More serious analysis of online conferencing, please. It’s our future.

You’d think that after a long period of isolation I’d be looking forward to a return to normality and the opportunity to mingle with others at a conference again. Strangely, I am not. There are great things about real-life conferences, but also great awkwardnesses. I stopped attending the annual Society for Neuroscience conference many years ago as attendance soared past 20,000, which made the face-to-face appeal diminish as we became a faceless mob…and also as it became obvious that a subject as complex and diverse as neuroscience couldn’t be appropriately managed in a one-size-fits-all event.

So I thought this article about organizing scientific conferences online was somewhat informative. I’ve been involved in running a social justice conference online, once upon a time, so I’m familiar with some of the compromises, but it’s good to see some new ideas. Zoom has all kinds of potential, and they used Crowdcast, but I thought the way they applied it was a good mix of traditional and novel uses.

Even the traditional elements were improved.

We largely retained the legacy conference format of a single track for invited talks (30 minutes plus 15 minutes for questions) from established scientists, and contributed talks (18 minutes plus 4 minutes for questions) selected from the submitted abstracts to highlight work from up-and-coming researchers. However, the online platform used – Crowdcast – allowed for some significant innovations. First, everyone was able to see the speaker more clearly than in a lecture theatre. Second, Crowdcast allows anyone to submit a question to ask the speaker at the end, and viewers can vote on those questions. This led to a question and answer session that was considerably more lively and democratic than in a typical legacy conference, where participants often note that the same established professors are asking the same questions at every talk. As in the case of the short talks, it may be better to extend the questions even more to capitalize on the quality of the questions asked in the safer and more democratic online format. The third innovation is the chat window that appears alongside the talk. We did not anticipate how significant this would be. Students and others were able to ask basic questions about definitions or ask for links to papers while the talk was going on. Other participants could answer them in real-time without disrupting the presentation, thereby allowing a deeper level of engagement by the audience than is possible in legacy conferences. Moreover, since recordings of these talk were available immediately after the session, it would be possible to go back and revisit portions of the talk that may have been missed or were presented too quickly.

Right, you’ve got to keep the talks limited to familiar blocks of time. We do a lot of training and practice to maximize information in small specified chunks of time. They didn’t do one hour talks, though? I’m used to conferences with plenary sessions with hour-long time slots for bigwigs in the field…they usually don’t live up to their billing, though. An hour is a long time to fill.

The other thing you need for a conference is the schmoozing. They had a way of doing that that seemed to me to be trying too hard. Typical nerds.

One feature of a legacy conference that would appear to be impossible to replicate online is the social aspect: chance encounters during the coffee breaks, social events or banquets. In place of this aspect, neuromatch algorithmically matched attendees to other like-minded scientists for individual 15-minute chats. We use a combination of topic modeling techniques and linear programming to solve the matching problem based on a sample of their research abstracts (Achakulvisut et al., 2018). The matching part was based on a highly popular experiment carried out at the Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience, but it is particularly well-suited to an online format. There remains considerable scope for further innovations in replicating or improving on the social experience of legacy conferences, especially as the online format may be less socially intimidating.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just randomly put people into small break-out groups? This sounds too planned — one of the benefits ought to be serendipitous encounters using a simple algorithm that assumes every participant is equally interesting with unique attributes that anyone might find productive. One useful parameter I wanted to know is what is the optimal group size for these chats. Was it one-on-one? Half a dozen in a group? Small classroom size with 30 participants?

I suspect that one good thing that will emerge from this pandemic is more online conferences. It vastly reduces the expense, gets rid of the bother of air travel, and helps participants manage their time better. I currently try to attend one conference a year because it’s such a huge investment of time and effort — and this year the one I’d planned on got cancelled, of course. But if they were online, I’d be able to schedule that arachnology conference, the Society for Developmental Biology annual meeting, and SICB every year without killing myself with constant travel to the airport, while still learning new things and engaging with new people. Make it so, scientific societies!

