Always Under Revision

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If you came here to find out more about who I am, this is where you want to be.

If you’re getting an SSL error, you don’t have the CA Cert Root Certificate installed on your system. Here’s some handy installation instructions for you. Never pay for a cert!

Everything you’ll see here is part of a relearning process.  There was a time when I was a pretty good writer.  I’d like to get back to being halfway decent and I figure there’s no better way than to just start writing up every idea for a blog post I’ve managed to save.  In the mean time, there’s probably a lot of gaffes and complete misunderstandings to be found along the way and I beg your forgiveness. 

I encourage your comments on every post–and if that’s not for you, feel free to share your thoughts with me directly.  Please also share as widely as you can, as the relationship between viewers and bugs tends to be even more shallow in natural language than in code.

Postcards, Pitching, Payphones, Physics and Playa

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PlayaPostLogoI’ll say it again, even though I may have worried you the first time: I need your help.

The things I’ve set out to do over the next month are among the most ambitious set of projects I’ve ever attempted, and they’re all related to Burning Man.

Unfortunately, when I say Burning Man, that’s basically when a really big chunk of my wonderful network of people ready and willing to help kind of tunes out and mentally walks the other way.

I understand that reaction. If I were on the other side of my friends feed, up until a few years ago, I’d have the same reaction. Of the folk I know, there’s basically three approaches to Burning Man:

  • AWESOME YAY!
  • Uh, seriously? Why?
  • It was cooler back when…

Since I first heard about Burning Man in college, I more or less was in the “Why?” camp. Through a little twist of fate and some encouragement from friends, I ended up camping with Disorient a few years ago. Build week was fun, but the event itself didn’t hold much interest for me. As it actually started, I remember thinking that I was glad I came and saw the thing, but I was not finding a Burner buried somewhere in my heart.

Then Jacqueline and Divide suggested I go deliver some mail with the Post Office. Since that first batch of mail, I’ve been solidly in the “AWESOME YAY” camp.

Delivering mail is the only way to experience Burning Man. You walk up to a post office, they hand you some mail and off you go on an adventure that will take you places if your heart is open to it. I’ve stumbled into weddings, french new wave film shoots, drug busts, clandestine swimming pools and a bunch of other magical situations too numerous to recount. Most of the time, I just stumble into a nice conversation or party that I’m always welcome in. Whether spectacular, or routine, all these interactions are why I live for the mail at Burning Man.

Being me, I wasn’t happy just sitting there delivering mail. I stumbled onto one of the oldest rifts at Burning Man and, being me, I set about trying to solve it. In the process, I started the Playa Postal Union, bringing together the two “rebel” Post Offices that were being denied incoming USPS mail by the quasi-official Post Office in Center Camp. After discussing it with some friends in L’Enfant Plaza, the very simple solution of getting a PO Box in Gerlach was floated, and the 89412-0149 zip code was born. While she’s been nothing but sweet and accommodating to me directly, it seems that the Gerlach Postmaster was not amused.

Postcards

The single most difficult thing I have to do in the next 11 days is raise enough money to make a crazy dream of mine come true. I’ve sent a ton of postcards over the past few years, namely because of my experiences delivering them at Burning Man. I love the magic of receiving a postcard and I love creating them to share that feeling around the world.

Burning Man has a somewhat unfair reputation as an incredibly wasteful party for a bunch of rich people who like designer drugs, tacky mutant vehicles bad dance music and orgies. Granted, that happens, but it’s a fraction of the total activity and a part of the experience I’m mostly unfamiliar with.

Getting 70,000 postcards, each with a personal message, all out to the “default world” is the best way I know of to relay the spirit of this amazing thing that happens in the desert. Why tell you when I can get everyone else to put out little bits and pieces of this, to have everyone put words to what comes of a time and space where people willingly live by a different set of principles.

That, and 70,000 postcards is taller than the man. I founded a project to build something BIGGER THAN THE MAN.

Pitching

Chicken John put it best:

Promotion for events or fundraising for projects sucks. Sucks ass. Even when you achieve your goals or make your numbers and there is a bright side the promotion side sucks. This isn’t an opinion.

You aren’t good at promotion. Most of you. All of you. I see you flail, I see you stall. I see your efforts and I see the waste. I’m not good at promotion either. Anti-promotion. Whatever. It’s important to remember this. Don’t be like “These other people did it, I can do it too.”. That’s not the right thinking. “By any means possible” isn’t good either. Reaching a fundraising goal is important, and I’m a BRUTAL FUNDRAISER”, but it ‘can’ take too much. I’ve seen it. The best way to have a fundraising goal is to have a good story. A fundraising campaign is a story unto itself. Like any good story, it needs a strong ending.

The big problem here is that I launched the fundraiser without much of a good story.

70,000 postcards. From Burning Man.

If you’re not a burner, why do you care?

I’m still trying to figure that out. PLEASE HELP ME.

Payphones

As if I didn’t have enough to do, I figured it would be really cool for the PPU to get into the telco game. After having fun with ShadyTel at ToorCamp, I was inspired to finally do something with the three payphones lying around in my storage unit.

I brought three of these phones to HOPE, with the thought that they’d be able to get the phone chamber and the coin vaults open. Turns out, they managed to pick only one of the locks on the phone chamber.  I ended up breaking a ton of bits drilling out the rest of the locks to get them open.

Fortunately, the rest should be somewhat easy thanks to a friend I know from the BM-Wifi List. He already put together a phone for Burning Man and I’m pretty much just copying his gameplan.

