The Snappings-back to Come

There comes a time when things get stretched out. And then there is the snapping-back. Expansion and contraction. Not just financial, but ethical, procedural, and on other axes, too.

At some point, the US Congress will find itself overwhelmed with investigating the present and will busy itself enacting new restraints. At some point, online advertising will be regulated, not just against a malignant Russian Federation’s meddling, but against the ordinary scams we see advertised every day on sites big and small.

The bailouts of polluters will come to an end. The protections of financial companies, drug companies, and other overlarge snowflakes, long seen by some as too fragile to have real regulation, will terminate.

We see it now with the public recognition of Harvey Weinstein for the depraved exemplar of power run amok he is. We see shadows of other exemplars coming into focus, yet to be queued for their runs through the wringer. These things take time.

But there are axiomatic protections we should seek out as a society. Diversity is among these, not just of race or sex, but of background and of philosophy. Of saying, even if single-payer might be best, we can still walk calmly into that future rather than leap into what might end up badly. If tax cuts are so wonderful, we can cut taxes a point at a time and see the results unfold.

Why tear the Brexit bandaid off, risking reopening the wound it covers? Why not soak it, loosen the adhesive and then pull it off a bit at a time? The same goes for the Kurds in Iraq, the Catalans, and so on. Rome was not in one day built, and yet so many want to see every imagined panacea poured down the throat of the world at once.

In Colorado and the rest, they have legalized marijuana. The successes there seem destined to spread a new march against a failed war on drugs. And the less slack we leave, the more gradual the expansion, the less severe the contraction when we go too far.

We should reject all the Republicans who want to full-throttle their policies. But we ought also reject the Democrats equally on that measure. If the ideas be good, a pinch should convince before we go for the pound. Any politician that says otherwise is looking to rip us off. And they’re doing it, folks. We should unseat them.

How to Fight Fake News

First, a proper definition of the problem. The problem of democracy is always about the electorate choosing the people who will best-advance government, given the difficulty of figuring who that is, the complex tradeoffs at hand, and limited information.

The Russian Federation Fake News and any other rogue propaganda from any nation state agent are therefore just a subset of the problem of a dirty information stream flowing to the electorate. Trying to solve the de-Putinification of social platforms and the larger web, even if that were possible by itself, would not solve the larger problem.

So, we look to traditional noise problems for inspiration.


From Wikipedia: “Signal-to-noise ratio”: Improving SNR in practice:

It is often possible to reduce the noise by controlling the environment. Otherwise, when the characteristics of the noise are known and are different from the signals, it is possible to filter it or to process the signal.

From Wikipedia: “Combined sewer”:

This type of gravity sewer design is no longer used in building new communities (because current design separates sanitary sewers from runoff), but many older cities continue to operate combined sewers.

From Wikipedia: “Ad blocking”: Methods:

The more advanced ad blocking filter software allow fine-grained control of advertisements through features such as blacklists, whitelists, and regular expression filters.

From Wikipedia: “Bug bounty program”:

These programs allow the developers to discover and resolve bugs before the general public is aware of them, preventing incidents of widespread abuse.


Unless you can eliminate the source of contamination, you must rely on some sort of filter. It can be a complete sequestration of the contaminant (in the case of separating wastewater from runoff) or it can be a processing filter as with ad blocks or some radio noise removal systems.

The platforms that act as inlets of pollution may have their own cases against adopting of appropriate filters here, which makes it a harder problem.

But some combination should work to reduce the noise.

Separate the streams

In the vein of sewerage, social sites can make a hard break between reputable periodicals and up-and-comers. This should not present a barrier to entry, but should be based upon independently-verifiable indicators such as readership, credential-issuance by major organizations, and other factors. They should likely separate opinion and commentary from reporting for similar reasons.

This is in line with what companies often do. Newspapers separate opinion from reporting, and Valve Software, maker of the Steam game platform, separates humorous reviews from serious reviews for similar reasons. It’s something social sites should do, too.

