Dispatches from the Empire

Generative AI like Midjourney creates images full of stereotypes

A new Rest of World analysis shows that generative AI systems have tendencies toward bias, stereotypes, and reductionism when it comes to national identities, too. 

Of course! Computers are all about broad data sets, not specific outliers.

This isn’t just AI, either. It’s in the algorithms behind Facebook and TikTok and YouTube, etc. We humans create these algorithms in our own image. Why do most YouTube “celebrities” look so similar? Why are so many female TikTok “stars” facsimiles of the Kardashians, themselves facsimiles of a standard of beauty now twenty years old?

These algorithms are built on millions of clicks, taps, scrolls, and hours watched. They’re extremely efficient at doing what old-school media has always done: flatten culture. After all, who were John Wayne and Frank Sinatra if not the embodiment — and perpetuation — of stereotypes?

What’s unnerving about social media and AI is that this flattening happens at terrific speed, which wasn’t possible in our analog culture.

Humans are not built for speed. We might be addicted to it, but our brains didn’t evolve to handle it.

The future looks terrifically unsettling.

Determinism vs. free will: A scientific showdown

However, the (often quite unpopular) truths revealed by the scientific method—heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics—have often upended “the clear existence of” what came before. Determinism may be no different.

My favorite debate.

Bobby Fingers ‘The Boat’ Trailer

A new Bobby Fingers video feels a little like Christmas.

Hillary Clinton lost because she’s deeply unpopular

…we weren’t allowed to point out the clear danger of the moment because the media decided early in the cycle that any questions about Clinton’s electability were simply a stalking horse for misogyny. The party and its loyalists insisted that it was sexist to call a spade a spade and acknowledge that Clinton had severe vulnerabilities in basic public sentiment; here’s a version from the NYT. Under the conditions of 2016, with the incumbency advantages and Trump’s unique issues, you would have wanted to elect someone who simply didn’t have the level of negative baggage that Clinton did, someone who the country generally saw as inoffensive. Yglesias nominates Martin O’Malley, but of course Bernie Sanders fit the bill as well. Sanders beat Trump in poll after poll, and cleaned up with independents, which would seem to be important in a presidential election. Clinton apparatchiks have always scoffed at those polls, asserting without evidence that Republican oppo would have sunk him without caring much that Republican oppo was already sinking Hillary.

Bernie, of course, also would have energized the youth like no other, setting up the Democrats for durable gains down the road with that demographic.

I know several people in the year 2023 that are still litigating the issue. All of them, liberals to their core, insist that Hillary lost only because she was a woman.

This has never made sense to me. It starts from a place of assuming the absolute worst about people (that everyone, even fellow liberals, are complicit in misogyny) and ends with zero introspection about one’s own political biases. It’s lazy thinking.

Daring Fireball: Vision Pro, Spatial Video, and Panoramic Photos

Listen to the Dissenters on Israel

Our status as a haven for human rights has always been dubious, a self-serving mythology that massages the ego while covering up real horror. Our closest allies can hardly boast of better behavior, even as they claim their own commitments to democracy. Such claims rest on selective memory, forms of national amnesia that ignore the bad while emphasizing only the most superficial good. In the U.S., there are few reckonings for our actions overseas, and little accountability for bad actors. Ghouls like John Yoo can author torture memos and enjoy a comfortable sinecure thereafter. Luminaries fêted Henry Kissinger for his recent 100th birthday. The U.S. rehabilitates its own worst and expects the world to acquiesce.

What, then, does America mean to the world now? People still risk their lives to come here, but the overall portrait is one of imperial decline. Though the election of Joe Biden repaired some reputational damage from the Trump years, our elderly president polls badly at home while he props up abusive regimes overseas. Congress looks little better. One party cannot govern, while the other mostly fails to check Biden’s worst foreign-policy impulses. The U.S. has extended a national culture of impunity to its friends, including Israel, and the subjugated pay the price, which is violence.