Physics

After my exam and a party in my hometown, I’m flying out to NYC to build a grey water filtration solution, a sink and showers for my camp. Then it’ll all get loaded into our container and I’m off to the…

Playa

That’s what Burners call the place where Burning Man happens. (Maybe I should have led with that?)

If all this activity wasn’t enough to depress me, I’m actually a bit bummed out  this year…most of my friends aren’t camping with me as I had planned for reasons that I find completely understandable. I should have probably realized that my friends are looking for a substantially different kind of burn than I am.

Oh, you’re still with me?

So, I’m taking the next 3 days off to cram for a section of the CPA exam I’m taking on Wednesday evening. Yeah, seriously.

You can’t help me study, but you can help! Believe in my dream and believe in it with your cold hard cash or credit. Like the facebook page, follow the twitter account, retweet our tweet for cash.

If you don’t believe in it, tell me what you need to hear. Some of the best suggestions, ones that have really paid off, have come in from people who really loathe Burning Man.

Stay tuned for progress with the payphones and the physics.

What I miss most about the 30c3

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It’s no huge secret that I’m usually in Germany between Christmas and New Years for the Chaos Communication Club‘s magical annual Hacker event. Most people refer to it as the Congress, the “C3″ or, mostly in the US, “the CCC”.

My first Congress was the 23c3, where I spoke about the (now sadly dormant) Hacker Foundation. The legendary 2007 camp happened a few months later. That first Hackers on a Plane trip to the 2007 CCCamp is often thought of as the landmark introduction to the concept of community shared Hackerspaces.

At the very last minute, I ended up coordinating the Heralds at the 25c3. The night before the 26c3, I invented the concept of the “Mission Angel” to complement the awesome streaming that debuted that year. A few weeks before the 27c3, I took over the lightning talks and introduced the format that remains popular today. I hit my emcee comedy peak at the 28c3 with the BS Bingo and fazzor story. By the 29c3, I had pretty much completely handed over coordination duties to Chef, Lindw0rm, watz and SvenG, allowing me to focus purely on Lightning Talks, emergencies and goodwill. Throughout, I was blogging and fixing random issues before they became problems.

The 30c3 was amazing. I never imagined that I’d be around to see Saal 1 at the CCH in Hamburg completely filled with nerds, that we could have so many Assemblies that we basically had a quadrennial camp indoors. However, my favorite part of the 30c3 was something I had literally nothing to do with: The lounge (aka Revolution #9):

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First experiment with a Status Update

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Given everything that’s happened in Harlem lately, I figure it’s somewhat inappropriate to remark too widely on what I missed due to illness…so here’s that quick aside to be buried as quickly as possible under the guise of a “status update”, one of the categories in the theme I’m presently using.

I’m just grateful that a building didn’t collapse on me, as well as grateful that they might start paying attention to Harlem’s infrastructure as a result.

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Pray for Harlem

IMG_6844 by Adnan Islam
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It’s perhaps one of the signs of our internet age when a massive tragedy happens a mile or so away, and I first hear about it from panicked loved ones and friends. At first, I was doubting my own understanding of the reports. I was just emerging from a week of pretty delirious bout with fever and kidney stones, realizing as I awoke that I was without pain and really conscious enough to be able to begin to process everything I had missed. It was another thing to have panicked messages start piling up on top of that week’s worth of e-mail and WTFs.

My first thought at the stream of “Just Heard, are you OK?” messages was wondering how everyone found out I had been ill for so long, other than I hadn’t made so much as a few feverish likes from my phone that whole week. An unknowing panic set in, until I finally heard from my partner that buildings collapsed in East Harlem, specifically 116th and Park.

I live and work in the lower 130s & Amsterdam, firmly situated in the part of West Harlem called Manhattanville, after the housing project of the same name. Were I in any other part of Manhattan, I’d be 2-3 neighborhoods away from the incident. The tragedy is 1.5 miles away from my home by foot or car. I didn’t even hear the explosions, which were strong enough to knock pictures off of walls in buildings in the neighborhood where it occurred.

I’m truly grateful that so many of you reached out to make sure I was OK, especially the small minority of you who knew I was actually quite unwell if for no reason other than I stopped appearing in your FitBit leaderboard.

That being said, the explosion happened almost a world away even though it’s basically the same neighborhood I live in, socially and technically. While we Pray for Harlem, I hope it’s appropriate to try to clear up some misconceptions about Harlem, this historical epicenter of Black Culture and today’s refuge for all persons of varied privilege and different colors.

1) Harlem is Manhattan’s largest neighborhood by area. It encompasses all of Manhattan’s Community Districts 9, 10 and 11. You could fit a combined Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy and Greenpoint in Harlem. (Harlem is only slightly smaller than Berlin’s Kreuzberg, though it has more than double the population.)

2) Harlem is home to nearly 350,000 people. By 2010 census numbers, it would be the 53rd largest city in the US, edging out Tampa, Florida.

3) Harlem is no longer majority Black and hasn’t been since 2008. It’s actually majority “other”.

4) Harlem is one of the most gentrification-resistant neighborhoods in Manhattan. I cite the persistent proliferation of storefront churches and a consistent third of all residents living on some form of public assistance as proof.

What’s my point to all this? Harlem is as magical a place as it is tragic and misunderstood.

Harlem is magical precisely because it’s consistently been a place where the downtrodden and excluded have triumphed over the odds and created amazing culture and thriving commerce with whatever they could grasp. It’s not just about being Black, it’s about being excluded from the world that our nation’s elite embody just to the south of us.

