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July 7, 2015

Friends reviewing friends

Amazon is refusing to post reviews when its algorithms sense a personal relationship between the author and the reviewer. Amazon says, “We are removing your reviews because you know the author personally,” according to Chris Morran at The Consumerist.

The intent is fine. A review is likely to be swayed by a personal friendship. That’s why some of us disclose friendships when posting reviews at Amazon.

But, it would help if Amazon clarified what “knowing an author personally” means. In a networked world, that is an incredibly vague description.

After that, here are some suggestions that I think would help matters while preserving the policy’s good intentions:

1. Flag reviews by people with personal relationships, but don’t remove them. They may in fact shed special light on the work being reviewed.

2. Allow reviewers to flag their own reviews, and to describe their relationships. E.g., “We are colleagues,” “She’s a lifelong friend,” “We were close friends until I moved 12 yrs ago,” “We’ve been on panels together,” “We were friends until the lying bastard done me wrong.”

3. Do not count the ratings by such people in the overall total.

4. Provide some avenue of appeal when the algorithm goes wrong.


July 3, 2015

Joining Reddit

Reddit is in flames. I can only see one way out of it that preserves the site’s unique value.

I say this as an old man who loves Reddit despite being way outside its main demographic. Of course there are outrageously objectionable subreddits—topical discussion boards—but you don’t have to visit those. Reddit at its best is wonderful. Inspiring, even. It is a self-regulated set of communities that is capable of great collective insight, humor, and kindness. (At its worst, it is one of the nightmares of the Internet.)

Because Reddit is so large, with 169M unique visitors each month, it is impossible to generalize accurately about what went on yesterday and is continuing today. Nevertheless, the precipitating cause was the termination of the employment of Victoria Taylor for reasons Reddit and she have not disclosed. Victoria was not only the wildly popular enabler of Reddit’s wildly popular AMA‘s (“Ask Me Anything”), she was the only Reddit employee visible to most redditors (Reddit users).

Victoria’s sudden dismissal was taken by many as a sign of the increasing misalignment of Reddit’s business goals and the culture of its communities. Reddit, it is feared, is going commercial. The volunteer moderators (“mods”) of some of the large subreddits have also complained that their requests for support over the past months have gone unanswered.

In protest, many of the large subreddits and a long list of smaller ones have gone private and are thus dark to most of the world. This will have some financial effect on Reddit, but it is better understood as a political protest, applying the technique used successfully in 2012 when Reddit, Wikipedia, and other major sites went dark to protest the SOPA/PIPA bills that would have limited Internet freedom. It is an assertion-by-deprivation of the cultural value of these subreddits.

It is, I believe, a mistake to view this uproar primarily in terms of economics or business. This is an attempt by a community to stay a community despite perceived attempts by the business underneath it to commercialize it. Up until now, Reddit the Company has understood the importance of accepting and promoting its community’s values. Advertising is unobtrusive, some of which lets users comment on the ad itself. Reddit makes money also from its users buying “Reddit gold” to bestow upon comments they find particularly valuable. Reddit gold has no monetary value, so users are consciously paying Reddit money for the privilege of paying another user a visible compliment. And Reddit has sternly defended the free speech of its users even when that speech is, well, horrible—although the management did controversially shut down some shaming and hating sites a few weeks ago.

Reddit is in bad shape today. The meme-making forces of sarcasm it’s famous for have been turned inwards.The most loyal users are feeling betrayed. Some of the communities that have driven Reddit forward as a cultural force are feeling abused. It’s hard to come back from that.

A big part of the problem is that Victoria, the face of Reddit to its own community, was accepted as “One of us! One of us!” as redditors sometime self-mockingly invoke the movie Freaks. Indeed, she embodied many of the virtues of Reddit at its best: curious, accepting, welcoming, helpful, funny. Many redditors saw themselves reflected in her.

Victoria was thereby an important part of Reddit’s support of what I call “The Gettysburg Principles“: She helped Reddit seem to be by, for, and of us. Now the face of Reddit is Ellen Pao, the interim CEO who is largely derided and detested at Reddit because she seems to be “One of them! One of them!”— a Silicon Valley player.

