Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Brianna Wu makes video games for a living. She’s been chased from her home by death threats, because she’s a woman on the internet. She writes in Bustle:

Software increasingly defines the world around us. It’s rewriting everything about human interaction — I spend a lot more time on my iPhone than I do at my local civic center. Facebook, Apple, Tinder, Snapchat, and Google create our social realities — how we make friends, how we get jobs, and how mankind interacts. And the truth is, women don’t truly have a seat at the table. 

This has disastrous consequences for women that use these systems built by men for men. I must use Twitter, as it’s a crucial networking tool for a software engineer, yet I must also suffer constant harassment. Women’s needs are not heard, our truth is never spoken. These systems are the next frontier of human evolution, and they’re increasingly dangerous for us.

Wu’s right. There are not enough women designing the digital systems that we all use. It’s important that women have a say in these processes because men don’t suffer the same abuse online that women do. Nobody harasses men on Twitter, so the men that make Twitter don’t make it harder for trolls to harass people (read: women) on Twitter.

If men chase women out of computer science, then by the time they graduate and go off to build things like Twitter, the only people to hire are men who chase women away. What kind of system do you think they’ll build?

Hint: it’s right here.

Published on under It's a Man's World

Andrew Potter, editor of the Ottawa Citizen, taught me a new word today. Neoprimitivism was apparently a Russian art movement in the early 20th century – I know this because the human species has advanced to the point where machines memorize hopelessly arcane trivia for us – but Potter uses neoprimitivism to mean something different. He writes about a different movement, full of magical-thinking people suspicious of science, who eschew vaccines and decry GMO foods:

The moral imperative driving this is what we can call the quest for authenticity. This is the search for meaning in a world that is alienating, spiritually disenchanted, socially flattened, technologically obsessed, and thoroughly commercialized. To that end, “authenticity” has become the go-to buzzword in our moral slang, underwriting everything from our condo purchases and vacation stops to our friendships and political allegiances.

There are two major problems with this. The first is that authenticity turns out to be just another form of hyper-competitive status seeking, exacerbating many of the very problems it was designed to solve. Second, and even more worrisome, is that the legitimate fear of the negative effects of technological evolution has given way to a paranoid rejection of science and even reason itself.

Potter starts with the new William Gibson, The Peripheral, makes a left turn onto historical anthropology and the psychology of “the authentic” (see above), and pivots to modern cases of neoprimitivism all very adroitly. This is a wonderfully written editorial, all in all. Plus, it enhances that feeling of smug superiority I feel when I walk by a Whole Foods.

Meanwhile, this reminds me of the state of humanity in the unbearably grim future of Warhammer 40,000, a tabletop war game set in the 41st millenium. There, the human species has colonized millions of planets across the galaxy, with spaceships the size of the island of Manhattan and legions of Space Marines in robotic power armor.

This sounds almost utopian, but people in the Warhammer universe coexist with unfathomably advanced machines that they know nothing about. The technology is so advanced and so robust that it’s outlived the people who designed it, the people who maintained it, and the people who understood how it works.

The concept of humans-as-space-barbarians was also fleshed out nicely in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and probably served to some extent as inspiration for Warhammer. In fact, since there aren’t even any spacefaring orcs in Foundation, humankind is the most primitive society by default. But still. No orcs?

Who’d want to live in that kind of future?

Published on under We Can't Have Nice Things

Lea Coligado is a computer science student at Stanford University. She’s a woman, and she’s “floored” by the sexism in computer science. She’s the author of a piece in Fortune:

When I first came to Stanford in the fall of 2012, Computer Science was the last thing on my mind. I hail from a long line of doctors so naturally I was pre­med from the womb. On top of that, I had two years of high school experience being the only girl in an AP Computer Science course of 20 dudes—I had no intention of prolonging that experience. I started Stanford as an intended Biology major, enrolling in Stanford’s introductory Computer Science course CS106A only through peer pressure.

I loved CS106A so much I ended up taking a CS course every quarter my freshman year, and I declared my major in the fall of 2013. As I progressed further in my track, taking upper-level courses, I watched the number of girls in my CS classes slowly dwindle to the point that I could count 20 girls in a 100-­person class on a good day (and two of them would just turn out to be men with long hair). And I began noticing all the inklings of sexism, something I’d previously thought of as media folklore.