Harlem is tragic because it’s been consistently neglected. Whether you’re talking about something as seemingly trivial as the unavailability of FiOS or water mains collapsing onto gas lines, Harlem comes dead last in Manhattan in terms of improvement and maintenance of services and infrastructure. Sadly, you shouldn’t be shocked to see a lot more tragedies like the one we’re seeing now.

The silver lining in all this is the gentrification that started in the 90s and continues all over Brooklyn today mostly passed Harlem by. Harlem remains the largely working class and minority-majority neighborhood it’s been for over a century. The one exception is the area just to the south of where I live around Columbia University called Morningside Heights. That neighborhood gentrified so quickly and completely that even Wikipedia cites three sources confirming what all the locals know: everything West of Amsterdam and south of 121st is a part of the Upper West Side.

The UWS might continue straight on past 125th to the part of West Harlem I live in. Were it not for the Manhattanville and Grant Houses, Columbia University and the City College of New York campuses might border each other. Given the current pace of Columbia’s Manhattanville area construction, they may actually meet sometime in the next decade or so.

While I shudder to even think it, one of the reasons they won’t meet anytime soon falls under the same class of neglect that likely led to today’s tragedy. The three Community District Needs statements for the area covered by Harlem all say the same thing: Harlem needs jobs, burned out housing to be redeveloped for families and increased infrastructure development. The lack of all three are such fixable problems, just as those that led to the building collapse in the first place.

The problem is that the will just isn’t there. Crime rates have come down like they have in the rest of the city, but the investment in rebuilding is so slow that it’s essentially imperceptible.

One shocking example of this happens to be the supermarket that burned to the ground across the street from my apartment. It didn’t even end up in the New York Times, even though it was the single most massive fire I’ve ever seen (even topping the 2013 man burn.) Even though you generally don’t start construction in the Winter, there’s still not even plans on the book for that vacant lot carved into the Manhattanville Houses superblock. In the time that land has gone idle, dozens of “needle towers” went into planning stages.

The “burn down, nobody cares” story is one you can see driving throughout Harlem, despite being a few miles and fewer than a handful of subway stops from record real estate developments.

Pray for Harlem indeed.

Because I’m convinced nobody reads to the end of these posts, as a thank you for sticking with me, I will send you a $2 bill in an envelope or just hand you one the next time I see you in person. To claim your prize, you must e-mail me via this link with a valid postal address or offer to hang out in NYC in 2014. Offer is valid for the first 50 posse members* who see it. If you’re exceptionally lazy, you can always just tweet at me (@nickf4rr) with the hashtag #twodollars.

For every $2 bill I claim I’ll be donating $8 to the neighborhood charities that appear to be doing the most good for the residents affected by the disaster in East Harlem.

* – Posse membership is open to anyone who has not repeatedly stolen research under false pretenses then presented it without proper attribution as their own work.

(Thanks to Adnan Islam for sharing his photo IMG_6844 under a Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) Creative Commons license.)

Are they helping you make money? Pay them.

May Day, 2012 / Union Square / Unpaid Interns (By Melissa Gira)
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I recently hired an former colleage, artist and ace photographer to take pictures of all my old hacker t-shirts. Hired, as in I offered her money in exchange for her labor to produce pictures I need in order to market these shirts online.

I’m not saying I’m a hero or a great guy. Admittedly, the deal I struck with her was probably less than market rate for the quality of the work she’ll provide and I’m guessing that overall, the job may not even end up netting her minimum wage. She is photographing the bulk of a nearly 20 year old collection of hacker memorabilia I’m going to put up for sale  to help fund some new projects…and pay off a ridiculous pile of debt I have incurred from some old ones. However, I asked her what she’d charge, she quoted me a price and I accepted it.

I won’t get in to the specifics, but I had a separate conversation about this project with someone I’d consider an unofficial consultant on selling things over the internet. To paraphrase, they were rather shocked I’d be paying someone to assist on a project that’s essentially funneling money to charitable aims. While this “Schwag for Snowden” project may end up gaining a fair amount of attention and exposure, it’s exceptionally unlikely that any of that will lead to paid work or marketable exposure for the skilled workers contributing to it.

It’s unfortunately becoming more possible than ever for folks like me to command good, skilled work for free just “for the exposure”. While it’s not nearly as much as others, I do command a certain amount of market power (i.e. privilege if I were trollbaiting). It might not even be hard for me to command a favor just based on a karmic sense of returning other favors people have witnessed me doing.

However, herein lies the problem with unpaid skilled work: Once I get you to work for free, why would I pay you? Why would anyone I refer to you pay a market rate?  Why would anyone pay a market rate knowing they could get similar quality work for free?

In the case of photography, you might call this a problem with everything going digital. There isn’t the cost of film or developing involved anymore. There isn’t material to mark up. The cost of materials for 2,800 photos on digital is still less than a roll of 28. Without materials to mark up, it’s sometimes hard to charge a friend for the value of your services, especially when a favor is easily commanded.

The problem is when we get stuck in a cycle of devaluing real labor. Frankly, it’s cheaper for me to pay a good photographer $2/shirt for a web-ready photograph than it is for me to spend a frustrating 15 minutes snapping and editing a picture with the point-and-shoots I have available to me.

But let’s say I saved this $2 and got the same quality of work for free, even if this is going towards a good cause. This depresses prices everywhere else in the marketplace. Not just for photographers, but also for web designers, copywriters and many other “creative” fields where it’s impossible to get paid work without a strong portfolio or a solid list of clients/references.

To those of you more powerful than me who can command this kind of work for free: Stop. The “exposure” you’re giving the creatives is almost never worth nearly as much as what you could afford to pay them. Not only is it ethically wrong to profit from those doing work for free, it destroys the very trade you’re claiming to help.

