any time soon. The picture is complicated because opponents of the transition from fossil to renewable energy include not just oil barons but certain old-school unions. But there are grounds for optimism.

Speaking of oil-economy woes, the CBC’s As oil money dries up, Alberta's financial woes laid bare paints a pretty painful picture of the situation in Western Canada, where employment levels and provincial budgets have been joined at the hip to the oil industry since forever. I’m optimistic in the medium/long term but this transition isn’t going to be easy. If you doubt that, dip into the 4,709 comments. No, I take that back, please don’t.

I forget what maze of twisty little passages led me to The Logical Description of an Intermediate Speed Digital Computer, which is Gene Amdahl’s 1951 Ph.D thesis. If you don’t know who Gene Amdahl was, skip to the next paragraph, this is about to get very boring. If you do know, it’s almost certain this read will delight you. The computer in question was actually built; it was called the Wisconsin Integrally Synchronized Computer. Its only memory was a storage drum. Anyhow, this is instructive in that it helps the reader understand how many concepts and constructs that seem axiomatic to us, self-evidently obvious, were hard-won by these people in this phase of history. Also, this computer doesn’t have instructions, it has commands. I’m kind of sorry that language didn’t stick.

It turns out that the backbone of the Internet is mostly operated by large telephone companies who, as corporations go, have a reputation for being clueless, abusive, and extractive. This seems unsatisfactory. In A Public Option for the core (ACM overview page, PDF), Harchol, Bergemann et al “propose the creation of a ‘public option’ for the Internet’s core backbone. This public option core, which complements rather than replaces the backbones used by large-scale ISPs, would (i) run an open market for backbone bandwidth so it could leverage links offered by third-parties, and (ii) structure its terms-of-service to enforce network neutrality so as to encourage competition and reduce the advantage of large incumbents.” This sounds profoundly sensible to me.

This is a space for long-form works and I didn’t say they had to be written. In that spirit, I recommend Nine Inch Nails Tension 2013, an 87-minute recording captured at the Staples Center in LA on November 8, 2013. If you like hardass, totally committed musical performances, don’t start watching this or you won’t get back to “real life” for a while. Which, especially in 2020, is not a bad thing.

In Catalyst (of which I know nothing) from last spring is Ecological Politics for the Working Class. If you’re terribly concerned about the climate emergency (as I am) and also a progressive who flirts with class reductionism (as I am) it probably bothers you that, and I quote, “environmentalism’s base in the professional-managerial class and focus on consumption has little chance of attracting working-class support.” So, a piece that “argues for a program that tackles the ecological crisis by organizing around working-class interests” should interest you. Tl;dr: Among other things, stop yelling at consumers and try to get away from “lifestyle environmentalism”. Related: “centrist” pundits damning the Green New Deal idea with faint praise along the lines “those environmental goals are laudable, but they they start talking about guaranteed incomes and so on, which really aren’t a necessary part of the package.” Er, wrong, they really are a totally necessary part. I don’t agree with everything here but it’s a bracing read.

When Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, she suddenly became a lot more interesting. A fierce controversy broke out over in Wikipedia about how to describe her; was “African-American” appropriate? To discover the outcome, check out her Wikipedia entry. In The Atlantic, Joshua Benton published The Wikipedia War That Shows How Ugly This Election Will Be. I dunno if we needed any more educating about more 2020 ugliness, but reading this made me happy. Because it shone a light on the Wikipedia work process, which these is terribly important to humanity’s understanding of reality. And you know what? While imperfect, on balance it works pretty fucking well. The process is unironically concerned with truth and does, on balance, a good job of achieving it. Is anything more important on today’s Internet? I’ve highlighted a core Wikipedia tenet before and probably will again: “Content which is not verifiable will eventually be removed.” Which seems a necessary but not sufficient condition for any sort of sane adult discussion about anything.

