Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Why Don’t Supermarket Cucumbers Have Spines Anymore?

John William Hill’s 1860 watercolor of the Cucumbers of the Past. I think they have spines?

“Isn’t it weird how cucumbers don’t have spikes on them anymore?” my partner asked me.

“Cucumbers don’t have spikes,” I said, as I picked up a cucumber from the vegetable display at Whole Foods. “Cucumber have never had spikes. I have never encountered a grocery-store cucumber with spikes”

“They do,” he insisted. “ Well, they did. The cucumbers definitely had spikes when I was a kid. “

We stared at each other. It was a moment of perfect generational incomprehension. I was born in 1988. He was born in 1982. And apparently, sometime between when he was a little kid and when I was a little kid, grocery-store cucumbers ceased to be spiky. Or did they? Was this one of those massively unsettling Berenstain Bears moments, a strange generational fillip in memory, something we probably shouldn’t speak of ever again?

Hokusai’s 1789 painting of a cucumber, with very noticeable spikes. The plot thickens!

I had to find out. The first step was, naturally, asking social media. My partner posted on Metafilter and received 18 answers. People who grew up in the 70s and 80s in New England and in Canada and in the UK said that they had no memories of grocery store cucumbers with spines. Someone in their late 40s did recall something like “prickers” on store-bought cucumbers purchased in New England, although the poster noted they were easy to wipe off with one’s hand.

The evidence was inconclusive and utterly unscientific – but interesting nonetheless. Apparently, if someone did remember encountering a spiked cucumber, they had to be at least over the age of 35. I do not agree with those tight-lipped middle-aged people who maintain that millenials have had easy and care-free lives, but I will admit that in this one, extremely specific instance, they are right: people my age have never accidentally pricked themselves on a supermarket cucumber. Most of us are in fact unaware that cucumbers have spikes at all, which is a little bit embarrassing, though I think not nearly as embarrassing as not knowing, like Baby Boomers, that college is much more expensive than it used to be.

We are so unaware of their true spiky nature that many of us are startled – shocked – when we grow them ourselves and are confronted with cucumbers bristling with spines. There is, I’ve discovered, sort of a mini-genre of advice givers telling younger gardeners that their cucumbers have not actually mutated. “Your cucumbers are perfectly normal,” a columnist reassured one nervous spikey-cuke grower on the ThriftyFun website in 2006, in the sort of tone that is typically used when you’re calming down a tween who is embarrassed by the symptoms of puberty. 

Here are some spiny cucumbers from Nepal, which are much more exciting looking than the ones you get at the store in the USA.

But if we’ve sort-of established that the Great Cucumber De-Spiking took place somewhere in the 1990s,  how was it done? And why? The “how” part is easy. The flawless green water-crunchers you see at the grocery store, stacked up in perfect lines, are another marvel of denatured marketing, just like artificially-ripened tomatoes and aggressively waxed shiny apples. Most of the cucumbers that you see at the grocery store are varieties that do have spines in their natural form. While there are spineless varieties, grocery stores don’t seem to prioritize buying them.

There are in fact a dizzying variety of cucumbers, vastly more diverse than the mundane pole and English cucumbers that are present at every American grocery stores. Unsurprisingly, some of these cucumbers have spines. Cucumbers are part of the Cucurbit family that is shared by melons, pumpkins, and squash, and they’re native to India and Western Asia. Gardeners have been cultivating and devouring them for approximately 3,000 years. According to the University of Missouri, ancient Egyptians would make a “weak liquor” by cutting a hole in a cucumber, stirring its insides up with a stick, then plugging the hole and burying it again. I’m sure some organic-food blogger will try this immediately, and I want to know about it if they do. I think.

It really does look like a lemon. Unsettling.

The outside! Potato! The inside! Cucumber! Yowza!

Cucumber varieties are seemingly endless: there’s an entire Freaky Cucumber world out there to discover. (If you need a hobby). There’s the lemon cucumber, which does look eerily like a Meyer lemon, and the exceedingly long Chinese “Suyo Long” variety, which garden catalogs advise you to allow to “sprawl on the ground for circular shapes.”

A magical fairy apple that is actually just a cucumber!

There are ghostly white Armenian cucumbers, and cream-colored “crystal apple” cucumbers, which resemble  a majestic fairy-tale fruit: grow these and confuse and baffle your friends!  There’s a green-serpent cucumber that dwarfs small children, a tiny grape-shaped cucumber amusingly called the “Mexican Sour Gherkin,” and the majestic maroon Gagon cucumber from Bhutan, which looks like it might just come to life spontaneously and eat you. 

Just, uh, look at that thing.

Some cucumbers even sprout little hairs instead of spines: I firmly believe that an unshorn, hairy cucumber is way more problematic than a spiney one.  Imagine biting into a *hairy* cucumber in a salad. Would you ever emotionally recover? (In case you’re desperate to have this experience, for some perverse reason, you can buy hairy cucumber seeds on eBay).

This dizzying kaleidoscope of cucumber varieties is often divided up into “pickling” and “slicing:” varieties. The “pickling” type, according to this source, are more likely to have spines than the slicing variety. You can see the “spine scars” on the skin of pickled cucumbers, which are larger than the spine scars left on the skin of cucumbers meant for slicing. Commercial cucumber cultivars all have either black or white spines: white spined cucumbers have a slow rate of development and stay green and supple longer than their black-spines counterparts, while the black-spines variety turn yellow faster but produce larger fruits. 

Here’s some kick-ass curly cucumbers from Thailand.

Cucumber spines are properly referred to as “trichomes,” and they serve a number of functions if you are a cucumber, including protecting plants from stress, ultraviolet light, and asshole herbivores. Per a few scientific papers I found, Chinese cucumber-buyers actually prefer their cucumbers to have spikes, which means that our weird American preferences for smooth and denatured cucumbers are not the international norm. (Surprise!) 

One presumes this is what black-spiked cucumbers look like. Credit to the Garden Clinic: https://www.gardenclinic.com.au/how-to-grow-article/cucumbers?pid=44194

So how does one de-spine a truculent cumber, anyway? In the dark ages when Grocery Stores Cucumbers Had The Spines, you had to remove them before you peeled or pickled your cucumber – most people don’t want to choke their neighbors and loved ones to death on dangerous prickle-cucumbers. This can be done by running a sharp knife blade over the cucumber, or even rubbing them vigorously with a towel: the spines come right off, and nature’s defense mechanisms are defeated again. 

But how is this de-spiking done on a mass scale for grocery stores? I found it bizarrely difficult to find concrete information on how grocery store cucumbers are despiked, and I suppose I’m in need of an assist from a good agricultural student. The long, slender shrink-wrapped English  or “European Greenhouse ” cucumbers you find at the store barely have spikes to begin with.

This cucumber is nasty, nasty, nasty.

The thick-skinned “American slicing cucumber” or “Pole” cucumber – you know, the nasty ones, bred for longevity rather than taste – are somewhat more likely to have spikes in their native state, although they still don’t have many. After they’re picked, they are washed and then sprayed with wax to seal in moisture. Here’s a video of the process. 

 

 One might assume that the constant jostling they’re subject to would naturally remove any spines that might be present on their leathery skins to begin with. Another video, which you should start at 0:28 seconds, depicts the spraying process that puts all that shiny and supposedly appetizing wax on your cucumber to begin with. It is weirdly mesmerizing viewing of the genesis of The Nasty Cucumbers. 

(Now that I think about it, I have no idea why human beings find unnaturally shiny foods more appetizing – is being shiny-as-hell actually correlated with anything edible in nature? Or are human brains just bad at identifying what is actually food, considering that we’re really into blue food dye? I digress, but, seriously, think about it, it’s super weird).

So why did cucumbers at the grocery store start to get less prickly (in some locations), at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s?  I’ve spent a few days combing the Internet and I am sad to report that I still don’t know.  I can certainly guess that the grocery stores of 35 to 40 years ago carried different, or less uniformly prickly varieties of cucumber than they carry today. The “why” bit remains unclear, and I can’t find any Internet cucumber historians who could explain – but I know they’re out there, and I hope one of them writes me an indignant letter. 

Another theory is “liability” – otherwise known as a cultural rejection of the romantic, dark danger of eating a cucumber that might make you go “ouch” for like a second if you grab it the wrong way out of the crisper. As someone called tripod2000 speculated darkly on a money saving forum, perhaps it’s because “the supermarkets don’t think we can handle prickly cucumbers.” 

The student of history might theorize that cucumbers lost their spines at a time in American life when many things were being rendered safer, less dangerous, more boring. De-spiked cucumbers hit the market at approximately the same time as fun-yet-deadly metal play structures were being excised from playground, Lawn Darts were removed from shelves, KinderEggs were banned as a choking hazard, and parents started to really realize that trampolines are just highly-efficient neck snapping devices. 

Maybe there really was some Patient Zero for the great cucumber de-spiking sometime in 1990, some kid – let’s call him Kevin – who picked up a grocery store cucumber, pricked himself, screamed as if he’d been shot, and eventually prompted his anguished helicopter-parents to file a lawsuit against Big Cucumber.

