Fire, Fury, and Fiction in the Trump White House

In the wake of all the uproar over the new book about the Trump administration, Fire and Fury, I decided I should pick up a copy for myself and see what the fuss was about. Thankfully, before I had to spend a dime, Wikileaks published the PDF, and so I was able to fetch it pretty quickly.

The first thing that stood out to me about the book came up even before the first chapter. The prologue details a conversation between the late Roger Ailes (of Fox News) and Steve Bannon on 4 Jan 2017, before the dust of the election had settled. Rather than a general description of what was discussed, which would make sense if Bannon had been interviewed, a line by line recitation of quotes creates the impression that you’re actually sitting at the table listening to their conversation.

The most recent biographies I have read, other than this book, are by Robert Caro. One of Caro’s books, The Power Broker, entails a scene where Robert Moses is in the midst of a lawsuit, and his parents learn this upon seeing the daily newspaper. His mother’s response to the lawsuit is quoted verbatim. When Caro’s editor asked him how he got that quote, given that the exchange must have happened decades before, Caro revealed his method. He had figured out to which newspaper the Moses family subscribed, contacted the outlet, and, using their delivery schedule history, successfully tracked down the person who had delivered the newspaper to the Moses family. It turned out the delivery boy was still alive, and Caro was able to interview him and get the quote, which the boy had heard and remembered to that day.

Every such quote in Caro’s corpus is sourced like that, directly linked either to a specific document, or an interview with a first hand source. This is the standard to which I now hold all biographers. Now, one can argue that biographers sometimes will gather a collection of facts, plant them as seeds, and use their own perspective to water the facts a bit so they grow into a narrative. There’s a debate to be had, especially today, about how much of a biography or a journalistic report is based in fact, and how much of it was nursed by the editor’s metaphorical water.

The next thing that comes to mind about Fire and Fury occurred as I was reading the first chapter, and was sufficiently concerning that I have stopped reading the book. The first two chapters detail the attitudes and reactions to the Trump Campaign staff when they discovered they had won, and how they handled the transition. According to Wolff, everyone on the campaign staff, Trump included, assumed they would lose. The sole person who believed he would win was Bannon, whom Wolff makes some effort to cast as a loon. It goes into details about Kellyanne Conway hitting up her contacts and planning her next big move after the election, and Melania bursting into tears when she realizes the media focus would not be going away. The book also details really stupid things that people were doing, such as Paul Manafort’s liasonship with Russia, because they just assumed Trump would lose and it would be no big deal.

So my question is thus: in order to equip a biographer like Wolff with such detailed quotes and recollections, people had to be taking fairly careful notes and recording all their conversations. But Wolff describes the campaign and the transition team as disorganized and chaotic. And further, why would people be taking notes and recording things for an election they expected to lose? There are two reasons I can see to keep meticulous records: if you expect to cash out with a book deal, or if you think you’re going to come under heavy legal scrutiny. The first reason *could* explain it for some people, but not all of them. The second makes no sense for anyone except Bannon, since if you lose an election, nobody cares how legal your methods were. Further, assuming people *did* have these records and recordings– a fact Wolff’s own writing seems to contradict– why the hell would they turn them over to a biographer?

At this point, I’ve decided the book is a tabloid gossip piece which is very, very liberal with the truth. On one hand, Trump could settle that matter by filing a libel lawsuit against Wolff, but it seems that the optics alone on that would be pretty bad and distracting. On the other hand, perhaps people could look past their own personal biases (and for the record, I absolutely hate Trump), publicly point out these issues, and demand Wolff produce a detailed list of his sources for the book, including how he obtained every single quote. Incidentally, if he wants a guide on how to do this, he could look at any book by Robert Caro, which contains such comprehensive notes.

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Latin workshop notes

Here are some followup PDFs from the 34c3 Latin workshop for further research.

