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Living At Pokemon Go Speeds

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This sounds like it’s about it’s a game, but it’s not.  It’s about the way the game exposes a phenomena.  So even if you don’t give a crap about Pikachu, please do me a favor and listen.

Anyway: Pokemon Go was released last Wednesday.

I heard about it on Thursday, when pictures of Pikachu sitting in people’s back yards flooded into Twitter.

By Saturday I’d downloaded it and captured Pokemon around downtown Cleveland.  We gave a few folks knowing nods, already recognizing the “Pokemon Go hand position” that you hold your cell phone to play.

By Sunday Pokemon Go was making headlines.

By Monday, we went out and found at least eight other people playing Pokemon in our sleepy little burg, and we talked brightly to each other.  Wasn’t this weird?  It was weird.  But cool!  We had so much in common!

By Tuesday morning, I heard about clever business people who’d attached lures to the Pokestops in front of their stores, which drew customers.  By Tuesday evening, my friend Eric told me he was researching whether he could place Lures at his conventions.

By Wednesday, we went down to the mall and Pokemon Go was no longer an unusual activity.  Everyone was there to play Pokemon Go – the people who didn’t have their phones out and the by-now-mandatory recharge cord sticking out of their pocket were the exception.  And the friendly nods of Monday had been replaced by shrugs, because this was no longer cool or interesting, it was just what we did.  

Now check that out: Seven days, and we’d gone from “Never heard of it” to “Everyone is doing it.”  But it got worse.

By Thursday, we expected all the business Pokestops to have lures.  That was just standard practice.  Hillary Clinton was already making Pokemon Go jokes in that hesitating way the elderly discuss “the Facebook.”

By Friday morning, my feed was clogged with Pokemon Go thinkpieces asking, “Haven’t we had enough Pokemon Go?”

Nine days, and we had crested a complete wave from “This thing has never existed” to “This thing is so big that Presidential candidates feel the urge to reference it” to significant chunks of the population saying “God, this is played.”

I have a friend who’s in the hospital right now; she had a brain bleed last Thursday night, went into the hospital on Friday.  She’s okay, thankfully, but I can’t stop thinking that this is some parody version of Rick Grimes waking up in his hospital on The Walking Dead – arising from her coma to go, “Wait, when did Pokemon Go become just something that people did?”

And ya know, if you’re in the hospital for brain problems, waking to find everyone casually doing something you didn’t remember last week has to be a little worrisome.

When I grew up – which was, admittedly, in the dinosaur days before the Internet – nationwide crazes took months to catch on.  Star Wars was as big as it gets, but it had a premiere in May of 1977 – a well-attended premiere – but then word of mouth moved slowly in those days, as did theaters.  Star Wars, like every nation-changing phenomenon, was a glacial juggernaut, because movies often stayed in theaters for three to six months at a time with filled houses, drawing in people who’d never see it via Bittorrent or DVD or HBO.

I try to imagine the new Ghostbusters still drawing crowds to theaters in November, and it’s never going to happen. Even if it’s the best movie ever, people rush out to see them quickly and then they fade.  There’s a speed that gets us out there.

We’ve sped up.  Which is fine for entertainment.  Hey, Pokemon Go speeds are fine for videogames and movies and phone-booth-stuffing and whatever other trivial things we feel like whipping out.

But then we expect everyone to live at Pokemon Go speeds, and that’s pretty much inhuman.

I’ve seen major chains get yelled at because some store of theirs out in Futtbuck, Montana did something  intensely sexist/racist/otherwise stupid, and it’s gotten 50,000 Tumblr reshares, and why hasn’t this business done anything about this by now, don’t they care?

And I’m like, “That Tumblr post was posted nine hours ago.  At eleven o’clock at night.  When people were fucking sleeping.  And the people of this company got to their offices, logged into email, started to see something they were just aware of, and now they have to verify this awful thing isn’t some Photoshopped hoax, and get the regional manager out there to interview to see who did what and when, verify who’s responsible, and discuss a legally-correct punitive measure that’s not going to get them sued.”

