This is my monthly roundup of the links, books, and media I found interesting. Do you have suggestions? Let me know!
Apps + Websites
iA Presenter. I’ve been really enjoying this. It does have the unfortunate effect of reducing the time you spend faffing with slide design and font choices, which means you actually have to write the substance of your presentation. Curses! Still, despite its attempts to thwart my procrastination, it’s beautifully designed and perfect for the way I think.
404 Media. A new, independent, worker-owned venture by ex-Motherboard journalists. I’m a subscriber.
Center for News, Technology & Innovation. I would love to contribute to something like this.
Educational Sensational Inspirational Foundational. A really great list of foundational and/or influential writing about how to build the web, starting with Tim Berners-Lee’s Cool URIs Don’t Change post from 1998.
Datasette Cloud. Simon Willison’s Datasette now has a SaaS version that saves you having to install or set anything up. This is perfect for smaller newsrooms and orgs that are technically stretched but want to analyze data. I’m excited to see where he goes with it.
StreetPass for Mastodon. Genuinely brilliant. StreetPass finds the Mastodon accounts of people whose websites you browse, allowing you to check out their accounts and follow if you’re interested. I love it.
Yellowface, by R. F. Kuang. This tale from a deeply unreliable, envy-driven narrator is more of a sharp satire of liberal racism than its publishing industry setting. It’s at its least compelling when discussing Twitter drama, but there’s ample snark just underneath each turn of phrase, and more than enough ratcheting tension to have kept me turning the pages.
Foundry, by Eliot Peper. A knockabout spy adventure that takes a few unexpected turns and sticks a landing that had me cheering. Truly a lot of fun - I inhaled it in one sitting. As always, it’s deeply researched, but the detail only ever adds to the entertainment. (Without spoiling anything, I’m very familiar with some of the settings and cultural overtones, and they rang completely true.) There are knowing callbacks to some of Eliot’s earlier work, but this stands alone - and could be the start of a new series that I would gladly read the hell out of.
Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six, by Maya Payne Smart. In turns reassuring and helpful, this was a great primer on what to do to provide a foundation to help my child eventually learn to read. If only all parenting books could be as human and equity-minded as this one is.
US Copyright Office wants to hear what people think about AI and copyright. I certainly have some thoughts that I will share. Imagine if you could allow an AI agent to create copyrighted works at scale with no human involvement. It would allow for an incredible intellectual property land grab.
The A.I. Surveillance Tool DHS Uses to Detect ‘Sentiment and Emotion’. Customs and Border Protection is using sentiment analysis on inbound and outbound travelers who “may threaten public safety, national security, or lawful trade and travel”. That’s dystopian enough in itself, but there’s no way they could limit the trawl to those people, and claims made about what the software can do are dubious at best.
This AI Watches Millions Of Cars And Tells Cops If You’re Driving Like A Criminal. A good rule of thumb is that if technology makes something feasible, someone will do it regardless of the ethics. Here, AI makes it easy to perform warrantless surveillance at scale - so someone has turned it into a product and police are buying it.
New York Times considers legal action against OpenAI as copyright tensions swirl. Whether this comes to fruition with the NYT vs OpenAI or another publisher vs another LLM vendor, there will be a court case like this, and it will set important precedent for the industry. My money’s on the publishers.
School district uses ChatGPT to help remove library books. Probably inevitable, but it nonetheless made my jaw drop. What an incredibly wrong-headed use of an LLM.
New York Times: Don't use our content to train AI systems. The NYT’s new terms disallow use of its content to develop any new software application, including machine learning and AI systems. It’s a shame that this has to be explicit, rather than a blanket right afforded to publishers by default, but it’s a sensible clause that many more will be including.
We need a Weizenbaum test for AI. “Weizenbaum’s questions, though they seem simple—Is it good? Do we need it?—are difficult ones for computer science to answer. They could be asked of any proposed technology, but the speed, scope, and stakes of innovation in AI make their consideration more urgent.”
Google says AI systems should be able to mine publishers’ work unless companies opt out. I strongly disagree with this stance. Allowing your work to be mined by AI models should be opt-in only - otherwise there is no possible way for a publisher or author to apply a license or grant rights.
AI language models are rife with political biases. Different AI models have different political biases. Google’s tend to be more socially conservative - possibly in part because they were trained on books rather than the wider internet. Regardless of the cause, this is proof, again, that AI models are not objective.