The slides from my talk

PDF of Lingua Latina

PDF of Wheelock’s Latin (6th edition)

Additional reading material for beginners

Page about Reginald Foster, the Vatican’s official latinist for 40 years

Castrating click-bait

As I’ve written before, for the last year or two I’ve had a huge issue with the increasing amount of click-bait and inflammatory articles posted on websites of companies that call themselves news outlets. My previous solution to this was to simply block out the news sites, but I think I have found a better solution.

There are two big issues with blocking out everything. First, while many articles are shit, there are some choice writers and columnists who stand out as exemplary. As a side note, if you have any favorite writers, check to see if they have a Patreon, and try to support them this way. Second, it turns out that sometimes the issue isn’t the article itself, and not even the headline, but the font/color of the text, placement, as well as images that are used to promote the stories.

My new solution solves these two issues at once: RSS. The main reason I hadn’t looked at RSS before was that after Google shut down Google Reader for completely illogical crap-reasons, there was really nothing that worked for me. Readers tended to be clunky and not well supported. I’ve found a new reader, a Chrome extension called “RSS Feed Reader”, that offers the best integration I’ve seen. It uses the site feeder.co as a backend, and it offers a really convenient browsable menu.

Most of these news sites offer RSS feeds, and many (like the NY Times) even offer feeds for individual authors. So I’ve been able to collect a list of all the websites I consider relevant, even if I don’t agree with them, and now I have a little plugin where I can click on the name of the news outlet and get a list of headlines of the latest articles, in neutral colors and fonts so that it doesn’t piss me off. This has made browsing some of the worst offenders, such as Breitbart and The Hill, way way way more managable.

One of my favorite features is that when there are new articles, a little number shows up next to the feed corresponding to the number of new articles. You can look at the headlines, and if they all look like garbage, just click the “mark feed as read” option and the number goes away. This is also a fantastic way to do comparative news analysis: when a big story breaks, such as Al Franken resigning, you can quickly click through all the different outlets to see the takes. It’s actually enlightening, sometimes just by the headlines you can tell the bias of the news outlet.

The point of these exercises is to figure out a way to manage the current landscape without falling prey to any of the downsides of it. I’ve also found that this plugin replaces what I used to use reddit for, and it has none of the downsides (like reddit comments). And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t add something thanking Aaron Swartz for his efforts in helping to create RSS, since it seems to be helping restore my sanity.

All the King’s Tweets

The other night I made a comment that I wished Bill Gates would spend $10 billion to acquire Twitter and shut it down. IMHO, that would be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. The latest reason for this involves their changes to Verified accounts.

For years, exactly how someone got their Twitter account verified was a mystery. Usually if someone was famous, the theory was they would either call a friend at Twitter or show up to the office and verify they owned their twitter account, somehow. I remember a big news story about this when the president of Russia at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, visited San Francisco, visited Twitter, and his account was verified. Other times someone not as famous would bear the blue mark.

This is somewhat personal to me because during the 2011 Nymwars fiasco, when I personally stood up and said the Google Plus “real” names policy was bad and should be reformed, one of the most common pushbacks I got was along the lines of: why not add a flag of some sort to someone’s account to denote they are using a “pseudonym”? Some of my response to that included a distaste for promoting government issued names as somehow better than other names, as well as the idea that names that sound familiar (or are name-shaped) are real and funny sounding ones or not, but you can read my older posts or watch talks to learn more about that.

Case in point, when you have a community, online or offline, and you add a marker of some sort, it changes the dynamic of social relations and creates an element of reputation. For example, why do people who support causes wear ribbons on their shirts, or a colored bracelet? I remember being at a concert in Virginia shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre and seeing many people with buttons that effectively said they supported the victoms.

