Why Combinator?


Leave it to aspie engineers with a guilt complex to try to remake society in a way so they don’t feel so bad about fucking over everyone who is not a tech worker.

“We want to study building new, better cities.”

How about a profile of existing cities, criticisms of them, and specific ways they can be improved? Robert Caro, Jane Jacobs, Maria Montessori, and the authors of Suburban Nation all have things they might offer… I’m also a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, but his wife might not agree 😉

“The world is full of people who aren’t realizing their potential in large part because their cities don’t provide the opportunities and living conditions necessary for success. A high leverage way to improve our world is to unleash this massive potential by making better cities.”

The two key words from this paragraph are “potential” and “success.” Let’s set aside the booklong discussion on who is the arbiter of these things, and focus on what qualifies as “success.” Given that this comes from one of the Sand Hill Road Gordon Gecko wannabes, it’s pretty clear what they actually mean is “maximize your return.”

“The need for new supply continues to increase significantly [1].”

Is that why they are encouraging automating non-tech workers jobs out of existings, and use a bastardized interpretation of Milton Friedman’s basic income as a crutch to explain it all away?

“Many constraints related to where cities should be located (e.g. near rivers for trade) have changed. We now have major technologies such as smart grids, autonomous vehicles, etc.”

In other words, the technologies that are destroying non-tech worker jobs are making life way easier for the rich and powerful.

“The internet itself allows for participation never before possible.”

Substitute “participation” for “exploitation” and you get the same idea. See internet.org.

“Also, housing prices in many cities have become untenable and we need more housing in places people want to live.”

Yes, and why has this happened? The same people who are praising all the technologies that remove our need for dependence on geography are also demanding you relocate your entire life to a central location, driving out the people who were living there before, and destroying any semblance of culture.

“Some existing cities will get bigger and there’s important work being done by smart people to improve them.”

Empty statement detected. More input required. Also, how will population get larger when the non-tech worker class is driven into poverty and/or basic income, and it does not make economy sense for everyone else to have families?

“We also think it’s possible to do amazing things given a blank slate. Our goal is to design the best possible city given the constraints of existing laws.”

Is there such a thing as a “blank slate”? There are a list of historical events I can give you which have the same assumption, but the end result was less than desirable.

I have to stop there. The rest of this piece is unreadable, and loaded with unchecked arrogance. It seems like another step in YC’s realization that they are slowly but surely helping to completely fuck the economy, and are trying to dig their way out of it, and hopefully get a few good social graces along the way.


Social Autopsy

Since there has been a lot of drama and misinformation both about this project and my stance on it, I’ll take some time here to expand in more detail.

Yesterday I became aware of a kickstarter called “Social Autopsy.” As far as I can tell (from its video), the premise is to create a database of information about people who are being annoying harassers on the internet. While this created all kinds of controversy, I think it raises some interesting and important questions.

First, it’s important to note that the creator has specifically said that the database will only be comprised of public data. This is a very, very important point. A lot of people have criticized the project for doing dox dropping, which it does not. I’ll explain why in a moment. Second, I have come out, not in support of the project’s aim (which I disagree with), but in support of the project’s right to exist. Unsurprisingly but amusingly, I have taken a lot of heat for this stance. So I’ll elaborate on that in a moment too.

Regarding the project, as far as I can tell, it is a central gathering place of public information into a format that is more readable and accessible. At first glance, it seems people can contribute to it, although it’s not entirely clear how this process will work. There are a few comments about accepting screenshots and so on, which raises eyebrows. so here is my analysis.

First, if what they are making is basically a sort of filtered and easier to read Google, with information that could be found already online, I have absolutely no problem with it. One could argue that there is public and then there is “public”, which I think is a fantastic discussion to have, and is really what is on trial here. A lot of people post things in a forum they don’t consider public, such as posting something on a twitter account with 20 followers, and it then hits the front page of Gawker. This is actually a problem with unreasonable expectations, and not a privacy violation per say. If, on the other hand, someone tweets on a private twitter account, that is then screenshotted and posted onto Gawker, I would say Gawker is completely in the wrong. When the person twittered, they did have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and Gawker, not them, made the tweet public by publishing the screenshot.

There are some interesting scenarios that will come up. What happens if someone tweets, then deletes the tweet, but it is captured and posted on this database anyways? We’ve already seen this question come up with Politiwhoops, but one could argue that it is different for a private citizen. Also, what if someone tweets from a fake account that looks like you, and it gets added to your profile? And finally, what happens if a tweet is taken out of context and put in the database in a way that unfairly reflects you in a negative light? All these questions need to be considered.

In terms of why I support the projects existence: first, I fundamentally disagree with the premise of it. I’ve spent years doing research into the nature of names, privacy, and identity, and have found absolutely no conclusive evidence that forcing people to say things under specific names has any net benefit without causing collateral damage. Further, I think that putting unrelated items together in a list and suggesting that they are related without any proof is also problematic– this is why slander and libel laws exist. However, I think that if you have two items related to an individual that are both public, putting them next to each other on another public page is completely reasonable.

