Why Maine embraces immigration

An excellent choice for 4th-of-July podcast listening would be Maine, Africa on Radio Open Source. The intro:

We went to Portland, Maine, this week to meet newcomers from Central Africa, Angolans and Congolese asking for U.S. asylum. Fox News hit the panic button two weeks ago: their line was that Maine is being overrun, inundated by African migrants. On a long day in Portland, however, we found nobody sounding scared.

I’ve noticed the strong African influence in Portland when visiting, and wondered: “Why is that?” The answer is that Maine’s population is stable but aging. Immigrants are needed, and the state welcomes them.

A couple of moments in this podcast stopped me in my tracks.

With mayor Ethan Strimling:

“You know what, we don’t consider you somebody else’s problem, we consider you our opportunity.”

And with a woman interviewed on the street:

Chris Lydon: “How did Portland get to be so welcoming?”

Interviewee: “We’re Americans.”

Not everyone’s on board. There’s an anti-immigrant minority, but it is a minority. Most of the people in Portland, it seems, look backward to their own immigrant roots and forward to a future that embraces an influx of world cultures.

On this Independence Day I choose to believe that a national majority feels the same way, and will prevail.

The Woodard projection

In a memorable episode of The West Wing, visitors from the Cartographers for Social Justice upend CJ’s and Josh’s worldviews.

Cartographer: “The Peters projection.”

CJ: “What the hell is that?”

Cartographer: “It’s where you’ve been living this whole time.”

I’m having the same reaction to Colin Woodard’s 2011 book American Nations. He sees North America as three federations of nations. The federation we call the United States comprises nations he calls Yankeedom, New Netherland, The Midlands, Tidewater, Greater Appalachia, The Deep South, El Norte, The Far West, and The Left Coast.

Here’s his definition of a nation:

A nation is a group of people who share — or believe they share — a common culture, ethnic origin, language, historical experience, artifacts, and symbols.”

Worldwide some nations are stateless, some align with state borders, and some cut across state borders. North America’s eleven nations are, in his view, stateless, cutting across state boundaries in ways I find disorienting but enlightening.

On his map (from a 2013 Tufts alumni magazine article now readable only at the Internet Archive) I have marked the US places where I’ve lived.

Until now, if you asked me where I’ve lived, I’d have said East Coast and Midwest and recently California. According to the Woodard projection I have lived in four nations: Yankeedom, The Midlands, Tidewater, and The Left Coast. It wasn’t easy to locate my homes on his map. They all occupy a narrow band of latitude. On the East Coast, that band touches three of Woodard’s nations. In two of those, Yankeedom and The Midlands, I lived near the cradles of nations that spread far north and west.

I’m from near Philadelphia, in The Midlands, “founded by English Quakers, who welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies on the shores of Delaware Bay.” That resonates. I grew up in a place called Plymouth Meeting and went to Quaker kindergarten there. It would never have occurred to me that Philadelphia is culturally closer to places as far west as Nebraska, and as far north as the province of Ontario, than to Baltimore or Boston. Likewise I never thought of Ann Arbor, where I called myself a midwesterner, as part of a culture that flowed west from Boston. Or that Baltimore sits at the intersection of three nations.

These eleven nations have been hiding in plain sight throughout our history. You see them outlined on linguists’ dialect maps, cultural anthropologists’ maps of material culture regions, cultural geographers’ maps of religious regions, campaign strategists’ maps of political geography, and historians’ maps of the pattern of settlement across the continent.

Two of the eleven nations, Yankeedom and The Deep South, have been “locked in nearly perpetual combat for control of the federal government since the moment such a thing existed,” Woodard says.

The analysis, which builds on prior art that he cites, may be a helpful way to contextualize the 2016 US election.

“The Woodard projection.”

“What the hell is that?”

“It’s where you’ve been living this whole time.”

Don’t just Google it! First, let’s talk!