If we view this first and foremost as a problem in maintaining a community rather than strictly as a revenue issue, then I can only see one way forward: Pao should get off her executive horse, engage with the community in public, and show that she’s a redditor too. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder, also should step forward with his best redditor face on. Alexis when free of corporate pressures is a redditor through and through.

There is still an opportunity for Reddit to show that it understands the source of all its value: communities trusted to run themselves, and a strong sense of shared cultures.


July 2, 2015

Beatles’ Revolver 49 years later: A Review

In the 1980s, I stopped listening to music for no particular reason. It was only in the early 1990s as I was commuting every week to my mother’s death bed (don’t smoke, kids!) that I started again. Thank you Mssrs. Bach, Gould, and Goldberg.

I have not listened to a Beatles album since before my 1980s quiet period. Let’s say about 35 years. I listen to other groups from that period, some of whom hold up amazingly well. But not the Beatles.

Why? They mean so much to me that there are no occasions that deserve them.

I know that’s nuts. I listen to Bach in utter awe and don’t think to myself, “Well, sure, but too bad George Martin wasn’t around then to help him out.” I do understand than my feelings about the Beatles are inextricably mixed with the growing distance from my youth.

So, it’s embarrassingly symbolic—the sort of thing that would make you stop reading a novel—that I listened to the Beatles on a run this morning while my wife and I are awaiting word that, God willing, we’ve become grandparents. (I don’t have words to talk about that now.)

So, here’s a review of Revolver (the UK version).

Overall: A+. Solid gold. 49 years young.

Track by track:

Taxman. This was not a favorite of mine, catchy though it is. I remember it as being too derivative, too genre-based. And an awkward protest song for the rich. On re-hearing it: It is a genre song with typical Beatles’ inventiveness. Great guitar work. Witty call-back to the Batman theme. Totally enjoyable.

Eleanor Rigby. It’s really hard to write fiction. For me this song doesn’t capture how Eleanor Rigby seems to herself. Yeah, lots people are lonely. But I’d like this song better if it ended with “All the lonely people, where do we all belong?” Not that I’m saying I could have done a better job of it. I’m just saying it’s a little immature and a tad condescending. On the other hand, a song like this is not what you’d expect from a rock band in the ’60s, unless they were the Beatles. It’s the Beatles stretching themselves. The melody is obviously great. The backing vocals are amazing. As always.

I’m Only Sleeping. Q: What sort of song is this? A: A Beatles song. Everything about it is unpredictable: the topic, the minor-major shifts, the harmonies, the bridge, the instrumentation and arrangement. Catchy, too. Try to get John out of bed and you get a tuneful, brilliantly original song. How about leaving a little talent for the rest of us, John, ok?

Love You To. It opens with a sitar. We don’t know where it’s going. We’re not even sure what scale it’s going to be using. And then it turns out that it’s a riff-driven song not unlike Taxman. The melody mixes the West and the East and is pretty minimal. But clearly this is George’s, reflecting his eclecticism and intended to educate us toward Indian music. The Beatles stretching themselves again.

Here, There and Everywhere. An impossibly pretty genre song. A little cupcake of perfection. The little almost-discordant harmony on “Love never dies” kills me every time.

Yellow Submarine. Tell you what, let’s have Ringo throw in a classic kiddy song with enough complexity in the harmonies and arrangements that it’ll be great when you’re high. Anyone see where the Oreos got to?

She Said, She Said. Power rock beginning. Angry high notes. Fuzz guitar echo. Break the tempo on the last line of the verse. Killer harmonies. A bridge that comes out of nowhere (“When I was a boy…”). The whole thing threatening to come apart once you’re out of the safety of the verse, with Ringo doing some wonderful lord knows what. I love the Beatles.

Got to Get You into My Life. Weird tempo. Horns. Who arranged this, Herb Alpert? What sort of song is this? Oh yeah, a Beatles song. This is essentially a solo by Paul, with the horns doing the harmonies. George’s guitar enters late with its usual egolessness—a new melody that serves the song rather than wowing us with George’s originality.

