[This fragment is available in an audio version.]
Welcome to the August 1st edition of “Long Links”, which assembles long-form pieces that I have the luxury of enjoying due to semi-retirement. Nobody with a real job has time to read all this stuff, but one or two items might enrich your life without burning too many minutes. Note: There was no July 1st Long Links because either I was busier or the world’s long-form authors less prolific in June. Highlights this time out: Taxing wealth, attacking Amazon, guitar music, and God.
Many people have come to share the belief that the global distribution of wealth (and consequently, power) is so stupidly unequal as to be damaging to our economy and civic fabric. (I’m one of them.) What sort of policies might most effectively accomplish redistribution? The obvious answer is: tax. But it’s complicated.
Here’s useful little Twitter thread on basic income-tax dodging. For a much deeper look, check out Pro Publica’s The Secret IRS Files: Trove of Never-Before-Seen Records Reveal How the Wealthiest Avoid Income Tax. Also, in Mother Jones: It’s Not Just Income Taxes. Billionaires Don’t Pay Inheritance Taxes Either.
So, what to do? There seems to be growing political will. Sharon Zhang at Truthout offers “Tax the Rich” Gains Momentum After Explosive Report on Billionaire Tax Dodging. The simplest possible approach would be a wealth tax, something like a fraction of a percentage point for holdings over a threshold such as $20M. Problem: That might well be unconstitutional in the US. So here’s a plausible alternative, a tax on unrealized capital gains: Don’t wait for billionaires to sell their stock. Tax their riches now.
Speaking of redistribution, The Economist, by most measures the best-written business-friendly news provider, surprised me with Workers on the march, which notes a rising tide of working-class economic dissatisfaction, and even allows that the workers may have a gripe. I’ve been a subscriber to the rag for decades, and can testify that The Economist has been one of loudest voices cheering on the growing imbalance over those years. Time after time they would call for “painful but necessary reform” and time after time, what they were calling for were changes to increase the power of employers and reduce that of workers. This is perhaps not the single best-written piece on this now-popular subject, but the fact of its existence feels significant.
Let’s move on to the Middle East. The (hopefully final) exit of Netanyahu from the center of Israeli politics is the biggest story in many years. For good solid analysis see The transformative legacy of Mr. Status Quo in +972, which is becoming one of my favorite sources for IsraPal reportage. (972 is the telephone country code for Israel.) For more on the subject, see the always-excellent Peter Beinart’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Father of our Illiberal Age.
Enough about the political world; let’s talk about serious stuff, namely music. Pitchfork, in its inimitably-overwritten style, offers many many words on Black Sabbath: Paranoid. Which, yes, is serious music.
A few months ago I published a few words somewhere about how much I enjoy surf-guitar instrumentals. Within a day or two I got the nicest email agreeing with me and offering to send me some. I was delighted and received an impeccably-packaged, beautifully played collection entitled Ancient Winds, from The Madeira. If the drums were mixed a little further forward, it’d be better, but it’s very good, the guitar-playing is exquisite. The maddening thing is that when I started to write this section, I totally failed to find the correspondence in my email, so I can’t thank the kind gentleman who sent me the record. Sorry and, if it was you, thanks!
Away from music, back to less-serious stuff. These days we are much troubled by the evangelists for and believers in conspiracy theories. Which leaves many of us shaking our heads: How can anyone believe that ridiculous crap?! Over at 538, Kaleigh Rogers and Jasmine Mithani try to explain, in Why People Fall For Conspiracy Theories. I thought it was compelling and useful.
No “Long Links” would be complete without something on the onrushing climate emergency. I offer some less-terrible-than-usual rhetoric: How the U.S. Made Progress on Climate Change Without Ever Passing a Bill.
One of the major news stories in the technology sphere was the drum-roll of draft legislation out of Representative Cicilline’s congressional committee aimed at reforming and constraining the Big Tech sphere, perhaps by breaking up a few of them. The Cicilline Salvo from Ben Thompson is a good introductory overview. John Gruber reacts, predictably, against the notion of breaking up Apple. He’s wrong, but always worth reading. David Heinemeier Hansson’s overview, Here comes the law, stands out by taking a close look at how this might affect software developers. (Spoiler: It’d be great!)
Speaking of developers, most organizations that employ them are now trying to figure out specifically whether they need to come back to the office and, more generally, what the future of the profession looks like. Steven Sinofsky, who at various times has run Windows and Office for Microsoft, offers Creating the Future of Work. I’d call it generally optimistic, and usefully cynical in noting that you can argue in theory, or you can buckle down and ship working technology, and “They who ship, win.” I don’t agree with all of it but was very glad to have read it.
Regular readers know of my ongoing fascination with the long-ongoing conundrum of whether Dark Matter, a theoretically-useful construct, actually exists. Testing galaxy formation and dark matter with low surface brightness galaxies casts still more doubt on whether it’s really out there.