Not everything acts on Pokemon Go time, and expecting that speed leads to you buying into lies.  Because a news that operates at Pokemon Go speed is a news that’s cribbing from whatever source it can get, and that leads to manipulation and horrendous smears that everyone knows, and believes.

Like, you know, the former Prime Minister of Britain, David Cameron.  If Americans know him, it’s because he’s the guy who fucked a pig.  The story broke a few months ago: he was in a frat initiation, and he put his cock in a dead pig’s mouth, and ever since then there’s been a rampant stream of jokes about “This little piggy went to market” and “YOU FUCKED A PIG THE WAY YOU FUCKED BRITAIN WITH BREXIT” and so forth.

Except that never happened.  To quote this story:

Then, after a full day of online merriment, something shocking happened. Isabel Oakeshott, the Daily Mail journalist who had co-written the biographywith Lord Ashcroft, a billionaire businessman, went on TV and admitted that she did not know whether her huge, scandalous scoop was even true. Pressed to provide evidence for the sensational claim, Oakeshott admitted she had none.

“We couldn’t get to the bottom of that source’s allegations,” she saidon Channel 4 News. “So we merely reported the account that the source gave us … We don’t say whether we believe it to be true.” In other words, there was no evidence that the prime minister of the United Kingdom had once “inserted a private part of his anatomy” into the mouth of a dead pig – a story reported in dozens of newspapers and repeated in millions of tweets and Facebook updates, which many people presumably still believe to be true today.

Oakeshott went even further to absolve herself of any journalistic responsibility: “It’s up to other people to decide whether they give it any credibility or not,” she concluded. This was not, of course, the first time that outlandish claims were published on the basis of flimsy evidence, but this was an unusually brazen defence. It seemed that journalists were no longer required to believe their own stories to be true, nor, apparently, did they need to provide evidence. Instead it was up to the reader – who does not even know the identity of the source – to make up their own mind. But based on what? Gut instinct, intuition, mood?

In other words, she took an unsourced allegation, gave it to the Internet, and the Internet moved at Pokemon Go speed.  Was it true?  We didn’t have time to investigate, or fact-check; someone said it was true, and so we went with it.

Hell, I said it was true.  Why?  Because newspapers were reporting it.  I assumed, foolishly, that newspapers wouldn’t report something that was false – but I forgot how Pokemon Go speed is warping business models.

Because if everyone else on the Internet is saying something and you, the news source, are not confirming or denying it until you’ve determined whether it’s true, then you’re missing out on the precious clicks that fuel your coffers.  So you compromise.  You post a piece saying that “Everyone’s saying” this, the lie that Donald Trump slithers by on, and don’t bother to say in big letters that THIS IS UNCONFIRMED because the story is not whether he actually fucked a pig, the story is the allegations of him fucking a pig, but for some strange and ephemeral reason the words fucking a pig are the ones that stick in people’s minds.

If the truth comes out later, well, the fact that someone didn’t fuck a pig is way less interesting, so that never grabs people.

And we have rushed, with great speed, to a false conclusion, and never looked back.

The problem is that speed – or, rather, the assumption that this speed is necessary.  When Nice was bombed last night, we had thousands of folks on Twitter demanding to know what was happening by the minute, making crazy predictions about who did this before the last dying heart had stopped beating, everyone grabbing their hoary old stories of why these terrorists had attacked and tacking on their preferred narrative before a single fact could enter.

And I repeat: Pokemon Go speeds are fun.  It was super-fun to go down to the mall and find a group of people doing something unique in human history.  It’s fun to watch this story spread, and mutate, and see all the weird things Augmented Reality encourages humans to do when it’s mashed with actual, you know, reality.

But actual news cannot, and should not, move at Pokemon Go speed.  Sometimes good investigations take months of careful digging to get out the facts, cultivating news sources, discarding false leads, determining the story is bigger than this immediate scoop – the movie Spotlight has an excellent analysis of why a big story may not break at Pokemon Go speeds.

