Disappearing Choking Black Men

A few days ago, our neighborhood mailing list lit up with a report of a violent crime. The location was in a park near our house on a paved road that is no longer open to cars, and on which I walk nearly every day to and from my co-working office. The first account was from a neighbor, who forwarded a note from "a friend" who had happened upon the police response to the crime. A woman was choked by a black assailant, tumbled down a slope, and fell unconscious.

This struck me as initially dubious. We were already at a thirdhand-ish account (neighbor's friend relating conversation with victim after assault) which involved a black man in a hoodie in a relatively well-trafficked area in the middle of the day. Perhaps in the Ferguson era, where details are scant except a black man (who hasn't been found) in a very white city, I'm sensitized to this sort of report.

I asked a contact at the Seattle Police Department's public affairs office if they had more information (as a citizen, not a reporter). They filed a police blotter account the next day.

The facts as the police represent them:

  • No sexual assault.
  • Nothing stolen.
  • No suspects found.

The blotter account is very carefully written. It attributes everything to the reported victim, except that her "skin and clothes" were soiled with dirt.

The Capitol Hill Seattle Blog offered a more expansive account, which reads as more authoritative, though appears to be relying entirely on the victim's account. It also published redacted excerpts from the preliminary police report. This includes that when the victim came to, she told police that she spotted two black men nearby, one walking briskly away, the other "staring" at her from across the road. She ran to a cross street, stopped someone (presumably not black), and was able to use that person's cell phone to call for help. The police reported no visible signs of an altercation on the ground nor of injury on the victim.

A neighbor (?) posted this sign on a kiosk at the park's entrance (via KOMO News). This sign is part of a telephone game. The victim's account is that she was choked by an unknown party and saw two men nearby when she regained her wits. She wasn't accosted; she was attacked from behind, says the police report of her statement.

Could this be a fabricated report? It has so many hallmarks of urban mythology that I did some digging to see if I could find an identical story elsewhere on the Internet and could not. The police were called, as was a medic unit, so there was an actual person who did make law-enforcement contact.

The woman can't identify her assailant, as she was attacked from behind. The two men she described to police were nearby when she recovered, but one was moving away and the other stood and stared, by her report. She did not ask the nearby black man for help, but ran to find someone else.

I recommend never reading the comments, but the remarks on all the local stories (Capitol Hill News Blog, Seattle P-I, Seattle Times, KOMO-TV News) show how readily commenters make racially biased statements about crime and culture.

The odds of someone filing a detailed fabricated police report seem slim. The notion that this woman slid down a slope and then ran out of the park, stopped someone, called 911, and went through this charade would require a high degree of mental instability or — something.

While the bits and pieces don't feel like they add up, it is most likely that this was a real attack gone bad and the victim is fortunate that she wasn't robbed or sexually assaulted. It's almost certain that unless either or both of the men the victim saw were assailants and commit further crimes, we will never get enough information for this to feel complete.

Various Thoughts on Shuttering The Magazine

I was interviewed at a few places about my decision to cease publication of The Magazine after our December 2014 issues — read more about that here — and it was neat to get a chance to explain how wonderful the whole experience was of editing it for two years, and owning and producing it for a year and a half. I have no regrets, I learned a lot, and while exhausting, exhilarating — like parenting!

The fine folks at three publications gave me a chance to explain myself:

The Kickstarter campaign for our book drawn from our second year of publication, October 2013–October 2014, is going strong, nearing 30% funded in the first few days.

The Social Tandem

The social tandem contains no more than two members at any given time. It is a chat room that two invited parties participate in. There are no identifiers, except what the parties decide to reveal. The conversations are streamed realtime on the public site and archived.

At any time, there are two participants. Each participant's session remains active for ten minutes, offset by five minutes with the other. Thirty seconds before the end of a session, the system provides a reminder and an increasingly frequent countdown. Thus each participant has encounters with two people. All interactions are in-band, meaning any information they wish to reveal is public.

Participants apply to be placed into queue. It costs a nonrefundable $5 to be placed into queue and requires a valid email address to validate one's hold position. Queue positions are determined randomly and automatically and open up continuously across all hours of the day. Email is sent 12 to 24 hours ahead of one's queued position. One may post the time one has been offered to let others watch and know it is you. You may defer the queue slot offered free of charge and you will be offered another no sooner than 24 hours later.

