Dispatches from the Empire


Past reads: Toward the Queerest Insurrection by Mary Nardini Gang 📚

What a bunch of gibberish nonsense.

Cops can force suspect to unlock phone with thumbprint, US court rules

The US Constitution's Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination does not prohibit police officers from forcing a suspect to unlock a phone with a thumbprint scan, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday. The ruling does not apply to all cases in which biometrics are used to unlock an electronic device but is a significant decision in an unsettled area of the law.

More important than ever:

How to quickly disable Face ID and Touch ID on iPhone (and iPad)

Grindr’s Plan to Squeeze Its Users

Grindr plans to boost revenue by monetizing the app more aggressively, putting previously free features behind a paywall, and rolling out new in-app purchases, employees say. The company is currently working on an AI chatbot that can engage in sexually explicit conversations with users, Platformer has learned. According to employees with knowledge of the project, the bot may train in part on private chats with other human users, pending their consent.

I remember the very early days of Grindr. I had one of the only smartphones in my part of the state, and the nearest fellow user was nearly 250 miles away. Chatting with other gay men was fun and refreshing.

Much has changed in the intervening 15 years. Dating (or hookup) apps have become vast wastelands of algorithmic sameness. People on these apps look, act, talk, and behave in eerily similar ways, not unlike how every young person now dresses like an "influencer." (I refuse to use that word without quotation marks.)

These apps gave us corrosion sold as connection. I'm reminded of David Foster Wallace's thoughts on entertainment, about always wondering what's on the other channel, wondering if there's something better to be watching. Shopping around (because that's precisely what these apps are: shopping) is so damn easy.

Contentment is hard when you think there's always something better just around the corner.

Bomb First, Ask Questions Later

That’s precisely when you don’t go to war: when your emotions are in hyper-drive. But if you do go to war in such an emotionally fraught moment, when every reservist and IDF soldier is understandably filled with shock and anger, you have to be extra-extra-careful to lay out and enforce clear rules of warfare. You have to over-emphasize the need for restraint, the vital importance of distinguishing between terrorists and bystanders, if you aren’t going to blunder into self-defeating war crimes — as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the torture sites set up by Bush and Cheney.

Netanyahu’s government, of course, did the opposite.

My post from October 13, 2023:

Israel is in an impossible position. Many Palestinians want Israel wiped off the map because Israel forced them out of their ancestral homeland, land they had lived on for hundreds or thousands of years. Much of this Palestinian anger has become entangled with some truly wretched antisemitism, yes, but I cannot in good faith say that Palestinians hate Jews for the same reasons the Nazis did. Yes, some Palestinians do, and certainly the government of Iran does, but many Palestinians just want to go home, in the same way so many Native Americans want their ancestral homeland back, a cause toward which I am sympathetic. (Though remember, Native Americans can travel freely off the reservations and throughout the United States, whereas almost all Palestinians are forbidden from traveling into Israel — or from leaving Palestine at all. They are confined, unable to leave.)

But if Israel uses the attack of last weekend to slaughter Palestinians indiscriminately, it will (if it hasn’t already, in the eyes of many) lose the moral high ground. It will lose, if it hasn’t already, the goodwill and support of so many people around the world.

House Votes to Extend—and Expand—a Major US Spy Program

Section 702 permits the US government to wiretap communications between Americans and foreigners overseas. Hundreds of millions of calls, texts, and emails are intercepted by government spies each with the “compelled assistance” of US communications providers.

The government may strictly target foreigners believed to possess “foreign intelligence information,” but it also eavesdrops on the conversations of an untold number of Americans each year. (The government claims it is impossible to determine how many Americans get swept up by the program.) The government argues that Americans are not themselves being targeted and thus the wiretaps are legal. Nevertheless, their calls, texts, and emails may be stored by the government for years, and can later be accessed by law enforcement without a judge’s permission.

Rich Americans get second passports, citing risk of instability

Wealthy U.S. families are increasingly applying for second citizenships and national residences as a way to hedge their financial risk, according to a leading law firm.

The wealthy are building these “passport portfolios” — collections of second, and even third or fourth, citizenships — in case they need to flee their home country.

The super-rich make contingency plans when revolution (via warfare or taxation) is nigh.

This is a bellwether.

AI Digest

Visual explainers on AI progress and its risks.