Now, I’m not sure whether this next piece should be read as politics or comedy. National Review is one of the bastions of the American Right, although they are these days occasionally anti-Trump. Political Discrimination as Civil-Rights Struggle laments the decline of conservative respectability at universities, prestige publications, and the other habitats of the educated elite. The author bemoans the unwillingness of university women to date conservatives, and (as the title suggests) sees this as a civil-rights issues, the young Trumpkins unjustly starved of feminine company. There’s lots here to laugh at, but if you’re interested in how a (relatively) thoughtful section of the right wing sees the world, this covers that waterfront pretty well. There’s little risk it’ll change your mind on anything important, but some things that don’t make sense might become a bit more comprehensible.
Hey, let’s talk about another subject close to my heart: Making the Internet work better. There hasn’t been a time in my memory when Cory Doctorow hasn’t been active on the side of the angels. At the EFF site he’s published Adversarial Interoperability, an overview of his work with a whole lot of links to really good pieces of that work.
What is the Internet, anyhow? It’s not a thing or a place. In fact, it’s a collection of incredibly detailed and boring documents, published by the World Wide Web Consortium and the IEEE, but mostly by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). These documents provide the information a programmer needs to make any piece of software or hardware connect to any Internet endpoint or service, usually without asking permission or making any payments. They are now a central component of humanity’s intellectual heritage. The Internet isn’t pefect — mistakes were made, as the saying goes — but by and large things work. The days when this sort of independent professional/technical organization could make all the rules may be ending because, like it or not, governments now think this stuff is too important to leave to the geeks. It doesn’t matter whether or not you or I agree. One of the few people who’s worked as long or as hard as Cory on making the Net better is Mark Nottingham (mnot), and he’s coming from a deep well of hands-on experience in How the Next Layer of the Internet is Going to be Standardised. If you care about the Net you should read this.
Since we’re talking about the Internet, let’s turn to my former employer Amazon, which is not having a good 2021 in public-image terms (financially it’s doing just fine).
While it’s true that I rage-quit the company last year, I’ve never seen myself as an enemy of Amazon, as such. I see the company more as a symptom of the hideously-imbalanced state of the global twenty-first economy. It’s a company that (I thought) plays by the rules. The problem is that those rules are so broken that the results are often hideous. In my experience on the AWS side, the company was intelligently and humanely managed, did a great job for its customers, and was by far not the worst place in Big Tech to work.
But these last few months, I keep reading really painful stories about Amazon. In Mother Jones, How Amazon Bullies, Manipulates, and Lies to Reporters is a nasty tale. Since leaving I’ve talked to quite a few professionally public-facing folk and they get this ugly expression, weary disdain I’d call it, whenever Amazon PR came up. The ultra-hard-line approach of “Every negative word written about us is a bug which must be squashed” is manifestly yielding diminishing returns. I’m pretty sure there was an Amazon side to some of the recent nasty stories that might have got more press if Amazon PR had been a little less scorched-earth.
This one is unsurprising: Amazon Delivery Companies Revolt Against Amazon, Shut Down. I hated these faux-independent firms that Amazon encouraged and financed the moment I heard about them, and could not for the life of me see why anyone would found one and take on the personal burden and liability in exchange for the privilege of being a leech whose blood-flow is dependent on the whims of a single whale. They were created in a way that left them intrinsically powerless, and now they’re learning the cost. The fact that Amazon, famous for being able to squeeze a profit out of any number of unglamorous businesses, wasn’t willing to take on this sector’s risk, should have been a big red light. I have no notion of the rights and wrongs or legal issues in what looks like nasty impending litigation, but still, entirely predictable.
Here’s the one that most shocked me: Amazon opens discrimination investigation after internal petition wins backing of hundreds of employees. Because if the accusations of bad behavior are true, they’re happening in AWS. Granted, in ProServe as opposed to one of the actual Service operators, but still. The other dimension of shock here is that anti-gay bigotry is alleged; my experience suggested that that particular culture war was over and done with, not just at AWS but across most of Big Tech, because the good guys won. Apple’s Tim Cook is not an aberration, and also it’s not just the “G” in the LGBTQ* spectrum that was well-represented and, it seemed to me, fully accepted, among those I worked with.
So I have to admit to apparently missing things that I shouldn’t have. And for heaven’s sake, it sounds like some ProServe heads need to roll, soonest.
Enough about Amazon. For a refreshing change, here’s Ed Snowden’s new Substack launch, Lifting the mask. I’m not 100% a fan of all the directions Snowden has gone, but damn, he’s an interesting guy to read.
While we’re speaking of historic figures, let’s turn our attention back a millennium. Josh Marshall, the founder and biggest voice at the excellent liberal politiblog Talking Points Memo, stumbled into that domain via a Ph.D. in History. This is from 2019: History’s Heroic Failures. It’s an entertaining and erudite romp through events around the year 1000, showing how even in those days, the world was interconnected to a really surprising degree. Also contains recommendations for books that look like they’d be great fun.
And finally, God. David Weinberger is a former colleague, a fine writer, and would be a friend were he not so far away. His Agnostic Belief, Believer's Experience talks thoughtfully about moral foundations and the absence of faith. It’s fun to read!