In such times, dissent takes on new importance. It serves both a pragmatic and moral function. Dissenters can remind the U.S. of the promises it makes not just to its own people but to the world. Should the powerful listen, they seize an opportunity. There is time, still, for the U.S. to do the right thing: to stabilize the damage it has inflicted on the oppressed and itself, to regain an edge over its competitors on the global stage.

If ever I could sum up my feelings about America…

Upcoming Contact Key Verification Feature Promises Secure Identity Verification for iMessage

When you deploy Contact Key Verification with someone you already know, you upgrade an existing conversation from “I think I know this person” to “I know this person, and we now have an out-of-band encryption verification step to keep our conversations secure and tamper resistant.”

All you have to do is pull up an existing conversation and then use some trusted method to read the provided code, as you can see below. If the code matches, you each tap Mark As Verified.

Small-but-important changes in the world of digital journalism, and not a moment too soon.

Simple circuitry, surprising engineering: Inside counterfeit Apple gadgets

“It’s a real testament to how far the entire kind of electronics ecosystem has come that you could create a knockoff that’s actually this sophisticated. This is way less sophisticated than a real Apple product, but compared to what any earbuds would have done 15 years ago, this is giant.”

Tumblr is downscaling after failing to ‘turn around’ the site

What a day for online media.

Turns out running a social network is expensive.

Goodbye, Jezebel

For those who don’t know, Jezebel was one of the many Gawker properties that survived after the OG Gawker was bankrupted in 2016.

I’ve had a long love/hate relationship with Gawker properties, and I won’t miss Jezebel. Catty, angry, mean-spirited, sarcastic and thoroughly millennial, Jezebel was known for pioneering a style and tone of journalism that’s taken over the internet. It has long since given up the populist David-versus-Goliath vibes that it once embraced 15 years ago, and now just throws shade for the sake of throwing shade.

I’ve watched with horror as this millennial tone — a creature of my own design — has taken over legacy media. The pursuit of objective truth, insomuch as we acknowledge “objective truth” is largely an aspirational pursuit (at least when it comes to human experience), went out the window. Activist journalism took over, and did so with a vengeance.

Activism is good and necessary, but I don’t want it near my meat-and-potatoes journalism. I want information, not to be told how I should think.

For that reason alone, I’m not going to miss Jezebel.

Flies in Urinals: The Value of Design Disruptions

I discovered my favorite example of disruptive design about 10 years ago, between flights at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. This was not a slick new airline logo that attracted new customers or an innovative wayfinding system that helped people find their flights. It was the realistic image of a small black fly inside the white urinals in the men’s bathroom. When I first saw the fly, I wondered why it stayed put. Then I looked to the empty urinal next to me and spotted the same fly. They all had them. In response to dirty bathrooms caused by men urinating on the floor, an airport maintenance worker suggested that they etch the image onto the urinals to give men something to aim at as they hurry to and from flights. According to NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich, who gave a fuller account of the story, the man thought back to his time serving in the Dutch army during the 1960s, when red dots had been painted on the latrines in the barracks to improve cleanliness. Sure enough, spillage rates in the airport men’s room dropped an estimated 80 percent after the fly was introduced, leading to a much cleaner bathroom.

Daring Fireball: Trump’s Dark Plans for a Second Term


“I can’t believe this is happening” strikes again.

But I cannot believe I might witness the end of democracy in America in fourteen months. I don’t know what to do — should I be panicking? What is to be done?

I worry a second Trump presidency would kill many people I love. The stress and anger from it would overwhelm them.

So what’s the plan?

Let’s not expect the best — let’s prepare for the worst.

What’s the Problem with Disability Studies and the “Disability Rights” Movement?

