When blogs ruled the internet…

Once upon a time, there was a different way to view content on the web, but then something happened. People were and still are producing content, but the right people weren’t making money from it. In the distant past, people would write stuff, and it would be theirs, and they could choose to monetize it or give it away.

Then Facebook hoovered it up. You could write stuff, and post it on this handy medium that all your friends were subscribed to, and they could splatter ads all around it, and the revenue from those ads would go to…Facebook. Not the people writing it. And Facebook realized that they could be in charge of curating it and organizing it anyway they wanted and splicing in stuff from people you never heard of and learned to dislike (spawning more “interaction”) with more ads and ‘sponsored content’, and you’d read it anyway, trawling through all the trash strewn about to get at the gems you were looking for. And thus was doomscrolling born, and Facebook’s coffers grew ever more swole.

Along came Twitter, which at least had the advantage of pandering to short attention spans. People, you will write teeny-tiny bon mots and Twitter will organize them for you and lay them out in an ever-flowing smorgasbord of hot takes, and, oh yes, ads. The revenue from those ads would go to…Twitter. Not the people writing it.

I think there might be a theme here. Get other people to do the creative work that the corporate entity will profit from.

Twitter has succeeded despite

Adding another kink. /1

You have to string /2

Your thoughts together /3

Into multiple tweets /4

In order to assemble /5

A more complex story. /6

We willingly do this despite the fact that there’s another way to do this that’s more organic and straightforward, and that doesn’t funnel profit away from the creator and to a big corporation. It’s these things called blogs.

So why don’t people just switch to reading blogs? There are still plenty of us out there. The problem is that there used to be a popular, easy-to-use way to curate and organize your collection of interesting blogs called RSS — Really Simple Syndication — and there were these things called RSS readers that organized a list of blogs you liked and would highlight new entries for you, so you’d just scroll through a list that you assembled (unlike Facebook) and that you could choose to see either a quick synopsis (like Twitter) or the full length text (unlike Twitter). But that didn’t remunerate Zuck or Jack, so it died or was discouraged. Google killed their popular Google Reader app in 2013.

And thus we ended up here, where Facebook can poison the culture and make loads of money from it, while Twitter is a forum for blipverts where Trump-like loons can thrive. There were loons in the blog age, too, but at least corporations didn’t make billions by promoting the idiots and throwing them in the faces of everyone else.

But maybe they could come back.

Most existing blogs retain a relic of bygone days, an alternative access point through an RSS feed. It’s still there — Pharyngula has one at freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/feed/, but if you read it without an RSS reader it’s an ugly mess of XML code.

So get one. There are ways to patch together readable RSS access to lots of services like blogs, Facebook, YouTube, and even Twitter — here’s a list. With a little work you can reconstitute the capabilities we had in 2005, and also get access to the writings of human beings without supporting a corporate parasite.

There are other options on the horizon. Google may be adding RSS subscriptions to Chrome.


(Oh look. It’s on Twitter rather than in a blog I could link to.)

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for me at all, yet. It’s a work in progress, and right now setting it up on systems where it does work is rather awkward.


Wouldn’t it be nice if you had more control, and if Mark Zuckerberg weren’t profiting off the actual creative work of writers and video makers?

Shouldn’t the lesson be, “don’t put your conspiracy online”?

If you’re plotting something and want to recruit a horde of fellow conspiracy theorists to join you, the go-to company you call to provide “confidential” web services is Epik.

Epik, based in the Seattle suburb of Sammamish, has made its name in the Internet world by providing critical Web services to sites that have run afoul of other companies’ policies against hate speech, misinformation and advocating violence. Its client list is a roll-call of sites known for permitting extreme posts and that have been rejected by other companies for their failure to moderate what their users post.

Online records show those sites have included 8chan, which was dropped by its providers after hosting the manifesto of a gunman who killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019; Gab, which was dropped for hosting the antisemitic rants of a gunman who killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018; and Parler, which was dropped due to lax moderation related to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

They also host anti-abortion groups, including that prolifewhistleblower page (which has since been removed). You’d think someone would realize that if your group requires support from an organization that also supports Nazis and Proud Boys and kooks and violent militias, maybe you should question the company you’re keeping.

It’s a notorious den of villainy, as you can tell. But maybe not anymore…would you trust your evil plan to a company after this?

But that veil abruptly vanished last week when a huge breach by the hacker group Anonymous dumped into public view more than 150 gigabytes of previously private data — including user names, passwords and other identifying information of Epik’s customers.

Extremism researchers and political opponents have treated the leak as a Rosetta Stone to the far-right, helping them to decode who has been doing what with whom over several years. Initial revelations have spilled out steadily across Twitter since news of the hack broke last week, often under the hashtag #epikfail, but those studying the material say they will need months and perhaps years to dig through all of it.

