phiffer.org

Dan Phiffer Dan Phiffer builds websites, makes art, and teaches in NYC

How gerrymandered is a district?mike.teczno.com

Michal Migurski is working on a project for measuring legislative gerrymandering. Redistricting shenanigans can be detected from current, historical, and proposed legislative districts.

PlanScore is doing two things to address partisan gerrymandering.

We are creating score pages for district plans to provide instant, real-time analysis of a plan’s fairness. Each district plan will be evaluated for its population, demographic, partisan, and geometric character in a single place, with backing methodology and data provided so you can understand the number. We’ll publish historical scores back to the 1970s for context, current scores of proposed plans for voters and journalists, and dynamic scores of new plans for legislative staff who are designing tomorrow’s plans.

We are also assembling a collection of underlying electoral data from sources like Open Elections, elections-geodata, and other parallel efforts. Our goal is to provide valid scores for new plans in any state. As we await the outcomes of gerrymandering challenges in Wisconsin and North Carolina, voters and legislative staff in other states are wondering how to apply new ideas to their own plans. In 2020, everyone will have to redraw their maps. PlanScore will be a one-stop shop for district plan analysis.

Link

The past is our burdenmapzen.com

Aaron Cope on Who’s On First (which I also work on) and the responsibility that comes with naming things.

We have been blind to the fact that the First Nations were already here living on these lands long before the European settlers arrived. It is important to recognize that we have not been passive in our blindness but brutally deliberate. First out of malice and then later out of negligence and more recently out of shame.

Link

“We thought we were gonna change the world”medium.com

From Mike Monteiro’s One person’s history of Twitter, from beginning to end:

Their goal was giving everyone a voice. They were so obsessed with giving everyone a voice that they never stopped to wonder what would happen when everyone got one. And they never asked themselves what everyone meant. That’s Twitter’s original sin. Like Oppenheimer, Twitter was so obsessed with splitting the atom they never stopped to think what we’d do with it.

Related: more Twitter-related news from the Civicist.

Link

ftrain at twentywww.ftrain.com

Paul Ford continues to be an inspiration, even if ftrain.com isn’t as active as it once was. You really should go read the archives if somehow you haven’t explored them before.

20 years is arbitrary nonsense. A blip. Our software is bullshit, our literary essays are too long, the good editors all quit or got fired, hardly anyone is experimenting with form in a way that wakes me up, the IDEs haven’t caught up with the 1970s, the R&D budgets are weak, the little zines are badly edited, the tweets are poor, the short stories make no sense, people still care too much about magazines, the Facebook posts are nightmares, LinkedIn has ruined capitalism, and the big tech companies that have arisen are exhausting, lumbering gold-thirsty kraken that swim around with sour looks on their face wondering why we won’t just give them all our gold and save the time … In the spirit of this thing I won’t be editing this paragraph.

Thanks for sharing what you know!

Link

Escape from distractionland

I recently added some scripts to my work laptop designed to help me break out of my reflexive “cmd-T, T, enter” keyboard habit. That keyboard sequence loads up my Twitter timeline in a new tab before I’ve even realized what’s happening. I’m untraining myself out of habitual social media grazing by enforcing a rigid schedule.

Based on Mike Rugnetta’s excellent write-up, I basically hijack my Mac laptop’s /etc/hosts file on a daily interval from 10am to 6pm, with a one hour lunch break at noon. I’ve modified his approach slightly, since I tend to edit my /etc/hosts file regularly for web development, and can’t be bothered to maintain two separate copies of it. Instead of swapping between two different hosts files, I use sed to modify the file in place.

In my hosts file I have a couple lines that look like this at the beginning of the day:

# distractionland
# 127.0.0.1 twitter.com mobile.twitter.com api.twitter.com instagram.com mltshp.com

The rule starts the day commented out, so up until 10am it’s still open season on my wandering attention. Notice that you can stack up a bunch of hostnames after the IP address, there’s no need to make a separate line for each one. I recently deactivated my Facebook, so I don’t need that one in the mix any more.