Having spent the latter half of 2014 watching in horror as online mobs hounded women in gaming (for having committed the unspeakable sin of being women), I’m surprised that Coligado is surprised. Men on the internet are awful to women on the internet; why wouldn’t they be marginally less awful in person? But on the other hand, it has to be a good sign that someone can make it to their second year in college before encountering sexism.

That being said, some of stuff she’s experienced is pretty astounding. My favorite is the “well, then I should have applied” guy. Maybe computer science isn’t much more full of sexism than other fields; maybe these guys are just socially tone-deaf. (Nah.)

Published on under It's a Man's World

Matthew Butterick, whose book Typography for Lawyers ought to be mandatory reading in law school, doesn’t like Medium. He sounds a little ambivalent about it typographically. Really, you get a sense of where the bulk of his antipathy lies from the title of his blog post, Billionaire’s Typewriter:

Whereas the tra­di­tional type­writer of­fered free­dom at the cost of de­sign, the bil­lion­aire’s type­writer of­fers con­ve­nience at the cost of freedom.

As a writer and tool­smith, I’ve found the rush to em­brace these sys­tems per­plex­ing. Not be­cause I’m cur­mud­geonly. Not be­cause I fail to un­der­stand that peo­ple, in­clud­ing writ­ers, en­joy things that are free and convenient.

Rather, be­cause gen­tle scrutiny re­veals that these sys­tems are pow­ered by a form of hu­man frack­ing. To get his frack­ing per­mit on your ter­ri­tory, Mr. Williams (the multi­bil­lion­aire) needs to per­suade you (the writer) that a key con­sid­er­a­tion in your work (namely, how & where you of­fer it to read­ers) is a “waste of time.”

Human Fracking as a Service probably won’t catch on, but it’s a pretty apt description of these platforms that offer nothing so much as the chance to power a platform.

Published on under Disrupt Everything

A quick lesson in the irrational economics of social justice:

Matthew Yglesias, writing for Vox, cites a study performed by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness that found giving homeless people free housing and casework saves tens of thousands of dollars per homeless person.

The region spends $31,000 a year per homeless person on “the salaries of law-enforcement officers to arrest and transport homeless individuals — largely for nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication or sleeping in parks — as well as the cost of jail stays, emergency-room visits and hospitalization for medical and psychiatric issues.” By contrast, getting each homeless person a house and a caseworker to supervise their needs would cost about $10,000 per person.

It’s not just Central Florida; this sort of study has been performed with the same findings in North Carolina and Colorado.

In the interest of making sure none of these homeless people receive even a sliver of free help that they might not have earned, it appears we as a society have opted to spend an extra $20,000 per homeless person. The rational choice would be to go for the ounce of prevention, rather than the pound of cure.

Likewise, a study by the Vera Institute for Justice in 2012 charted 40 states’ spending on prisons, per person in prison. Tal Yellin at CNNMoney charted this against those states’ spending per K-12 student, and the result isn’t pretty.

Again, we could spend a lot less money keeping people in jail if we spent more money providing an education that gave kids a real opportunity for bettering themselves. We’re certainly not going to empty every prison in America by throwing more money at schools; however, high school drop outs are subjected to certain socioeconomic forces that send a lot of them to prison. The incarceration rate for 16-24 year old dropouts is 63 times higher than non-dropouts. An education can help kids get out of that pipeline. An underfunded school system simply can’t.

Published on under This Doesn't Add Up

The Guardian has a story about a creepy, creepy old man who took photos of a child’s underwear by kneeling down and sticking a camera under her skirt. The guy apparently committed no crime in Oregon:

An Oregon judge has ruled that a 61-year-old man did nothing illegal when he crouched in the aisle of a Target store and snapped photos up a 13-year-old’s skirt. It was lewd and appalling, but not outlawed, Washington county judge Eric Butterfield said.

“From a legal point of view, which unfortunately today is my job to enforce, he didn’t do anything wrong,” the judge said on Thursday. Patrick Buono of Portland didn’t dispute using his cellphone to take upskirt photos on 3 January at the store in suburban Beaverton, the Oregonian reported.

