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Welcome to the Long Links look-back at January 2021. Once again I assemble long-form pieces that I’m fortunate enough to have time for due to my lightly-employed condition. Probably few have time (or inclination) to plow through all this stuff, but one or two might reward your time.

I can’t imagine anyone reasonably literate not having enjoyed reading John Le Carré, and I really enjoyed My Dinners with le Carré. It seems like he was a very decent and very impressive human being. I neglected to read a few of his later books but I’ll go back and do so. My favorite under-appreciated Le Carre is The Little Drummer Girl; what’s yours?

For a variety of reasons I’ve been studying the larger issues around content moderation. Mike Masnick offers Masnick's Impossibility Theorem: Content Moderation At Scale Is Impossible To Do Well. It isn’t that long, but it’s important and his argument is powerful. He’s not arguing for giving up on moderation, either.

State of CSS Report 2020, by Raphaël Benitte and Sacha Greif, is delightful. I have a vexed relationship with CSS. I admire what it can do, and I’d like to do some of those things in the space that you’re now reading, but damn it’s hard; the days when you could View-Source and dope it out are way past us. Maybe one of these years I’ll go to school full-time for a few months, which I think you need to do these days to get on top of CSS.

Just possibly you enjoy sci-fi and haven’t read any Gene Wolfe. Oh my goodness; stop whatever it is you’re doing and go pick up The Devil in a Forest or The Fifth Head of Cerberus or The Book of the New Sun. [Those are Amazon Affiliate links, careful.] Gene Wolfe Turned Science Fiction Into High Art gives those of us who already know about Mr Wolfe a quick tour through his life, pretty prosaic to be honest, and his slow, slow path to the very top of his genre’s heap. I hadn’t known that the Fifth Head was a very early work — I’ve been known to argue that it may be the finest sci-fi novel ever written.

George Orwell famously wrote “The object of power is power” and he was right, but money is a pretty powerful object too. To the extent that all around the world people exercise power to enrich themselves in ways entirely contemptuous of legality and morality. Thus Countering Global Kleptocracy: A New US Strategy for Fighting Authoritarian Corruption is highly relevant. It offers specific recommendations for the incoming US administration. I think this is important because not only is crushing corruption good for the planet’s civic health, but it’s good politics too. Some (not all) of the targets are soft, but all are worthy of determined attack.

Look, at this point in history I’m not going to defend my habit of watching the NFL. I tried to give it up but fell off the wagon, partly because I so loved playing football in my youth. At certain points, certain humans can do things that are beautiful and shocking and just unimaginably excellent, and just at this moment Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is such a person. What Makes Patrick Mahomes So Great is an extended statistics-backed appreciation of why.

Another thing I’m not going to particularly defend is my audiophilia. One of the underappreciated benefits of being a devotee of good sound is reading the High-End HiFi magazines, notably Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. Yes, the front part of the magazine enthuses over overpriced shiny boxes, but you know what? It turns out audiophiles tend to have excellent taste in music, and I’ve discovered many of my favorites in the back pages of those magazines. Every year, Stereophile offers a recommendation roll-up: Records to Die For 2021 is the most recent. A must-read for music lovers.

You hear it on the Internet: “Pictures or it didn’t happen!”. How about “Pictures and it didn’t happen!” Because images are just a bunch of bits which can be and regularly are faked. On top of which, certain “enhancement” techniques routinely applied by professionals come just this side (maybe) of fakery. Anyhow, using technology to automate a reliable provenance chain for images has to be a good thing. Adobe and certain partners have been working on this for a while and results are starting to decloak: The Content Authenticity Initiative shows its first real-world samples of CAI-attributed images. Check it out if you care about pictures and also the truth.

Here is a treat. I’m With Her is Sara Watkins (violin, guitar and ukulele), Sarah Jarosz (banjo, mandolin, octave mandolin and guitar), and Aoife O'Donovan (keyboard and guitar), all of whom are fine, successful musicians. I’m With Her — Live at House of Blues (from May 2019) is eighty minutes of music not one second of which is dispensable. There were half a dozen occasions when I found myself tearing up or closing my eyes to listen harder. The songs, the singing, and the playing are beyond awesome. A few of the mandolin/fiddle breaks may overheat your speakers. I can’t wait for there to be concerts again.

'Our souls are dead': how I survived a Chinese 're-education' camp for Uighurs is by Gulbahar Haitiwaji. Never forget this is happening. Never excuse any official representative or unofficial lackey of China’s barbaric regime. There can’t be enough reminders so here’s another. Read it and be angry.

I’ve been blogging since 2003 and the single piece I’m proudest of is Just Too Efficient from May last year. Efficiency is the holy grail at all the institutions in the world where they train anyone to manage anything, and it’s just gone too far. Jeremy Schmall offers From Dayton, Ohio to Donald Trump Why our obsession with efficiency is incompatible with democracy, which is mining the same ground as my piece, but takes a very different and more personal angle. When every store is a mall and every vendor is a global monopoly we’re living in a bad place; getting there involves a successive reduction in the number of choices we have available as citizens. And leads, as Schmall argues, to consequences which include Donald Trump.

Sorry, I can’t let a month go by without taking a whack at the slow-motion catastrophe that is cryptocurrency in 2021. I’m a little nervous about linking to The Bit Short: Inside Crypto’s Doomsday Machine because its author chooses to stay anonymous. But the reportage smells like truth to me.

The title Once & Future Bride of the Sea refers, not to what you think it might, but to Jaffa, an interesting city on Israel’s Mediterranean coastline. It’s on YouTube, a half-hour walking tour offered by Sami Abou Shehadeh, a Palestinian Israeli citizen and Jaffa city councillor, in Hebrew (with subtitles). Yes, of course it’s drenched in the Israeli/Palestinian trail of tears; how could it be otherwise? But Sami’s a charming host and it’s a scenic place and I think might expand many minds.

