Experiencing the consequences of diminished world trade:

All the fools who voted for Brexit and Trump may also have to live with the consequences of diminished world trade. It is one thing to claim that trade is bad; it is another to actually attempt to dramatically restrict or curtail it. We’ve been living with trade tailwinds for the last couple decades. Now we may get to experience the opposite.

In the meantime, the dollar and peso are both plunging, as are stocks. Trade is an incredible net good and yet both major political parties in the U.S. are rhetorically fleeing from it. So far it is rhetoric, anyway, but soon it may be policy.

Recession in 3…, 2…, 1…

Someone on Twitter observed that the best-case Trump scenario is that he’s too lazy, uninterested, or incompetent to do much in the next four years. Let us hope. Still, overall this is one of those scenarios in which we collectively deserve what we get.

News is comedy:

Luttwak spends much of his time at the computer. He follows the news closely and interprets it as an ongoing comedy.

That’s how I read the news, too, because to interpret it as other than a comedy is too depressing to contemplate for more than a second. The only consistently good news comes from the science and technology sections.

That dictators are, when viewed from the proper light, comedic has of course been long known, yet the dictators never themselves seem to realize this. Right now, in U.S. politics Trump is the funniest candidate in memory, and he also strikes one as one of the people least likely to recognize himself as comedic.

Everyone gets their own sandbox? On Syria:

From “What is going on in Syria? (model this):”

I think first in terms of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which also saw the collapse of an untenable-once-placed-under-pressure nation-state, followed by atrocities.

My own pet theory as a very much non-expert who wastes some attention on the news is that Iraq and Syria need to be broken into smaller pieces based on ethnicity: Kurdistan, Sunni-stan, and Shia-stan, and perhaps others. From what I understand Kurdistan is already more or less operating, just without an official declaration of statehood; there still isn’t an Iraqi “state” per se. “Iraqis” don’t really fight for Iraq: they fight for their ethnic groups.

Breaking countries into single-ethnicity pieces may be the major lesson of Yugoslavia and perhaps World War II, which had the unfortunate effect of making many European countries close to monoethnic.

There are problems with this solution in the Middle East (e.g. Turkey and Kurds) but there also seem to be many problems with the status quo, to the extent there is a status quo.

Perhaps the only thing average individuals can do is attempt to use less oil at the margin (shift from a hybrid car to a plug-in hybrid when necessary, from a standard car to a hybrid, and there are others), since oil is indirectly funding so much of the violence. When I read about large-scale, seemingly intractable problems, I often want more writers to ask, “What is an average person supposed to do?” and then attempt to answer the question.

Note, however, that Iraq and Syria also have cousin marriage problems that may destabilize the state and empower smaller groups.

Still, take this analysis skeptically, given my views on Iraq War II when it happened, and given too that foreign policy seems like William Goldman’s description of Hollywood: nobody knows anything. The CIA famously missed the fall of the Soviet Union. Pretty much no one expected World War I. The U.S. thought Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq War II were going to go well. And so on.

The U.S. has been fighting little wars (apart from the obvious big ones) for its entire existence, and while the tools have changed the rhetoric only sometimes has. In addition, overall I see the world as getting better. One account of this can be seen in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Most of Latin America is doing well. Even Africa is doing better than is sometimes assumed. The thing the U.S. and the West in general most have on our side is time and immigration patterns. Pretty much no one is fighting to emigrate from their current country to, say, Russia. Even current scare-story China sees more Chinese leaving than others trying to enter. Most parts of the world that aren’t tremendously fucked up are attempting to emulate the U.S. and Europe in many, though not all, dimensions. The long-term trends are positive for most people in most places even if Syria is a disaster.

To my mind giving everyone their own sandbox is a move in the right direction, despite opposition.

The Charlie Hebdo response:

Is here:

Charlie_Hebdo on the paris massacre

Still, it is not obvious to me that religion, especially in its modern Western forms, is intrinsically opposed to the other items on that list, all of which I support and ideally enact.

The Tyler Cowen response is “So many questions…” That was posted almost two days ago and more questions still remain than answers.