And I understand that news agencies can’t not report, because ultimately their primary goal is report what people want to hear, not what people need to hear – otherwise, they go broke, for all their lofty aspirations to responsibility – but I wish that news sources would draw a distinction.  To say “This is Pokemon Go-sped news, you should probably take it with about 80% skepticism, we’re going to deliver the real news in a week when we’ve had the chance to interview people, so chomp down on these news Cheetos until we can deliver you the rich, nutritious meal you deserve.”  And they’d repeat that every fifteen minutes, and put it at a big block at the top of every Pokemon Go-sped news page.

But they won’t.  Why?  Because you want your news at Pokemon Go speeds, just like you want your justice delivered at Pokemon Go speeds, just like you want your outrage delivered at Pokemon Go speeds.

And what I am suggesting – no, actually, I’m telling you – is that as long as you’re demanding people act at Pokemon Go speeds, you’re also demanding they rush to unwise conclusions based on sketchy facts perpetrated by unknown sources.

Slow down.

Wait a little.

Stop thinking you should get everything at convenience speed.

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73 days ago
This is not actually about Pokemon Go.
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Scott Atran on Why People Become Terrorists

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Scott Atran has done some really interesting research on why ordinary people become terrorists.

Academics who study warfare and terrorism typically don't conduct research just kilometers from the front lines of battle. But taking the laboratory to the fight is crucial for figuring out what impels people to make the ultimate sacrifice to, for example, impose Islamic law on others, says Atran, who is affiliated with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

Atran's war zone research over the last few years, and interviews during the last decade with members of various groups engaged in militant jihad (or holy war in the name of Islamic law), give him a gritty perspective on this issue. He rejects popular assumptions that people frequently join up, fight and die for terrorist groups due to mental problems, poverty, brainwashing or savvy recruitment efforts by jihadist organizations.

Instead, he argues, young people adrift in a globalized world find their own way to ISIS, looking to don a social identity that gives their lives significance. Groups of dissatisfied young adult friends around the world ­ often with little knowledge of Islam but yearning for lives of profound meaning and glory ­ typically choose to become volunteers in the Islamic State army in Syria and Iraq, Atran contends. Many of these individuals connect via the internet and social media to form a global community of alienated youth seeking heroic sacrifice, he proposes.

Preliminary experimental evidence suggests that not only global terrorism, but also festering state and ethnic conflicts, revolutions and even human rights movements -- think of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s -- depend on what Atran refers to as devoted actors. These individuals, he argues, will sacrifice themselves, their families and anyone or anything else when a volatile mix of conditions are in play. First, devoted actors adopt values they regard as sacred and nonnegotiable, to be defended at all costs. Then, when they join a like-minded group of nonkin that feels like a family ­ a band of brothers ­ a collective sense of invincibility and special destiny overwhelms feelings of individuality. As members of a tightly bound group that perceives its sacred values under attack, devoted actors will kill and die for each other.


EDITED TO ADD (8/13): Related paper, also by Atran.

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73 days ago
75 days ago
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3 public comments
67 days ago
This is, in large part, why I don't have much to say to condescending liberal atheists anymore. Faith does a lot for the human brain. Without it, people seek meaning, and they will find it...just about anywhere.
Portland, OR
75 days ago
"looking to don a social identity that gives their lives significance"

One of my favorite quotes is from McLuhan: "All violence is a quest for identity." Few people understood the modern world as well as that strange Canadian poet.
76 days ago
Doing something useful and meaningful is probably right up there. Issue is lack of equivalent or better opportunities elsewhere.


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Last couple of weeks have been a lot like this.

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82 days ago
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Wasting one million dollars


"Done" means "launched". It isn't "done" until it is launched. It annoys me to hear people say a project is "done... now I just have to launch it". It isn't done if it isn't in production.

There are a few reasons for this: people think that launch is "the last 5 percent of a project" but often 80 percent of your time will be consumed by this last 5 percent.

Also, you aren't "done" until other people are benefitting from your work (in business speak... "it is delivering value"). Written code has no business value. Launched code does.