Skilled workers giving up labor for free are inherently devaluing their work and the work of everyone else in their trade. Even paying a relative pittance, a stipend or working in trade restores value to creative skills encourages talented folk to stick with and develop their craft.

To those creatives out there who still need to build up a portfolio and don’t feel comfortable or able to charge, I offer you this guideline: If they demand it, give a lead the first batch of work as “business development”. Figure out the cost of your materials and the amount of time spent on the project. If you get a repeat customer, or a referral from a “business development” job, charge them at at least minimum wage based on the time you spent on a similar project. Even if you “lose clients”, you’re still placing a real value to your work and others will see that. If you ever end up collecting the equivalent of a 40 hour minimum wage paycheck from your labor (not including materials) in a given week, never sell your work for free again and double your prices. Others will value your work even more and pay you the rate you command.

Granted, if you’ve read this far, I can probably safely disclose to you that this whole thing came about because I personally funded the lion’s share of the trip that Time magazine says was funded by Dutch computer hackers. While a good chunk of it was from donations collected at OHM, the vast bulk of it came out of my pocket…and I’m selling off my hacker memorabilia to pay that particular bill off.

While I’ll probably never recover close to the amount I spent on that trip, that’s still no reason to regret doing it and still no reason to stiff Becky or expect she (or anyone else) will do real skilled work on my behalf for free.

Got a comment? I’ll let you know a flame war you can jump into when it happens.

(Thanks to Melissa Gira Grant for licensing her image May Day, 2012 / Union Square / Unpaid Interns under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license, thus allowing me to use it as the featured image for this post. If she notices, I’d be glad to pay her for it.)

No, I’m not procrastinating: 2014 Routines

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Tabascoeye wisely stumbled on to a point I’ve been waiting to bring up, in case you’re curious. By writing at least one blog post a day, as part of a larger set of daily routines, I’m claiming that I’m not actually procrastinating on my main goal of becoming a CPA.

I’ve been telling folks that I’ve been “studying for the CPA exam” since I left my last full-time job in May of 2013. While I did register for the exam and sit for all 14 hours of it prior to the 30c3, I didn’t pass any of the four sections of it. Why? If all the reasons were plotted on a Venn diagram, the largest circle would be “Lack of Routine”.

This isn’t to say that the entire time between my last job and now has been a complete waste. I have crunched through a ton of smaller tasks that I had been postponing for up to a decade. I have taken on a number of smaller projects. I answered 5 year old e-mails. I rekindled a lot of friendships. I tried to bond with my partner’s cats. I got to Level 8 in Ingress in six weeks. There was SIGINT, OHM, Burning Man, DerbyCon, 30c3 and a lot of things going on in the Art World that I’ve also thrown myself into.

Yes, I was also studying…but not nearly as much as I should have or in the way I should have. My weeks lacked a certain rhythm that comes with a regular day job. The only thing I did somewhat consistently was clear out my Inbox.

As with most of my cohort, without a job or other structured activity during working hours, I fell unchecked into a rather wicked nocturnal schedule that would start out productive but end up in something ridiculous like a “Storage Wars” watching binge or a four hour long Ingress walk at 2 AM.

It’s easy to postpone a planned self-study session, especially when you’re a few minutes into it and you realize you’re too tired to continue. Do that often enough and the results aren’t good. That’s real procrastination.

How does setting a goal for myself of writing one blog post a day fix that? First, it’s the one persistent growing list under the many in my to-dos. I always have an idea for a Blog Post, a link I wanted to write more about, something I wanted to call BS on, etc. It’s actually time I started executing on those ideas and crushing that task list.

Second, it creates both a social pressure and a critical metric leading to a routine. Did I put a blog post out today? Not only will I notice it if I don’t, but there’s a good chance one of you will notice if I do it consistently enough. It’s kind of like FitBit that way, but there’s no leaderboard to blogging, just like there’s no leaderboard to CPA exam studying. That metric itself is enough to get me going on writing first thing in the morning. It’s exercise for my brain, especially since I haven’t been able to drag myself more than a handful of times to the YMCA.

Finally, it’s a way of engaging with the world on a more productive plane while being a form of study in and of itself. While the essay portion of each section of the CPA exam was where I consistently scored my highest marks, I wasn’t proud of the way I was writing. I knew I could do better and I was also painfully aware of how much my writing skills have atrophied in the interim.

So far, three days, three posts, Today’s post came out a little late on account of being completely sidelined by a fever yesterday, something I didn’t really recover from until earlier today. Even with that throwing me, I’m still staying true to my goals, including getting to bed at the ridiculously early hour of “sometime before midnight”.

Got a comment?  E-mail me with it.

Strategies for explaining cryptocurrency to your parents after MtGox

The money is better on the top layers... (By Zach Copley)
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If you ever have to invoke the phrase “what is required is a decentralized intermediary!” then you have failed to explain what cryptocurrency (i.e. Bitcoin) is to the average consumer (i.e. your parents). This is why the Bitcoin trolls are winning.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a “so much potential” rant from a teacher, parent or boss? If you have a reasonably solid understanding of what cryptocurrencies are and how they work, odds are pretty good that you’ve been on the receiving end of a conversation like that. If you can grasp and understand how Bitcoin is a lot like a kid with potential hanging out with the wrong crowd doing the wrong kinds of things, then odds are you’re in a pretty good position to explain to the average person why cryptocurrencies are the future of money.

