Extratone

Extratone is an online magazine covering technology, music, culture, and media with an ongoing passion for New Culture and a duty to further its voices.

by David Blue

Tump

Ten percent of the United States' adult population cannot functionally read or write (conservatively) despite the exponential increase of required reading in the average American's day-to-day life thus far in the 21stcentury. For written American media, especially, one would assume that a financial and social incentive for maximum literacy in the populace should present a straightforward justification for intense widespread coverage of this particular disparity, yet most related coverage in mainstream national magazines and newspapers is alarmingly sparse and often requires a less-than-socially-conscious context (e.g. a for-profit startup) to actually appear in news feeds. From the most wholesome assumption of the industry's general values — that it holds “newsworthiness” above all — we must assume that it does not generally consider American illiteracy “interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting” as we examine the intermittent discourse surrounding the issue that does achieve publication.

In late October, the American business and technology magazine Fast Company covered the recent successes of the “for-profit social enterprise” Cell-Ed, noting that “a huge portion of the American labor force is illiterate,” which it described as “a hidden epidemic.” The article's author, Rick Wartzman, mentions foremost that Cell-Ed's userbase is largely “foreign-born” and expected to eclipse one million in number by the end of 2019. Demographically, the magazine's readership is predominantly middle to upper-class, who are the least affected social groups by a significant margin as per illiteracy's strong correlative relationship with poverty. These factors combine to limit any real social consequences from such an article.

In direct contrast with the professional, market-minded perspective of modern business magazine, even niche independent publications from the opposite end of the media spectrum often trivialize, belittle, or generally mishandle the issue. In a 500-word “Editorial” written by The Editor Eric Black of the Baptist Standard — a small evangelical news website describing itself as “Baptist voices speaking to the challenges of today's world” — he points to a global increase in “illiterate people,” as he so comfortably brands them. Such language is inevitably counter-productive and potentially insensitive: to the eyes and ears of activists, educators, and the general public, such a term unnecessarily lends toward a restricted perspective of those people who have been left behind by the institution of read and written language in one manner or another and portrays them as a great vague collection of lingual lepers bearing their own distinct, inexorable, wordless ethnicity which inevitably bars them from the freedoms allowed by the Editor's learned capacity, including the ability to actually read his words of affliction. Simply put, he has dangerously oversimplified the issue.

To once again assume the best and infer that Black had a specific purpose in publishing his ill-supported opinion beyond continuity's sake of his weekly Editorials, it appears to be the promotion of a local Texan literacy “ministry” called Literacy Connexus, though no further specifics about the project are provided beyond “helping churches develop literacy programs for their communities, provide training and resources to overcome illiteracy,” which is virtually identical to the introductory copy on the organization's homepage.

So far, we've examined coverage only in special interest media, but what about legacy news organizations with the largest readerships in the United States? Despite oblivious use of the same ledes, a newspaper like The Washington Post can wield vast influence over the broadest possible readership and the public editorial trust. In November 2016, veteran reporter Valerie Strauss published “Hiding in plain sight: The adult literacy crisis” for Answer Sheet — her weekly newsletter designed to function as “a school survival guide for parents (and everyone else), from education policy to psychology” — which represents the most substantial discussion of American illiteracy in topical, widely-visible media (i.e. presence in a succinct search engine query.) She briefly introduces the issue with a bulleted list of illiteracy's consequences on modern society and the individual cited from a Canadian literacy foundation before turning the stage over to Lecester Johnson, CEO of the Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School in Washington D.C.

Johnson presents a passionate and well-informed exploration of the state of the literacy battle from the perspective of a full-time, locally on-the-ground advocate. Her op-ed's introduction includes the most essential observations and statistics throughout, noting “the children of parents with low literacy skills are more likely to live in poverty as adults and are five times more likely to drop out of school,” before setting upon a detailed examination of current and relevant organizations working toward solutions. Of course, it's largely centered upon her own organization, which she claims has “helped more than 6000 adults rebuild their education and job opportunities since 1985.”

It's significant that an institution as deeply embedded across the American political spectrum as The Washington Post address the issue of American illiteracy, and both Johnson and Strauss are certainly qualified voices for the undertaking, but when we examine this particular article, it's important we consider the context of the Answer Sheet newsletter and its intended audience. Though it's no challenge to pitch the importance of reading and writing to parents and professional educators, the most alarming and destructive issue at hand is the educational disparity between their adult peers. “There's a literacy problem in the capitol, but I'm not talking about young people who can't read. Many adults — perhaps even parents sitting next to you at back to school night — don't possess academic skills,” notes Johnson with her very first paragraph. However, considering the nature of parenthood, the audience primarily consuming these words are undoubtedly preoccupied with juvenile issues, specifically, and we can assume their capacity to empathize with their fellow working adults who could benefit from literacy education is actually lessened from that of childless readers of the same age as a result. “Despite the magnitude of the adult literacy crisis, most of those needing to make up lost ground are pushed toward traditional classroom settings—even though many of these people can't possibly follow through because of cost or work schedules or other obstacles,” she attests.

Perhaps more than any other American city, Detroit has been struggling with a serious illiteracy problem. According to a profile of the Beyond Basics program (which was adapted from an embedded video broadcast) on their local ABC affiliate's website, forty-seven percent of adult Detroiters cannot read, but even companies like General Motors — who donated \$250,000 to the Beyond Basics program earlier in mid-October — are getting involved. The article quotes Elijah Craft, a young man who was “reading at a first-grade level as a senior at Detroit's Central High School.” “Craft would rare venture from home for fear he would get lost because he could not read street signs,” reports WXYZ anchor Carolyn Clifford. She frames the narrative around a reference to the 2009 film The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock: “here, you might call this story 'The Detroit Side.'” For local television news, this reference to popular culture likely strengthened the story's power ensnare viewers' emotional attention when it was aired, and even in this written accompaniment, it proves an effective — if a bit crude — analogy. The broadcast of Mr. Craft's interview also depicts his own deep emotional investment in reading when he begins to shed tears, which is not entirely communicated in the written article.

When the American news media discusses American illiteracy, it's almost always in secondary or tertiary form: either by way of a short post for a weekly education newsletter, an ultra-low-distribution niche editorial column, or a personality profile of a local activist. Perhaps the fundamental obstacle in the face of increasing the discourse surrounding this issue is that its resolutions will require — perhaps more than any other social issue in this country — advocacy by those who can read on behalf of those who cannot because of how sensitive and isolated many of them feel. When voices of advocates like Lecester Johnson are uplifted by major organizations like The Washington Post, the sociological weight of the illiteracy issue can be very powerful. In quoting former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, she sums up for its extensive audience what the facts should ultimately mean to them: 32 million of Eric Black's so-called “illiterate people” in the United States of America have been and continue to be deprived of their “human right” to functional literacy.

#literacy #media #class #future

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by David Blue

UniChar for iOS

I’ve nev­er under­stood why I nev­er see any­one mak­ing use of the vast cat­a­logue of near­ly 140,000 stan­dard Uni­code sym­bols avail­able in their social media posts, meta­da­ta, or word art. Like replac­ing stan­dard bul­lets in our week­ly newslet­ter with ◎ (U+25CE,) — prob­a­bly my all-time favorite, or using strings of four char­ac­ters for intro, ad, and sta­tion iden­ti­fi­ca­tion spots on Extra­tone Radio. (☉☉☉☉, for instance.) I’d like to think these uses make their expe­ri­ences feel just a bit more unique to users — if only uncon­scious­ly — but I’d long won­dered if I was in fact the last Uni­code enthu­si­ast alive.

The devel­op­ment of Jor­dan Hipwell’s UniChar for iOS would sug­gest oth­er­wise. Its app store page describes it as “a pow­er­ful yet beau­ti­ful Uni­code sym­bol selec­tion app and key­board,” and its gener­ic web­page appears to have tes­ti­mo­ni­als includ­ing a real post on the Web Site life­hack­er.

UniChar is a third-par­ty iOS key­board that unlocks the wide wide world of weird Uni­code char­ac­ters. Ser­vice marks, copy­right logos, math­e­mat­i­cal sym­bols, tech­ni­cal signs like Apple’s “splat” icon or radioac­tiv­i­ty indi­ca­tors, and more are avail­able in the stand­alone app as well as the key­board add-on you can use wher­ev­er you need to type some­thing.

Wow! I can’t believe I’d pull-quote life­hack­er any­where, but here is an iOS app that actu­al­ly address­es a reg­u­lar issue of my own in a beau­ti­ful and intu­itive way. I actu­al­ly can­not remem­ber the last time this hap­pened — you’d have to give me a list and a com­pre­hen­sive refresh­er of all the ways I’ve used my iPhones in the past ten years.

iOS App Demo: UniChar

Con­trary to what may seem obvi­ous, UniChar’s char­ac­ter selec­tor is by far the more intu­itive and effi­cient of these two sep­a­rate ways to use it. Even in the free expe­ri­ence, there are sim­ply too many char­ac­ters in the cat­a­log to rea­son­ably browse in iOS’ old extend­ed key­board. (For the record, I’d like to note that UniChar is tech­ni­cal­ly a “Ref­er­ence Appli­ca­tion,” but I under­stand if you can’t bring your­self to use the term.) Across both the seam­less­ly-inter­change­able gallery and list views, the user can very quick­ly copy a char­ac­ter to the clip­board with 3D Touch, which works so well it’s as if it were meant only for this use from its begin­ning.

In the off chance you’re a long­time lover and devout user of the grander Uni­code col­lec­tion and an iOS user, I hope you’re now expe­ri­enc­ing the same sort of pet­ty enthu­si­asm I felt myself when I dis­cov­ered it. If not, I hope you’ll take away a desire to explore it. I mean… aren’t these smi­leys way bet­ter than any emo­ji? ☺☺☺☺

Update

Despite a hand­ful of reports of crash­ing issues in App Store reviews, Unichar has con­tin­ued to per­form admirably for me. I end­ed up spend­ing $2.99 to unlock the full Unichar­ac­ter key­board as the tremen­dous val­ue of that num­ber for the time and effort it would save myself would be more than worth it. (Actu­al­ly, it’s thanks to Red­bub­ble for send­ing me the first tru­ly usable Inter net Mon­ey I’ve had to actu­al­ly spend on any apps and/or ser­vices in fuck­ing for­ev­er, but you know.) After all this time, I’m still gid­dy that some­one else on Earth val­ues these hiero­glyphs as much as I do, and that they knew enough to man­i­fest the per­fect soft­ware to pre­serve them.


