2017

Taking a ride on Mastodon

“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”

I’m trying out Mastodon, you can find me at mastodon.xyz/@seanbonner – if you haven’t seen it yet Mastodon is the latest iteration of a very long line of wannabe Twitter replacements. Pownce and identi.ca and diaspora and app.net and ello and peach and now mastodon, oh my. That sounds like a skeptical way to start this off but as one of the first 140 people to join Twitter more than 10 years ago, who has written about the service a lot and has been disappointed with it recently to the point that I keep threatening to leave – I would love a better Twitter. Of course I would just love Twitter to be better, but if I’m honest about it they have had their chance again and again and continue to blow it, so if someone else can do it better then I’m all for that. So every time the next Twitter replacement shows up I participate in the experimentation and after a while you start seeing the same patterns repeat themselves. People keep reinventing the wheel, and keep making it square each time.

I want to be believe.

I’m just approaching it with healthy skepticism.

I’d heard a lot about Mastodon recently though admittedly it took me a while to realize people weren’t talking about the new Mastodon album, but Sarah’s Motherboard article clarified that for me. Mastodon boasts an impressive list of attributes right out of the gate, someone has obviously been listening to a lot of the complaints about Twitter.

Say no more! Selfishly I wanted to secure the username I use everywhere else on the web, and this sounded like a good start so I decided to join and check it out for myself only to find that it was closed to new sign ups.

But one of Mastodon’s features is that it’s open source and federated, so while I couldn’t sign up on the main site Mastodon.social I could sign up on Mastodon.xyz which I found on this short list of other instances and I picked it because at the time it was one of the only ones that had the word Mastodon in it which made me feel like it was somewhat more official. That list is getting longer, and here is an even more exhaustive list showing just how many instances there are already out in the world, and this is growing quickly. This is important and I’ll explain way in a moment.

Let me clarify this a little, because it took me a while to get it myself. Each Mastodon “instance” is a wholly separate installation of the Mastodon code.  Think of how you can install WordPress on your own server or something like that. BUT, because it’s federated, they all talk to each other to have common timelines easily allowing someone with an account on one instance to follow and talk with someone with an account on a different instance. The immediately obvious benefit here is that this is completely decentralized, so one server can go down and Mastodon stays up. The less obvious hiccup with that is because each instance is completely independent each one has it’s own rules, or lack there of–and each instance is subject to the whim of whoever decided to set it up in the first place. Some instances are moderated, some aren’t. Some instances take a strong stand against certain kinds of speech, others don’t. But because of the federation, they all come together, right? Wrong. Each instance can also decide if it wants to federate with all the other Mastodon instances or with only select instances. So you and your friend can both be on Mastodon, with accounts on different instances and you can talk to each other, but you might be able to talk to some people your friend isn’t able to. Or more concerning, any number of things may cause other instances to stop federating the instance you or your friend are on cutting you off from each other. This is a huge problem, and one we’ve seen with with other attempts at this and I’m surprised is a mistake being repeated.

You may assume, as I did, that this isn’t really a concern because as noted earlier there are lots of other instances so you should be able to just create an account on another one and be back up to speed. And indeed Mastodon offers account detail export & import to make this easy. But again, what isn’t so clear is because each instance is independent, so is each account on each instance. Meaning just because you secured your favorite username on one instance doesn’t ensure you will get it on another. I’d assumed that upon joining I could tell people “I’m @seanbonner on Mastodon just like I’m @seanbonner on Twitter.” That turns out to be incorrect. I’m actually @seanbonner@mastodon.xyz and if I want to be @seanbonner@mastodon.social or @seanbonner@mastodon.cloud or any of the other instances then I have to create separate accounts on each of those, and there is no way to sync them. This also means that some other Sean Bonner can go sign up as @seanbonner@anothermastodon.instance and judging by how much email I get from other Sean Bonner’s who apply for jobs and join dating sites and register bank accounts without knowing what their own email address is, that is going to be a huge problem at any kind of scale. This is the biggest flaw in my opinion because without the ability to claim your identity across an entire service there is huge potential for confusion and no way to embrace it as a home.

