One Week Later: My Favorite Reads This Week

See What Times Square And Wall Street Looked Like 100 Years Ago: “Software engineer Dan Vanderkam has embedded a collection of historical photos from the New York Public Library into an awesome interactive map of old New York.” Read more…

Pushing Pixels: “Rover scientists knew not to fetishize the raw, unmediated image: they accepted that seeing on Mars could only be digitally mediated seeing, and so they regarded the judicious use of color correction as an indispensable part of producing visual knowledge.” Read more…

A Brief History of the Wristwatch: “On July 9, 1916, The New York Times puzzled over a fashion trend: Europeans were starting to wear bracelets with clocks on them. Time had migrated to the human wrist, and the development required some explaining. ‘Until recently,’ the paper observed, ‘the bracelet watch has been looked upon by Americans as more or less of a joke. Vaudeville artists and moving-picture actors have utilized it as a funmaker, as a “silly ass” fad.’” Read more…

How to Change Minds: Blaise Pascal on the Art of Persuasion: “‘People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.’ […] Pascal frames persuasion not as a factor of control but as something predicated first and foremost on empathy—on empathic insight into the context and concerns that animate the other person’s mind.” Read more…

Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.: “Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. […] As the new space intended, I’ve formed interesting, unexpected bonds with my cohorts. But my personal performance at work has hit an all-time low.” Read more…

One Week Later: My Favorite Reads This Week

The Race to Save Disappearing Data: “A 2013 study of Supreme Court decisions by Harvard University Law School professors found that so-called link rot is eroding intellectual foundations of legal scholarship: Nearly half of all Supreme Court decisions up to that date and more than 70 percent of law journals from 1999 to 2012 referred to Web pages that no longer existed.” Read more…

Forbidden Data: “The new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government. The reason? The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death. Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem, Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.” Read more…

Ms. Henderson’s Second Grade Class’s Math Test: “4. If Nibbler enjoyed eating Fruit Gushers at a rate of 1 gusher every 30 seconds, and it takes 20 Fruit Gushers for the toxicity level of Blue Dye-22 to reach fatal levels in a gerbil, how many minutes into recess did it take for Nibbler to permanently scar every student in Ms. Henderson’s class?” Read more…

Taxi Medallion Markets Collapse Across America: “Uber’s labor practices are deplorable, and the company uses rhetoric about ‘disrupting inefficient markets’ as cover for some really evil behavior. But the reason the rhetoric rings so true is that municipal taxi licensing is a disaster, and it’s one that was deliberately made and continued for decades thanks to the great wealth the dysfunction brought to a tiny minority, who made so much that they were able to set some of their gains aside to lobby to make things stay the same.” Read more…

Could Airbnb Help Solve The Problem Of Vacant Housing?: “‘We couldn’t find a hotel in the neighborhood, and there weren’t really any downtown,’ says Jason Roberts, founder of Better Block. ‘There was only one. At the same time, we saw a city report saying the population is decreasing and there’s this excess housing stock.’” Read more…

How Facebook Exposes Domestic Violence Survivors: “Lily’s ex might never have been able to find her profile in the first place if Facebook hadn’t asked her to display her ‘authentic name’ in order to reopen her account, which had been suspended in December of last year over her use of a pseudonym.” Read more…

Facebook’s “Real Names” Policy Is Still a Real Problem


Facebook was confronted with significant criticism of their “real names” policy in recent weeks, specifically the termination of hundreds of personal accounts used by trans people and drag queens as a result of that policy. While this issue only flared up in early September, the policy has existed for years, and this is not the first time it has caused significant problems for vulnerable peoples.

Last week, Facebook changed clarified their policy, addressing the primary concerns of LGBT activists, but while the victory dances are deserved, Facebook’s response is ultimately inadequate, particularly in how it can affect users not living in liberal democracies.

“Real Names” in Egypt

As the 2011 protests in Egypt increased in intensity, a Facebook Page, We Are All Khaled Said, became one of the most prominent online spaces used by protestors to share information and organize. Within days, the page had 130,000 followers, eventually peaking somewhere north of 470,000. Unfortunately, the person who had created the page* was operating under a pseudonym, a necessary move given the Egyptian government’s treatment of dissidents.