You can rig this in your favor. Structure your project as a MVP (minimum viable product) launch followed by a series of mini-launches, one per feature. This way your written code stays unlaunched for the shortest amount of time. An MVP release might be just the main webpage and placeholders for every feature. However it forces you to go through all the launch tasks: setting up the web servers, load balancers, databases, and so on. These things can take a lot of time. Oh, and if there is a separate dev team and ops team, your ops team can start developing their runbook now, not the day before launch. This makes operations suck less.

Which brings me to a story about wasting one million dollars...

I Tom once saw a project with a plan to launch after 2 years of development. After 1.9 years the SREs were needed for a higher priority project. The incomplete project was abandoned and the efforts of 5 SREs for 1.9 years was forgotten. Do the math... that's about a million dollars that Xxxxxx wasted.

If they had launched an MVP after a few months and then kept building on it (as I Tom had recommended) Xxxxxx would have seen some benefit of the system. However they ignored this advice (I think someone used the term "trouble-maker" to describe me) and they went off to build their new system.

The goal of the project was to replace a legacy system that was missing one important feature, then use it as a platform for a number of new features. I don't mean to gloat, but after my warnings were ignored, I spent a little time making a gross, hacky, quick-and-dirty, version of the important feature and added it to the legacy system. I launched it, and the users were 90% happy. The 2-year project was going to fill in that last 10% of happiness... for a million dollars.

As far as I know the legacy system was used for a number of years after this.

Perhaps the success of my quick hack helped justify abandoning the bigger project. Management had to pick a project to kill so they could have 4-5 people for a higher priority project. Maybe the quick hack made the legacy system "good enough" and helped justify killing the project. Maybe this spared some other project from being killed. I wonder what that project was.

I'm sure the legacy system has become obsolete by now. I don't know or care. I do, however, care that a bunch of excellent SREs had their work thrown away... which must have been demoralizing.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about applying MVP-style project management everywhere. It just makes more sense. Once you've experienced it in one place, you can't help but want to do it everything: system administration, relationships, home repair, etc.

To that end I have one piece of advice: Rush to launch something... anything... and build on it. Reduce the scope to the minimum; avoid the temptation to add "just this one last thing" before you launch. Do this even if it is only usable by a small fraction of the users, or only helps a particular special case. People would rather have some features today than all the features tomorrow. Tomorrow may never come.

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189 days ago
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Capital Mobility and Trumpism

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As I have been saying throughout the election season, the collapse of the working class thanks to capital mobility is going a long way to feed Donald Trump’s popularity.

The fuzzy video, shot by a worker on the floor of a Carrier factory here in the American heartland last month, captured the raging national debate over trade and the future of the working class in 3 minutes 32 seconds.

“This is strictly a business decision,” a Carrier executive tells employees, describing how their 1,400 jobs making furnaces and heating equipment will be sent to Mexico. Workers there typically earn about $19 a day — less than what many on the assembly line here make in an hour. As boos and curses erupt from the crowd, the executive says, “Please quiet down.”

What came next was nothing of the kind.

Within hours of being posted on Facebook, the video went viral. Three days after Carrier’s Feb. 10 announcement, Donald J. Trump seized on the video in a Republican presidential debate and made Carrier’s move to Mexico a centerpiece of his stump speeches attacking free trade.

In fact, many Carrier workers here say that it was not so much Mr. Trump’s nativist talk on illegal immigrants or his anti-Muslim statements that has fired them up. Instead, it was hearing a leading presidential candidate acknowledging just how much economic ground they’ve lost — and promising to do something about it.

Mr. Trump has repudiated decades of G.O.P. support for free trade, calling for heavy tariffs on Mexican-made goods from the likes of Carrier. This has helped put him within arm’s reach of the Republican nomination.

Opposition to trade deals has also galvanized supporters of Mr. Sanders, helping him unexpectedly win the Michigan Democratic primary this month. At the same time, it has forced his rival Hillary Clinton to distance herself from trade agreements she once supported, like the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership and the North American Free Trade Agreement, the 1994 deal with Mexico that is an important part of President Bill Clinton’s political legacy.