For No One. A melody that just rolls on, taking turns you don’t foresee until afterwards. Rhythmic shifts from waltz to 4/4. A goddamn French horn. An unresolved ending that works melodically and thematically.

Good Day Sunshine. In the first measures you think it’s going to be somber. Instead it turns into something cheery although the genre is confounding. Broadway? Damn those harmonies! Then the stride piano. WTF. Who else could have done this? I’m not sure what it is, but everything about it is great.

And Your Bird Can Sing. Damn. Another one. Incredible guitar work by George. What’s the bird? I don’t care. I’m not saying this is a great song. But whatever you think the Beatles are like, listen to this and remember that the Beatles weren’t like anything.

Doctor Robert. Another riff-driven song, like Taxman. George’s guitar could not be better. Again. The harmonies are amazing. The bridge (“Well, well, well you’re feeling fine”) switches to a chorale that’s as rhythm-free as any bureaucracy. A rollicking good time.

I want to tell you. Everything about this song is weird and unexpected: the chord changes, the instrumentation, the harmonies, the genre shifts. “It’s alright” has a weird dissonant piano behind it. There’s some straight rock guitar work thrown in by George. Where did this song come from?

Tomorrow Never Knows.. The amazing book Revolution in the Head argues pretty fiercely that LSD did not help the Beatles be better at what they do, especially for John. This is a pretty good evidence of that. Even so.

I tell you, these young Beatles are going to be big! Big, I tell you!

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June 27, 2015

Does the moral universe arc?

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”

Does it?

That saying was of course made famous by Martin Luther King who put it between quotation marks to indicate that it was not original with him. Had King’s own arc not been stopped short by a white racist with a gun, it might have been MLK, at the age of 86, who addressed us on Friday in Charlestown. As it is, our President did him proud.

The always awesome Quote Investigator tells us that the quotation in fact came from Theodore Parker in 1857; Parker was a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and abolitionist. The entire sermon (“Of Justice and the Conscience,” pp. 66-102) is worth reading, but here’s the relevant snippet:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

The sermon points out that the wicked often suffer in ways that the outside world can’t perceive. But Parker is realistic enough to recognize that “we do not see that justice is always done on earth,” (p. 89) and he proceeds to remind his congregation of some of the overwhelming evils present in the world, including: “Three million slaves earn the enjoyment of Americans, who curse them in the name of Christ.” (p. 90) Neither does Parker let us rest in the comfortable thought that justice reigns in the next world. We need a “conscious development of the moral element in man, and a corresponding expansion of justice in human affairs…” (p. 90).

But, is Parker right? Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice, or towards injustice, or toward neither, or toward entropy? Why shouldn’t we think we construct that arc out of our wishes and happy thoughts?

Parker’s support for his claim is not what sight shows him but what is visible to his conscience. But what did conscience mean to him?

In 1850 Parker delivered a sermon called “The Function and Place of Conscience in Relation to the Laws.” He begins by explaining the term: “It is the function of conscience to discover to men the moral law of God.” He puts it on a level with our other faculties, part of the reaction against the reduction of consciousness to what comes through our sense organs. Transcendentalists were influenced by Kant who argued that sense perception wouldn’t add up to experience if we didn’t come into the world with a pre-existing ability to organize perceptions in time, space, causality, etc. In addition, affirms Parker, we have a faculty — conscience — that lets us understand things in terms of their moral qualities. That faculty is as fallible as the others, but it is “adequate to the purpose God meant for it”; otherwise God would have failed to outfit us adequately for the task He has set us, which would be on Him.

For Parker, conscience (knowledge of what is right) is at least as important as intellect (knowledge of the world). In “Of Justice and Conscience,” he bemoans that “We have statistical societies for interest” but “no moral societies for justice.” (p. 92) “There is no college for conscience.” (p. 93). (Statistics as a concept and a field had entered British culture at the beginning of the 19th century. By the 1850s it had become a dominant way of evaluating legislative remedies there. See Too Big to Know for a discussion of this. Yeah, I just product placed my own book.)

