X,Y Coordinates

Some of the tools I’ve accumulated over the years lend themselves particularly well for teaching. I’ve gotten better at swooping in a classroom with some plotters and talking about math or machine drawing topics. I can make it very interactive.

One tool in particular is https://draw.mandalagaba.com.

It started not so much for teaching, but rather for collaborative art. Very much inspired by r/Place, I created a tool with real estate scarcity, but with my usual focus on drawing. The kicker would be that the art is rendered live on a plotter somewhere in the world, maybe in front of you in a public place, maybe a video stream and you know your pen strokes are executed by a machine thousands of miles away. You claim a square, coordinate with others to make bigger pieces, and a collaborative art piece is born. That was the idea at least. I’ve tried several permutations of this experiment, in public, on a stream, with various rules and online communities, and it simply never generated the enthusiasm I thought it would. I have 95% given up on the idea of a collaborative art piece of the sort. The big plotter still has me wondering hence the remaining 5%, but it is tedious and expensive to deploy for an experiment that has shown no promise at every iteration.

What this website became great for however is teaching as it allows for time sharing a drawing machine across several students. We can explore one concept or other, and then apply it and have the great motivator that we’ll get to control the machine by doing so. 3 years ago I taught a module on X,Y coordinates with the local 5th graders, I didn’t have this site then and it went fine. But the following year I figured I might as well use this dumb collaborative art website I made for something so I integrated it into the coursework. Now that second year The machine’s made an enormous difference in how students engage. Recently I ran this course for the 3rd year with the website and the magic happened again. Both times, kids were very much willing to go through teeth grinding (light X,Y coordinate based coding), and help each other out to see their work realized in the world by a cool machine. The first student that submits a drawing on the site inevitably has everyone jumping off their seat to see the machine move up close. Then they’re even more motivated to do it themselves. I help them with the mistakes they make at first, and once they get it I have a good half an hour of walking around and seeing the cool stuff they draw. During this time I might send one drawing machine on a more intricate plot that can finish quick. Having that plotter wield a pen expertly inevitably draws 2 or 3 kids who just sit and stare at the machine non-stop. I know what they’re going through. The whole experience has them asking so many questions, and I love interacting with the different ways in which they see the world. I also love the opportunity to get to know every kid in town a little better when they go through 5th grade.

I’m quite glad that these tools found a place in education. Sometimes I think of pushing further, there’s definitely something to this formula, and I know teachers often purchase various curricula or interventions that meet a standard or other. But I can’t push all the projects, and so far I’ve refused to let money taint anything plotter related.

Funnily enough, I even had an opportunity to guest lecture in the same way with college art students. Of course we don’t talk about 5th grade X,Y coordinates, and I’m not there to talk about art either. Rather we learn and employ tools and techniques for line art and single instrument machines. It’s only funny because I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been very dismissive of art (except music) my whole life. I never understood it and wasn’t a fan of the carefree personalities gravitating to it. I’ve seen the light now, and I do feel apologetic for the times someone showed me a something they had made and it went completely above my head. But I can’t say I was particularly impressed by the students. I’m definitely curious to try again and see if I can bridge more understanding. In the meantime, I have no issues resonating with 5th graders so I’ve got that going for me :). Except for keeping them focused, that is insanely hard.

Focus & Blur: Behavioral Inference & the Tattletale Browser

This web thing’s been bugging me for too long. Have you ever tried to background a tab that is playing insufferable & unskippable content, only to find out that the annoyance has paused itself until your eyeballs are known be aimed back at it? Why do browsers honor requests to let websites know if you’re paying attention or not?

This is achieved by relying on the focus and blur events. But there are many UI Elements that rely on them to trigger useful UI responses. Think of a suggestion box that shows up when you click in a search bar for example. The window element though, is one for which I cannot think of a single instance where the focus and blur events at are used to benefit the user. I think a well intended couple of events were generally implemented to every possible elements, but one of them reveals more than was intended and is abused to that effect. Why would ad-blocker not nuke them either? I’ve gone through this rabbit hole several times over the years trying to find an extension or adblocker customization to dismiss these events. Alas, they never seem to have made it into the crosshair as the true annoyance that they are. How do you like to have your browser report how good you are at consuming content as intended?

These events are responsible for more ills than making sure you’re watching, they are a key metric for inferring behavior. As with much of data mining, what’s scary isn’t really the information you’re giving away, it’s what can be inferred from it. In a way these attention events are perfectly suited for the attention age. Particularly though, they matter when they are attached to the window element. As far as I know, that is the only method I’ve seen in the wild that is abused into this purpose.

