[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
Happy new year! Welcome to the first Long Links of 2021; this is a monthly curation of long-form pieces that I, due to being semiretired, have time to read. Probably, most people reading this have less time, but perhaps one or two will add value even for a busy person.
The last month of the year is an invitation to best-of pieces. Music is probably my chief recreation so I’m a sucker for this kind of piece. In The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich’s The Best Music of 2020 showed me a couple of musical paths I hadn’t been aware of. Is it weird that every single best-music-of-the-year piece featured 79-year-old Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways? Then over at Discogs there’s The Most Popular Live Albums of 2020; close to my heart, since most of my very favorite recordings over the years have been live. Of particular note: The “Saucerful of Secrets” show that Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason took on the road in 2019 and I enjoyed.
Erstwhile NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is now a publisher. He labels his flavor of activism “Abolitionism” and it’s strong stuff. This is a big collection of big pieces and even I haven’t made time for all of it. Abolition for the People is a good place to start.
The EU’s Digital Markets Act: There Is A Lot To Like, but Room for Improvement by Cory Doctorow and Christoph Schmon, is what it says on the label. Full of useful detail on what they’re up to over there. I read through the list of proposed reforms, reacting with “well, of course” to most, and then as the list got longer and longer and longer I realized how screwed-up the Internet economy is right now and how urgent the case is for radical reform.
Speaking of screwed-up, So *that's* how Breitbart is still making money, on the BRANDED substack, offers a tour of the grimy underbelly of how Internet ads are sold and how unscrupulous operators can arrange to sell ads while making it very hard for buyers to ascertain where their money is going. More reasons, were any needed, to think that the system needs blowing up and rebuilding from scratch.
In 1982, I wrote a hundred thousand lines of COBOL code. That’s not nearly as impressive as it sounds. First of all, COBOL is verbose. Second, this was the I/O module of a big airport-automation system with huge volumes of cut-n-paste code to provide a file abstraction over lots of different sources. In the rearview, I don’t even hate COBOL; there are things it’s good at. The Code That Controls Your Money, by Clive Thompson, is a highly readable tour through the history and culture of the trusty old language. The fact is that COBOL is still the incumbent technology in much of the finance sector, and Thompson has lots of smart things to say about the business effects, some of which surprised me.
Moving from old programming languages to a new one (Swift), here is a long entertaining Twitter thread, which begins “Alright folks, gather round and let me tell you the story of (almost) the biggest engineering disaster I’ve ever had the misfortune of being involved in. It’s a tale of politics, architecture and the sunk cost fallacy [I’m drinking an Aberlour Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch].” It’s a highly instructive tale of how Uber got themselves into big app-development crisis and then back out. Since I generally loathe the whole practice of dressing up labor-arbitrage operations as technology plays, and specifically loathe Uber, I think society might have been better served if they’d failed. But you have to have sympathy with the dev team.
The ergodicity problem in economics by Ole Peters, in Nature Physics, forsooth, is an important piece of work. It argues that current economics math is mostly broken because it makes entirely unjustified (and unjustifiable) assumptions of equilibrium. I did not take the time to stop and convince myself that I understood each equation, nor do I think I fully understand Peters’ alternative approach, but I found his criticism of the status quo compelling.
At the Columbia Journalism Review, Why Democrats lose on social media while Republicans lie and win big is subtitled By dominating Facebook, the world’s largest media platform, the GOP demonizes the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal, which should actually be a pretty easy program to sell, politically, now polls horribly when its name is mentioned. This piece dives into why that is and ends with a plea for progressives to focus on viral storytelling techniques. As a blogger, how can I disagree?
Let’s take an astrophysical excursion. Regular readers have probably noticed that I’m fascinated by the Dark-Matter controversy. Among the most visible of the skeptics, and definitely among the most eloquent, is Stacy McGaugh, a prof at Case Western. Big Trouble in a Deep Void, on McGaugh’s blog but by three guest authors, takes an eye-opening look at the large-scale structure of the universe — there’s good evidence that our galaxy inhabits a billion-light-year-across volume with much lower matter density than the universe’s average; thus the “Deep Void”. The standard Astrophysical model, ΛCDM, says that can’t happen. The discussion quickly gravitates (snicker) to the Dark-Matter-vs-MOND controversy. I think most lovers of science have to enjoy situations where the best available theories totally don’t explain the best available observations because that means discoveries are there to be made. I enjoyed the hell out of this one.