The faculty of justice (conscience) is at least as important as the faculty of intellect, for conscience drives action. In “The Function and Place of Conscience,” he writes:

Nothing can absolve me from this duty, neither the fact that it is uncomfortable or unpopular, nor that is conflicts with my desires, my passions, my immediate interests, and my plans in life. Such is the place of conscience amongst other faculties of my nature

Indeed, the heart of this sermon is the injunction to rise to the demands inherent in our being children of God, and to reject any conflicting demands by government, business, or society.

Much of this sermon could be quoted by those who refuse as businesspeople or government employees to serve same-sex couples, although Parker is talking about returning fugitive slaves to their owners, not decorating cakes:

This statute [the Fugutive Slave Act] is not to be laid to the charge of the slaveholders of the South alone; its most effective supporters are northern men; Boston is more to be blamed for it than Charleston or Savannah, for nearly a thousand persons of this city and neighborhood, most of them men of influence through money if by no other means, addressed a letter of thanks to the distinguished man who had volunteered to support that infamous bill telling him that he had “convinced the understanding and touched the conscience of the nation.”

That “distinguished man” was, shockingly, Daniel Webster. Webster had been an eloquent and fierce abolitionist. But in 1850, he argued just as fiercely in support of the Fugitive Slave Act in order to preserve the union. Parker wrote an impassioned account of this in his 1853 Life of Daniel Webster.

Parker’s sermon exhorts his congregants, in a passage well worth reading, to resist the law. “[I]t is the natural duty of citizens to rescue every fugitive slave from the hands of the marshal who essays to return him to bondage; to do it peaceably if they can, forcibly if they must, but by all means to do it.”

So, conscience trumps the other faculties by bringing us to act on behalf of justice. But the moral law that conscience lets us perceive is different from the laws of nature. Parker writes in “Of Justice” that there is no gap between the natural laws and their fulfillment. This is so much the case that we learn those laws by observing nature’s regularities. But the moral law “unlike attraction [i.e., gravity] … does not work free from all hindrance.” (p. 69). The moral law requires fulfillment by humans. We are imperfect, so there is a gap between the moral law and the realm over which it rules.

Parker continues: Even if we could learn the law of right through observation and experience — just as we learn the laws of nature — those laws would feel arbitrary. In any case, because history is still unfolding, we can’t learn our moral lessons from it, for our justice has not yet been actualized in history. (p. 73) Man has “an ideal of nature which shames his actual of history.” (p. 73) So, “God has given us a moral faculty, the conscience…” (p. 72) to see what we have yet not made real.

Intellect is not enough. Only conscience can see the universe’s incomplete moral arc.

So, does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?

Our intellect sets off warning flares. History is too complex to have a shape. The shape we perceive of course looks like progress because we always think that what we think is the right thing to think, so we think we’re thinking better than did those who came before us. And, my intellect says quite correctly, yeah, sure you’d think that, Mr. Privileged White Guy.

At the moment of despair — when even in Boston citizens are signing letters in favor of returning people back to their enslavement — “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice” brings hope. No, it says, you’re not going to get what you deserve, but your children might, or their children after them. It is a hard, hard hope.

But is it true?

I will postulate what Theodore Parker did not: Neither our intellect nor conscience can know what the universe’s arc will actually be. Even thinking it has any shape requires an act of imagination that bears an unfathomable cost of forgetting.

But, I believe that Parker was right that conscience — our sense of right and wrong — informs our intellect. Hope is to moral perception as light is to vision: You cannot perceive the world within its moral space without believing there is a point to action. And we can’t perceive outside of that moral space, for it is within the moral space that the universe and what we do in it matters. Even science — crucial science — is pursued as a moral activity, as something that matters beyond itself. If nothing you do can have any effect on what matters beyond your own interests, then moral behavior is pointless and self-indulgent. Hope is moral action’s light.

So, of course I don’t know if the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. But if there is a moral universe, modest hopes bend its history.