As demand ebbs and flows for slots, the fee will dynamically adjust. One may sell slots privately, as the slot will be triggered by a code, not an account. Secondary markets are welcome and encouraged.

People may discuss anything. Material deemed offensive or of a private or sensitive nature may be deleted from archives or turned over to law enforcement. IP addresses will be logged. Confirmation email addresses will be stored for a relatively short period of time, no more than a month or so, and then permanently deleted from active storage and backups.

There are no guarantees implied or otherwise.

Private I: a New Column at Macworld

My inaugural outing as a columnist at Macworld appeared today under the name Private I. I'll be writing weekly about security and privacy as they relate to Mac and iOS users. How does new security exploit X affect you as a Mac OS X user? How does mobile hack Y reveal your location to advertisers? Oh, there's enough to fill a column every day, and I'll be hard pressed to pick a single notion a week.

The Magazine is making a book (again) and shutting down (what?!)

My labor of love the last two years has been The Magazine, first as its hired hand and then, in May 2013, as its owner. The sad truth has been that, while profitable from week one, the publication has had a declining subscription base since February 2013. It started at such a high level that we could handle a decline for a long time, but despite every effort — including our first-year anthology crowdfunded a bit under a year ago — we couldn't replace departing subscribers with new ones fast enough. We're a general-interest magazine that appeals to people who like technology, and that makes it very hard to market. "Pivoting" to a different editorial focus would have lost subscribers even faster. (Ads wouldn't work; we simply don't churn out enough content for that model. I wrote this a year ago and it's still true.)

So we lasted as long as we could while turning a buck so that I could make an increasingly smaller portion of my living from it, while enjoying the heck out of working with so many great writers and publishing stories about so many people and things, historical and present, geeky and sweet, sad and hilarious. It's been great.

Our last subscription issue will be December 17, 2014, after which we will discontinue and refund subscription on a pro-rated basis and may produce some ebooks or special projects thereafter.

Working cover of our Year Two anthology

Working cover of our Year Two anthology

But in the meantime, we're going to go out with a bang by producing another beautiful offset hardcover book drawn from our second year in publication, which we're celebrating today. Funding this Year Two book means we can pay all the writers reprint fees and get their work and the stories of people they tell out to a bigger audience, too.

Help us make this book by backing it and get a gorgeous hardcover book. You can even pledge at a patron or angel level and get signed copies — I and all the contributors will sign those editions.

We're also giving away the digital editions of the Year One book to help raise awareness of this new project, and we're pledging — if funded — to give away the digital editions of this new collection as well!

(Addendum: My friend Jeff Carlson wrote some kind words and filled in a few blanks that I forget about sometimes even though I run this darned thing.)


Glenn writes a lot about satellites and space: links

I've developed an obsession with space in the last couple of years, particularly with satellites, probes, landers, rovers, and other gadgets that we send into it. When I was a kid, I used to read and dream about space, but wandered off into other meadows. Returning to it is a blast (sorry) as my decades studying, working with, and reporting with technology gives me an entrée into the world (or worlds) of mission planning, launches, travel, landing, and deployment. 

Glenn visits Curiosity's sibling at JPL in Pasadena.

Glenn visits Curiosity's sibling at JPL in Pasadena.

Here's a collection of what I've been writing about, largely at the Economist.

Voyager 1 & 2

The Voyagers continue to function nearly four decades after launch, delivering useful science. Most recently, Voyager 1 passed the edge of the solar magnetic bubble (the heliosphere), crossing the heliopause into the interstellar medium! (It's still within the solar system, as defined by the sun's gravitational pull, however.)

In a bit of nice timing, I visited the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena in January 2013 for a bunch of reporting, and wrote up a visit with Ed Stone for the Economist, the principal investigator of the Voyager missions from their start in the 1970s and still a

In March 2013, the first paper appeared suggesting that Voyage 1 had broken through the heliopause. I wrote an Economist Explains about it. Later in the year, after more analysis had appeared and more scientific consensus was reached, I filed a long report for Boing Boing on Voyager 1's progress and ostensible current location.