Also, if you’re interested, Skepticon is going online this year. I’ve long wanted to attend Dragon*Con, but it’s been impossible because it always falls during the first few weeks of classes, when I can’t possibly just take off. Of course, if it went online, what would happen to all the cosplay events? And now I want to attend even less, because it’s held in a state where Brian Kemp is the Republican governor who is mismanaging the pandemic, and we’ll probably see another wave about the time Dragon*Con opens for business as a big bustling petri dish. Many Shubs and Zulls will know what it is to be roasted in the depths of a Sloar that day, I can tell you!

I wonder if they’re even considering alternatives — I get the idea that our regional SF con, Convergence, is going ahead with the idea that they’ll be doing business as usual in late August, while developing contingency plans. I’m not so confident. Getting crammed into a single building with thousands of other attendees, many of whom need to be reminded about the basics of hygiene, seems to regularly lead to icky cases of con-crud. Only this con-crud can kill you!

P.S. I’ve only just noticed that searching for “online conferences” produces strange images of people sitting around a conference table staring at a screen on the wall, or the always-popular image of two people shaking hands through a pair of computer screens. I really don’t think they get it. That’s not how it’s going to work, or can work. And shaking hands? Is anyone else feeling repulsed at the idea of physical contact with some stranger’s filthy hands?

News from the tech world

No drama here. We all know that science and technology is the domain of cool heads, objective thought, and rational personalities, so this post is going to be a bit boring.

First up: the owner and founder of 8chan are locked in a bitter battle. The founder, Frederick Brennan, called the owner, Jim Watkins, some mean names, and he then replied in the manner of a true defender of Free Speech by siccing the government of the Philippines on him with an arrest warrant, threatening to put Brennan in prison for 10 years.

Watkins is pursuing Brennan under the Philippines Cybercrime Prevention Act. The law was enacted in 2012 despite outcry from rights groups and the United Nations, which warned that it was not in line with international norms. Amnesty International said that it “rolls back protection for free speech” and would have a “chilling effect” on speech in the country. It has most notably been used against journalist Maria Ressa in what the Committee to Protect Journalists labeled a “campaign of harassment.”

Yay Free Speech!

In other news…Twitter. That bastion of reasonable debate and discussion has gradually evolved to become an important arm of the government. Like Alexander Hamilton had the Federalist Papers, our current president has been calmly making arguments for a new way of communicating with the people via Twitter, and rich people have noticed. A billionaire, Paul Singer, is buying a sizable stake in the Twitter corporation, so that he can use his wealth to push Jack Dorsey around. The fact that he is a billionaire clearly informs us that he is competent and wise, so this can only improve the site. Money gives you the right to rule any aspect of the world you want to change.

Singer has even taken on whole countries: in 2016, after a relentless campaign, he secured a partial repayment of debts by Argentina, arising from its financial collapse in the early 2000s.

Maybe he’s going to give Twitter to The Donald as a Christmas present?

Speaking of Twitter, you know it has a policy of supporting anonymity, for good or ill, and banks away a lot of confidential information which you’re only supposed to see if you’re a wealthy capitalist who wants to advertise on the site. It turns out there’s another way: worm spies into the organization who will compromise security and sell information directly to their clients, like Saudi Arabia.

A week after returning to Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, Abouammo logged into the system he used to verify users, according to the complaint. That system, sources who’ve accessed it told BuzzFeed News, stores information including email addresses, telephone numbers, and last log-in time — sufficient personal data to track down a user in real life.

Accessing two Saudi dissidents’ information — one a prominent critic with more than 1 million followers, the other an impersonator of a Saudi Royal family member — Abouammo allegedly passed the information to al-Asaker. Twitter had long been a godsend to dissidents: Unlike Facebook, it had no policy requiring people to use their real names, allowing critics of repressive government to speak more freely. The allegations threw its value as a tool of anonymous dissent into question.

Hey! No fair! You’re supposed to pay Twitter for those privacy breeches, not some random employee! You know I think Saudi Arabia could afford to pay through appropriate corporate channels and grease the right palms here.

There. I’ve had enough of the great minds behind our technological enterprises, I think I’ll sit here and just drink coffee for a while.

Are you boycotting YouTube this week?

