Jon Christian

Comfort the afflicted. Afflict the comfortable.

EFF vs. Sgt. Star: the saga continues

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has obtained the output scripts of creepy-faced Army chatbot Sgt. Star. Star took part in almost 3 million conversations in the last five years. Unexpectedly, the poorly-redacted document revealed that the FBI and CIA have already used chatbots to “engage PEDOPHILES AND TERRORISTS online.” Exactly what that looks like is unclear.

How AI will come to mediate interaction with institutions is an interesting question. In Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, there’s a surreal bit where Matt Damon meets with a graffiti-covered robot parole officer. It interrupts him, doesn’t care about his story, and offers him a handful of pills when it extends his parole—so it captures the feeling of some real government workers. The EFF read into the Army’s response even further:

In our request, we sought his output script (every possible response in his database) as it stands now, but also for each year since he went live. That way, we could compare how his answers have evolved and grown through military policy changes, such as the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the ban on women in combat. The Army gave us the 835 current responses, but could not give us the rest. Apparently, the historical scripts don’t exist because the script is a “living body.” The Army’s exact words in describing the spreadsheet of 835 responses…

Do they mean, “living” like the Constitution is said to be a living document? Or are they using it in the sense of Johnny 5 from Short Circuit? We plan to file a FOIA appeal to learn more. Likely what they mean is that they don’t maintain older versions of Sgt. Star’s script because they constantly update a single file. If that’s the case, then that indicates poor record-keeping by the Army. If the FBI treats their bots in the same way, that would raise serious questions about the ability of defendants to challenge the reliability of a bot if they are charged with a crime after the bot’s programming has changed.

Longform reading list, week of 4/14/14

Hunter S. Thompson: The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved [PDF]. Scanlan’s Monthly, 1970.

Max Chafkin: A Broken Place: The Spectacular Failure of the Startup That Was Going To Change The World. Fast Company, 2014.

Jake Hanrahan: My Top-Secret Meeting With One of Silk Road’s Biggest Drug Lords. VICE, 2014.

Mat Honan: High Tech: How Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are rushing to cash in on cannabis. WIRED, 2014.

Tracey Lien: Eve: The Most Thrilling Boring Game In The Universe. Polygon, 2014.

A virtual universe with the espionage of Dune

Tina Belcher: Folk Hero

I did a short piece on Tina Belcher, from Bob’s Burgers, for Slate’s Brow Beat:

Like most characters on Bob’s Burgers, Tina is a memorable caricature. Her eyes are lone dots in huge, D-shaped spectacles, and her arms hang by her sides like limp noodles. She wears her hair with bangs, and is frequently dressed in a skirt, sneakers, and knee socks. She speaks in a mid-range monotone and betrays emotion mostly with her signature groan. And like other beloved animated adolescents, she expresses childish concerns in an adult register and adult concerns in a childish one. “I want a dry-erase board so I can write down all my private thoughts and then erase them immediately,” she says in one episode, a thought bubble imagining the phrase “penis fly trap.”

Gay Talese’s first article in the New York Times

Gay Talese’s first article in the New York Times his first not in a student newspaper — was published on November 2, 1953, when he was working as a copyboy:




Longform reading list, week of 4/7/14

Gay Talese: Looking for Hemingway. Esquire, 1963.

Eric Schlosser: In The Strawberry Fields. The Atlantic, 1995.

Sharecropping and peonage in CA’s strawberry-industrial complex.

Judy Bachrach: U Want Me 2 Kill Him? Vanity Fair, 2005.

Matthew Power: Excuse Us While We Kiss The Sky. GQ, 2013.

“Once you begin playing this game, the entire world becomes filled with secret doors.”

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian: Let Them Eat Code. Dissent, 2014.

On Silicon Valley’s obsession with homelessness. 

Laura Bennett: Riding an Uber With Sam Biddle, the Tech World’s Least Beloved Watchdog. New York Magazine, 2014.