I did state that people should be more careful about what they post on public places, and I meant it. If you have a twitter account with your full legal name, and a linkedin account with the same legal name, and both are public, it seems unreasonable to assume that nobody would be able to put the two together. In terms of what happens when someone has unpopular opinions that bring consequences in another forum, there are two points to consider: context and proportionality. With the recent LambdaConf drama, for example, there was a speaker who had made some racist comments in a context completely unrelated to his LambdaConf presentation, and yet people merged these contexts together and demanded unproportional retribution. A couple thoughts here: first, was he entitled to curtilage, and second, what good would have come from banning him from the talk? And finally, if both of these personas he had were considered in the public sphere, is it reasonable to suggest there might be more local context-based versions of public?

Since this Social Autopsy project doesn’t even exist yet, I think it’s a great place to begin a serious discussion on these issues, and perhaps get some feedback on how to solve the underlying problems (harassment) without compromising personal privacy. We shall see.

On Progress

Lately I have heard a number of terms thrown around, such as “progressive”, “the progressive left”, and “the regressive left.” Each encompasses different ideas, which I think are worth exploring.

Before looking at progress, which is inherently a state where we are not, I’m curious about the state where we are. To do so, first we must describe as best we can the state in which we are, and then the state from which we have come. Finally, we must describe the process by which we left the previous state and arrived at the present state, that is, why. What seems like such a simple step is nearly always left out of modern dialogue.

If we are to entertain an idea like “progress”, this inherently implies that there is an element of discontent with the present state, and there is some future state that would be more ideal. To this, we must attach two elements: first, the reasons why we are currently in discontent, and second, why the proposed change would satisfy said discontents.

In order to attain this in a most objective manner, we must abandon one very primal and comforting assumption: that we are correct. If we are unable to question this, then the entire process is one of deceit, both to ourselves and others. After all, if we even briefly entertain a view in which we are not correct, it should be fairly easy to quickly spot the errors in our thinking, and the resolutions which help us to arrive at our first view.

On Twitter’s “verified” status

Nero had his verified status revoked. I only know of one other instance where this has happened, and that instance was entirely appropriate. A few years ago, when I asked Colin Crowell, VP of Public Policy at Twitter,  point blank about the purpose of the verified checkmark, he assured me it was *only* to prevent impersonation. It seems this is no longer the case.

First, apparently if you have a verified user checkmark, you have access to a set of features like analytics that “regular” users do not. Second, there have been numerous statements by Silicon Valley brahmin that twitter eventually plans to market the verified status– aka, if you pay money, you can get it. And most recently, Nero’s status was revoked for reasons completely unrelated to being verified.

To me, “verified” is similar to trusting a public key: it quite literally means that Twitter has verified that the posts on the Twitter account are in fact either from or representative of the name on the account. This way you can rest assured that the “Tom Cruise” you see on Twitter is in fact the movie star, and not a random unrelated individual. This is a way to mitigate issues like cybersquatting, and seems reasonably effective.

The challenge is twofold: first, Twitter has been notoriously opaque about what the guidelines for granting this status is; second, especially recently, the status has morphed from an impersonation defense to a sort of advocacy or endorsement of the person. Given that Twitter has started “cracking down” on things one might consider free speech, as well as making dubious moves regarding sponsored tweets, likes, and the moments menu, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that they are pushing the same stupidity towards the verified checkmark.

The reason I’m concerned is not because I advocate actions that some people might make: it does appear that Nero was doing some pretty awful things. I’m concerned because the logic does not match. The only other instance I know of re: verified accounts was the Argentinian prime minister, who had her status revoked because she refused to give up her twitter account after leaving office. Since she no longer held the capacity of the office, it makes sense that she would no longer be verified to that office. But there is no conclusion that Nero has ceased to be Nero, but that removing status is an admonishment of unrelated behavior. My conclusion is thus that, like the populist idea that the blue checkmark holds a status/class symbol, twitter has begun to embody that idea and, based on their past idiocy, will only make the service suffer because of it.



Names versus Titles

One of the most common questions I hear is “What is the difference between a name and a title?”

To really dig into this, we first must distinguish between two very different kinds of identifying labels: functional labels versus essence labels. A functional label identifies you regarding your place within society: for example, “lawyer” and “teacher” are functional labels. An essence label identifies you regarding your relationship with existence. Your name (any of them) could be essence labels, as well as things like your religion: are you “catholic” or “protestant”?

I’d suggest that a title is a functional label, with two general purposes: identifying role and rank. “Teacher” might be a role label, and “assistant” teacher shows your rank. This is very important within more formal roles like the military, where the difference between a lieutenant, a general, and a colonel carry a huge amount of responsibility. Rank can also demonstrate a degree of honor: for example, someone who has been knighted carries the title of “Sir”.

Refresh and Engagement Addiction

An alcoholic looks for his next drink. A heroin junkie looks for her next fix. And a social media user constantly hits “refresh” to see what the next “update” will be.