The truth about ‘white rural rage’

Instead of threats to democracy, or rebellious politics, or reflexive anger, we keep finding something different: pride in rural living, a sense of communal belonging, a shared fate that intertwines the economic well-being of rich and poor in rural communities. Yes, there are resentments, especially towards government officials and experts. But resentment is not a stereotype. It’s a motivation, a story.

Still, rageful stereotypes sell better than complex backstories. And they’re easier for our political and media ecosystems to make sense of. Reference some data point about QAnon conspiracies in the heartlands, and you’ll raise more money from nervous liberals in the city (who just so happen to live next to three times as many conspiracy believers). Lash out against the xenophobia in small towns, and you’ll mobilise your city voters to the polls. Rage draws clicks. It makes a splash.

However, unlike rage, which is explosive and directed towards immediate targets, scholars have shown that resentment in rural areas emanates from a sense of enduring injustice and marginalisation. It is not primarily about anger towards specific groups such as black Americans, immigrants, or LGBT individuals. Instead, resentment or grievance is a deeper, more persistent feeling that arises from real and perceived slights against rural communities. These include economic policies that have devastated local industries, a lack of investment in rural infrastructure and education, and a sense of cultural dismissal from urban-centric media and politics.

I’m currently reading White Rural Rage and boy, do I have thoughts. It’s clearly written by two people who do not live in rural spaces, but about people that do.

Thoughts to come.

Turchin's terrifying predictions

For graduates it has become a game of ‘musical chairs’ where you pay a huge sum to buy a ticket to play the game (University costs), but the number of chairs (graduate level jobs) remain the same. As the number of players increases year on year, massively in just a few decades, supply way exceeds demand. So graduates have to up their game and pay for another even more expensive ticket to get a Masters. Even worse, those who go on to do PhDs find there are no academic jobs available, as again supply has exceeded demand for many years. Graduates in the social sciences and humanities are particularly vulnerable but Turchin’s point is that, for a rapidly increasing graduate population there is a precarious future and lots of debt. This may be exacerbated by AI, as it eats into cognitive work, so has that group as its sweet spot.

This frustrated aspirant class, for Turchin, is dangerous. Always isolated from working class people, they have little in common with the non-graduate class or ideas like collective bargaining and trade unions. They have the time and support from their propertied parents to become activists and protestors and often pick up causes on campus around cancel culture, climate change, transgender issues and social justice. Poverty is not the problem, recognition of identity is.

I find myself in this "precariat" class. Most of my friends are in this group, too. We went to college with the promise it would lead to better jobs, higher wages, more social mobility, yet most of my friends are burdened with crippling debt.

I'm an anomaly. Early investments in the market have stablilized my economic position, and while I have no debt, financially, I'm solidly lower-middle class. But I own my home and have non-essential assets I could sell in an emergency. I live on less than $25k a year, but without debt, this is not diffcult. 

I've watched identity politics take hold in my cohort. It captured me for a time, too, and I'm sure still animates me in some ways. I'm embarrassed by my participation in this push to focus so intently on identity, and I'm horrified at how so many of my contemporaries still behave. Compassion for others — those of a different class, gender, or belief — has disappeared in the face of a relentless focus on our differences. Tellingly, so many people closest to my ideological home — liberal, (ex?)Democrat, progressive — have adopted the worst habits of the political opposition. They've become closed off to new perspectives, refusing to engage with the ideas of a person on the basis of their gender, their race, their class. Worse, they still claim to be liberal, though this behavior is the antithesis of liberalism. 

What is worrying is how easily we all march lock-step into the future, even when the signs of discontent are ringing in our ears. We are like those cartoon figures who run off the edge of the cliff and hang smiling in mid-air, before the fall. We don't adjust or adapt, we simply behave according to the groupthink of the socio-economic group we find ourselves in. The trick is to sit back, look, listen and read people like Turchin. You don't have to agree with him but it is voices like his that at least provide substance to predictions, not about 10nyears [sic] from now but next year!

This is a pretty damn salient analogy. Our current system of capitalism heavily favors those with capital, i.e. shareholders. If you have money in the stock market, you're the beneficiary of capitalism. Instead of money going to the employees of a company, that money is funneled to those that own stock in said company, i.e. "maximizing shareholder value." Those at the top make more and more off the labor of the working class.

