David Kirkpatrick’s “The Facebook Effect,” seven years later

It’s weird reading The Facebook Effect today, because already it feels like ancient history. It celebrates Facebook having 400 million users, when today it has two billion. It was written before the iPhone became the world’s dominant computing platform, so the many references to PCs feels odd. There are bromides like, “Facebook is bringing the world together,” which may not even be meaningful enough to evaluate as true or false. Yet many sections still seem relevant and fortuitous. The suspenseful sections about early fundraising are about humans, incentives, and game theory. The tension between short and long term remain in terms of both companies and individual lives. Others could be listed.

To me Facebook is still kind of boring; I don’t think people’s real selves, to the extent there are such things, get posted often, and when they do, the result is often embarrassment. And I find that the more I see of people on the site, the less I like them, implying that maybe knowing “more,” or more without context, isn’t so good. Yet its sheer popularity is clear, and I expect questions about what that means to persist, maybe throughout my life. “Generation Why?” is one good take in the genre but likely not the last.

The Facebook Effect doesn’t much answer that question and it probably can’t. The “why?” is embodied in millions if not billions of individual choices. But The Facebook Effect has lots of insight, as long as one’s willing to tolerate sentences like, “Facebook is bringing the world together.” For example, if you’re somewhat into photography, like I am, you’ve probably seen people debating various issues around megapixel count, lens quality, and image quality. Except no one cares about photo or picture quality / resolution. People only care about their friends and people they know. These may seem like dumb assertions but Facebook reveals evidence for them.

In 2006 Facebook introduced photo tagging, and one decision “the photos team” was particularly important:

They took a gamble and decided to compress photos into much smaller digital files, so that when they appeared on Facebook they were significantly lower in resolution than the originals. That meant they would upload faster, so users could select a number of photos on their PC and see them online within minutes.

Would people accept low-resolution photos? Would they use the tags?

The short answer to both is “yes.” People don’t give a damn about resolution. They care about the photo’s semiotics: “Ordinary photos had become, in effect, more articulate. They conveyed a casual message. When it was tagged, a photo on Facebook expressed and elaborated on your friend relationships.” Outside of very small sites occupied by photo nerds, like 500px, the photo isn’t about the perceive image quality; it’s about what the photo depicts of the person (and it’s almost always a person) in it. We import our groupishness from real life to photos. Which seems totally obvious now to everyone except people on photography forums yet wasn’t so obvious during Facebook’s earlier forms.

People also relentlessly use Facebook to… criticize Facebook: “As with any Facebook controversy, the viral distribution tools of Facebook itself were used against it.” But in the crucial terms of exit, voice, and loyalty, almost no one exits. Which tells Facebook as much as it needs to know. The company is a case study in stated vesus revealed preferences. However much people may say they revile, distrust, or dislike the company, or however much they may acknowledge that most of Facebook is a time waste, they keep going back. We have clichés like “actions speak louder than words” for a reason.

Briefly noted: The Weight of Ink — Rachel Kadish

The Weight of Ink invites comparison to A. S. Byatt’s , and after I’d read about half of The Weight of Ink I was inspired to re-read Possession, which is amazing and one of the best books I’ve read, ever. In the beginning of Possession I noticed this; the protagonist, Roland, is studying a fictional Victorian poet named R. H. Ash, and his supervisor is Blackadder:

Blackadder was discouraged and liked to discourage others. (He was also a stringent scholar.) Roland was now employed, part-time, in what was known as Blackadder’s “Ash Factory” (why not Ashram? Val had said)…

That re-use of “Ash,” from “Ash Factory” to “Ashram” (which sounds a lot, intentionally, like ass-ram) gives a lot in a short space: about Blackadder’s drudgery; Roland’s feelings towards Blackadder and the work; and even about Val’s witty personality, which is weighted by material circumstances and her shriveling relationship with Roland. We get a lot of material in three sentences that later resonate throughout the novel as a whole. For a while I spent time trying to find something analogously clever in The Weight of Ink, and failed. It’s impossible to prove a negative, but most of the book feels a little dull by comparison.

In The Weight of Ink there are too many sentences like, “He knew that whatever her reputation—and her staunch defense of departmental requirements, her insistence on diversifying the list of acceptable qualifying languages, and a half dozen other hard-fought battles over the years had earned her a fierce reputation—Helen Watt did not make scenes.” As far as I can tell this is meant as straight comment, not as a joke, and the obvious question—who gives a damn?—isn’t asked. People who have actually fierce reputations don’t have them from university department teapot politics. In Possession academic politics are the joke, for good reason, and human needs are at the humane center of things. The Weight of Ink misses this basic philosophical point and feels silly for it.