In every reported case where police mistakenly arrested someone using facial recognition, that person has been Black. Black faces are overrepresented in databases used to train AI for law enforcement - and some facial recognition software used in this context fails 96% of the time. This practice is an accelerant for already deeply harmful inequities. Time to ban it.
Catching up on the weird world of LLMs. This is a really comprehensive history and overview of LLMs. Simon has been bringing the goods, and this talk is no exception.
Is Big Oil Turning on Big Auto? It makes sense that oil companies would try to frame driving a gas car as freedom. As an EV driver, I can tell you that it is not. I would prefer if we all had great, integrated public transit - but for the moment, at least, it has been an improvement in every way for me as a driver. I’ll never go back.
The true cost of climate pollution? 44% of corporate profits. I’m surprised that mandatory disclosure of carbon emissions isn’t widespread - it does seem like the prerequisite to making any change. And yeah, these companies should pay. And be forced to reduce their emissions. And be fined heavily, and prosecuted, when they don’t.
Neoclassical economists are the last people to listen to on climate change. Interesting commentary on “economic theories that have led to government by markets, fuelling financial and other shocks, and the rise of authoritarian, and even neo-fascist regimes promising citizens ‘protection’ from ‘globalised’ markets.”
Climate change is death by a thousand cuts. “Whenever someone says, “we’ll adapt to climate change,” 100% of the time it’s a rich person. Poor people never say “we’ll adapt” because they know they can’t afford it. For them, adaptation = suffering.” That’s the pull-quote for me: this won’t affect everyone equally. As always, the most vulnerable, the people who are already struggling the most, will suffer the worst of it.
Being Black in a Small Town. “When popular culture thinks of Blackness, rarely does somebody think of a tiny little town or a mountainside and the Black person who’s there. I want to be a part of revealing that this thread—that Black skin—can be even on the side of a mountain.”
How to Uphold the Status Quo: The Problem With Small Town Witch Romances. I see this as less of a problem in cozy witch fiction - which, I must be clear, I have read zero of - and more of an issue in American fiction as a whole, across all media. These books (probably) aren’t actively laundering racist ideas; they’re perpetuating cultural discrimination that is under the surface everywhere. Still, it’s incumbent on authors to understand and be accountable to the tropes they’re building with.
thoughts on the suicidal mind. This resonated with me a lot. What I’ll say is: I’m glad Winnie is in the world. I know these feelings, intimately. I don’t have much definitive to say about that. I haven’t drawn any conclusions. It’s a journey, daily.
Turn-On Found. None of this looks like it comes from 1969. Although some of the content is outdated today, the style is far more modern - this feels like something straight from the internet era. Fascinating and relentless (I couldn’t watch the whole thing).
Supreme Risk: An Interactive Guide to Rights the Supreme Court Could Take Away. “An interactive guide to rights the Supreme Court has established — and could take away.” Published a few months ago, but completely relevant, on-point reporting (served as a fully-static web page).
Americans Rate Dallas and Boston Safest of 16 U.S. Cities. Republicans think cities are much less safe than Democrats do. San Francisco and Philadelphia (my old neighborhood and new one) are notable here: Democrats agree that they’re pretty safe, whereas Republicans seem to think they’re war zones. I think we can solidly blame conservative media propaganda for this.
Just 23% Of Americans Know The U.S. Has Failed To Pass An Internet-Era Privacy Law. Less than a quarter of Americans know they don’t have meaningful privacy protections on the internet. The first step to changing this fact might be to change this number.
The Shocking Voter Purge Crisis of Democracy Revealed. Always a good sign when a democratic movement wants to win through the will of the people rather than through obstructive election fraud.
House GOP adds dozens of anti-LGBTQ+ provisions to must-pass bills. Smuggling naked bigotry through bills that must pass to keep the government working is a deeply underhanded tactic. It’s hard to see the modern Republican Party as anything other than a party of exclusion, catering to the dregs of the twentieth century who desperately don’t want to see the world change around them.
Most students haven’t learned about LGBTQ+ issues in school, survey shows. Why the internet - as well as more traditional media like books - are a lifeline for kids hungry to learn about queer history. Of course, I’m sure the usual suspects will come for those too.