Asking questions in conversation has become problematic. For example, try saying this out loud: “I wonder when Martin Luther King was born?” If you ask that online, a likely response is: “Just Google it!” Maybe with a snarky link: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=when was martin luther king born?

Asking in conversation is frowned upon too. Why ask us when you could ask Siri or Alexa to ask Google?

There’s a kind of shaming going on here. We are augmented with superpowers, people imply, you’re an idiot to not use them.

Equally problematic is the way this attitude shuts down conversation. Sure, I can look up MLK’s birthday. Or you can. But what if our phones are dead? Now we need to rely on our own stored knowledge and, more importantly, on our collective pool of stored knowledge.

I think MLK was shot in 1968. I’d have been twelve. Does that sound right? Yeah, we were in the new house, it was sixth grade. And I know he died young, maybe 42? So I’ll guess 1968 – 42 = 1926.

Were you around then? If so, how do you remember MLK’s assassination? If not, what do you know about the event and its context?

As you can see in the snarky screencast, I’m wrong, MLK died even younger than I thought. You might know that. If we put our heads together, we might get the right answer.

Asking about something that can easily be looked up shouldn’t stop a conversation, it should start one. Of course we can look up the answer. But let’s dwell for a minute on what we know, or think we know. Let’s exercise our own powers of recall and synthesis.

Like all forms of exercise, this one can be hard to motivate, even though it’s almost always rewarding. Given a choice between an escalator and the stairs, I have to push myself to prefer the stairs. In low-stakes wayfinding I have to push myself to test my own sense of direction. When tuning my guitar I have to push myself to hear the tones before I check them. I am grateful to be augmented by escalators, GPS wayfinders, and tuners. But I want to use these powers in ways that complement my own. Finding the right balance is a struggle.

Why bother? Consider MLK. In The unaugmented mind I quoted from MLK confidante Clarence Jones’ Behind the Dream:

What amazed me was that there was absolutely no reference material for Martin to draw upon. There he was [in the Birmingham jail] pulling quote after quote from thin air. The Bible, yes, as might be expected from a Baptist minister, but also British prime minister William Gladstone, Mahatma Gandhi, William Shakespeare, and St. Augustine.

And:

The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” showed his recall for the written material of others; his gruelling schedule of speeches illuminated his ability to do the same for his own words. Martin could remember exact phrases from several of his unrelated speeches and discover a new way of linking them together as if they were all parts of a singular ever-evolving speech. And he could do it on the fly.

Jones suggests that MLK’s power flowed in part from his ability to reconfigure a well-stocked working memory. We owe it to ourselves, and to one another, to nurture that power. Of course we can look stuff up. But let’s not always go there first. Let’s take a minute to exercise our working memories and have a conversation about them, then consult the oracle. I’ll bet that in many cases that conversation will turn out to be the most valuable part of the experience.

My new library superpower

The recommendations that matter to me — for books to read, movies to watch, products to buy, places to visit — almost never come from algorithms. Instead they come from friends, family, acquaintances, and now also, in the case of books, from fellow library patrons whom I’ve never met.

This last source is a recent discovery. Here’s how it works. When I enter the library, I walk past shelves of new books and staff picks. These are sometimes appealing, but there’s a much better source of recommendations to be found at the back of the library. There, on shelves and carts, are the recently-returned books ready to be reshelved. I always find interesting titles among them. Somehow I had never noticed that you can scan these titles, and check out the ones you want before they ever get reshelved. Did it always work this way at our library? At libraries in other places I’ve lived? If so I am woefully late to the party, but for me, at least, this has become a new superpower.

I reckon that most books in the library rarely if ever leave the shelves. The recently-returned section is a filter that selects for books that patrons found interesting enough to check out, read (or maybe not), and return. That filter has no bias with respect to newness or appeal to library staff. And it’s not being manipulated by any algorithm. It’s a pure representation of what our library’s patrons collectively find interesting.