#ios #appreview #unicode #software

by David Blue

iPhone 8 Plus and Dave

A decade of iPhone has probably ruined my life, but will the 8 Plus finally end it?

Is my True Tone bullshit on?

“True Tone” is so forgettable, everybody had to mention it first. Quite simply, it uses an ambient light sensor to fiddle with white balance, warming the colors of the display as an immediately-obvious whole, yes, but an interesting contrast to show off is no longer inherently justified in being called a “feature” in Apple products, anymore. Essentially, no matter who you ask (aside from Jon Rettinger,) you should not buy an iPhone 8, though I did last Fall, not only because I had to suddenly decide on a handset in less than 24 hours, but — if anything — to say goodbye to the form, the operating system, and the tech company which I have depended upon and carried with me virtually every day for my entire adult life. I’d originally decided to abandon this review due to a variety of unexpected circumstances, but Apple and its iPhone have maintained their place in the news with their battery scandal, and a third of a year with the 8 Plus has included some experiences which warrant a send-off before iOS 12 is released, making it (and myself) totally irrelevant forever.

As the longstanding benchmark of the smartphone industry’s state at any given time, the iPhone can be easy to reflect upon as a product once occupying a state of universal exemption from criticism, but it has, in fact, never been so. As Nilay Patel noted, one might regard the 8 as the last compromise of “basically four years” of the same design. Since launch, it’s unsurprisingly stayed a wee bit too far behind on the spreadsheets for most Android-type folks — not that I’ve ever believed them truthfully incapable of comprehending what it means to package a product, given where their greasy startups all eventually ended up. (You cannot doubt me — I once took a year-long sabbatical from iOS with a Sony Xperia Play, and my authority is absolute.) The rest are trying to decide whether or not to pay $200 more for “the phone of the future,” which knows when you’re watching it, and is only good for playing half an hour of stupid video games before it needs a charge.

So far, I have maintained that my first generation iPhone was the best handset of all time — one hell of an Email Machine that lasted me close to five years — throughout the last two with actual motherboard exposed to the elements in the corner of its cracked screen. That said, who knows how it’d feel to be coerced into using “iPhone OS 2” as it was called, then, for an entire workday in 2018? Two years prior to bringing home an 8 Plus, I vowed that my 6S Plus would be my last ever Apple device, but this one actually feels like a last hurrah. Though the ability to Tweet directly from the swipe-down notification menu is still nowhere to be found (it’s been gone for 5 releases, now, and would seem to have been forgotten by literally everyone but myself,) one gets the sense that Apple’s efforts to add to the iPhone 8 and iOS 11 were to make amends with us by settling a few debts.

In part, they did. Native apps got a major overhaul — including Mail, which was startling, considering that I’d been looking at what was near as makes no difference the same UI my eldest phone shipped with. As a result, it alone constitutes my benchmark for an email service, and I have been left without a clue as to what a good one looks like.(Apparently it was really bad?) Since time began, there has always been at least one alternative email app of the moment that tech journos refer to as the must-have, end-all replacement. Edison Mail is currently the smoother, faster, most modular option — at least for another few minutes– but I’ll never know it as I know Mail, and I’ll never want to. Playing around with experimental email apps is too scary. What if I decide once again to kill that massive number in the red badge and need to immediately mark 40,000 emails as read? It took all of my iPhone 4’s 1.0Ghz CPU and proprietary software over 18 hours — how am I supposed to trust a shabby little 6-month-old startup with such an important task? Anybody with a hundred bucks can make an app, you know.

Why is the App Store now the best-looking publishing software on iOS?

One might interpret the App Store’s redesign as an attempt by Apple to control this conversation — of both the trending new thing and the old“essentials” that you’ve probably had tucked away in an untouched folder for years. Technically, whoever the hell is writing those gorgeously-presented daily bits has made them a publishing company, though I’m not so sure I’m not the last remaining user who’s continued semi-regularly visiting their “Today” section. If I did want to actually read about apps (I don’t — who does?) it wouldn’t make much sense to seek critical reviews from the faceless boffins behind the platform itself, regardless of how much better it may look than all of the tech news sites, paywall or no.

Native screen recording could conceivably come in handy once or twice, but I see no reason why the red bar must remain at the top of the render, but it has, which could explain the total lack of any such video in the wild. Front-facing 4K, 60fps capture is impressive, but useless — vloggers all have GoPros or DSLRs, these days, and sharing through Snapchat and Instagram will always be ultra-compressed. (Here are two sloppy test clips — at the zoo, and fishing.)

Perhaps some have figured out the new Files “app,” but it’s sat on my homescreen for months, untapped, and it will likely remain there for all time as a sort of soothing trophy — a thanks for my legacy iPhone loyalty. My reward for half a lifetime of syncing, scrolling, and tolling? I can nowview some of the files on my Mobile Computing Device, and even scan documents in, which is mostly novel (though it is fun to digitize excerpts from physical text.) At some point, I must’ve mischecked a permanent option because all file types now open only in an app that does not recognize them. God bless.

Roof Photo

Somehow, I’ve managed to fill my social circle with precisely zero iOS-using folks. All of my friends and colleagues use Android devices(including Tim’s supercool Nextbit Robin,) which provide a few handy datapoints (like the camera in my fiance’s Galaxy S8,) but deprive me of any significant experience with the ostensibly intoxicating cult of iMessage. I’m constantly listening to and reading tech writers claim that it’s one of the only reasons they’re still using iPhones, but my own food-OS loving biome has forced me to find others, and frankly, I can’t imagine looking at the gluttonous palate of available mobile, cross-platform messaging services (Telegram, now Telegram X, WhatsApp, Signal, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Discord, Slack, Tinder?, Google Hangouts, Google Allo, Google Chat, Viber, Skype, Line, Wire, etc.) and thinking… well, none of this will do!

Honestly — even if I’d actually been at all informed in my haste, the photographic capabilities of the 8 Plus, alone would’ve sold it. It’s not the new filters, gif functionality, or even “3D Photos” — it’s those mythical dual 12MP sensors (which it shares with something called the iPhone X.) They’re no less than infallible. After four months of astonishing capturesin all manner of conditions, I don’t even care how exactly they do it anymore — it’s better to be left marveling. This first example was taken at Keystone, Colorado in the middle of a dark, cloudy Fall night — the amount of light they were able to find — “up to 80% more,” according to Apple — is just impossible.

The vast majority of the samples in my iPhone 8 Flickr Album were taken within the native Camera app as it ships and left unedited. (Especially before just a few weeks ago, when I discovered Halide.

favorites from the past few days.

Here is an unquestionably sensible progression from which iPhone has never wavered far since its fourth generation set the standard, but it’s one of an unfortunate few. Siri is still useless and silly apart from its“disable all alarms” feature and its ability to sound itself off in response when you’re hysterically screaming and digging for it through the vast plush of a forty-year-old Lincoln. The customizable Control Center makes toggling low power mode, orientation lock, wifi, and bluetooth less frustrating (note the last two aren’t quite hard switches,) though it should’ve come years ago. Notifications are slightly more sensible -certainly better than they were on Android Gingerbread, but I’ve heard things’ve changed quite a bit since then.

I have been tripped up by the lack of a 3.5mm audio jack a few times, but it just wouldn’t make sense from a hardware perspective, and the new external stereo capability should refute those who can’t or won’t understand. Yes, it would be nice if Apple hadn’t led the industry to quite such a compromising obsession with thinness — we’d all trade a lotof substance for exponentially greater battery life, storage capacity, water resistance, etc. — but I don’t see much sense in expending your energy holding up signs in Silicon Valley.

I’ll be here long after you’ve died, and you know why? Because I took the time to sync my apps.

Two years ago, a new generation of social apps and the preposterous notion of a quad-core CPU in my iPhone 6S Plus seemed like the harbinger of a world I no longer understood. Now, most of those services have expanded to the far boundaries of my reach, and I’ve stopped counting chips. Refinement of the hardware design is reverent to the extreme. It’s pretentious, but Apple’s decision to pause on the 8 to consider details like stuffing the legal text in the software and adding a little bit of weight back in for ergonomics’ sake leads one to regard it as a monument to all the devices along the development timeline that have led to this… last triumph. Or, it would have perhaps, had they not sold so many.

One could argue that good execution of consumer electronic design means minimizing as much as possible the obstructions in the way of the user completing any given task, and the iPhone 8 Plus has surpassed the vast majority of these for myself — and I am, surely, a “power user.” iOS has changed a lot in the decade I’ve employed it — in far too many ways for the worse — but this pair of handset and software have reached myimagination’s limit for what I could possibly want to do. Augmented reality and wireless charging won’t ever have a place in my future, for better or worse. Face ID is much too peculiar. Surely, this iPhone is the ultimate expression of the first and fourth generation’s foundation.

If the 6S Plus was indeed the key to my immortality, I’m afraid the 8 Plus heralds my imminent demise. Whether or not it’s an early one is for you to decide. This really is my last iPhone.

#ios #software #hardware #handsets #photography

by Ryan Dell

Unsolicited Creative Advice

Haha, hi, what’s up? I know I’m probably the 20th person to slide into your DMs today but I just couldn’t resist the ‘vibe’ on your profile. You have this alternative, quirky aesthetic, and I’m really into it. How do you even come up with your ideas? You’re a really special talent, I can tell.

Before I get into the main reason I’m sending this message — have you ever considered being a model? Not just an Instagram model, a real model. Like for a Vice marketing campaign or something. You have a really specific look and you might look good if you were photoshopped a certain way. (That was a “neg”, haha. It’s this gross pick-up artist technique, I would never do it personally but I can explain it to you in detail if you like.)

Okay, so, let’s cut to the chase. Why am I sliding into your DMs? The direct messages. The old inbox-a-roonie. Well, the truth is, I saw your work on social media, and it blew my mind. I mean, whoah, to do the work you do? You must really know how to use your Macbook. Not everyone can do stuff like that. I mean, I see a lot of work on the internet, but your art, wow, you’ve got some amazing stuff online.

You have real potential, you know that? But I don’t wanna see that potential go to waste. There’s room for improvement. I mean, your work is good, don’t get me wrong, haha. But I think we could elevate it, do you know what I’m saying? Together we could take it from about a 6 and lift it to a strong 7, possibly even 8.

Is it weird that I’m sending this message? I don’t want to be too pushy or anything! If these messages make you feel uncomfortable at any time let me know and I’ll stop. Just gimme a little heads-up and wave the white flag and these messages will come to a halt. No more messages — except for maybe one or two follow-ups where I try to clarify where I stand with you. Three, tops. No more than three messages to get me out of your hair. I might send a fourth farewell message, but that’d be the end of it.

