I seem to have fallen into a monthly rhythm of posting pointers to what I think are high-quality long-form pieces. One of the best things about not having a job as such is that I have time to read these things. My assumption is that most of you don’t, but that maybe one or two will reward an investment of your limited time.
In The New Yorker, Jane Hu writes The Second Act of Social-Media Activism, subtitled “Has the Internet become better at mediating change?” People like me would like to believe this; back when the Arab Spring was first a thing, we did. Now, that belief is weak; maybe the Internet is a better vehicle for fascism than progress. Even endless live video of police violence doesn’t seem to build support for a common-sense redesign of policing which would route a lot less money to bossy people with guns and more to good listeners who are qualified at dealing with social-health issues. Hu’s take is level-headed and not entirely pessimistic.
These days, I subscribe to Utility Dive, which mixes arcane expositions of utility-regulation politics with the occasional really fresh and smart take on energy economics in the face of the onrushing climate emergency. Sheep, ag and sun: Agrivoltaics propel significant reductions in solar maintenance costs is probably not terribly important to your understanding of the big picture, but it’s a fun read. Suppose you have a solar farm and it’s not in the desert, it’s in a place where plants grow. Well, they might grow up over your panels and get in the way of the sun. What do you do about that? Well, you treat your farm like a farm and bring in grazing animals to eat the plants. Turns out you have to pay the animal providers, which as a farm boy feels odd to me. Now, when there are untended sheep, there are pretty soon going to be predators. You might be able to afford sheep but nobody can afford shepherds, so instead you might hire some Great Pyrenees hounds to tend them. Then you might find yourself with a liability problem when the hounds (they are very protective of their woolly charges) mistake a passerby for a predator. I wonder what solar farms of the future are going to end up looking like?
Back to The New Yorker, where Bill McKibben has been leading the climate-emergency charge — they’ve a great newsletter you can sign up for. McKibben wrote North Dakota Oil Workers Are Learning to Tend Wind Turbines—and That’s a Big Deal, which is good. A lot of people are pointing out that a Green New Deal program would offer a lot of major investment opportunities — there’s gold in them thar renewables — but it looks like petroleum-engineering skills are going to be transferable to the sector. Which is a damn good thing, because capital investment on the oil-company front is falling like a stone and I’m not seeing evidence that it’s coming back any time soon. The picture is complicated because opponents of the transition from fossil to renewable energy include not just oil barons but certain old-school unions. But there are grounds for optimism.
Speaking of oil-economy woes, the CBC’s As oil money dries up, Alberta's financial woes laid bare paints a pretty painful picture of the situation in Western Canada, where employment levels and provincial budgets have been joined at the hip to the oil industry since forever. I’m optimistic in the medium/long term but this transition isn’t going to be easy. If you doubt that, dip into the 4,709 comments. No, I take that back, please don’t.
I forget what maze of twisty little passages led me to The Logical Description of an Intermediate Speed Digital Computer, which is Gene Amdahl’s 1951 Ph.D thesis. If you don’t know who Gene Amdahl was, skip to the next paragraph, this is about to get very boring. If you do know, it’s almost certain this read will delight you. The computer in question was actually built; it was called the Wisconsin Integrally Synchronized Computer. Its only memory was a storage drum. Anyhow, this is instructive in that it helps the reader understand how many concepts and constructs that seem axiomatic to us, self-evidently obvious, were hard-won by these people in this phase of history. Also, this computer doesn’t have instructions, it has commands. I’m kind of sorry that language didn’t stick.
It turns out that the backbone of the Internet is mostly operated by large telephone companies who, as corporations go, have a reputation for being clueless, abusive, and extractive. This seems unsatisfactory. In A Public Option for the core (ACM overview page, PDF), Harchol, Bergemann et al “propose the creation of a ‘public option’ for the Internet’s core backbone. This public option core, which complements rather than replaces the backbones used by large-scale ISPs, would (i) run an open market for backbone bandwidth so it could leverage links offered by third-parties, and (ii) structure its terms-of-service to enforce network neutrality so as to encourage competition and reduce the advantage of large incumbents.” This sounds profoundly sensible to me.
This is a space for long-form works and I didn’t say they had to be written. In that spirit, I recommend Nine Inch Nails Tension 2013, an 87-minute recording captured at the Staples Center in LA on November 8, 2013. If you like hardass, totally committed musical performances, don’t start watching this or you won’t get back to “real life” for a while. Which, especially in 2020, is not a bad thing.
