It’s property tax time. So I went to the SF treasury website to pay my tax bill. And got an SSL certificate error from Firefox.

Oops the cert expired a year ago and is for the wrong domain. I get it, government web sites are often underfunded and don’t work well. Maybe they didn’t know how big a problem this presents in modern browsers that are enforcing SSL security. So I wrote a polite note to support. And got this response from the San Francisco 311 Customer Service Center.

Please use the right protocol to access our website. Please use http://sftreasurer.org instead of https://…

OK then…

techbad
  2017-12-07 19:58 Z

This week seems to have broken a lot of my friends politically. Lots of folks withdrawing, feeling despair, etc. Me too, only I may reached that point a week or two ago.

The final straw this week seems to be the new Republican tax law. Cynically creating an enormous new deficit to give tax breaks to the richest Americans. While raising taxes on middle class people, particularly in high tax states like California and New York. It is a terrible law that will cause significant harm to our country. Combined with the destruction of the Affordable Care Act it will bring misery to many Americans.

But there’s so much more awfulness. The sexual misconduct revelations are a constant reminder of how shitty so many men are. Topped off by our Sexual Predator in Chief and his not-quite endorsement of child botherer Roy Moore. Trump’s tweets of anti-Muslim hate propaganda. The reversal of net neutrality. Trump’s off the cuff insults against Native Americans. Ongoing efforts to suppress the vote. Lurching towards nuclear war with North Korea with a State Department stripped of competency.

The only “bright spot”, as it were, is Mueller’s investigation. As if discovering the President’s staff worked with Russian intelligence to subvert the US election is somehow a positive thing. It’s not, it’s terrible, and so far we’ve done nothing to make the 2018 election more secure. Also it’s not really not clear that Mueller can save the Republic even with ironclad evidence of Trump campaign collusion with Russia. The Republicans hold the power and have shown themselves completely uninterested in decency or the rule of law. Remember the outcome of the Iran-Contra affair?

It’s going to get worse. It may not get better. He may get us all killed.

politics
  2017-12-03 18:12 Z

Simplenote is good software. It’s a very simple cross-platform note taker with excellent cloud synchronization between devices. It’s perfect for drafting a few paragraphs of text, keeping a simple to do list, or jotting down an address while you’re on the phone. Under the hood it’s got some remarkably sophisticated features like version history, note sharing, etc. But all that is out of the way if you just want a box to type in.

Simplenote is free software, a gift from the folks at Automattic. They’re mostly known for WordPress but they have a surprising number of other public good services they run, mostly for free or with value-add purchases. Akismet, Longreads, Gravatar, Cloudup; I had no idea these were all Automattic. Good for them.

techgood
  2017-11-20 23:33 Z

Twitter has been in the middle of a shitstorm for awhile now, users and the media upset about abuse, trolls, propaganda, etc. They’re now working on a short timeline to curb abuse. It’s not going very well. Yesterday Twitter verified Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Nazi rally in August. The rally that ended up with Heather Heyer being murdered. Kessler gloated about her death on Twitter.

Yes, Twitter endorsed an actual Nazi.

Make no mistake; when Twitter puts the blue check on an account they are endorsing it. They are endorsing that person’s identity is verified. They are endorsing that the person is newsworthy. They now acknowledge the endorsement.

Verified users aren’t just endorsed, they are enabled. My understanding is verified users get extra tools when they use the site. They get a priority user support experience. And it appears that verified users get ranked higher when Twitter decides which tweets to show, particularly replies to public tweets. So Twitter hasn’t just endorsed an actual Nazi, they’ve gone out of their way to enable his speech too.

I want nothing to do with a company like that. I rage quit this week. I’ll probably end up back at some point because I’ll miss it too much, but right now I’m furious.

I’m generally a strong free speech advocate. Twitter was founded on principles of strong free speech. But when we worked on it in the early days we neglected to consider how powerful a free speech tool is in the hands of monstrous people. Demagogues use Twitter incredibly effectively. Propaganda and lies spread faster than truth. Abusers hound their victims into silence. Free speech only works if there are curbs on its abuse. Twitter has failed to do that.

Update: Twitter has updated its policies and removed the verification from at least two high visibility Nazi accounts.
culture
  2017-11-15 23:28 Z

I’m using Mastodon regularly now, I’m @nelson@lgbt.io. Add me!