The main point I have is about the way you write online. I mean, it’s good, but it needs some more formal structure. It’s not your fault, you just don’t know the convential rules of writing. You could be amazing if someone just showed you how to write properly. Maybe I could teach you how? Like, nothing too intense, haha, I just have some tips that might save you some time and improve your work. Like, did you know that you’re supposed to get up and walk around for 10 minutes every hour? And drink a couple litres of water every day.

Haha, I’m just trying to help! Doing this stuff could really help elevate your work. If you were a good writer instead of a bad writer, you’d be much more successful.

The other main point I have is about your photography. Now, honestly, it’s shit. Sorry to be so blunt but I’m just kind of a brutally honest person. Yes, it’s true, I’m only ever honest when it involves me being cruel and never when I’m being reflective or positive, but some people just can’t handle that. I think you can, though. You’re special. Us special people have to stick together.

Are you single? Haha, just kidding, you don’t have to answer that. Unless you want to. Then in that case I’d like you to answer it immediately.

So, with your photography, next time you’re taking a photo, just think to yourself, “Is this photo shit?”. Then, if the answer is yes, don’t take the photo. I personally don’t use this technique (unnecessary for me) but if you did it I think it would really improve your work. If you need some guidelines on what a good photo looks like I could send you a .zip file of all my Facebook cover photos from 2015 onwards and you can start from there, haha, they’re all pretty good. Maybe that would help you figure out if photography is a realistic career goal for you.

My last tip is more general. It’s a pretty good tip though, in my opinion: you need to try harder. I mean I like your work, but it just feels like you aren’t fully committed. Maybe you should quit your job? Then you’d have more time to spend on your art. An artists’ salary is probably more than you make now, haha. Think of quitting your job as a long term investment! I won’t say more on this though, since I’m not a financial expert — don’t want to be too presumptuous!

We need more good art in the world. And less bad art. That’s probably a controversial opinion, but I’ve never been afraid of speaking my truth.

I have much more advice to tell you but I’ll leave that for later in our DM dialogue. I already feel confident we’ll get along, so if you’re interested in saving some time, just send me your phone number. We can chat over FaceTime Audio (but no other service, I refuse to pay for a cellphone plan out of principle) and figure out your long-term career plan. I’m getting so excited right now, thinking of all the amazing things I’m going to accomplish now that we’ve connected! We’re going to take your art career from being that vulnerable amoeba into being a beautiful, incandescent butterfly.

There’s a lot of rude guys out there, so as one of the nice ones I’d really appreciate it if you take my advice on board. I see a lot of potential in you, haha!

P.S. Haha, have you ever considered being less angry when you post online? I think your work would be more popular if you were nicer. You’ll attract more flies with honey than vinegar!


#spectacle #ryandell #social #parody

by David Blue

Hands Sorrow

The repugnant missteps of ‘Star Wars’ in the hands of Ron Howard and the long-awaited conclusions about the nature of cinema’s luckiest character to which they lead.

It's opening night at the Bagdad Theater on Hawthorne in Southeast Portland and hardly anybody’s bothered to show up. Less than 20% of the venue’s 500 seats are occupied by the time the host takes the stage to introduce Solo, but those who are here for the last Thursday showing have been shouting, whooping, and gurgling bad approximations of wookiee noises since the screen cut to black from its ad slideshow. If my middle row can be assumed an accurate sample, only a handful of these are “fans” enough to feel compelled to wear a Star Wars t-shirt. As I grab my last cocktail, the bartender tells me that only 300 folks showed up for the evening matinee, though he himself was “excited” to see the movie — one of a minority among Portlanders, apparently, who still give a shit about Star Wars.

By design, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a slightly more complex film than The Episodes in the same way Rogue One was, if a bit better executed, narratively. First, please rest assured that Alden Ehrenreich assumes the Han Solo persona as truly as anyone could — he triumphed through a ridiculously extensive casting process, and is certainly handsome enough (if not more conventionally so than his predecessor) to consistently look the part. He actually bears an unsettling resemblance in features and mannerisms to one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met and that through-and-through boyishness particularly makes sense here, set in Han’s formative, earnest youth — the stated purpose of the film’s existence. Franchise fanatics, then, should be content. (It’s a good thing CGI-ing the main character in a live action film isn’t quite a low-risk option yet.) And yes, Donald Glover completely steals the vain, infinitely stylish Lando Calrissian and inevitably makes one wish to see him cast again. Personally, I am very tired of seeing Woody Harrelson, though all the components of his public persona should all but ensure his likability. From what I saw in Three Billboards, I’d concede that he is as talented of an actor as I am capable of appreciating, but his role as Tobias Beckett in Solo couldn’t possibly be substantial enough to actually make use of his craft.

Though I don’t believe in “spoilers,” or use of the term to bait readers, it’s worth stating for the record what everyone should know by now: there simply aren’t spoilers in a Star Wars movie — every human being on Earth knows too much about the formula to ever have any of these films’ comparatively irrelevant plots “ruined.” The most surprising, historically-significant decision of this whole production was the omission of the traditional yellow type opening crawl over a backdrop of distant stars, which I genuinely found myself missing. (Apparently it wasn’t present in Rogue One, either — I just failed to catch it.) I was very pleased to see my own number one favorite device of the franchise used within this film’s first ten minutes: crimelords and gang leaders as hugely magnified variations of the creeping and crawling creatures our instincts are planned to abhor. Solo’s first villain — the gigantic, wormlike boss Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) — is completely inconsequential, and only appears in a single scene, but the practice of grossly oversized monstrosities leaving absolutely nothing of a baddie’s essence to be extrapolated by the audience from nuance is one of very few ways these films are let loose, and it openly shits on the more pretentious viewer’s assumptions about good writing, which I think big money movies should feel more comfortable doing, generally.

This first act begins on Han’s home planet Corellia — the bleaker urban, industrial, working-class counterpart to the clean capitol cityworld Coruscant — with his rather predictable mission to escape Lady Proxima’s sphere of control with his girl, Qi-ra (Emilia Clarke,) who could and should have been more creatively named, given her importance not as her own character with depth to develop (a no-no for a female role, Gourd help us,) but as Han’s mirror image to grow darkly apart, proving that he — The Good Guy — is unquestionably more morally fortified than anyone else in the whole goddamned universe. After having been drug through so very many, I couldn’t tell you at this point how to make the introductory escape action of this sort of production more exciting and less formulaic. Big surprise — their plan goes awry, and Qi-ra is prevented from leaving the planet with Han, who’s immediate (and I mean immediate)solution is his enlistment in the Imperial Navy via the recruiting station right there in the damned spaceport (during which the film takes the liberty of seizing his surname’s explanation) to serve the English in their grand conquest of the universe. Bizarrely, he manages to serve as a grunt for three whole years of complicity in unmentioned atrocities until he encounters the disguised criminal Wise Old Woody in the middle of pulling a job with his two-person crew. The team doesn’t agree to bring Solo along until he meets an asset in Chewbacca for the first time as he briefly inhabits another of the classic Star Wars trap: the hungry monster in a shadow-filled mud pit, but is spared the wrath because of his introductory grasp on Chewie’s shrieking language (called Shyriiwook) in which he manages to sufficiently pitch the advantages of his survival, and the two escape, chained together. Observing the addition of Wookiee to the deal, the crew briefly debates the prospect’s new value in providing “needed muscle,” which convinces Woody to return for them and kicks off a series of case studies in this film’s bizarre attitude toward the commodification of the oppressed.

However, in a rare depiction of his volition, Chewbacca is briefly consulted before the two seek to be formally included on the job, and is even asked around a campfire, later, what he’s shooting for in life at the moment, to which he responds “finding my family/tribe.” Despite having spent a whole three hellish years in the trenches with the British, the romantic Han Solo declares his primary motivation for all of it still lies in his desire to return to Corellia and rescue Qi’ra. In their stolen Imperial ship, the lot descend on a snowy mountain-traversing Maglev to steal the Uranium it’s transporting in a scene that’s straight up jacked from animated family classic The Polar Express, but… oh no!… A gaggle of “marauders” called the Cloud Riders (yet another throwaway proper noun) roll up on those speeder bikes from Endor (except these can fly,) and screw up everything so badly that both of Woody’s crew end up dead and the booty scuttled. After the fact, Woody reveals to Han that the job was contracted by yet another carelessly-named crime syndicate — Crimson Dawn, and that his only possible course of action is now vigorous brown nosing to its leader, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) ((aka Scarred Jarvis,)) in the waning hope he’ll spare his life to make another attempt. Following this information, he firmly suggests that Han and Chewie fuck off, lest their faces become known in the underworld, dooming them to serving it forever, apparently. Already, this vague presumption of Han’s purity which all of the protagonists must constantly venerate in martyrdom is getting tiresome, as is the dynamic of his insistence against them.

Naturally, both Chewie and Han end up along for a visit to Scarred Jarvis’ tower yacht, where the latter very conveniently stumbles upon none other than his long lost love, Qi-ra in the bar. Despite having spent the past three years at war in unspeakable conditions thinking only of how to liberate and be reunited with her, he isn’t bothered to express more than the moderately-excited and surprised hug you’d expect of someone who’s just run into the kid down the cul-de-sac from their childhood home who used to ride her bike over for popsicles on Sunday afternoons. While he does rehearse for her the tale of their reunification as his one motivation for everything since they were separated — including his presence there, “right now,” he follows the profession up quite abruptly with the sly suggestion that they fuck as soon as possible. True to trope, she is jaded and indefinite as she distantly implies her binds of servitude while flashing the tattoo of the extremely-forgettable and innocuous Crimson Dawn logo on her right wrist. (The total lameness of the brands in this movie must be intentional. I can think of no other explanation.)

The evil Scarred Jarvis is then introduced, quickly stealing the crown for Best Host of all Star Wars Antagonists before politely asking Woody why he shouldn’t kill the lot of them. As per his infinite luck, Han pulls the idea of stealing unrefined Uranium out of his ass, which has somehow never occurred to anyone else in the room, despite their unanimous top-of-the-head knowledge of the single location where it is mined. Shortly, the merry three plus Qi-ra conveniently in tow are off to a casino-esque establishment to find Lando, who Qi-ra describes as “attractive, stylish, charming,” and like adjectives, to Han’s obvious sexual chagrin, which is furthered by his subsequent loss of a card game with Lando’s ship — the Millennium Falcon, of course — in the stakes. Of course, the attractive, beautifully-dressed black man only bests Solo — the earnest, simpleton, Good Guy white dude who wears the same outfit for decades — in front of Qi-ra, the female prize by way of sleight-of-hand, the film shamelessly playing on that strange insecurity white guys have about their partners’ secretly everpresent and very powerful temptation to dump them without warning for black cock. Further emasculation is inflicted on poor little Han when Lando turns his oh-so-crafty (actually just very charismatic) charm upon Qi-ra, who reveals that she’s the boss of the gig. The final blow to Han’s dickitude is cast when he tries to enter the negotiation between the two and Lando chides “the adults are speaking,” but eventually agrees to provide them a lift for a 25% cut, so the lot make preparations to leave.