The library’s obvious advantage over the bookstore is the zero price tag. But there’s a subtler advantage. In the bookstore, you can’t peruse an anonymized cache of recently-bought books. Online you can of course tap into the global zeitgeist but there you’re usually being manipulated by algorithms. LibraryThing doesn’t do that, and in principle it’s my kind of place online, but in practice I’ve never succeeded in making it a habit. I think that’s because I really like scanning titles that I can just take off a shelf and read for free. Not even drone delivery can shorten the distance between noticing and reading to seconds. Ebooks can, of course. But that means another screen, I already spend too much time looking at screens, the print medium provides a welcome alternative.

This method has been so effective that I’ve been (guiltily) a bit reluctant to describe it. After all, if everyone realized it’s better to bypass the new-book and staff-pick displays and head straight for the recently-returned area, the pickings would be slimmer there. But I’m nevertheless compelled to disclose the secret. Since few if any of my library’s patrons will ever read this post, I don’t think I’m diluting my new superpower by explaining it here. And who knows, maybe I’ll meet some interesting people as I exercise it.

 

Designing for least knowledge

In a post on the company blog I announced that it’s now possible to use the Hypothesis extension in the Brave browser. That’s great news for Hypothesis. It’s awkward, after all, to be an open-source non-profit software company whose product is “best viewed in” Chrome. A Firefox/Hypothesis extension has been in the works for quite a while, but the devil’s in the details. Although Firefox supports WebExtensions, our extension has to be ported to Firefox, it isn’t plug-and-play. Thanks to Brave’s new ability to install unmodified Chrome extensions directly from the Chrome web store, Hypothesis can now plug into a powerful alternative browser. That’s a huge win for Hypothesis, and also for me personally since I’m no longer tethered to Chrome in my daily work.

Another powerful alternative is forthcoming. Microsoft’s successor to Edge will (like Brave) be built on Chromium, the open-source engine of Google’s Chrome. The demise of EdgeHTML represents a loss of genetic diversity, and that’s unfortunate. Still, it’s a huge investment to maintain an independent implementation of a browser engine, and I think Microsoft made the right pragmatic call. I’m now hoping that the Chromium ecosystem will support speciation at a higher level in the stack. Ever since my first experiments with Greasemonkey I’ve been wowed by what browser extensions can do, and eager for standardization to unlock that potential. It feels like we may finally be getting there.

Brave’s support for Chrome extensions matters to me because I work on a Chrome extension. But Brave’s approach to privacy matters to me for deeper reasons. In a 2003 InfoWorld article I discussed Peter Wayner’s seminal book Translucent Databases, which explores ways to build information systems that work without requiring the operators to have full access to users’ data. The recipes in the book point to a design principle of least knowledge.

Surveillance capitalism knows way too much about us. Is that a necessary tradeoff for the powerful conveniences it delivers? It’s easy to assume so, but we haven’t really tried serious alternatives yet. That’s why this tweet made my day. “We ourselves do not know user identities or how donations might link via user,” wrote Brendan Eich, Brave’s founder. “We don’t want to know.”

We don’t want to know!

That’s the principle of least knowledge in action. Brave is deploying it in service of a mission to detoxify the relationship between web content and advertising. Will the proposed mechanisms work? We’ll see. If you’re curious, I recommend Brendan Eich’s interview with Eric Knorr. The first half of the interview is a deep dive into JavaScript, the second half unpacks Brave’s business model. However that model turns out, I’m grateful to see a real test of the principle. We need examples of publishing and social media services that succeed not as adversaries who monetize our data but rather as providers who deliver convenience at a reasonable price we’re happy to pay.

My hunch is that we’ll find ways to build profitable least-knowledge services once we start to really try. Successful examples will provide a carrot, but there’s also a stick. Surveillance data is toxic stuff, risky to monetize because it always spills. It’s a liability that regulators — and perhaps also insurers — will increasingly make explicit.