I could not find evidence of the existence of some stupid loser wimp like Kevin, so I’ll revert to the more likely explanation, which is that people generally didn’t want to bother with de-spiking cucumbers themselves. Sure, it takes two seconds to wipe off the spines. But that’s still time and energy that people in our ever time-strapped world would rather not exert.

Whatever the reason, the memory of a time when Grocery Store Cucumbers Had the Prickles is eroding, slowly but surely, from our collective memories in the United States. Us millennials like to garden: perhaps prickled cucumbers will come back in vogue as the next heirloom produce craze, signifying good flavor in the same way that they apparently do in China.

Perhaps we will all start getting really into hairy cucumbers instead (get your mind out of the gutter). Perhaps we’ll shed the green n’ long variety of cucumber all together and start consuming exclusively lemon cucumbers. We cannot know the future. We can only know the past: the past where grocery store cucumbers were slightly more dangerous than they are today.

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Unsettling Children’s Books of My Youth: “Kickle Snifters and Other Fearsome Critters”

Kickle Snifters.

When I was very young, my mother’s uncle from Kentucky convinced me that there were long-fingered creatures that lived in the dark in closets. They were called, he told me with great seriousness, garments, and they were definitely real. For years afterward, I would open closets and wonder if there really was some sort of lemur-bat like thing huddling amidst the outdated winter coats, or buried in the miscellaneous and unknowable sock box. By the time I discovered the boring polyester truth about garments, I was more impressed than anything else at my great uncle. It was a good bamboozling. He was also following a great North American tradition: entertaining and disquieting gullible children by telling them about improbable monsters. I was both entertained and disquieted, and I never stopped liking monsters.

I had one of those strange Proustian moments the other day: I was thinking about the Appalachian mountains in the context of something I have already forgotten, and then I remembered that I once had this book about the mythological creatures of North America, and it had made a peculiar impression on me, and – as is the way of these recollection – I desperately wanted to see it again. Not that I could remember the name of the book. I could just remember that it was, like all the children’s literature that is great,  both interesting and unsettling, with just-too-detailed drawings, a tiny bit more of a surrealist tinge than is usual in books catering to the small. I did remember it had an animal  in itcalled the Splinter Cat, and something about a HideBehind. Good enough for Google. 

A kickle snifter is a little man who for some reason has a little hat and lives in old men’s beards. Presumably they are parasitic and feed on crumbs and dead skin and i am overthinking this

 The Internet has made these incandescent, incessant childhood memories much more accessible than they used to be. I guess my elders must have had to resort to rummaging around in field markets in hope that something will jog their memory. Me, I go to the Internet Archive, where I found the book in approximately 2.5 seconds. It is called “Kickle Snifters and Other Fearsome Critters,” and it was written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Glen Rounds. It is a book of strange animals collected from American folkore, and while they are described as “fearsome,” that’s really an overstatement. There are a few actually-horrible creatures in the book, like the omnipresent and awful windigo, but the vast majority are more ridiculous than anything else. There’s the Hugag, a creature that leans on things to sleep, and the Kickle Snifters themselves, which reside in old men’s beards and only emerge when you happen to be getting tired. Schwartz describes the monsters in a distinctly un-straightforward, mysterious way, as befitting their nature. The book would have no magic if it simply straight-up described the monsters with detailed color illustrations and made-up biological statistics, as some children’s books on fantasy animals do. The book retained the sense of unknowable mystery.

Consider my favorite animal from the book, the sea serpent. Schwartz gives us a perfect two-paragraph long short story about it. There’s a professor, he’s picking plums (for some reason), and this creature emerges from the ocean. It speaks, for some reason, in English, and it feels wistful about things. It has retreated onto land, for some reason that we are not to know. It could be anywhere. It could be right outside your door. It might also be that you’d like to get to know it. This is not a sea serpent of a scary story: it is a sea serpent of a surreal story, which I always liked much better.

Schwartz and Rounds constitute a sort of dream-team of inappropriately creepy children’s literature, which probably explains why Kickle Snifters has so effectively installed itself in my brain. Schwartz is the deeply sick individual behind the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series. Gazillions of American children have have been successfully traumatized (and delighted) by these books since they came out in 1981. I was among those children who both loved and feared them, who’d stare for a long  time at Stephen Gammell’s hideously detailed and tendriled illustrations of floating skeleton-children and dogs with human hands and face-erupting spiders: Schwartz was probably responsible for many children’s first visceral perception of their own fleshy mortality.

this is not appropriate but it is awesome

Knickle Snifters was not illustrated by the infamous Gammel, but in some respects, I found (and still find) Glen Round’s illustrations just as pleasingly unnerving, albeit in a more subtle way. Glen Rounds has one of those great 20th century biographies: he was born in a honest-to-God sod house in South Dakota in 1906, and then moved to Montana as a child in a covered wagon. Later, he worked as a mule skinner and a carnival artist (whatever that is) before he became a full-time children’s illustrator. He eventually wrote and illustrated 150 books, and while I have not read his entire oeuvre, it is probably more familiar to you, if you are of a certain age, than you might realize. His version of the 3 Billy Goats Gruff, with its aggressive, ascetic illustrations appears to have found its way into every elementary school library in the 1990s.

Glen Round’s 3 Billy Goat’s Gruff, which you probably absorbed somehow in elementary school.

Rounds had a particular gift for drawing underfed and menacing animals: there are a lot of lean hound-dogs and scrawny ponies and bony-romped cattle in his drawings. Rounds also had a bit of a gift for the bleak, the desolate, which is probably the sort of thing that happens to you if you are born in a sod house in South Dakota. Anything that Schwartz and Rounds collaborated on was destined to get a little off-kilter: and so it is with Kickle Snifters. Kickle Snifters is in fact just one volume in Schwartz and Rounds series on American folklore and tall-tales. I haven’t read the others, but I’m half-inclined to hunt them down to see if the weirdness of Kickle Snifters persists.

Schwartz and Glen Rounds did not make up these monsters out of whole cloth. They are in fact part of a great tradition of disquieting children and greenhorns, the same tradition my great-uncle with the garments partook in. We can figure out some of the influences because Schwartz helpfully included a bibliography. The book largely drew from one great source: Henry H Tryon’s “Fearsome Critters,” a definitive guide to North America’s faux natural history, meant to preserve “various legendary woods varmints in some permanent record.” It also has unsettling illustrations, of a particular and charming turn of the century sketchy style. You can read the entire thing here.

The very shady axe-handle hound, from Tryon’s “Fearsome Critters.”

Tryon claimed in his preface that he largely picked up his tales of horrible and unknowable creatures from woods camps. It was not that the lumberjacks really believed that they were at risk of being attacked by a tripod-legged, rock shooting elephant: rather, they were intended for “the puzzlement and temporary terrorization of some camp greenhorn,” in the exact same tradition as the garments-story my great uncle told me. Many of the creatures found in Knickle Snifters are here: the HideBehind, the Hoop Snake, the Hugag, the Splinter Cat. There are other, more-on-the-nose ones, like the Axehandle Hound or “Canis Consumens,” which runs off with a lumberjack’s favorite axe handle.

Tryon himself was just one of the faux natural history chroniclers of the early 20th cetury. Lanwood Sharpe’s wonderful “Lumberwoods” website has hypertext versions of other sources: there’s Art Childs 1922 “Yarns of the Big Woods,” and a book compiling 1913 accounts of The Marvelous Critters of Puget Sound from the Seattle Star’s writers.

So why did I, and why do so many people, like these false and not-so-threatening monsters so much? What is the peculiar attraction of making up ridiculous fake animals to mess with greenhorns and tourists and small children?

Stories about monstrous animals of dubious realness are certainly ancient and they are everywhere. There’s the aforementioned windigo, which shows up in the mythology of a number of Algonquian groups, none of which one entirely agree on what it looks like or what it does, beyond its extreme horribleness. We have the man-eating uktena serpent described by the Cherokee in the Southeastern United States, and the Athabaskan cannibal-ogre known as the Wechuge, and the Sasquatch, and the thunderbird. David D. Gilmore’s excellent “Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors” describes many of these not-real animals from many different cultures, and speculates as to why we’re so fond of them.

The Rubberado, which makes you bounce and laugh.

But most of these well-explored monsters are meant to be taken more seriously than those described in “Kickle Snifters” and “Fearsome Critters.” The monsters of Kickle Snifters who do things like hide in old men’s beards or make strange and annoying noises are largely not that dangerous, or they are dangerous in improbable ways – they’ll bite you on the leg and not let go for months, or they’ll make you bounce and laugh, or they’ll make weird noises at you. They exist in the realm of the surreal and unsettling and silly. If you made a horror movie about them, it would have to be a very stupid one. It would also be the best horror movie ever.

They largely are not physically described by the tale-teller: you’re supposed to fill in the gaps about what a goofus or a hide behind or a squidicum-squee actually looks like yourself. This is a story-telling trick that is particularly effective on children, and so it was with me: my great uncle did not actually describe what a garment looked like, after all. He merely mentioned that they existed and that they lived in the dark in the closets. I added in the stuff about the long fingers and the lemur-like appearance and enormous eyes myself. That was the fun part, although it was also the part that made me slightly terrified of closets until I hit third grade.