Ramping up the rhetorical and social stakes leaves us incapable of calling bullshit bullshit. As is always the case, the rise of identity politics in disability discourse has created a state of constant emotionalism, threat, and fear. People are afraid to engage because they expect, correctly, that saying anything that contradicts the activist crowd will simply result in them being called bigots. This causes problems all over our debates, but appears most glaring when it comes to the stupidest issues. For example, despite dogged insistence to the contrary, it is not the case that there has been a sudden massive increase in the prevalence of late-onset Tourette’s syndrome among adolescent women with TikTok accounts. There has not been some sort of incredible change to the epidemiology of Tourette’s, and essentially no one really believes that there has been. Instead, a lot of young woman started pretending to have Tourette’s syndrome out of a desire to belong and to differentiate themselves from their peers in the marketplace of attention, and as they were rewarded in that marketplace others responded by doing the same thing. Similarly, there has not been a sudden increase in dissociative identity disorder among very-online adolescent women, given that DID is a controversial diagnosis and the disorder known for its extreme rarity. Pretending to have multiple personalities is fun and edgy so some teenagers have done it a lot recently.

Kids do dumb things and I’m not particularly mad about it. I do, however, think that if it goes unchecked this stuff could have serious negative consequences for how our culture views mental illness. What’s striking is how scared many people seem to be about calling this obvious bullshit out as obvious bullshit. When I talk about this, I press and probe and ask people if any of it passes the smell test. And just about nobody says “Yes, it’s credible that there are more authentic cases of dissociative identity disorder in my TikTok feed than there have been confirmed cases in medical history.” Nobody’s that dumb. But they’re unwilling to just say, yeah, that’s bullshit. They ummm and they uhhhh and they tiptoe around and they dance, and they do so because they’ve absorbed the attitude that criticizing anyone’s specific claims to disability means that you’re somehow callous towards disability in general. They also won’t call bullshit on bullshit because they’re afraid of being tarred with the “ableism” accusation. The whole thing makes it harder for us to think and talk intelligently about how to best accommodate disability in our society.

This resonates. In my masters program, this is all terrifically common. I’ve been afraid to call out bullshit when I see it precisely before I’m afraid of being called out as ‘callous.’ More worryingly, I’ve seen professors and administrators — at multiple universities — be cowed into silence, afraid the DEI office might come from their job should they speak out.

To say this is depressing is an understatement. Academia should be the one institution in American life immune from irrationality, from illiberalism. And yet it’s embraced them with abandon as students, now ‘customers’ in a capitalist model, have become empowered by social media.

The young, myself included, don’t always know best, and it hurts watching people that know better say nothing.

Across the Echo Chamber, a Quiet Conversation About War and Race

“Am I changed? Is she changed? Was there any point to this?” Ms. Minkin said she asked herself. “I don’t know that her overall opinion has changed, and I don’t know that my overall opinion has changed. But maybe if we’re all softening at the hard edges, that’s enough?”

Her voice made clear it was a question, not a conclusion.

A Secret War, Strange New Wounds and Silence From the Pentagon

But it meant that a small number of troops had to fire tens of thousands of high-explosive shells — far more rounds per crew member, experts say, than any American artillery battery had fired at least since the Vietnam War.

Military guidelines say that firing all those rounds is safe. What happened to the crews suggests that those guidelines were wrong.

The cannon blasts were strong enough to hurl a 100-pound round 15 miles, and each unleashed a shock wave that shot through the crew members’ bodies, vibrating bone, punching lungs and hearts, and whipping at cruise-missile speeds through the most delicate organ of all, the brain.

Strange, isn’t it, how the mysterious can suddenly become obvious.

Asian and Middle Eastern users tilt TikTok balance toward Palestinians

TikTok has denied the claims and said in a blog post they were based on “unsound analysis.” The data reviewed by Semafor suggests that the imbalance on the platform is largely outside the U.S. — and may skew heavily toward the Palestinian side because of the app’s popularity in Muslim countries and the fact that it is blocked in India.

The central promise of the internet was, after all, to be a great equalizer. I’m not saying TikTok’s (a Chinese company) algorithms are “fair” (however you define that), but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that with a global population that’s largely online, America and our interests aren’t always going to be the most popular.

Democratization is great.

Until it’s not.

It’s Possible to Oppose Bias Against Both Jews and Muslims

Republicans insist Biden and his party are complicit in antisemitism. The main reason they give is that the Democrats also oppose bigotry against Muslims and Arabs.