Strength-in-numbers

Google and other search engines have long sought to fight against those gaming their rankings. Many of those techniques can be employed to de-rank noise, including looking for multiple, independent submissions that give credence to a source before spreading it. This is also similar to Wikipedia‘s notability requirement for article creation.

While this technique will not eliminate much, it does raise the bar for cranks to inject their swill, as it will be easier to identify when a group is colluding to post noise unless they expend considerable effort to make their fake accounts seem credible.

Check for divergence

Most credibly-sourced news content contains a chunk of background that isn’t new, with a small supplement that is new. Fake news tends not to follow that rule, and looking for that can be useful. Again, the enemies of signal may work to change their formats to avoid this detection, but it raises their costs considerably.

Make ads public

Finally, micro-targeted advertising creates the problem that it is not readily subjected to many eyeballs who can debunk it or call it out. If advertising platforms were required to maintain records of all the ads they serve, allowing for independent review, it would help guard against abuse.

Alternatively, if regulators and advertisers are opposed, browser extensions that automatically upload copies of ads to a non-profit service could enable this practice.

A brand opportunity

Apple has tried to brand themselves privacy-conscious. Google attempts to tout speed and security. Mozilla, openness. Microsoft… has a marketing problem, because I’m not sure what their salespitch even is now.

But the point is that all these browser and OS vendors can work on the problem of fake news and try to brand themselves the one that gives you the tool to quash the invasion.


These are just some ideas of how to combat propaganda in our news feeds. The problem is worth working on. It’s not impossible, as we have had noise problems in other areas and have done a lot to minimize them.

OK Google and Siri, Where is the Gunfire?

The lack of action on… err, on gun violence is stunning. But there’s a ubiquitous technology that can help us respond more rapidly to gun owners that seek to harm others.

The virtual assistant, whether Siri or Echo or Home Assistant or Cortana or whatever, has a basic design:

  1. A recording loop that is checked for a watch-word
  2. Upon hearing the watch-word, recording begins being sent to the cloud
  3. When the audio indicates no more words are coming, or a number of other end-conditions, the device returns to watch-mode

Gunfire has a distinctive enough audio signature (“sound”) that it can be listened-for during the loop phase of operation. Combined with GPS, the data of a gun being fired could be rapidly located.

Some at-risk and chronically violent communities have deployed fixed gunfire detectors, and it would make sense for hotels and other public venues to install them. But given the number of people with mobiles, there’s no reason not to give ordinary folks the tools to help stop violence when it breaks out.

The program would be opt-out for anybody who owns the devices but doesn’t want to listen for gunfire. The loudness of the signals from multiple phones could be quickly correlated with GPS data to give even better precision.

Knowing where the gunfire is coming from means that police don’t have to divert as many resources to checking nearby areas unless a manhunt develops out of a situation. In cases of apprehension, automated gunfire reports are more evidence for trial.

As other technologies co-evolve with mobiles, automated rotary-wing drones might one day respond to reports of gunshots by flying to the best-calculated origin and giving police a much earlier picture of the scene.

Regardless of gun control efforts (or whatever the banned term is) we should still invest in other technologies that will improve public safety. Having mobiles help reporting gunfire (and regular fires, too, and really any threat that’s readily detected) makes sense.

End of Bookstack, but Looking Forward to Firefox 57

Back in 2007 I was a Firefox user and wrote my extension Bookstack, which is now dying due to the changes to Firefox. But I am looking forward to the improvements Firefox brings, even though this seems like the end of an era of extensibility in the browser.

Why is Bookstack done?

My own browsing habits have changed since I wrote it. In recent years, I’ve continued to use Bookstack, but more as a speed dial than as it was originally intended as an inbox system for links. I’ve thought about writing a new sidebar to do something that suits my current usage, but for now I’ll see how life without Bookstack is before I embark on another extension.