My first script /usr/local/bin/disable-distractions blocks access to Twitter, et al by uncommenting the line:

#!/bin/sh
sudo sed -i .bak -E 's/^# (127.0.0.1 twitter.com.+)$/\1/' /etc/hosts

The script creates a backup file hosts.bak and then removes the comment like this:

# distractionland
127.0.0.1 twitter.com mobile.twitter.com api.twitter.com instagram.com mltshp.com    

The second script /usr/local/bin/enable-distractions comments the line back out, unblocking the websites:

#!/bin/sh
sudo sed -i .bak -E 's/^\s*(127.0.0.1 twitter.com.+)$/# \1/' /etc/hosts

The -i flag for sed is for “inline” editing, and the -E activates extended regular expression syntax. The edit command uses the form 's/.../.../', which basically reads as “search for … and replace it with …” The first … is a regular expression matching the line, and the second … either prefixes the line with # or removes the #.

I use the launchd daemon to call these scripts using four .plist files according to a daily schedule:

  • 10am: disable-distractions
  • 12pm: enable-distractions
  • 1pm: disable-distractions
  • 6pm: enable-distractions

Note that the computer must be running at each transition time, or the scripts won’t fire. But I can always just invoke one or the other from the command line if needed.

The launchd configuration is handled by four .plist files saved in my /Library/LaunchDaemons folder. Once everything was set up I activated them like this:

sudo launchctl load /Library/LaunchDaemons/org.phiffer.workday-start.plist
sudo launchctl load /Library/LaunchDaemons/org.phiffer.workday-end.plist
sudo launchctl load /Library/LaunchDaemons/org.phiffer.lunchbreak-start.plist
sudo launchctl load /Library/LaunchDaemons/org.phiffer.lunchbreak-end.plist

I’ve found this “one simple trick” has been effective at managing my novelty-seeking brain. Each time I absent-mindedly load up a blocked page I take a deep breath and close the tab. For now I’ve chosen not to block my feed reader, so I’m keeping up with the weblogs I subscribe to much more regularly than I did before. Keep on posting, friends!

I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!

On September 5, 2016 I won the Listserve lottery. In case you haven’t heard of it, the Listserve is a one-message-per-day email newsletter. Each day a single person from the 21,000+ subscriber list gets to send a message out to the entire list. Here’s what that invitation looks like:

Hey there, you’ve been chosen to write to the rest of The Listserve. You have 48 hours to respond with the following:

Name:
Email*:
Current Location:
Subject Line:
Email body:

*this can be blank, but you will not receive responses

We’re excited to read what you have to say!

—Your friends at The Listserve

GUIDELINES:

What can I send?
– Text — letters, numbers, symbols
– No links, images, HTML, Javascript, etc.
– 600 words max

What can I write?
– Anything! Well, almost anything… We reserve the right not to send your message if it threatens the spirit of the list — hate speech, etc.
– If you send something overtly controversial, or (self-) promotional, you must provide your name and email information and why you believe in what you are endorsing — you cannot be anonymous. Spam is unappreciated.

The following are random suggestions for you from the Listserve community:

  1. Motivational/life tips should be kept to a minimum. Those are a dime a dozen. Instead, tell me a story, give me a reason to want to know more about you.

  2. Your subject line is everything. I choose which listserve emails to ready solely based on the subject line. No pressure, though :)

  3. Tell me a story. Write a poem. Did you meet somebody interesting? Do something outrageous? Experience something spooky?

By submitting an email to The Listserve, you are agreeing to license it under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, and you agree that you have sufficient rights to be able to grant such a license.

Oh, by the way, sometimes there is a queue of emails, so don’t worry if you don’t see your email go out right after you submit it. We’ve got it, and unless we contact you, it’ll be going out soon! Thanks!

I thought about what I would do, how I would spend my 600 words. I emailed friends and collaborators to bounce ideas off them. I thought about what it meant to get so many people thinking the same thing at approximately the same time.

Around this time I was also working hard on a side project, an SMS-based group chat server that resembles what the very first Twitter service looked like. This software was still very much a work in progress (it still is!). I decided I would announce my new social software and effectively launch it via the Listserve.

Here is my Listserve message, sent September 15, 2016:

(TL;DR—this one is kind of an experiment, scroll to the bottom for the punchline.) There’s a scene from the movie Network (1976), where TV news anchor Howard Beale has a series of epic on-air rants about the uncertain state of the world. He urges his viewers: “I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell…”

Then he says the line maybe you’ve heard—“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” He stands up, repeating the line with increasing intensity. The movie cuts to a shot of an apartment complex, and people start opening up their windows. It’s hard not to feel a sense of excitement when they start hollering out their windows, it almost feels like it’s really happening.