This system has to change for our culture to avoid a painful (and maybe bloody) revolution. Wealth being funneled to the upper classes needs to be given to the working class, as they rightly deserve. It is, after all, their labor. But politically, this redistribution of wealth has been branded a handout, welfare, socialism. Tellingly, Republicans have convinced their own working-class constituents to vote against their best interest by making "socialism" such a toxic word.

These days, nuance has no place in America. That has something to do with our media and something to do with our level of education. It's remarkably difficult to explain the financial system or the stock market, and attempting to explain the nuances of capitalism, socialism, and how the two are blended to form a more equal, fair, just society is near impossible. Dependent on their political affiliation, people are triggered by the mere mention of either word and conversations about the nuances of policy become impossible.

 

We are in real trouble. 

An Idyll on the Shores of a Toxic Lake

…people who live in Bombay Beach stay because the town offers a tight-knit community in the midst of catastrophe. Though its residents contend with environmental adversity on a daily basis, they’re also demonstrating how to navigate the uncertain future we all face — neglect, the fight for scarce resources, destruction of home, the feeling of having no place to go. They are an example of how people can survive wild climate frontiers together.

Bombay Beach. Butte. The San Luis Valley. Rock Springs. Where they go, so go we all.

Jedi Knight (Plus, Notes on an Expanded Universe) via Hacker News

Even when it was no better than it ought to have been, however, there was a freewheeling joy to the early Expanded Universe which is poignant to look back upon from the perspective of these latter days of Star Wars, when everything about the franchise is meticulously managed from the top down. The Expanded Universe, by contrast, was a case of by the fans, for the fans. With new movies the stuff of dreams only, fans painted every corner of the universe in vivid colors of their own, then thrilled as this content appeared in actual book and comic stores with the actual Star Wars logo on the front of it. The Expanded Universe could be cheesy, but it was never cynical. One could argue that it felt more like Star Wars — the original Star Wars of simple summertime fun, the one that didn’t take itself so gosh-darn seriously — than anything that has appeared under the name since 1998.

I couldn't have written it better myself.

Students of history like to say that every golden age carries within it the seeds of its demise. That rings especially true when it comes to the heyday of the Expanded Universe: the very popularity of the many new Star Wars novels, comics, and games reportedly did much to convince George Lucas that it might be worth returning to Star Wars himself. And because Lucas was one of the entertainment world’s more noted control freaks, such a return could bode no good for this giddy era of fan ownership.

We can pin the beginning of the end down to a precise date: November 1, 1994, the day on which George Lucas sat down to start writing the scripts for what would become the Star Wars prequels, going so far as to bring in a film crew to commemorate the occasion. “I have beautiful pristine yellow tablets,” he told the camera proudly, waving a stack of empty notebooks in front of its lens. “A nice fresh box of pencils. All I need is an idea.” Four and a half years later, The Phantom Menace would reach theaters, inaugurating for better or for worse — mostly for the latter, many fans would come to believe — the next era of Star Wars as a media phenomenon.

And then, eventually, came the sale to Disney, which in its quest to own all of our childhoods turned Star Wars into just another tightly controlled corporate property like any of its others. The Expanded Universe was officially put out of its misery in 2014, a decade and a half past its golden age. It continues to exist today only in the form of a handful of characters, Grand Admiral Thrawn among them, who have been co-oped by Disney and integrated into the official lore.

We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin via Hacker News

The catastrophic repercussions of human activity, like melting glaciers and collapsing ecosystems, tell us that “nature” was never really “mastered” after all. Yet the same story persists: humans will win. We must. We always win. Not long ago, I saw a poster in central London, presumably put there by some university department, that said something like “Don’t worry. We’re on it” — the ‘it’ being the solution to climate change. The sheer hubris of some of the techno-fixes being bandied about with varying levels of seriousness, like sending a mirror the size of Greenland into space or pumping clouds of sulphur dioxide into the air, border on the dystopian. Conferences may have replaced the campfire, but the principle is basically the same: it’s the story, the legend, that matters.

Report: Israel used AI tool called Lavender to choose targets in Gaza

The system had a 90 percent accuracy rate, sources said, meaning that about 10 percent of the people identified as Hamas operatives weren’t members of Hamas’ military wing at all. Some of the people Lavender flagged as targets just happened to have names or nicknames identical to those of known Hamas operatives; others were Hamas operatives’ relatives or people who used phones that had once belonged to a Hamas militant. “Mistakes were treated statistically,” a source who used Lavender told +972. “Because of the scope and magnitude, the protocol was that even if you don’t know for sure that the machine is right, you know statistically that it’s fine. So you go for it.”