Of all the legal hammers that need to be applied to reform Big Tech, I think the highest priority should be given to beating up Google and Facebook to unfuck the advertising business and give 21st-century journalism a fighting chance. Not convinced? Read Behind a Secret Deal Between Google and Facebook and I suspect you’ll understand why I’m so dogged on this subject.

I bet you didn’t expect to find a lengthy release from the Trump White House in here. I refer to Statement from the Press Secretary Regarding Executive Grants of Clemency, which describes all of the last-minute pardons granted by That Asswipe as he shuffled off to Florida. I don’t know why I popped it open but I found it oddly compelling and read the whole thing. At some level, it casts a useful light on American dysfunction from a novel direction.

Researchers release massive Twitter dataset of voter fraud claims is not actually a long piece, but it’s about a massive database. I think the fact that the Republicans were able to mount and sustain an entirely-false legend that the 2020 election was stolen, and get literally tens of millions of Americans to believe it, illuminates a central problem of modern civic society: How do you promote truth and fight falsehood? Understanding how this happened is important. Which we don’t yet, but here’s the data you need to work on the problem.

I’m not sure why this was in The Financial Times. In California, a journey to the end of the road is a lyrical, beautifully-photographed visit to California’s Salton Sea, which most would regard as something of a hellscape. Now it’s a place where you can live for free and not starve. If you don’t mind the landscape. Compelling.

There’s this guy called Will Wilkinson who’s a fine writer and tries to be an American Centrist, a tough row to hoe these days. He’s politically well to my right, but I tend to read whatever he writes because it’s always smart and good. Anyhow, he used to be a staffer at the Niskanen Center, which tries to be institutionally centrist. Until, last month, he tweeted “If Biden really wanted unity he’d lynch Mike Pence.” Which is cruel and tasteless and funny and got him fired. It didn’t take him long to launch his own Substack (of course), with Undefined Cancel Game. Did I mention good smart writing? This is that. Very good and very smart.

Another of my odd habits, of which not in the slightest bit ashamed, is a weakness for surf-guitar instrumentals. I’m not the only one worshipping this flame, thank goodness; check out Top 10 Modern Bands Keeping Surf Rock Alive And Well In 2019. This is happy, happy music and we can all use that.

Speaking of things that are good and happy, let’s close with The Women of Wikipedia Are Writing Themselves Into History. I’m in awe of these woman and of what they’ve accomplished. They deserve everyone’s support.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Ethan (Feb 01 2021, at 14:40)

I'm really enjoying your long links posts - the connections between topics and trains of thought are great. Thanks!


From: Andrew Reilly (Feb 01 2021, at 19:02)

I agree with Masnick's Impossibility Thorem in principle, but I find myself inclined to disagree in the practical outcome. Yes it's impossible to do perfectly, but just like voting, it's better than the alternatives. He also brought up the subject of spam in open spaces, which is interesting, because I'd suggest that spam is a problem that most people who were on the internet in the 90's and '00s would argue has been largely "solved". Not with one silver bullet, but it's not the pipe-clogging problem that it once was, and we can get on productively with our lives. Spam filtering _is_ content moderation, even when it relies heavily on source identity and reputation mechanisms.

I understand that the content moderation in question here is of a different nature than the spam/ham decision. Questions of what is true or a lie are not something that (I think) that our AIs are up to yet, and may never be. Same for questions of what is "hate speech", or "denigrating" or dozens of other plausible reasons to exclude.

The cat is out of the bag though. By "editing" the former US president out of social media, never mind editing out spam, the big socials have shown that editing is possible. Therefore they're publishers, and will probably be held to account, somehow. That will mean that they will change. That's probably OK too.

Benedict Evans had a good piece on the subject, on 17 January: "Online Speech and Publishing" (https://www.ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2021/1/17/speech-and-publishing) where he also started to tease out the question of where the line to "public" vs "private" comes, within forms of group communication.


From: Peter Sefton (Feb 01 2021, at 19:59)

We saw I'm with her in Sydney in an intimate venue in 2019 and it was truly stunning. By coincidence I happen to be wearing my Crooked Still T-Shirt (O'Donovan's' old 'chamber grass' band and one of my all time faves) as I write this.

Jarosz's 2020 album World on the Ground <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_on_the_Ground> is stunning - the songs are harmonically complex but not in a smart-arse way and the playing is beautiful. Bought the vinyl on pre-order and waited ages to for it to come in the COVID post, but of course we were listening to it on repeat on the streaming services while we waited. A lovely folky country album, and a real bright spot last year.


From: Rob (Feb 01 2021, at 20:32)

I read "The Bit Short: Inside Crypto’s Doomsday Machine" over closely, twice, but I might as well have been reading 19th Century German metaphysics. Each word, I understood, usually each phrase made sense, and sometimes I could even parse some meaning out of a sentence. But overall, I dunno, I've read easier to understand Kant essays.

The difficulty wasn't that the writing was dense or convoluted, it wasn't. But the whole bitcoin thing is of surpassing complexity and convolution. Which is of course, not a bug, but a feature. Like cruelty, the impermeability of the phenomena to human understanding is the point.

I was amused that the writer felt compelled to mention more than once that he himself had actually made substantial amounts of money in the free for all, as if the credibility of his criticism depended on his proven mastery of the swindle. Or at least that he wasn't just calling sour grapes.

Well, that, and I have never yet heard a person tell me of their Vegas vacation where they admitted to actually losing money, yet somehow Vegas still endures in all its tawdry glory. I bet more than one reader found themselves thinking that they too would be wise and clever, and beat the Ponzi. The suckers are always the other guys.


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