But I’m not so interested in Howard Beale, or the “mad as hell” speech itself—some of which is uncomfortably similar to the populism of a certain American political candidate. What’s really striking to me is how our use of broadcast technology has changed since the ’70s. All those people hearing the same message from their TVs, all at once. And with the ethical weight of Watergate-era news journalism. It kinda feels like we’ve lost that capability with DVRs, social media, and Internet streaming.

I mean, we also have all this new stuff—so many new (relatively) inexpensive capabilities that let more of us reach many more people. Today’s Internet mega-viewerships surely outnumber 1970s TV, but it’s also interesting how many smaller in-between scales we have now. The Listserve is on that spectrum, somewhere between a receiving a postcard and browsing through trending hashtags.

I’m curious: what’s the present-day equivalent of sharing a common acoustic space, like those apartment-dwellers in Network? Who are we all? Where do we live? What could we achieve if we acted in concert somehow?

Instead of yelling a slogan out of our windows (basically a 1970s retweet), I have a couple other ideas.

  • Let’s meet up IRL! We could select a handful of central locations and convene at a common time to build stuff/get weird/stare at each other awkwardly/make art/plan to overthrow the government/etc.
  • What about a backchannel? I’ve been working on a new project that I’m eager to try out. It’s a group chat, kind of a pared-down, SMS-based Twitter.

(Insert here: the part where I pitch my project, Small Data. It’s a data cooperative I’m starting up with some friends, a collectively run alternative to cloud-based-advertising-ware.)

Just reply to this email and I’ll let you know when I figure out how this meetup(s) thing will go. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try out the backchannel—that part is already working! Send an SMS message to (646) 846-4777 and you’ll be able to pseudonymously chat with other people who sign up.

And for my money, Ned Beatty’s boardroom speech in Network deserves to be every bit as famous as the “mad as hell” rant. Look it up if you haven’t seen it!

Dan Phiffer
dan@phiffer.org
California

If you were reading closely, you may have noticed the span of time between when I won (September 5) and when my email actually got sent out (September 15). This was a very stressful time for me. Each day I hoped against hope that they would delay my message a little longer, so I could work more on my SMS software, and get it ready for an influx of new users.

The email went out. I thought well, here we go!. People started replying, and they were into the idea. I got messages from old friends I hadn’t been in touch with. I got a very kind message from Josh Begley, one of the co-creators of the Listserve.

This one was amazing to receive:

Hello Dan
I’m Asare from the republic of Ghana.
I’m really inspired by you listserv today. Thank you ver much.

Hope to establish a friendship between.

I loved getting all these replies, but I realized with a sinking feeling that the SMS messages weren’t getting delivered. The server had recorded outgoing messages as sent, but they were not actually getting sent. But I could see the incoming SMS messages, and the list of phone numbers started stacking up in my MySQL table.

Oh shit.

That’s when I panicked. What if it really shits the bed? What if I start SPAMMING all of these people with SMS messages? I disabled the SMS service and hunkered down with the code. Meanwhile, I replied to each incoming email reply as best I could.

And then, life just kind of bumped my weird project down the list of priorities. I can’t even remember what specifically happened, but I know I was traveling and focused on other work responsibilities. The end result is that I just kind of … didn’t follow up.

And so here we are. It’s just before 10:30pm PDT on Email Debt Forgiveness Day (a useful holiday invented by the Reply All podcast).

I am posting this here to explain what happened to the many adventurous Listserve subscribers who took the time to reply, or send an SMS message.

To all of you, I want to say: I’m so sorry!

But I also think this idea still has legs! Maybe it just needed some more time and motivation to actually be workable. I have ran some more test runs with the SMS software since then, and it’s still not perfect, but it is starting to feel stable enough for actual use.

So much has happened since last September to warrant being mad as hell. I don’t know what it means to connect with a distributed group of mostly-strangers. But I think it could still be an interesting cross-section to mobilize to … do something.

If any of this resonates with you, please get in touch! The SMS service (fingers crossed) should actually work this time. I will try to do better with all the emailing and such.

