A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[META] What do you think about blogging?

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I’ve been thinking about the direction of A Bit More Detail, and my social media presence generally, quite a lot recently.

What do you think about blogging? You’re reading this: Why do you read this and other blogs? What do you want to get from them?

Written by Randy McDonald

August 29, 2016 at 9:40 pm

[NEWS] Some Friday links

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  • Bloomberg notes the recent challenge to one-family rule in Gabon, looks at Russia’s new Internet firewall, examines the Syrian Kurds’ withdrawal beyond the Euphrates, and reports on near-record migration into the United Kingdom.
  • Bloomberg View talks about inequality in China, looks at continuing disputes over Second World War history in Poland and Ukraine, and examines the things Texas and California have in common.
  • CBC reports on the impending release of a report on foreign workers, looks at the integration problems of Syrian refugees re: housing, and reports on Canada’s interest in more immigration from China.
  • The Inter Press Service notes how drought is hurting cocoa farmers in Cameroon.
  • MacLean’s looks at how some in the Conservative Party have not moved past same-sex marriage, describes how the new British Columbia tax on foreign buyers of real estate is deterring Chinese, and reports on the catastrophic potential of carbon release from melting permafrost.
  • National Geographic notes how the young generation sees Pluto and its classification history.
  • The National Post describes how design fans want the CBC to release its 1974 standards manual, and looks at controversy over a study claiming extensive support in mosques for extremist literature.
  • Wired has photos from the uninhabited cities of China, and describes the new prominence of the alt right.

[WRITING] “The lost infrastructure of social media”

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Some time ago, Bruce Sterling linked to Anil Dash’s essay (published at Medium) describing the many features of the early blogosphere that were lost in subsequent generations, but could plausibly be brought back.


As extraordinary as it seems now, there was a point when one could search most of the blogs in the world and get a reasonably complete and up-to-date set of results in return. Technorati was a pioneering service here, and started by actually attempting to crawl all of the blogs on the Internet each time they updated; later this architecture evolved to require a “ping” (see Updates, below) each time a site updated. On the current internet, we can see relatively complete search results for hashtags or terms within Twitter or some other closed networks, but the closure of Google Blog Search in 2011 marked the end of “blog search” as a discrete product separate from general web search or news search. It’s easy to imagine that modern search software and vastly cheaper hardware make it possible to recreate a search engine for frequently-updated sites like news sites and blogs, with domain-specific features that general tools like Google News don’t offer.


In the early days of blogging, not every publishing tool supported comments natively; as a result, third-party commenting services popped up to meet the need. As the major tools incorporated their own commenting features, comment services came to be used primarily by big publishers using unwieldy content management systems that didn’t natively support commenting features. In the earlier era, comment systems were built without anticipating the ways that online communities would grow, and these serious design flaws enabled the widespread abuse that we see online today. Newer tools seem to be trying to put the genie back in the bottle, but large publishers are increasingly shutting down comments entirely rather than investing in building a healthy community.


One category of interaction between sites that’s nearly disappeared is the idea of structured responses between different authors or even different sites. Though Medium supports a limited version of this feature today, early tools like Trackback and Pingback made it possible for almost any site to let another site know that their story or article had inspired a response. Typically, those responses were shown under an article, similar to comments, but once Google introduced its advertising platforms like AdSense, links between sites suddenly had monetary value and spam links soon followed. A modern reinvention of Trackback-style features could connect conversations on different websites in the same way that @ replies work on Twitter.

I would also mention, as Dash did, Friends pages like those of Livejournal.


Written by Randy McDonald

August 29, 2016 at 6:45 pm

[WRITING] “Journey between Two Languages”

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At Savage Minds, anthropologist Asmeret Ghebreigziabiher Mehari writes about the writing process for her, a multilingual person working in at least two very different cultural realms.

As a non-native learner and speaker of Amharic, English, and Swahili, I have taken several journeys between these languages and my mother tongue, Tigrinya. Considering geopolitical domination and subordination, the passages between Amharic and Tigrinya or Swahili and Tigrinya are fewer than between English and Tigrinya. However, all crossings have similar purposes: to improve my comprehension, speaking, reading, and writing skills of these languages. In writing this post, I have taken a journey that merges Tigrinya and English in the service of two critical questions: 1) what role would a journey between two languages play in the process of thinking and writing about decolonizing archaeology? 2) What would the traveler feel and experience?

This journey took a few days to begin answering these two questions, but the first two days make the foundation of this and any future journeys.

Day one: On a notebook using a mechanical pencil I wrote the title “ናጽነት ናይ ስነጥንቲ መጽናእቲ” in ትግርኛ (Tigrinya), a Semitic language spoken by around 7 million people from the central region of Eritrea and from the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. The literal translation of the title in English is: “liberating the study of ancient times”. Then I switched into English, and typed on the computer the tittle: “decolonizing archaeology”.

I continued in English. I wrote:

I am invited to write about decolonizing archaeology. I can write something; I have lived experience of becoming an African archaeologist. But my body feels stiff, and my mind refuses to think anything about archaeology. My inner voice is interrogating me: why should I write about something that is not even going to help most ordinary African people? Why should I write about decolonizing archaeology when the entire process of archaeology continues to be colonial? And why should I write about decolonizing archaeology in a lingua franca that still exhibits imperialism? For whom do I write it anyway? As my inner voice interrogates me, I feel numbed and frustrated. I also feel fear of judgement by my colleagues and probably jeopardizing my career. I feel lack of energy because I feel the systemic trap. I feel worthless. I have no source of income. If I can’t afford my basic daily needs, why should I care about archaeology? My passion for African Archaeology and my doctoral degree in Anthropology could mean nothing if I cannot earn a living from them.