While the monster of Kickle Snifters and Fearsome Critters don’t really fit into the genre of horror and ghost stories, their unseriousness weirdness of these folk monsters situates them perfectly in the world of tall tales. Nancy Cassell McEntire defines tall tales as “an informal, fictionalized narrative, created out of increasingly absurd exaggerations that begin in the ordinary world and depart from it through hilarious descriptions.”

The Tripodero.

These stories, as McEntire says, “may start out with a foundation of enough credible details to situate it in the real world, but it soon begins its exaggerated journey, stacking one impossibility on top of another to form a perpendicular lie.” This particular sort of tall tale is described by Carolyn S. Brown as a distinctly white male sort of thing, rooted in the “bragging contests” of the early frontier. (Well, perhaps, though one wonders if this is more an effect of what sort of tall-tales get documented and which do not).

Brown emphasizes the importance of deadpan and the pretense of truth in these stories: the tale-teller had best be entirely sincere in their delivery, completely convicted in the belief that they came across a snake that folds itself up into a hoop. This does not meant that they actually believe it (which is how “bullshit” has been so famously described). It means simply that the humor comes from the fact that they’d like us to believe it. It’s BSing, but of a sort that is meant to be more amusing and good-natured than cruel or genuinely threatening. It is meant to do nothing more than to make kids mildly dubious of closets, not to paralyze them with fear.

Why tell these stories at all? Why this benign sort of lying? Story-teller Don Lewis, quoted by Carolyn Brown, thinks that the stories are “an attempt to make some kind of sense or maybe a joke or do away with a little bit of the threat of a disorganized universe.” This ppeals to children, who are faced with a world they do not understand and have little influence over. It also appeals to me in 2018, where I feel approximately the same with more tax obligations. May the Fearsome Critters persist forever. May we continue to harmlessly convince children and the gullible of strange and nonexistent creatures.

 

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You Don’t Want to Delete Your Facebook (And That’s OK)

Everyone should stop Facebook. Everyone is not going to stop using Facebook this week. That’s OK. There’s a middle ground between deleting your account forever and between spending all of your waking, earthly hours refreshing your Facebook feed. And we should be telling our relatives and friends about that middle ground, instead of telling them they have to stop using Facebook right away.  We can counter the sense of helplessness that many people feel about their relationship to Facebook and to other social media platforms – but we’re going to need to do it in an incremental, careful way. 

You’re reading this and you don’t live under a rock, so you’re probably very much aware that Facebook is under an immense amount of heat right now. Last weekend, the world found out that the eminently-creepy (albeit over-hyped) Cambridge Analytica voter profiling company scraped 50 million Facebook users profiles, information that they used to on behalf of Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It was the latest in a year and a half long succession of failures and embarrassments for Facebook, from their widely derided failure to do something about Russian bots to their ham-fisted attempts at fighting fake news to their disturbing treatment of their underpaid moderators.

Facebook seemed invulnerable for a very long time, but this latest scandal, on top of all the others, actually seems to have wounded it: Facebook’s stock valued dropped by as much as 8 percent in the US and the UK, and Mark Zuckerberg had lost already $9 billion of his net worth by Tuesday. The leviathan has been hit, there’s blood in the water, and it’s easy for us privacy paranoiacs to feel like Captain Ahab.  For the first time that we can remember, there’s an opportunity to take Facebook down, or at least to weaken it by reducing its user base. 

“You’ve got to delete your Facebook profile, it’s the only way!” we tell our friends and relatives, waving around our harpoons. Whereupon our friends and relatives smile (so as not to provoke us) and back away. They don’t want to delete Facebook entirely, or maybe they can’t due to their job, or because it’s the only way to communicate with their families. It’s not like it matters, they think. Facebook already has all my information. 

The Captain Ahab approach is not a good way to get people to alter their social media habits, and it’s not a good way to convince people to better protect their privacy from companies like Facebook. When we get all Captain Ahab, we’re forgetting some important realities about human beings and how most human beings feel about Facebook. 

 

“Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!

First: we forget that most people don’t know much about how their Facebook data is used and abused. Endless news stories about the evils of Facebook may fill them with unease and distrust, but they’re not getting much good information on what to do about it.   A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 47% of Americans lacked confidence in their knowledge of what companies actually do with their personal data.  This 2016 survey from the UK found that while 74% of Internet users believed that they adequately protected their online data, only 28% of respondents had actually turned off location tracking on the platforms they use, and only 31% had changed their social media privacy settings. This confusion is  in part because Facebook and other social media companies have done a bang-up job of obfuscating what they’re up to: another recent study found that Facebook’s privacy policy became much less transparent and much harder for mere mortals to understand in the decade from 2005 to 2015. 

Your conflicted Facebook-using friends and relations are living in what frustrated security researchers call the “privacy paradox”: most people will swear up and down that privacy is important to them, and then will continue to share their personal information widely on the Internet. This is not because they are stupid.  It is because they believe that they live in a dark, howling Internet panopticon from which they cannot escape. (I’m exaggerating, but only kinda). This 2016 focus-group study found that young people were aware of the risks of sharing their information online. They just didn’t think they could do anything about those risks: they felt that “privacy violations are inevitable and opting out is not an option.” They’ve  fallen prey to privacy cynicism, which is defined rather succinctly by these researchers as ” an attitude of uncertainty, powerlessness and mistrust towards the handling of personal data by online services, rendering privacy protection behavior subjectively futile.” 

I met a traveler in an antique…look, you get it, hint hint.

Many people also feel powerless because they think Facebook is unkillable. The average person viewed Facebook as a doofy college-kid rumor service back in 2007: now, most see it as a bit like an unstoppable, inescapable international hive-mind. I’m sure Facebook would be just fine with being viewed sometime decades hence as an inscrutable but appeasable deity: provide your data tribute, and the crops will flourish! Withold your tribute and face its wrath! Facebook knows no past or present or death! 

Thankfully, this is horseshit.

In the last 20 years, we’ve watched former juggernauts like AOL, Yahoo, MySpace, Ask Jeeves, and many many more weaken and die. From one point of view, Facebook is already dying: young people have correctly identified that Facebook is now dominated by their elderly and incoherent relatives, and they’re ditching the platform in droves.  For the first time in a decade, Facebook usage has decreased amongst Americans, dropping from 67% to 62%,  while Google and YouTube usage continues to grow.

These people might be backing away because they’ve lost trust in Facebook. Trust is everything for social media companies like Facebook: people’s willingness to share the data that social companies must feast upon to survive is dependent upon how much they trust the platform not to wantonly abuse it.  A 2017 study from the UK found that only one in four Britons trust social media, and a majority believe that social media companies aren’t adequately regulated. A mere 35 percent of Bay Area residents say that they trust social media companies. A study from October found that while a majority of responders do believe that Facebook’s effect on society is positive overall, they also trusted Facebook the least of the “big five” tech companies (and only 60% knew that Facebook owns Instagram). We can work with this. 

Yep, that’s a hideous dolphin figurine.

Second:  People are absolutely horrible at going cold-turkey at things.  Look, I’ve spent many, many hours of my fleeting and precious life sitting slack-jawed on my couch, refreshing Facebook like a Skinner-box trained rat. I know that it’s fiendishly hard to stop using social media. Some scientists now believe that social media can be the focus of a true psychological addiction, just like World of Warcraft or gambling or collecting hideous dolphin figurines. A PLOS One study found that heavy Internet users exhibit physical “withdrawal” symptoms and anxiety when they suddenly stopped using social media. 

Changing your relationship with the Internet and social media is particularly difficult because they are such fundamental parts of modern life: abstinence isn’t really an option. You can live a normal, productive life without WoW or cigarettes, but it’s just about impossible to live normally without the Internet. It can also be hard to go without Facebook: many people do need it for their jobs, or to stay attached to relatives who may not be as up for getting off Facebook as they are. 

So what can we ask people to do? What are some realistic, relatively easy things that people can do to better protect their privacy? How can people scale back their Facebook usage and the data they share with Facebook, without deleting their profile entirely? Here’s some suggestions. 

