Welcome to the fourth monthly “Long Links” instalment, in which I take advantage of my lightly-employed status to enjoy high-quality long-form pieces and point out a few that seem worthwhile in the hope that you might fit one or two into your busier lives.
Truth has long been one of my obsessions and is a recurring theme in this blog. I’m contemplating something really long-form on the subject. It occurred to me that there might be a Wikipedia entry on Truth and wow, is there ever. I enjoyed reading it.
The only systems of thought I know of that dare a claim to dispense absolute truth are religions. They are growing small and weak, as described by In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace from the Pew Research Center. I’m not religious and have little sympathy for the intellectual gymnastics of those who defend their faiths, but our society’s architecture assumes the power of religion in mostly-unspoken ways, so we can’t expect its diminishment to be entirely side-effect free.
The Internet is for End Users is a document that Mark Nottingham, long time co-chair of the HTTP work at the IETF (pretty important stuff), has been circulating for a while and is now RFC 8890. I quote: “When there is a conflict between the interests of end users of the Internet and other parties, IETF decisions should favor end users.” Sounds simple but the implications are profound.
Recently the acronym “WEIRD” has been getting traction. Read about it in Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory which is a review of The Weirdest People in the World; How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich. The acronym stands for: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.
One of the Internet’s biggest problems, thus also a concern for society, is the deeply dysfunctional state of online advertising, which has made it essentially impossible to build a new ad-supported publishing operation because the Google/Facebook duopoly has sucked all the profit out of the system. Anything that can ameliorate this is a Big Deal. In Wired, Can Killing Cookies Save Journalism? describes an experiment that suggests a way forward, and also includes a useful explainer on the shape of the problem.
Another dive into the troubled waters of ad-supported anything is Facebook-Google Duopoly Won’t Crack This Year in eMarketer. Quote: “By the end of next year, nearly 70% of US digital ad dollars will end up with one of the three leading ad sellers.” Ouch.
There are plenty of ideas out there on reconstituting the journalistic ecosystem and I suppose a Socialist approach deserves a look; so look no further than Big Tech Can’t Save Journalism. Democratic Socialism Can. In Jacobin because of course.
My former employer has certainly become a hot target for aggressive journalists and civic-society activists. Being the world’s most powerful company, and simultaneously one that touches nearly everyone’s life, will do that. I still think that Amazon is a symptom not the problem, so I enjoyed Amazon’s Unrestrained Power Is a Threat to the European Social Model, a set of recommendations from a cross-European labor congress, whch echoes that message. The piece begins, and I quote: “Using Amazon as an example of how dominant online platforms use their vast market power to avoid taxes, squeeze small and medium-sized businesses, engage in price dumping and drag down labour conditions…”
Amazon may be just a symptom, but sometimes the symptoms can hurt pretty badly. Writing at the Center For Investivative Reporting’s Reveal, Will Evans offers How Amazon hid its safety crisis, which subsequently featured on the front page of the Seattle Times. It is very damning, and easily explained as a consequence of the pathologies I wrote about in Just Too Efficient.
Have you ever done arithmetic in a calculator, either a physical one or the app on your phone, and got an answer that should be simple but ends in .00000001 or .9999999? Adrian Colyer’s Toward an API for the real numbers, in his wonderful the morning paper blog, discusses a paper by Hans Boehm that explains how to avoid those funny numbers. Now unless you’re pretty damn geeky, this is going to go right by you. But a whole lot of computer programmers (including me) have learned painfully that the base-2 numbers inside our computers have an often-dysfunctional relationship with the base-10 numbers inside our brains. Boehm’s work is a mathematically rigorous assault on the problem and includes a practical exposition, namely his code, currently working well in half a billion Android devices, producing no .000001’s or .99999’s.
Remember the “Cancel Culture” letter in Harper’s back in July? I think I’m not alone in having intense discomfort around aspects of this debate. The vast majority of people who got deplatformed seemed to pretty clearly deserve it. And many of the people shouting “cancel culture!” are doing so in bad faith. On the other hand, any system where changes of direction occur is subject to hysteresis, and there have been cases where I thought the trigger fingers a bit over-itchy. It’d be nice to draw general conclusions but I don’t feel smart enough. Apparently the people who signed the Harper’s letter did feel that smart. John F. Harris, in Politico, offers Head Cases: The Psychology Behind the Cancel Culture Debate, which is considerably more nuanced than the typical words on the subject. I felt better informed after reading it.
Politics these days is exciting, and not in a good way. Here’s a calming but radical idea in The New Republic, well summarized by its title: What If Democrats Just Promised to Make Things Work Again?. Government is (or should be) much more about administration than ideology, so administering well should be a key goal of anyone who claims to care about Good Government. To be fair to the Republicans who’ve been mismanaging America to the tune of a couple hundred thousand fatalities, they’ve never really acknowledged that Good Government is actually a thing.
Finally, Sabine Hossenfelder is one of the most lucid science analysts out there. She’s a physicist and cosmologist and usually stays pretty close to home. But not always; an example would be Path Dependence and Tipping Points, which explains some important and not-well-known-enough math but ends up with extremely sobering observations about the Climate Emergency and the IPCC’s work on it. Deep stuff.