This is subjective, but 100% of the people I’ve talked in in person about Mastodon in the last few days have made a comment about how they should go lock in their username now, and when I’e explained the above they’ve lost the motivation to go check it out. They really should be using some shared ledger to have global usernames across the whole federation.

Going back to the import/export thing for a second, it’s true you can export your info to make setting up on a new instance easy–however you export only your following list, not your followers. So if you create a new account you are back to zero followers. Pointing out this problem on Mastodon is however assured to get you a lot of replies from accounts with anime avatars dismissing your concern and equating a Mastodon account with an email account. Almost like a talking point.

This is a quite flawed analogy for a social network. Your email address is not your public identity where as your social media accounts often are. And while it’s true that no one would try to lock in the same name@email.server for every email host out there, it’s also true that there haven’t been massive lawsuits and fights over email addresses the way there have been for social media account usernames. Email is inherently private and social media is inherently public. I’ve had people call me @seanbonner to my face, or introduce me to others that way, but no one has ever referred to me as my email address. I think it’s safe to say anyone making that analogy here really hasn’t thought it through.

There’s also the lag where it seems some instances don’t see posts for many hours which creates a weird reply stream, but that’s more likely attributable to the recent exponential growth and I expect will be solved.

I sound like I’m hating on Mastodon but I’m really not, I wouldn’t have bothered to write any of this if I didn’t care. I actually really like a lot of it and have high hopes for it, and I say all this because I’m concerned that these are fatal flaws that will prevent it from really taking off.  This piece on The Verge dives deep into the genesis of Mastodon and the creator’s motivations and goals. He’s very clearly trying to solve his own problem, which is where all really good ideas come from. Unless he also tries to solve some other people’s problems, I’m doubtful how much of a future Mastodon will ever have.

Of course I’d very much love to be proven wrong there. I still want Twitter circa 2008 back.

Open Data: Now More Than Ever

For those interested in knowing what is in the world around them, the current news is disgusting. All US Environmental Protection Agency grants have been frozen, and employees are being prohibited from discussing the changes or talking to the public. The ban also halts all new contracts and the agency is being told to remove information from it’s website. It’s not just the EPA either, other govt agencies including the Department of Health and Human services have been ordered to cease all public contact and the Center for Disease Control just cancelled a major event it has been planning regarding climate change and health with no explanation. Starting immediately the US Department of Agriculture will stop providing any public facing documents. An EPA internal memo shows just how far reaching these new silencing policies are.

While we’ve certainly been critical of the EPA in the past, we’ve always applauded their motivations and efforts to get more data out there and get more people interested in it. Today’s news effectively puts an end to that. This isn’t completely out of the blue, for months scientists have been urging each other to copy as much of their data as they can in anticipation of the new US administration destroying their work. Even requesting information which hasn’t been made public though FOIA is now getting harder. And while these are largely US based issue, the data and information provided by these agencies is used by scientists the world over – and the US is just the latest to start blocking. Earlier this month Air Matters, which bills itself as “A Leading Global Air Quality Provider” was ordered by the Chinese govt to limit the readings it published, an order which they complied with immediately.

These actions go against everything for which Safecast stands.

We believe all people should have access to freely available, trustworthy and accurate data about their environments – especially as environments and health go hand in hand. The problem today–as it’s been since before we founded Safecast–is that governments are expected to be the gate keepers of this data, with the assumption that it’ll be there when it’s needed. We saw this first hand with Fukushima when people were shocked to learn there wasn’t an existing radiation monitoring network in place, and that the little bit of data that was available was restricted. We built Safecast as a reaction to the realization that the world had no idea what radiation levels were on a global scale, and there was very little data available to find out. Six years later, we now publish the largest background radiation dataset that has ever been available, and we put it completely into the public domain (via a CC0 designation) enabling awareness and research that has never been possible before. Our air quality beta test is in full swing and we hope to provide similarly useful data there in the near future. This data belongs to everyone, has no gate keeper, and can’t be shut down by any government. This is the power of open data.