  • Figure out the motivation behind your compulsion to use Facebook. “Cyber psychologist” John Suler (what a great job title) suggested this type of scrutiny in a Quartz article: “Is it a need for dependency, to feel important and powerful, to express anger, to release oneself from guilt? In compulsive behaviors, people are expressing such needs but rarely does the activity actually resolve those needs.” If you know why you’re spending hours combing through your colleague’s second-cousin’s dog photos, you’ll have a better sense of what you need to do to stop. You can also try restriction apps, like Self Control – they’ve helped me reduce my own “pigeon pecking at a button” behavior immensely. 
  • Turn off location sharing. I do not use location sharing on any of my devices. There is no good reason for Facebook to know where you are. 
  • Turn off Facebook’s platform feature. This feature is what allows third-party apps and other websites to integrate with Facebook, and it’s also what permits these third-party apps to slurp up lots and lots of your data. Shut that sucker off. No, you won’t be able to play Farmville anymore, you deviant. 
  • Review your third-party app settings. If you don’t want to take the nuclear option of turning off Facebook’s platform –  though you really, really should – you can still review your third party app settings and revoke access to apps you distrust. (Don’t trust any of them). Buzzfeed has a good guide here. You should do this for all the social media sites you use, not just Facebook. 
  • Stop liking things. “Likes” give Facebook useful information on how to advertise to you. Do not do that. 
  • Stop Facebook from tracking you across the Internet. Facebook extensively tracks users, both on the platform and on sites that have a Facebook “like button” – yes, they’re following you even when you aren’t on Facebook itself.  There’s a number of good ways to stop this tracking, on your computer and on your phone: I like the uBlock Origin browser plug-in, and the 1Blocker app for mobile devices. 
  • Lock down your privacy settings. Review your privacy settings at least once a month: Facebook has an infuriating habit of resetting them. 
  • Delete as much information as you can possibly stand from your Facebook profile. Delete as many old posts as you can possibly stand. You can download your Facebook archive if you don’t want to lose those memories entirely. 
  • Facebook targeted ads are majestically creepy, and you should opt out of them right now. You can do this in your Facebook account settings. HowToGeek has a nice guide to opting out of these ads on multiple platforms.
  • Read these other guides to protecting your privacy on Facebook. Here’s a good one from the Guardian. Here’s one from CNBC. Here’s one from Motherboard,

Don’t get me wrong. We do not live in a perfect world. Us Captain Ahabs are not going to convince every Facebook user to rise up and delete their profile as one in a Glorious Attention Revolution, in which Facebook evaporates into a puff of dark and oily mist, and all the Facebook money is redistributed to the world’s privacy-loving children, and Mark Zuckerberg is forced to live in penitent exile in a hole in the forest on a very remote island. We are not going to harpoon this stupid privacy-hating white whale right now. 

What we can do is slowly starve Facebook: by cutting down on our time using Facebook and the amount of information we share with it, we can reduce its ration of nutrient-rich data krill. Facebook’s advertisers are dependent on your attention and knowledge about you, and their job gets a lot harder if you provide less of it. By starving Facebook, we reduce its power over us and its power over our government and over our minds. It’s absolutely true that users can only do so much: we are going to need regulation with teeth to truly loosen Facebook’s grip over our societies. Still, we can help bring about that regulation and help alter how our communities approach Facebook by altering our own behavior and helping others do the same.

I don’t necessarily want Facebook to die (though I’m not sure I’d be very sad). I do want it to be humbled. I want Facebook and its leaders to realize that we do live in a world where actions have consequences, and where the actions of gigantic companies that control mind-exploding quantities of data have some of the most important consequences of all.  We can do our small part to make this happen. In short: Facebook users of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but constant interaction with your racist uncle. 

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Why Young People Live in Big Cities, Since This Needs to Be Explained Somehow

The Unicorn Latte is not the primary driver behind millennial geographic mobility. Who knew?

“I just don’t understand why you young people complain about high rent in the city – you could just move to the Midwest and buy a big house, if you’d get over yourselves.”

You’ve heard this argument before if you live in a city. It is usually delivered by some horrible relative who is holding a strong alcoholic beverage in one hand and a cocktail shrimp in the other, delivered with that particular type of sloshed bravado particular to horrible relatives. The Magical Cornfield Solution is one of those arguments that is so intrinsically, obviously stupid that it is hard to believe people are sincere about it . But they are. These people really believe that young American’s problems with finding housing and decently-paying work would magically vanish if we all just moved to a very attractively-priced soybean field somewhere near the geographic center of the country. They are convinced that young people are paying ever-spiraling urban rents because we are too proud, too fancy for life in a place without bizarrely-colored lattes and metaphysical yoga classes. 

Here are some reasons why moving to the country is not a magical panacea for high rents and housing inequality. I cannot believe I have to explain this, but then again, it is 2018, and I am always disappointed.

Rural areas are also experiencing housing shortages and affordability crises. We just never hear about them – I certainly didn’t know this until I began researching this blog post. A young person who lives in an expensive area and spends a lot on rent who moves to a rural area (as your shitty Uncle Chad advises)  will almost certainly be penalized by a lower-income job: it is by no means guaranteed that they’ll be able to buy a home in return.  While housing is cheaper in rural areas, incomes are also lower, which means that many people don’t have the resources to improve the housing they’re already in. Some scenic rural areas suffer from affordability problems caused by second-home buyers, who buy properties that working families might live in year-round. Completely unsurprisingly, the declining economic activity and populations in rural areas are also linked to declines in home-building, home improvement, and the availability of home loans. While Nebraska has plenty of jobs, there’s not enough housing for people who might move to fill them – yes, that’s right, there’s a housing shortage in rural Nebraska.  Making matters worse, low-income new arrivals in rural and remote areas add to already over-burdened health and social services: this article looks at how this is playing out in rural Canada, a country with socialized health-care, unlike some other countries we know. 

Lots of people are from cities, and they’d like to stay in those cities. There is a certain type of smug soybean-field-pusher who assumes that everyone in the entire country is originally  from a picket-fence small town or a suburb.  This is a problem, because a lot of people are born in cities and stay in those cities. Which are the same places where their families are. The U.S. Census Bureau inconveniently doesn’t collect data on whether people were born in the cities that they live in, but it does collect data on whether people were born in the same state as the city they currently reside in. 58.5% of Chicago’s residents (to use one example) were born in Illinois, while 70% of Philadelphia’s residents were born in Pennsylvania. 2016 data from New York University’s Furman Center found that 47.9% of New York City residents were born in the state of New York. We can safely extrapolate from this that there’s a lot of people out there who’ve never known anything but city life.

  A lot of people are not white, cis-gendered,  born in the United States, or heterosexual. Many of these people would like to live in places where they will not be isolated from others like them. Hate crimes are becoming more common in the Trump era, and groups that don’t fit the white, straight norm likely are finding it more important than ever to be amongst their own communities.  2010 U.S. Census Data found that a whopping 78% percent of the population in rural and small-town American communities was white and non-Hispanic. Immigrant groups in small communities may lack access to the resources they need to combat hate, as this article on rural South Asians describes. The U.S. census doesn’t collect information on LGBTQ people, but there’s evidence that LGBTQ Americans – especially youth – find rural and small-town life a challenge. A 2016 study from a University of Kansas professor on gender and sexual minority youth in nonmetropolitan communities identified four areas of particular need:  “reduction in isolation, social acceptance and visibility, emotional support and safety, and GSM identity development.” White, straight Americans shouldn’t assume that rural America is as welcoming to everyone as it is to them.  

Urban areas have infrastructure. That includes fast Internet and mobile service. You’re not going to be able to work that well-paying remote job your horrible relatives assume you can get in Real Rural America if you can’t get a fast Internet connection or mobile reception. The Internet crisis in rural America is acute: a whopping 39% of rural Americans lack broadband service, as opposed to just 4% of urban Americans, and the sordid death of Net Neutrality means that this shameful problem is unlikely to get better anytime soon. Rural areas have the highest healthcare premiums in the United States, which is linked to higher healthcare costs due to a lack of doctors and hospitals. The rural doctor shortage, a long-time problem, is expected to worsen thanks to the Trump administration’s idiotic and racist visa policies. Groceries may actually be cheaper in big cities, as opposed to smaller ones. You’ve got to own a car, and you’ve got to regularly gas it up. And what exactly should people who can’t drive do if they find it harder and harder to afford living in an urban area? Rural areas in the United States are, after all, not exactly known for their public transit – though some groups are wisely working to change this.

Many well-paying and fulfilling careers require you to live in cities, at least for a while. (I don’t mean “fabulous wealth and power” here, either, I mean ‘you’re not absolutely miserable and you can afford health insurance’).  Good jobs are increasingly clustered into a few metro areas, especially in the comically lucrative tech world, and most of those metro areas are relatively expensive. Some of these good careers, careers which help all of humanity sometimes, are limited to one or two cities in the entire world: if you don’t want to live in those cities, you are welcome to fuck off and do something else. You are going to have a very hard time advancing to better-paid and more responsible positions if you do not live in these expensive cities. Many of the young people currently living in expensive cities appear to be interested in leaving once they’ve got the money to buy a house somewhere cheaper (though it’s debatable if cities have really hit “peak millennial” or not). 

Most people probably don’t move because they want more unicorn lattes (or other amenities).  2017 data from the US Census Bureau found that the largest group of millenials (18.0% percent) moved because they wanted to establish their own household, followed by 16.1% who wanted new or better housing, and 11.9% who moved for a new job or a job transfer.  People are moving much less than they used to in general. In 2017, America’s household mobility rate was 10.9%, which is the lowest since the Census Bureau started keeping track 50 years ago. This is not actually a good thing, Uncle Chad the Idiot Trump Voter, it’s yet another disturbing sign that America is stratifying into a lousy place where rich, educated people live in cities and continue to get richer, while poor people get stuck in more rural areas with fewer opportunities. Much-maligned flighty millennials are actually moving less than prior generations of young adults, per Pew Research, for a number of reasons that no one seems to be able to agree upon. Pew’s Richard Fry theorizes that this is because millennials are still suffering from the economic impact of the Great Recession, and still aren’t finding job opportunities worth making a move for. Relocation subsidies have also become a thing of the past, making it financially harder to move for a job. 