My long-time Economist editor, Tom Standage, co-wrote a feature for Technology Quarterly, "In Praise of Celestial Mechanics," about keeping all this gear alive when it's in orbit around Earth or billions of miles away. (In typical Economist fashion, I wrote a long draft from my JPL visit and other research, Tom tinkered with it and extended material from his expertise, and I was delighted with the final result.)

Nanosatellites and Other Small Birds

The cost per kilogram of pushing something from Earth into orbit, however high, has dropped substantially over the last few decades, and is poised to drop another order of magnitude if SpaceX perfects its reusable craft. However, it's still relatively expensive. But instead of relying on cheaper launches, sending up more compact and capable gear sheds cost, too! Nanosatellites — 10 cm cubes weight about 1 kg — and both somewhat smaller and larger gear are already revolutionizing how information will be gathered from near space.

I did some more travel for this piece, interestingly to San Francisco, where several firms are making bijou satellites inside of ordinary office spaces and small warehouses. Thousands of small satellites will launch in the next couple of years, bringing information from space within reach — anything a satellite can measure up, down, or sideways. I filed this Technology Quarterly cover story, "Nanosats are go!"

As part of this reporting, I wrote about the KickSat, a partially crowdfunded three-unit nanosat (30 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm) that contained over 100 femtosatellites, the size of postage stamps. It launched, but wasn't able to complete its mission — a charging problem left it unable to trigger its spring release in time. The first piece was "Magic Dust"; the follow-up, "An elegy for satellites like maple-tree seeds."

I also wrote about NASA's PhoneSat project, which takes the innards of ordinary Android phones and beefs up the battery and radio components and then puts them into space. These missions go up fast, iterate quickly, and produce useful results.

Other Pieces

An ancient spaceship was captured (with permission) by citizen scientists, and I wrote a three stories about it. First, after NASA granted permission and a team was booting up communications ("How to revive a satellite"). Then, when it seemed likely they'd be able to put the satellite into a new permanent orbit ("An old workhorse satellite spins back up"). And, finally, when it still seemed possible that the new trajectory would be possible ("The ancient mariner"). Sadly, the old bird was only able to make a few residual firings before it was determined the tanks were depleted — not strange for living decades past its original sell-by date.

I also filed this story on nanosatellites potentially reigniting interest in aerospace engineer careers, which had fallen on some hard times in recent years as internet engineering jobs took off.

It Takes a Hidden Village

I love Kevin Kelly's work and life, and had a great talk with him months ago for my podcast, The New Disruptors. But during his talk at the 2014 XOXO festival a week ago, I felt a distinct chill when, in describing his book Cool Tools, he said it was the work of two people over a few months, and then went on to note their use of Elance and other distributed work tools.

Tim Maly felt the same chill, and wrote a very interesting essay riffing on that and related issue: independent creators are dependent on the work of so many others, most of whom aren't afforded the same opportunities at advancement and independence. Tim followed the thread of labor down to the Chinese workers referenced in another talk by the creators of the NeoLucida; the two guys behind that project traveled to China and spent two weeks in the factory that was making their gear.

I know that Kevin didn't mean to disparage or denigrate the work of the hundreds of people who put in minutes or hours through various freelance/contract aggregation services. In fact, in our podcast, he spoke specifically about these folks (full transcript):

In the end, I probably redesigned at least 90 percent of the pages, but they were delivered at such a stage that it was possible for me to refine them. We were generating I forget how many pages a day from all the freelancers. They were first class. They were really great.

He also noted:

What it is doing is arbitrage. It’s matching the needs of one person with the abilities of the other in a very low friction way. I think that’s what really comes forward. Sometimes you don’t need necessarily the design power. You want something a bit more modest, and this is a way to kind of connect with that person very directly, very quickly within a matter of hours. I think that’s really the beauty of this system.

He can speak for himself, but from a similar position, I know what he meant: it only required a couple of dedicated people, not working exclusively on the project, to coordinate and bring it into being; something that not long ago would have required a team of several and a year and maybe an order of magnitude or factors above that in cost. He was the motive force; without his interest, energy, and money, the book would never have come to pass.