And happy EDFD!

The world is weird and wonderful!mapzen.com

A tile mural at the 36th Street subway station in Sunset Park.

I wrote a post over on the Mapzen blog that I think came out nicely.

The territory means different things to different people. Depending on your perspective, the kinds of data that are captured about places may be missing, insufficient, or downright hostile. Who’s On First is opinionated—like all datasets, no collection is truly unbiased—but we hope to be aware of when we’re asserting our own opinions about places and create a framework where a polyglot of place-feels will be welcome.

The multifaceted maps we make simply reflect the weird and wonderful territory they represent.

I’m going to be adapting this as a talk at csv,conf. If you’ll be in Portland May 3, come out and say hello. (Bring your CSVs!)

Email to a former student

Last night I got an email from a former student, and figured I’d publish my reply. Maybe it could be helpful to you!

Hey Professor Phiffer,

I hope all is well with you. Its A— from CCNY. I took a JS course with you a few years ago. I hope that this is not a bad time to reach out to you. I’m reaching out to you in regards to programming and becoming a fully fledged software engineer. I see that now JS is one of the most important languages that are being used today, and I would love to master it and programming concepts in general.

However, I’m realizing that there are a lot of flaws to the way that I approach programming, such as how to solve a simple problem. I realized it during a technical interview that I’ve had a few months back.

I know that this is out of the blue, but I’m wondering if there is any way to accurately learn how to properly program? I believe that all of these years I’ve been doing something wrong despite building out lots of websites. I was heavy on declarative languages such as HTML and CSS but never fully understood imperative programming languages such as JS and other real programming languages. Would you have any advice as to how to properly go about this?

I also truly don’t know what I’m missing as a programmer because I would love to get a frontend engineering job. Thank you for listening, and I look forward to your response Professor.

Sincerely,
A—

Hey A—,

I can totally relate to this! I think landing your first junior developer gig is among the hardest things to pull off working in tech. I crashed and burned in 3 or 4 of my first interviews, just completely red-faced and speechless, unable answer some “basic” tech question (especially the trivia kind).

The thing to realize is that you probably don’t want those jobs anyway! I bet they’re awful places to be a junior dev, they’d work you raw and not give you professional development or space to grow. So don’t get too discouraged if it doesn’t work out at first.

If you want it to happen, it will happen with time, the job market is in your favor here. It’s just a matter of finding your way to the right people. This is a largely a networking thing, and that’s probably one of the reasons grad school is still a good investment despite the crushing debt that’s often involved.

And by all means learn JavaScript, it is a super relevant tool, but it is just one tool in the toolbox. HTML and CSS are 100% real programming languages, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I find that mastery of CSS and the DOM is way more valuable than being a hotshot with a flavor-of-the-month JS framework.

Taking programming seriously is helpful for improving your software, but it’s also a great way to gain the confidence to interview well. Some of that just comes from doing it repeatedly, and learning from other people’s code (read the jQuery source, read the annotated underscore.js). There are also a lot of soft skills that have helped me along the way: send emails to people (you are already doing this!), buy the O’Reilly books, subscribe to blogs, listen to podcasts, get familiar with the “lore” (see: The Rise of Worse Is Better, The Jargon File, Macintosh Folklore).

Realize that some of all that (and my advice) will be somewhat outdated. You are going to have to invent a lot of the shit yourself that doesn’t exist yet, because our profession is still in the dark ages. Architecture and urban planning are decades more advanced than where we are, you are by no means arriving too late to the party.

Write your own blog posts, embrace the beginner’s mind, start going to BrooklynJS (or ManhattanJS, JerseyScript etc.) meetups—apply to be a speaker, don’t be intimidated that your talk ideas might be too basic.

And hopefully all of that doesn’t sound too overwhelming!

Dan

We will fight you and you will lose

Here are my responses to Donald Trump’s media accountability survey, which I’ve taken at face value. Yes, the questions are extremely one-sided, but they do allow for “other” responses.

Just to be clear, I certainly don’t advocate for participating in the survey. The research methodology here is dubious, to say the least. I hope I haven’t contributed to legitimizing it as anything but the propaganda that it is.