But his defense lawyer, Mark Lawrence, argued Buono didn’t violate the laws against invasion of privacy and attempted encouraging child sexual abuse, a child abuse images count.

Well, this is just crazy. I can’t believe that photographing a kid’s underwear under her skirt isn’t actually a crime in Oregon. The article mentions that Buono was charged with two crimes. One of them has to fit, right?

The Child Pornography Charge

In Oregon, they call child pornography “the crime of encouraging child sexual abuse,” and it has three degrees. The third degree of the crime has a number of provisions, but one of them says that whoever:

Knowingly possesses or controls, or knowingly accesses with the intent to view, a visual recording of sexually explicit conduct involving a child for the purpose of arousing or satisfying the sexual desires of the person or another person;

Is guilty of encouraging child sexual abuse in the third degree. There are a lot of elements in that crime, but they’re almost all straightforward. The guy took a photo on purpose, so he “knowingly possessed” it; it’s a photo, so it’s a “visual recording”; 13 years old is definitely a “child”; and we can assume that “sexual desires” were involved in the particular photos.

The only hitch there is “sexually explicit conduct” – it’s not immediately apparent that the child was doing anything like that. However, the definition of sexually explicit conduct in Oregon is:

  1. Sexual intercourse or deviant sexual intercourse;
  2. Genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital or oral-anal contact, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex or between humans and animals;
  3. Penetration of the vagina or rectum by any object other than as part of a medical diagnosis or treatment or as part of a personal hygiene practice;
  4. Masturbation;
  5. Sadistic or masochistic abuse; or
  6. Lewd exhibition of sexual or other intimate parts.

I’m not going to bother to look up the case law to figure out how the courts in Oregon have defined each of those terms, because this case is depressing enough already without getting a complete picture of the landscape of exploited children in this particular jurisdiction.

Going with the plain meaning of those terms, none of the first five really apply. That last one, though; it seems like the part of a child covered by a skirt and by underwear would qualify as an “intimate part.” However, the law is specific not just about the area of a body being photographed, but also the “lewd exhibition” of that area. And, uh, the child wasn’t doing anything like that.

Why these crazy stipulations? Well, we’ve all got those embarrassing baby pictures that our parents trot out at the holidays. There’s a photo of my brother, then 2 years old, taking a bath in the kitchen sink, and a photo of me at bath time with a beard made from bubble bath bubbles. We’re both naked, but neither of those photos are child pornography – nor should they be. Everyone’s family has pictures like this. So Oregon’s law tries to draw those boundaries to keep regular old parents from being … sex offenders.

However, this boundary-drawing has accidentally left out Creeper McPervsalot in this case. He’s apparently committed no crime.

Invasion of Privacy

Well, okay. So this guy skates on the child pornography charge. It seems more than a little messed up. The other charge is Invasion of Privacy, which seems like a bit of an understatement. But sure. Let’s give this a shot.

A person commits the crime of invasion of personal privacy if: the person knowingly makes or records a photograph, motion picture, videotape or other visual recording of another person in a state of nudity without the consent of the person being recorded;

Well, the kid wasn’t naked. So there goes that charge. Also, the victim would have had to be in a location and under circumstances where she had a reasonable expectation of personal privacy. In Oregon, they have a list:

Places and circumstances where the person has a reasonable expectation of personal privacy includes, but is not limited to, a bathroom, dressing room, locker room that includes an enclosed area for dressing or showering, tanning booth and any area where a person undresses in an enclosed space that is not open to public view.

A random aisle in Target probably doesn’t count. Geez, Oregon, what’s wrong with your laws? Upskirt photos (of kids or otherwise) ought to be a crime. It’s not hard. Massachusetts has one.

Of course, just because you have a law doesn’t mean you’ll keep that law. In Texas, pervy photos of other peoples’ underwear is protected speech:

The state’s highest criminal court on Wednesday tossed out part of a Texas law banning “improper photography or visual recording” - surreptitious images acquired in public for sexual gratification, often called “up skirting” or “down blousing” - as a violation of federal free-speech rights and an improper restriction on a person’s right to individual thoughts.

Oh, come on.

Published on under Nuke Us From Orbit