Back to Utility Dive: Renewable energy prices begin an upward trend, LevelTen data shows. No, I don’t know who LevelTen is. This is notable because renewable prices have been falling quickly and monotonically for years; I was shocked at the headline. Well, it turns out that the various tax incentives and other subsidies that originally helped drive renewable adoption are by and large no longer necessary, so they’re expiring and being withdrawn. So the prices go up a bit. Does it mean that renewable generation is now more expensive than fossil fuel? Nope, not even close. But watch out for petrol-head trolls exclaiming with glee, using this as evidence. Oh, another piece from the Dive: The future of hydropower will be determined in the Pacific Northwest, which covers the complicated and interesting conflict, when you dam rivers for generation, between the benefits of cheap green power and the potential damage to fish migration. Something that can’t be ignored.

In Wired, Yiren Lu writes My Week of Radical Transparency at a Chinese Business Seminar, a deep dive into a part of mainland-Chinese culture which I previously had no notion of. China in some regards is still the most interesting place in the world and people who are interested in the world need to improve their understanding of what’s going on there. This piece is going to make some of us a little uncomfortable with one or two progressive axioms over on this side of the Pacific, too.

Speaking of which: There’s so much bad shit going on the world that it’s easy to let the news about China’s brutally racist oppression of its Uighur population vanish in the input stream. Buzzfeed is doing its best to help us not let that happen with a two-part investigation starting here: “China rounded up so many Muslims in Xinjiang that there wasn’t enough space to hold them”. They have rare testimony from inside the camps. This won’t cheer you up but it’ll give you more reasons to understand (and, realistically, fear) China’s barbaric ruling clique.

Here, in Gizmodo, is some practical advice for protestors: Your Phone Is a Goldmine of Hidden Data for Cops. Here's How to Fight Back. It’s exactly what the headline says. The measures recommended are pretty extreme and for most of us in most political actions, thankfully probably unnecessary. Let’s hope it stays that way. And bookmark this in case it doesn’t.

Over at AdWeek, Why Lawmakers Are Keeping Ad Tech Under Such Close Scrutiny. I think this particular “why” is pretty obvious: Because Ad Tech is abusive to customers and disastrous for many previously-excellent publishing business models. It’s tremendously damaging to privacy and to intellectual discourse. People who are already privacy paranoids won’t be surprised by much of the information here, but I found it super interesting because it was presented in the language of, and reflects the culture of, the Ad industry. Related: Apple wants to stop advertisers from following you around the web. Facebook has other ideas from Peter Kafka over on Vox. I sincerely hope for lots of political action in the nearest-possible future around abusive AdTech.

Still more on privacy and its abusers: How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow over on Medium/One Zero. It’s really long — in fact, the full text of Cory’s new book — and I haven’t finished reading it, but it feels essential to me and I will.

In Canada’s The Tyee, a review of Kurt Andersen’s recent book Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America. The goal is to draw a map explaining how the USA got from the Seventies, when the level of inequality was roughly the same as Sweden’s, to today’s diseased, shambling, divided, misgoverned, year of discontent. The review dips into our local Western-Canada politics and that may not be of much general interest, but reading it definitely put the book on my to-buy-and-read list.

Last of all, I recommend The Internet of Beefs by Venkatesh Rao, an appallingly cynical and amusing take on the dysfunction of Internet discourse. I found a lot of truth in it. It doesn’t propose much in the way of solutions, but says “Like all the best questions, this one is at once intensely practical — all about digital hygiene and how to design and use devices of connection to think — and intensely philosophical — about finding ways to be reborn without literally dying. I don’t have answers, but I like that I finally at least have a question.” A very good question.

Studying Water 3 Sep 2020, 7:00 pm

I have the good fortune to live in a seafront city, the further fortune to travel often by boat to a cabin by ocean’s edge, and still further, to work in a boat/office, many hours a week within arm’s reach of salt water. The water exhibits mysteries and tells me things I don’t understand but would love, given another lifetime, to study.

The sea’s surface is never uniform, always patterned. I assume the patterns reflect the effects of wind and tide, but not how, nor what message they’re trying to send. I’m pretty sure that the motorboats that crisscross the open water leave long-lasting traces on the surface patterns. I’d like to know.

Port Phillip Bay Howe Sound

Above: Port Phillip Bay.
Below: Howe Sound.

You can feel, not just see, the surface textures. At any noticeable speed the boat’s progress is unsmooth. But the the flavors of roughness are infinite, combining aspects of chop, sway, hill-climbing, surfing, and blunt impact. When you cross one of those visual borders on the surface the quality of ride changes too. Sometimes looking ahead I can even predict correctly, finding smoother water when it’s uncomfortably rough. But I don’t know how the waves get that way, nor what variables underlie the endless variety of different wave patterns. I’d like to know.

