Joho the Blog » politics

December 21, 2016

Pushing back against Trump: The techie meetup

I’m at an open meeting held by Maciej Ceglowski, co-hosted by Heather Gold, for techies to get together to think about how we can ameliorate the Trump Effect. It’s being held under the Chatham House Rule. It’s a packed house of 100+ people. Most are programmers. Probably under 15% are women. Almost all are white. We know from a show of hands that a healthy number were not born in this country. Few thought Trump would win. I seem to be the oldest person in the room. As usual.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Maciej says that we have a month before the inauguration and we shouldn’t waste it. “…hear from people from outside of our community who know how to organize”He characterizes the recent meeting of Silicon Valley CEOs with Trump as a knuckling under by the participants. We should be pushing from below, he says. Maciej says we are here tonight also to hear from people from outside of our community who know how to organize and have an effect.

The first speaker is Bruce Schneier, who gave me permission to name him; no Chatham House Rule was harmed with this entry. (Bruce’s comments are drawn from a recent post.) The election was so close that you can’t draw conclusions, but the outcome sure changed the narrative, he says. Bruce talks about four things to do in the Trump years: 1. Fight the fights. That means playing whack-a-mole. We’re going to lose a lot of those battles, but our goal should be to lose as few and as little as possible. 2. Prepare for the fight. “The more we can convince corporate America to disarm, the safer we’ll be.” 3. Prepare the groundwork for the future. 4. Solve the actual problems — the ones that are coming despite or because of Trump. “If things go really bad really fast, a lot of this becomes irrelevant.,” he notes. “The hardest thing is to not fall into despair…The election exposed some really deep problems in society.” We need to address those problems now. “Treat this as if the nation caught cowpox, not smallpox”“Treat this [Trump’s presidency] as if the nation caught cowpox, not smallpox,” i.e. a disease that inoculates us against the fatal version.

The second speaker is a refugee advocate. There are about 400 sanctuary cities/towns/states. “Not Massachusetts. Not yet.” Sanctuaries limit police collaboration with ICE. The fight is at the state level, and many states are ahead of Massachusetts in this. It now becomes more important to provide tuition to any student who graduates from HS no matter their immigration status. Mass. Gov. Baker in June aligned himself with Pres. Obama’s massive deportation policy. There’s a Boston initiative to provide public defenders for people in immigration court. People should contact their local legislators and ask them to support the TRUST act.

The third speaker is a civil liberties activist. S/he agrees with the first two speakers that the action is going to be in the states. Her/His TL;DR: “We’re fucked.” The Mass. legislature is Democratic but conservative. S/he urges us to send messages to our legislators. Especially important: Call them on the phone. “Pick one thing that matters to you a lot. Get people in your neighborhood together, and have a meeting” with your legislator. S/he suggests we support the CCOPS
(“Community Control Over Police Surveillance”) bill that Cambridge is considering. She ends by saying that while federal action will primarily be defensive, we can still build power. Also, support the ACLU.

The fourth speaker is from a domestic workers activist group. S/he has us say as one that we’re ready to fight. “It’s good to remember how mopey privileged people like me allow ourselves to be.”(It’s good to remember how mopey privileged people like me allow ourselves to be. Of course, as a stalwart introvert I could not bring myself to join the chant. But anyway.) S/he works on building alliances between labor and tech. “This is a moment when we can really come together.” Massachusetts has the most advanced bill supporting domestic workers. S/he wants to know how many of us have friends, actual friends, who are undocumented. If so, we should understand the forces that cause people to uproot themselves. “The day after the election, everyone was crying, because hope had been taken away from them.” Over 60% of undocumented workers pay income taxes on their own, with no help from their employers. “We need your help because tech is everything. Also, you’re white.” [Laughter] “It’s really important for tech to lead, and to represent Mass as a kind of liberation zone across the nation. We have to build an alternative to the tech CEOs who normalized Trump. We need to be building alternative leaders and reps and not cede the ground of who is speaking for tech. We need distributed resistance across the country, and where’s the infrastructure for that? “We need you guys to do that.” E.g., How do we make our membership lists and databases secure?“ Should we be talking about sanctuary companies where people feel safe when they come to work?” Should we be talking about sanctuary companies where people feel safe when they come to work?

Maciej: How do we build tools that let people organize without being weapons that can be used against them?

The fifth is a labor lawyer. Three pieces of good news: 1. The national labor laws will survive Trump. 2. Because Trump says he’s a champion of the working class, it will be hard for him to attack unions. 3. Tech workers have more knowledge and power than most workers; it’s harder to replace them. S/he explains how you can form a union. You should be able to have an election within a month of filing. S/he also talks about whistleblowing: If you can find a statute being violated, you can assert that and refuse to do it. “This is a good time for people to start joining unions.”