Given that I am accusing the Republicans of failing to grasp a principle a literal child could easily understand, you may be justifiably suspicious I am either making it up or picking on one or two random outliers. So I am going to supply several examples, all taken from published journalism, not random social-media posts.

Trump Leads Biden in Nearly Every Battleground State, New Poll Finds

The results show Mr. Biden losing to Mr. Trump, his likeliest Republican rival, by margins of three to 10 percentage points among registered voters in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Mr. Biden is ahead only in Wisconsin, by two percentage points, the poll found.

Being a citizen of this country feels like standing on the rails, watching a train barrel down the track right at you. You want to move, but none of your limbs seem to agree on what to do.

And I’m becoming angry.

It’s hard not to be angriest at the people most like you, which is why the Left seems to be eating itself alive. It hurts to watch people you know to be kind, caring, and compassionate succumb to the hate, the vitriol, the judgment, the division that’s long polluted the Right.

And it’s hard not to take their succumbing as a betrayal. They so easily gave up on all the shit they claimed to believe in, which only fuels my rage. I’ve known for a long time that the Right was only about power, never about morality or religion or “family values.” But the Left, too?

But watching the hatred consume Liberals has been agonizing, though not unrelatable. I get it — I really do. It’s so delicious, so righteous to hate the people that hate you. I’m guilty of this very thing.

But it’s easy. And unoriginal. And only makes a bigger mess of things.

The Resilience of Republican Christianism

The idea that members of the religious right form an “infinitely diverse and contradictory group” and were in no way “hyperpartisan” is now clearly absurd. Christianism, in fact, turned out to be the central pillar of Trump’s success, with white evangelicals giving unprecedented and near-universal support — 84 percent — to a shameless, disgusting pagan, because and only because he swore to smite their enemies.

Andrew Sullivan, once again seeing through the bullshit.

The fusion of Trump and Christianism is an unveiling of a sort — proof of principle that, in its core, Christianism is not religious but political, a reactionary cult susceptible to authoritarian preachers. And Christianism is to the American right what critical theory is to the American left: a reductionist, totalizing creed that “others” half the country, and deeply misreads the genius of the American project.

The submission to (male) authority is often integral to fundamentalism, which is why it isn’t actually surprising that self-professed Christians came to support a man who cultivates greed, gluttony, pride, lust, envy, sloth and anger more assiduously than Satan. Trump was an authority figure, period. He was a patriarch. He was the patriarch of their tribe. And he was in power, which meant that God put him there. After which nothing needs to be said. So of course if the patriarch says the election is rigged, you believe him.

What I do know is that, unchecked, this kind of fundamentalism is a recipe not for civil peace but for civil conflict. It hasn’t gone away, even if its actual policy prescriptions are unpopular, even if it represents only a fraction of Americans, as wokeness does. It’s a mindset, a worldview, as deep in the human psyche as the racial tribalism now endemic on the left. It controls one of our two major parties. And in so far as it has assigned all decisions to one man, Donald Trump, it is capable of supporting the overturning of an election — or anything else, for that matter, that the patriarch wants.

What happens when there aren’t enough Jews to lynch?

Hundreds of people stormed the airport to greet that flight—of 45 passengers, 15 were Israeli, many of them children. “Allahu Akbar,” they shout in videos that have emerged online, some men waving Palestinian flags. On the tarmac, they attack an airport employee, who desperately explains: “There are no passengers here anymore,” and then exclaims, “I am Muslim!” Some of the rioters demanded to examine the passports of arriving passengers, seemingly trying to identify those who were Israeli, and others searched cars as they were leaving. Another video emerged of two young boys at the airport, proudly declaring that they came to “kill Jews” with knives.

According to the local health ministry, more than 20 people were injured in the skirmishes. One video showed a pilot telling the passengers over the intercom to “please stay seated and don’t try to open the plane’s door. There is an angry mob outside.” 

This is horrifying.