In Catalyst (of which I know nothing) from last spring is Ecological Politics for the Working Class. If you’re terribly concerned about the climate emergency (as I am) and also a progressive who flirts with class reductionism (as I am) it probably bothers you that, and I quote, “environmentalism’s base in the professional-managerial class and focus on consumption has little chance of attracting working-class support.” So, a piece that “argues for a program that tackles the ecological crisis by organizing around working-class interests” should interest you. Tl;dr: Among other things, stop yelling at consumers and try to get away from “lifestyle environmentalism”. Related: “centrist” pundits damning the Green New Deal idea with faint praise along the lines “those environmental goals are laudable, but they they start talking about guaranteed incomes and so on, which really aren’t a necessary part of the package.” Er, wrong, they really are a totally necessary part. I don’t agree with everything here but it’s a bracing read.
When Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, she suddenly became a lot more interesting. A fierce controversy broke out over in Wikipedia about how to describe her; was “African-American” appropriate? To discover the outcome, check out her Wikipedia entry. In The Atlantic, Joshua Benton published The Wikipedia War That Shows How Ugly This Election Will Be. I dunno if we needed any more educating about more 2020 ugliness, but reading this made me happy. Because it shone a light on the Wikipedia work process, which these is terribly important to humanity’s understanding of reality. And you know what? While imperfect, on balance it works pretty fucking well. The process is unironically concerned with truth and does, on balance, a good job of achieving it. Is anything more important on today’s Internet? I’ve highlighted a core Wikipedia tenet before and probably will again: “Content which is not verifiable will eventually be removed.” Which seems a necessary but not sufficient condition for any sort of sane adult discussion about anything.
Back to Utility Dive: Renewable energy prices begin an upward trend, LevelTen data shows. No, I don’t know who LevelTen is. This is notable because renewable prices have been falling quickly and monotonically for years; I was shocked at the headline. Well, it turns out that the various tax incentives and other subsidies that originally helped drive renewable adoption are by and large no longer necessary, so they’re expiring and being withdrawn. So the prices go up a bit. Does it mean that renewable generation is now more expensive than fossil fuel? Nope, not even close. But watch out for petrol-head trolls exclaiming with glee, using this as evidence. Oh, another piece from the Dive: The future of hydropower will be determined in the Pacific Northwest, which covers the complicated and interesting conflict, when you dam rivers for generation, between the benefits of cheap green power and the potential damage to fish migration. Something that can’t be ignored.
In Wired, Yiren Lu writes My Week of Radical Transparency at a Chinese Business Seminar, a deep dive into a part of mainland-Chinese culture which I previously had no notion of. China in some regards is still the most interesting place in the world and people who are interested in the world need to improve their understanding of what’s going on there. This piece is going to make some of us a little uncomfortable with one or two progressive axioms over on this side of the Pacific, too.
Speaking of which: There’s so much bad shit going on the world that it’s easy to let the news about China’s brutally racist oppression of its Uighur population vanish in the input stream. Buzzfeed is doing its best to help us not let that happen with a two-part investigation starting here: “China rounded up so many Muslims in Xinjiang that there wasn’t enough space to hold them”. They have rare testimony from inside the camps. This won’t cheer you up but it’ll give you more reasons to understand (and, realistically, fear) China’s barbaric ruling clique.
Here, in Gizmodo, is some practical advice for protestors: Your Phone Is a Goldmine of Hidden Data for Cops. Here's How to Fight Back. It’s exactly what the headline says. The measures recommended are pretty extreme and for most of us in most political actions, thankfully probably unnecessary. Let’s hope it stays that way. And bookmark this in case it doesn’t.
Over at AdWeek, Why Lawmakers Are Keeping Ad Tech Under Such Close Scrutiny. I think this particular “why” is pretty obvious: Because Ad Tech is abusive to customers and disastrous for many previously-excellent publishing business models. It’s tremendously damaging to privacy and to intellectual discourse. People who are already privacy paranoids won’t be surprised by much of the information here, but I found it super interesting because it was presented in the language of, and reflects the culture of, the Ad industry. Related: Apple wants to stop advertisers from following you around the web. Facebook has other ideas from Peter Kafka over on Vox. I sincerely hope for lots of political action in the nearest-possible future around abusive AdTech.
Still more on privacy and its abusers: How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow over on Medium/One Zero. It’s really long — in fact, the full text of Cory’s new book — and I haven’t finished reading it, but it feels essential to me and I will.
In Canada’s The Tyee, a review of Kurt Andersen’s recent book Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America. The goal is to draw a map explaining how the USA got from the Seventies, when the level of inequality was roughly the same as Sweden’s, to today’s diseased, shambling, divided, misgoverned, year of discontent. The review dips into our local Western-Canada politics and that may not be of much general interest, but reading it definitely put the book on my to-buy-and-read list.
Last of all, I recommend The Internet of Beefs by Venkatesh Rao, an appallingly cynical and amusing take on the dysfunction of Internet discourse. I found a lot of truth in it. It doesn’t propose much in the way of solutions, but says “Like all the best questions, this one is at once intensely practical — all about digital hygiene and how to design and use devices of connection to think — and intensely philosophical — about finding ways to be reborn without literally dying. I don’t have answers, but I like that I finally at least have a question.” A very good question.