We have frequently been approached by governments, companies and organizations who are interested in environmental monitoring. The vast majority of these people see environmental data as valuable IP that they can sell, license restrict and control. We’ve even had companies beg us to pull our data and let them sell it for us with promises of many piles of money that we could all swim in together. These requests show a complete lack of understanding of how public domain works, an appalling disregard for the value of shared research, and outright contempt for public awareness and education. We’ve made significant strides in collecting research quality data and making it available to everyone, but there is still a lot of work to do.

While many see today’s information blockade as a terrifying sign of things to come, we see it as a call to arms. This is exactly why we shouldn’t trust governments to be the sole gate keepers of our data. This is exactly why we shouldn’t let research that we fund with our tax dollars be kept from public view. This is exactly why we shouldn’t tolerate companies and organizations collecting data in public and licensing it back to us. As long as these walls and restrictions are in place, anything we have access to today can disappear tomorrow. We, as a global community, need to recognize this as the mis-judgement that it is and route around it.

But what can we do about it? Here are a few places to start:

  • Contact your local politicians and demand that all environmental data that your city generates or already possesses be placed into the public domain.
  • Demand that your city officials cut ties with any companies collecting data in your city and not releasing it under public domain.
  • If you are a researcher, refuse to sign agreements and licenses for restricted environmental data and instead work to create open alternatives.
  • If you have an environmental dataset, open it up. The data, any related algorithms or calculations and how it’s collected need to be public.
  • If you have an environmental start-up, discard any plans that see data as your IP.
  • If you are funding or supporting any environmental start-up, insist their data is open.
  • We’d love you to support Safecast with a one time or recurring donation or by getting one of our devices and helping collect data, but if radiation or air quality isn’t interesting to you we’re happy to point to projects measuring other things openly.

If you work at a company selling environmental data, it’s time for you to find a new business plan. Your actions and land-grabbing is now actively harming the public. This sounds like a battle cry, and in many ways it is. As the public, we can no longer sit by and trust these companies and governments to have our best interest in mind. We need to make them irrelevant.

(originally posted on Safecast)

Tales from the frontlines of viral photography

On Monday as I was heading home to Los Angeles I spotted a thought provoking sticker on a sign post in Shibuya and quickly sent it off to Twitter. Currently, less than 48 hours later my tweet has received over 23k retweets and 42k likes. And growing by the second. I note those stats specifically apply to my tweet only, but as it’s been reposted without attribution all over the place and gotten similar attention elsewhere so it’s likely in the hundreds of thousands collectively at this point, though I’ll never know for sure. This isn’t the first time one of my photos has ended up having it’s own life online but it’s still a very odd thing to experience and I thought some people might enjoy a little more detail and context about this how this has played out. I also have a book of some of my other Tokyo street photos that is available now, for a deeper dive into my photo work and the neighborhood surrounding where I took the above shot.

I know that my comment in the tweet plays in significantly to the reaction it received and I’ll spend more time on that later but upfront I want to acknowledge that the sticker (and the image on it) itself is the work of anonymous Japanese street artist 281_Anti nuke.  I’ve been familiar with his work for years. In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown I, along with some friends, founded an environmental monitoring non-profit called Safecast and our office is right in the middle of Shibuya, Tokyo. The neighborhood is regularly plastered with 281_’s stickers and we’ve got a few up inside our office as well. My friend, filmmaker Adrian Storey who I’ve collaborated with in the past, even made a documentary about 281_ a few years back. Shortly after I tweeted this photo 281_ also posted the image of the sticker itself which sadly hasn’t received a fraction of the attention it should.

Very quickly after I posted it people took notice and started spreading it around. I think that is a completely factual statement because, as you can tell, it has in fact been spread around. And when I say “people took notice” anyone with half a brain can deduce that by saying “people” I’m referring specifically to the people that took notice and not “all of the people on the planet.” I point that out because the by and large the number one reply I’ve gotten in response is some form of argument pushing back that this doesn’t represent the views of all the people in Japan. Again, a painfully obvious observation.