I’m ashamed to admit I still fall for the “I cant believe this is happening now” line of thinking. Yet I cannot believe this shit is still happening.

The danger in not being able to imagine it happening is that it then happens. October 7th is evidence of that. How, then, to demand people imagine — or even fear — the worst, so that they might remain vigilant?

At UK Summit, Global Leaders Warn AI Could Cause ‘Catastrophic’ Harm

On Wednesday morning, his government released a document called “The Bletchley Declaration,” signed by representatives from the 28 countries attending the event, including the U.S. and China, which warned of the dangers posed by the most advanced “frontier” A.I. systems. “There is potential for serious, even catastrophic, harm, either deliberate or unintentional, stemming from the most significant capabilities of these A.I. models,” the declaration said.

“Many risks arising from A.I. are inherently international in nature, and so are best addressed through international cooperation. We resolve to work together in an inclusive manner to ensure human-centric, trustworthy and responsible A.I.”

The document fell short, however, of setting specific policy goals. A second meeting is scheduled to be held in six months in South Korea and a third in France in a year.

Governments have scrambled to address the risks posed by the fast-evolving technology since last year’s release of ChatGPT, a humanlike chatbot that demonstrated how the latest models are advancing in powerful and unpredictable ways.

There must be a word, probably German or Yiddish, for the feeling of your curiosity spooling up…

I feel adventure a-comin'.

Frontline: From Jesus to Christ

I’ve long been interested in beginnings of things, be it a river, a time period, or a belief system. The Middle East has all three in spades. I’m drawn to that region not as a believer, but as someone compelled to understand the beginnings of a moral framework of my culture.

Why did Judaism and Christianity spring from this part of the world? What was/is so compelling about these stories?

Once we understand the source, it becomes infinitely more compelling to look at the current manifestations of these beliefs in my own time, culture, and country. Having lived in the Middle East, it becomes apparent that American Christianity is a bastardization — a cheap facsimile — of the religion as it was. Yet here I am, living in a culture full of people that believe in the watered-down version of those stories. How on earth Christians can be such rabid capitalists, I’ll never understand, but watching people twist their beliefs into knots to justify their actions and desires — a behavior not exclusive to Christians…or the religious — is a favorite pastime.

Lest I sound judgmental (because I am, to be clear), I’m guilty of these moral contortions, too. It’s human nature to do so, but the least we could do is own up to our moral hypocrisies. But that is not a hallmark of religion.

Human nature is endlessly fascinating, at least from a distance. Get too close and you risk your life, as evidenced by this documentary.

Why Israel Feels Like Home

When after the brutal Hamas attacks, many organizations on North American campuses either refused to condemn Hamas, or minimized or justified the attacks—to say that I was “triggered” is a gross understatement.

Awful as it sounds, before I knew it, I started dividing people into “those I can trust” and “those I can’t.” I’ve become my parents. Some friends from abroad have reached out, on email and social media, expressing concerns or sympathy. Those, I know, are people I can trust.

The ones who didn’t? I don’t know. In my reasonable mind, I know that people are busy, or simply so (understandably) tired of the media’s obsession with the Israel-Palestine conflict that perhaps they can’t appreciate the significance of what happened. But I’m not in my reasonable mind anymore. I’m in an animallike self-preservation mode, and this is my visceral reaction.

A Mac event is the perfect time for Apple to show off its peripheral vision

On the functional side, Apple either needs to improve or replace its Bluetooth support. My Magic Keyboard and Magic Trackpad frequently disconnect from my Mac mini, which is all of about eighteen inches away, and the keyboard in particular is egregious in terms of the amount of time it takes for typed characters to show up on screen. This certainly seems like a place that Apple could use its vaunted engineering prowess to offer something that’s a little extra in much the same way that it does with AirPods. Not only would a custom wireless chip potentially allow for more robust and reliable connections, but it could also simplify switching peripherals between devices, a process that Bluetooth makes fairly painful.

My wish is for a backlit TouchID keyboard. 🤞🏻