Noah Smith’s Techno-optimism for the 2020s has been pretty widely linked-to and isn’t that long so you may already have read it. I hadn’t thought about the larger-scale subject but the essay makes some strong points. In particular, and I quote, “But now, for the first time since the 60s, technology is going to make energy cheaper. ”
Ladies, gentlemen, and others, Section 230 is very important. As I write this, repealing it has become a Republican priority because it makes much of Big Tech possible and conservatives hate technology because it occasionally reflects progressive values. I’m not going to explain what Section 230 is or what it does, because Sue Holpern does so very well in How Joe Biden Could Help Internet Companies Moderate Harmful Content. The headline is lousy, it should be something like “The pros and cons of Section 230 and some plausible things to do to improve the situation.” Few Internet-related subjects are more important.
Few subjects, generally, are more important than that of truth and lies and how our widespread failure to discern between them is driving most of our important public pathologies. Jonathan Rauch, back in 2018 (but I didn’t notice it then) refers to this as “the problem of social epistemology” and in The Constitution of Knowledge, has really a lot of smart things to say on the subject. To start with: It’s not that, among educated people, we have huge genuine disagreements as to what the truth is; it’s that 21st-century conservatives have discerned that if they entirely abandon any regard for truth, they can score valuable political points by weaponizing falsehood at Internet scale. This piece is big and smart and eloquent. I quote: “There is nothing new about disinformation. Unlike ordinary lies and propaganda, which try to make you believe something, disinformation tries to make you disbelieve everything.”
Speaking of big lies, among the biggest are those that are driving the current Bitcoin bubble. In that menagerie of whoppers, among the biggest are those surrounding Tether. Patrick McKenzie offers Tether: The Story So Far which tells the awful truth (really, it is) in entertaining detail. If you haven’t already dumped your Bitcoin, you will after reading this.
Not all the big lies are about money. For example, QAnon. Reed Berkowitz’s A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon tries, not to explain QAnon because who could, but to examine some of the dynamics of how and why it survives and infests so many minds. Useful.
The antidote to lies should be facts. But that doesn’t seem to be working well. Given that, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds is obviously highly material to our current predicament. I’m not going to try to summarize because it respects the complexity of the subject and doesn’t hurry up in an effort to produce a sound bite. It’s full of quantitative social science; one researcher is quoted as saying “ways of thinking that now seem self-destructive must at some point have been adaptive.” Yep.
Look, I acknowledge that expressions of concern about Facebook and its ilk are not exactly new. But Adrienne LaFrance’s Facebook is a Doomsday Machine provide an excellent overview of the problem. I quote: “The social web is doing exactly what it was built for.” One really refreshing notion offered here is that Facebook, and social media generally, are just too freaking big. I can think of things that could be done about that.
Eric Alterman has been an intelligent, acerbic voice of the Left (and a really good rock-music critic) for many many years. During the last twenty-five of those years he’s been the media critic for The Nation. Look Beyond the Media Frenzy and Focus on the Fundamentals is his farewell column and it says things we need to be listening to. He’s not neutral or balanced at all: “If we look beneath the surface of our elections, we see a culture of plutocracy that has enabled the creation of an autocracy based on a foundation of purposeful dishonesty”.
I’ve long been interested in the economics of Internet publishing, and so should anyone who’s interested in the quality of our intellectual discourse as a civilization. Talking Points Memo is a twenty-year-old progressive-political blog that has morphed into a viable company and stayed alive, which is more than you can say about most such startups. Part of their 20th-anniversary celebration, The Business of TPM looks at how and why they survived while so many others didn’t.
Now for something much lighter-hearted: A fairy tale! No really, with a Cinderella-meets-Game-of-Thrones flavor: Stepsister. The way I found this is by impulse-grabbing a recent issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction from the library, then reading and recommending a nice story by Leah Cypess, which led me to her website, and thence to this story. Enjoy!
Speaking of stories, someone is writing a real-time alternate history of the future on Twitter, called Real-Time WW3 from 2033. It’s a little awkward, you have to start by scrolling all the way to the bottom then working your way back up. Some parts of the story fail my suspension-of-disbelief test, but a whole lot of it is clever, and I find the style vivid.