Twitter is kind of terrible. Why don’t you give it up for the New Year?

Some song lyrics are appropriate here.

This used to be a funhouse
But now it’s full of evil clowns
It’s time to start the countdown
I’m gonna burn it down down down
I’m gonna burn it down


Twitter has been a dung heap for a long time — they’ve been notorious for ignoring harassment and treating some truly awful people with kid gloves, to the point where it was beginning to hurt their reputation and their bottom line. What to do, short of actually cleaning up the service? Announce that they’re finally going to ban some Nazis! And they did, and there was much happy PR.

The American Nazi Party’s account was suspended, as were the accounts belonging to Generation Identity, an extremist youth group, and Vanguard America, a white supremacist group that gained attention for its role in the white nationalist rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. (James Fields, who was charged with first-degree murder after driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters at that rally, killing one person and injuring several others, had attended it in affiliation with Vanguard America.)

Individuals removed as a result of the new policy include the neo-Nazi and leader of the National Socialist Movement Jeff Schoep, as well as Michael Hill, founder of the militant white supremacist group League of the South.

In an extremely significant move, Twitter also suspended two accounts belonging to Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, the leader and deputy leader of a right-wing British nationalist group called Britain First. Both Fransen and Golding were arrested last week over multiple charges concerning incitement of hate in Northern Ireland. But Fransen in particular is best known in the US for posting last month several extremely violent anti-Muslim propaganda videos, which were controversially retweeted by President Donald Trump.

Feels good, doesn’t it? Quite a few triumphant news articles popped up this week. How nice for Twitter. You know this was their goal, to pick off a few obvious targets, and then sit back and graciously accept the applause.

I’m glad the American Nazi Party’s official Twitter channel has been eradicated. But you know what hasn’t been removed? American Nazis. They’re all still there. What would have been interesting is if they used all the information they have on who was following the Nazi party, and used that to scan deeper. Some of their followers would have been critics investigating them, but others would have been people cheering them on. Can we get rid of them, too?

You know who is still on Twitter? Other racist organizations, like VDare. David Duke, Ann Coulter, Mike Cernovich, Gavin McInnes. Alex Jones and Paul Joseph Watson. You can also search for terms like “White genocide” and “cultural marxism” or various racial slurs and find plenty of small fry who aren’t dissuaded at all.

Donald Trump is still on Twitter. I’ll believe in their commitment to principle when they ban that hatemonger, but they won’t, since their only commitment is to dollars.

Just so you know, 31 December is #TwitterEvacuationDay, when many people are making the jump to alternative micro-blogging media, or just throwing up their hands in disgust and giving it all up. It’s the only way to make Twitter wake up, I think…or at the very least, to personally escape the toxic trap.

I’m recommending that everyone make the leap to Mastodon — or, I hope, that at least some of my friends get an account there. Really, it’s just like Twitter — the interface is exactly like Tweetdeck, if you’re familiar with that. The big difference is that, instead of one giant central server for everyone, it’s distributed among many smaller servers, or instances. You see all the activity on your instance (which is necessarily going to be smaller than what goes on on Twitter), but you can also see what your friends on other instances are doing, and you can also browse the contents of federated instances…that is, servers linked to yours.

It sounds more complicated than it is. Just think of your instance as your local neighborhood, but you can easily stay in touch with everyone you want in other neighborhoods.

Go read about Mastodon if you’re thinking about it. I’ve found it a most pleasant social experience. For one thing, the admins don’t allow Nazis to frolic about, and the fact that each instance administrator has a smaller group of people to manage means harassment gets noticed and slapped down hard.

If you’re curious about what kind of instances there are out there, there’s a page that lets you search for your options. For example, you can find an instance that flat out prohibits nudity or spoilers (you can get kicked out if you violate the rules), or one that says sure, you can post your naked re-enactment of the climactic scenes from The Last Jedi. Each instance may also have a general theme — there are SciFi servers, for example, so you can move into a place where your neighbors are more likely to talk about the latest SF novels.