“It’s massive. It may be the biggest domain-style leak I’ve seen and, as an extremism researcher, it’s certainly the most interesting,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who studies right-wing extremism. “It’s an embarrassment of riches — stress on the embarrassment.”

The founder of Epik, Robert Monster (surely one of the most appropriate names ever) is busy denying that any leak happened and is pretending that it’s all business as usual. Everyone else, however, is laughing at their incompetence, except maybe the far-right individuals who trusted them. They’re probably too busy trying to hide their trail.

Since the hack, Epik’s security protocols have been the target of ridicule among researchers, who’ve marveled at the site’s apparent failure to take basic security precautions, such as routine encryption that could have protected data about its customers from becoming public.

The files include years of website purchase records, internal company emails and customer account credentials revealing who administers some of the biggest far-right websites. The data includes client names, home addresses, email addresses, phone numbers and passwords left in plain, readable text. The hack even exposed the personal records from Anonymize, a privacy service Epik offered to customers wanting to conceal their identity.

This is going to be so entertaining. Probably also disappointing as the bodies are unearthed, and the American justice system does nothing.

I’ll just say that the only individuals who have ever been trusted with my Grand Elaborate Scheme to Rule the World are the spiders I whisper to, and they’ll never crack. It’s going to be such a surprise!

A cure for arachnophobia? On your phone?

You may have noticed that I abstain from showing photos of spiders here, because when I do I get so many piteous complaints from people who are grossed out and terrified by innocent little spiders. And here I was working with my lovely crop of over a hundred babies yesterday!

I don’t know if it really works, but there’s an augmented reality app called Phobys that you can download that uses your phone’s camera to generate images of cute little spiders in familiar places, using exposure therapy to help you adjust. I downloaded it to see — screenshot below the fold — and the “test” to see if you’re arachnophobic is free. I’m not. The “training” module to get increasing exposure levels is $5, and I didn’t pay for it. I can find real spiders anywhere, so I don’t need virtual ones.

Also, though, I’m not worried about it. It’s not like the COVID-19 vaccine — no one dies of arachnophobia, and you can even live a perfectly normal life with it, unless it’s a pathologically extreme case.

You’re just missing out on some of the beauty and wonder in the world.

[Read more…]

Facebook has been lying to us? Say it ain’t so.

Is anyone surprised by these revelations?

Mark Zuckerberg has publicly said Facebook Inc. allows its more than three billion users to speak on equal footing with the elites of politics, culture and journalism, and that its standards of behavior apply to everyone, no matter their status or fame.
In private, the company has built a system that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules, according to company documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

I’ve noticed. Some people get to say anything they want, especially if it’s disinformation about medicine or politics, while others (you know, the peons) get slammed if they post a selfie that looks funny. It’s not just me that sees the inequity, though — it’s Facebook’s own self-examination.

A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”
“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

Note: internal review. This wasn’t some competitor trying to take an axe to the company, it was their own lawyers.

Time and again, the documents show, in the U.S. and overseas, Facebook’s own researchers have identified the platform’s ill effects, in areas including teen mental health, political discourse and human trafficking. Time and again, despite Congressional hearings, its own pledges and numerous media exposés, the company didn’t fix them.
Sometimes the company held back for fear of hurting its business. In other cases, Facebook made changes that backfired. Even Mr. Zuckerberg’s pet initiatives have been thwarted by his own systems and algorithms.

Gosh. Sure sounds like a tobacco company. They’re not going to fix anything, because it might hurt their revenues. I use Facebook to keep in touch with family, but half my feed is click-bait and ads for things I don’t care about.

One area in which the company hasn’t struggled is profitability. In the past five years, during which it has been under intense scrutiny and roiled by internal debate, Facebook has generated profit of more than $100 billion. The company is currently valued at more than $1 trillion.

What’s weird there is that they rake in all this money, but their CEO still can’t get a haircut that makes him look human.

Break them up, nationalize the social media services, and hand Zuckerberg $50 and directions to a barber shop that doesn’t cater to androids.

Shut down Facebook, please

It’s a nightmare already. Where do the hapless goobers among our citizenry get their bad ideas? Facebook. The whole damn company is an engine of disinformation, and it wants to grow, like some kind of cancerous tumor. The latest great idea to come out of Zuckerberg’s stinking maw is an implementation of the metaverse. Sounds like it could be fun, right? If you grew up on Snow Crash and Jennifer Government and Ready Player One and failed to notice that those are all horrific dystopias. Zuckerberg read them and saw his future dream. He’s been putting together his version of the metaverse, or zuckerverse, or suckerverse, and some have seen it.

