How I Work: Anthony S. Layne

Over at Outside the Asylum, Anthony Lane takes on the How I Work challenge:

What has changed over the years since you started and what do you do differently?

Oh, my, what hasn’t? I keep thinking of the song from The Mikado, “As some day it may happen”, in which Ko-Ko tells us that, among the people he could execute that would never be missed is “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, All centuries but this, and every country but his own.” We could criticize the debilitating effects that our growing dependence on electronic gadgetry have on social interactions, just as we can look at any number of technological developments and see their glass-half-empty aspects. But with all challenges, all dangers, there also comes opportunity; this is actually a time of chairos, pregnant with grace.

One thing I’m particularly grateful for is that the blog arose just as I was beginning my reversion to Catholic orthodoxy; it’s so much better than writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper! Blogging has allowed me to make some small contribution to the propagation and spread of the Faith, as well as weigh in on many questions of our time and participate more fully in the public square. So even with the dangers looming on the horizon and the fears I have for the future, I’m glad to be alive here and now.

As they say, Read the Whole Thing, and add him to your regular reading rotation.


Tech Website Gets Access to 4.6 Million License Plate Scans

If you drive in Oakland, California, Ars Technica knows where you’ve been:

In response to a public records request, we obtained the entire LPR dataset of the Oakland Police Department (OPD), including more than 4.6 million reads of over 1.1 million unique plates between December 23, 2010 and May 31, 2014. The dataset is likely one of the largest ever publicly released in the United States—perhaps in the world.

After analyzing this data with a custom-built visualization tool, Ars can definitively demonstrate the data’s revelatory potential. Anyone in possession of enough data can often—but not always—make educated guesses about a target’s home or workplace, particularly when someone’s movements are consistent (as with a regular commute).

The article is long, detailed, and chilling to anyone concerned about privacy. Data is power, and being able to track a population’s movements gives the government, corporations, and individual citizens too much of it. Where you live, shop, worship, congregate, and sin are exposed on the very thin pretext of public safety.

Police Targeting Waze

wazeSome police think Waze is dangerous and want Google to pull the plug on one of its key features. The social/traffic app is designed to provide drivers with information on highway congestion, accidents, and construction, but also allows them to tag the location of police speed traps with an icon indicating whether or not the police are hidden or visible from the highway.

This function, according to some in law enforcement, amounts to a “police stalking app.” LA Police Chief Charlie Beck wrote to Google CEO Larry Page last month urging him to disable the feature:

I am concerned about the safety of law enforcement officers and the community, and the potential for your Waze product to be misused by those with criminal intent. I look forward to opening a dialogue with you as to how Google can prevent the future misuse of the Waze app to track law enforcement officers, thereby avoiding any future deaths or injury. I am confident your company did not intend the Waze app to be a means to allow those who wish to commit crimes to use the unwitting Waze community as their lookouts for the location of police officers.

There is nothing to link Waze to any deaths or injury, but police are concerned because last month Islamic radical Ismaaiyl Brinsley posted a picture from Waze which showed the police icons. Brinsley disposed of his phone long before he ambushed and murdered two police officers in New York, but the connection is too close for some.

But not all police are buying the anti-Waze argument because, as Sgt. Heather Randol told the San Jose Mercury News, “We want to be seen.”

And that is the point, isn’t it? A visible police presence is part of the purpose of law enforcement and helps keep the peace. Cops aren’t ninjas, and the circumstances in which they need to remain unseen for legitimate public safety reasons are fairly limited. And, no, I don’t consider speed traps “legitimate public safety reasons.”

The police function in various ways: to discourage crime by their visible presence and intervention, to investigate crime after it has been committed, and as an armed revenue collection wing of the government. It’s this last function that rankles the public, because they realize the minor citations and tickets have minimal relevance to public safety and are just there to fill government coffers. When New York police stopped writing these nuisance tickets for a few weeks in protest over the murder of two of their brother officers, the city lost $5 million by some estimates.

The idea that Wave is some kind of Grindr for cop-killers kind of misses the main point: it shouldn’t be hard to find a police officer. They should be visible. Many people feel relieved when they see an officer. Well, at least many white people do: the experience of policing among minority communities is considerably more troubling, particularly for black men. Indeed, looked at from the perspective of a young, innocent black man, Waze may be key tool for avoiding harassment and potential police brutality.

In ordinary practice, the police have few legitimate reasons to conceal their presence. And they have no right at all to tell people they cannot share information with others about that presence any more than they could tell someone not to flash their lights to indicate a speed trap or use a CB radio for the same purpose.

Law enforcement routinely claims that anything happening in public has no expectation of privacy, yet want an exception for their own behavior under some vague and hazy fear about “police stalking.” They’re already deploying licence plate scanners, and are preparing to introduce facial scanners. The gulf between the rights of the watched and those of the watchers is growing ever-wider

Aside from the admittedly horrifying and tragic, but also isolated, case of the New York police murders, is their any indication that “police stalking” is a widespread practice? And if so, is it such a dangerous and immanent threat that it warrants a constitutional challenge about free communication among citizens?