Opportunity clusters. It just does, even in our Internet era. We live in a stupid and comically non-meritocratic world in which networking and running into people at parties is paramount to success (or just economic stability and comfort), and that is a whole lot easier when all the people who can help you advance are in the same geographic area as you, and are thus easier to access. One recent study found that people who attend college in big cities go on to make more money in life: the operating theory is that this is because big-city universities offer superior networking opportunities.

Wow, look at those roving packs of friendly people at your city bar who know a guy who can get you a job! Roaming the plains, wild and free!

Most jobs (and networking) still can’t be done “from anywhere,” at least not long-term. Many companies still regard telework with extreme suspicion, and teleworkers are still penalized when it comes to advancement upward.  Location also matters to freelancers, and I know, because I’ve been one, like every other sentient being under the age of 30 in 2018.  Even freelance writers – a famously antisocial and isolated species – have got to meet and interact with people who will publish and promote them, at least some of the time. This doesn’t have to mean living in that particular bit of Brooklyn that is (far as I have read) absolutely jam-packed with tiresome men who write big fancy novels about insecure professors with sexual problems, and thank God for that, but it often does mean living in some sort of urban area with a media scene. There are a lot less of those outside of the urban United States.

Insofar as I am aware, there are few friendly hiring managers who are already two margaritas in and know this guy who happens to be looking for someone with your exact skill-set wandering the vast and empty plains of middle-America. There are no migratory herds of avuncular mentors who will help you get that meeting with his friend Roberta the Nicest CEO, though I mean, that sort of ecological destruction is just what you get when you decimate our formerly mighty long-grass prairies. 

Blade Runner is not real.

City living is the way of the future. I don’t mean that in that depressing dystopian cyberpunk way, that particular vision that is weirdly shared by every single “serious” science fiction show: you know, everything’s grimy, everyone has mohawks, people are eating cyber-rats out of desperation. That’s not real, but the advantages of urban dwelling are. Larger, denser cities are widely considered to be more energy efficient: emissions appear to reduce as metros grow larger. Productive cities that can attract more people get more productive in turn, contributing more to GDP. There’s a well-proven, direct relationship between city density and human capital. The benefits aren’t just economic. There’s a reason so many famous art and social movements originated in cities: cities allow creative and diverse people to find one another and come up with new concepts and ways of living, in ways that still can’t be replaced by the quotidian delights of social media. Cities drive economic growth, though, as this research shows, they don’t have to be ginormous mega cities. Even small cities produce economic benefit in “developing” nations. It is not realistic or desirable for every American to reside on 10 acres of isolated farmland, even if it’s really, really cheap to live there. (Build your own shack! Defend yourself against the roving night-coyotes!).

Advising young people to stop their whining and move out of the city, where they can be isolated from one another and from centers of culture and political power, is remarkably short-sighted. It is ahistorical, to an extent that makes me extremely suspicious. Venerating the noble countryside can really be taken too far: I wonder how many of the horrible uncles promoting a millennial exodus to Missouri are aware of how that particular experiment went for Mao Tse-Tung, or for the Khmer Rouge. Nothing good comes from these naive, dangerous demands to empty the cities, to stop putting on airs. Moving to cities is one of humanity’s most persistent historical trends: that of clustering and aggregation and great cities rising and doing great and awful things. Uncle Chad is not going to somehow stop this millennia drive toward urbanization by braying about how inexpensive possum-filled mansions are in his town in East Dakota. Do not put up with Uncle Chad. 

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FashMaps: Locating White Supremacists in Space

Are you worried that your neighbors are actually Nazis? Do yowling white men in polo shirts with suspect haircuts continue to hide from you, no matter how carefully you scrutinize your neighborhood? Seek no further.

There is now “Fashmaps,” an activist-run website that uses public web postings to figure out where white supremacists claim to be located and where they will be congregating for meet-ups. Each point on the “Nazis in your Neighborhood” map (imprecisely) locates a user of the infamous Daily Stormer Neo-Nazi web forums. It’s possible because some Daily Stormer users knowingly post their locations, while some of their meet-ups have publicly viewable locations.

The map displays only locations and meet-up events that are freely and public posted on the Daily Stormer website. It pointedly excludes additional, corroborating information that might be used to locate individual users more precisely: the website clearly states that it is not intended for violence, stalking or harassment. All it purports to do is to locate American white supremacists in place and time, to document the spatial realities of our current, burgeoning alt-right problem.

It may surprise you that Daily Stormer users are so willing to publicly post their locations. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Our modern-day fascists are surprisingly poor at — or so confident as to be uninterested in—operational security.

Consider how the delightfully-named Unicorn Riot media collective was able to obtain (via an anonymous source) and publish logs from the Discord chatrooms used by the Charlottesville tiki-torch wielders. These logs are now being used by lawyers in the court-case against the Charlottesville planners, strengthening the argument that their actions constituted a criminal conspiracy. Just like Daily Stormer users, the Charlottesville planners failed to even consider that someone might be watching them.

I’ve read many dim-witted and oh-so-earnest tactical conversations in advance of anti-Trump protests and dubiously-named “free speech” rallies on public 8Chan boards: they are often as self-aware as that spider from the video industriously covering itself in sand, blissfully ignorant of the fact that we can still see it.

In these conversations, there is always lots and lots of back-and-forth about making Secret Plans that AntiFa and the Liberal Media Will Never See Through: I’d scan through these postings and I’d wonder: “Aren’t they aware that I can see this, on this public and widely-known board? Don’t they know these boards aren’t an exotic secret? Do they lack a theory of mind or something?” (Well, yes, to that last one)

Perhaps it’s because they’re newly emboldened, and feel they no longer have to cover their tracks. Perhaps it’s because the FBI — as was recently demonstrated by their total failure to act on a tip about the school shooter in Parkland — are still bizarrely incapable of following up on potential criminal activity if people are talking about it in the great and mysterious land of Online. Perhaps it’s because many people involved with these online-hate groups simply haven’t realized that doxxers can also be doxxed in return.

Is FashMaps effective? Well, that depends on what we mean by “effective.” Do we want the tool to discourage white supremacists by exposing their (general) locations, or do we want it to be effective as a tool for awareness and research tool? Insofar as I can tell — and I’m going to do more digging—it’s decidedly unclear if the threat of being mapped helps to actually discourage and disorganize white supremacists. While the Southern Poverty Law Center regularly is complained about (and occasionally sued) by the groups it names in its Hate Map, it’s not clear if the Hate Map actually deters white supremacist activity — such a causal link might be a real pain to prove, anyway.

We don’t know if the threat of being located in space is a deterrent to white supremacists. We do have decent anecdotal evidence that the threat of being doxxed —in which someone’s personal information, such as their address, is dug up and widely disseminated online—has “terrified” many white supremacists. It will be extremely interesting to see if fewer white supremacists and alt-righters turn up to real-world marches and rallies in 2018, as left-wing activists step up their efforts to publicly expose them.

We have more concrete evidence that mapping projects like FashMap are potentially useful tools for awareness and research, giving law enforcement, policy makers, and researchers a better way of visualizing and drawing connections between hate groups.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateMap.

For starters, it’s not exactly the first such effort to map hate and violence online: it’s part of a very long tradition of web-mapping for some kind of political or activist purpose. The Usahidi web-mapping platform was launched in 2008 to track political violence during the Kenyan elections, and is still being used today: it served as the inspiration for the roughly-gazillions of similar interactive mapping projects that popped up after it. The still-running “Rechtes Land” web map, created by a data journalist, has tracked Neo-Nazi activity since 2017.

Visualizing the spread of hate is powerful, and maps represent a potent and easily-understood way of performing that visualization. Hate groups are “geographical phenomena,” as this 2017 paper from the Annals of the Association of American Geographers states: it goes on to observe that “The connection of hate and place stems from the social construction of place and its link with identity formation and stability (Gallaher 1997).”

The aforementioned Southern Poverty Law Center HateMap may or may not discourage white supremacists, but it’s indisputable that it’s one of the best existing resources for reporters and researchers who want to better understand American hate groups. FashMaps is really just another interesting instance of how cartography and the aggregation effect can be combined, can even be turned into a sort of political weapon.

Is FashMaps ethical? Yes, I think it pretty much is. As criminology professor Brian Levin acknowledged in a Vice article about FashMaps, the DailyStormer’s Internet Nazis are revealing their identities in the “public square” of the Internet. It’s the equivalent of posting the location of your gross Nazi party in a mimeographed flier stuck to a telephone pole: if you don’t want to be located by people who don’t like Nazis, you probably shouldn’t be willy-nilly sharing your location. There is no reason why Neo-Nazis, who (lest we forget, which a lot of us weirdly seem to these days) vocally wish to exterminate their fellow human beings, should be permitted more geographic privacy than anyone else. The law seems to agree with this as well, at least for now. Legal challenges to the SPLC’s Hate Map from the named groups, for example, have largely hinged on defamation and trademark violation, not on the actual act of geographically locating these groups.