Now there are lightning talks, introduced by Heather Gold (See TummelVision). I’m not going to try to capture them with any completeness. Some points made:

  • A union organizer says that the only way forward is to have in-person conversations. “We’re motivated by emotions…It’s about the relationships.”

  • “Make sure that the people working on tech in govt are in part of this conversation.”

  • The rubber hits the road with the local immigrant worker groups

  • “Rally to the defense of workers.”

  • Support SURJ
    : Showing Up for Racial Justice. From the site: “SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice.”

  • “A lot of work gets hindered by well-meaning white people who want to help but don’t know how to do it.”

  • Support ActSecure, helping activists learn how to secure their information and communication.

  • “Run for town meeting. Run for town clerk.”

  • Before you build the great idea you have, engage with tech activist communities to learn what they’ve done already. When you don’t, “honestly, it hurts.”

  • Onion Browser
    for iPhone and VPN for iPhone are on the way.

  • Most of the progress in Trans* rights have been done through executive actions and can thus be rolled back. Much of Trump’s cabinet comes from “what I call anti-LGBTQ hate groups.”

  • Most computer systems were designed by people who weren’t thinking about trans people, and it shows in profile choices, etc.

  • Go to a monthly CryptoParty

  • Engineering Activism: Tech training for organizers, and organizing training for techies.

Now there’s open conversation, ably and actively moderated by Heather, which I will not record.

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December 20, 2016

Obama's legacy: A defining president

JFK for my generation — I was 13 when he was murdered — set the image of what a president should be. Whether or not he actually embodied those virtues doesn’t matter as much as the archetype he created.

President Obama has done that for the millennials. That should be a source of hope for us all.

The presidenct as defined by Barack Obama is

  • Engaged. He cares about issues.

  • Smart.

  • Informed.

  • Emotional.

  • Unselfish. Not in it for himself.

  • Patriotic.

  • Incorruptible.

  • Funny.

  • A whole person.

  • A loving parent.

  • A loving, respectful spouse.

  • Dignified in his bearing.

  • Treats all others with dignity.

  • Has a sense of the movement of history.

  • Thoughtful.

  • Unflappable.

  • Fallible.

  • Appreciative of diversity.

  • Appreciative of the arts.

  • Evidence-based.

  • Cool.

  • Hopeful.

  • Not necessarily Yet Another White Man.

We can argue about whether Obama actually embodies these virtues, much less whether he acted upon them sufficiently. That doesn’t matter for a generation that will measure all candidates against this new prototype of a president.

I do well remember that the country elected Nixon twice after JFK’s death, so I’m not saying that the next presidents will live up to this model. But if not, then the next presidents will fail to live up to this model.

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December 16, 2016

How hackers became political

Biella Coleman has a terrific piece exploring an excellent question: How did hackers become political actors? I’d say “activists,” but that implies a less hands-on approach to the machinery of politics.

Biella combines the virtues of academic rigor with the skills of a writer who knows how to talk about ideas through narrative … sometimes a conventional story, but also through the gradual unfolding of ideas. I’m a fan.

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December 4, 2016

Trump, Taiwan, and peace through fiction

I have a friend whom I cherish who loathes Donald Trump, but who thinks that Trump’s missteps with Taiwan were actually a good thing. My friend’s sole hope for Trump is that he will follow through with some of his campaign rhetoric and address China’s predatory trade practices. For my friend, Trump’s blunder — and he calls it that — has burst the bubble of “disingenuous and silly” lies that the Chinese have taken advantage of for thirty years.

I don’t know nearly enough about our economic relationship with China to be entitled to have an opinion about it, but even if it was good to pierce the mutual fiction about the relationship of the two Chinas (I’d put scare quotes around one of those two words, but I can’t figure out which), it’s not good to do so with no plan or strategy. Trump sent a strong, consequential signal to China that is only de-stabilizing. In fact, Trump then denied that it was a signal at all when, in the face of criticism, he tweeted that Taiwan “called ME!”. So, the phone call was merely ignorant, pointless destabilization that Trump then destabilized.

My friend likes the idea that the phone call destroyed a fictitious international relationship. But blowing up a relationship simply because it is disingenuous and silly is not necessarily a good thing in itself. The world’s constituencies are so different in their interests and understandings that we often can only maintain a difficult peace by finding language structurally ambiguous enough — each side knows that the other means something different by it — that we are not forced to bring an irresolvable disagreement to an unambiguous resolution.

None of this touches my friend’s larger and more important point about the possibility that Trump could address China’s predatory economic practices. Even Cheeto Hitler might get something right. But not this time or in this way.

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November 27, 2016

Fake news sucks but isn't the end of civilization

Because fake news only works if it captures our attention, and because presenting ideas that are outside the normal range is a very effective way to capture our attention, fake news will with some inevitably tend to present extreme positions.