With the MtGox bankruptcy, Bitcoin is now commonly thought of as not only a mysterious tool used to pay for drugs, but also as a huge “ponzi scheme” that screws innocent people out of their hard earned cash. You’re not going to counter those conclusions of Fox News and Daily Show viewers with an eloquent Austrian-school-inspired description of fiat currency. You have to keep it real…as in real dumb simple.

Brett Scott was on the right track with steps 1-3 of How to explain Bitcoin to your grandmother. However, he got too enamored of his own explanation and forgot about his audience. Your parents probably couldn’t explain to you what the Fed does beyond, “they print the money”. Therefore, they’re really not going to give a flying fsck about trusted intermediaries, secret keys, hashrates, mining or the blockchain…and they don’t need to.

Your parents know what cash is, they know what bank accounts are, they’re probably familiar with online banking and they know how to pay bills and buy things with money. Armed with just these analogies, you can explain to them what Bitcoin is, why it’s no more evil than any other kind of money and why it’s the future.

1. Start by explaining that “digital currency” is how banks keep track of your money. Everyone familiar with online banking can grasp the concept of “digital currency”. You can see the amount in your checking account when you log in to your bank and you can explain that money represented in that balance on the screen exists in digital form. The bank doesn’t move bills and coins from one envelope marked “Mom’s Savings Account” to “Mom’s Checking Account” when she clicks “transfer”. They issue instructions from one part of a computer to another. Same thing goes for paying off credit cards and bills, it’s just “1s and 0s as digital currency moving from one bank’s computer to another.”

2. Explain that digital currencies in banks are not “money in your wallet”. You actually have to go to the bank or an ATM to get paper cash. You have to log into online banking or link your bank account in order to pay bills with “digital currency”. You can’t pull that digital currency away from your bank and onto a USB stick, it’s not “money in your wallet” until you convert it to paper by going to the bank or an ATM.

3. Explain that Bitcoin is both “digital currency” and “money in your wallet” at the same time. Here’s where you want to keep it really, really simple. If whatever you’re saying can’t be said of paper money, then you shouldn’t be saying it. Just say that Bitcoin is true digital cash. Yes, it exists “as 1s and 0s” but it works just like cash. You can put your wallet on your computer, on a USB stick or any other thing capable of holding 1s and 0s just like you can put your cash in anything that can hold paper. You can pay people with it and not reveal your identity. You don’t need to have a bank account to hold cash, you don’t need a bank account to hold Bitcoin. Invent your own analogies to suit your particular audience, but you get the idea.

4. Explain that Bitcoin became popular with drug dealers because they could send money anonymously, like cash, through computers, like digital currency. Even if you’re naive enough to believe that Bitcoin doesn’t owe a lot of its success to Silk Road, it’s hard to argue against the power of this analogy to explain how Bitcoin is (supposed to be) used.

5. Explain that MtGox was a bank where people could convert their Bitcoin to Dollars and vice versa. For the love of everything holy, do not even think about attempting to explain transaction malleability. All your parents need to know about MtGox is “bank” and “Bitcoin to Dollars and back again.”

6. Explain that MtGox got greedy, didn’t really know what they were doing and lost their customer’s Bitcoins. Yes, yes, I know, the implication here is essentially incorrect. We also don’t (as of the time of this post) really know what happened to MtGox, other than they closed up and filed for bankruptcy in Japan and their customers are probably screwed. Your parents probably don’t like or trust banks. They’re greedy. They fail. Use those prejudices to demonstrate that what happened to MtGox is a “bank problem”, not a Bitcoin problem.

7. Reiterate points 3 and 4. Bitcoin is “digital cash”.

Is this a massive oversimplification? Yes. Then again, do you really need to know the interrelation between mortgage-backed securities on the books of the Federal Reserve as a strategy for increasing liquidity in a fractional reserve banking system to understand that a latte still costs $5? No.

If you’re feeling really good at this point, you can attempt to explain why the value of Bitcoin fluctuates so much relative to paper currencies.

Then again, if your parents don’t get it, but they love animals…well, you can go on to explain Dogecoin.

As always, please leave your trolls comments over at HN.

(Thanks to Zach Copley for sharing his photo “The money is better on the top layers…” under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.) 

 

What I learned from an unfortunate incident with Social Media tools

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TL;DR: If you’re starting a blog, just write what you have to write and experimenting with your tech as you push your posts out. Listen to your followers and you’ll figure out the best way as you go along.

I’m really trying to write more.

By writing, I mean “blogging” and by “trying” I mean, “I have a list of about 313 ideas and links I’d like to write blog posts on, but I’m feeling really self-conscious about coming across like an idiot.”

So, naturally, I completely botched my first tweet-turned-blogpost.

I have the NYPD to thank for the encouragement to pick up my toy megaphone and say something somewhat meaningful, as opposed to simply tweeting vines of oddities in the art world, pictures of my cats or other such nonsense. I’m fortunate enough to have a decent following on Twitter, mostly due to emceeing a lot of hacker events since before Twitter existed. With a few thousand followers and some righteous indignation, I began figuring out how exactly to get my words out to more than the handful of people internet stalking me.

I wrote that post only a few days after having experienced it. I went through an initial edit, posted it, then let it sit for a while. Then I spent a few hours a day through most of February brushing up on the strategies and tools of this week’s social media landscape, along with a little bit of Facebook/Twitter consultation on the topic. After all that, I settled on the following:

Platform: The Writr theme for WordPress. It’s clean, sans-serif, and not incredibly boring looking. There are some more impressive themes out there, and I’ll test those out when I actually have some posts to test with. In the mean time, this gets the point across and is less likely to be buggy.