First floated in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, the Metaverse is an idealised immersive successor of the internet – a virtual space where billions of users will move, interact, and operate across myriad different but interoperable worlds and situations, always retaining their avatar identities, virtual possessions, and digital currencies. It is hard to pin the Metaverse down (more on this later), but the shape one can make out amid the cyberpunk mist is some version of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One meets Fortnite, meets virtual reality, meets blockchain. A game-y galaxy that seamlessly fuses with the Meatspace. What matters is that Metaverse is now the buzzword du jour, and that Facebook wants a piece of it. The bad news is that Zuckerberg’s Metaverse ambitions sound boring as hell.

Time and again over the interview, Zuckerberg dropped language that seemed to have been cribbed straight out of some stuffy consultancy’s 40-page insights report. He waxed lyrical about the Metaverse’s ability to increase “f​​ocus time and individual productivity”. He coined the dreary formula “infinite office”, a supposedly desirable scenario in which Metaverse-dwellers conjure up multiple virtual screens on their Oculus VR headsets in order to multitask like pros. Zuck was “excit[ed]” (!) about the Metaverse’s potential for organising VR office meetings.

If anyone could make Zoom meetings worse, it’s Zuckerberg, the dead-eyed corporate zombie. It can’t be that bad, you might think, but then you just have recall the wasteland of ads and trolls and endless lies that he turned a social service to connect friends into. Or if you don’t believe that, see for yourself what the metaverse will look like if Facebook has its way.

Oh hell no.

You know, while Facebook is working hard on the VR interface that Satan will love, a right wing terrorist drove up to Washington DC with a truckload of, he claims, potassium nitrate and detonators, and parked by the Library of Congress, demanding to speak to President Biden, or he was going to blow everything up. The Capitol has been evacuated. He has been live-streaming his threats and rants over Facebook.

It has taken Facebook three hours to notice and shut him down.

That’s a rapid response from the company that has allowed fascists, quacks, conspiracy theorists, and anti-vaxxers to thrive for over a decade. They will not get better. This is what they do: provide a profit-making forum for the very worst, most sensationalist ideas, so don’t wait for them to do anything that might harm the bottom line.

We’re going to have to do something. The good news is that the FTC has reopened their antitrust case against Facebook.

“Facebook lacked the business acumen and technical talent to survive the transition to mobile. After failing to compete with new innovators, Facebook illegally bought or buried them when their popularity became an existential threat,” said Holly Vedova, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition.

Facebook did not immediately respond to request for comment, but the company said on Twitter that it was reviewing the case.

The filing is also the most high-profile action to date under the agency’s new Democratic majority, helmed by Big Tech critic Lina Khan. Khan inherited the Facebook case from the previous Trump-appointed chair, but her ability to see it to a successful conclusion could define her legacy as an antitrust enforcer.

Burn them down, please. And then nationalize a simple communications service that allows me to chat to family and friends without having to wade through the offensive glop the kooks flood everyone with.

Are you into button porn?

Boy, do I have a page for you. Return to the late 20th century when the cutting edge of human interface design was buttons, lots of buttons, more buttons on everything, and modernity was all about slapping buttons on something.

I’m sorry, but I’m not into buttons at all. I once possessed a still — not that kind, the ones you used to make pure distilled water — and it may have been a thing of archaic beauty, with a gorgeous glass coil and a reservoir tank and multiple outlet valves, but it was entirely controlled by a bank of buttons. You had to initiate the process by firing up a boiler, and then you had to open up a set of valves in a specific order by pressing buttons in the correct sequence. In particular, there was a glowing red button that had to be pushed at the right time to start the process with a lot of hissing and bubbling, and you had to check regularly because if the boiler ran dry, it was bad. And if you pressed the buttons in the wrong order, you could, for instance, let the tubes get red hot before you flushed them with cooling water, and that would be very bad, because things could shatter and then you were out a few thousand dollars and your bench was going to get flooded with broken glass and boiling hot water and steam was going to spray out everywhere.

It looked very high tech, though, with a big gray sheet metal control panel studded with buttons and indicator lights. I kind of ruined it by taping sheets of paper with handwritten arrows and warnings in different sharpie colors all over it.

Buttons are kind of stupid, I decided. Give me smart control circuitry any day, especially with something as mechanically trivial as a still.

Anyway, the worst example of button porn at that link, I think, is this one.

Even in 1981, Byte was a dinosaur of a magazine, catering to that weird world of computer hobbyists who thought a good soldering iron was a practical tool for optimizing your gear (I know, I was one of them…but I got better). Did anyone stop to wonder where our future computer watch user was going to stow the microscope and tiny needle-like stylus they’d need to use that toy? Did they still think we’d do everything from the command line with little tiny spinning magnetized disks for storage?

