March 2012

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Context: on a semi-work-related IRC channel, this conversation.

dennilan: Should I comment on [REDACTED] pointing out the Straw Man-ity?
Carlfish: Sadly, “straw manatee” returns no relevant image hits on Google.
dennilan: Turn off safe search. Rule 34 and all that.

Rule 34 of the Internet is an attempt to define the extent of human perversion by stating: “If it exists, somebody has already turned it into porn.”

Meanwhile, somewhere in Charles‘ head.

… “As a joke, I should come up with something really obscure and unlikely, and tweet a Rule 34 request for it.”

… “I know. ‘Rule 34 request. OSGi’”

… “No, not a good pick. People already get fucked by that regularly.”

Last week I was feeling very proud of myself. I had decided in the face of overwhelming temptation not to buy one of the new iPads.

I was standing in the Apple Store. The perky, painfully over-familiar sales clerk had confirmed they had my preferred model in stock, and was offering to fetch it for me. My girlfriend (who had previously declared that she saw no value whatsoever in the upgrade) was even actively encouraging me to buy it.

And I said no. The retina display was a nice feature and all, and I was very impressed by its clarity and detail, but really I didn’t see it making a huge difference to my life.

Then I had to say no again, because the salesman obviously didn’t believe me the first time.

The next morning the strangest thing happened. I was standing on the station platform in Milsons Point waiting for the train, reading a (Kindle) book on my iPad, and for the first time ever I could see the pixels. I mean I obviously had seen them before, but now I was noticing them every time I looked at the screen. My eyes were tripping over the slightly blurry sub-pixel text rendering when they should have been flowing easily from word to word.

So now I am feeling far less proud of myself. But according to current tracking data, my new iPad should arrive in the next couple of days.

  1. Write a blog post about the importance of getting your facts right
  2. Name that blog post Cutting Corners
  3. Include two glaringly stupid factual errors
Donna and Charles on the platform of Milsons Point Station. Scorecard: four eggs fertilized, three viable embryos, one blastocyst ready to be implanted about 30 minutes from now.

Donna:

So I guess this first try is going to be Oops 1.0?

Charles:

Well, more like 1.0-beta1

Donna:

Maybe -alpha. It's still a few months until we can really say it’s in beta testing.

Charles:

True. Hopefully one day we can promote it to Release Candidate.

On my last night in Cavite, I met a group of six teenage girls in the workers’ dormitories who shared a six-by-eight-foot concrete room: four slept on the makeshift bunk bed (two to a bed), the other two on mats spread on the floor. The girls who made Aztek, Apple and IBM CD-ROM drives shared the top bunk; the ones who sewed Gap clothing, the bottom. All were the children of farmers, away from their families for the first time.

Their jam-packed shoebox of a home had the air of an apocalyptic slumber party – part prison cell, part Sixteen Candles. It may have been a converted pigsty, but these were sixteen-year-old girls, and like teenage girls the world over they had covered the gray, stained walls with pictures: of fluffy animals, Filipino action-movie stars, and glossy magazine ads of women modeling lacy bras and underwear. After a little while, serious talk of working conditions erupted into fits of giggles and hiding under bedcovers. It seems that my questions reminded two of the girls of a crush they had on a labor organizer who had recently given a seminar at the Workers’ Assistance Center on the risks of infertility from working with hazardous chemicals.

Were they worried about infertility?

“Oh yes. Very worried now.”

That is from Naomi Klein's No Logo. Klein has, to the best of my knowledge, not had to issue embarrassing retractions of her first-hand accounts of what the poor of the world go through in order to support our first-world lifestyles.

And yet a decade after the publication of her book, we are still doing it. Still putting up with companies with labour practices that degrade and exploit human beings, while simultaneously gutting our own countries of working-class employment.

I guess at some point activists will become frustrated that their message isn't getting through, and cut a few corners.

Don't just make shit up.