  1. Do you believe that the mainstream media has reported unfairly on our movement?
    Using the word “movement” here diminishes the Office of the President, implies that you regard your power as extra-constitutional.
  2. Do you trust MSNBC to report fairly on Trump’s presidency?
    It is telling that MSNBC comes first on the list, that you regard the network as the biggest threat to your legitimacy.
  3. Do you trust CNN to report fairly on Trump’s presidency?
    Your outsize reaction to CNN’s reporting on the leaked memo has given it greater weight. You must realize the significance of a Carl Bernstein byline on it.
  4. Do you trust Fox News to report fairly on Trump’s presidency?
    I was surprised with the moral clarity and sharpness of critique in Shepard Smith’s reaction to yesterday’s press conference.
  5. On which issues does the mainstream media do the worst job of representing Republicans? (Select as many that apply.)
    (no “other” option available)
  6. Which television source do you primarily get your news from?
    (no “other” option available)
  7. Do you use a source not listed above?
    It’s so weird that you think TV news is the most relevant arm of the 4th estate. I guess it’s a generational thing.
  8. Which online source do you use the most?
    I financially support the New York Times, Democracy Now, and a handful of podcasts, but your question belies ignorance of the online media ecosystem. Any given “online” source could be your biggest threat (hint: all media are now “online,” it’s a useless category). Today maybe it’s BuzzFeed, tomorrow it will be someone else.
  9. Do you trust the mainstream media to tell the truth about the Republican Party’s positions and actions?
    You have demonstrated a disregard for “the truth,” but I think your question is about whether more sources will go the way of Gerard Baker (editor of the WSJ), and fall into line with regime-approved framing of events. If that happens, I don’t see how the country will survive your Presidency.
  10. Do you believe that the mainstream media does not do their due diligence fact-checking before publishing stories on the Trump administration?
    Many mainstream media sources are plagued by “the view from nowhere” where extreme views become legitimized by impartiality.
  11. Do you believe that the media unfairly reported on President Trump’s executive order temporarily restricting people entering our country from nations compromised by radical Islamic terrorism?
    I liked how Sarah Jeong characterized your EO on Twitter: “the Muslim ban is unconstitutional, illegal, a bad idea, and immoral. And those are different things.”
  12. Were you aware that a poll was released revealing that a majority of Americans actually supported President Trump’s temporary restriction executive order?
    Yes, I read about the poll, and it was disappointing. This is why we don’t put human rights up to a vote, why they are protected in the Constitution.
    Edit: there is a slight majority against the Muslim ban:

    National polls using random telephone samples have found support for the proposal ranging from 42 to 47 percent with slight majorities opposed (51 to 55 percent); Trump has cited Web and automated polls that show support cresting in the mid-50s, though those polls rely on less rigorous samples of the public.