And then you can just join Mastodon through the instance of your choice. It’s easy.

You can find me at Send me a hello when you’ve signed up.

Steve Jobs is dead

I’m typing this on a Mac laptop. I heard about it while browsing the news on my iPad. I have an iPhone in my pocket. There’s an iPod in my bedroom that we use for alarm and music. I bought my first Mac in 1984; I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on an Apple II. Maybe you use a Windows machine, but face it: Microsoft has been chasing Apple’s interface design since the 1980s.

And now Steve Jobs has died.

We owe a lot to him. He’s the guy who shaped our virtual world.

(Also on FtB)

Someday, maybe social media will apply their rules consistently

Remember when Facebook started censoring the pages of breastfeeding women? They were removing photos that showed…nipple. It was a violation of the TOS! If they didn’t hold the line on nudity, they were on a slippery slope to open pornography. Think of the children! And most importantly, they were enforcing a consistent policy that simply banned all nudity without judgment about its purpose or context.

The situation has a apparently changed in 2011. Now there are crass Facebook pages filled with crude jokes about rape, and that’s all right despite the fact that they do plainly violate the TOS, that states “You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” Is rape not hateful? Is it not threatening? Is it not violent?

Have no fear, Facebook has a rationalization. Rape is a joke.

Facebook’s initial response to the public outcry was to suggest that promoting violence against women was equivalent to telling a rude joke down the pub: “It is very important to point out that what one person finds offensive another can find entertaining” went the bizarre rape apologia. “Just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.”

Does breastfeeding a baby get you thrown out of a pub? Shouldn’t joking about rape be more likely to get you thrown out? (I know,it isn’t).

Personally, I don’t think Facebook should censor the rape pages: they’re awful and shameful, but it’s good to see that the hateful morons are out there so you can guard against them. I’d rather that social media were open and that they allowed all — they simply shouldn’t be in the business of monitoring user-created content.

But Facebook has gone the other way. They are regulating what people are allowed to say, and they are creating a culture in which a bare breast is obscene and disgusting, while violent sexual assault is considered amusing. It isn’t that they allow rape jokes, it’s that they’ve exposed themselves as two-faced and untrustworthy, and are actively promoting an environment in which men have carte blanche and women are targets, and had better like it.

(Also on FtB)

Now I’m a little embarrassed to own an iPhone

I was just reading this analysis of costs and profits of the iPhone, and it’s rather dismaying. It’s largely about how the costs are distributed: the iPhone is assembled in China, and contributes to our trade imbalance, but it’s not because China has a technological edge — all the components are made in Japan, Korea, Germany, and the US, and just shipped to China for the final assembly by the cheap labor there.

The total component cost of an iPhone in 2009 was $172.46. Workers in China assemble the iPhone, but because their wages are low the assembly cost per phone (labeled manufacturing costs in the table below) is quite small, only $6.50 a phone. The total production cost per phone is $178.96.

Apple has a 64% profit margin on the iPhone! That’s not a surprise, though — I’m used to tech companies charging a premium price for the fancy toys, and Apple has never had a reputation as a budget brand. This is what surprised me:

For the sake of discussion, they assumed that assembly line wages in the U.S. are ten times higher than in China. Given that Chinese production workers earn roughly $1 an hour, that is not an unreasonable assumption. The higher wages would mean that the total assembly cost per phone would rise to $65 and the total manufacturing cost would approach $238. If Apple continued to sell the iPhone for $500, the company would still earn a very respectable 50% profit margin.

There is admittedly a very large difference between 64% and 50%, and I can understand why a company would balk at cutting profits by 14%, and it would be an irrational business decision to shift assembly to the US for reasons of national altruism. But still…50% seems obscene enough.

I hope Apple is at least paying respectable taxes on that profit. The article doesn’t say; I don’t have expectations that they are.