And now for something I’m going to make public for the first time: in 2014, I was on a RightsCon panel related to the topic of online identify and pseudonymity. One of the other panelists (who sort of lead it) was Colin Crowell, who was at the time the VP of Public Policy at Twitter (he is still at Twitter). We had a meeting at Twitter HQ before the panel to discuss what we’d cover in the panel, and at this meeting I asked him point blank what the verification status on tweets was about. He gave me a look like someone who’d heard this question a million times, and said (I paraphrase) that the sole purpose of the verification status was to prevent impersonation, nothing else; the status was generally added when an issue arose, the fraud team investigated, and decided it was an appropriate counter-measure to prevent further issues. He also added that nobody at Twitter had a verified status. Thus, for years, when this question has come up, I have generally defended Twitter, because I trusted what he told me.

However, then I saw this article on The Verge: http://www.theverge.com/2016/7/19/12227490/twitter-opening-verified-account-user-form. I was stunned because while I’d heard and seen rumors about something like this happening, they were just rumors. When I saw this, I sent an email to Crowell asking for clarification: maybe I misunderstood the article, or maybe the article was wrong. Unsurprisingly, he never replied to my email, and since then things have changed a lot. At first the verified status was a tool used to counter fraud, then it turned into a mechanism for Twitter to collect government issued IDs, and as of a couple days ago it has turned into a tool for Twitter to virtue signal and silence people they don’t like. Let me explain.

I saw this piece from the Guardian about Twitter revoking the verified status of Richard Spencer and this piece from the Verge about changes to how Twitter handles verification status. Both of these are problematic.

First, assuming that Richard Spencer actually believes the hateful things he says, it doesn’t change the fact that he is Richard Spencer. There are lot of news outlets who use Twitter as a source for stories, and they rely on the verification status to demonstrate a person is who they say they are. For example, if Hillary Clinton lost her verification status, someone else with a twitter account called Hilary Clinton (notice the one ‘l’) or other variations could start saying some hateful things, and other than context clues like number of followers, there might be no way to tell that it’s not really her. In fact, many news outlets are not allowed to cite tweets from accounts that are not verified, precisely because of the modicum of truth this status provides, therefore if Richard Spencer does do something that is noteworthy, it makes life more difficult for journalists.

Second, here are the specific issues I have with Twitter’s new guidelines. First, in their morality clause, in addition to citing all the things they don’t want you to do, they also say that supporting organizations or individuals that promote those things will also cause you problems. I’m not sure what this means. Does this mean that if you retweet a hateful thing Donald Trump says, you can be unverified?

Next, and more terrifying, the phrase “on and off Twitter” in their opening statement. Does this mean that if you are an employee of a company like Home Depot that comes under fire for something in the news, that Twitter can decide actions should be taken against you? What if there’s video of you in the stands at an NFL game and the NFL gets embroiled in controversy? Finally, what the hell does any of this have to do with demonstrating that you are who you say you are? If they are violating your policies, why not just suspend their accounts (and send them the reasons why so they can appeal if they want)?

Twitter seems to have conflated morality with verification, something that is very, very dangerous. Further, what constitutes their moral code seems to change based on the wind, and how they arbitrate it seems to change based on some combination of public opinion and the biases of twitter employees. It seems like the outrageous actions of Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince overriding his own company’s policy and banning Daily Stormer from their service because he “woke up this morning in a bad mood.” Which is especially noteworthy given that just two years earlier he defended his inaction against ISIS customers of his service.

I’m really not sure what has gotten into Twitter. I know from talking to people from several free speech groups who used to have direct channels to resolve issues that Twitter has basically stonewalled everything. Their actions are haphazard at best, and the only appeals process seems to be getting lots of negative PR, even though that is also clearly hit or miss. I still believe what Crowell told me a few years ago, which suggests that darker more nefarious forces are at work within Twitter. I know they have been struggling to make enough money, maybe this is part of their efforts to reform their business policy, like their recent shift to 280 characters (which was a disaster)?

In any case, I’ve given up on them– anyone who looks at my Twitter profile knows this– but I do think they are another canary in the coal mine, and based on what I’ve seen, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Living in Germany, I’ve talked to friends who lived during the DDR days under the Staatssicherheitsdienst (aka the Stasi) and they generally describe the climate of the English speaking world as similar. Of course that was government run, and Twitter is a private company, but they do seem to have a grip on the social landscape, whereas the US government seems gridlocked. The one thing I know for sure is that this is horrible, it can’t last forever, and I hope to god it ends soon.