Certainly, and to 281_’s credit this is a perfectly executed and highly charged political image so one might expect it to cause a bit of a ruckus, but perhaps more than anything I’ve ever posted this one seems to have drawn a significant reaction. Beyond arguing about what I meant by “people” the next most common thing sent my way was arguments about how racists/nationalistic/immigration-unfriendly Japan is so therefore this observation is irrelevant, which is of course a red herring if ever there was one. Racist history of America, Democrats, and other countries that aren’t Japan or the US were also brought into the argument left and right. In fact if you went through this list of logical fallacies you could find perfect examples for each in my twitter mentions right now. I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was genuinely shocked how defensive people were. Not all people on the planet, or all people on twitter, but all people who were defensive. Duh.

Of course there’s also the inevitable comments from people who don’t follow me, yet felt the need to take time out of their day to tell me they don’t care what I post or that I’m wasting their time. Time they spent replying to me I guess? The logic that works in some people’s heads is baffling.

I was also attacked and held suspect pretty frequently. A quick scan of replies finds no shortage of statements calling me a faggot, which I found hilarious in it’s retro cliche nature but was surprisingly being used as a genuine insult in these cases. For simply posting this photo and my observation I’m also apparently a liberal, libtard, SJW, fascist, racist, expat, tourist, etc in the eyes of anonymous twitter accounts with single digit follower counts. I find all of this terribly amusing and fascinating, though I can also understand how someone else in my shoes might take these attacks more personally. I’m simply lucky(?) to have 20+ years of experience with trolling so I see such retorts as almost a script that gets followed again and again with only minor details swapped out each time. So maybe these trolls and shitposters are just unknowingly taking my bait. Who’s trolling who??? I’m laughing, so that’s good enough for me.

A not insignificant number of replies also accused me of making and posting the sticker myself just to manufacture the drama, and even in the face of the existence of 281_’s own gallery showing the image, these folks would then jump to the conclusion that I created 281 as well rather than accept their initial reaction was misplaced. New thing time however was quite a few people calling this fake news. But I guess we all know that in 2017 “fake news” is a term applied to anything you don’t agree with, no matter it’s basis in fact.

Another new twist this time is the number of media outlets that have reached out to me. I’d say this is a net positive as most often in the past these places would just take the extra lame “it’s on the internet so anyone can use it” approach, so outlets asking for permission is a welcomed change. I use a CC-BY license for these kinds of things as there’s really no way I can stop people from stealing it and using it for whatever purposes they want so fighting that is a losing battle from the beginning, and I’m quite happy to just have proper attribution. More than one outlet did ask me to agree to their terms which would have given them an eternal, transferable, non-exclusive license to do whatever they wanted with it for ever and I said no and pointed them to the CC-BY license.

I don’t want to sound like the reactions were all negative, I’ve definitely gotten countless replies from people agreeing with the sentiment, or complimenting the photos which is nice. But at the end of the day, I really was just responding to a question I’ve repeatedly heard with a quick image that I thought answered it pretty well.

TV Guide

Some of my fondest memories as a kid involved TV. The earliest show I can remember watching was Welcome Back, Kotter, I was probably 4 years old, maybe 5. I thought the sweathogs were the coolest and not so secretly hoped they would see me through the TV and recognize how cool I was and ask me to join the show. Like I said, I was 4. I next recall watching Creature Features, hosted by Count Gore de Vol when I lived in Washington DC and later by Dr. Paul Bearer when my family moved to Florida. I vividly remember scanning through the paperback TV Guide and highlighting or circling or otherwise marking the shows I wanted to watch and then making sure everyone in the family knew I had an appointment with the TV at those set times and nothing else could be scheduled because I desperately needed to watch Creature From The Black Lagoon, All Monsters Attack, Black Sunday, Them!, Forbidden Planet or whatever else these goolish curators had chosen for me that weekend. I would sit cross legged on the floor eyes glued to the TV and pretend I understood the jokes being made at each commercial break and try to figure out if these different monsters were all part of one giant story. I loved every second of them, and couldn’t wait to see what the next weeks showings would be.