Rough water in the Queen Charlotte Channel

A bit of a rough ride in the Queen Charlotte Channel. Notice how the water changes between the first two pictures, shot literally five seconds apart. Evidence of roughness in the third.

Boating in the Pacific Northwest is pleasant in that the topography is mostly fjord-based, which means there aren’t many rocks near enough the surface to trouble your boat. So the major risk is floating logs, which usually won’t sink you but can wreck your propeller in a moment, leaving you calling for an expensive tow. We try to always have two pairs of eyes watching forward. When you spot a log in your path, first you dodge. Then you slow down, because where you see one, you’ll usually encounter more; the flotsam floats in clusters. I’ve never managed to spot any pattern in where the clusters occur, or how they correlate with the time of day or time of year. I’d like to know.

The color of the ocean is never constant, day to day nor hour to hour. The direction of the sun matters I guess, and the nature of the cloud cover. Also perhaps the salinity of the water, and whatever microorganisms are flourishing where you’re looking. Perhaps there are things to be learned from the color about the ecosystem or the weather? I’d like to know.

The north shore of New Zealand

Looking east from Cape Reinga across the north tip of New Zealand.

Sometimes the water’s surface is clean, especially out away from land. Where my office floats, rarely. Varieties of crud accumulate, some identifiable — pollen, for example, which correlates with hay-fever. But sometimes the surface is oily or slimy or bubbly. This is an urban inlet, so likely the city’s effluents play a role here. I bet a biochemist with a decent lab could figure out what it is, most times. I’d like to know.

And the crud isn’t just on the surface. There are days when I can see a few meters deep, getting a clear view of the crabs that somehow manage to make a go of it in this Vancouver-flavored soup. Other days it might as well be a grey-green wall. Sometimes you can see what’s clouding the water because it’s granular, and the grain size varies. Basic combinatorics teaches that you don’t need that many contributing factors to get this variety of looks, but I don’t know what those factors are. I assume there are Marine Biologists who study this stuff and could tell you at a glance what’s going on. I’d like to know.

More than crabs live in False Creek and out in the broader Pacific. On warm summer days by the office, huge schools of tiny fish swarm the water. Their motions, were they starlings, would be called murmuration. An old guy washing his boat told they were herrings. Sometimes, below them, larger silver fish cruise about, all very flOw-like. How do they arrange to move in waves, all together, lightning-fast? When the water is jammed with life on Tuesday and Thursday, where were they all on Wednesday when it was almost empty? What do they eat? How does the species make it from one summer to the next? I’d like to know.

Humpbacks in Haida Gwaii

Humpbacks and gulls chowing down in Haida Gwaii.

At a larger scale, we’ve started seeing humpbacks, lots of seals have always been around, also the occasional killer whale or dolphin pod. At sea, you don’t see the salmon, but we know they’re there in large but sadly diminished numbers. The marine biologists I’ve known shake their heads at how little we know about the subsurface lives of all these creatures, but there’s joy for a scientist in a large unexplored space. What are they doing down there where we can’t see them? I’d like to know.

Everyone knows the circular ripples caused by raindrops or pebbles. When there’s just a drizzle or perhaps a storm stealing in, there’s fascination in watching the raincircles crowd denser and denser. But lots of times, just strolling along the dock, a circle or circle cluster will manifest, looking smaller than those caused by raindrops. I’m assuming that it’s something from below, touching the surface for its own reasons, whatever they are. I’d like to know.

Howe Sound

Also

Humanity is like the ocean. Its surface is patterned and you can feel the patterns as you pass through. Colors matter. There is transparency and occlusion. There is nasty crud, often in clusters. Important things live beneath the surface. Impacts arrive from above and below and it’s not obvious what caused them. I’d like to understand all that better too.

Page processed in 0.638 seconds.

Powered by SimplePie 1.3.1, Build 20200602154528. Run the SimplePie Compatibility Test. SimplePie is © 2004–2021, Ryan Parman and Geoffrey Sneddon, and licensed under the BSD License.