International Chess Org: Trans Women Have "No Right To Participate" In Women's Chess. This stance by the International Chess Federation is so transparently bigoted that it helps clarify other anti-trans measures happening across competitive sports. There’s nothing here about fairness; it’s all to do with conservative division and hatred.
Henrietta Lacks family to get compensation for use of her cell taken decades ago without consent. Late as it is, it’s good to see this to some kind of resolution. I hope the posthumous recognition Lacks receives includes the story of how it happened in the first place.
'Horribly Unethical': Startup Experimented on Suicidal Teens on Social Media With Chatbot. Taking lean startup research techniques that were developed for basic social networks or, say, 3D avatars and transposing them to real-world domains with real consequences seems to be an ongoing trend. It’s a misunderstanding of the startup playbook that causes real harm. This is obviously unethical; it is nowhere near as “nuanced” as this CEO says it is.
Remote workers' connection to companies' missions hits record low. Remote workers feel less connected to company missions, but the big message here is that nobody really feels all that connected. There are no superficial answers here: the real differentiators are better company cultures where people feel truly valued, much stronger communication, and better missions.
NLRB Says Companies That Union-Bust Must Recognize Busted Union. A neat rule: union-busters must recognize the unions they’re trying to undermine. The union rebound continues.
Why the Hollywood strike matters to all of us. On the wage threat of AI: “Hollywood is showing us how best to take that stand: by unionizing our workplaces, and fighting for strong contracts. Now’s the time to form a union with your coworkers, and discuss what protections you’ll need to face this moment.”
Negative Space. A perfect piece on where we’re at in time. Personally, I’m not going back to the office, and I applaud greater worker power. We need to move forward.
We're now finding out the damaging results of the mandated return to the office–and it's worse than we thought. Return to Office mandates are counterproductive and destroy morale. They also make your team less productive. They’re worker-hostile and work-hostile. So why do them?
Medium is for human storytelling, not AI-generated writing. Medium has made it clear that it is not a home for AI-driven content. And it’s experiencing record growth now that its recommendation engine has been re-tuned for substance, as decided by humans. This is all great news: for Medium and as an example for everyone on the web.
How We Create Custom Graphics at The Markup. I like this approach to building graphics for journalism. Management of these kinds of static assets feels like a cumulative problem, but lightweight HTML / CSS / JS is pretty portable and sandboxable. And ACF is the hidden hero behind journalism’s WordPress sites.
My Caste. “Allow me to introduce you to one of the largest population groups in India, as recognized by the constitution of India: Other Backward Classes. I belong to OBC Category. […] I was, however, not ready to publicly declare it until I received tenure as it seemed too risky.”
Police departments pull school officers due to Minnesota restraint law. It says a lot that in areas where officers aren’t allowed to put schoolchildren in holds that restrict breathing or their ability to speak, departments take officers out of schools in protest. These laws should be in place everywhere, and police officers should not be in schools.
She Just Had a Baby. Soon She'll Start 7th Grade. There are so many stories like this one. There should never be another. And yet, we’ve rolled back the clock at the behest of religious extremists, so there will be many more. This cannot go on.
FAU Study: Perils of Not Being Attractive or Athletic in Middle School. Hey, sounds like my middle school experience! This is important for me to understand as a parent, and it’s important for schools to adapt to as de facto caregivers. These dynamics should be corrected for, not accepted.
Right-Wing Writer Richard Hanania's Racist Past Exposed. A prominent writer platformed by the New York Times and Washington Post, and championed by major figures in tech, including by Marc Andreessen and the CEO of Substack, turns out to be an actual white supremacist.
A beautiful, broken America: what I learned on a 2,800-mile bus ride from Detroit to LA. I’ve traveled across America four times: three by car and one by train. I’ve never done it by Greyhound, and I probably never will. This country’s infrastructure is falling apart and being eaten by wolves.
The State of Seed Stage Funding to Underrepresented Founders. “White women founded companies comprise 79% of reported early-stage VC dollars going to underrepresented founders and 64% of investments made into companies with underrepresented founders by deal count. Ecosystem-wide, we need to up our game by investing seed money into a broader spectrum of founders of color.”
letter to a friend who is thinking of starting something new. These are the right questions to ask.