I think about those movies often and revisit them from time to time. I think about how those helped refine my tastes and shape what I look for and enjoy in movies. I love good horror movies, would I love them as much if I hadn’t grown up with these proto-scary movies? I also think about how in many ways I was a captive audience. We only had a few channels and my choices were very limited so I picked the best option I could find and fell in love with it. And I learned the benefit of hunting for things, as I scanned those TV Guides trying to find anything that sounded interesting and marking it to make sure I didn’t miss it. But if I’d had other options would I have just passed these over? It’s hard to say.

I think a lot about this in context to viewing options today. My son watches TV too, he’s soon to be 7yo so pretty much right in the ballpark of when I was rabidly devouring these old monster flicks, but instead of having local television stations trying to fill their schedules with whatever broadcast licenses they could get for cheap, he’s got netflix and youtube and endless streaming and on demand options. He’s never had to sit through a commercial break, never had to choose between a soap opera, a game show and a b/w movie about a vampire. He watches an episode of Digimon and Netflix offers him every other episode ever made of that show, and then recommend 10 other shows just like it. I of course combat this by watching other things with him when I can, but left to his own devices his curators are algorithms not personalities. Some script is picking things for him rather than someone thinking about what might be complementary. Not trying to kick the algorithms off my lawn or anything, just noting the difference, and wondering how that will play out later in life. For him, and the rest of his generation.

Recent Readings

I’ve been actively trying to read more recently. All my life I’ve gone through cycles where I find something super fascinating and tear through it and then I finish and can’t force myself to start something else, or rather just can’t get into whatever I start next and end up abandoning it. So I read nonstop for months, and then it’s several more months before I read anything else. I’m trying to change that habit. I find that I sleep better if I read a bit before going to bed at night–it’s a nice way to wind down after a hectic day–and so I’ve been trying lots of different things and giving up right away if I don’t like something which has helped me get on to the next thing that I do like. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been enjoying recently. I’ve realized, perhaps far too late in life, that I really enjoy non-fiction. It’s not that I don’t enjoy fiction, I do, but I often find myself second guessing it or just unable to get into the story, where as with non-fiction (assuming the topic is interesting) thinking “I can’t believe this!” makes me want to read more, not less. With that…

Esther The Wonder Pig
A couple who could never say no to adopting a new pet, ended up with a mini piglet that turned out to be a 600 lb commercial pig. Hilarity ensued.

Star.Ships
I’ve just started reading this but I’ve already run screaming to wikipedia thinking “What?? There is no way this is true otherwise I would have heard of it and oh.. there it is, wow…” which is really fascinating and there’s a lot of talk about how new evidence has a hard time getting coverage when people are invested in old theories. I’ve loving it.

Normal
The sole fictional work here and it’s by a friend, but it’s really great and it feels like it could be real because it’s very much about us, people like me and likely people like you, and how our lives and our worlds are driving us crazy.

The Voyeur’s Motel
Totally batshit story about this guy who ran a motel for 30 years that he’d installed a “viewing platform” above the rooms so he could watch his guests, and took very detailed notes of their sex lives and what they did in private. This was 60s, 70’s and 80’s and you (or at least I) balance between being unable to believe he wasn’t caught all that time, and fascinated by what his notes and commentary about people suggested.

Green Is The New Red
I read this a long time ago, and am rereading because everyday it seems like an even more important issue.

New York Is Hell
I just received my copy of this which was published by a friend, but I’ve very much enjoyed other works by the author Benjamin DeCasseres (1873-1945) and I’ve gotten little snipits of this over the last few years and it’s always left me wanting more. It’s described as “a collection of his writing solely focused on New York, but mostly about booze” which, given the tone of his other writing, sounds amazing.

Snipped

I spent the final days of 2016 feeling like I’d gotten kicked in the balls. I’m sure many of you can relate to that feeling, though my pain wasn’t just mental and emotional, but also physical. Two days after we were visited by the man in red and white bearing gifts, I visited a man in white bearing scissors. Yes, I got a vasectomy. If you just cringed feel free to stop reading, but I found a few friends stories of their experience helpful and useful so I thought I’d start the new year off completely oversharing and maybe helping out some others who had questions.

