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Man putting his vote in the ballot box for Election 2020 by Marco Verch. CC BY 2.0

Democracy is neat. Its selling point is that it creates the conditions for political change without violence, and in a methodical and measured manner. Which all sounds great — but the US isn’t a democracy, at least not at the federal level.

Undemocratic institutions like the Senate, the Electoral College, and the extensively gerrymandered districts of the House of Representatives mean that one side of the political spectrum needs many many more votes on its side to achieve the same degree of political success as the other side. And unabashed voter suppression mean that those votes would have to represent many more people. It’s enragingly unfair. …

Think again.

A character with a megaphone overlays a flock of emails, some unread, flanked by open and closed envelopes.
A character with a megaphone overlays a flock of emails, some unread, flanked by open and closed envelopes.
Illustration courtesy of ManyPixels.

Software isn’t secure. This hurts everyone, but it places the most vulnerable at excessive risk. Journalists, activists, queer people, sex workers, union organizers… Everyone deserves safe tools, but the danger isn’t distributed evenly.

From time people decide to build secure software to help protect the most vulnerable in society. Sometimes, people interested in this sort of project email me. A recent message mentioned a project to build collaboration tools for journalists with “the security of Signal and the comfort of Google Docs”. …

There are two aspects to product management: the product, and the management. An effective PM combines the mindset and skills needed to excel at each.

Long red hair streams behind a person leaping and bounding forward, supported by a phone which is also their staircase.
Long red hair streams behind a person leaping and bounding forward, supported by a phone which is also their staircase.

To make a great product, the chief demand is empathy, followed closely by curiosity. Empathy — and its cousin compassion — let you understand the needs and expectations of the people who use and rely on the things you build. Curiosity lets you discover those needs, learn about the tools available to you to meet them, and find the creativity to craft your product innovatively. But without empathy, you are never building for the people you hope to serve. …

My gender is the twelve chimes of a venerable and lovingly-maintained clock on a seasoned solicitor’s shelf, resonating through brass and wood, a reminder on an August afternoon to rest for a moment.

My gender is the subtle oscillation of a phone face-down on a table, showing a message from a friend who will be able to join you for brunch after all.

My gender is the clank and thump of a letterbox through which a small but long-awaited parcel has just been pressed.

My gender is the thing noticed, but it is not the subject of the notice.

It is the reminder of something pleasant which might otherwise slip your mind.
It is the herald of a something hoped-for now coming to pass.
It is the cusp of something looked-for now becoming real. …

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An artist’s illustration of the Mansus which a mortal can never truly see but in dreams, via Weather Factory

What advice do you have for aspiring occult practitioners?

For me the most important part of founding a secret society is a genuine curiosity. Some people yearn for power or want to perform impressive summoning rites. Don’t get me wrong — ambition is a powerful drive and summoning is a very useful tool. But at the end of the day, I founded the Order of St. Hydra out of a real personal interest in the Five Secret Histories and their Million Semi-Real Branches. And I think that’s reflected in the way people participate in the Order — from how we organize our expeditions to the Places Best Left Unvisited Among the Lone and Level Sands, to our attention to detail when it comes to destroying evidence and dispatching those who meddle. We’re like a family here. When I summoned Ezeem, the Second Thirsty, the ritual was motivated by my love of language, and my interest in learning Phrygian, the lost language of the witches which no mortal still speaks. Who doesn’t have a pile of books that they just keep meaning to read if only only they can conjure an immortal tutor who still recalls the old ways? And my immense thanks to Miss Morland for always having the right books in stock when I came by. …

Staying healthy and safe during wildfire season

Summary for the hurried:

  • Use an AQI app on your phone to notify you when the air gets gross.
  • When the AQI goes above 150, avoid going outside.
  • Consider sealing windows and filtering the air in your home.
  • When you have to go outside, wear a mask rated N95 or better (ideally P100).
  • Your mask must fit perfectly or it’s useless.
  • If it’s often smoky where you live, get a permanent mask.
  • Consider planning for a power cut.

[Last updated: October 2019]

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Fires near Poudre Canyon, Colorado obscure the skies which glow red. Public domain image, by Senior Master Sgt. John Rohrer, 140th Wing Public Affairs

Apocalypse season comes every year in the Pacific North-West and all down the coast. Wildfires burn through forests and communities and clog the skies with smoke and ash. In past years, you might have noticed the blood-red sunsets through dusty skies. …

Tea: ☕️ ☕ ☕ ☕
Food: 🍰 🍰 🍰 🍰
Ambience: 🌸 🌸 🌸 🌸
Overall rating: 💖 💖 💖 💖
Tags: modern, formal, english

We struggled at first to find the tea room in the St. Regis hotel. There is a large, prominent bar space, but no clear dining room— just a typical high-end hotel lobby full of plush sofas and low tables. As the concierge informed us, that is where afternoon tea is served. The logistics of eating and drinking off of small coffee tables were a bit tricky (involving lots of holding saucers and plates over our laps), but we managed. The rest of the tea service was matched to the environment: narrow rectangular étagères fit neatly on the tables; the teapots and sugar container were small enough to avoid overcrowding; and clear, oddly shaped teacups fit the modern vibe. …

You’re right: it’s done by robots

This post is based on the impeccable research of cartographer Justin O’Beirne. Justin’s excellent article on this topic dives deep into the cartographic background. This post talks more about the tech.

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Illustration of Google’s “areas of interest”, Justin O’Beirne, 2017

Google invented a new kind of cartography to represent something that everyone has an intuitive sense of, but which was previously too elusive to easily show on maps. And to do it, they had to combine really subtle details from three different information sources, gathered in three very different ways.

There are lots of names for these spaces: downtown, business corridor, high street, or numerous others. Everyone knows them: little patches where shops and restaurants and bars all cluster together on one section of street. The variety and absence of names echoes the difficulty identifying and pinning down these areas, but they’re crucially important for the way that people relate to and navigate urban areas. A 2011 study based in San Francisco found that these zones — which Google has peculiarly decided to call “areas of interest” or AOIs — are the primary reference points that participants consistently relied on to express space and location in their home city. …

Twitter literally makes it impossible to deliberately see bisexuals

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Within the last few days, Twitter has decided to double down on being the literal worst by picking a few words and phrases for which you can no longer search for images.

The new ban vanishes: bisexual, bisexuality, sexuality, queer, transexual, sex, & butt. Related unaffected terms include: lesbian, gay, homosexual, heterosexual, trans, intersex, asexual, and — perplexingly — butts. …

Computers make better decisions than humans, sometimes…

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The WOPR computer from the 1983 film WarGames

In the 1983 Cold War movie WarGames, American nuclear commanders discover that many of the foot-soldiers in missile silos are unwilling to actually launch their nuclear-tipped apocalypse engines, even when they believe that they have been given a valid launch order. To remedy this “problem”, direct control over nuclear launches is turned over to a computer system called the WOPR, taking humans “out of the loop”.

The same year WarGames was released, Soviet Air Defense Colonel Stanislav Petrov was placed in much the same position as the fictional Captain Jerry Lawson from the film’s opening scene. Petrov was the watch officer on the night shift for the Soviet satellite-based Oko early-warning system. In the wee small hours of the morning on September 26th, his computer advised him that it had detected the launch of American ICBMs. Over the course of fifteen scant minutes, he concluded with fingers-crossed that it was a false alarm and declined to inform his superiors of the suspected launch. The Oko false alarm was later attributed to sunlight reflecting off clouds. …


Tom Lowenthal

Mostly abridged.

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