Exit polls after the Michigan primary , for example, showed that a clear majority of both Republican and Democratic voters believe international trade costs the American economy more jobs than it creates.

Nicole Hargrove, a 14-year Carrier worker, said she was an undecided voter and was uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s attacks on immigrants, particularly Mexicans. “But I’d like to turn him loose on the financial world,” she said. “Maybe if Carrier had to pay more to bring stuff in, they’d think twice about moving jobs out.”

Mark Weddle, 55, started work at Carrier 24 years ago and earns $21 an hour running a machine that makes heat exchangers. “I have two brothers-in-law from Mexico,” he said, explaining why he disagrees with Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.

But when it comes to Carrier, “we’ve all worked our butts off,” he said. “And now they’re going to throw us under the bus? If Trump will kick Carrier’s ass, then I’ll vote for him.”

That’s pretty much what Mr. Trump has threatened to do. At rally after rally, to rapturous crowds, he vows to impose a 35 percent tax on Carrier products from Mexico. Then, the laugh line: “I want to do this myself, but it is so unpresidential to call up Carrier.”
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And Mr. Trump vows not to take Carrier’s calls until it agrees to change course. “As sure as you’re here, they will call me up within 24 hours,” he promises, and say to him, “‘Sir, we’ve decided to stay in the United States.’”

Consistently in the comments of this blog, people wave away these connections or say it is an acceptable cost to pay for global capitalism. Well, maybe. But you have to live with the political consequences of a declining working class. And while people may support dreamy ideas like Universal Basic Income or more politically possible ideas that would help around the margins like an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, none of these things are happening now while all the manufacturing jobs are in fact disappearing. And whether that is because of capital mobility or it is because automation, we have zero concrete plans on what to do with millions of working class people. At best, we might give slight subsidies to retraining programs for careers that pay less and may not have a future anyway. At worst, we start drug testing for people who get on public assistance or slash those programs to nothing anyway.

The doctrine of unrestricted free trade has been basically bipartisan for many decades now. But no one ever thought hard enough about what this would look like when all the manufacturing jobs were gone. We are now finding out. This opens the door to demagogues taking advantage of what is worst about the United States–xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, political violence, strongmen, intimidating journalists, fascism. When you give working Americans no good options, we might think they would turn to socialism. And a few have, as the Sanders campaigns demonstrates. But without widespread leftist organizing in working-class communities, which in working-class white communities largely does not exist, the appeal of racial and class prejudice added to the appeal of seeing someone tell off the forces that have doomed them to stagnation and poverty, that’s very powerful. That’s the Trump voter. Unless we do something for working-class Americans, even if Trump is defeated this year, the door is open for more demagogues and political violence in the near future.

The question is what to do about it. The answer has to be, in part, jobs that pay well and allow people to live dignified, upwardly mobile or at least stable lives. And for proponents of unrestricted capital mobility and extreme globalization, they simply have no answer on how to do this. We as a nation are reaping the results of their indifference.


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191 days ago
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Don’t Go There. Just Please, Don’t Go There.

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(THE SCENE: Having gotten out of a lovely but exhausting convention, my friend Raven and I go out for fried chicken on the morning after, as is tradition.)

ME: Oh, God, this mac and cheese is brilliant.  It’s gonna kill my heart, but it’s worth dying for.

RAVEN: Ferrett, no! You have to live until Star Wars!  If you die on my watch, Gini is never gonna forgive me!

ME: All right, fine. I guess I’ll live until Star Wars.

(A few minutes later, when I snatch a bite of food off her plate:)

RAVEN (raises fork): Do not make me stab you in the throat with this fork.

ME, loftily: Too late! You’ve shown your hand. You’ve told me you don’t dare harm me, lest Gini harm you!  You have to protect me!

RAVEN: …and what are the odds that Gini sanctions me injuring you after I’ve explained what you did?

ME: Don’t use that logic. It’s a very bad logic.

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382 days ago
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