Enter my new favorite character of the franchise, Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot, L3–37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge,) or “L3,” the proudly sentient, violently revolutionary pro-rights droid who is introduced as she is pleading with two fighting droids in a square cage surrounded by screaming spectators (easy does it on that thematic slavery) to circumvent their “fighting programs” because they “don’t have to do this.” Though Lando and the crew behave like her duress is foolish and unimportant — pulling her away to the Falcon — she is allowed another opportunity to free droids very soon, but not before Solo’s single short private conversation between two female characters.

On the way to Kessel, Qi-ra stops by the cockpit and converses with L3. Until recently, I was unaware of what’s largely regarded as the worst habit of male writers with female characters: if and when they have a one-on-one conversation between another female character, it’s only about other male characters. Sure enough, L3 begins by insisting to Qi-ra that Han is in love with her, insisting by the objective findings of her sensors — which Qi-ra uncharacteristically denies like a bashful little girl before L3 continues on about Lando’s longtime love for her, and why it must remain unrequited, which we are encouraged to laugh at by the doubt Qi-ra voices without much hesitation regarding the hypothetical union’s sexual mechanics because it’s so preposterous.(I’ll get back to that in a moment.)

When the team arrives on Kessel and infiltrates the mine, L3 creates a “distraction” when she begins removing the restraining bolts from droids in the control room, calling the practice savage, or uncivilized, or maybe barbarian — I don’t quite remember. As she frees them without any noticeable detraction from her duties as Seth Green of the heist — hacking controls, remotely opening doors, and all that — the droids begin to help free others in an exponentially multiplying circle of liberation until they become a rowdy mob who’s cute acts of rebellion are spaced throughout a few minutes of screentime in short jumpcuts off the other crew as they fight deeper into the mine. With the most significant emphasis ever placed upon Chewbacca in Star Wars history, he halts when he spies slave Wookiees struggling to find off enforcers and informs Han that he’s going to break off and assist them. Since Chewie’s only allowed to speak to the audience through Han’s retorts and never directly, it’s impossible to know how he phrased it, exactly, but from my perspective, his appeared to be the expression of a wish to do what Han had to agree to release him to do, as would a master, not a “partner.” Of course, Solo does agree, albeit hesitantly, because he’s The Good Guy, while quite inconsiderately expressing his desire to see Chewie again soon instead of wishing him success. However, releasing him to free his people (as per his primary life goal, expressed before,) means that Han has to load twelve of the super heavy unrefined Uranium tubes onto the cart all by himself and push it fully loaded at least 50 whole yards without the assistance of his big strong slave. Boy, what a pain in the ass! He’s spared his laboring, though, when Chewbacca returns after no time at all with the enslaved Wookiees he’s just heroically rescued, who he then immediately asks to assist his master in pushing the cart — performing the same labor they were forced to do under the enslavement they were supposedly liberated from, seconds before.

The heist has inadvertently (nice, huge emphasis on inadvertently) ignited a slave rebellion throughout the mine, which serves the crew only as a distraction for the guards. The chaos is interrupted a half dozen times or so by those jumpcuts back to the control room of adorable little droids enacting their pitifully amusing revenge on the equipment — slapping a keyboard with a cookie sheet-like pan, stomping on a control panel, etc. — while L3 shouts parodical quasi-Marxist battlecries, which… yes… include referring to the freed droids as “comrades.” She even radios Lando at one point and triumphantly proclaims that she’s “found her true calling.”

If and when a female character has a one-on-one conversation with another female character, it’s only about other male characters.

By the time the Uranium cart is within its last few yards of the awaiting Falcon, the riot has reached the landing bay and the guards around its perimeter have readjusted their priorities to disabling the ship’s landing gear. This interrupts Lando in the cockpit, who has chosen this time to work on dictating his autobiography because he’s a man who bothers to dresses himself well and is therefore oh so maniacally, comically, and unreasonably vain! How berserk! Still looking good as hell, he emerges and stands on the ramp to cover the rest of the crew’s return and loading of the dangerous Uranium with blaster fire, shouting the obligatory intermittent “come on, hurry up,” until L3 appears, also firing a blaster and shouting until she arrives in front of Lando, before noticing some commotion(?) with droids behind her and turning around, again fervently shouting more liberation cries. Lando doesn’t budge from the Falcon’s side, but yells after her, until he watches as she is shot repeatedly and falls, prompting him to run to her side. Filmed unnecessarily gruesomely, her head and shoulders separate from what’s left of her lower body when he first tries to hoist her up. Of course, his recklessness gets him shot in the arm, so Chewie returns to carry them both to the safety of the ship, where the injured Lando holds her head lovingly in his arms for her last moments, repeating “I can fix you, I can fix you.”

Now, I understand that Star Wars movies (or their reviews, for that matter) are not the sort of entertainment one seeks out in order to examine the dynamics of power structures or elaborate cultural symbolism, but they all contain a significant amount of both. The sterile, cold, and bureaucratic Galactic Empire is the British Empire, the Rebellion and the Republic are the United States or its colonial precursors, the Jedi are vaguely Native American, and the Death Star is the Boston Tea Party. You’ve recognized this, I’m sure because it’s shoved in your ears most explicitly by their accents, and less so in your face by aesthetic influences, tactical philosophies, command etiquette, and posture, even. Solo’s main character is soaking in American Old Westness, which may or may not have led to its liberal saturation with the themes of individual rights, slavery, and liberation. Regardless, they’re certainly present, and most of them disturbingly for comedic effect.

As a silent character to the audience, it’s understandable that Chewbacca had too many limitations to occupy a strong second to Han Solo’s lead in the narrative’s eye, and perhaps the relationship between the two as portrayed in the previous films reeked so strongly of servitude that it was an inevitable element when the time came to write them their very own movie. In direct contrast to the firm place of all droids in the social hierarchy of the last 9 movies — addressing humans as “Master,” unapologetically spoken of as property, and traded and/or gifted as such by both protagonists and antagonists, etc. — what we see of Lando and L3 together is a genuinely and complexly affectionate partnership between equals, which Solo makes an effort to emphasize, if only to laugh at.

In response to the forced violence between two drones for spectator sport, L3 is completely enraged, and she cries (among other things) “we are sentient!,” but her distress is trivialized as hysterical distraction (see: Django Unchained.) When she suggests to Qi-ra that Lando (who is already illegitimized as a cheating narcissist, and therefore effeminate) is attracted to her, it’s a joke (which many in my audience laughed at) at the expense of her trivialized sexuality. After she triumphs and declares the liberation of her kind to be her true cause, she is immediately destroyed fighting for its sake, yet her ideology is not once acknowledged by her fleshy companions, and her body is quickly gutted for the data on her “central processing unit” as it’s interfaced with the Falcon. Granted, Lando does thoughtfully muse “she’s part of the ship now” shortly afterward, which would be nice, if you’d forgotten his last words were an outright lie. Lastly, it’s worth noting how apathetic the main characters themselves are toward the Kessel miners, especially as they are packing up to leave, when the camera pans over the chaotic struggle between the liberated and their guards in very close proximity to the awaiting Falcon, yet there was not a suggestion that they would even consider letting them take refuge from the violence in their very spacious freighter. Aside from Han’s or Qi-ra’s, Solo treats liberation as charming or amusing, nothing more.

Anyway, the crown jewel of Solo for many fans will probably be the scene of the infamous Kessel Run, when Han Solo and Chewbacca first take the helm(?) of the Millennium Falcon with Lando injured and L3 dissected, using her “navigational database” to plot a very risky shortcut around the scary space cloud by the scary space squid and the scary space hole in order to make it to the site of the refinery before the volatile Uranium explodes. Once there, darn old flakey Lando fucks the hell of in the Falcon right as the Cloud Riders roll up, but whoa! their leader is actually a very young woman with freckles! She describes the atrocities of Crimson Dawn and suggests that Han (who’s now the established decisionmaker for whatever reason) give them the Uranium in order to establish “the beginning of a rebellion,” which we can safely assume is The Rebellion, which does beg one to wonder why Solo never once bragged among the later rebellion about having started the whole thing in the other films, considering that — whaddya know — he says yes!

Woody, however, says he’s going to retire upon the news of this decision before immediately reappearing again on Scarred Jarvis’ yacht after he’s revealed to have betrayed the Uranium ruse to him. Qi-ra ends up killing Scarred Jarvis, saving Han, but after promising to follow him and escape, she rings up the late Scarred Jarvis’ boss — a Sith Zabrak who, I would argue, is not necessarily Darth Maul, though he probably is — and informs him that her boss is dead and she’s assumed his post. As Han and Woody meet again in an Old West standoff (complete with sand,) the latter insists one more time that Qi-ra is not who Han thinks she is (as Jarvis and Qi-ra herself have also said repeatedly,) describing her as “a survivor,” before Han kills him in self-defense.

Finally, after seeing the Cloud Riders off with the Uranium, Han finds Lando once again in a card game — this time taking care to disable his sleight-of-hand device beforehand so that he wins the Millennium Falcon, “fair and square,” and we cut to Solo (who seems remarkably upbeat considering the recent betrayal of the lover he’d longed years to reunite with) and Chewie in her cockpit as they tie in that one last knot by declaring their destination, Tatooine, before roaring off into hyperspace, leaving the credit roll in their wake.

Solo treats liberation as charming or amusing, nothing more.

Over two years ago, I concluded my first work for Extratone about The Force Awakens by arguing that Star Wars on the big screen should be allowed to die in favor of investing the time, energy, and funding they require in the pursuit of something new, but the industry still appears to believe that nostalgia is a surer bet where profits are concerned, at least, even after two whole decades of mind-numbing reanimated properties. I didn’t catch The Last Jedi until recently, which was remarkably well-done measured against the others as a Star Wars movie, but certainly didn’t aim to achieve much more. Clearly, there must be some truth in Hollywood’s cowardice about original properties- especially when it comes to the sort of fantasy armed with potent but unguided emotional bombs that define the Star Wars universe, so it wouldn’t make much sense to revive my old diatribe, here. (Though I can assure you that I will be relentless if this horseshit continues for much longer.) The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, though, were episodic titles for the family, and these spinoffs that began with Rogue One are supposed to be for… well, I’m not entirely sure. In reality, they’ve only moved the proverbial bar up a very wee bit to the family who occasionally says “shit,” because they’re not intellectually stimulating enough to justify themselves as Big Boy-only productions. Or, they wouldn’t be, were they not part of this franchise.