The news of the weekend is that This American Life has had to issue an embarrassing retraction, when the cornerstone of their influential report on Apple’s manufacturing operations in China turned out to have largely been sourced from a guy who was more interested in dramatic license than accurate reporting.

Mike Daisey, the original source, responded that it wasn't his fault that his fictionalised account of Chinese working conditions was mis-reported as absolute truth:

My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity.

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue.

Reading first the original retraction, and then the transcript of their full episode on the debacle, it looks a lot more like deliberate deception on Daisey’s part.

[Marketplace China Correspondent Rob Schmitz] located and interviewed Daisey's Chinese interpreter Li Guifen (who goes by the name Cathy Lee professionally with westerners). She disputed much of what Daisey has been telling theater audiences since 2010 and much of what he said on the radio.

During fact checking before the broadcast of Daisey's story, This American Life staffers asked Daisey for this interpreter's contact information. Daisey told them her real name was Anna, not Cathy as he says in his monologue, and he said that the cell phone number he had for her didn't work any more. He said he had no way to reach her.

From the retraction, Schmitz on how he tracked the translator down:

…basically, I just typed “Cathy and translator and Shenzhen” into Google

Making shit up is bad activism.

The sad fact is that Daisey has a point. The things in his one-man show that are strictly not true still represent facts that we should be aware of. Underage labour is a problem in Chinese factories, albeit one that Apple actively combats (and thus isn’t a major cause or beneficiary of). Hexane poisoning was a problem at a number of Apple suppliers, albeit not ones Daisey went anywhere near. And even though they're objectively one of the better employers in that area, Apple could still do a whole lot more to improve the lot of the hundreds of thousands of human beings who manufacture our iPhones.

From a naive perspective, Daisey was right. Packaging all these threads of worker exploitation, neglect and abuse into a single narrative with an identifiable (and in many spheres, beloved) villain makes the whole story more compelling, and arguably is what allowed the rights of Chinese factory workers to dominate the headlines this month after a decade of being post-Nike-backlash background noise.

But as should have been obvious from the start, the fictions woven into the facts will be found out eventually. When you're found out you lose control of the message. And when you lose control of the message, you’ve lost. You've given a whole lot of people who were angry reason to be angry about you instead. And you've given a whole bunch of people who were galvanised enough doubt and confusion to re-admit the status quo.

(Correction: this article originally mis-attributed the This American Life report to NPR. I also managed to attribute something that recently happened to Naomi Wolf to Naomi Klein. Not the best start to an article about accuracy :) )

IAQ

  • 1:12 PM
  1. Hopefully somewhere between twice a week and daily
  2. During my lunch break, from a mental backlog
  3. I'd be surprised if it lasted two weeks
  4. Blame Twitter

Marco “Instapaper” Arment, on attributing the source of links (hat tip: Daring Fireball):

But if another link-blogger posts a link they found from your link-blog, I don’t think they need to credit you. Discovering something doesn’t transfer any ownership to you. Therefore, I don’t think anyone needs to give you credit for showing them the way to something great, since it’s not yours. Some might as a courtesy, but it shouldn’t be considered an obligation.

Jamie “fighting endless bureaucracy to keep my night-club running is still less frustrating than working in IT” Zawinski, characterising the Internet’s seeming obsession with crediting where you found a link:

One DJ says to another, "Hey, want to go see a movie?" The other DJ says, "I dunno, who's the projectionist?"

I think any reasonable human being would agree:

  • The primary source of a story is far more important than the way you happened to find it.
  • Stealing eyeballs from the people who do the real work by “aggregating” content in a way that makes reading the original unnecessary while adding nothing of value on top is a dishonest way to make a living
  • If the Huffington Post was published on paper, it still wouldn't even be worth wiping your arse on.

None of this means bloggers, tweeters or Facebook-posters shouldn't credit their immediate sources as well.