The Egyptian state security agency flooded Facebook with reports that the page had been created in violation of the Facebook terms of service, since the creator was not using his “real” name. The day before the Egyptian parliamentary elections, Facebook responded by disappearing the page, threatening to undermine the protests. The page was restored in hours—rather than the days or weeks usually required for an appeal—only because Nadine Wahab, an Egyptian woman who lived in the United States and worked in public relations, called Facebook to have the issue addressed.

The page was restored, and quickly, but Facebook did not change its policy. Page administrators living in Egypt, all of whom needed to use pseudonyms, were routinely removed from Facebook as the Egyptian state reported them to Facebook as violators. Wahab, able to act with impunity because she lived in the U.S., was the only factor keeping the page live.

The Khaled Said case highlights the real danger of “real names” policies. The oppressed often need to use pseudonyms; the oppressors do not. The powerful have nothing to fear in these moments, often specifically because they are willing to resort to cruelty. Those trying to stand against the powerful have everything to fear. In these moments, Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that having a secondary identity shows a lack of integrity is not just inadequate; it is fully inverted. Those without integrity are the ones free to move about using just one identity.

The parallels between last month’s flare-up of this issue and the story of the We Are All Khaled Said are interesting. In both cases, pseudonyms have been used as a measure of protection: protection from on oppressive government, protection from homophobic and transphobic relatives and acquaintances. In both cases, a malefactor used Facebook’s policy as a weapon against oppressed people: the Egyptian government, the unidentified person who reported several hundred Facebook accounts used by LGBT people. In both cases, Facebook insisted the rationale behind the policy was fine; the implementation just needed tweaking.

A Remedy Limited to the “Democracy-Privileged”

When Chris Cox, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer, apologized on behalf of the company for how the “real names” policy had harmed LGBT people, he said the Facebook had not realized how some members of this population were affected. He clarified the company’s policy on these matters, writing, “Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life.”

In the United States, and other western liberal democracies, Facebook and other social media are criticized for enabling “slacktivism.” However, in countries from Egypt to Turkey, and currently in Hong Kong, the state has significant, even total, control of traditional media. Social media become an indispensable means both to promote the reasons for dissent and to organize mass action. A blow against dissidents on social media has very real repercussions for dissent offline, while the dissidents have no parallel leverage to use against the state.

The most recent controversy surrounding Facebook’s names policy might be said to have primarily affected the “democracy-privileged,” and for these populations the company’s response seems to address the problems created by its policy. However, when they reposition that policy as one requiring the use of the names users go by in “real life,”** the policy ignores the very real dangers facing their users in many countries that do not guarantee freedom of speech and assembly.

Properly contextualized, it becomes clear that the “real name” policy does not just need some tweaks; it needs to go. As long as the policy is in place, Facebook creates another weapon that the powerful can use against those they would oppress. Requiring users to employ names already associated with their identities may encourage better behavior on the site, but the evidence for this is weak and skimming the comments threads on many pages will provide a plethora of examples of people content to behave badly using their legal names. Meanwhile, the price for this “better” behavior is paid by the most vulnerable.

* Coincidentally, page’s creator was a Google executive living in Egypt.
**Cox’s use of “real life” to describe offline activities is the most problematic moment is a statement rife with problems. I suspect it was not unintentional. While Facebook has become a powerful tool, one that has taken a central role in toppling governments, minimizing that role by positioning it as “fake life” obscures how Facebook’s actions can lead to real people dying real deaths and undermines criticism, because why get worked up over something so not-real?

Why Unplugging Matters

Image based on photo by Tom Magliery

Every major shift in culture engenders a backlash. Every backlash  engenders a contra-backlash. Round and round the dialectic goes, and with Casey Cep’s recent critique of unplugging, currently the most popular story on the New Yorker’s website, the “always-on” lifestyle’s contra-backlash has arrived in the mainstream.

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Crowdsourced Playlist: Songs Where the Writer Just Flagrantly Made Up a Word and Put It Right Out There (SWTWJFMUAWAPIROT)


Each week, I host a “crowdsourced playlist.” I give the theme (and a few examples) and the crowd throws in their suggestions. Check out the progress on this week’s playlist below, or head over to Facebook to follow me and contribute.

Disney’s release of Mary Poppins was quickly followed by a copyright-infringement suit.