Emphasis mine.

Welcome to the future.

The jobs being replaced by AI - an analysis of 5M freelancing jobs

The 3 categories with the largest declines were writing, translation and customer service jobs. The # of writing jobs declined 33%, translation jobs declined 19%, and customer service jobs declined 16%.

Too bad, too, because whoever wrote this article could have used an editor.

This article tracks with my experience in the field. I’m a freelance editor — print, audio, some video. My work has never felt so fraught, as I’ve never felt so undervalued. My work can be done by a computer!

I suddenly wonder what so many people have felt over the last thirty years since, say, NAFTA. To have your job swept out from under you and automated or sent abroad to be done by people for lower pay… I was all of eight when NAFTA went into effect, and I’ve never known what America was like beforehand. Yet I see the husks of mills and factories everywhere I go. (In fact, I gravitate to them, a moth to a flame.) I’ve not really felt what it must’ve been like to live through that transition.

Well, now I’m feeling it. It sucks. The insecurity is profound.

When I tell people of my predicament, there’s little sympathy from my fellow millennials, many of whom have never had the freedom that comes from work-from-your-computer self-employment. There’s a strong sense of something bordering on schadenfreude, that my luck finally ran out.

And I fear they’re right. I’m almost 40. I haven’t had a boss in fifteen years. I set my own schedule. My work has paid well, sure, and I’m fortunate to have assets that, if it becomes necessary, I can sell to survive. But what skills do I have? Put another way, what skills do I have that won’t be automated away by AI in the coming years? Most of what I know how to do I’ve done via a computer, and any work done on a computer is liable to be AI’d away.

Thankfully (or so I’m telling myself), this comes at a time when I’ve never been so dissatisfied with my work. People hardly read, and I no longer feel that people care to learn to write. Nor am I so sure that good journalism matters in the era of find-whatever-facts-you-want social media. I once was so certain that my work in journalism, however limited in scope, was good and just and righteous. That certainty is now gone, and I’m left adrift.

Not only have I lost my faith in what once felt like a calling, I’ve not yet felt another. It’s a dark, uncertain space.

The Liberated Woman’s Songbook

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate who upended economics, dies at 90

When I'm free of the constraints of every day life, when I no longer work in regular intervals (or when traveling, work at all), the emotions come in fast and loose.

I find myself in a small mountain resort town, one I last visited when I was six or seven on a family vacation. Walking my dog downtown, I'm struck by how bland, how uninteresting, how similar this place is to other resort towns: Steamboat, Hood River, Jackson, Bend. Boutiques that cater to rich white women, "local artist" co-ops selling overpriced art, seven dollar lattes. Wealthy, attractive people walking around town, browsing the shops in their Patagonia and North Face, talking of the latest run on the mountain or their investment accounts. There's a palpable insulation here — news of the larger world rarely makes waves in towns like this, unless said news affects the stock markets.

At the end of a long day, I'm in a dirty motel room, bathed in sickening white LED light from the nightstand lamp, reading a book about a remote Colorado valley, where people live on five-acre tracts of barren land in trailers and shacks and sheds, just thankful to be left alone. On the balcony above my room, a woman hangs over the edge, ashing her cigarette onto the hood of my car. She must live here. A few nights ago, at a motel in a middling city in the center of the country, I rented a $35 room for the night and was put in the middle of several families, all living out of their rooms. Late at night, the noise of an argument down the mezzanine woke me up. A few hours later, the muffled pops of gunshots in the distance, several blocks from where I slept. I woke up to the sound of a kid learning to ride his bike in the hallway.

When I'm out America-ing, I often think back to my hometown, to the people I knew as a child. I wonder what they'd think of this place. I wonder how I'd describe it to them, to someone that hasn't left Indiana. There American West doesn't translate well to someone from the heartland, and I think I prefer it that way. Some days, I feel as though I accomplished something just by making a life out here, as if it imbued me with some sort of unique understanding of human nature. I think of people back in the corn and soy fields of the Midwest, no mountains or public land in sight, and wonder about their lives.

And I look around at mine. What, exactly, am I trying to find out here? 

An answer? To what question?