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.

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.

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.

Links: James Wood, news and fiction, sexuality and narrative, the paperback, bars and babysitting

* James Wood: “On Not Going Home.”

* “Is the News Replacing Literature?” Unlikely, but high-quality analysis of the news often has a literary quality. But quantity still has a quality all its own and writing 800 words, 8,000 words, and 80,000 words are all very different beasts and having written pieces of all three lengths I can say that what works at one length won’t at another.

I’m also fond of saying that not-very-good nonfiction can still be useful while not-very-good fiction rarely is.

* Someone on Reddit “capture[s] the vagaries of sexual consent through a series of personal stories;” many people have such stories but few share them widely, for obvious reasons. See also “The power of conventional narratives and the great lie.”

* The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity.

* “How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read;” ebooks are now doing something analogous.

* Smartphone sales growth slows, presumably for obvious reasons: when I first got one I used it for the same stuff everyone else does: maps, looking up random stuff, sending/receiving naked pictures, listening to music, and maybe one or two other things. With the model I have now I do basically the same stuff, as well as find Citi Bike locations and coffee shops. The new version does some of those things slightly better / faster, but were it not a business expense I doubt I’d bother.

* “Bars are too loud and cafes too quiet.” Mostly, bars are too loud.

* “My bad baby sitters year;” mostly a lost world, especially when it comes to finding forbidden objects / photos.

Links: News is bad for you, the UnSlut project, the crab basket effect, self-publishing, space, extinction, flus, and more

* “News is bad for you [. . .] The real news consists of dull but informative reports circulated by consultancies giving in-depth insight into what’s going on. The sort of stuff you find digested in the inside pages of The Economist. All else is comics.”

* Women and the crab-basket effect.

* “New Publisher Authors Trust: Themselves.” File this under “Calling Captain Obvious.”

IMG_2219* The future of U.S. space policy, a topic that is under-discussed.

* Human extinction is an underrated threat.

* Is China covering up another flu pandemic?

* Russell Blake: Why authors annoy me, which is really about how any “rules” about art also meant to be broken.

* “One look at why income inequality is growing,” hat tip and headline tip Tyler Cowen.

* The UnSlut Project: the “It Gets Better” of slut-shaming.

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.)

Breaking the News follow-up

My post on James Fallows’ Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy generated a fair amount of e-mail and commentary. In the comments section, Steve Karger pointed to The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get, which rehashes of some of Fallows’ points but without acknowledgement except at the top, which has a quote, and the very bottom of the page, which says “With fond apologies to James Fallows.” Nonetheless, it’s worth reading.

I found What should be “the new rules of news” in The Guardian, one of the UK’s major newspapers. I especially like this rule:

3. Transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know,” a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organisation’s website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.

Sadly, its recommendations seem unlikely to come to pass: the incentives against better journalism seem too deeply entrenched, especially compared with the cost of real journalism.

Salon.com reports that “Journalists like Evan Thomas now admit the Clinton scandals were bogus. When will they admit they played along?” And the answer appears to be “never.” These kinds of retrospective pieces remind us of what’s wrong with the news business: reporters are participating in the practices that weaken confidence in the business, much like individual investors who make decisions that collectively shake the market’s foundation yet are personally beneficially.

Finally, Fallows himself caught my post and wrote in reply:

I have thought several times about revising or updating the book but have held back for two reasons. One is the shark-like instinct that it’s worth always moving ahead to new territory. The other, that the central points to make remain the same; the details would differ and be more depressing.

He’s correct, and others have been gathering plenty of fresh examples, as “The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get” shows. I have no idea what arrangements he has with his publisher, but perhaps a new edition with a new forward/afterward would a) give a reason for additional coverage of the book and b) give the benefit of a small number of new examples without having to overhaul the entire thing. Then again, as far as I can tell, Breaking the News got a fairly loud reception the first time and the problems it discusses are fairly well-known, so maybe this wouldn’t matter much.

As I said in my first post, I think the individual’s response to lousy news is likely to be limited, since I can’t immediately make structural changes in the big news organizations that produce lousy “news,” which some people seem to prefer, like Fox News. But if you are interested in better news, try The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal (which still seems pretty good) and the New York Times.

The unlamented death of Portfolio Magazine

In Condé Bust: Why Portfolio [magazine] folded, Slate cites reasons like retro style and a high cost structure—which was no doubt was the largest immediate cause of death—combined with a fiercely competitive marketplace. But the article should have paid more attention to the “high cost structure issue;” as Paul Graham says in “Could VC be a Casualty of the Recession?“:

Someone running a startup is always calculating in the back of their mind how much “runway” they have—how long they have till the money in the bank runs out and they either have to be profitable, raise more money, or go out of business. Once you cross the threshold of profitability, however low, your runway becomes infinite.

I, however, would like to speculate on another Portfolio problem: it wasn’t very good. For a while, they sent me free issues, as described here, but the chief function of those free issues was to convince me not to subscribe.

I like smart magazines but have been burned too many times by unfortunate subscriptions to try more of the wannabes or the ones I just don’t have time for. The New York Review of Books can be great on literature but is often erratic, and its knee-jerk politics leave much to be desired; I’d rather read it at the library than pay for it, especially given how often it acts as a somnolent rather than stimulant. Not long ago, a string of interesting articles in New York and the low subscription price—$20 seemed reasonable—inspired yet another bad gamble for a magazine without content. I like the Economist but find it expensive and, in trying to read it every week, oppressive, and too broad: the minutia of the political situation in random country X might be fascinating, but not fascinating enough. Its business and technology features often don’t surpass those linked by Hacker News, where I also sometimes learn of unusual books I wouldn’t otherwise.

Given all that, the hurdle for a new magazine is high, and it’s especially high if it’s not going to stand out. Portfolio didn’t.

Mid-September links: Kindles, swimming, Chile, and programming

* According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Kindle-dominated world would mean, um, something new. But what?

* The 2008 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest results are in, and the winner offers a typically horrendous opening that is paradoxically special in its own way:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped “Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.”

I just got inspired to send an entry for next year’s contest as I wrote this entry. Watch this space for more.

* By way of Paper Cuts, In literature, as in life, the art of swimming isn’t hard to master. I mentioned the issue previously at the bottom of this post.

The follow-up about running is here. Yours truly comments in both threads.

* Funny: Bruce Schneider wrote a post for Wired about creating fake identities and the increasing tenuous and yet important link between us and the “data shadows” we generate:

It seems to me that our data shadows are becoming increasingly distinct from us, almost with a life of their own. What’s important now is our shadows; we’re secondary. And as our society relies more and more on these shadows, we might even become unnecessary.

I say “funny,” because I just finished the second draft of a novel that plays with these very ideas. While on the topic of Schneider, he also asks, who needs reason regarding Homeland Insecurity when we can have a culture of perpetual fear instead?

* Speaking of ideas regarding identity, the digital world might be transforming Latin America. In Chile, the New York Times reports a sexual revolution of sorts among the young, driven by technology and connectivity. I wonder what Roberto Bolaño would say.

* Want to be a good programmer? Consider reading.

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