My next novel, THE HOOK, is out today

The HookMy latest novel, The Hook, is out today as a paperback and Kindle book. It’s even available on the iTunes Bookstore for the masochists among you. The Hook is fun and cheap and you should definitely read it. Here’s the dust-jacket description:

Scott Sole might be a teacher, but outside of school hours he likes to think he lives in the adult world. That’s why he indulges his sometime-girlfriend’s request to install an adjustable length hook in his apartment wall—of the sort appropriate for hanging people, not paintings. The project goes so well that, at her urging, he writes a blog post about it. Nobody cares about Scott’s blog—until three students find the post and think they can use it for their own purposes.

Each has a motive: Stacy wants to find out if there’s any truth in the whispers that Scott and her older sister had an affair during her sister’s senior year; Arianna thinks she can use it to weasel out of a semester-long writing assignment; and Sheldon wants a way onto the school newspaper to pad his college application. At the same time, one of Scott’s former students returns to his classroom as a student-teacher with a crush on her supervisor. But as accusations fly regarding the blog post, his students, and the rest of Scott’s less-than-perfect life, Scott discovers that once rumors begin, they’re as hard to stop as dirty pictures on the Internet. They might not just cost him his job, but his freedom. It turns out that a good hook can keep you reading, hold up a kinky girlfriend, and hang your career all at the same time.

My last novel, Asking Anna came out on January 17, 2014. In the last year I’ve quit some things and started others; written about a quarter of my next (likely) novel; read a lot; almost died; and wrote down too many ideas to execute in the next twenty years. But the Asking Anna announcement post is similar to this one, and everything I wrote then is still true:

I’ve been writing fiction with what I’d call a reasonably high level of seriousness since I was 19; I’d rather not do the math on how long ago that was, but let’s call it more than a decade. It took me four to six false starts to get to the first complete novel (as described in slightly more detail here) and another two completed novels to finish one that someone else might actually want to read. Asking Anna came a couple novels after that.

What else? Other writers warned me about bad reviews. They were right that I’d get them, but they were wrong about my reaction: I mostly view bad reviews as entertainment. This “review” may be the best in that respect: “This is surely one of the worst books I have ever read.the author envisions himself as being cerebral by using vocabulary that does not even have any place in the story.” I’m not sure how anyone would envision the author of a novel envisioning himself just through reading the novel in question, but life on the wilds of the Internet entails some pretty confusing commentary.

I’d also like to thank everyone reading this who bought a copy of Asking Anna, and everyone who has bought or is going to buy a copy of The Hook. Books exist to be read. It’s because of your support of Asking Anna that I’ve been able to bring out The Hook. If you’ve gotten this far, let me suggest that you stop by Goodreads and leave comments there.

Why you really can’t trust the media: Claire Cain Miller and Farhad Manjoo get things wrong in the New York Times

In “The Next Mark Zuckerberg Is Not Who You Might Think,” the New York Times‘s Claire Cain Miller repeats an unfortunate quote that is a joke but was taken out of context: “‘I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,’ Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.”* But Graham has already publicly observed that this is a joke. As the link shows he’s publicly stated as much. Thousands of people have already read the column, but yesterday morning I thought that it’s not too late to correct it for those yet to come. So I wrote to both Miller and to the corrections email address with a variant of this paragraph.

In response I got this:

Thanks for your email. I’m confident that most readers will understand that the line was tongue in cheek, however. The idea that a co-founder of Y Combinator could be persuaded to part with seed funding simply by dint of the solicitor’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt is, of course, preposterous. At any rate, there is nothing to “correct,” so to speak, as Mr. Graham did in fact say those words.

Best regards,

Louis Lucero II
Assistant to the Senior Editor for Standards
The New York Times

But that’s not real satisfying either: nothing in the original article to indicate that Miller meant the line tongue-in-cheek. Based on the surrounding material, it seems like she took it seriously. Here is the full paragraph:

Yet if someone like that came to a top venture capitalist’s office, he or she could very well be turned away. Start-up investors often accept pitches only from people they know, and rely heavily on gut feelings, intuition and what’s worked before. “I can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg,” Paul Graham, co-founder of the seed investor Y Combinator, once said.

I wrote back:

Thanks for your response, but it’s pernicious because Graham, as he explains at the link, does not actually think he can be tricked by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg, and his statement is part of the reason why he can’t, and why he doesn’t necessarily expect the next tech titan to look like Zuckerberg. One of the epistemological roles of humor is to say something but mean the opposite: have your read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose? In addition to being a fantastic book, many sections deal with precisely this aspect of humor, and the role it plays in human discourse.