Or:

Had Aaron Levy chosen to study Shakespeare’s Catholic roots, it would have been different; that field had been blessed relatively recently with the astonishing gift of fresh evidence—a religious pamphlet found in the attic of Shakespeare’s father. That single document had upended and revitalized that arena of Shakespeare studies, leaving young historians room to work productively for years to come.

Perhaps the real answer is, “Go study a field that is vital and important?” Unfortunately, the modern-era scholars don’t, or can’t. Aaron has the same problem in his personal life. He yearns for a woman he had a one-night stand with, right before she left for Israel. Solution: Go find someone geographically proximate and available, like everyone else. In Possession, scholarly and romantic problems beautifully mirror each other; here, they grind against each other and the reader’s patience.

I gave up about halfway through. The re-read of Possession was great, though. Don’t believe the comparisons. They’re superficially right but in terms of depth totally off.

Links: How America is going haywire, high-heel heaven, where are the trains?, and more!

* “How America Went Haywire,” the most important piece in this batch.

* “High-heel heaven,” one of the funniest pieces I’ve read recently.

* “The Most Common Error in Media Coverage of the Google Memo.” Basically, no one is actually reading the memo, and almost everyone is instead loading up their pre-programmed, mood-affiliated responses. See also Ross Douthat for another orthogonal response. One short summary might be, “Think bigger and longer term,” which we are not so good at doing right now. Or maybe ever.

* Not directly related to the above, but: Men Are Better At Maps Until Women Take This Spatial Visualization Course: A bit of education can erase a definitive cognitive gap between men and women.

* Transit projects left undone in New Jersey, 2000 – 2020. The phrase “wasted opportunity” comes to mind.

* The not-so-secret trick to cutting solo car commutes: Charge for parking by the day.”

* “2016 Was Hot, Weird, and Unprecedented.” Also, “Super-heatwaves of 55°C (131°F) to emerge if global warming continues.” Prediction: when it happens, loads of people shout, “No one warned us!!!”

* “First large-scale deep-sea floating offshore wind farm.” There is lots of good news out there, but rage incites more viewing than the good news.

* The death of the internal combustion engine.

* “Here’s the Memo That Blew Up the NSC: Fired White House staffer argued ‘deep state’ attacked Trump administration because the president represents a threat to cultural Marxist memes, globalists, and bankers.” To call this “insane” is an insult to the insane. If I’d read an SF novel about the sequence of events of the past year two years ago, I’d have called it unrealistic and unbelievable. Yet here we all are.

* “Liberals should reject the divisive, zero-sum politics of identity and find their way back to a unifying vision of the common good.” Yes. Interesting venue for this piece, too.

* The next moon landing may be near.

* “Why are police officers more dangerous than airplanes?”

Statistical analyses of literature: let’s see what happens

I got some pushback to the link on what heretical things statistics can tell us about fiction, and I’ve read pushback like it before: the objections tend to say that great literature can’t be reduced to statistics; big data will never replicate the reading experience; a novel is more than the sum of the words chosen. That sort of thing. All of which is likely true, but the more interesting question is, “What kinds of things is nobody doing in the study of fiction?” (Or words, or sentences, of writers’ oeuvres). Lots and lots of people, including me, closely study individual works and connect them to a smallish body of other works and ideas.

Over centuries, if not longer, thousands, if not millions, of people have engaged this practice. Not very many people have attempted to systematically examine thousands if not millions of works simultaneously. So that may tell us something the usual methods haven’t. It’s worth exploring that domain. And just because that domain is being explored, the more usual paths via close reading aren’t closed off.

In other words, don’t think that an argument along the lines of “x is interesting” means “we should always and only do x.”

At the moment, we also appear to be at the very start of the field. Maybe it’ll become extremely important and maybe it won’t. The potential is there. People have (arguably) been doing some form of close reading and analysis, even if the practice didn’t use those specific words, for millennia. Certainly for centuries. So I’d be pretty surprised to see statistical analyses produce whatever good material they’re likely to produce in just a decade or two.

Part of what art and analysis should do is be novel. Another part is “be interesting.” We’re looking for the intersection of those two zones.

Brief Priority Classic Plus bike review

I’ve been riding a Priority Classic Plus bike and it’s been great, especially for the money. The most important part of the Classic Plus is the belt drive, which replaces the typical chain used to transfer power from pedaling to wheel with a carbon fiber belt. I can’t remember where I first heard about the company, but it may have been from “How Priority Bicycles Made a ‘Maintenance Free’ Bike For Under $400.” Priority’s bikes are meant for urban riders and they naturally compete with inexpensive single-speed bikes like those from State.