Comments/Engagement: Livefyre. One of the most consistently annoying things is having to engage in three separate conversations on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and other random places. I really hate how it’s difficult to bring really awesome threads from each venue, and nearly impossible to bridge conversations. I believed Livefyre would solve this inherent problem and get folks talking all these platforms.

Analytics/Post Scheduling: Buffer. My idea was to write as many posts as possible on the weekends, then share them spread out at varying times throughout the week.

Sharing: I’m using 2 Click Social Media buttons. My goal was to have no trackers at all, but the theme implements Gravatar and Livefyre is a tracking nightmare of its own. Ah well.

I also turned off post duplication between Facebook and Twitter since it seemed best to engage these audiences entirely separately.

Having put the finishing touches on that post and pushed it out there via Buffer…I learned 10 things really quickly:

1) ALWAYS double check the link to your blog post. This was the first thing I botched. I accidentally Buffered the link to the draft, rather than the link to the post itself. Which led to tweets like:

2) You don’t really know how to do social on your site until you’ve actually reached your audience. Turns out most of my East Coast US friends took to Facebook right away, and most of the West Coast folk and people I know in Germany took to Twitter. However, most of my traction came straight from Hacker News, which led to a very vibrant comment thread. On that note…

3) If it’s at all hackerish, use Hacker News for comments. I didn’t even know that my post had shot up to #7 on Hacker News until Ryan clued me in via Facebook and that’s where the most intelligent commentary has emerged from. I should have listened to him when he suggested it via Facebook and now I’ve learned my lesson. I’m also removing Livefyre’s trackers in the process.

4) Comments are overrated. There’s basically no point trying to bring comment traffic back to your site if people are actively engaging elsewhere.

5) Don’t duplicate within or between social networks. I thought I had disabled Facebook duplication of my Tweets, but I found out I hadn’t the hard way. After realizing the same post was showing up four times in my facebook feed, I managed to somewhat bring everyone’s comments into the same post by reference…but the results were messy and many likes were lost.

6) If you’re blogging about security and social justice issues, use secure tools and avoid trackers. I use a Ghostery plugin, so I was aware of the Gravatar, Livefyre and other trackers present on my site. I shouldn’t have put myself in a position to have people point it out to me. Comments aren’t that important, and I’m handling everything social through other services, so I shouldn’t have any trackers. Unfortunately, Gravatar is pretty deeply embedded in WordPress and it’s the last remaining tracker. It’s a pretty benign, but in the interests of a perfect privacy score, I’m going to have to go digging into the WordPress code at a later date.

I’m sure there’s a ton of other lessons I’ve got to learn in the mean time, but I’ll gladly accept any others you’ve got in the interim. For what it’s worth, I know I had a pretty good post that hit a lot of buttons and interest. I know I’m going to have to keep stoking the commenting fires on Twitter and Facebook over the next few days to broaden the reach a bit. I know my time in the HN spotlit has faded.

All that being said, having knocked out two posts in the past two days, I’m only 58 posts behind my goal of hitting one post per day in 2014!

As always, please leave your comments on HN.

What I learned from an unfortunate incident with the NYPD

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Did you know that Central Park has a curfew? I didn’t.

I was issued a summons for violating the 1 AM curfew back in October. I happened to be passing right by the Greywacke Arch just as a police officer was driving through it. I produced my ID as instructed, was told about the curfew in the park, issued a citation and told that as long as I made my mandatory appearance in court, the matter would be dismissed. All in all, the officer seemed somewhat apologetic and indicated through his body language that he thought this was a pretty farcical part of his job.

What does this have to do with my initiation into the stop-and-frisk club? I’ll get there.

On my way to the Summons Answer Part of the New York Criminal court, my train was delayed twice by “police activity”. The first time, the NYPD were called upon to remove a person who had lost control of their bowels. I myself had moved one train car down due to the smell and caught a glimpse of the hostile interaction between the unfortunate citizen and pair of transit cops. One tug, a slip and a few screams later the elderly lady was off the train and in handcuffs.

Further along, a fight broke out at the other end of the more crowded train car I fled to after the last incident. I heard someone nearby calmly calling it in on the intercom and continued to hear far more than I saw, right up to the point where I saw the four transit officers more or less throw everyone on that end of the train car out onto the platform. Only an instant after the scuffle poured onto the platform, the train doors closed and I felt dumbstruck with luck that I hadn’t been ejected.

The events of that morning, the circumstances of my own ticket and that unfortunate incident in Times Square with the NYPD on the eve of the Super Bowl left me with a greater appreciation of the horrible situation we’ve set out for the NYPD to deal with and how they’re responding to it is making it so much worse in the long run.

In the nearly six hours I spent in court on two separate dates, I saw around a hundred people plead guilty and pay fines for a variety of different petty offenses. Most people just did what they were told to do, as if they didn’t really have a choice in the matter. Some cases qualified for a thing called “ACD“, which basically meant one’s charges would be dismissed if they didn’t commit another offense in 6 months.

A select few were represented by attorneys, almost all of whom jumped to the head of the queue and had their cases dismissed. I managed to see one trial on the charge of urinating in public. While the magistrate established that the officer did not directly see a stream of urine, the really incompetent attorney representing the poor kid did a sufficiently good job of botching the cross of the officer and trying the patience of the magistrate. While the client was eventually found guilty, the attorney managed to eek out one obvious but prescient question:

Q: “How many citations have you written since you saw my client?”

A: “Maybe 40 or 50. We’re required to write 10 citations a month.”