The dry-heaving, deflated state of the Internet

As I’ve mentioned before, I basically no longer use what is called “social” media, and I have the western propaganda machine blocked in as many places as possible. It’s clear there is a culture war going on, and while there is as of yet no loss of life, it is ruining a lot of things which were once beautiful.

Within computer science, there exists what is called the discovery problem. Both Yahoo and Google started as attempts to solve it. You have a set of things with which people might want to engage, and you want to make sure they can with the most minimal friction possible. It’s not a new idea. If you think about it, newspapers, libraries, even roads operate like this to some extent.

This creates a gateway (or portal) of sorts, and whoever controls it has a lot of power. They control what is served in what order, based on what search criteria, and how frequently.

They are a technology which serves some sort of purpose. In theory, the gatekeeper is a neutral party who serves this higher purpose. A librarian acts to help someone find a book or information they seek. A journalist (a real one) tries to uncover the truth and report it. So a question to ask, when you are looking for something, is who is guiding the answer: is it the purpose of the technology, or the agenda of the gatekeeper?

Realistically every gatekeeper has an agenda, and traditionally this is why we’ve had multiple newspapers, radio stations, and so on. However, this seems to be dying away, and I’m not sure why. Google is one of the worst at this. I would say Facebook as well, but I don’t have firsthand experience. I first started noticing it with the Google Plus names drama, when they pushed the “Search Plus Your World”, trying to map searches to what fits you. And there is a dance between subjective and objective quality. Ever notice that when you search for someone’s name, you get their Wikipedia entry? Which of course makes assumptions about how reliable wikipedia is. After all, if I search for “Lyndon Johnson”, what should I get first, the Wikipedia page, or a website about Robert Caro, who is probably his most famous biographer?

I’ve been noticing lately that Youtube has been doing a lot of this. Let’s say I search for a kind of video, maybe about a current event. I click on a video that seems relevant… maybe it has a lot of views, maybe it has a description that fits what I’m looking for. Let’s say it’s a CNN story about the current event. I watch part of it, and then go back to the main youtube screen. Suddenly I’m getting recommended a ton of videos about that event (matching the keyword), and other videos about CNN.

That’s innocent enough. But for me, this cycle has iterated enough times that I pretty much know exactly what youtube is going to show me. The best analogy I can make is that it’s like knowing what time your favorite TV show is going to appear. It is literally the same, more of the same, and so on. Although lately the videos are fighting for attention, so I’ll get a lot of buzzwords in the titles, as well as things I didn’t ask for that youtube is clearly promoting, maybe because they were paid? Unsure on that.

One of the thrills for me of going into a traditional store is the surprise element. Take a used book store. Let’s say you go there to see if they have a book you’re interested in. You find it, and look at it for a moment. And then you see other books by the same author right next to it. This is somewhat close to the “also on CNN” videos. But then, on the next shelf over, you see books on a totally different topic. Or there’s a display created by the owner of the shop about a book you didn’t even know existed. These last two elements are what make the traditional bookstores (and other stores) special. And Youtube has totally destroyed any ability for them to exist on youtube.

Let’s approach this from another angle. Say you discover a new food at a nearby restaurant, and you like it so much you order it every day. After the tenth day, I’ll bet you no longer want to even see a picture of that food. The novelty dies off, and maybe you don’t go back for a month. It’s similar to stories I’ve heard from former pizza delivery drivers who tell me they never want to have pizza ever again. Or like the staff who works in retail during a promotion where they play the same song over and over again.

To me, the selections that Youtube offers resembles that food after the tenth day. The novelty has died, and I’m so numbed that it’s even difficult to imagine new keywords to search that will result in that “different topic” shelf that a bookstore would have. And yet, for some reason, I keep going there.