  13. Do you believe that political correctness has created biased news coverage on both illegal immigration and radical Islamic terrorism?
    Any time you hear someone complaining about “political correctness,” it’s really a demand that their bigotry should be tolerated.
  14. Do you believe that contrary to what the media says, raising taxes does not create jobs?
    This is such a tortured question, how did you arrive at this phrasing? Plus it’s meaningless without saying who is being taxed, and under what circumstances. I advocate for more progressive taxation as a means to address wealth and income inequality.
  15. Do you believe that people of faith have been unfairly characterized by the media?
    I do wonder how long it will be until Atheism isn’t a political liability in the USA.
  16. Do you believe that the media wrongly attributes gun violence to Second Amendment rights?
    I don’t think the Second Amendment protects individual gun ownership, but your question is about the media. I wish the media would give more attention to the connection between increased gun ownership and suicide and accidental deaths.
  17. Do you believe that the media has been far too quick to spread false stories about our movement?
    Again with that divisive language: “our movement”? My fear is that “your movement” is about White Supremacy and racial violence. Your overly-defensive response to yesterday’s question about anti-Semitic threats is just the latest in a series of instances that make me extremely wary of your intentions.
  18. Do you believe that the media uses slurs rather than facts to attack conservative stances on issues like border control, religious liberties, and ObamaCare?
    You seem to think that disagreement and fact-checking is an insult. This is an authoritarian argument, that your position is above criticism.
  19. Do you believe that the media purposely tries to divide Republicans against each other in order to help elect Democrats?
    You were the outsider candidate, by definition you were going to be divisive to the GOP. But I do wonder if the media were too careful not to seem partisan in the last election, that they didn’t take you seriously (and literally) enough.
  20. Do you believe that the media creates false feuds within our Party in order to make us seem divided?
    You must feel extremely isolated right now. I think it’s because everyone within your party is considering whether they’re willing to go to jail for a political figure they never fully supported.
  21. Do you believe that the mainstream media has been too eager to jump to conclusions about rumored stories?
    Sure, anonymous sourcing weakens a story, but NINE anonymous sources forces a resignation. The key issue with the Flynn story is that he didn’t seem to realize his calls were being monitored. It’s a story about incompetence and that kind of sloppiness is what will get you impeached.
  22. Do you believe that if Republicans were obstructing Obama like Democrats are doing to President Trump, the mainstream media would attack Republicans?
    The premise of this one is so laughable, Mitch McConnell’s “top priority” was to limit Obama to one term. The strategy worked, but you don’t get to claim it didn’t happen. You cannot argue away the real political cost of obstructionism, and Democrats will have to answer to it as well.
    Edit: obviously Obama wasn’t limited to one term, but his agenda was severely checked by the GOP’s constant stonewalling.
  23. Do you agree with the President’s decision to break with tradition by giving lesser known reporters and bloggers the chance to ask the White House Press Secretary questions?
    You buried the most important question! You must have been embarrassed when “Betanyahu” saw how you conducted the joint press conference. The White House press briefing has become a self-parody of a cowardly dictator unable and unwilling to respond to difficult questions.
  24. Do you agree with President Trump’s media strategy to cut through the media’s noise and deliver our message straight to the people?
    To be fair, Obama set you up for this one. He set a precedent of media evasiveness that enables you to avoid accountability with impunity.
  25. Do you believe that our Party should spend more time and resources holding the mainstream media accountable?
    You are threatening the freedom of the press. We will fight you and you will lose.

Solidarity from NYC

Yesterday’s protests at JFK airport were loud and angry and make me hopeful. Photo by Ellie Irons.

Decided to publish this message I just sent to a friend in Atlanta who emailed asking about how to find out when and where the protests are happening.

Thanks for the link, I’ll give that a read. It’s interesting how these dynamics of oppression seem to fit so neatly into historical precedent. How is it that us Americans think of ourselves as somehow immune to all of this?

We were out at JFK yesterday and it was a really great experience. Loud and angry, with overwhelming turnout. But honestly the smaller protests in lower-profile places in the world continue to be the ones that give me the most inspiration. It takes a lot more guts to show up for a tiny demonstration where you’re easily picked out of a crowd, or where small town dynamics make anonymous protest impossible.

BTW, I saw that Rep. John Lewis was out at ATL, just hanging out in the terminal until he got some answers. So awesome.

I feel like getting information about a protest is an ongoing challenge, especially at events that aren’t officially permitted by local government. There’s a kind of fine line to walk—organizers want to get the word out, for news of an event to spread. But if it’s technically an illegal gathering, it may be difficult to find “official” or consistent sources of good info. And this is where social media is helpful.

It’s a good time to get into Twitter I think, but the trick is in knowing who to follow and how to avoid feeling overwhelmed. My advice would be to find out people you know who went to protests in Atlanta, and just ask them to ping you next time they hear about something. For my part, I first heard about the JFK demonstration via Facebook Messenger (which I hate, but shit like this keeps me on it) from a friend who lives in LA, and then a couple hours later I got a mass email from an immigrant rights org. So maybe sign up for some email lists for local advocacy groups.

Anyway, good to know you’re thinking about this stuff! I am hopeful that we’ll continue to exercise our right to free assembly before things get even worse and it becomes too dangerous to protest (from police violence or stiffer court penalties). So in the interim, let’s go and put our various privileges to productive use while we can.

Solidarity from NYC,
Dan

Addendum

Good point from Paul, basically Facebook is still where things are happening.

Also, if you want to get out and protest today in New York City, go to Battery Park at 2pm.

Do not let the bastards grind you downtoe.prx.org

I was recently on my friend Benjamen Walker‘s podcast Theory of Everything, talking about digital security.

MP3 download

Related posts

Link