Have I Mentioned Lately How Much I Hate Robots?

This is the latest dumb thing no one needs:

What a load of nonsense.

First, it’s not handwritten. It’s machinewritten, which means even though someone built an elaborate bit of gizmoditry to go through all the trouble of dipping a pen in ink and “writing,” it’s no more personal than running off copies on a printer. It just creates an illusion of being personal, which is actually so much worse.

The dude in the video brags about how fast brides can knock off wedding invitations that appear handwritten by using his service. The point of thank you notes is that they were held by a person who wrote them by hand to express delight at a gift, not that they texted a generic thank you to some machine which wrote, stamped, addressed, and mailed them because the lazy bint couldn’t be bothered.

If you’re not the president or the pope or Taylor Swift, you don’t have to write so much you can’t do it yourself.

Oh, wait, Taylor Swift does do it herself. Do you have more people who write to you than Taylor Swift does? No you do not, so stop acting like you’re better than her already.

Second, the video shows a pen being dipped in ink, which is clearly not what the machine does. It’s using a Montblanc (at least for the video), which has a reservoir. But OMG it dips its pen just like old-timey writers had to! Let me tell you something: if old timey writers had plunger-driven ink converters like this replacement I just bought for my Waterman, they would have used them. Hell, they probably would have bought a box of Bics or a damn laptop if they could. Some nostalgia is sweet and useful. Some is just dumb. And jamming together nostalgia and useless technology is pointless.

Third, why is it using a $500+ Montblanc? Please.

Fourth, for a couple hundred dollars it can write letters and notes in your very own handwriting. You know what else can write letters in your very own handwriting. Your hand!

Fifth: is free.

Sixth, Autopen, anyone?

I don’t like this kind of “gee-whiz let’s get a robot to do it because it’s cool” thinking. You want to send a robot to Mars or the bottom of the ocean or out to defuse a bomb? Fine, but there is no reason on earth to build robots to do things humans do perfectly well but are too damn lazy to do.

This is a lot of technology and slick marketing being deployed in the creation of illusion, and no doubt it will sell to executives and moneyed twits like the woman in the video who talks about how good sending “something tactile” is for her business. Of course, a laser-printed letter is also “tactile” unless it’s made of some magical anti-haptic material like unicorn farts. What she means is that they have a machine create a forgery of something touched by human hands. You can run off a letter on a home printer, have it done by a professional printer, or write it yourself, but this is just a lot of showy silliness.

FORCEdraft: Make Yourself Write!

forceSome writers need to make daily word counts. These may be personal goals or professional assignments, but we have to make with the words whether or not they’re actually floating around in our heads waiting to spill out on the page (virtual or actual). Writer’s block is a luxury those who write for a living can’t afford, but it doesn’t make it any less of a challenge.

The internet is both the blessing and the curse to the writer. Research has never been easier. Reaching out to subjects for interviews, dropping in a few citations and statistics, firming up our grasp of a subject: the internet makes all of this easier.

And it also makes it much much harder. The computer exerts a powerful gravitational pull, and the internet is always there to lure you into a few minutes of email, social media, browsing, grazing, poking, and other fruitless ways to pass the time.

Sometimes, those distractions call for various tools and tricks. I use various timers to slice up my day into productive bits, but the siren song of RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter, and general webbiness is always singing a sweet tune in my ear. I’ve tried various Google plugins to block services, but I always wind up disabling them after a little while.

FORCEdraft (browser or Windows: free) is stronger medicine. It offers a page to write on and nothing else, and then locks the rest of your computer until a specific goal is met. You can set a time limit or a word limit, and the program will not let you out until you meet it. Even CTRL-ALT-DEL won’t give you let you out. Nothing short of a reboot will end the session.

You can open it in a browser or download an EXE for Windows, but the program works about the same either way.

Even for a text editor (and I prefer working in pure TXT format) it’s a bare-bones program. There’s no spell check, right-click mouse functionality, hotkeys, or menu. There’s no alarm when you hit your limit, and no onscreen timer or word count. You can choose where to save and what to to name the file. A couple of more features would make it a stronger program.

For those who just want a plain text editor, FORCEdraft can also be set to exit whenever you want. There are, however, plenty of better PC text editors and browser editors out there. FORCEdraft does one thing: it makes you write and do nothing else. That may be just the medicine you need to get things done.

How To Send an Email With Style

Use a typewriter to type it on your letterhead (can’t you just feel that nice 24lb bonded paper?), sign it, and have your assistant scan and email it.

That’s what writer-director Terrance Malick does, as revealed in the Sony leak. Malick–who takes this reclusive artist thing seriously–doesn’t use email. Here’s the letter:


Mmmm, Courier.

Mmmm, Courier.

The letter is notable for its courtesy, professionalism, good grammar, and style. People used to know how to communicate this way, and it’s becoming harder to find. I can’t help thinking the entire form here–letterhead, font, signature, proper spacing, alignment, word placement, and all–helps imbue even routine communication with a dignity that email and texts can never offer.

Looking at this letter, I realized that kids won’t know how to do this unless parents teach them, and that maybe it’s something worth preserving.