Eventually, my case came up for trial. The court clerks indicated that my case was eligible for ACD and were somewhat shocked I wasn’t offered it when I was arraigned. As my “court appointed attorney” began to explain what ACD was at the beginning of my trial, I explained I had not been offered it. The only choice offered by the magistrate at my arraignment (along with about 50 other people) was to enter a plea, so I plead not guilty.

Why?

Lesson #1: Don’t let the justice system eat you up and spit you out. If you have a right to exercise, even if you’re “in the wrong”, exercise it. Great! Go me! I learned something from the 12 credits of legal topics I took, on top of the many tickets I got out of simply for showing up to court. However, what does this all have to do with being randomly stopped and frisked on the eve of the Super Bowl for responding to a really inappropriate comment about my beard?

The NYPD aren’t tasked with policing, the act of maintaining law and order. They’re tasked with writing citations, scooping up those who don’t comply with the court, engaging in systematic intimidation and picking up the problems that social services can’t cope with. They have a quota. They make it, or they don’t, regardless of what kinds of crime or lack of crime is present in their area. In my experience, the police handle this pressure much better than most of my peers could handle it. They’re largely good people charged with bad policing tactics.

Bad cops make quotas however they can. Good cops get pressure to do what bad cops do well. This leads us to the biggest lesson which I failed to take into account when I was asked, “Is that a Muslim or Hipster beard?” by a crew of three NYPD officers in Times Square:

Lesson #2: Avoid interacting with the NYPD whenever possible. If asked a question, focus on memorizing badge numbers, answer as minimally as possible and focus on ending your interaction with the NYPD as quickly as possible.

The main reason I didn’t file any kind of report or move forward at all was that I don’t have badge numbers. I don’t even know what precinct they were from. Not more than 30 seconds likely elapsed from the time I very unwisely said, “You can’t fucking ask that” to the moment that I was shoved back into a crowd of Super-Bowl’s-eve revelers. While I’ll never know what was on their mind, I’m reasonably certain that the interaction wound down rather quickly once they unzipped my snowboarding jacket, realized I had a tie on and sifted through my wallet enough to grasp the level of privilege my outer attire failed to communicate.

But wait! Bill DeBlasio is the mayor! Stop and frisk is over! Everything is going to get better right? Maybe. Hopefully. However, change is going to come very, very slowly. I had an unfortunate incident that’s been a way of life for the less privileged in NYC for years.

While I really, really would like to bring this all to a decent conclusion, something hopeful and revelatory, I’m really left with only one final lesson. I’m still struggling to figure out how to move forward on in my own life.

Lesson #3: Fsck the police. Fsck is the command line on xnix systems for “file system check“. While it’s an obvious word substitution for a popular profane phrase, I believe the twist of meaning carries precisely the feelings of action that I want to bring to my peers. What this means to me personally is something I’m still wrestling with.

In the mean time, as a recap:

  1. Exercise your rights, even if you’re wrong: Download the Stop and Frisk app. Learn the 10 rules for dealing with the police, especially the rules about keeping calm and never raising your voice. Get in the habit of looking for and memorizing badge numbers.
  2. Avoid unnecessary interactions. Don’t engage in crime and don’t engage officers even if they address you incredibly disrespectfully.
  3. Fsck the police. More on that later.

Care to comment?  Please see the discussion thread on HN.

Thanks to Wendy, Gabe and Todd for catching typos!

How a random search for a MoMA assistant curator led to an intercontinental social media dust-up

Kiepenkerl by Jeff Koons
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In the age of social media, a new currency is emerging. It is the currency of outrage.

- Claire Lehmann

Preface:  Please forgive both the somewhat misleading title and my admittedly choppy take at telling the story.  I just realized I haven’t written anything this long outside of a very choppy analytical e-mail or CPA exam essay in quite some time. In my defense, I’m not even vaguely attempting to impose a structure, provide an easily extractable parable or even deliver any kind of point other than I was both unintentionally ignorant and wrong in my assumptions.

I’m a huge MoMA enthusiast, to the point where I joined the Junior Associates so that I could meet people like Ann Temkin and ask inane questions on very minor figures who played major roles…like Patty Mucha.   While Ann is generally the scholar of record, these folk called “Curatorial Assistants” bear much of the intellectual grunt work behind exhibits like Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store and Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New.  One of my favorite JA walkthroughs was with one of her assistants, Paulina Pobocha, whose enthusiasm for Oldenburg was as informed as it was infectious.  I wish the art world producers let that kind of genuine enthusiasm loose on the consumers a bit more.

Unfortunately, it seems that curatorial assistants are not really all that Googleable.  Pobocha has a fairly unique name and has worked on several high profile exhibitions and collected at least one really amusing only-in-the-art-world anecdote on the authenticity of yogurt lids.  However, Temkin’s assistant for the upcoming Sonnabend show is someone named Claire Lehmann.  Of course, I’d be curious to see who she is and what other scholarship she’s been a part of…but there’s not a whole lot out there.

For reasons I can’t readily recall, I ended up clicking on the blog of Claire Lehmann (@clairlemon), Master’s student, wife, mother, and reasonably popular twitter user in Sidney, Australia.  While I haven’t conclusively confirmed this, it is extremely unlikely that she’s the assistant behind the Sonnabend show.  The specific link that captured my attention  was called, “How about some evidence-based feminism?“, one which was both attention grabbing and not wholly outside my blink-speed-prejudices of what a MoMA curator might blog about.