June 26, 2015

Too happy to blog

That is all.

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June 23, 2015

Old man yells at cloud, at SxSW

SxSW’s video talk show interviewed me about my talk, which was basically about why the Net isn’t as dreadful as it seems. Something like that.

Anyway, here’s the segment, with Douglas Caballero. It’s 11.5 minutes long.


June 22, 2015

Has the Internet been paved? has just posted an article of mine that re-examines the “Argument from Architecture” that has been at the bottom of much of what I’ve written over the past twenty years. That argument says, roughly, that the Internet’s architecture embodies particular values that are inevitably transmitted to its users. (Yes, the article discusses what “inevitably” means in this context.) But has the Net been so paved by Facebook, apps, commercialism, etc., that we don’t experience that architecture any more?


June 19, 2015

Spoilers and Time

I remember a 1971 National Lampoon article that gave away the endings of a hundred books and movies. Wikipedia and others think that article might have been the first use of the term “spoiler.” But “SPOILER ALERT” has only become a common signpost because of what the Internet has done to time, and in particular, to simultaneity.

In the old days of one-to-many, broadcast media, the events that shaped culture happened once and usually happened on schedule. So, it would make sense to bring up what was on the news broadcast last night, or to chuckle over that hilarious scene in this week’s Beverly Hillbillies. Now we watch on our own schedules, having common moments mainly around sports events and breaking news — games or tragedies. Perhaps this has contributed to our culture’s addiction to extremes.

We need SPOILER ALERT signposts because we watch when we want but the Net is so huge and unconstrained and cheap that it operates like a push medium — the opposite of why traditional broadcast was a push medium. Trying to avoid finding out what happened on Game of Thrones this week is like trying to avoid getting run over when crossing a highway, except that even seeing the approaching cars counts as getting run over.

Tom and Jerry
Game of Thrones spoiler

This change in temporality shows up in the phrase “real time.” We only distinguish one type of time as “real” because it is no longer the default. The default is asynchronous because that’s how most of our communications occur online. Real time increasingly feels like a deprivation. It requires you to drop what you’re doing to participate or you’re going to lose out. And that feels sub-optimal, or even unfair.

Without the requirement of simultaneity, we are more free to follow our interests. And that turns out to fragment our culture. Or liberate it. Or enrich it. Or all of the above.

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June 4, 2015

Digital literacy

I’m at workshops held by the Center for Educational Technology in Tel Aviv (I’m on its advisory board) and they’ve asked me to do a brief introduction at a session on digital literacy. I plan on saying very little, especially since Renee Hobbs is there and she actually knows this topic.

I want to make only three points, all obvious.

First, obviously digital literacy is first about values and only then about mechanics. E.g., traditionally media literacy has been about making cannier individuals, which then results in a cannier society. Digital literacy — especially if we think of it as network literacy — may decide that it would prefer to grow literate networks.

Second, I personally would want to give students a lively sense of how the Internet and the Web work. This isn’t so they can grow up to be network architects or Web designers. Rather, it explicitly aims at preserving the values implicit (yes, the meaning of “implicit” here needs a lot of explicit explication) in those technologies…values at risk as that architecture becomes increasingly paved over by commercial apps.

Third, our new media literacy is not just about making us better consumers of content but is actually about shaping the medium itself. What do we want it to be? That’s never before been so directly the case.

If I were home, I’d make these points by referring to Howard Rheingold, Dan Gillmor, Renee and others.

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May 15, 2015

John Lennon: dreamer awake

I asked my mobile this morning to shuffle up Instant Karma – Save Dafur, a two-volume set of John Lennon covers. Great album. Big mistake.

It played these tracks in this heart-breaking order:

  1. Imagine [lyrics]
  2. God (I don’t believe) [lyrics]
  3. Beautiful Boy [lyrics]
  4. Grow old with me [lyrics]

I think I write about John Lennon every spring as I start to run and listen to music again. I’m pretty sure I say the same things every time.

So I’m not going to say anything about this mix except that it shows why inconsistency is the truth.


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