Jan 25, 2014

NPRchives has been going since the start of the year and it is amazing. This story about the trend of women in New York City abandoning high heel shoes for jogging shoes, including commentary from Fran Lebowitz, will almost make you pine for your walkman.

(Source: nprchives)

Dec 22, 2013
Newsroom geeks have been instrumental in decoding the NSA story thus far. So too for corporate hacking and industrial espionage stories, as well as Bitcoin, cyberwarfare issues, and dark-web technologies. Mounting privacy and security concerns have journalists adopting encrypted communications and storage, often with guidance from the newsroom geeks because the barrier to entry is fairly high.
My pal Tiff Fehr, who I’m proud to say I spent several years working alongside, says nerds will continue to play an important role in not just what news looks like but how it gets reported. Hopefully this means the old saw of becoming a journalist because you were bad at math gets a little less true.
Dec 18, 2013

Last week Twitter changed how their block function worked, which to us on the outside looked like kind of an arbitrary switch, then quickly recanted after plenty of people rightly pointed out this was a bad move.

The dustup reminded me of a feature request I’ve had in mind for Twitter (and other social media companies) for a while: hire an ombudsman.

Typically, we associate the ombudsman with government orgs, NGO’s, or foundations. Their role is to keep the place they work accountable to the public. Newspapers will often have one (the New York Times calls theirs the public editor) with a regular column dedicated not to covering the news but to how they cover the news1.

What links these types of organizations is a sense of purpose and accountability to the communities they serve. Increasingly, social media companies are taking on this role, though not necessarily with the same sense of obligation. The mission of social media is much more difficult to peg down than, say, a local newspaper, but there’s no denying the overlap. And while social media corporations pay lip service to the importance of their work, they’ve yet to institute the levels of accountability we’ve come to expect from what they are displacing.

Here’s how I imagine this would work: hire someone for a two year gig. Their salary goes into locked escrow, they are not eligible for stock options, etc. They are given a reasonable level of access to anyone in the company, from the board to the interns, and the authority to report on how things operate, without revealing proprietary information or upcoming plans. The right person would be a working journalist, a skeptic, someone who believes in afflicting the comfortable, but also technically adept enough to understand what’s going on. My pal Mat Honan would be a good start, or anyone on this list. They’d write a regular column (sure, call it a blog) but it might only get updated once a week or so.

This is different from the sort of “radical transparency” that cropped up a few years ago of executives blogging about their mission to make the world a more open and connected whatever. I’m talking about someone tasked with keeping the company honest, someone accountable to the public, not to shareholders. Someone who’s beyond just neutral but a doubter, someone who will hold executives’ feet to the fire and call bullshit when necessary.

Twitter is an interesting candidate because of their similarity and proximity to the news business and their desire to at least appear like they have a soul2. Twitter has already replaced the daily newspaper, evening broadcast, weekly magazine, for so many people. We can argue about whether this is a good thing until Cronkite rises from the grave but it’s a fact. It’s how millions of people start or end their days, get breaking news, and follow the stories they care about.

Twitter seems to realize there’s a responsibility that accompanies being this pipeline but has, thus far, remained pretty opaque about how it works with the news. Now that they are public, and are continuing to style themselves as a media company, some transparency in to how they operate would not only be welcome but is of vital importance.

  1. Somewhat tellingly, the Times created their public editor position in response to the Jayson Blair scandal

  2. Let’s be clear: Twitter’s soul is the same as every other corporation that’s ever existed. If it has a heart, the stuff that flows through it is still money. 

Oct 20, 2013
LiarTown is consistently delightful but my god these are perfect.

LiarTown is consistently delightful but my god these are perfect.

Oct 15, 2013

I don’t know Jack Dorsey, though I know plenty of people who do. Based on second hand stories, and now dueling high-flying profiles, he strikes me as someone of above-average intelligence, though certainly short of genius. Privileged, like so many young white men of our generation, to pick up computer programming at a young age and convert that to a career fueled by irrational exuberance.

His sense of style seems overblown to say the least. His idiosyncratic sartorial quirks give off the vibe of a Bond-villain. Square’s famously literal interface now appears quaintly fashionable, but last season. His cultured, minimalist aesthetic makes for good copy, even if it is a luxury of extreme wealth few can imagine, let alone afford. The seemingly endless, empty aphorisms that he speaks in are more Chauncey Gardner than Zen master1. It all feels like so much affectation.