There isn’t much to write about because the bike is fun to ride, light (the frame is made of aluminum), and quiet. The largest frame size may still be a bit small for me, but I’m out on the right side of the bell curve distribution for height so that may not be too surprising. The front stem and seat post are highly adjustable, so I didn’t need to add a stem extender. I ordered a rack, which dramatically improves cargo capacity. Now I’m looking at panniers, which may prove to be a cost that’s sizable compared to the overall bike.

The bike retails for $469, but by the time I got add-ons, tax, and assembly, it was a little over $600. The next-least-expensive carbon-fiber drive bike I’ve seen is over $1,000, so the the Classic Plus is still a substantial improvement. At $469, it’s also in the same price ballpark as many hybrid city bikes. For a belt-driven bike, that’s impressive.

The Classic Plus is not a single-speed model and if this bike were made as a single-speed I’d have picked it. While I don’t know this for sure, I’d guess that the three-speed version adds minimal weight and cost, so choosing it may make more sense for the company and for riders.

There is no chainguard, or rather belt guard, and that may be a problem in lousy weather; I’ll report back on whether this actually matters in challenging weather. My last bike had one, but I don’t know if it needed one or if it the guard was only there for psychological prophylactic purposes.

It’s hard to understand why belt-driven bikes are more fun to ride without riding one, so I’ll suggest finding a bike shop and trying. You’ll likely notice that peddling feels smoother. Over time, chains also tend to work themselves out of whack and become noisy; belts should remain very quiet for the life of the belt. Maintenance time and costs should also be lower. Belt-drive bikes are supposedly more popular in Europe, where more people commute via bike.

Priority also makes a bike called the Continuum Onyx, which comes with a wider gearing range, disc brakes, fenders, a built-in light that recharges from peddling (a very cool feature) and possibly some other stuff I missed. Fully configured it would likely still be about $500 more than the bike I have, and the cheaper one will be less painful to lose via theft, if theft happens.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Classic Plus become the go-to, default urban bike. It’s got a lot of advantages and few disadvantages compared to chain-driven models. I don’t know how the company managed to get belt-drive bikes down to such a low price, but I’m glad it did.

 

Links: Short books, free thought, unfree devices, male contraception, Google’s politically correct monoculture, and more!

* “In praise of short books.” No argument here. I’d rather write, “In praise of books that are the right length for their material,” which may be short (Rapture is short) or long (Cryptonomicon is long).

* Math journal editors resign to start rival journal that will be free to read.

* “Apple and other tech companies are fighting to keep devices hard to repair.” It’s not hard to understand why.

* Ninni Holmqvist’s novel The Unit imagines a dystopia for the childless.

* “Why We Can’t Have the Male Pill: A condom alternative could be worth billions. What’s taking so long?”

* “Why I left Academia: Part I.” This is an impressively brazen and horrible story and maybe the worst I’ve heard. One of the (many) reasons not to go to grad school in the humanities is that a single person can so easily halt or retard your progress. That’s rarely if ever true in the rest of the working world.

* “Trump’s Fledgling Presidency Has Already Collapsed.” Seems overly optimistic to me.

* “Modern American elites have come to favour inconspicuous consumption.” Seems like conspicuous precision is an improvement on conspicuous consumption.

* Google promotes and enforces politically correct monoculture, although the headline is different. Or maybe no one comes out looking good. It’s disappointing to read so few sentences like, “I think it’s really important to discuss this topic scientifically, keeping an open mind and using informed skepticism when evaluating claims about evidence,” even if I’m not sure the evidence is as strong as claimed at the link.

Briefly noted: “The Little Hours,” the movie

The Little Hours is charming and I laughed; the trailer is worth watching because it gives the flavor of the movie without ruining the narrative or many of the jokes. The best moment of the trailer is a quote from the Catholic League, “It was trash. Pure trash.” I was ready to walk out if it was dumb (a good strategy for all movies) but instead was happy to stay and to leave refreshed. It’s hard to define what a “taut” movie is, but I know one when I see it, and this one is taut. Too many indie movies, as well as some studio movies) have 40 minutes of material in a 120-minute movie. This one has 90 minutes of material in a 90-minute movie, and if anything I wouldn’t have minded it being longer.

Transposing modern concerns, tone, and language into a medieval setting works for me but some of you may hate that. In some ways you can think of this as Monty Python but with a more forward sex plot and more female rivalry (too rarely depicted in film). I don’t know The Decameron well enough to get callbacks to it.

All the actors are just right.

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