Don’t be evil? How about can’t be evil? That’s a design principle worth exploring.

Highlighting passages doesn’t aid my memory, but speaking them does

When I was in college, taking notes on textbooks and course readings, I often copied key passages into a notebook. There weren’t computers then, so like a medieval scribe I wrote out my selections longhand. Sometimes I added my own notes, sometimes not, but I never highlighted, even in books that I owned. Writing out the selections was a way to perform the work I was reading, record selections in my memory, and gain deeper access to the mind of the author.

Now we have computers, and the annotation software I help build at Hypothesis is ideal for personal note-taking. Close to half of all Hypothesis annotations are private notes, so clearly lots of people use it that way. For me, though, web annotation isn’t a private activity. I bookmark and tag web resources that I want to keep track of, and collaborate with others on document review, but I don’t use web annotation to enhance my private reading.

To be sure, I mostly read books and magazines in print. It’s a welcome alternative to the screens that otherwise dominate my life. But even when my private reading happens online, I don’t find myself using our annotation tool the way so many others do.

So, what’s a good way to mark and remember a passage in a book if you don’t want to highlight it, or in the case of a library book, can’t highlight it? I thought about the scribing I used to do in college, and realized there’s now another way to do that. Recently, when I read a passage in a book or magazine that I want to remember and contemplate, I’ve been dictating it into a note-taking app on my phone.

I’ve followed the evolution of speech-to-text technology with great interest over the years. When I reviewed Dragon NaturallySpeaking, I did what every reviewer does. I tried to use the tool to dictate my review, and got mixed results. Over time the tech improved but I haven’t yet adopted dictation for normal work. At some point I decided to forget about dictation software until it became something that civilians who weren’t early-adopter tech journos used in real life.

One day, when I received some odd text messages from Luann, I realized that time had arrived. She’d found the dictation feature on her phone. It wasn’t working perfectly, and the glitches were amusing, but she was using it in an easy and natural way, and the results were good enough.

I still don’t dictate to my computer. This essay is coming to you by way of a keyboard. But I dictate to my phone a lot, mostly for text messages. The experience keeps improving, and now this new practice — voicing passages that I read in books, in order to capture and remember them — seems to be taking hold.

I’m reminded of a segment in a talk given by Robert “R0ml” Lefkowitz at the 2004 Open Source Conference, entitled The Semasiology of Open Source (part 2), the second in a series structured as thesis (part 1), antithesis (part 2), and synthesis (part 3). ITConversation aptly described this luminous series of talks as “an intellectual joy-ride”; I’m going to revisit the whole thing on a hike later today.

Meanwhile, here’s a transcription of the segment I’m recalling. It appears during a review of the history of literacy. At this point we have arrived at 600 AD.

To be a reader was not to be the receiver of information, it was to be the transmitter of the information, because it was not possible to read silently. So things that were written were written as memory aids to the speaker. And the speaker would say the words to the listener. To read was to speak, and those were synonyms … The writing just lies there, whereas the speaking lifts it off the page. The writing is just there, but the speaking is what elevates the listener.

Had I merely read that passage I’m certain I would not remember it 14 years later. Hearing R0ml speak the words made an indelible impression. (Seeing him speak the words, of course, made it even more indelible.)

Silent reading, once thought impossible, had to be invented. But just because we can read silently doesn’t mean we always should, as everyone who’s read aloud to a young child, or to a vision-impaired elder, knows. It’s delightful that voice recognition affords new ways to benefit from the ancient practice of reading aloud.

A small blog neighborhood hiding in plain sight

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tweeted every blog post. As an experiment, I didn’t do that with this one. As a result, WordPress tells me that relatively few people have read it. But I’m not monetizing pageview counters here, why do I care? The interaction with those who did read that item was pleasant.

So, the experiment continues. Some items here, like this one, can enjoy a more intimate space than others, simply by not announcing themselves on Twitter. A small blog neighborhood hiding in plain sight.