What’s more, FashMaps is locating these DailyStormer users in an extremely gentle and considerate fashion. FashMaps could be much less gentle. That’s because it’s usually very easy, trivially easy, to find out exactly where most Internet users live, work, and meet up. Most people — including Neo-Nazis — just don’t understand that security online is more difficult than setting up two-factor authentication and not using your dog’s name as a password. They don’t realize that it’s possible to find somebody, find out a lot about somebody, by just linking a few different sources of publicly-available, freely-given and seemingly innocuous information.

I just wanted an excuse to add a funny Roman mosaic picture.

This is sometimes called the “mosaic effect”: it’s what you do when you combine multiple sources of data to reveal a full picture about a individual. In today’s social media world, where people willingly share scads of information about themselves and where they’re going and what they’re eating, pulling together these bits of information requires only a bit of deductive ability, not technical brilliance.

FastMaps and the ethical questions it evokes can be plugged comfortably into the much larger, long-running debate surrounding the ethics of aggregating publicly-available data in ways that the initial posters may not have anticipated. It’s actually almost quaint, considering that it’s not in any way automated, does not involve an algorithm or artificial intelligence or any of the stuff that today’s ethicists are currently verklumpt over: per the site owner, it’s just one guy and some volunteers combing through Daily Stormer for location clues.
“Fine, whatever, but won’t the Neo-Nazis and their sympathizers turn around and geolocate us?” you ask me.

Good point: but unfortunately, that’s already happening. In 2017, online alt-righters used a public petition from anti-Trump group RefuseFascism to collect and disseminate the addresses and personal information of hundreds of signees. A German Neo-Nazi group released a “Jews among us” web map on Facebook in 2016, which mapped “synagogues, day care centers, schools, memorials, businesses, restaurants and cemeteries.” The American Family Association created a “Bigotry Map” in 2015 that located LGBT organizations, though it vanished in just a few months.

FashMap isn’t particularly novel and we really have no way of knowing if it will actually deter the Daily Stormer’s user-base from doing horrible things. I am still glad it exists. It has prompted me to think about how the Internet has facilitated these map-against-map conflicts, or made them much more visible. What happens when we’re all busily attempting to out-locate the other? And why are we still — everyone, not just Neo-Nazis — still so incredibly bad at defending ourselves against being mapped when we don’t want to be?

Consider the recent outrage over the Strava activity-mapping service, which even people who ought to be highly security minded — soldiers on patrol, foreign agents — inadvertently permitted to track their activities. While we recognize the power of maps, as those howling over the SPLC Hate Map obviously do, we still willingly share plenty of geographic information about ourselves.

We are all eagerly mapping each other, and we are all still so terrible at not being seen.

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Why You Should Go to Sicily

I drove around Sicily back in October. I had a business trip in Rome, and I had this general impression that I should go somewhere. Somewhere warm, because I live in Boston and Boston winters are a cruel meteorological joke, and October is when I start wondering if this winter will be the one that sees me wander into the snow out of sheer desperation to die. Sicily, I was aware, is warm, reasonably sized, and has very good food. I had also never seen Greek ruins and I figured seeing Greek ruins is something a person should do if they’re lucky enough to have the opportunity. Someone told me it was surprisingly inexpensive. So, I went, drove around the island for a week, and became one of those annoying people who tells everyone they should go to Sicily. Hey, you should go to Sicily!

I describe my itinerary below: the main thing to remember is I started from Palermo and drove clockwise around the island. I’d like to spend more time in the interior of the island next time, particularly to see the Roman mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale. Here are some general thoughts on these places.

Obnoxiously perfect view from the Greek theatre at Taormina.

Taormina: Taormina is a town that is somehow Superglued/cemented/mysteriously affixed to a cliff near Mt. Etna. It is spectacularly gorgeous and is absolutely horrifying to drive in. It had the most tourist presence of anywhere I went in Sicily, but that does make sense what with the Greek theatre and the incredible views. It’s a good place to take long walks at night. There is a beautiful park built by an English heiress who married a local royal, and there’s also the San Domenico Palace Hotel, which has hosted a lot of famous writer and historical figure types. I am not fucking kidding about the terrors of driving here, or the fact that Google will egregiously lie to you about this. It is worth it. I also drove up Mt Etna during one of the days I stayed here, which was fantastic. 

Siracusa: Siracusa is just Syracuse, which should sound familiar if you’ve retained any Greek history. It’s the hometown of Archimedes, which they actually don’t play up as much as you’d think (I didn’t see a single offensive Archimedes t-shirt). It’s a quiet, small Mediterranean city with a lot of the tourist attractions and activity confined to the ancient fortress island of Ortygia. The remains of the Greek theatre and Roman amphitheater outside of town are large and impressive, with wind rustling through cedar trees and lemon groves and not a lot of people around, at least in the fall. You can walk into the maybe natural or maybe man-made NONE CAN SAY “ Ear of Dionysius” cave, which the eponymous tyrant supposedly used to spy on particularly stupid Athenian prisoners. You can also drive out to the Plemmirio natural reserve and walk along the cliffs by the ocean: you will pass by Greek tombs cut out of the rock in the backyard’s of people’s villas.

Agrigento: I didn’t actually visit Agrigento proper: everyone comes here for the Valley of the Temples, an enormous UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains some of the planet’s best-preserved Greek ruins. The ancient Greek city of Akragas. which dates back to the sixth century B.C.,was built on a ridge with a strategic view of the ocean: it is drier now than it was back then, I think, and the desolate desert landscape is gloriously juxtaposed with the enormous white marble temples, many of which are improbably still standing. (One was preserve by being converted into a Christian church). The temples that have collapses are overgrown by olive trees and gigantic bulbous prickly pears. There are also many mysterious and slightly creepy Paleo-Christian necropolises carved into the ridge, some of which you can go into with special tours. There’s the Edenic garden of Kolymbetra, which was originally an enormous Greek-built artificial lake built out of an aqueduct. The Moors realized that the spot would make a great garden, and cut irrigation channels from the original pool to water it: it was spruced up not long ago and is now a gorgeous and nice-smelling botanical garden.

Palermo: Palermo is one of those places that I had no prior mental image of whatsoever, which meant that it was a really pleasant surprise when I arrived. Arab-Norman, Baroque, and rococo architectural styles meld here into something particularly weird and fantastic (which may permeate your dreams). It’s a great walking city, where you’ve got interesting things going on and people roaming the streets late at night and lots of street food. I wandered into the Vucciria market, which I’m sure every tiresome Instagrammer does, but it really is a wonderful thing: it reminded me a lot of the markets I’ve been to in Southeast Asia and India, including the creative arrangement of animal innards and the rhythmic shouting. I only spent a day in Palermo but I would like to spend more.

Craters at Mt. Etna.

I have a few general suggestions for seeing Sicily.

  • I rented a car. This is what you should do if you go to Sicily. I’ve read you can use public transit to get around the island and I have no reason to doubt this, but it also sounds like a much clunkier affair than getting in a car and driving places. A lot of the interesting stuff in Sicily does not appear to be easily accessible by railway. Also, Sicily is one of those places that really rewards one of my favorite travel activities: very long drives through gorgeously intimidating landscapes that allow you to think a lot. Surprisingly enough, I was even able to rent an automatic car – I am still learning to drive manual – and the markup wasn’t that terrible.

When you say you’re going to be driving in Sicily, people will look horrified and say things like “but they’re such horrible drivers there, aren’t you afraid?” I had no great retort to this, beyond pointing out that I’ve ridden motorcycles in Cambodia and am still alive. I can now confidently say that drivers in Sicily are probably better than drivers in Boston, and are also quite a bit more polite. If you can drive in Boston, you can drive in Sicily. There are a few weird little quirks of Sicilian driving, sure. People are a little less slavishly attached to staying in their lanes than American drivers, which leads to some haphazard merging in cities, but this actually is pretty logical if you sort of mind-meld yourself with what’s going on (imagine you are a sardine, in an immense school!) and everything will be fine. Probably.

The most annoying thing about driving in Sicily is actually not intimidating, thick men in suits in Ferrari’s off to go commit crimes rumbling by you at 100KM an hour. It is very elderly small people in very elderly small cars putting along the highway at 15 kms an hour, unbothered and uninterested in the youthful bullshit of the people whooshing past them. Sometimes you will get stuck behind one of these Sicilian grandparents for thirty minutes or more on two-lane roads, and you will wonder if they are doing this on purpose, if they are asserting their dominance over callous youth by forcing you to crawl, slug-like, behind them through the Sicilian countryside. There is nothing you can do about this. Accept it.

There are lots of these tunnels on the eastern side of Sicily. You have to drive through them: I guess that’s a function of building a civilization on a small rocky island, and then adding highways at a later date. They are poorly lit and slightly terrifying. Some of them drip and are covered in vines. You should also become accustomed to this.