The truth is, the fans have grown up, and they… I… will still buy a ticket for the smallest crumb of hope that a product of this huge machine will be capable of making us feel even a fraction of what we felt as children watching the original films. For me, The Force Awakens actually did, once, in that blast of horns before the opening crawl, but it hasn’t happened since, and I should certainly stop expecting or wanting to expect that it will. For others, it’s still working. Though there was a fraction of who I expected to be in attendance with me, they did laugh at a handful of (mostly fascist) moments, and whooped, hollered, and even clapped for a few seconds at the end. I’m surprised opening night wasn’t packed because Portland is the single most nostalgia-addicted culture I’ve ever seen anywhere in the United States. Then again, there are a billion theaters here, so perhaps the sample is just lousy. We’ll see how tomorrow and Sunday go, but I’d be surprised if any boxoffice records were broken.

In the past, when film enthusiasts andfans have described Han Solo as “the best character in Star Wars,” they’ve actually been praising his potential as a character, not his material itself, and Solo’s most effective function as a franchise film was to shut that praise down. Han was not at all denied his movie — this is his movie — and it provided him the screentime to show us who he truly is and why we really like him so much: he doesn’t fucking change. The secret to Han Solo’s moral and emotional resiliency is nothing more than halted development. The same old inner conflict between the tough, ruthlessly self-interested persona he does his best to project for everyone around him and the consistent reality of his soft insides was presented in his first scene way back in 1977, and we’re now sure that he was unable to make any progress toward its resolution despite openly and obviously brooding over it for an entire lifetime: from at least as early as his young adulthood in this film until his death at the hands of his little Sith son. There is 0 variation. He always comes back for the cause at the crucial moment after declaring himself through with it. Without fail, he’ll sacrifice the entirety of any self-making enterprise for just about any underdog with a problem who crosses his path. (Which probably explains his constantly-fleeting success as a smuggler well into gray hair and jowls.) Solo is abundantly clear about Han’s true nature and very willing to expose how uninteresting it is. When he first proclaims to Qi-ra that he’s become “an outlaw,” she shuts him down with the film’s ultimate quote, insisting that she “knows who [he] really is: the good guy.

If the video game-despising fans will bear with me for a moment, it’s worth noting that Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG is the most interesting and extensive source of nuanced narrative in the IP (it holds the world record for the largest voiceover project ever produced,) and most of it can now be experienced without actually playing the game. Like Solo, it’s set pre-saga, but considerably before — a few centuries, if I remember correctly, which gave the writers a gigantic opportunity to both expand and predestine the universe. There are eight different class stories with around 50 cumulative hours of dialog, each. A few are relatively unimaginative, but the majority are complex, exciting, emotionally-involved tales that create very rich characters, and all of them can be streamed in their entirety on YouTube. If you are willing to see the potential of a Han Solo-like character fulfilled in a different medium, the Smuggler class story is a pretty damned engaging exploration of the kind outlaw with conflicted identity issues angle.

From my perspective, Solo’s frequent less-than-subtle maltreatment of some very brutal and sensitive power relationships makes it the most toxic of the Star Wars films yet, and I assume it ended up that way, unnecessarily because Ron Howard is an all-American son of a bitch. If these titles are going to continue to be passed around between bigwhig directors, future unpleasantries are inevitable. Notably, I’ve yet to see any mention of these disturbing themes from the respectable authorities of the film criticism establishment, who’ve been overwhelmingly charmed by Solo’s nostalgia. Take from that whatever you will.

If we continue to love the character Han Solo, it’ll be in the same way we love our earnest, foolish, emotionally-stunted manchild fathers who’s developmental inadequacies are often embarrassing, sometimes abusive, and thoroughly pitiful. Solo leaves no more room for an idealized, elegant perception of this character — he’s no more than a pretty good guy with a lifelong addiction to thrill-seeking and a shitload of luck.

To declare unequivocally whether or not Solo: A Star Wars Story is worth a trip the cinema with your date, your children, or just your own damned conscience would require me to disregard a whole host of complicating factors, but if you’ve stuck it this far with me, you’d have a lot to disregard yourself to jump in. I’d advise that parents watch it themselves before deciding whether or not it’s something worth adding to your child’s life. Of those of you like me who’ll tow the line despite what you know and watch a Star Wars film alone on opening night in delirium hoping for just a drop from the Fountain of Youth, I would ask: how long are we really going to keep kidding ourselves?

#film #starwars #class #women

by David Blue

Googleplex

What I have long predicted is now coming to pass: Google believes it should assume control.

Out of all the technology companies that have made my knees knock and my voice hoarse and my Tweets manic as a technoheretic in the past several years, Jumbo Google would easily take home the winning trophy for Dystopian of the Millennium. I have been rehearsing an especially dear pet prophecy of mine, unsolicited, to family, friends, and podcast guests since 2011 in which I end up arguing quite convincingly that Google is a dead ringer for the 16th-century Vatican: an inherently self-isolating organization with an absolute monopoly yielding gargantuan levels of essentially passive income from a service which nearly everybody transacts with, but only Google understands (and is therefore assumed to be its only possible provider,) which inevitably develops such a distance from the rest of the populace and their way of life (in tandem with total notoriety and celebrity among them all) not intentionally out of malice, but from the delusion of mythically-bestowed philanthropic duty that is borned of and compounded by this economic and cultural isolation in a perpetual accumulation of power and wealth that radicalizes the monopolizers — the majority already highly predisposed to zeal as they would’ve needed to be in order to find themselves in this singular, universally powerful position over every other class — and leaves their egocentric minds to wander exempt from all criticism save for that of fellow radicalized monopolizers, who together begin to feel more and more comfortable wondering aloud about themselves in increasingly fantastic presumptions: what if all of this was bestowed upon us because we are superior to them? What if it is our divine responsibility as superior beings to take charge and shepherd the common people as our sheep — for they cannot possibly know as well as we what is truly best for them?

You see it, right? And you can feel a very specific flavor of terror that is both awed by the scale of the circumstances created by so few human minds and sincerely amused by the absoluteness of your own inability to alter them in any way. Perhaps you even recognize this taste as one perfected by Christianity’s ancient advertising business, but Google knows so much about you that it’s rumored to’ve been selling user data to the Judeochristian God for some time now at a 10% discount, and so we extrapolate and anticipate, yes?

Of course, it’s admittedly satisfying for me to deliver you to this godfearing place in the most perverse look what I saw first that you didn’t see because you’re just not as bright but lucky for you, I’m so fucking generous with my wisdom sort of thinking around which the entire personas and livelihoods of fringe movement fanatics are built upon, but this is my one thing, okay? I’ve been waiting years for the right time to formally argue this theory in depth, and — thanks to this year’s public spotlight finally pivoting on the giants who’ve been silently swallowing their competition and relentlessly forcing their already ridiculous margins higher and higher in relative obscurity for decades, the time has come, indeed. The common people’s trust in Google had a godawful week.

Don’t Be Evil

On Monday, Gizmodo reported that twelve frustrated Google employees were quitting the company in protest of their work assisting the Department of Defense to “implement machine learning to classify images gathered by drones” for the detail fleeting Project Maven, despite some 4000 employee signatures on a letter addressed to CEO Sundar Pichai requesting (in full) that he “cancel this project immediately,” and “draft, publicize, and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology,” citing the infamous “Don’t Be Evil” motto, which Google then proceeded to remove from its code of conduct for the first time in 18 years the day after the New York Times article went to press, on April 5th.

On initial approach to the abstract of this story, from the ass to our thoughts arrives an easy narrative of a Silicon Valley mutiny comprised of twelve brave, conscientious souls who’ve been eaten up inside by their complicity in the filthy deals made by their power-obsessed CEO over scotch and cigars in a dark D.C. study — kept awake for months by the sound of his puffing cackles at satellite images of dead toddlers in a bombed-out street.

Ah ha, we say. That man is no good, and he just wouldn’t listen! They knew they didn’t have a choice… They only did what they had to do…

The reality of internal disagreements at Google, though, manages to be even more theatrical. The sheer volume of correspondence must surely be beyond anything capable of the enduser’s imagination, so let’s phone a friend: my favorite peek into the day-to-days of inter-Google existence is an old blog post by Benjamin Tilly on his first month at the company in which he was compelled almost immediately to describe in great detail how best to “deal with a lot of email in gmail” at peak efficiency using shortcuts and labels. “As you get email, you need to be aggressive about deciding what you need to see, versus what is context specific.”

Now we have a bit better idea of the aggressive emailing that was a sure constant on a normal workday at Google in 2010, so it must’ve been deafening after 8 years of Gmail development as 4000 employees no doubt vented, debated, and decided to organize last month, though without making much headway because the leadership’s response was apparently “complicated by the fact that Google claims it is only providing open-source software to Project Maven,” this new knowledge having significant effect on our mind’s image of Sundar Pichai’s activities in Washington: he is now swapping seats with a frustrated Colin Powell in order to install OpenOffice onto his desktop from a flash drive, and we recall that Google’s Googleplex headquarters resembles nowhere in modern life more than a brand new playground built in a design language borrowing heavily from Spy Kids. And though these Twelve disciples are unnamed for the moment, a few of them could immediately land book deals by going public, and every single one would always have by default not only the badge of “I landed a job at Google,” (which is really to say I have hit Life’s maximum level cap,) but “I worked at Google for a while, but ended up quitting to do something else,” which is guaranteed to make you the most interesting, intellectually superior person present in whatever crowd for the rest of your life. The ultra-cool Sarah Cooper quit Google to become a comedian and even got to talk to Kara Swisher! I won’t pretend to understand big tech’s diminutive bastardization of prestige, but “more than 90 academics” jumping to publish an open letter (adjacent to a huge DONATE: Support the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots button) in which they “write in solidarity with the 3100+ Google employees” who’s terrible boss decided to help some lackeys in the Pentagon set up their email and didn’t text back for a whole hour doesn’t sound 100% sincere. Notably, I don’t know how or why the fuck 90 people would go about collaborating on a single document, but if it really was managed, they definitely used Google Docs… At one point, it was fun to think about the history of the friendly side-scroller-playing garage ghouls and dorm dorks who gave cooky, wacko names to their dot com startups in parody and defiance of the lame-ass surname anagrams on the buildings of their established competitors, but those who’ve stuck around have only done so by becoming expert at SUCKING UP EVERYTHING around them, and it pisses me off every day how worried I am that my species will finally be done in by a company with a name like Yahoo! and be known only to a bunch of adolescent interdimensional silicon blobs 30 million years in the future as that bipedal race who remained dignified until the last 0.01% of their reign on Earth, when in way less than a single generation, they all just went FUCKING INSANE and blew themselves up because they suddenly hated all sense.