I almost wonder if this has placated the whole internet. In a sense, the websites of the 90s and early 2000s were a bit like the family owned shops in small town America before Walmart moved in. As I used to say, I can think of many people who would travel the US going to different small towns and seeing the little shops, but I can’t think of anyone who would travel the US going to all the Walmarts.

But the issue creating this distaste isn’t exactly a diversity issue (to use the hotbutton term of the day), I argue it’s more control. There’s a sort of feeling of disempowerment, similar when you argue with the staff at a large corporation and get fed the “there’s nothing I can do” line. The joy in those little family owned shops wasn’t exactly diversity, but that they were self-owned. If family with a toddler walked into the shop, the owner had the agency to suddenly tell them that “today candy bars are free for little boys named Billy.” There’s probably a community element to it too, something also absent from Youtube and Walmart.

To end the ramble, it seems like today’s Internet has become a homogenized, sterlized shell of what it was even ten years ago. I’m still not sure why, but I think this has something to do with it.

How I use the “modern” internet

One of the challenging side effects of the current culture war going on in the US is that as the big-d-democrats and big-r-republicans become more and more extreme, the general political discourse becomes more toxic. I’ve often thought the last few years seemed far more polarized than even ten years ago, and it turns out I’m right:

I tend to be pretty middle of the road, and in the past have tended to tune into things that I disagree with, just to get the counter perspective. The logic being that if you read both sides of an issue, then you can figure out for yourself what a balanced view is, and proceed accordingly. However, especially in the last year, both sides have effectively turned into propaganda machines, completely misrepresenting even the most basic facts as they push agendas. My traditional approach results in whiplash, and my conclusion is that the only way to stay sane is to tune it all out and focus on other things until the storm passes.

Turning off the internet really isn’t an option, but there are ways to modify how I view it that help me manage. I don’t have a Facebook account, which means I already have a huge advantage over a lot of people. I’ve recently all-but-disconnected my Twitter account, so while a link to this post will appear there via an automated sharing process, I no longer “use” it as such. Why I’ve stopped using Twitter is probably worthy of an entire post in itself, but a short version is that every time I logged in, within 10 seconds of looking at my timeline, I’d be upset about something; I decided that’s not a way I want to live.

The next thing is websites I visit. Whenever I hear about some important news thing, by habit I go to places like CNN and The New York Times, because even though I rationally know they have long ceased to be places of balanced news, I have this strange instinctual trust in their ability to be an authority, probably remnant from years where they were moderately reliable. It’s true that they put out some choice falsities that (for example) helped the US invade Iraq, but until recently I was able to chalk that up to a few bad reporters. Now it seems like every reporter has an agenda. I found a browser plugin called “Website Blocker” and have added them and a slew of other sites, such as Breitbart, Fox News, The Guardian, and others into the list. What’s nice about this is that it doesn’t work in “incognito” mode, so if there’s a news story you want to track, you can open it in a new window and follow it there. I’ve found this to be really effective, because if I click a link and the red “it’s blocked” page comes up, it gives me a moment to reflect on if this is something I care about, or if it’s clickbait and I’m being reactionary. I’m sad to say that I’m being reactionary about 90% of the time, but at least I know this.

The other big thing is Youtube. I am a huge fan of Youtube, largely because many universities have started posting their college lectures there, and I find it a really valuable resource. However, the Adpocalypse that’s going on has caused a flurry of spam videos with horrible titles designed to get a quick click. There are other allegations regarding what videos they promote (since Youtube has a clear agenda in the culture war), but I’m more concerned about these stupid video titles. They are normally branded with choice key words designed to catch your attention, such as “cries”, “destroys”, “wrecks”, “obliterates”, “crushes”, and so on. A common example you might have seen during the election might be “Hillary supporter DESTROYS Trumper,” but this is by no means limited to politics. I found a great plugin called “Video Blocker” that lets you enter keywords such as those I’ve listed, and removes those videos from the Youtube page when you visit the site. What’s interesting is that it seems to just block them from appearing to you, so instead of getting another video, you get a blank spot. I’ve found that sometimes my recommended feeds are so empty they look like a toothless jaw, which tells me a lot about Youtube’s crap algorithms and how people are abusing it.