Order the thing on the menu that is least familiar to you. It will probably be really great and will taste different from any other sort of Italian food. Sicilian food combines North African and Mediterranean flavors in really marvelous and unusual ways, which is sort of what you get when your island has been occupied by the Greeks, by the Romans, by the Normans, by the Moors, by the Spanish, and by the French at one point or another. Eat anything that involves: sardines, swordfish, pistachios, sea urchin. Most things involve one of these ingredients so you’re probably going to do OK. People don’t eat before 7:30 at the very earliest, so don’t be some gauche American asshole by entering a restaurant at 7:00 sharp and staring blankly at the servers until they do something about it.

Sicily has lots and lots of prickly pear.

People in Sicily, in my massively limited experience, are very friendly and helpful. Such as the two guys who helped me navigate my car out of one of those stupid treacherous alley-ways in Taormina (remember, it is built onto the side of a mountain and affixed there by some sort of weird black magic Superglue, it’s like a nightmare Habitrail for cars). It is a very easy place to travel for this reason. Even if you are being intensely stupid people will probably help you out of a sense of basic human decency. I speak OK Spanish, which for some reason means that my brain actively repels Italian words: they always just come out as Spanish but with more strangled “i” sounds at the end of words, which makes me sound even worse than I’d sound if I just spoke English. I cannot make up the difference with hand gestures. Sicilians still managed to tolerate this. Please be nice to them in return. (They are also, like most people in Italy, really fashionable in a very distinct “tight jeans and elegant designer athletic shoes” way). 

Sicily is very safe. You are highly unlikely to find yourself in the middle of a shooting Mafia war over an ancient and long-contested stand of orange trees or whatever pops into your mind when you consider the topic. Shooting wars between the Mafia are not a thing you are going to somehow stumble into while you are looking for a poorly sign-posted winery on the slopes of Mt. Etna. Far as I can tell, Sicily is significantly lower-crime than pretty much any urban area in the United States. Insofar as I can determine the main dangers of Sicily are prickly-pear cactus spines, aggressive sunburn, and driving the wrong way down little teeny tiny roads (which may empty out over a sea-cliff). Organized crime or any crime at all is not in the equation of fear is what I’m trying to say. I spent many happy hours wandering around at night in Sicily and felt completely unthreatened. Probably don’t wander about with your wallet and iPhone dangling out of the buttpocket of your jeans, but 1. You shouldn’t do that anywhere and 2. Come on, why are you displaying expensive consumer goods on your butt? Who does that? Weird.

Sicily is a good place to stay at little bed and breakfasts. I did not use Air BnB: I just used TripAdvisor and Hotels.com to identify places that looked decent, then tried to book directly at the property through their website. I stayed at a succession of little hotels that were really inexpensive and really pleasant. You get some great bang for your buck for your hotel dollar in Sicily. Hotels will pretty much always offer some kind of breakfast as well, although this ranges from “eh” to “fresh home-made cannoli.”

See lots of Greek ruins. Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples were incredible. I loved wandering around the pines and into the caves at Siracusa. The lonely Greek ruins at Selinunte, right by the sea cliffs – which I pretty much had to myself – will be an indelible memory forever. You should also check out the regional museums whenever you can, as they seem to contain ridiculous quantities of amazing stuff, the sort of stuff that would be marquee pieces at US museums and here are just “oh, ugh, that old thing.” You’ll be wandering around ruins and see some incredible Roman mosaic that is just sort of sitting there in plain sight unbothered and unguarded.You could probably go up and lick it if you wanted to.

It gets fucking cold on the summit of Mt. Etna. I was aware of this before I left, but somehow managed to not factor this into my packing and did not bring along my good hiking boots. Or pants. It was going to get into the thirties (F) on the summit, and I decided not to be that person who pays € 63 to go up to the summit (including the cable car and a jeep trip) and then ends up getting hypothermia. I plan to return wth appropriate clothing to hike up to the summit. The main point is that you cannot get away with flip-flops and shorts on Mt Etna, and while they will rent you cold weather gear, do you really want to rent cold weather gear? Other people’s dubious hiking boots? No, surely you do not.

I’ll put up some individual posts about the places I went in Sicily as I get to them. 

View from Taormina.

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Facebook Believes Americans Are Good at Evaluating Their Sources, And Other Comfortable Delusions

oh my god shut up

Mark Zuckerberg would like you to know that he cares a lot about disinformation and bots and propaganda. He is very concerned about this, and is also very aware that he possesses terrifying technological powers. (See, his brow! Consider how it furrows!) And so on January 19th, he made another one of his big announcements.  He’s decided, in his serene wisdom, to trust the people of Facebook to determine what is true. Nothing could possibly go wrong.  

“The hard question we’ve struggled with is how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division,” Zuckerberg chirped in his announcement (I always imagine him chirping in these, like a smug billionaire chickadee). “We decided that having the community determine which sources are broadly trusted would be most objective.” Users will be asked to rate the credibility of news sources, though only those that Facebook determines they are familiar with, through some mysterious and possibly eldritch method. These “ongoing quality surveys” will then be used to determine which news sources pop up most often in users news feeds. Will there be any effort to correct for craven partisan sentiment? No, apparently there will not be. Will there be some mechanism for avoiding another mass and gleeful ratfucking by 4chan and 8chan and whatever other slugbeasts lurk within the Internet? No, apparently there will not be. Everything will be fine! 

On January 19th, we learned that Facebook is the last organization in the entire world that still has great faith in the research and assessment powers of the average American. Is Facebook actually that unfathomably, enormously naive? Well, maybe. Or perhaps they are, once again, betting that we are stupid enough to believe that Facebook is making a legitimate effort to correct itself, and that we will then stop being so mad at them. 

Which is insulting. 

Any creature more intelligent than an actual avocado knows that Facebook’s user-rating scheme is doomed to miserable failure. Researchers  Alan Dennis, Antino Kim and Tricia Moravec elegantly diagnosed the project’s many, many problems in a Buzzfeed post, drawing on their research on fake news and news-source ratings. They conclude, as you’d think should be obvious, that user-ratings for news sources are a very different thing than user-ratings for toasters. “Consumer reviews of products like toasters work because we have direct experience using them,” they wrote. “Consumer reviews of news sources don’t work because we can’t personally verify the facts from direct experience; instead, our opinions of news are driven by strong emotional attachments to underlying sociopolitical issues.”

Facebook, if we are to believe that they are not actively hoodwinking us, legitimately believes that the American people have, in the past year, somehow become astute and critical consumers of the news. But this impossible.  Facebook’s magical thinking is roughly equivalent to putting a freezer burned Hot-Pocket in a microwave and hoping that it will, in three minutes, turn into a delicious brick-oven pizza. There is no transmutation and there is no improvement. The Hot Pocket of ignorance and poor civic education will remain flaccid and disappointing no matter how much you hope and wish and pray. 

there is some trippy ass clipart for Facebook on pixabay

This doesn’t mean there is no hope for the information ecosystem of the United States. It does not mean that this ongoing nightmare is permanent. As Dennis, Kim, and Moravec suggest, Facebook could grow a spine and start employing actual experts. Experts empowered to filter. Experts who are empowered to deem what is bullshit and what is not. But of course, this is what scares them most of all. See what Zuckerberg wrote in his Big Announcement: “The hard question we’ve struggled with is how to decide what news sources are broadly trusted in a world with so much division. We could try to make that decision ourselves, but that’s not something we’re comfortable with.”

“Not comfortable with.” Consider that wording. They’re not comfortable with doing the one thing that might actually help to dislodge the cerebral-fluid sucking leech that is currently wrapped around the brainstems of the social-media using public. It would be so awful if Facebook was made uncomfortable.

And it will do anything to avoid discomfort. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are simply abdicating responsibility again. They know that these “checks” won’t work. They know damn well that hiring editors and engaging in meaningful moderation is what they haven’t tried, and what is most likely to work, and what is most likely to earn them the ire of the Trump cult that now squats wetly in the White House. Cowardice has won out, again: they’ve simply come up with another semi-clever way to fob off responsibility on its users. When these “credibility checks” inevitably fail or are compromised by hordes of wild-eyed Pepes, Facebook will, right on schedule, act surprised and aghast, then quickly pretend it never happened. You should be insulted that they think we’ll just keep falling for this. We have to stop falling for this. 

These so-called credibility checks are just Facebook’s latest milquetoast and insulting effort to pretend it is dealing with its disinformation problem.  Just a few weeks ago, Facebook announced that it would be reducing public content on the news feed. This is to social-engineer “meaningful social interactions with family and friends” for its users. This might sound well and good – if you are much more comfortable with being socially-engineered by blank-eyed boys from Silicon Valley than I am – or at least it does until you hear from people who have already undergone this change. Facebook is fond of using countries from markets it deems insignificant as guinea pigs for its changes, and in 2017, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Cambodia, Slovakia, Bolivia, and Serbia were shoved in the direction of “meaningful social interaction.” (One does wonder about the selection, considering the unpleasant history these nations share). The results were, to quote local journalists in Guatemala, “catastrophic.” Reporters in these countries suddenly found their publications – important sources of information in fragile political systems – deprived of their largest source of readership and income.

Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook’s News Feed, responded to these reporter’s anguish with the serene, Athenian calm that only tech evangelicals can muster: “The goal of this test is to understand if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content. We will hear what people say about the experience to understand if it’s an idea worth pursuing any further.”(Whoops, we broke your already-fragile democracy! Move fast! Break things!) Dripping a new shampoo line in little white bunny rabbit’s quivering eyeballs is also a test . The difference between the two? Testing your new product on embattled reporters in formerly war-torn nations is much more socially acceptable. 

Facebook has also recently attempted to socially engineer us into being better citizens. In late 2017, I wrote about Facebook’s ill-considered civic engagement tools or “constituent services,” which were meant to (in a nutshell) make it easier for you to badger your representative or for your representative to badger you back. Using these tools, of course, required a Facebook account – and you also had to tell Facebook where you lived, so it could match you up with your representative.  Facebook would very much like a world in which people need to submit to having a Facebook account to meaningfully communicate with their representatives. Facebook would, we can probably assume, very much like a world where pretty much everything is like Facebook. This is probably not going to change. 

Yes, I know: Zuckerberg furrowed his brow somewhere in his mansion and said that he might consider cutting his profits to reduce the gigantic social problem that he’s engendered. By that, he means doing things that might actually address the disinformation problem: these things might take a variety of forms, from actually hiring experts and editors, to actually paying for news (as, incredibly, Rupert Murdoch just suggested) to hiring and meaningfully compensating a competent army of moderators. But consider our available evidence.  Do we really believe that he’ll flout his (scary) board and do the right thing? Or will he and Facebook once again choose comfort, and do nothing at all? 

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” said John F. Kennedy, in a quote that I am deadly certain Facebook employees like to trot out as they perfect methods of micro-targeting underpants ads to under-25 men who like trebuchets, or perfect new Messenger stickers of farting cats, or sort-of-accidentally rupture American democracy. Perhaps someday Facebook will develop an appetite for dealing with things that are actually hard, that are actually uncomfortable.

I’m not holding my breath. 

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werewolves

You should not assume that all werewolves are male. (Happy Halloween). 

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The Weather Channel’s Soothing Music: Millennial Rebellion

I find the Weather Channel soothing, on a primordial level. It turns out that I’m not alone in this among my generational cohort, among those nasty millenials.

 

So. I went to search for some pleasingly jazzy Weather Channel music and quickly found an entire online subculture of people in their twenties and thirties who remember the antediluvian days of the early First Weather Network, memories usually associated with home and childhood and amorphous feelings of comfort. See:

 

“My dad would always fall asleep on the couch because his snoring would wake up my mom, and i remember being like 9 and walking out, and there would be like 1 dim light on and just music like this from the weather channel,” commented “Oddsie” on the S L O W WE A T H E R J A M Z YouTube video.

“When I was a kid and would be visiting my grandparents, I would sometimes wake up at like 4 AM and find my grandpa eating ice cream and watching the weather channel,” observed someone who calls themselves “cam the cam man cam.” 

 The Weather Channel music has wedged its way into our brains, imprinted itself from an early age. So many of us now associate that particular genre of inoffensive smooth jazz with feelings of home, the 1990s variety: home where you had little soaps in the shape of sea-shells, homes where you had aggressively wood-accented kitchens with lots of white appliances and everyone had very brightly colored windbreakers in various shades of teal and purple. The Weather Channel is stability. It was a time before we knew fear. 

I have my own comforting memories of the Weather Channel, all linked to my grandparent’s house in Tampa: I’d walk in the door to start a visit and the big brown-sided TV – very fancy for the mid-nineties – would be playing either muted golf or the muted Weather Channel, which no one would actually be watching. The background sounds of golf would be hushed, reverent speech and occasional bursts of clapping (like wind rustling in the pines), but the commentary was too distracting. Far better was the Weather Channel, which played little bursts of Kenny G and interpreted ragtime piano at gentle volumes over changing, animated images of suns, clouds, and moons. “Your Local on the 8s.” Little intro scenes to the local forecast featuring people in Southern magnolia-infested suburbia walking golden retrievers. Forecasts from men with incredible moustaches and women with very vertical hair. The quiet, consistent recitation of the weather and thus your future, at least for a week.

The Weather Channel was almost always a placid delivery mechanism for smooth jazz and temperature forecasts, but sometimes, just sometimes, you’d hear that BZZAAP sound. That meant an actual weather warning – a tornado, a hurricane, impending derechos or whatever other fell thing – and you’d rush over to see what the Weather Channel had to say about it. The Weather Channel in these moments recited not just innocuous weather forecasts but your honest-to-God fate: was your house doomed to be gathered up in a howling tornado and splintered to pieces? Would you be found clinging to your roof and videotaped in your underpants from a helicopter? Only the Weather Channel could tell you, and this was especially true in the confused and groping era before smartphones.

Nostalgia seekers and the simply weird have put up hundreds of videos of the Old Weather Channel on YouTube. Through these videos, you discover that on multiple dates throughout the 1990s and 2000s, somebody sat down with a VHS tape and recorded minutes and sometimes hours of the Weather Channel continuing its constant, gentle scroll. (Here’s two full hours from July 15, 1995, preserved for reasons that are unexplained and mysterious).

A few videos explain that they made the recording to capture a particularly interesting weather event (one man filmed his TV screen with a camcorder to capture an unusual Derecho). Most do not: they simply exist as the video equivalent of time capsules, a small and mundane capture of life in 1996 or 1993 or 2002. (The 2001 video features pre-ad bumps with an animated American Flag textured over it, a reminder of the brief mainstreaming of mandated patriotism after 9/11).

The progression of the Weather Channel over time is slow, gentle, likely intended to avoid angering the sort of person who actively records an hour of the evening forecast. The animations improve a little, and the bumpers change a little, and music is occasionally updated. But the people, the people still are angry about the Weather Channel changing. “This will always be MY WEATHER CHANNEL,” someone comments on a YouTube video, which invites the obvious conclusion that today’s Weather Channel is NOT HIS and he would reject it if anyone claimed it was. Bear no false Weather Channel witness.

Weather Channel music is beloved by the sort of inoffensively weird people who make vaporwave. Vaporwave is a genre of remixed and mashed-up music that draws heavily from the commercial music of the late 80s and 1990s: the idea is to take chipper Coca-Cola jingles and speedy electronic anthems from un-loved car movies of the era and weird them up a little, modulate and twist them into something new.

Listening to vaporwave is like listening to a dream-memory of 1990s television, and of course, that is also why the Weather Channel appeals. There is an entire, excellent album of vaporwave music produced from the raw material of Weather Channel smooth jazz, and listening to it gives you the ability to feel cool and intensely nostalgic for the homey things of childhood at the exact same time, which is usually impossible. Some people in my unpopular age bracket also love vaporwave because it is the exact realization of that Calvin and Hobbes strip, the one where Calvin notes that the best way to annoy his rock-loving elders was to play muzak *quietly.*

Intense nostalgia for Weather Channel music baffles many of our elders on a deep, essential level. i supppose this is because they spent their youths being told and telling others that they should reject corporate bullshit, but also (many of them) produced corporate bullshit, which is what one does when you have children and a home. There would be no inoffensive 90s corporate music and no Weather Channel jazz without the people of our parents generation, who now react with deep bafflement when they come across us listening to remixed versions of music they barely noticed when it was new and young.

There is a entire genre of meme-y YouTube videos featuring Hank Hill listening to Bobby’s vaporwave music on a Walkman: Hank is taken on a brief pyschedelic journey (3D-animated dolphins, fragmented and color-shifted old ads, poorly Photoshopped joints) and rips the headphones off in indignation. “That music…that’s all just toilet sounds!” he cries. Precisely.

The Weather Channel is very self-aware about all this. They’ve realized their own albums: Selections from the Weather Channel, featuring the sort of placid, human-free landscape imagery that’s used on the networks, with tracks that one assumes the companies powers-that-be find particularly representative of their aesthetic. The Weather Channel and parent company The Weather Company has worked to create its own fandom: ads on the website will request that particularly avid users contribute their weather photos and accounts to “WeLoveWeather,” the Weather Company’s social network site. How many people use it for dating? How many people use it to find romantic partners who also are weirdly into viewing unusual types of lightning? As one man commented: ” I pray and hope that The Weather Channel stays on the air for another fifty years (at least).  I have graciously watched TWC since I was born thirty years ago. “

In the sort of meta-irony that exemplifies our age, the Weather Channel appears to be using vaporwave music for its Local on the 8s forecasts now. I hope someone is awake at 4:00 AM and filming large chunks of Today Weather Channel with an iPhone, so we can look upon it and be comforted in twenty years. 

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Remote Sensing Workshop at Harvard – Satellites! Drones!

drone big

Interested in how remote sensing can be used for humanitarian response? Check out the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s June 2016 remote sensing workshop, which I’ll be co-instructing.

We’ll be covering the basics of satellite and drone technology, as well as data collection and platforms, ethics and legal issues in remote sensing, and more. While the course is geared towards humanitarian professionals and managers, I suspect many people with an interest in remote sensing will find it informative and interesting.

The course will be held on the Harvard campus, and lunch and breakfast will be covered.

You can register online, though feel free to get in touch with me independently if you have any specific questions. And, share with your friends.

 

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