Mastodon is a Twitter-like social media that the cool kids started using back in April. At first blush it’s just like Twitter. You post messages about your breakfast, you follow other people to see their cat pictures, and you get a little dopamine rush from social engagement. Also maybe you share things of personal or public interest and help build an important online culture. The UI isn’t as polished and it doesn’t have as many features as Twitter, but it’s good.

If you want to start using Mastodon this beginner’s guide or the Join Mastodon site are good places to start. The key thing is you have to pick an instance to sign up on. This tool helps find instances or you can just pick the biggest instance. I picked lgbt.io because I like the idea of an LGBT identity.

Once you join you need to find people to follow. The best tool I’ve found for that is the Twitter/Mastodon bridge which helps you find your Twitter friends on Mastodon. It requires both sides opt-in and the UI is a little awkward. I also followed a lot of people from Metafilter.

I don't like the default multi-column web UI. I'm using this one column layout instead but it's not particularly easy to install. Halcyon is an alternate Mastodon web client that is a Twitter UI clone; you can use it with any Mastodon account. For iPhone apps people recommend Amaroq.

So why Mastodon? For me it’s because I’m angry with Twitter’s endorsement of Nazis and want an alternative. Also it’s fun to try something new. The big drawback is very little of my community is there. But maybe it’ll grow! Also it’s good that Mastodon is a different community than Twitter; the goal is to not replicate all the awful community mistakes Twitter made. Hopefully the abusers and Nazis and insane presidents will never join Mastodon or at least will be filtered out somehow.

The big technical difference with Mastodon is it is federated; instead of one single Mastodon server there’s separate instances that communicate with each other. For casual use the federation doesn’t matter since most everyone can talk to everyone else across instances. But in theory it allows for diverse communities with different standards. Also possibly some interesting scaling properties. I’m a little skeptical about how this will work as Mastodon grows, I don’t know that they have any magic solution to Internet abuse. But I’m excited to see someone trying something new.

culture
  2017-11-13 19:21 Z

The big surprise from the German elections was how bad Merkel and the ruling CDU did, and how well the deplorable far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party did.

Berlin is a lovely city, very optimistic and international. It also has little patience for AfD bullshit; I saw no AfD signs anywhere until two days before the election, and those only way up high out of reach on poles. There was a big demonstration last night in Alexanderplatz after the election; the AfD were having their party there so a few thousand Berliners turned up to, um, help them celebrate.

Some links that may be of interest

Now for the coalition negotiations. It's not clear to me if the SPD saying they won't join one with the CDU a negotiating tactic or if they mean it.

culturetravelberlin2017
  2017-09-25 17:26 Z

Ken and I are in Berlin for a few weeks, sort of working vacation. Been here about ten days now and have some impressions.

I’m really liking daily life in Berlin. We have an apartment in Prenzlauer Berg near Kollwitzplatz, a bougie neighborhood in former East Berlin. It’s all leafy streets and 1920s buildings and is totally charming. The nearby streets are full of cafés and restaurants and Kollwitzplatz itself is home to a terrific weekly farmer’s market. It feels worlds away from the inhuman scale 1960+s architecture you see in so much of central Berlin.

One thing I particularly enjoy in Prenzl’berg is how international it is. New York bagels, French cheese shops, English laundry, Vietnamese restaurants, Russian cafés, yesterday I had an Argentinian empanada in a repurposed 19th century brewery. I mean it’s still Germany, there’s a 100 year old kneipe just across the street from us serving Rinderouladen and Pils. But it’s also global and progressive. Which not only makes it easy for an American to get by but also makes it fun and not a historical museum like sometimes Paris can feel like.

I also appreciate being in a city with working public transit. And without thousands of dangerously insane people living on the streets. Having a bit of insulation from Trumpism helps calm the nerves. Big parts of life function better in Europe.

I’m also feeling a little unsettled, a phase I go through every time we do these long visits. A struggle between the feeling I should go out and be a tourist every day, consume the city in the short time I have. Against my desire to sit at home on my comfortable laptop and do my regular daily routine just like I would at home. Of course the happy medium is in the middle, some of each.

One goal I set myself for this time in Berlin was to learn more about older history. So much of Berlin is dominated by 20th century history, the Nazis and the Soviets. And that stuff is important and well represented. But I feel like I understand it from previous visits, so this time I’m looking for traces of 19th century Germany, of Prussia’s great gay king from the 18th century, of the very old city back when Cölln was a separate town. Learning the city from the time the waterways were the travel routes, not the U-bahn lines.

culturetravelberlin2017
  2017-09-18 08:34 Z

A new “urban art” museum just opened in Berlin: Urban Nation. Judging by their opening weekend show it is a fantastic collection of modern street art. I put a few photos of the works I saw on Flickr.