The mistake is thinking the “hat tip” link is a service to the person being linked to. And indeed this is the tack that Maria Popova, creator of the Curator’s Code that Arment was objecting to, took in a New York Times interview:

“Discovery of information is a form of intellectual labor,” she said. “When we don’t honor discovery, we are robbing somebody’s time and labor. The Curator’s Code is an attempt to solve some of that.”

The hat tip isn't a service to the “cool hunter” who brought you the link. It’s a service to the reader who wants to expand their sources of information.

For the record, I think the Curator’s Code itself is a bad idea simply because using two obscure Unicode glyphs to substitute for two already commonly confused concepts that are already able to be abbreviated in two or three letters isn’t likely to fly in anyone’s world.

Once upon a time, I read one blog. By following links out of that blog I discovered not only more people posting interesting new content, but more people connected to interesting networks I didn’t read myself, but who would funnel interesting content out from them in the form of links.

There is way too much information out there. One way that we deal with this and still keep mostly on top of what is going on is by choosing some subset of sources that mostly cover the things we're interested in. We all keep ourselves a certain number of degrees of separation from the original sources, because that’s the only way to even start to cover them all.

The hat tip gives us hints about how we could expand that web of interest in the right direction. If I find I'm regularly interested in the links that come to me via some third party I don't yet follow, I'm going to be interested in seeing what else they're linking to that I might be missing.

Maybe to other people like Matt Langer, this is “the digital equivalent of finding the previous borrower’s name scribbled on the card in the back of a library book”. But as a consumer of link blogs, I find hat-tip links useful.

I couldn’t even get my own teenage daughter to look at Google+ twice, “social isn’t a product,” she told me after I gave her a demo, “social is people and the people are on Facebook.”

While superficially plausible, not to mention pithy enough to fit in a tweet, Ex-Googler James Whittaker’s summation of the fate of Google+ seems to ignore the fact that previously, the people were on MySpace.

Still, that's no excuse. What Facebook did to the social networking market should be entirely familiar to Google. It's exactly what Google did to the search market.

In the late 1990s there was a glut of search engines, names like Altavista, Hotbot, Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, and Yahoo, each with their own strengths and foibles. Which of them was ‘best’ changed from week to week. There was even a secondary market for products that would query multiple engines at a time and aggregate the results.

The dance stopped overnight. Google released a category-killing product that learned from all the mistakes the other players had made—cramming the homepage, selling preferential placement, displaying too many similar results—and poured the secret sauce of PageRank™ on top.

All this done while the Internet was still growing exponentially, so the majority of today's Internet doesn't remember there was a time before Google.

Google has put itself in the position where its search platform is powerful enough, popular enough and robust enough that the company can respond to pretty much any threat in the search space. The only two dangers are complacency, where the company gives some competitor enough breathing room to outpace them, or some kind of transformative innovation that makes traditional search engines obsolete.

And that is where Facebook is with general purpose social networking. The “social” space has a lot of breathing-room for players outside the Facebook model, but anyone looking to be a one-stop social web shop has to deal with the fact that Facebook is the showstopper.

Facebook learned from all the mistakes the others had made—poor design, ugly custom profiles, a lack of things to do once you'd added all your friends—hooked into clever viral touches like the need to create an account to see your friend’s party photos, and packaged everything in a slick platform that they could then use to sell your attention to third parties without you ever leaving their service.

All this done while social networks were still growing exponentially.

Incremental improvements like video chat and new ways to categorise your friends aren't going to beat it, because Facebook can just watch which of your features are popular, and copy them on top of its already winning platform. To beat Facebook in the general social networking stakes, either Facebook has to get complacent, or your idea has to transform the social space entirely.

For the last ten days, my primary responsibility in life has been stabbing my significant other in the arse with needles. To explain why, we should probably go back in time to 2009.

Scene: Atlassian's San Francisco apartment. Charles is preparing to walk up the road to buy a pregnancy test kit, after a week of concern that somewhere, at some point, we got a little careless.

Donna: So if we are going to have a baby… what do you think we should call it?

Charles: “Oops”?