There are some users of Bookstack out there, and I’m sorry I won’t be able to support them, but the source is available if anybody wants to take it up. The fact is that under the changes to Firefox, Bookstack would require a full rewrite anyway, and it would lose features in the process. The main painpoint would be the UI.

In the early years, Bookstack did most of its own work to build the sidebar until I worked in XUL long enough to realize I could piggyback on Firefox itself for a lot of that code, which reduced the maintenance burden on Bookstack considerably. With the change to webextensions, that’s no longer the case.

I enjoyed the project while it lasted. Ten years is a good time for it to retire.

Why Firefox will still rock

The change that Firefox is making is the first step toward a next-generation browser in terms of speed and memory use. I haven’t tested the 57 beta yet, but it’s purported to be fast. That’s great, and the changing to webextensions reduces the burdens on Firefox to let it continue to improve much more in the years to come.

End of an era

But that change comes with a cost, as mentioned with my own EOLing of Bookstack. The customizability of the browser is being limited. It’s not the Fisher-Price Apocalypse some might fret over—that won’t happen as long as the underlying browsers and protocols have open source roots—but it is limiting.

Browsers are supposed to be agents for the user. They are supposed to do the user’s bidding. Limiting the ease of modifying the agent isn’t great, but other limitations have always thwarted some types of user choice, whether it’s each browser keeping its own data (with some ability to import/export between them), or browser security getting in the way of the user (there’s an inherent clumsiness in trying to interact with iframes in userscripts, for example).

Return of the User

The next act for the web will hopefully be a resurgence in users finding new ways to work around the limitations of browsing and webextensions. There are always new threats to the dream of a web that serves users, and Google Chrome has invited a certain amount of complacency among the multitude. With a bit of luck, a resurgent Firefox will help to ignite a new generation to work for an open web again.

How the Republican Healthcare Mess Makes Sense

Edit: As of Friday afternoon, Sens. McCain (hard no) and Collins (somewhere shy of hard no) have announced opposition, stalling the measure. Let’s hope it stays that way, and that both parties can work on a real plan to improve the healthcare system.

The blade is not yet to the throat, nor the gun to the temple, but by next Friday (or maybe Saturday) America may be in the middle of its biggest hostage crisis of the modern age. The Republicans, in a greedlust for victory on healthcare, are sneaking up behind the country, ready to strike.

The bill, a stinker in a long line of stinkers, will be not a millstone around the GOP’s neck, but a tombstone at its feet, if it ever activates. But that’s not what it’s meant to be at all. This timebomb is DACA 2.0: meant to bend Democrats to the Republicans’ will. Under the president’s DACA order, the hostages are the dreamers. Under Graham-Cassidy, the hostages are the millions who will lose coverage obtained under the ACA.

The notion that the American people are subject to political violence is hardly new or surprising, but it is a heartless and despicable fact. The Republicans want massive wealthcare, but they also want to undo all the things in the ACA they cannot touch under reconciliation rules. This is not serious legislation at all, by any measure. It has not benefited from study or debate, or even from a full CBO score. Governors oppose it, all the medical associations and nonpartisan nonprofits say no.

The only thing that’s left is a hostage play. For the low, low price of 50 votes, the Senate Republicans can shove this mess back to the House, where if the Republicans there can decide to wax their mustaches, they will hold the threat of death over enough Americans that the Democrats will have to cave in. That will, they believe, let them pass a 60-vote bill in the Senate, which will be less insane than Graham-Cassidy, will let them do a victory lap for repealing Obamacare, and will still let them shove a bunch of money in the rich peoples’ pockets.

This sort of abuse is irredeemable. There are millions of people who are stressed and anxious, as hostages to the GOP. This is nothing short of protection racketeering by a major political party on behalf of the wealthy. This is organized crime.

And sadly, that’s the only way this mess of a bill makes sense. All civic-minded Republicans should reject any attempt to hold their countrymen as hostages for legislative ends. A vote for Graham-Cassidy is a vote for tyranny.