In Europe, a regulatory vise tightens around big tech. Good overview. I think European tech regulations have been broadly good, establishing the anti-competitive and pro-privacy rules that US legislators have failed to enact. If we could only all be so protected.
Web Scraping for Me, But Not for Thee. Good commentary on the dissonance between vendors like Microsoft banning scraping of their platforms while simultaneously releasing products that depend on scraping other peoples’ data. Some sort of commons agreement would go a long way here, but it won’t happen while platforms can get away with this one-sided relationship.
Introducing the 100-Year Plan: Secure Your Online Legacy for a Century. I’d love to understand what prompted Automattic to offer a hosting plan for $38K. On one level, I love it - it lasts for 100 years! and I love Automattic! - but I can’t justify this, and I’m not quite sure who it’s for? If this is marketing, what are the goals?
Changes to UK Surveillance Regime May Violate International Law. The UK seems to want to break international law to retain its ability to mass surveil by forcing software vendors to break their protections for users everywhere. It’s an anti-democratic approach that puts journalists and vulnerable populations at risk. It also counter-productively undermines the UK’s own technology sector.
'We're Winning': Apple Formally Endorses Right to Repair Legislation After Spending Millions Fighting It.I’m a little bit suspicious that Apple is suddenly into right-to-repair, but broadly this is good. I just wish it was a nationwide law instead of one that is limited to California. Hopefully the idea can expand to the federal level.
The Secret Weapon Hackers Can Use to Dox Nearly Anyone in America for $15. It costs $15 to uncover an American’s personally identifiable information illegally for potentially violent purposes. But also consider the number of entities that have access to this information legally, without any oversight. None of it should be allowable.
RSS Zero isn’t the path to RSS Joy. “RSS is not email. You don’t have to get to inbox zero!” is a correct take, in my opinion; that’s certainly how I approach my feed reader. But also, I’ve got bad news about my email inbox.
Thousands of scientists are cutting back on Twitter, seeding angst and uncertainty. Scientists are fleeing X for Mastodon, citing far-right science denialism - and far-right hate in general. I don’t exactly know what Musk thinks he’s going to be left with after all this.
An Opinionated Guide To Alt-text. A great, short guide to writing alt text to support data visualization from Jasmine Mithani.
Lamborghini teases first fully electric supercar ahead of official reveal August 18th. OK, good for them, but I’m far less excited by an electric Lambo than an electric car for $20K. Or, you know, zero-emissions buses that work as part of a functional integrated public transit system. You’re right, that does sound like science fiction.
Elon Musk's Twitter throttles links to Threads, Blue Sky and New York Times. Really, truly: there is no good reason for any media company or publisher to still be posting on X.
Announcing the Tor University Challenge. This is a worthwhile project, and would be a major win for freedom of expression and freedom from surveillance. I’d love to see more of my higher education friends take part.
How to verify your Threads account using your Mastodon profile. It’s truly beautiful to see Threads begin to embrace indieweb and federated social web protocols. This is a first step; true federation is, I’ve been assured, coming.
Why Sam Altman wants to scan two billion eyes. We’ve seen the United Nations share their biometric registration of Rohingya refugees with the Myanmar government without their consent. A private company that subcontracts services in other countries makes accountability very difficult when there are rights violations.”
Raku: A Language for Gremlins. That’s a giant “nope” from me, but your mileage may vary.
PIE failed. But it’s a failure worth celebrating and learning from. It’s very painful to see accelerators that are also vibrant community hubs shut down because of business dynamics. I’ve lived that. What I can see here is someone who cares about his community. I was never a part of PIE, but I know Rick did it for the right reasons. And I know from Matter that the community continues long after the thing itself has disappeared. The legacy is long lasting. Congratulations, Rick - on to the next thing.
How I make annotated presentations. It’s been a long time since I’ve given any talks (the pandemic put a stop to that) but I really like this approach, and I’ll do something similar in the future.
Just normal web things. Yes to all of this. These are basic functions that the web gives you almost by default. Everything on the web should let you do them.
The open source licensing war is over. I broadly agree with this rallying cry against dogmatism in open source. I think dogmatism is harmful in all parts of tech; divisive and often a kind of gatekeeping. Let authors build and release according to their needs.
How to Search for a Better Deal on Broadband. The broadband situation in America is surprisingly bad - so I love that there’s a new version of the National Broadband Map. The Markup has done a public service by taking us through it.