There’s actually a Wikipedia article on quoting out of context that’s both relevant here and helps explain why some reasonably famous people are becoming more cagey about speaking in public, in uncontrolled circumstances, or to the press.

To say that anyone even slightly familiar with Graham’s thought or writing—which is available publicly, for free, to anyone with an Internet connection (as most New York Times reporters have) will understand that the quote is absurd. Graham has probably done more to promote women in technology than anyone else. He wrote an entire essay, “Female Founders,” on this subject, which arose in part because he was “accused recently of believing things I don’t believe about women as programmers and startup founders. So I thought I’d explain what I actually do believe.” Miller didn’t bother reading that. She got it wrong, and it goes uncorrected. So this bogus quote that says the opposite of what Graham means is still going around.

Meanwhile, Farhad Manjoo wrote “As More Tech Start-Ups Stay Private, So Does the Money,” in which he cites various reasons why startups may stay private (“rooted in part in Wall Street’s skepticism of new tech stocks”) but misses a big one: Sarbanes-Oxley.** It’s almost impossible to read anything about the IPO market for tech companies without seeing a discussion of the costs of compliance (millions of dollars a year) and the other burdens with it.

I tweeted as much to him and he replied, “@seligerj a whole article about a complex issue and no mention of my pet interest that is just of many factors in the discussion!!!!??” Except it’s not a pet interest. It’s a major issue. Manjoo could have spent 30 seconds searching Google Scholar and an hour reading, and he’d conclude that SBO is really bad for the IPO market (and it encourages companies to go private). But why bother when a snarky Tweet will do? A snarky Tweet takes 10 seconds and real knowledge takes many hours. General problems with it are well-known. Not surprisingly, Paul Graham has written about those too. So has Peter Thiel in Zero to One. Ignoring it is not a minor issue: it’s like ignoring the role of hydrogen in water.

Manjoo’s article is at least a little better because his is a misleading oversight instead of an overt misquotation. But it’s still amazing not just for missing a vital issue in the first place but the response to having that issue pointed out.

If the articles were posted to random blogs or splogs I’d of course just ignore them, because the standards to which random blogs are held are quite low. But they were posted to the New York Times, which is actually much better than the rest of the media. That two writers could get so much so wrong in so short a space is distressing because of what that says not only about the Times but the rest of the media. I’m not even a domain expert here: I don’t work in the area and primarily find it a matter of intellectual curiosity.

This post is important because the Times is a huge megaphone. Policymakers who don’t know a lot about specific issues related to tech read and (mostly) trust it. While sophisticated readers or people who have been reading Graham for years might know the truth, most people don’t. A huge megaphone should be wielded carefully. Too often it isn’t.

Oddly, one of my earliest posts was about another howler in the New York Times. I’ve seen some since but yesterday’s batch was particularly notable. There are many good accounts of why you can’t trust the media—James Fallows gives one in Breaking the News and Ryan Holiday another in Trust Me, I’m Lying—but I’ve rarely seen two back-to-back examples as good as these. So good, in fact, that I want to post about them publicly both to inform others and for archive purposes: next time someone says, “What do you mean, you can’t trust even the New York Times?”, I’ll have examples of why ready to go.

* I’m not linking to the article because it’s terrible for many reasons, and I’d like to focus solely on the one cited, which is provably wrong.

** I’m not linking directly to this article either; The Hacker News thread about it is more informative than the article itself.

What a bizarre set of sentences:

The first paragraph from a New York Times article:

Kleiner Perkins’s victory Friday in the gender discrimination suit brought by Ellen Pao could be seen as an affirmation of the Silicon Valley old boys club. But venture capitalists have said that the trial has already put the tech industry on notice: It can no longer operate as a band of outsiders, often oblivious to rules that govern the modern workplace — even if that has been a key to its success.

So venture capitalists have to stop doing the very things that have “been a key to [their] success?” Won’t they then presumably be outcompeted by those who are willing to do those things? The “rules that govern the modern workplace” may also be one of the reasons startups are popular: they don’t have those rules. Paul Graham notes that “Nothing kills startups like distractions.” “Workplace rules” seem like they’d fall under the heading “distractions.”

The most intelligent commentary I’ve seen on this matter is Philip Greenspun’s. The gap between the press’s portrayal and what I’ve seen from people in the industry is even vaster than the gap between what I see in the press about nonprofits / government, and what actually happens on the ground.