13 years before the film was released, Gloria Parker and Barney Young wrote a song titled ‘Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus,’ which Alan Holmes recorded. The songwriters understandably saw a strong similarity in one of the most popular songs in ‘Poppins.’ (The Parker/Young/Holmes song is not on Spotify, but you can hear it on YouTube)

“I find that ‘the word’ was known to and used by members of the public for many years prior to 1951, the date when plaintiffs allegedly published their song.”

-Judge Feinberg
Life Music, Inc. v. Broadcast Music

A year after Mary Poppins hit theaters, Parker and Young filed suit against Disney, alleging copyright-infringement of their song. The Sherman brothers, who wrote the music for the movie, stated they had invented the word when they were children, going so far as to provide an origin story for it. Disney ignored that history though, and appropriately for a lawsuit centered on a word made (nearly) out of whole cloth, Disney’s defense seemed to be freshly invented: “‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ is widely used slang,” they claimed.

In a decision that still leaves me incredulous, the judge found for Disney.

A few months later after the judge’s decision, a earlier use of the word was found in a Syracuse student newspaper article from 1931. Helen Herman wrote:

“Supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus” is the word to which I refer. I’ll admit it’s rather long and tiring before one reaches its conclusion, but once you arrive at the end, you have a feeling that you have said in one word what it would ordinarily take four paragraphs to explain.

Did the Sherman brothers make it up? Did Parker and Young hear or read the word and forget, imagining they had invented it? Has this 14-syllable word been spontaneously invented two or more times? We’ll likely never know.

Back in October, the theme was playlist-of-playlists, with several people coming up with great ideas. One of them was my dear friend Carrie Weiner Campbell, who suggested a playlist of songs with made up words. It seems like a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious idea, so let’s do it.

There was no good place to link to Ben Zimmer’s post about this on Visual Thesaurus, but it’s worth a read if you’d like to learn more about the history of the copyright claims. I first read the core details of this story years ago on Music You (Probably) Won’t Hear Anywhere Else, but the post seems to have since been removed.

Crowdsourced Playlist: Outlaws

Each week, I host a “crowdsourced playlist.” I give the theme (and a few examples) and the crowd throws in their suggestions. Check out the progress on this week’s playlist below, or head over to Facebook to follow me and contribute.

In 1959, a 21-year-old Waylon Jennings was booked for a late-night flight from Clear Lake, IA to Fargo, ND with other members of the band he was playing with at the time.

J.P. Richardson—a.k.a., The Big Bopper—was also traveling making the trip from Clear Lake to Fargo, but with no open seats on the plane, he was to take a bus. Today that trip takes about 5.5 hours, but none of the sections of I-94 or I-35 connecting the two cities had been built in 1959 and the bus trip would likely have taken much longer. Jennings took pity on Richardson, who was sick with a cold, and gave up his seat on the plane, joking “I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”

The plane crashed, killing Richardson, as well as Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.

I was a highwayman. Along the coach roads I did ride, With sword and pistol by my side. Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade. Many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade. -The Highwaymen

Several years later, Jennings shared an apartment with Johnny Cash, the two roommates having a heavy addiction to amphetamines in common. Both musicians’ careers were doing well around this time, but Jennings was becoming frustrated with the artistic control exerted by the Nashville producers.

In 1972, Jennings released the album ‘Ladies Love Outlaws.’ Subsequently, he renegotiated his recording contract to permit greater creative freedom and released ‘Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,’ the “quintessential” outlaw record (

It’s fun to wonder what The Big Bopper and Buddy Holly might have gone on to do had they lived, but it’s amazing to think that if Jennings had boarded that plane, we might never have had Outlaw Country or many of the other outlaw and gangster songs that followed. Others, like Cash, had been “bad boys,” but none had made the “outlaw” such a part of their performative identity.

Crowdsourced Playlist: Sexes, Battle of the: Songs of Adversaries and Allies

Each week, I host a “crowdsourced playlist.” I give the theme (and a few examples) and the crowd throws in their suggestions. Check out the progress on this week’s playlist below, or head over to Facebook to follow me and contribute.

It’s 1933 and Heddy Lamarr is 18 and appearing in a film called ‘Ecstasy.’ The film is remembered most for Heddy’s facial expression during an orgasm, an expression that was achieved by the film’s director poking her buttocks with a safety pin off camera.