First and foremost, the thing that made it much more of a real option for me was learning about the new No Scalpel method. I say new though it was developed in 1974, first used in the US in 1988, and has been very widely adopted as the method of choice by urologists since the early 2000’s. The old way required making incisions and stitching them up, and came with 2-3 weeks of recovery time. This way uses super pointy tweezers to poke a hole a stretch it, then release it and it closes up on it’s own immediately, reducing recovery to a few days. That sounded much better to me.

Given the modernness of this technique I was still surprised how hard it was in Los Angeles to find a doctor using it. I called many and they were all “yeah, we know there’s a new better way but we still like slicing you open.” I found the San Fernando Valley Urology Associates who were all about it and booked my appointment there. It’s about an hour from my house but that seemed worth it.

California requires you to go in for a consultation no more than 30 days prior to the procedure where the doctor explains the technique, results, and potential side effects. As well as makes sure it’s OK with your significant other. I had to sign off on countless forms saying that yes, my wife knew and approved of my actions. A quick physical exam and then I could book my appointment for the actual event. My insurance covered both visits with a $70 co-pay, so the entire thing cost me $140, plus $10 for the prescription meds.

You are required to shave your junk before the surgery. I was advised by some friends who will remain nameless that shaving was a bad idea because it would cause things to be itchy right when they were painful and sore and healing and a better option was to book a full waxing a day or two before your appointment. That sounded scary. I tried to get some friends to join me and no one was having it. I researched and all the seemingly respectable waxing salons near me primarily catered to the ladies and offered only limited services for dudes. Which means no downstairs action. In fact the only waxing salons I could find that would dehair the ol’ twig and berries were dead in the middle of the super gay part of town, and had websites that were mere pixels away from being gay porn. Huge beards, giant muscles, oiled and waxed male bodies. I’m secure enough in my sexuality that I can pretty much role with anything and not sweat it, I’m just pointing that out because it was amusing. What I couldn’t roll with was the $120 price tag that went with it.

I said fuck that and opted for the $5 disposable razor option.

To be fair I googled around a lot and found some junk shaving tutorials and bought proper moisturizing pre and post shaving stuff and learned the proper techniques. Interesting note, while there’s tutorials on YouTube for every damn other skill you can think of it’s a bit light in this department. PornHub on the other hand has in depth how to videos. You can find them yourself, because that’s really half the fun of it.

Because I’m already delighting you with one winning visual after another, I’ll just mention that the razors I ordered didn’t show up in time and I had to borrow one of Tara’s pink flowery lady razors. So you know, sit with that one for a minute.

Day of the operation I was prescribed instructed to take a Xanex an hour before to loosen and calm everything up and down. And bring someone to drive me home after. The whole thing took 10 minutes, maybe and was almost entirely painless. I got a tiny shot on either side of my balls which felt like the expected pinch, and then the only other thing I felt was really vague tugging or pulling sensations. A simple band-aid as the bandages and I was sent on my way. I got some slightly stronger than Tylenol pain meds which the Dr said people usually don’t even need for more than a day or two. I used them them for a day or two.

Day of I was out of commission. Instructed to put icepacks on my bits to reduce swelling, and advised by friends to instead use bags of frozen peas which are better at form fitting the area you want to cover, and to get several bags so you can hot-swap them out and always have a few in the freezer ready to go. This was good advise and I’ recommend it to anyone considering the same. The procedure was Tuesday and I was told to stay off my feet for a few days. I expected to be much more mobile by Friday. I was feeling really good Thursday and went out for some errands and dinner, but Friday morning felt that was probably pushing it and went back to bed. Today, Sunday, I’ve been pretty up and around and walked around the neighborhood without much issue at all. There’s still some swelling, but very considerably better than just a few days ago.

My friends who have had the scalpel version told me they were down for 2+ weeks, so I think this is pretty good. I didn’t really have any issue with the aforementioned post shaving itching issue, though I imagine if I’d had stitches that might have been a different story and the waxing might have made much more sense. I was pretty nervous going into it, but the story telling from previously snipped friends really helped calm me down and it was much easier than I expected it to be. And Tara and Rips have been waiting on me hand and foot, so that’s a plus too. They’ve been excellent nurses.

Hopefully this has been useful or at least somewhat interesting for some of you. If not, you are crazy for reading it.