In any case, since I never could find anything, here’s what I came up with. The best way I found to run user JS on all websites is using Tampermonkey. Then here’s the script I’m running:

// ==UserScript==
// @name         Attention Event Nuker
// @namespace    http://tampermonkey.net/
// @version      2024-05-01
// @description  nukes focus and blur events when attached to the window element
// ==/UserScript==

(function() {
    var old_add_event_listener = EventTarget.prototype.addEventListener ;

    EventTarget.prototype.addEventListener = function(event_name, event_handler) {
        if( this.toString()==window.toString() &&
           (event_name=="blur" || event_name=="focus") ) {
            console.log( "attention event caught: " + event_name + " on: " + window.location.host ) ;
        } else {
            old_add_event_listener.call( this, event_name, event_handler ) ;
        }
    };
})();

Unfortunately I did run into a couple of sites that somehow rely on the events to even work properly. I don’t think I want to reverse engineer them 1 by 1 so I’m adopting a blacklist of sites which is a bit obnoxious. For a while I did have the script report which sites were asking for the events, the results weren’t surprising and showed that pretty much any big site with a baseline of behavioral data mining wants to know what your eyeballs are in front of.

Pi-hole

I don’t know why I didn’t deploy this before, but this is another case where Docker lowers the bar of entry and makes running this less of an ordeal.

10% of internet traffic at home is ads & trackers (well 10% of DNS queries but let’s not split hair).

This number is obviously higher in reality considering all the ads and trackers which DNS alone can’t tackle. Ublock Origin is still really busy after all.

There are 2 main drivers of these 10%. Unsurprisingly a 13 year old’s windows machine, he just wants to game but gaming now means being online and bundling in greedy vectors to your eyeballs. The other unsurprising culprit is an iPhone tied to social media. Without these 2 devices, we hover around 2% with 10+ various connected devices. With them we immediately jump to 10% of all home internet traffic being ads.

The real beauty of Pi-hole, is in being able to neuter various household “smart” devices. The printer which calls home and requires extra buttons presses to annoy us into a firmware update we don’t want. Screw you Epson. The connected TV which should have never been connected but the kids wanted Netflix, and oh surprise ads are now everywhere. Screw you Roku. Both are gone now. Pi-hole makes it very easy to see what clients are contacting and neuter it along with the millions, yes millions of worthless domains your home network will never see.

A few years back, I tried a more drastic approach doing a full network proxy with whitelist only. But that proved too cumbersome to setup and maintain. Specifically, the interconnectedness of everything. You can’t just allow one website through, it requires too many dependencies to be functional. I wish they had a concept degrees past whitelisted websites one can get to, but they didn’t. Say you whitelist wikipedia, and that lets anything it refers to through as well. I never found something that did, and I didn’t have time for another project. Pi-hole isn’t a panacea, but it strikes a great balance of effectiveness Vs ease of deployment.

I have no polite words for people wasting human potential on marketing. Nothing in the world was ever made better with marketing, its impact on society is strictly negative with no redeeming quality. It is a nefarious endeavor amplified by recent advances in technology. One of the most salient point I heard against it (I wish I remembered where) went like this: chess grand master Kasparov was overtaken by a computer in 1997. 27 years of exponential technological progress later, we now allow thousands of super computers to be pointed at our kids’ brains for persuasion. Do you really think they stand a chance?

Ads should be illegal. I understand we historically accepted them into society at a time when they were innocuous, but their dial was cranked so far up they are unjustifiable in their current form. There is no justification for using psychological trickery on children. People should risk prison for being so ill intended as to devise such machinations. And let’s not even get into how bad it’s been for public conversation to use them as a funding model for everything. There is a direct line between flailing western democracies and the outrage engines ad funding inevitably creates. Maybe it’s not the only line, but it’s definitely one of them. It’s a moral imperative to avoid ads.

Vermont has a road billboard ban. You don’t quite know why things feel better here until it’s pointed out to you. It was done so as not to stain the beauty of the state, thus preserving tourism. But a side effect is that it also removes an ambient layer of aggression and you can feel yourself relax driving into the state. Life is demonstrably better without ads.

Warning! We have detected that we need to monetize absolutely everything with ads. Lower the draw bridge, drop your shields, and let us aim an army of poorly vouched 3rd party marketing dickweeds at your family.

I love seeing these anti-ad-blockers popups for they show how they lost the arm’s race, and all they have left is making an inarguable case. What a pathetic position to find oneself into, all they can do is ask “pretty please let us keep harassing”. I have no doubt they’ll find more insidious ways soon enough.

All the respect in the world to ad blockers, and sites taking risks with principled funding models.