My (unfortunately mistaken) impression of the post was that Lehmann’s core thesis dealt with pedestrian attacks on science under the guise of pop-feminism:

The distrust towards science and scientific methods is most salient in women’s magazines and news-sites which run such headlines as What science gets wrong about female desire or Everything you’ve ever been told about fertility is wrong

Sounds reasonable, right?  Who among us in the reality-based community hasn’t come across a really ignorant puff piece with an attention-grabbing headline that distorts, ignores or refutes some kind of scientific finding without addressing the science behind it?

In an article titled Five myths that need to be busted about women in 2013 published December 2012, the commentator Clementine Ford started her opine with a statement calling for an end to research conducted in the field of evolutionary biology – an area of inquiry which she described as “unfounded”. Another piece titled When you’re attracted to an alpha male discusses archetypes of romance novels while declaring that evolutionary psychology was nothing more than “mere speculation”.

A feminist calling for an end to research?  Using romance novel archetypes to dismiss evolution?  Cue instinctive rage now!  She goes on with some very salient writing on the nature of politics and science and the need for understanding:

Unlike the internal cultures of political movements, the very practices which define science (self-criticism, open debate, peer review and double-blind methods) foster humility and reduce the errors caused by bias. It is also important to remember that producing scientific knowledge is hard, it requires proficiency in statistical methods and ability to reason quantitatively. All scientists must offer up their work to be closely scrutinised by colleagues before getting published – these methods are in place specifically to reduce prejudices, not enhance them.

Bam.  It’s tweetworthy!

I should point out that my tweets auto-post to my Facebook page as well. This is an easy, lazy way of dealing with staying in touch with the world that I’ve been contemplating changing.

A little while later, my good friend Aaron Muszalski (@sfslim) thought it was tweet-worthy as well. That’s when I started to realize I completely missed some of the subtext of Lehmann’s original post:

Ella tends towards hyperbole, but I have yet to find any serious disagreement with her. My immediate instinct was to defend Lehmann’s original piece, as I didn’t recall a mention of evolutionary psychology, just one about evolutionary biology.  This turned out to be my critical mistake, as I wasn’t aware there was a field called evolutionary psychology, something very distinct and removed from evolutionary biology.  The latter is concerned with the processes involved in how life evolved on the planet, comparing the fossils and DNA of different species as evidence.  The former examines behavior, not biological output.

It’s around this time that old family friend piped in on Facebook and pointed me towards a critique of evolutionary psychology:

Auwerscomment

I had completely overlooked the fact that the major subtext of Lehmann’s post was a defense of Evolutionary Psychology, not just science that happens to be counter to one’s political agenda.  Ella seems to have picked up on the thread and ran with it, engaging Lehmann herself:

Eleanor and Lehmann proceed on with a heated, civil Twitter debate that doesn’t reach much of a resolution.   To summarize, Ella tends towards the classical academic critique against gender bias in science, rather than the intrinsic validity of scientific inquiry.  Lehmann’s original post actually supported epistemological critique; her post was against “bad responses to good science”, as Ella put it.  They actually came really close to realizing their common ground, but in the end:

Frankly, I’d rather kick myself in the nuts before accusing Ella of being anti-science.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, my friends Rick and Meredith have a meaningful exchange of their own, though Meredith is much more deferential to Rick’s (relative) rage while moving forward with the point that they have more common ground than they thought:

Rix and Meredith on Facebook

The salient point I want to pull out from this screen capture is Rick’s assertion about the scientific validity of Evolutionary Psychology:

Evolutionary Psychology is mostly a collection of poorly designed thought experiments. She also had it playing second banana to social and cognitive psychology, in that order. which means just doesn’t know that much about experimental validity.

He goes on to say:

Rick and Meredith on EvoPsych Conclusion

Meanwhile, another friend takes the opposite tack and says that Lehmann doesn’t go far and deep enough:

It’s around this point in the story that I’ve concluded that I was wrong about the background assertions of the original blog post in favor of what I wanted to believe the piece meant.

Lehmann wrote a defense of Evolutionary Psychology.  I wanted a piece that railed against anti-science in the name of feminism.  The examples that Lehmann cited only tangentially supported her assertion.  The Five Myths piece that Lehmann criticizes isn’t doesn’t explicitly call for an end to research in evolutionary biology, it merely says we shouldn’t go on, “perpetuating unfounded evolutionary biology, or allowing straw polls run by FM radio stations to count as ‘research’.”  It isn’t until the final point that the piece actually tends to unravel by equating the visual appeal of shoes and consumer goods with a finding that women become more aroused by a storyline than an image.  The fertility piece builds its case around the debunking of bad science that led us to believe that 35 was the falling-off point for fertility in women.

Maybe I’m just proving how obtuse I am, but I don’t see much of a conclusion to be drawn from an episode like this.  The story illustrated that I deceived myself in the beginning, turned out to be rather wrong, and I learned a lot from my awesome friends in the process.  These are the consequences and the benefits of righteous indignation on social media.  I never found out anything more about the MoMA curator, but I did enjoy the unintended consequences of a search that never found its target.  In a way, this is a curious bit of output from something I never expected to generate any.  It seems that all of us in this space post and repost many things that go completely unremarked upon, and it’s a mild shock when something does interrupt that flow of ideas contemplated and tossed into the æther and forgotten.

To that end, I’ll tweet out this post with the most outrageous line I can think of herein.  I’ll throw it out on Facebook under the original, Buzzfeedesque title.  What, if anything, will happen?

Epilogue: I chose a Jeff Koons image namely because I recently read that he ascribes no hidden meanings nor embedded critiques in his works…and I somehow think that idea, coupled with the sculpture’s qualities is oddly appropriate for this episode.  It’s as if his works are definitely something, but they aren’t at the same time…and what does that reflect back upon us?