(Also on FtB)

Spam advice

The Dennis Markuze story has made it to Ars Technica. I am much relieved to have that pest gone from my mailbox, but I was thinking about one point everybody is missing: the human brain seems to have an edge over computers.

I just checked, and the FtB site has accumulated about 2100 spam hits which none of you have seen, but which were automatically intercepted by the software (you aren’t missing much: somebody really wants to sell you shoes, lots of shoes). Markuze was hitting me on email and twitter for more than that, and the thing was, those all got past the filters I’ve got in place. So one obsessed crazy man with minimal technical skill and nothing but persistence outperforms all the spambots out there, at least on the scale of individuals, if not in breadth of attack.

Spammers might want to think about that. Instead of writing a new generation of software to circumvent our filters, maybe they should recruit social misfits with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and write software that amplifies their efforts. You can blame me if they take my advice.

(Also on FtB)

This photography stuff is amazing


This is a small piece of a larger — much larger — photo of a Vancouver street crowd. Go to the original image, though, which allows you zoom in and in and in — you’ll be able to see the faces in surprising detail of each of the little dots.

The Vancouver Canucks Fan Zone along Georgia St. for Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final was captured at 5:46 pm on June 15, 2011. It is made up of 216 photos (12 across by 18 down) stitched together, taken over a 15-minute span, and is not supposed to represent a single moment in time. The final hi-res file is 69,394 X 30,420 pixels or 2,110 megapixels.

I’ve stared at it for hours, though, and still haven’t managed to find Waldo.

(Also on FtB)

Save the James Webb Space Telescope

Lawrence Krauss has written an excellent defense of the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble which is currently under threat of cancellation. I was really down on the space shuttle the other day, but that’s because I think it was a failure at doing its job of enabling exploration and discovery — the Space Telescope is a fabulous tool that works, and I want NASA to focus more on cost-effective, powerful methods of exploring the universe.

Lawrence Krauss also criticized the space shuttle, and urges us to send more robots into space. Uh-oh. Cue ominous music as Neil deGrasse Tyson emerges from the wings, carrying a folding chair.

The Space Shuttle gets a reasonable eulogy at last

It’s so good to see someone take off the rose-colored glasses and tell it like it is: the space shuttle was a flop.

The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year. NASA predicted each shuttle launch would cost $50 million; they actually averaged $450 million. NASA administrators said the risk of catastrophic failure was around one in 100,000; NASA engineers put the number closer to one in a hundred; a more recent report from NASA said the risk on early flights was one in nine. The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

I first had my doubts after Challenger blew up; it wasn’t the failure of the mission that bothered me — I understood that it was risky — but NASA’s responses in the hearings afterwards. I watched those; it was where Richard Feynman really caught the public eye.

According to reports after the Challenger disaster, the ship exploded because of a faulty joint that included an O-ring hardened by especially cold conditions before launch. More importantly, this was far from an isolated problem, as illustrated by a report by Richard Feynman. Feynman slammed not only the O-ring error but the entire process of building and testing the shuttle, plus the management style and decision-making of NASA, for good measure. When he wrote, “Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality,” and, “They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space,” he meant they were at the time not living in reality, which is generally the place engineers ought to live. NASA’s recent report on shuttle safety found that the chance of making it through first 25 flights (#25 being Challenger’s last flight) was only 6%, and the chance of 88 safe flights between the Challenger and Columbia disasters was just 7%. If the study is accurate, then Challenger and Columbia weren’t freak accidents—the flights before them were freak successes.

I got the impression from those hearings that NASA had become an engineering bureaucracy, dedicated to dogmatic, almost ritualistic redundancy and caution, where following procedure, no matter how flawed, was always the answer. Feynman was fabulous cut through all the nonsense and just asked what worked and what didn’t.

Goodbye, old lemon. Let’s hope the next new model actually comes up to spec.