Real news items often uses the same technique these days: serious news stories often will have clickbait headlines. “Clickbait, whether fake or real, thus tends to make us think that the world is full of extremes. The normal doesn’t seem very normal any more.”Clickbait, whether fake or real, thus tends to make us think that the world is full of extremes. The normal doesn’t seem very normal any more.

Of course, clickbait is nothing new. Tabloids have been using it forever. For the past thirty years, in the US, local TV stations have featured the latest stabbing or fire as the lead story on the news. (This is usually said to have begun in Miami
, and is characterized as “If it bleeds, it leads,” i.e., it is the first item in the news broadcast.)

At the same time, however, the Internet makes it easier than ever to find news that doesn’t simply try to set our nerves on fire. Fact checking abounds, at sites dedicated to the task and as one of the most common of distributed Internet activities. Even while we form echo chambers that reinforce our beliefs, “we are also more likely than ever before to come across contrary views”we are also more likely than ever before to come across contrary views. Indeed, I suspect (= I have no evidence) that one reason we seem so polarized is that we can now see the extremities of belief that have always been present in our culture — extremities that in the age of mass communication were hidden from us.

Now that there are economic reasons to promulgate fake news — you can make a good living at it — we need new mechanisms to help us identify it, just as the rise of “native advertising” (= ads that pose as news stories) has led to new norms about letting the reader know that they’re ads. The debate we’re currently having is the discussion that leads to new techniques and norms.

Some of the most important techniques can best be applied by the platforms through which fake news promulgates. We need to press those platforms to do the right thing, even if it means a marginal loss of revenues for them. The first step is to stop them from thinking, as I believe some of them genuinely do, that they are mere open platforms that cannot interfere with what people say and share on them. Baloney. As Zeynep Tufekci, among others, has repeatedly pointed out, these platforms already use algorithms to decide which items to show us from the torrent of possibilities. Because the major Western platforms genuinely hold to democratic ideals, they may well adjust their algorithms to achieve better social ends. I have some hope about this.

Just as with spam, “native advertising,” and popup ads, we are going to have to learn to live with fake news both by creating techniques that prevent it from being as effective as it would like to be and by accepting its inevitability. If part of this is that we learn to be more “meta” — not accepting all content at its face value — then fake news will be part of our moral and intellectual evolution.

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November 11, 2016

Life will, uh, find a way

Mike Ananny [twitter: ananny] had to guest-lecture a class about media, communications and news on Nov. 9. He recounts the session with an implicit sense of wonder that we can lift our head up from the dirt after that giant Monty Python jackboot dropped on us.

monty pyton foot

It’s a reminder that step by step, we’ll make some progress back to where we were and then beyond.

No, I don’t really believe that. Not yet.

But I will.

Thanks to you.

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October 13, 2016

Michelle Obama speaking truth

These are words we need to hear.

I will so miss her voice. I hope she will stay where we can hear her.

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August 25, 2016

Five minutes of hope

What I find most remarkable about this exchange: So few conversations begin with the request for help changing one’s own mind.

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August 3, 2016

How Paul Ryan can save his legacy…and our democracy (a fantasy)

Crowd chants : Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!…

Hillary Clinton: Thank you. Thank you all so much. It’s wonderful to be here. And before I speak, I want to let you know that this is a very special day. Before I talk, I’m going to bring out a guest you’re not expecting, who will make history. And how you greet him will help shape that history So, I ask you to greet this guest with open hearts and open minds, and embrace him for the courage and true patriotism he’s going to show you this morning. Ladies and gentlemen, please warmly welcome … Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan.

Paul Ryan enters to shocked applause. Shakes Clinton’s hand and goes to lectern

Paul Ryan: I bet you did not see that coming. Tell you the truth, neither did I.

Good morning. Madam Secretary,…

For the rest, click here

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July 29, 2016

Four remarkable days, and other good news.

1. Granted, this is just an instant poll with a margin of error of 99 on a scale of 1 to Wishful Thinking , but I’ll take it:

A CNN quick poll found 71 percent of those who watched [Hillary’s] speech had an extremely favorable view of her. Last week, CNN’s poll found 57 percent of those who watched Trump’s speech had an extremely favorable view of him.

2. On Night #2, the Dems had 25M viewers while on the comparable night the Reps had 19M. I was surprised by this, given that Trump is an eye-magnet train wreck.

3. HRC is maintaining a large lead in Pennsylvania, a must-win state for Trump.

4. This may be a teensy bit subjective, but this was by far the best convention in my lifetime. It’s changed what it means to be a Democrat, and retrieved what it means to be American.

If all you knew of America was what you saw during these four days, you would think it is a place that not just celebrates but proudly draws upon its deep diversity. And you would be forgiven if you concluded that its surest moral compass is held by people — and especially women — of color.

5. It’s not just that we had four days of astounding talks. Taken together, those days were a work of art in their balance and contrasts, their crescendos and their moments of silence. Remarkable, and remarkably moving.

So, now we can all lean back and let this thing just happen by itself get to work!

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