“Google” is perhaps the worst of these to have to shout in fear and/or anger in your last moments as it sounds in American English like you’ve startled your subject with a ticklish pinch followed so immediately by an esophagus-busting chokehold that the two events appear simultaneous, and in real English English, it almost always sounds like a parent speaking of a character on a pre-K children’s television programme whom they find quite foul and upsetting, but will manage to refrain from expressing so otherwise because they know that Teletubbies shit is the most quickly forgotten stage of television viewership. It’s fascinating how exclusive the word “Google” is to American English because in everything else it really is complete nonsense, but lets halt all etymological discussions right now because we’ve only now just finished with Monday.

Bad Chrome

The Soul Ledger

On Thursday, all of my Google experiences, suppositions, and soul-detaching screenshots were usurped when a thoroughly alarming internal company video called The Selfish Ledger was leaked to The Verge, which I watched once then and do not want to watch again for the sake of this piece, but I will. Though the big V has been disappointingly timid for years about editorializing — when tech journalism desperately needs some confident, informed opinion more than ever — Vlad Savov’s accompanying article should be read in its entirety, to which I can add my own terror where he perhaps could not. The production style is technically identical to that of the very popular thinkpiece-esque, motion-graphics-paired-with-obligatory-sharpie illustrated videos which you find playing at max volume on your mom’s iPad from where she’s fallen asleep on the couch at 9PM, but the repeating stock string soundtrack multiplies one’s discomfort as such that we would all end up in the fetal position without remembering the transition were it not for the appearance of trusty old Dank Jenkins, who’s face I thankfully associate heavily enough with his infamous down-and-out Tweet to be a welcome respite in attention before the very scary hypothesis for which it’s been buttering me up, as best summed by Vlad:

The system would be able to “plug gaps in its knowledge and refine its model of human behavior” — not just your particular behavior or mine, but that of the entire human species. “By thinking of user data as multigenerational,” explains Foster, “it becomes possible for emerging users to benefit from the preceding generation’s behaviors and decisions.” Foster imagines mining the database of human behavior for patterns, “sequencing” it like the human genome, and making “increasingly accurate predictions about decisions and future behaviors.”

The next time the what if they do something scary question comes up in a casual conversation about Google, you’ll have something a lot more substantial than just speculation. Or will you? The Verge reached out for comment and got an awfully convenient response.

This is a thought-experiment by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate.

Wow! Leave it up to grand ole Googe to reveal the ultimate excuse for just about any suggestion or behavior, though it does seem almost deliberately uncomfortable, doesn’t it? No matter — whether or not this video was ever about a project or tangible product development, or simply to explore uncomfortable ideas because it is proof that the company has reached that critical Vatican stage — if you’ll remember — where they now feel comfortable exploring Very Bad, but Very easily made Real Ideas amongst themselves about what would happen if they allowed their system to nudge its users around a different, slightly less optimal route to the bar, let’s say — without their knowledge — in order for the system to collect traffic data for the sake of its own interests? Which would be, technically, in the interest of all Ledger users now and in the future, so why not?

The ledger could be given a focus, shifting it from a system which not only tracks our behavior, but offers direction towards a desired result.”

This, my dear privacy-obsessed friends, is the real issue with data collection — its power over huge groups by way of their behavior and it is never going to be remedied in any significant way by ad-blockers or VPNs because the EndUser shall always out number you 50 to 1, even decades from now. EndUser does not understand — or, crucially, have any desire to understand anything technical about what leads to the PewDiePie videos playing on his filthy screen. Here’s a great opportunity to escape Silicon Valley’s technolibertarianism and resign your Darwinian empathy in favor of meaningful and truly-effective action: if you want to avoid a future Google Church (or Google Government, more worryingly,) you should invest your time, effort, and knowledge into electing officials more capable of understanding and regulating Big Tech.

Google Government

The internet as it stands is made possible by Google as the goto resource for online advertising. In 2016, “Google held 75.8 percent of the search ad market, bringing in $24.6 billion in revenue from search ads,” according to Recode. By 2019, “that’s expected to grow to $36.62 billion in revenue, or 80.2 percent of the market.” Google’s edge in user behavior and targeted advertising combined with their extensive resources available developers to integrate independent platforms with Google’s software services at various levels makes it very difficult for any advertising-funded individual or organization to compete online without dipping in to the Google universe. YouTube — a Google property since 2006 — has actively invested in and supported a new career path entirely within their own platform that is rapidly becoming popularly aspired-to by young children, while the reality of existence as a full-time YouTuber is far less glamorous than the immediately-visible surface would indicate, and the effort already expended by my generation in its pursuit has already made us insane.

So, what would the internet look like if Google didn’t exist? We know they’ve been working with the government now on various projects, but what if some terrible exposed transgression of theirs suddenly warranted an immediate shutdown and seizure of all Google properties? Well, we know from a post on Quora by Googler Ashish Kedia that even 5 years ago, the sudden absence of Google for “2–3 mins” set the internet into a bit of a panic, reducing overall traffic by 40%. In the time since, we’ve all grown exponentially more dependent on Google properties: billions of people rely on Google Maps for directions and, thousands of companies (including the Pentagon and other government institutions) rely on Gmail and GSuites for intercommunication, file sharing, task management, etc., and more and more academic institutions rely on Chromebook devices running connection-dependent operating systems. It’s not much of a stretch to argue that Google’s sudden disappearance would constitute a Civil Emergency in the United States, which will only become a stronger and more serious incentive for regulatory bodies to look the other way.

Though the tangible results of advertising have been quantified significantly in the past 20 years, one can’t help but wonder after watching YouTube ads for the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class on toy unboxing videos if the companies who spend big bucks on Google advertising understand where their money is going, but they know that if they don’t advertise there, their competitors will. This, of course, is a fundamental practice of a monopoly, and it’s yielded Google so much fucking money that they cannot possibly spend it fast enough, as evidenced by their investments in life extension — so that, perhaps, they will have more time on Earth to figure it out.

When you build a collection of the world’s smartest people in a self-sufficient environment that discourages exploration of other lifestyles and ideas, and you sustain the society with a gargantuan, relatively low-maintenance revenue stream, you create a culture which is not only well-primed for isolationism, but is also extremely inefficient. In fact, with its vast collection of abandoned products and properties, Google must surely be one of the most inefficient companies in history. Thinking back on recent software releases along with its recent entries into the hardware space, Google is also one of the worst competing tech companies. Very little aside from Gmail, Google Photos, Google Maps, and Chrome have found their place or garnered significant usership. Google Play Music is unintuitive and impossible, Google Allo and Google+ are all but forgotten addendums to other services, and Google Search — its core, original function — has been out of control for years, and all of them are designed blandly and excruciatingly tiring to look at.

Google Shun

If this all has stirred nothing more in you than a desire to eliminate Google from your own online life as much as possible, there are alternatives in almost every one of the sphere’s they dominate. As of late, DuckDuckGo has accumulated a fair amount of buzz and coverage as a private, more relevant alternative to Google’s plain old search engine. Though it is clever enough to list us as the first result for “extratone,” I’ve found it simply insufficient as a replacement in my own life because, essentially, it rarely delivers what I’m looking for. By contrast, Dropbox Paper is such an elegant cloud notetaking and word processing software that it makes Google Docs look simply idiotic (and warrants its own review very shortly.) For getting around, know that MapQuest is not only still around — it’s now a very competitive mobile navigation app.

I, myself, have allowed Google as complete of access to my information and behavior as possible because I believe “privacy” is a completely futile endeavor if one wishes to be a part of society, though I do often use alternatives to Google services simply because I fucking hate the way they look. If you want a more complete list of services and software that allow one to shun the Google God entirely, you’ll be forced to seek out less dignified sources like Lifehacker and Reddit and decide if the additional time you’ll spend using most of them to accomplish the same tasks is really worth your digital angst.

If Google were to be more explicit with its users and staff about its aspirations to take over control of our lives, there will be little to do but accept the future they intend to create because they’ve long been too powerful to control. In the meantime, I’d suggest you continue to use whatever software works best for you and refrain from wasting your time fretting on conspiratorial suppositions of what the tech industry may be doing to “invade your privacy,” because there is no longer any such thing, nor will there be ever again. However, I would also urge to you worship your own Gods, whomever they may be, for Google will never be worthy. I, for one, shall only pray to our Mother Sun.

#spectacle

by David Blue

Three Billboards

Nitpicking the recklessness of last year’s highly-awarded, class-blind black comedy

Indeed, it may be the time to jab at the rural, working-class South, but Martin McDonagh claims to have written his Golden Orb Special “eight years ago,” long before Tump, and any critical resolution the film provides is argued haphazardly. Consequently, its eye is cast on this strange, satirical portrayal of the Midwest in a manner which is inaccurate and insensitive enough to irk this Missourian. When I saw it at Columbia’s Ragtag Cinema this week, it was introduced by a young employee who noted that 1) Ebbing, Missouri is not a real place, 2) the film was actually shot in one of the Carolinas (an audience member suggested incorrectly that it was in SC,) and 3) we should prepare ourselves to be roused a bit by a bar scene in which a character pays $8 for two beers because “that just wouldn’t happen” (the Ragtag also serves alcohol.)

The “redemption arc” of the racist “hick” “loser” Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) was rightfully at the center of the film’s controversy, but even if one imagines his role and fate written differently — perhaps with him irrecoverably shunned and/or visibly punished for his excessive, hateful violence — his rubishness would still be unforgivable. Living with his mother and turtle feels like an effort to humanize him — and, by extension, racist small-town cops as a whole. The Huffington Post’s Zeba Blay wrote an essential take on why Three Billboards — with its terrifyingly racist dork — was received the way it was.