YouTube has threatened to drop any channels that are not “commercially viable” in the future, which is grossly capitalist and of concern to everyone, as capitalism destroys another medium. I guess I should worry; I have a YouTube channel, and last I looked it earns me about $15 a month, which doesn’t sound particularly viable to me (I’m not in it for the loot, fortunately). Meanwhile, the channels that earn big bucks and make their owners thousands and millions of dollars are total garbage. Do we really want to see the PewDiePieification of YouTube?

Anyway, there’s a call to walkout, you can read about it at Great American Satan and the Bolingbrook Babbler and stderr and Impossible Me and Intransitive. I’m pessimistic. I don’t think it can generate enough press or enough pressure to make any difference.

But we need to take a stand somewhere. This is an announcement of a policy to stomp down small content producers, killing niches which we already know will be selected against if they have the faintest whiff of sexuality, while the racist channels will be tolerated. They want to propagate the least desirable aspects of American culture and resist anything that might change it. I’m in. I haven’t even glanced at YouTube since the day before yesterday.

I want you to know if this experiment actually worked, three days of silence would cost me a whole $1.50. So I’m participating in this effort at great personal sacrifice.

Is Apple trying to drive me away?

My latest aggravation with the company: I upgraded to their newest version of the OS, Catalina, recently, and it looks and performs just fine, except for a couple of gigantic problems. Both Audacity, the great audio processing program, and OBS Studio, the most popular broadcasting software around, crash and die if you try to run them. It’s a conflict with how the OS manages permissions to access things like microphones and cameras. There a couple of ugly workarounds floating around that involve launching the programs from the Unix command line, but still, this is appalling.

Apple should have known about these conflicts long before the OS was released, and if they couldn’t fix them on their side, they should have flown a couple of engineers straight to those companies and helped them fix their code. It’s not as if Apple has a shortage of cash. I can understand how they might find it necessary to move forward, especially on issues that involve security, and break backwards compatibility…but then they are responsible for making the information available to enable apps to conform to the new standards.

Oh, yeah, and the camera software for my microscope is also broken. That’s a very narrow niche so I don’t expect a huge effort by Apple to make it work, but still, I’m sitting here feeling like my computer has been crippled in some of the functions I use most.

Well, that bad sci-fi vehicle might have a weakness

The bad news: in the future, rich people are dreaming of driving around in fugly brutalist armored trucks from Tesla, lording it over the masses in their slabs of cold gray metal.

The good news: they are easily cracked open to reach the soft, pampered sweet-meats inside.

Bad demo, Elon, bad. That’s not going to light up the eyes of the wealthy people who can afford to buy your dystopian style.

Although, to be fair, the 500 mile range is a very appealing feature. Our standard long drive is about 150 miles to the Twin Cities, and most electric cars would get us there, but not back.

What if Snow Crash was actually a documentary?

The novel Snow Crash analogized human minds to computer operating systems and suggested that they could be just as susceptible to bad code, like a mind virus. There’s a lot to like about the idea, but the book takes it very literally and has people’s brains being wiped and taken over by a mere brief exposure to a potent meme…which is ridiculous, isn’t it?

Maybe it would take repeated exposures to do that.

We’re doing the experiment right now. Facebook has these “content moderators”, a job farmed out offsite to groups of people who are required to view hours of atrocious content on a tightly regimented schedule built on the call center model. They don’t get to escape. Someone posts a video of someone being murdered, or of a naked breast, and they have to watch it and make a call on whether it is acceptable or not, no breaks allowed. No, that’s not quite right: they get 9 minutes of “wellness” time — they have to clock in and clock out — in which they can go vomit in a trash can or weep. It sounds like a terrible job for $29,000/year. And it’s having lasting effects: PTSD and weird psychological shifts.

The moderators told me it’s a place where the conspiracy videos and memes that they see each day gradually lead them to embrace fringe views. One auditor walks the floor promoting the idea that the Earth is flat. A former employee told me he has begun to question certain aspects of the Holocaust. Another former employee, who told me he has mapped every escape route out of his house and sleeps with a gun at his side, said: “I no longer believe 9/11 was a terrorist attack.”