It’s 1941 or ’42 and World War II is happening. Heddy is hanging out with an avant garde composer, George Antheil. Discussion of how to automate control of music instruments gives way to how to prevent the jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes. Using a piano role to randomly change frequencies, the two successfully solved the problem and were granted a patent. Heddy wanted to join the National Inventors Council after this important development, but was told she could be more helpful by selling war bonds. Today, you use the technology with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and your cell phone.

So, this week’s crowdsourced playlist theme is Sexes, Battle of the: Songs of Adversaries and Allies.

Crowdsourced Playlist: Loss (Actual or Almost)

Each week, I host a “crowdsourced playlist.” I give the theme (and three examples) and the crowd throws in their suggestions. Check out the progress on this week’s playlist below, or head over to Facebook to follow me and contribute.

In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, I’ve been seeing comments about how strong people survive addiction and it kills the weak.

Several years ago, I was working at a gritty coffee shop directly across the street from Tompkins Sq. I was also volunteering at a drop-in center for young homeless people, where one of the services was training on how to recognize a heroin overdose and administer an opiate-blocker, Narcan.

The drop-in center was particularly quiet one day, and the coffee shop where I worked had a long history of heroin ODs, so I took the training and got my Narcan kit.

A couple of weeks later, I was sitting in Tompkins Sq. when I saw a street kid who was clearly not doing well. I asked his friends if he needed Narcan and they said if I had some that would be great. By the time I gave it to him, he had stopped breathing and his lips were blue. I injected him with two doses, which was enough to get him snoring. In most cases, two doses would have woken him up, but he was that far gone. The paramedics showed up and I slipped away. I talked to another street kid a couple of days later and asked if he knew “Horse,” the kid I gave the Narcan to, and he said he did and Horse was fine.

A couple of weeks later, I was working and someone came in, used the restroom, and went into an OD from the drugs he had apparently injected right before he came in. It took me about 10 minutes to notice he had been in the restroom for a long time, and by the time I knocked on the restroom door and then got it open, he was gone. Paramedics worked on him for 20 minutes and got a heartbeat back, but he never regained consciousness and he was taken off life support 11 days later.

Here’s the thing: if I hadn’t be volunteering at the drop-in center; if there hadn’t been a slow day at the center; if I had decided to use that time to talk to other staff instead of getting a training; if I hadn’t happened to carry the Narcan with me; if I hadn’t sat in a particular spot in the park; if I had just ignored the situation with the kids for a few more minutes; if the heroin he had taken had been just a little stronger; if if if, Horse would have died.

If the coffee shop hadn’t been so busy a couple of weeks later; if I had checked on that guy a few minutes earlier; if I had injected him with Narcan faster, the other guy might have lived.

I don’t know what ever became of Horse. He might be dead now; he might be living in a starter house in Newark where he and his wife are raising their first child. The point is, he never would have had the chance to survive if not for a huge set of factors, many of them impossible to predict and none within his control. That guy in the restroom? Maybe he would have gone sober the next day if he could have just lived one more day.

We never know who might have gone to their first NA meeting tomorrow if they hadn’t ODed today; we never know who would have ODed tomorrow if they hadn’t checked into rehab today. The difference between surviving addiction and not, between being lost and being saved, is often just a matter of timing and luck (followed by lots and lots of hard work).

All of which is to say, this week’s playlist theme: Loss (actual or almost)

Crowdsourced Playlist: Fuck.

Each week, I host a “crowdsourced playlist.” I give the theme (and three examples) and the crowd throws in their suggestions. Check out the progress on this week’s playlist below, or head over to Facebook to follow me and contribute.

When Stephen Sondheim was hired to write the music for West Side Story, he was told he could drop an F-bomb at the end of “Gee, Officer Krupke.” The word had never been used in a Broadway show and the 25-year-old lyricist was excited to break that barrier.

Unfortunately, as the original production progressed, CBS Records, which had the contract for the cast recording, said they could not sell the album if it the word “fuck” was in the lyrics, since shipping it across state lines would violate obscenity laws.

Ultimately, Sondheim was forced to use the lyric “Gee, Office Krupke, Krup you” instead of his original lyric. In a show with many lyrics Sondheim has always been unhappy with, he thinks this change ended up making a more interesting lyric.

[source: Finishing the Hat, Vol. 1]

Which brings us to this week’s crowdsourced playlist theme: “Fuck.”