Google Translate, sanction bingo, Humans of New York, houseplants, snake oil and war tourism
Hi friends. Today is March 11, 2022.
We’re still in the midst of the first TikTok war. But hear me out for just a minute: It might be the first Google Translate war, too.
Google Translate is in no way new — the computer-assisted translation service launched in 2006 and has played a role in conflicts (of all kinds!) before. But in the past six years, and since 2020 especially, Google Translate has grown a lot more accurate. And thus, a lot more useful to angry, bewildered people around the world, hoping to communicate with Russians themselves.
Many of these conversations play out on a small scale, between individuals, like this Twitter exchange about media literacy and propaganda between a Russian game developer and a Canadian woman. (“How cool is it that we can talk to others halfway around the globe in languages we don’t speak” a third user wrote.)
Since March 4, an initiative called Squad3o3 has also tried to replicate those types of conversations at scale. The project, which is affiliated with the hacker collective Anonymous, has released tools that let people send text messages and emails to random Russians, with the hope of combating Russian propaganda. They claim that, as of March 7, five million texts had been sent.
Jumping on that bandwagon, Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, recently encouraged his 735,000 followers to “flood” Russian review sites and comments sections with pro-Ukraine, Russian-language messages. (If you’re looking for ideas, my husband tells me lots of Russians use the chess.com app!)
I’m not sure how persuasive these janky, computer-translated warnings will ultimately be, since the Google engine still has significant, self-admitted flaws. A 2021 study found that Translate isn’t reliable enough, in most languages, to communicate important and/or complex information, and U.S. courts and public health agencies have reached similar conclusions.
Still, tests that pit computers against native-speaking humans have found that Google is closing the gap. Since 2016, some languages have gained more than 10 points on the 100-point BLEU scale, which is sort of like a Turing test for computer translation. In other words, Google Translate is markedly more useful now than it was in Crimea or Yemen or Gaza or Iraq just a few years ago.
So: Если в аудитории есть русскоязычные, пожалуйста, ответьте и дайте мне знать, если это ерунда.
If you read anything this weekend
“How Humans of New York Found a New Mission,” by Lisa Miller in New York Magazine. Brandon Stanton got famous 12 years ago by packaging strangers’ lives into nice, shareable tidbits; he is now famous and rich and using his metastasizing street-photo empire to raise money for its subjects. On its face, that seems good. It is good! But it feels pretty bad. Read the profile and you’ll see what I mean by that.
“Amateur Open-Source Researchers Went Viral Unpacking the War in Ukraine,” by Leo Schwartz in Rest of World. The most surprising thing about these OSINT hobbyists is that their research … often seems pretty good? Also, to my previous point, some use Google Translate to connect with Ukrainians on Twitter!!
“The Infinite Reach of Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s Man in Washington,” by Benjamin Wofford in Wired. Joel Kaplan may be the most powerful person you’ve never heard of: As Facebook’s VP of global public policy, he has extraordinary influence in Washington and commands an army of policy staff shaping social media laws around the world. Also, he’s buddies with Bret Kavanaugh and was on the ground at the Brooks Brother riot (!). So, you know … that explains a lot.
“This Texas Town Was Deep In Debt From A Devastating Winter Storm. Then A Crypto Miner Came Knocking,” by Sarah Emerson in Buzzfeed. Citizens of Denton, Texas, didn’t want to live in the new crypto capital of America … but Core Scientific promised millions of dollars in exchange for a massive, crypto-mining data center. One take: crypto saved them! Alternate take: crypto strong-armed a small town into doing its bidding, and it might repeat that move in other places.
“The Short, Strange, Very Predictable Story of Caroline Calloway’s Snake Oil,” by Anna Merlan in Vice. TL;DR: It was, in fact, snake oil, in the traditional sense! But God bless Merlan for filing FOIAs and ordering lab analyses for it.
👉 ICYMI: The most-clicked link from last week’s newsletter was this feature on how bras changed during the pandemic.
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The architects building for VR. The DAOs that aren’t going as planned. My main takeaway from this bot is that pay-gap disclosures are awesome. The second coming of the video essay. The tragic death of Chowhound. It’s lit. “Lettuce chips.” Wordle, but for songs.
Why disinformation may be worse on TikTok. A history of houseplants. Printable lipstick, yacht-seizure bingo and the cult of confidence. The Russian influencers standing with Ukraine. The ruler of an empire of DIY Airbnbs. Kickstarter’s new most-funded project is … not beloved by everybody! Inside r/VolunteersforUkraine. “I am a pimple on the butt of an elephant when it comes to Amazon.” No surprise that Q loves Z. (Bonus link on the Z phenomenon!) The case for keeping Russia online. Teaching soft skills in VR. Last but not least: I can’t believe anyone cares about this outside media, but if I’m wrong — here’s the only good take, by Elizabeth Spiers.
That’s it for this week! Until the next one. Warmest virtual regards.