Maybe Clockwork Orange was also a documentary.

It’s not all horrifying. Most of the work involves petty and mundane complaints from people who just don’t like what other people are saying, a domain where the principle of free speech applies. The company, other than the routine fact that it’s run by micromanaging assholes, is above average in how it treats its workers (which tells you what kinds of horrors are thriving under capitalism everywhere else, of course).

Everyone I meet at the site expresses great care for the employees, and appears to be doing their best for them, within the context of the system they have all been plugged into. Facebook takes pride in the fact that it pays contractors at least 20 percent above minimum wage at all of its content review sites, provides full healthcare benefits, and offers mental health resources that far exceed that of the larger call center industry.

And yet the more moderators I spoke with, the more I came to doubt the use of the call center model for content moderation. This model has long been standard across big tech companies — it’s also used by Twitter and Google, and therefore YouTube. Beyond cost savings, the benefit of outsourcing is that it allows tech companies to rapidly expand their services into new markets and languages. But it also entrusts essential questions of speech and safety to people who are paid as if they were handling customer service calls for Best Buy.

I think part of the problem is that we treat every incident as just another trivial conversational transaction, yet that is the least worrisome aspect of social media. There are obsessives who engage in constant harassment, and this approach just looks at it instance by instance, which means the obsessive simply has to escalate to try and get through. It ignores the possible of planned maliciousness, where organizations use the tools of propaganda and psychological manipulation to spread damaging ideas. You check one of their memes, they simply reroute around that one and try other probes with exactly the same intent. No one can stop and say, “Hey, this is coming from a bot farm, shut it down at the source” or “This guy is getting increasingly vicious toward this girl — kill his account, and make sure he doesn’t get another one”. It’s all about popping zits rather than treating the condition.

As long as Facebook and Twitter and Google persist on pretending this is a superficial symptom rather than a serious intrinsic problem with their model of “community”, this is a problem that will not go away.

We’re living in a cyberpunk world

I thought this story was remarkable. The Chinese military has been placing teeny-tiny chips in the microchips China makes for the whole world that provide a backdoor into all kinds of confidential information on servers. Big companies like Apple and Amazon figured this out, and rather than making it public, have been quietly blacklisting major suppliers. But weirdly, everyone is denying it.

But that’s just what U.S. investigators found: The chips had been inserted during the manufacturing process, two officials say, by operatives from a unit of the People’s Liberation Army. In Supermicro, China’s spies appear to have found a perfect conduit for what U.S. officials now describe as the most significant supply chain attack known to have been carried out against American companies.

One official says investigators found that it eventually affected almost 30 companies, including a major bank, government contractors, and the world’s most valuable company, Apple Inc. Apple was an important Supermicro customer and had planned to order more than 30,000 of its servers in two years for a new global network of data centers. Three senior insiders at Apple say that in the summer of 2015, it, too, found malicious chips on Supermicro motherboards. Apple severed ties with Supermicro the following year, for what it described as unrelated reasons.

In emailed statements, Amazon (which announced its acquisition of Elemental in September 2015), Apple, and Supermicro disputed summaries of Bloomberg Businessweek’s reporting. “It’s untrue that AWS knew about a supply chain compromise, an issue with malicious chips, or hardware modifications when acquiring Elemental,” Amazon wrote. “On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server,” Apple wrote. “We remain unaware of any such investigation,” wrote a spokesman for Supermicro, Perry Hayes. The Chinese government didn’t directly address questions about manipulation of Supermicro servers, issuing a statement that read, in part, “Supply chain safety in cyberspace is an issue of common concern, and China is also a victim.” The FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing the CIA and NSA, declined to comment.

But other sources say otherwise.

The companies’ denials are countered by six current and former senior national security officials, who—in conversations that began during the Obama administration and continued under the Trump administration—detailed the discovery of the chips and the government’s investigation. One of those officials and two people inside AWS provided extensive information on how the attack played out at Elemental and Amazon; the official and one of the insiders also described Amazon’s cooperation with the government investigation. In addition to the three Apple insiders, four of the six U.S. officials confirmed that Apple was a victim. In all, 17 people confirmed the manipulation of Supermicro’s hardware and other elements of the attacks. The sources were granted anonymity because of the sensitive, and in some cases classified, nature of the information.