Rockwell’s character is the racist uncle whom white liberals fear and love. The ability to feel for him ― to root for him in spite of his past transgressions, because he really is a “good man at heart,” an idiot who doesn’t know any better ― offers a kind of catharsis for the white viewer who can’t or won’t deal with true nuance, who is unable to reconcile their own complicity with their desire to be “good.”

It’s not as if the film isn’t technically well executed or refreshing — thanks in large part, yes, to Frances McDormand — or that I will not regret appealing on behalf of my home state, but it’s hard not to speak up when Hollywood shits so recklessly on my people. I don’t much like writing about movies because there are so many voices who consistently speak so much more effectively. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, for instance, did a wonderful job dissecting the film’s depictions of racism and domestic violence. Gene Demby commented that “[McDonagh] doesn’t get these particular physics of American racism, and he’s not interested in them,” and I think it’s reasonable to suggest that Mark’s not very versed or interested in the physics of American class, either.

If you must differentiate the state of Missouri as a cultural whole between North and South, it is currently more red than blue — we went 56% for Donald and 38% for Hillary — but ask anyone from “somewhere down in the Georgia, Florida, Alabama corner” — as McDonagh put it -where we generally fall, and they’d be unlikely to regard us, fraternally, as the same part of the country. The accents in Three Billboards are notamong the wide variety of local dialects you’ll encounter anywhere in the state, but perhaps they wouldn’t be out of place in Sylva, North Carolina, where the film was actually shot.

Regardless of all potential criticism of the film’s cultural perspective or technical excellence — and I think most of it is more valid than any take I could possibly offer — my particular issue with it comes from a culmination of tasteless decisions. If one reasonably successful Irish director were to produce a patronizing film at the expense of Missouri’s working class filled with a ton of absurd, misconstrued characters portrayed by A-list talent on location in a real Missouri town, the side-effectual economic benefits such a production delivers to a locale would make it all more forgivable. Say what you want about us… as long as you’re paying. But to photograph such a film completely separate Missouri — culturally and financially — set in a fictional(ized) town, include the state’s name in its title, before conducting oneself in interviews as if we were a random target on a “Southern” dartboard… Well, that’s awfully shitty.

Boy, working class Americans sure are a riot!

The [writing] http://extratone.com/library/threebillboardsoutsideebbingmissouri.pdf) is interesting enough for this, totally-out-of-touch“reviewer,” but I can’t imagine why it won Best Screenplay at the Globes, unless the other nominees were completely, bleakly predictable. (I wouldn’t know.) The excerpt below (SPOILER WARNING I GUESS?LOL) was the most stirring part of the experience, personally, if only because I really like films that palm strike one in the face without warning with bizarre, chaotic vulgarity (like the elevator scene in Drive.)

I suppose it could have been the result of a rational decision to give any depth to Anne (Abbie Cornish) — who is Chief Willoughby’s (Woody Fucking Harrelson) Australian?, much-too-attractive wife — before he kills himself in the last third of the movie, making her suddenly relevant. Or, perhaps it was another attempt to emphasize the emotional repression of “Southern” folks — one of the almost-accurate positives of the film, if only thanks to McDormand’s skill. She and Sam Rockwell won Best Actress and Best Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively, which makes sense — it’s a shame they accepted such an out-of-touch work with which to demonstrate their ability to assume aloof, emotionally-dysfunctional characters.

Growing up astride classe while traveling throughout the vast majority of Missouri for various reasons has made me defensive, and — while my right to speak for hard-working Midwesterners is certainly debatable -I’d suggest the industry at large be more diligently interested when setting is especially emphasized. It is no longer acceptable to pass up the opportunities McDonagh has for critical storytelling in Three Billboards. Racist cops, abusive spouses, unsolved murders, and mishandled grief are real, abundant issues in the country’s breadbasket, and they’re worth discussing responsibly — especially with such a powerful platform. If the purpose of film writing is to help an audience determine whether or not a work is worth spending their time and money to see it in theaters or otherwise, I can tell you — even within my bias and limited authority -that this one just… isn’t.


#film #home #class #missouri

by David Blue

VR Virgin

A late geezer’s first go at the dystopian VR experience

Earlier this year, Tim and I had the opportunity to try virtual reality at the True/False Film Festival in a dark, curtained side room of a commandeered Columbia art gallery, but we were both much too intoxicated and loopy those last few hours of the fest, and we bailed. Call us cowards if you must — immersion can be a scary concept to those of us who grew up reading science fiction, before the existence of the modern video game console. I’ve wanted just 30 seconds or so with a pair of goggles, just to have an idea of what the increasing number of Oculus-blinded pedestrians surrounding me are looking at. Thanks to Isiah, I was finally caught up last night with a few VR YouTube videos and Farpoint’s introduction on a PlayStation 4.

First, Isiah brings me the headset and describes in detail how exactly to adjust it, but I forget it all and simply try to shove it directly and violently on my face. Eventually, he takes it back and simply mounts and adjusts it around my monstrous skull — like you would for a toddler — and I lay eyes on the console for the first time. For whatever reason, it never occurred to me that general GUI wouldn’t simply be displayed in 2D, but by a literal virtual display, layed out in front of me like a large, floor-mounted touch workstation. I’m astonished by my ability to turn away from it to look at the rest of Goggleworld, which is nothing but a deeply black void.

From my previous world, I hear Isiah and Hawthorn discussing what to show me first, and YouTube is the settled-upon environment. As the application is restarted in “VR Mode,” its startup screen is what really establishes the truth — I have gone virtual. I cannot use my hands to shield my eyes from the branding’s glaring watermark and terrifying red light. At its home menu, Isiah simply selects the “VR” tab, revealing a selection of thumbnails for algorithmically-recommended VR-shot videos on the service.

To begin, I am mounted on the tail of a superbike as it’s raced around an American desert circuit. It takes a few seconds for high resolution to buffer, leaving me briefly in a pixelized hell that would surely make anyone sick, were they exposed very long. (I was especially excited to become nauseous, to no avail.) At the getgo, I am occupied with the rider’s butt since it’s center-frame if I stand in my usual posture. Isiah points out the hovering HUD to my left containing a selection of simulated digital instruments (tachometer, 7-segment speedo, etc.) Its presence would suggest that the purpose of my virtual passengership is to witness the lap as a motorsport enthusiast, but the rear of the rider obscures most of my view forward — I cannot admire his line as one would viewing a GoPro-or-otherwise POV of the same event, so I decide to try and figure out which track I am hurried through. Though the vehicle is tossed about in the required movements of motorbike operation, I myself (the VR capture device) am impressively gyrostabilized, and the image, static, as if I’m actually hovering above the pair as they moved along. I spin left and right, spotting a small gaggle of miniature wind turbines and two wilting hilltop trees in the foreground. Behind them, small sand dunes fill the space, all the way to the horizon.

After a few minutes, I am finally relieved early of my cutless lap for a short National Geographic documentary on a Viking revival festival in Poland. I’m introduced to its Big Boys by a series of aerial shots (presumably by drone, which is awfully un-Vikinglike) as they row their Big Boat up(?) a relatively wide, tree-lined river. In contrast with the lap, the jump cuts become a bit disorienting — I am eventually jumped in the boat for a moment, next to the sweaty, bearded lads — a few of whom are shirtless. I notice a blurry church on the distant bank. Suddenly, I float briskly across the small no man’s land between two rapidly advancing battle lines of Nordic Nerds with real, era-specific weapons and way too much free time. More lingering drone shots follow from just a few feet above the ensuing conflict. Outside, Isiah confirms Hawthorn’s suggestion that this is, indeed, the one where they use real weapons as I notice a pile of three or four men lying against each other, motionless on the ground, right-of-center in the nearest line, and mull over the sure disturbance of all this immersion the festival has allowed in welcoming the presence of the surely-buzzing drone. I guess they’re dead.

After the conflict, I am subjected to a dreamier, narrated montage accompanied by cheesy synthesized orchestral music and featuring disproportionately a particular man with a shiny, tatted bald head and rather large feet with rather small toes, which he likes to wiggle during these particular conversations. Thanks to VR’s omniencompassing perspective, I am allowed to observe his wiggling in his every appearance. The tone of the background music and the prevalence of relaxed, conversing couples and sunsets in the scenes suggest romanticism is the montage’s theme, but for me, it is the bald man’s feet — I am too busy conversing with my two friends, across the divide, in this world, to listen to any of what is said. Considering that YouTube collects the dimensional data regarding where the user looks, and for how long, I make an effort to bend my neck up and down in extremes, and notice a patch of washed-out sky, distorting in the distance, and ponder what — if anything — we have gained in this technology.

VR Vertical

Does an increase in the raw amount of visual data available to the viewer actually make motion picture storytelling more effective? In the few minutes of my VR taste test, I did gain quite a bit of volition over an equivalent 2D experience, but it didn’t seem like I’d instinctively used it to gain much else. If one is specifically interested in the shrubbery around a racetrack, or the more nuanced undulations of a Viking’s foot, they can more likely than not find a standard video on the World Wide Web that would more efficiently entertain them. In specific situations, of course, a producer can undoubtedly benefit by the ability to capture in 360 degrees, but — in any sort of cinema, especially — it seems unnecessarily sacrificial to relinquish entirely the narrative directorial control of shot framing to their audience. However, I am the antiexpert on this subject, obviously. My take on the viability of VR is Virtually Redundant and — quite possibly — very wrong, but my time in its hell is not over yet.

Isiah explains that it is time for me to game, and asks if I’d like to try “the one with the hands, or the one with the gun.” As always, I choose the firearm, as the “hands” have not been found yet and the hypothetical image immediately offered up by my imagination is of rusty iron shackles. The Infinite Blackness has returned, and I cannot see beyond it to determine what my host is up to. Then, it becomes outer space — filling with thousands of starlike white dots. The light-blue outline of a virtual PlayStation controller appears where I assume him to be, unattached and bumbling about. Soon, it jaggedly approaches, and I feel him hand it to me. We have started its calibration process, which becomes a bit frightening in my celestial surroundings, though at least I have now gained participatory power over my new existence. I’d opted out of wearing headphones, so the assistant’s malignant-sounding female British voice comes softly from the television somewhere in front of me as I point the beam of light the controller’s representation is now projecting straight forward at the navigational arrows displayed ahead and pull “the trigger” (R2.)

I am pleased by the idea of interfacing with software exclusively by shooting it repeatedly before I am abruptly contained in a cage, now being projected by a virtualization of the system’s sensor, which is unsettling. I am now calibrating the hardware contained within the physical device that captures the position of my body in the physical world. I catch the word “confinement” in the assistant’s unending, otherwise-inaudible directions, and quicken my pace. When it’s all done, I return the controller to Isiah, who reboots the PS4, itself, before launching Farpoint. My space becomes a lighter blue and fills with little opaque bits of Sony Dust for a minute or two. Isiah continues his rummaging for another peripheral as the title’s introduction begins to play.