Michael Idov: “This Is Not a Barbie Doll. This Is an Actual Human Being.” GQ, 2014.

Robert McMillan: The Fierce Battle for the Soul of Bitcoin. WIRED, 2014.

Longform reading list, week of 3/31/2014

Gay Talese: The Silent Season of a Hero. Esquire, 1966.

An aging Joe Dimaggio.

Matthew Power: The Cherry Tree Garden [PDF]. Granta, 2008.

On squatting in the Bronx in the 1990s.

Doree Shafrir: Can You Die From a Nightmare? Buzzfeed, 2012.

Quality longform, jarringly, on Buzzfeed, on people who suffer from violent night terrors.

Adam Begley: How John Updike Turned Everything in His Life to His Advantage in Fiction. Vulture, 2014.

In 1983, William Ecenbarger wrote a profile of John Updike. And Updike wrote a short story about Ecenbarger. 

Rebecca Boyle: The end of night. Aeon Magazine, 2014.

An astronomy writer makes a biological case for less artificial light.

Patricia Hernandez: The Game I Played When I Was Scared To Death of Being Deported. Kotaku, 2014.

When Hernandez lost her passport, she became distracted by a satirical indie game about an immigration checkpoint. Compelling firsthand account of racism and anxiety over not belonging.

Erica Perez, Matt Smith and Lance Williams: ‘Uncle Leland’. The Center for Investigative Reporting, 2014.

How did an anti-gun democrat end up involved in bribery and gun smuggling?

Jonah Weiner: A Fight Is Brewing. The New York Times Magazine, 2014.

Two of the hottest beer makers in the world are identical twins — and they’re not on speaking terms.

The problem with Hot Tech Today


There’s a new tech webmag in town, and they have an innovative idea. There are articles in Hot Tech Today, like in the old world of, uh, journalism, but in this bold new publishing model, there are also photos of scantily-clad women.

Are you not entertained? Twitter certainly wasn’t — though it took the edge off to notice that their launch website was riddled with typos and that the person behind their Twitter account writes like Dwight Schrute talks. In short order they were decried in various internet places, and while I’m sure it exists somewhere, I can’t find a single positive online response by a person not affiliated with the magazine.

Which is probably because Hot Tech Today’s implicit message is that consumers of tech news are men, and that women can only participate as eye candy, which is repulsive for a host of reasons. High tech workplaces and scenes are dominated by men, and sexism abounds. “Booth babes” are used to woo crowds at conventions, and sexual harassment is widespread. It is in this state of affairs that Hot Tech Today masterminds David Kelley and Erica Williams say they don’t get why everybody is so bent out of shape. Today, Williams posted an open letter to critics:

We embrace the idea that “Tech is sexy,” which is why every issue features tasteful, respectful, non-nude model photos and centerfold spreads. In this way we’re not only supporting the careers of some wonderfully talented models and photographers, but also giving our users both sides of that “Tech = Sexy” equation.

We certainly foresaw some level of backlash in this regard, and frankly we’re fine with that. Our magazine isn’t for everyone, and anyone who finds our material objectionable is cheerfully invited to go elsewhere for their tech news. What has surprised us, though, is the strongly held yet very wrong position put forward by some of our detractors that our magazine is somehow demeaning to women in general, and to women working in the tech industry in particular.

First, Kelley and Williams have pushed the idea that because Williams is a woman, they are immune to criticism. This is obvious nonsense. Judas, after all, was an Apostle.

Second, they’ve repeatedly tried to dress this up as a matter of feminists not being comfortable with sexuality. This is willfully missing the point. I imagine most of Hot Tech Today’s critics support the rarefied kind of pornography where everything is safe, economically just, consensual, and makes an effort not to disseminate harmful ideas about sex. Hot Tech Today — like previous generations of bad ideas like Maxim and Playboy — is presenting journalism and sexy models as two sides of the same hetero-male-oriented coin.

Starting a magazine in 2014 is a bold move, but this is a deeply flawed way to go about it.


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