The devices targeted were circuit boards in servers that do ubiquitous stuff, like compressing video so you can Netflix & chill, or doing language processing so Siri can figure out what you’re saying around a mouthful of Doritos. It’s all around us, and we take it for granted.

One country in particular has an advantage executing this kind of attack: China, which by some estimates makes 75 percent of the world’s mobile phones and 90 percent of its PCs.

See? This is what you get when you want all the slick new gadgets but you’re only willing to pay starvation wages to Chinese peons to get it done — all the fundamental work flees expensive America to cheap Asia. If we’d actually supported a semi-conductor industry in this country, just think…it could have been American spies bugging everyone’s computer.

Must every rebellion evolve into an evil empire?

Jaron Lanier is an insightful weirdo, and he shares his ideas about what went wrong with the internet.

I think the fundamental mistake we made is that we set up the wrong financial incentives, and that’s caused us to turn into jerks and screw around with people too much. Way back in the ’80s, we wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs because we loved Steve Jobs. So you wanna be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, and it’s absurd. But that’s the kind of absurdity that Silicon Valley culture has to grapple with.

And there’s only one way to merge the two things, which is what we call the advertising model, where everything’s free but you pay for it by selling ads. But then because the technology gets better and better, the computers get bigger and cheaper, there’s more and more data — what started out as advertising morphed into continuous behavior modification on a mass basis, with everyone under surveillance by their devices and receiving calculated stimulus to modify them. So you end up with this mass behavior-modification empire, which is straight out of Philip K. Dick, or from earlier generations, from 1984.

I do mostly agree, I say as I look at the godawful smear of obnoxious ads that are currently fueling this site, many of which are totally inappropriate to our mission. But I didn’t see much of that hippie socialism in action. People wanted things for free…for me. Outsmart the Man and get free phone service, or free cable TV, or a pile of documents that they don’t want us to have. It was more of a Repo Man sensibility.

Few of the early hackers had any kind of social consciousness. Steve Wozniak was as pure as they come — he just wanted to make elegant gadgets, and once he got rich, he gave free concerts and tried to inspire better education, but his faith was in technology for technology’s sake, and he got left behind in the mad scramble for money. Bill Gates was in it for the cash: has everyone forgotten his petulant temper tantrums when people gave away copies of Microsoft BASIC for free? Steve Jobs wasn’t shy about trampling over anyone who got in the way of his ambitions. These kinds of people were the foundations of modern Silicon Valley, the Silicon Valley that is now a haven for conservative vampires like Peter Thiel. And seriously, Zuckerberg? You think there was ever a speck of human feeling in that android? It was never built on altruism. It was never about sharing the benefits and power of technology with the world.

Everyone tends to romanticize the early days and wonder how we got into this miserable situation now. I agree with Lanier that it certainly is a miserable situation…but think we also tend to see the 1970s and 1980s in a false light. Those dang mirrorshades put a rosy pink glow on the world.

As Lanier points out, it’s all about the concentration of power, and power corrupts.

But then there’s this other thing about the centralization of economic power. What happened with Maoists and with communists in general, and neo-Marxists and all kinds of similar movements, is that on the surface, you say everybody shares, everybody’s equal, we’re not gonna have this capitalist concentration. But then there’s some other entity that might not look like traditional capitalism, but is effectively some kind of robber baron that actually owns everything, some kind of Communist Party actually controls everything, and you have just a very small number of individuals who become hyperempowered and everybody else loses power.

And exactly the same thing has happened with the supposed openness of the internet, where you say, “Isn’t it wonderful, with Facebook and Twitter anybody can express themselves. Everybody’s an equal, everybody’s empowered.” But in fact, we’re in a period of time of extreme concentration of wealth and power, and it’s precisely around those who run the biggest computers. So the truth and the effect is just the opposite of what the rhetoric is and the immediate experience.

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.