We’ve created a culture in which people are afraid not to be engaged with something. I’ve seen this on the subway, in waiting rooms, pretty much any place where there is idle time. Someone whips out their phone, checks their email, looks at twitter, facebook, instagram, and so on, and when (in the majority of cases) all of these avenues turn up dry, they might repeat a few rounds of the cycle before settling on a game. In the instance where there is something that brings value– a news article linked on facebook, for example– the person taps on the link, loads up the article, and reads a little bit. Then comes the moment of evaluation: scrolling through the article to see how long it is, and debate whether to devote to time to reading it or race back to facebook in case an even more important article was posted.

I’ve seen this exact scenario play out many times while shoulder-surfing. I do not have a “smart” phone, so the habits of people who do interest me. It might take different forms: maybe someone sees a blog of text in a tweet that sounds agreeable to them, so they tap “retweet.” The only issue is that they never bothered to check the link, the “source” for the assertion, so that either they realize their error and delete the tweet (or post a correction), or someone else corrects them, which leads to embarrassment.

What is it that compels people to be constantly hitting refresh, on their twitter or inbox or anything else? I actually suspect that the need to be engaged is separate from the refresh addiction. In the need for engagement, it’s worth exploring what happens if you are NOT engaged. Before the nanny-state laws started banning smoking cigarettes, people would light up and smoke. Beside the temporary stress relief, it creates an engagement, and answer to the question “what are you doing?” Because we must have a purpose in whatever we do. If you’re waiting for the bus, you are stuck in a limbo state of idleness while waiting for the bus to arrive, and the last thing you want to do is engage with your environment. Likewise, the phone is a good counter-measure for those awkward moments on the train when there is someone sitting in the seat directly across from you. Perhaps there’s also an allure of “I’m important” with these engagements; or more specifically, if you are not engaged with something, it’s because you’re not important enough to be. Reminds me a bit of the people who fill their entire day with meetings.

When you hit refresh, there’s a moment of anticipation, waiting to find out whether something interesting is coming your way. Are you important enough to receive some bit of news? Maybe there’s an argument and you want to see the sides and weigh the evidence– because you, of course, are able to qualify how valid the evidence is. On a similar note, there could be a bit of dread. Perhaps you posted an opinion about something, and are waiting to see whether people agree with you, or whether someone will disagree, creating a crushing blow to your twitter self-esteem. Thankfully, when we disagree, these services provide us with “block” buttons, whereas email provides us with delete.

Over and over and over again, never stopping. Waking up in the middle of the night, grabbing the phone, dragging down the email or twitter client with your thumb, watching the “updating” status to see what’s coming next. At least with newspapers, there was a finite end and we could get on with our day.

A new beginning

“We’ve come a long long way together,
Through the hard times and the good.
I have to celebrate you baby,
And now I’ll treat you like I should.”
–What Google should have said right after #nymwars.

Three significant things have developed in the three years since nymwars: the NSA revelations, the decline of Twitter’s quality, and Google’s complete retraction of the “real” names policy. The NSA revelations came as a shell shock, and made me think a lot about data privacy. I can’t quite pinpoint when the quality of Twitter feeds started to fade, but I imagine it was around the time that the outrage economy began to seriously capitalize on it. And, like the healthy skeptic, I didn’t really believe the Google names policy retraction to be real until I saw it enforced.

The NSA revelations made me realize that very little communication on the internet is sacred anymore. While I’m mostly happy with Google’s atonement for their names policy drama, I do also recognize two things: first, I should not post anything on Google that I don’t mind seeing on the front page of the New York Times; second, because Google is granting us access to control our information within, at any moment another policy change might happen to revoke that access. As such, I’ve decided to turn my aestetix.com WordPress account into a proxy of sorts: I can post here, and it will be reposted to Google Plus, as well as to Facebook (I set up an account just for this), as well as to Twitter. This strategy minimizes the work I need to do– write up an article/essay and click publish– and capitalizes distribution so that someone who uses Twitter but not Google can still learn about the post. It also creates redundancy in that the work is replicated in all places (well, Twitter is just a link to the WordPress), so that if one service decides to block access, it’s still available in others. And worst case scenario, the original source is hosted at WordPress, which I am paying for, thus dismissing the “it’s a free service!” argument.

After the nymwars, when I felt I could no longer trust Google not to randomly suspend my account, and leaving Facebook for privacy related concerns, I focused mostly on Twitter. The challenge there is obvious: we learn to work with the tools we have, and thinking in terms of 140 characters both destroys grammatical constructs and ruins nuance. Rather than having enlightened discussions, we have stories reduced to half-assed “headlines” with links, and I imagine the percentage of people who follow through and read the entire link is far less than those who bother to click the link in the first place. Twitter focuses on the immediate, which can be useful for some things, like letting people know you’re still alive after a hurricane. But it magnifies presumption and bias to a degree that any kind of discourse is almost immediately ruined by angry replies, many from people who may have just seen a retweet and have no notion of the entire context. Topping this off, its nature is highly reactionary, and a misunderstanding can quickly turn into an angry twitter-war, which can result in rambling blog posts, escalating to a story on Valleywag (or an equivalent e-tabloid), all of which drive ad impressions up and create a false awareness of concern that is present until focus is robbed by the next outburst. In short, I see Twitter as fuel for what I call id journalism.