I couldn’t take the negativity. I stopped there!

Written by Randy McDonald

August 29, 2016 at 6:00 pm

[WRITING] “Addressing the Dangers of Freelance Journalism”

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At the Inter Press Service, Valentina Ieri writes about the dangers faced by freelance journalists in many countries.

As the reliance on freelance journalists by news organisation has increased, so has the burden of guaranteeing a safe working environment for these journalists, especially when reporting from war-torn areas.

Since the civil uprise of the Arab Spring and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, reporters are facing increasing threats, from abduction, to imprisonment, kidnapping and ultimately murder. This situation affects not only individual journalists, but journalism sector more broadly.

In February 2015, several journalists organisations such as the Freelance Frontline Register (FFR) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), along with major news organisations and networks, wires, and journalist representatives launched altogether the ACOS (A Culture of Safety) Alliance: a coalition that tries to embed a culture of safety practices in the news industry and access to the tools that freelancers need to report safely.

[. . .]

Payment to freelancers and local journalists is important because it also effects their security, said Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director at CPJ.

“There are countless stories of freelancers who have to make a trade off to get security equipment, a good translator, or an armoured car…So news organisations have the moral responsibility to freelancers essentially to treat them in the same way that they would treat their own staff,” Radsch told IPS.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 29, 2016 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Popular Culture, Writing

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[WRITING] “Blogs, Papers, Plagiarism and Bitcoin”

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Neuroskeptic provides an astonishing example of how some scholars were able to get away very lightly with apparently plagiarizing a blog post about Bitcoin, because it was a blog post.

Retraction Watch reports on a strange case of alleged plagiarism.

In February 2016, F1000Research published a paper called How blockchain-timestamped protocols could improve the trustworthiness of medical science. The authors, Greg Irving and John Holden, demonstrated the use of the bitcoin blockchain as a way of publicly verifying the existence of a certain document at a certain point in time. This approach, they say, could be used to make preregistered research protocols more secure. A problem with preregistration is that it requires a trusted central authority to securely store the protocols. To overcome this, Irving and Holden suggested using the distributed bitcoin network to timestamp documents.

The method involves hashing the document containing the protocol, and then using the hash value as a password (private key) to create a new bitcoin account. By transferring a nominal sum of bitcoins into the new account, a permanent data trail is created, all across the worldwide bitcoin network, which anyone can later use to verify that the hash value was used on the network at that particular time. Because the hash value is unique to a particular document (even a change of one character would totally change the hash), this serves as a tamper-proof way of verifying preregistration.

It’s a clever idea – repurposing the bitcoin network to help make science more rigorous. But it turns out that it wasn’t Irving and Holden’s idea. Back in August 2014, a blogger called Benjamin Gregory Carlisle wrote a post called Proof of prespecified endpoints in medical research with the bitcoin blockchain. In this piece, Carlisle proposed the hash document/create bitcoin account/transfer nominal sum system as a way of verifying preregistration in science. He provided a step by step guide to how to do it. Yet Irving and Holden didn’t cite or acknowledge Carlisle’s post at all. In fact, they implied that the idea was theirs e.g. they wrote that “we propose” the blockchain scheme.

Reading both documents makes it clear that intellectually speaking, the F1000Research paper is very closely based on Carlisle’s blog post. The main difference is that Carlisle simply proposed the idea, while Irving and Holden actually tried it out in practice – but what they tried was 100% Carlisle’s idea. Also, in terms of the text, the paper contained some passages which are strikingly similar to Carlisle’s post.

Much more is at Neuroskeptic.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 29, 2016 at 5:15 pm

[WRITING] “On Editing, Blogging, Writing, Working”

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Cheri Lucas Rowlands’ July essay about her experiences as an editor and writer caught my attention.

Last week on Longreads, I edited and published an essay by Richard Gilbert, “Why I Hate My Dog.” It’s a piece about Richard’s rescue dog, Belle Krendl (and a bit about his previous dog, Jack Gilbert). I’ve never had a dog, and am very much a cat person — I still miss Striper, my cat from my childhood-to-early college years — but Richard’s essay touches on the larger bond between humans and their animals, and I was happy to have the opportunity to work on it.

I met Richard while working on my MFA in creative nonfiction at Goucher College, from 2005–07. Goucher’s MFA is a limited-residency program — our class of 2007 met in person over a few summers, during an intensive period of lectures and workshops on its lovely Maryland campus. Then, for each of our four semesters, we returned to our home bases — across the US, in South Africa, in Switzerland, and other locations — to dive into writing, reading, and working on our manuscripts. We were assigned to a different mentor each semester, who then led a small group of writers. Richard and I got to know each other in our third semester, while working under author and River Teeth cofounder Joe Mackall.

I’ve written in the past about how I’ve felt I wasn’t ready for that MFA program, but ten years later, I still don’t feel I’m ready. Actually, scratch that — if I were given the opportunity to do another MFA or other sort of immersive writing experience, I’d probably not take it. You have to want to write. You need that drive, that passion. I had both then; I don’t have either now. But that’s a post for another time. (Or maybe I’ve written it before?)

“Why I Hate My Dog” is here.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 29, 2016 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Popular Culture, Writing

Tagged with ,


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