These are minor crimes, perpetrated as much by a feckless press eager for a gripping narrative as by Dorsey himself. Much more sinister and less forgivable is the monstrous vanity and cynical glibness with which he associates himself with heroic historical figures like Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

These have become so frequent and mundane they are a punchline. Dorsey rarely misses an opportunity to compare the work he’s doing streamlining credit card processing to true heroes who fought brutal, systemic oppression. A man who has a standing weekly dinner reservation at a Michelin starred restaurant has no business comparing himself to a martyr who fasted for weeks to end the subjugation of his homeland. Dr. King, a socialist who gave his life to lift up the least among us, would surely have little use for an app that lets hipsters buy $4 lattes without having to reach for their wallets.

Square and Twitter, exciting though they may be, aren’t revolutions, you can’t even really call them disruptive, in the parlance of our gilded time. They are largely complementary, which is a fine thing to build and even to be handsomely rewarded for, but they don’t create freedom or fight inequality.

Dorsey is lucky that he’s been able to mostly create his own myth, and even have The New Yorker pass off his version of it as truth. Given his penchant for believing this myth so thoroughly, he’d be wise to stop short of hagiography.

  1. what passes for a press in the tech industry seems to be willing to give Dorsey a pass on his quasi-philosophisizing. No one seems to be bothered to ask a follow up when he says something like “payments are intimate”. What the hell does that even mean? Is it actually profound or merely a Markov chain of memetic mimicry? 

Oct 14, 2013
Bircher anti-Communism, anti-Catholicism, racism (Dallas was the last large American city to desegregate its schools), Kennedy hatred—that suffused many people in Dallas with the spirit of dissension and incipient violence during the early sixties, including some of its leading citizens: elected officials, Baptist ministers, the billionaire oilman H. L. Hunt, the right-wing zealot General Edwin Walker, even the publisher of the Morning News, Ted Dealey. During the 1960 Presidential campaign, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the state’s most powerful politician, and his wife, Lady Bird, were spat upon in Dallas; Adlai Stevenson, J.F.K.’s Ambassador to the United Nations, was assaulted there just a month before the assassination. “WELCOME MR. KENNEDY TO DALLAS …,” ran the headline of a black-bordered, full-page ad in the Morning News on the morning of November 22, 1963, with a bill of particulars that stopped just short of accusing the President of treason. Kennedy had warned his wife, “We’re heading into nut country.”
Dallas fifty years ago sounds familiar today.
Oct 13, 2013
The property market is no longer about people making a long-term investment in owning their shelter, but a place for the world’s richest people to park their money at an annualized rate of return of around 10 percent. It has made my adopted hometown a no-go area for increasing numbers of the middle class.
From an article about how property speculation in London has all but pushed the middle class out. Many of the specifics are about London and how wealthy foreigners have pushed housing prices up and up, however, it’s a similar story in many global cities. I certainly saw plenty of analogues to San Francisco here.
Oct 6, 2013

Big nasty contradictions usually point to some deeper misalignment. Based on what I know of the Valley, the culture it exports, and the nature of the winner-take-all New Economy it’s building, the only thing I can come up with is this:

All the Valley’s talk about transhumanism, human potential, life extension, and generally “changing the world” is a bunch of hooey. It’s a myth — in the pejorative sense of that term. It’s a fluffy religion meant to snooker young professionals into giving their employers everything they have and working their brains down to the myelin until they become too old to be relevant anymore.

No, it’s worse than that.

They don’t get too old to be relevant. They get too old to be cheap.

Adam Ierymenko on the inherent dissonance of the Singularity true believers and the devaluing of a workforce creeping into middle age.

Which isn’t entirely true. It’s more that you’re supposed to have made it by the time you’re 35 or 40. You should be able to retire thanks to a few liquidity events, work should be something you can’t give up because you’ve spent your entire life hustling.

[via buzz]

Sep 26, 2013
In short, these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.
The G.O.P.’s suicide caucus
Sep 22, 2013

The Tech Intellectuals

On the new, new critics who aren’t.

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Jim Ray, like it says on the tin You can subscribe via RSS.