These plugins are in addition to other things, such as ad blockers and an HTML5 autoplay disabler. Although if a news website is autoplaying a video without asking, the chance is that I’ve already blocked it in Website Blocker.

In conclusion, while these things won’t prevent the culture wars, and won’t fix all the problems going on with the Internet in general, they will at least help you to stay somewhat sane as it wages on. Other suggestions are to have a day where you don’t use a computer at all and go to the park, or focus on doing cool projects that are also not related to awful clickbait. A word of warning, be prepared for the intense rage of people when you re-engage after one of these little retreats, and remember that it’s not about you.

An ode to AIM

After a 20 year run, AIM is being shut down in December. I’ve had my AIM account since May 14, 1998, so this makes me sad for a number of reasons. But I think it’s also worth reflecting both on the consequences of AIM dying, as well as the general state of technology.

I used AIM a *lot* in the late 90s, before moving to ICQ. Back then, there was sort of a holy war between AIM and ICQ, and the more serious computer users (read, an hour of internet time a day) seemed to use ICQ. From my personal experience, I stopped using ICQ in 2000 when a new version (I think it was 2000b) was released that was so buggy it was unusable on Windows 98. The community I was around all sort of migrated to AIM, and have used it ever since.

So long before what is now called “social media”, AIM served as a way to keep friends together, but not incessantly. I have my chat client logged into AIM right now, and even though I haven’t used it in years, I have a whole list of people who are also still logged in. It’s sort of like an active rolodex. In many ways, the buddy list now serves as a communication channel to people who I have no other way to contact anymore. Some might be stale, but the possibility is there. Until December.

I’m not sure why AOL wants to discontinue it. One of AIM’s main problems is that it’s centralized, through a protocol called OSCAR. I have no idea how difficult it is to maintain an AIM server. I have run jabber servers before, and they are usually pretty low maintenance. I wonder if there is some bureaucratic issue going on. Maybe AOL has to pay someone a license to keep it running, and now they’ve decided it is too expensive. Maybe there are a lot of security issues with the protocol, and they want to get rid of their security team that deals with it.

I wish they were more transparent about it. I wish they would do something for the AIM community– maybe set up a small nonprofit whose sole purpose is to collect donation money to keep the AIM servers running. Or make it all totally free software so someone could patch it to be decentralized, and keep it all still running. But again, this is all speculation, I have no idea. The one thing I do know is it makes me sad.

I’ve also become disillusioned with this new generation of technology. I’m a huge fan of personal liberty, using technology to empower individuals, and using computers to make cool projects and maybe even solve complex problems. But technology now seems to be about agreeing to 40 page EULAs you can’t possibly understand, and about companies taking more and more control over your life.

I recall a conversation I had with someone years ago, complaining about the then-new Windows product activation. IMO, if you pay for software, you own it, and the idea that you have to continually justify it to the company is the worst kind of leash possible. Their response was that there would be a lot of complaining, and eventually people would just go along with it and it would become part of an accepted norm. And it seems that now, the strange idea is not that you would need to get permission to run software you purchased, but that you would run software locally at all, because it’s all in the cloud (aka someone else’s computer).

Beyond that, I’m a big believer in respect for tradition, something that has been completely abandoned in the modern era. A less laudable version of this is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It seems that there is a rush to throw out the old in favor of the new. The problem with this is that we continually redefine the old in shorter and shorter lifespans, and we also redefine the criteria by which we judge “new is better.” This leads to making the same painful mistakes over and over again.

That was a long winded way of saying I’m going to miss AIM, I’m going to miss all the friends I’ll never be able to chat with again, and I’m sad with the general state of what is called technology.