The test was negative. Looking back, though, that was the day our conversation changed from “Should we have a kid?” to “We should have a kid.” Because now it had a name. And that name was “Oops”.

I recently discovered that the rest of my family has taken to calling this potential child “The iBaby”.

As fate would have it, and thanks to one or two boring but not at all uncommon medical issues, implementing this decision wasn't nearly as easy as we hoped. It was time to USE SCIENCE!

Step One

Step one is several months of ‘give it one more try (kind of) the natural way’. This involves a course of pills for the woman (possible side effects: hot flashes, stomach aches and mood swings) to stimulate egg production on a predictable schedule, and the kind of strictly regimented timetable that manages to take all the fun out of something that's usually quite enjoyable.

This is the step where they warn you about the increased chance of multiple births. I'm not sure the doctor appreciated my suggestion that we would keep at most two and sell the rest.

Step Two

Step two is where the fun really begins. My naive understanding of IVF up to this point was “Well, you get an egg, put it in a dish with some sperm, maybe poke it with a needle to start things off? Chemicals? Er… then put the embryo back in… er… at some point?”

I was mostly correct, but missed one important problem. To get the biggest chance of success you need much more than the paltry one egg that a woman will produce at a time. The solution to this problem is a metric fuck-tonne of drugs.

Drug number one (daily, days 1-X) stimulates egg production. It comes in the kind of multi-dose syringe-pen that diabetics use for insulin. Drug number two (daily, days 5-X) comes in a set of more traditional-looking single-use syringes, and is the antagonist that stops the over-stimulated ovaries from releasing those eggs too early. Both drugs can be self-administered by injecting around the stomach, but it turns out getting your boyfriend to stab you in the arse twice a day is the preferred method.

Likely side-effects: depression, rashes, headaches (compounded by the fact that you're not allowed Ibuprofin) and enough injection-related double entendres to script a Carry On movie.

During this process the woman must go into the clinic every two or three days for blood tests and an internal ultrasound. (long plastic wand, condom, lubricant, and the warning “this will feel cold and gooey”) The ultrasound is to monitor the development of follicles on the ovaries in which eggs may or may not be growing—there's no reliable way to detect if there are eggs in there until they go in to fetch them.

Eventually, when the follicles are getting close to 2cm across, you get the call from the clinic telling you that day X has arrived, and letting you know exactly (to the minute) when you need to deliver the final "trigger" injection (standard syringe, same side-effects as all the others). Two and a half days after this trigger, you are scheduled to come in for “Collection”.

In our case, tomorrow.

Step 3

Collection is the first part of the process that necessarily involves the male half of the relationship, and it goes somewhere like this:

  1. The woman is given a local anaesthetic. A doctor pushes a needle through the wall of her uterus, extracting eggs one by one from the aforementioned follicles.
  2. Halfway through this procedure, the man is given a plastic cup and sent off into a room full of dirty magazines.

Donna feels this is somehow unfair, and has been trying to convince the medical staff to find at least something they can do to me that involves being stabbed or probed.

Once collection is complete, there is a five day wait while they introduce sperm to eggs in the hope that they get together to form viable embryos. In the event that my sperm just swims around looking confused, wondering when they'll be allowed to go play World of Warcraft and trying to find the spot in the dish with the best WiFi reception, this introduction can also be performed manually.

Step 4

Five days later, the woman returns for the final procedure where the best embryo is implanted back into the uterus, and many fingers are crossed that it all works out and eventually we will have something that can resent our interfering in its life. The remaining embryos are frozen just in case we need to try again later, or if we need them to form the basis of a race of cloned super-soldiers that will save humanity.

So if there actually are eggs there to extract, and they get along well with my sperm, and develop into a viable embryo, and are successfully implanted back into Donna, and none of the billion things that can go wrong after that point do actually go wrong, then you're starting to get an idea of just how much funnier the choice of “Oops” as a placeholder name has got every day since I came up with it.