When I created The Magazine: The Book (Year One) earlier this year, it was my idea. I came up with it, coordinated it, raised the funds, hired people, and handled nearly all the details. But, of course, dozens of people were involved in it directly, tens of thousands at one remove, and millions at another.

The book required the expertise of a graphic design and production team of three and my contract editorial team of two (managing editor and proofreader); a few dozen writers, artists, and photographers; paper and ink, printing presses, postal and shipping services. You can crank the aperture wide or small about how many people were involved depending on what level of detail you want to discuss. Someone had to mine ore, smelt it, refine it, and stamp out machine parts for the equipment that embossed the covers of the hardback edition.

We are ourselves often cogs in someone else's machine. The lower level the task, the less likelihood we have to control our own destiny. I don't think Kevin has lost sight of that at all — he began his life's work by traveling the world to find disappearing societies and met people forgotten by everyone else. But our independence is always positional, relying on the constraints of others to make the raw stuff on which we depend.

Important Dishwasher Update

I realize that all five of you have been wondering about the update to the dishwasher situation. It turned out worse case/best case.

To recap: everything went to hell in and around our house and then order resumed. The dishwasher, however, continued to leak. We talked to a highly rated local repairman, who advised us based on age and model to replace it. We tried. The installers came and claimed (maybe true) that they couldn't squeeze the replacement in. (Thanks, Sears, for charging my card and not refunding the price nearly four weeks later. Second pissy email sent, and will be filing a complaint with my credit-card company next.)

So we convinced the repairman to come out, who charged us $55 for an hour or more of testing and consultation, during which he determined that even if we put $300 of parts and a few hours of his time in, the thing might still leak and it wasn't worth keeping alive.

Cue figuring out how to get a well-reviewed dishwasher that didn't cost $1,200 and that would fit in the space. We needed a "short tub" (under 33 1/2 inches tall), which are for some reason also in the ADA Compliant category. I gather that they have lower racks, perhaps, and thus easier to load with disabilities? Not sure.

We wound up ordering from a local appliance company, Albert Lee, a Bosch SGE63E15UC. Not cheap at about $800 with free delivery, but the only thing that would both fit and people didn't hate. (Other suggested units had terrible reviews.)

We then also had to hire our regular contractor, now mostly retired but willing to do some work for us, to come out because the plumbing and electrical weren't quite right. The folks who three-quarter-assedly renovated the house when they owned it 25 years ago put the cutoff valve for the water behind the dishwasher, instead of under the sink. And it was also too high off the floor. The Bosch likely wouldn't have fit, because it had nearly no clearance above the valve.

Our contractor cut a bunch of holes, swore a lot, dropped a few things, and managed to replumb it to work. Then the Bosch arrived with some strange attachments, and he drilled a few more big holes, and got it all together, leveled, and running. We'll probably owe him $300 or so for his hours of work.

Not cheap, but in a family of four with two growing boys, I think necessary. Lynn grew up washing dishes by hand, and it's not terrible to do so. But the new dishwashers are actually relatively efficient compared with handwashing: time, energy, and water consumed. Based on initial loading of the new machine, I think it might hold twice as many dishes as the old one, as bizarre as that seems as it takes up the same space. And it looks like it's even more energy efficient than the model it replaced, as well as using less water. So we might use 25% to 33% the water and energy per dish, and thus pay back the high cost quickly enough to take the sting away.

What I’d Like to Hear Tim Cook Start with

At the start of the keynote tomorrow, I'd like to hear Tim Cook say this:

You've seen all the coverage about hacked accounts and stolen private images and data. We at Apple are appalled about this and as soon as we were alerted, began days of auditing, and immediately fixed problems that abetted the password cracking related to iCloud that led to some of these breaches.
You trust us with your most personal details, and we take this seriously. The possession and disclosure of private data is a crime. Make no mistake: This isn't funny and the victims should not be blamed for trusting us and others. No one should be sniggering, shaming, or pointing figures. Criminals stole people's information and then released it. We will do everything in our power to assist law enforcement to track them down for prosecution.
We have already taken some steps, and in the next two weeks will take more. We can do better.

(Spoiler: he didn't.)