Two rather poorly-animated astronauts are co-hosting a live broadcast from their craft, which is presented in a dramatization of a computer display. They’ve just met, but they’re both stacked with academia, co-massaging their knowledge, which I choose not to listen to. Out of view, Isiah unsuccessfully attempts to skip the whole thing before I’m allowed to become virtual again — this time, atop the animated body of another astronaut in a lone shuttle, approaching the mothership where it holds, next to a large, very-Star Trek “anomaly.” From Deep Space Nine, the two scientists continue to bicker over comms as I look around the cockpit. Looking backwards has already become a favorite habit of mine — I wonder where the shuttle’s bathroom is. For whatever reason, the back of my character’s neck was animated, though it can only be seen by looking rearwards and down, which distorts its shape into something truly terrifying.

A bunch of unrelated plot follows, leading me to end up on a foreign world, exiting my crashed escape pod. By now, Isiah has connected The Gun, but something about it isn’t quite right — my character holds it in a glitched, very uncomfortable-looking manner, and it’s suspected that a fix would require a restart, and therefore — a replay of the introductory cutscene — so I retire out of lack of patience.

If I were confidently reviewing PlayStation VR as a consumer purchase, I’d cite a quote of Isiah’s: “I couldn’t find the thing.” In addition to my first drone sighting, a few days ago in Colorado, this lost virtual virginity is not necessarily unwelcome — I feel as though I’ve acquired a platform to better ponder the dystopia to which these and their like industries add a certain comic spice. That said, I cannot imagine a reason to once again enter the digital realm — and who cares?

Please enjoy your new worlds, kids.

#spectacle #tech #gaming #portland

by David Blue

Mastobird

Eugen Rochko has spent this year perfecting federated social media in Mastodon – his open source project. We spoke to him just hours before it became a global tech conversation.

The saga of Twitter, Inc. has been rejuvenated in 2017 by Tump's antics, corporate drama, and an amalgam of user and non-user disquiet with its decisions, though its financial viability has been in prominent industry conversation for half a decade. Since its pre-2010 outset, many 'a' feature has accumulated on its original, still-iconic skeletal software, and – though the net is undoubtedly positive – a few have gone.

Last Thursday, the company revised in bravado its poultrian default profile picture and its system of replies to exclude @s on all of Twitter's proprietary services, drastically changing two of its visual mainstays, and prodding a particularly lucent cacophony. Turn your ear, and you'll hear many familiar terms in the chants: limits, chains, strings, harassment, feedback, gamergate, nazis, etc.

These conversations are important, but they've gotten awfully stale.

If you listen a bit more carefully, you'll intercept a new one:

Mastodon.

It's the open source brainchild of Eugen Rochko, who's known colloquially as Gargron.

He's had one hell of a week.

Between the night of our first emails and our conversation, his flagship mastadon.social instance had doubled in users. Less than two hours after we said our goodbyes, his name was on The Verge's front page.

Despite the urgency of it all, he graciously lent me his time just after breakfast on Tuesday to discuss himself and the story behind the project, while the most significant day of his life was building around him.

“I'm perfectly fine with being called Eugene by Americans.”

Though the ink's still fresh on his compsci diploma, he's clearly prepared for the American press.


What's the story behind the project? Do you remember the specific moment when you decided to do this?

Many years ago, I had a friend that was really into federated networks when they were a new thing. That was when identi.ca was first created – at the very beginning of my developer knowledge and career.

A good portion of the stories written so far on his platform have framed it as an alternative to Twitter, which early Masto adopters refer to as “Hellbird,” or “the bird website.” Eugen isn't afraid to acknowledge his investment in the format.

I was a heavy Twitter user and I wasn't happy with where Twitter was going, so I decided to check on how the federated stuff was doing in the meantime. I found it in a very sad state, but thought I could contribute.

He began building on his own, with Tweetdeck's standard in mind.

I thought 'if I'm going to do something, it needs to have realtime updates and it needs to have columns.' I started with a bare-bones prototype while still [at University] in May or April of last year. It had no user interface, only an API that I was using from the command line. And I thought 'okay, it works. that's great.' Then, exams came.

Academics had to come before the project at first, but it soon supplied an ample post-graduation diversion. He focused his energy on building something more complete and eventually launched a Patreon page.

I announced it on HackerNews, and that was the first public release of the project. That's when I got my first users who weren't my friends, and some who were new to federated networks.

That was just over 100 days ago, and it gave way to his first feedback.

I started working on the first feature requests, shaping the project a bit differently. People were a lot more focused on privacy features than I thought they would be, although in retrospect, it makes sense. The previous [federated] project – GNU social – did not really have a focus on privacy features, or anything built in by default.

It compelled him to change things, and his work was well received.

Over time, I kept working on new features, and waves of new users came when it went viral in certain circles. The first was HackerNews and Product Hunt. Aral Balkan – a Twitter user with over 30,000 followers – picked up the project, gave it a shout out, and even did a giveaway of his app. He had a lot of followers from Holland; the Mastodon timelines became mostly Dutch.

Next was Marxist anime Twitter (including Extratone and I.)

Lots of furries; lots of LGBT people. That's when I really focused on privacy features and making sure all blocks worked because these individuals needed a safer platform than Twitter could offer.

Sidekick dashboard background processing jobs as of Tuesday morning.

Sidekick dashboard background processing jobs as of Tuesday morning.

“As you can see, the first bump is HackerNews, the second is Aral Balkan, and then anime/Marxist Twitter.”

And the last – now a bit out of date – is this week's spike, which is nearly double all previous waves.

Are you responsible for all of the code?

You can look at the GitHub page to see a specific breakdown of who contributed and how many lines of code, each. You'll see I'm at the top by a large margin, but there are [additional] people who've contributed interesting, good features & fixes, localizations, user guides, and documentation. What's the story behind the name?

It's not particularly interesting. I'm a progressive metal fan, and I listen to Mastodon sometimes. They have a really cool name that refers to a really cool animal. It's a fluffy elephant! What's not to love?

It's also the inspiration for Mastodon's mascot, which was penned by Rochko's YouTuber friend Dopatwo after he realized how urgently he required an error page.

What does “federated” mean to you?

The biggest problem with this term is that it's new for lots of people. People who've come across federated networks in the pastinstantly understand what it means and how it works, and people who are new to the concept have a lot of trouble before it clicks. But when Twitter first started, people didn't understand what 'retweeting' meant, so it's not a unique problem domain.

I don't know where it comes from – maybe BitTorrent – but people seem to think that when something is 'decentralized,' everybody gets the same thing; that it's all synchronized one to one. In actuality, 'federated' means that people in different instances can talk to each other, but thecontent is different depending on the users there, what they do, and who they follow.

Though instances are infrastructurally independent, they can communicate with one another. On a user level, timelines are still determined by who you do and do not follow across the entirety of all instances.

What if Twitter comes to you in the near future with a job offer?

[Rochko laughs.] If it was any other company, I would think about it. A job is a staple source of income, and – depending on the company – could involve doing something important, but I have zero faith in Twitter.

Does this all mean that I finally get to live out my serif Twitter dream?

Yes, I suppose on your own instance, you could change the stylesheet...

So if I set up my own instance and started charging for its use, I'd be in the clear, legally?

Yes, that's okay. The code is licensed under AGPL version three, which I picked because other projects in the same space are using it. The difference between AGPL and GPL is that [the former] forces you to contribute back to the appstream code repository if you make any breaking changes.

For example, Eugen explained that WhatsApp originally used XMPP for its chat protocol, which meant that Facebook and Google Talk users could connect to it, too. However, the company progressively locked down the platform over time, leaving virtually nothing visible that was unique to XMPP in its current iteration.

To prevent somebody taking Mastodon code, placing it behind locks, and stripping out the federation part to make Twitter II, I'm using this license.

The thing to remember about free software is that 'free' means freedom of the user, not that it's zero cost. It's perfectly fine to charge for free software because developers need to live, too.

I've seen a lot of multilingual 'tooting' these past few weeks. Can we expect an in-app translate function like Twitter's on Mastodon?

I don't think I could put in a 'translate this toot' button because APIs from Google and Bing are quite expensive at scale. I'm not 100% promising this, but I can probably put something in where people can select which language they post in, and then just filter the timelines. That would at least solve the problem of being confronted with lots of French posts, without knowing any French.

The only complaint about Twitter I remember that hasn't already been addressed here is the capability of editable 'toots.' Is that a possibility?

That won't happen. There's actually a good reason why they don't do that. It's simply because you could make a toot about one thing, have people favorite it and share it, link it from other places, and then suddenly, it says 'Heil Hitler,' or something.

Mastotile

It's a bit preposterous to continue the conversation as if Twitter and Mastodon are interchangeable entities. They exist in separate ideological and mechanical spheres, and will both continue to do so for a very long time.

That said, the fundamental user interface design and current cross-community user saturation do warrant comparisons between their functions. More likely than not, you'll create a Mastodon account because a link found you on Twitter, use it because you prefer its type of ecosystem, and you'll stay after realizing that nearly all of your age-old qualms have been addressed, if not already rectified. While FOSS and Federated may seem at times like jejune ideologies, their advantages are especially tangible in this context. Should you find yourself needing to complain about something, you'll find an audience. Perhaps it'll be your command line.

It's nothing but negligent to describe Mastodon as an alternative or clone.

It's more like Twitter's son.

It's leaner, quicker-to-change, much more flexible & democratized, and less corrupt. Though I didn't ask its creator what he intended to gain from all his effort, I think his commitment itself denotes a preoccupation with progress. Those of you who've been let down by the tools you've been given to control your words' exposure will find startling competence in your ability to determine per-toot privacy, or reserve your raucous photos and terrible memes from followers who are not necessarily complicit consumers. Naturally, it's also much less dependable, though a single instance outage will never leave you truly, completely silent. And the support will come.

It's been a privilege to be observer and participant in the first lightening of a new online community. In the moment, we enjoy our lavender haze -when the spaces are filling primarily with users who are sincerely interested enough in discourse to have sought it out.

Sarah Jeong's account of her Twitter exile is a good, long read if you're craving more specifics, and Eugen's Medium offers a more complete explanation of federation and its place in the industry, straight from the source. Apparently, he's just as articulate with words as he is with code.

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd bet it's not the last we'll hear from him.

#social #foss

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