I greatly appreciate that my phone has one button and gigabytes of solid state storage, and that I have access to more via a little USB port and wifi. I guess, though, that a thin black slab wouldn’t have been considered very magazine-cover sexy 40 years ago.

How did such a stupid idea get even this far along?

I think we’re going to have to accept the fact the the sole real talent of billionaires is for grifting. Case in point: Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, which just had a “successful” test. You’d think someone would notice the word “HYPE” in the name.

Shocking news! In an incredible breakthrough for American mass-transit engineering, the transportation technology company Virgin Hyperloop this past weekend successfully moved two people 500 meters across the barren Las Vegas desert at a top speed of just over 100 mph, setting a new world record for the absolute most pitiful thing anyone not named “Elon Musk” has ever tried to pass off as “high-speed rail.”

Now watch an executive try very hard to inflate the stock price with unbelievable predictions.

You know what I’d like? A restoration of regular train service at a reasonable price. We had trains running on a routine schedule between Morris and the Twin Cities in the 1960s! I guess the rails have degraded so much that they’re no longer compatible with passenger service anymore, but if we can’t get simple maintenance of existing rail infrastructure, what makes these Muskians think we can get state and municipal support for his pie-in-the-sky, mostly nonfunctional and useless Hypeloop shell game? Even if we had connections between major urban centers, where’s the rest of the transportation support?

I hope the stock price of all of the companies associated with that clowning fraud Musk collapse.

Looking forward to our brave new world of Artificial Intelligence…oh, wait

Oh dear. There’s a language processing module called GPT-3 which is really good at generating natural English text, and it was coupled to an experimental medical diagnostic program. You might be able to guess where this is going.

LeCun cites a recent experiment by the medical AI firm NABLA, which found that GPT-3 is woefully inadequate for use in a healthcare setting because writing coherent sentences isn’t the same as being able to reason or understand what it’s saying.

After testing it in a variety of medical scenarios, NABLA found that there’s a huge difference between GPT-3 being able to form coherent sentences and actually being useful.

For example…

Um, yikes?

Human language is really hard and messy, and medicine is also extremely complicated, and maybe AI isn’t quite ready for something with the multiplicative difficulty of trying to combine the two.

How about something much simpler? Like steering a robot car around a flat oval track? Sure, that sounds easy.

Now I’m scared of both robotic telemedicine and driverless cars.

Or maybe I should just combine and simplify and be terrified of software engineers.

Linux goal for the day: iMovie replacement!

I tried KDENLive. It was too much — so many quirks and clumsiness, perhaps because it was just trying to pour every single video editing option possible in willy-nilly.

Today, I’m experimenting with Shotcut, on the recommendation of a reader. It’s simpler, so not quite as overwhelming. I might be able to work with this.

A couple of common problems I run into everything Linux. With no universal interface guidelines, every program seems to want to do everything their own way. I appreciate how the programmers can find that liberating, but in the absence of constraints and standards, they always seem to make bad choices, and you have to just stare in wonder at how they’ve decided to arbitrarily fuck up their own work. It also means that using the thing is awkward and not at all fluid, at least not until the user develops their own novel workflow. It also means the user has the power to make the most godawful ugly videos ever — I was testing various things out and made this nightmarish thing with purple 3-D titles and funky video effects and random stuff appearing in spectacularly elaborate ways that will never be seen by the eyes of any other human. I’m about to take it ’round back, shoot it, throw it in a hole, and set it on fire. But I figure out how some things work while building that monstrosity!

Bottom line: Shotcut might be my replacement for iMovie, as ugly as it is. I might just have to become insensitive to non-Mac ugliness. I know, I shouldn’t complain, it’s free software…but iMovie is also free.

First try:

Also, I’ll be on this channel at 3pm tomorrow (9 June) for a free-for-all rant about Kent Hovind and other creationists.

Yes. I need more limbs.

When we were talking to my daughter the other evening, she was struggling to manage a phone in one hand and a busy baby in the other, and I told her she just needed a third. Surprise! Science provides with a wearable robotic “third arm” that can punch through a wall. The “punch through a wall” feature seems particularly useful in the context of child care. Except, I’m sorry, the video makes it less than useful.

Nice gadget, but it requires one person to wear it, and a second person with two arms to control it remotely, effectively requiring four arms to enable three-armed activity, in which one of the three arms is rather clumsy. It’s going to require a better control mechanism, something with a neurological link to the wearer. As long as we’re doing that, why stop at three? Why not…eight? I am ready for my robotic exoskeleton that will let me climb walls and punch through walls and destroy walls any day now.

Oh, and do more efficient childcare, I guess.