The event had an “art mile” with some temporary sculpture installations. Also some magnificent large scale street art works on Bülowstrasse itself, hopefully those will last awhile. I particularly liked Zezão’s alien calligraphy forms. Also liked some of the wildcat street art, I think a few lesser-known artists got some unauthorized paint up.

The museum show had a really thoughtfully selected overview of the best of modern streetart. C215, Deih XLF, Dalek, the obligatory representations by Banksy and Invader and Fairey. It’s terrific a museum is collecting these from all over the world; whoever is curating seems very plugged in. I wonder who’s funding the building and collection; the website only mentions some city of Berlin funding.

culturetravelberlin2017
  2017-09-17 18:20 Z

I strongly support removing Confederate monuments but I have some sympathy to the “you’re removing history” argument. I have no wish to forget the Civil War or the legacy of slavery. I’m a Texan and a descendant of slavers, my own skin is in this.

The disingenous thing about the “but our history!” argument is that the monuments being torn down aren’t informative representations. They’re mostly Lost Cause statues made to create a narrative of heroism, the brave Stonewall Jackson and the noble Jefferson Davis. They don’t inform, just glorify. Most of them were erected 50-100 years after the war for sinister purposes, reinforcing Jim Crow laws and resisting school integration. (Seriously, who names an elementary school after Robert E. Lee just after the courts rule Black kids get to go to that school too?)

Germany has a much better model for honoring World War II. I’ve written before about the impact the concentration camps and monuments in Germany have had on me. The forthright documentation of history without glorifying it. There are no monuments to Hitler or Himmler that need tearing down, such a thing is unimagineable there. But there is a huge amount of history on display; the Topography of Terror center is particularly good.

Japan has a more awkward relationship with its World War II history. The official line most citizens follow is the war was a terrible mistake and Japan is forevermore committed to pacifism. But there’a strong nationalist movement in Japan who pushes back on that. The Yasukuni Shrine is the central lightning rod for the nationalists. I’ve visited the museum there, it’s fascinating. When the Japanese Prime Minister visited it was a major international scandal. Japan also has a huge debate about its textbooks that leave out some of the uglier bits of war history. It reminds me a bit of how American kids are still taught the revisionist lie that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery or that the Southerners were innocent victims of the War of Northern Aggression.

History is never simple. But a mass produced generic statue erected 60 years after the war isn’t even trying to be historical. Its purpose is symbolic. And to many Southerners it’s a symbol of enslavement and racist discrimination. There are better ways to honor and explain our history.

culture
  2017-08-17 21:27 Z

One crucial political aim for 2018 and 2020 is making sure the vote is fair and representative. The GOP has a clear strategy for voter suppression. They also will try to further cement their control of the House starting in 2020 with gerrymandering. Here are some people working to protect voters’ rights.

Jason Kander is leading the fight against voter suppression with the organization Let America Vote. Right now that’s mostly agitation against Trump’s voter suppression committee but it’s backed by legal and political action. (Kander is hilarious on Twitter, I enjoy following his personal account.) The ACLU is also very active in protecting voting rights.

I’ve been spending a lot of time educating myself about gerrymandering. The #1 thing I’d recommend is the book Ratf**ked; the New Yorker review gives a summary. That book is mostly a report on REDMAP, the GOP districting effort in 2010 (and now 2020). The DNC’s districting effort in 2020 is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by Eric Holder. They’ve been relatively quiet but that may be because it’s mostly a technical and per-state issue.

The big news in gerrymandering this fall is the Wisconsin case, to be heard in the Supreme Court in October. It is considering the question about whether an explicitly partisan gerrymander is legal. There’s a lot of excitement about a measure called the efficiency gap which quantifies partisan bias. I’m doing a little work in this area myself, there’s a fun statistics + maps problem there.

I’ve left out a third topic, protecting the vote from foreign influence. I’m not as up to date on that topic. Also it’s a bit different in that voting security should be a bipartisan issue. Unfortunately a bunch of Republicans are ignoring obvious evidence of Russian election tampering as a misguided attempt to protect Trump. Secure voting machines and easy auditability are important themes.

politics
  2017-07-30 16:47 Z