Seth Roberts

Seth Roberts died (H/T Tyler Cowen), though unlike Cowen I didn’t know him. But in 2013 he did link to The Story’s Story and I consider that a small but significant achievement. He too was interested in cities and how cities function; he knew so much but was open to talking to strangers: his contact page still says, “Ask Me Anything/Contact Me,” which is often a sign of an active, open mind. Of his recent posts this is my favorite.

I wish he had written more books, which endure better than blogs or papers. For many intellectuals, writers, and thinkers, books are their lasting testaments.

Concern trolling, competition, and “Facebook Made Me Do It”

In “Facebook Made Me Do It,” Jenna Wortham says that she was innocently browsing Instagram and saw

a photo of my friend in a hotel room, wearing lime green thong underwear and very little else. It was scandalous, arguably over the top for a photo posted in public where, in theory, anyone who wanted would be able to see it. But people loved it. It had dozens of likes as well as some encouraging comments.

Of course it had dozens of likes and some encouraging comments: as should be obvious, a lot of men like seeing nude and semi-nude women. So do a lot of women; I read the quoted section to my fiancée and she said, “they like it because it’s hot.”

No shit.

So why does Wortham use language that lightly chastises the anonymous thong-wearer-and-poster? What do “arguably over the top” and “scandalous” mean here? Perhaps in 1890 it was scandalous to see women in their underwear. Today one sees women effectively in their underwear on beaches, catalogs, billboards, the Internet, and, not uncommonly, the Internet.

Since it’s not actually a scandal to see a woman in a thong and “arguably over the top” doesn’t really say anything, I think there are separated, unstated reasons related to competition and to a term coined by the Internet: “concern trolling.”

Concern trolling happens when

A person who lurks, then posts, on a site or blog, expressing concern for policies, comments, attitudes of others on the site. It is viewed as insincere, manipulative, condescending.

In this case, it happens on the Internet, and Wortham is expressing faux concern about a friend, when she’s really saying that a) she doesn’t like that the friend can take a shortcut to Instagram fame and attention through posting hot lingerie shots and b) she doesn’t like the friend as a sexual competitor. A friend who does or says something more sexually adventurous than the observer or writer is “over the top” because she’s a competitor; a friend who is less adventurous is uptight. Those kinds of words and phrases only make sense relative to the person using them, and they’re both used to derogate rivals, just in different ways.

Wortham doesn’t want to say as much, however, for an innocuous reason—she only has so many words available, as she writes in the New York Times instead of a blog, and for a less salubrious reason: she wants readers to believe that she’s writing from the voice of God, or the arbiter of culture, or something like that, and has widely shared views on community standards that the friend in the hotel room should uphold. If she explains that the views she’s espousing are really her own, and that they reflect sexual and attention competition in the form of concern trolling.

There’s a term of art that describes Wortham’s problem: “Don’t hate the player—hate the game.” Wortham is, in a highbrow and subtle way, hating the player.

The concern trolling continues later in the article, when Wortham quotes a professor saying, “The fact that the world is going to see you increases the risks you are willing to take.” But there’s no evidence cited for this claim, and, moreover, in the context of the article it’s possible to substitute “fun you’re going to have” for “risks you are willing to take.” Given a choice between inviting Wortham or her friend who posts herself to Instagram in a green thong to a party, and I know who I’m going to invite.

TheAtlantic.com is increasingly copying others instead of writing their own work

Something is rotten at The Atlantic: Jordan Weissman “wrote” a piece called “Disability Insurance: America’s $124 Billion Secret Welfare Program,” which is just a restatement of an NPR Planet Money report and some of David Autor’s work (which I’m familiar with through his Econtalk interview and reading some of his subsequent papers; he’s also mentioned by NPR.) This comes not long after Nate Thayer called out The Atlantic for trying to get writers to work for free. It seems like TheAtlantic.com is increasingly doing things like this: using thinly-veiled re-writes to drive traffic to it. Weissman’s piece adds little if anything to the NPR piece, and The Atlantic could have just linked to that piece.

The magazine is still very good, and original, but The Atlantic’s web content has been getting worse in a very noticeable way, with thinly-veiled re-writes of other people’s work. If you want to write about other people’s work, just link to it directly.

I’ve been noticing this phenomenon more and more, but this is the first time I’ve posted about it. I hope it doesn’t become a series.

(And I’m letting the Scientology ad thing slide, because I think it was an honest mistake.)

%d bloggers like this: