Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Last week, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai testified before the House Judiciary Committee. By now, you’ve probably heard it didn’t go well. Texas Rep. Ted Poe was one of several committee members who brandished an iPhone and asked the Google CEO questions about whether they were tracking his phone. Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel asks What Was The Point Of Google’s Congressional Hearing?

Take Poe’s question. Its topic — data privacy and location tracking — is important, but the wording was unartful, and it revealed, immediately, a poor understanding of the workings of the technology to which it referred. Conversely, Pichai’s answer seemed to purposefully ignore the spirit of the question, focusing on semantics instead of a reasonable answer. (For example: “While I don’t know the particulars of your device, yes, many Google apps track granular location information.”) The end result? Nothing worthwhile.

Instead the roughly 210 minutes of hearing testimony were mostly devoted to shallow questions from lawmakers about political bias. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan devoted five minutes to asking about an email from a marketing executive at Google, grilling Pichai about individual employee efforts to help mobilize Latino voters. Rep. Lamar Smith spent his time spent his time citing studies with dubious methodology (the report’s author previously noted her methods were “not scientific”) alleging a deep political bias in Google’s news results. Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican, complained anecdotally about search results, claiming he only saw negative stories about his party’s Affordable Care Act repeal bills, suggesting a nefarious anti-conservative bias. Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, used part of his five minutes to bemoan the Google search results for his own name — suggesting the search engine has a pro-conservative bias. In one instance, Iowa Rep. Steve King asked if Pichai would release the names of Google’s search engineers so they could be independently investigated for their own political beliefs.

Imagine having the power to force gigantic technology companies to answer for their failings, and choosing “sometimes when I look up my name I don’t like what I see” as your cause. And I know the Judiciary Committee isn’t necessarily equipped to handle issues of cutting-edge technology, but at this point it’s an issue for all of us, not just the nerds.

Published on under There Is No Point

This Vox piece by Rachel Sugar is near and dear to my household. It’s an interview with psychologist Barry Schwartz on the allure of a doomed mission: The quest for the best.

Given that we live in a consumer culture where you can get anything — a T-shirt, fancy whiskey, blood pressure medication — delivered to your door within hours, it is surprisingly difficult to buy things.

Do you want jeans? What type of jeans do you want? Will those jeans look good on you? Why didn’t you buy jeans that look better? Also, isn’t $148 a lot to pay for jeans? Maybe they’ll go on sale later. Maybe you’ll find better jeans if you try harder. All you want is the best jeans, and is that so wrong?

Yes, psychologist Barry Schwartz famously argued in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, his 2004 opus exploring why, if we love choices so much, an ever-growing number of them seems to be making us miserable.

This is part of the same Vox series as the “the men’s razor industry has gone bonkers” piece I liked last week. But the reason this story lands like a bombshell for me is bits like this:

According to him, the world is, very roughly, divided into two types of people: satisficers, who can be content with a good-enough thing — they’re perfectly fine pants, let’s move on with our brief lives — and maximizers, who can’t call off the search until they’re certain they’re getting not just a good thing but the best.

And here I’ve been dividing the world between chaos and order muppets. This makes at least as much sense.

Published on under All Muppets Are Chaos Muppets

The New York Times’s Rachel Abrams and John Koblin reporting on how CBS Paid the Actress Eliza Dushku $9.5 Million to Settle Sexual Harassment Claims is, in many ways, the least surprising story you can imagine. A TV show where the main character is a libidinous man (CBS advertises the show with the tagline “He’ll get you off!”) has an on-set environment resembling a fraternity house as much as anything else. When a new actor joins the show, she points out inappropriate behavior and is swiftly fired. Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, etc.

But Dushku’s story is hilarious for one specific reason that I’m so, so glad made it into Abrams and Koblin’s story. After paying Dushku nearly $10 million to not sue, CBS launched an investigation into what exactly happened. Here’s how the Times describes the draft report from that investigation:

After considering a lawsuit, Ms. Dushku entered into mediation with CBS. Mark Engstrom, the chief compliance officer at CBS, participated, along with Bettina B. Plevan, a partner at the law firm Proskauer Rose, who was serving as outside counsel for the company.

Mr. Engstrom handed over outtakes from “Bull” in the belief that they would help the company’s cause, because they showed Ms. Dushku cursing on the set, investigators wrote in the draft of their report.

The strategy backfired. The outtakes were a “gold mine” for Ms. Dushku, the lawyers wrote, because they “actually captured some of the harassment on film.”

Although the investigators praised Mr. Engstrom for his “tremendous institutional knowledge” and described him as a “smart and very capable lawyer,” they said the company’s failure to recognize the instances of harassment caught on tape was a symptom of larger problems at CBS, according to the draft of their report. Mr. Engstrom declined to comment.

This is absolutely amazing. You have video evidence of the harassment occurring! Even if you think women like to make up instances of sexual harassment to complain about (hint: they don’t), you don’t have to take Dushku’s word against anyone else’s. You watched the sexual harassment happen on video! You know it happened! And then you gave that video to the harassed person’s lawyers thinking it was exculpatory because their client used a bad word.

You know, if CBS is looking for someone to help figure out if certain behavior is inappropriate, it seems like Eliza Dushku is at least as good at it as the folks they’ve got working on it right now. Oh, and what a coincidence: she’s unemployed at the moment, too. Win-win!

Published on under Doesn’t Look Like Anything To Me

Folks, there’s been a lot of heavy stuff on Blog Ipsa Loquitur these last few months. The news is full of federal indictments, surveillance technology companies moonlighting as social media platforms, and a slow motion constitutional crisis that could spark a second civil war. The depths of winter are dark enough without the news.

So here’s a great long read about something that isn’t life or death or impeachment: Vox’s Kaitlyn Tiffany on shaving implements. Gillette used to rule razors — then came Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club.

The entire razor industry is flailing. It’s not just that Gillette is getting a smaller piece of the pie; the pie itself is also getting smaller. That’s partly driven by the fact that the population of the United States is aging: When you get old, you don’t grow as much hair, so you don’t shave as much, and then (unrelated) you die. […]

According to [global market research firm] Mintel, sales of “shaving and hair removal tools” are estimated to see about $3.5 billion in sales in 2018, a decline of nearly 4 percent from the year before. Worse, Mintel’s analysts predict there will be no growth for at least the next five years.

Yet in tandem with the downward spiral of the necessity of shaving tools, we are experiencing the arrival of an extreme number of new shaving tools to buy. At the same time, there’s only so much true innovation possible for an item like a razor, which does one thing and almost always does it well.

It’s a classic example of capitalism working not quite the way that was promised but the way it does when put into practice by humans. We see it time and again — with the hotel industry, with cable TV, now with razors: Shrinking markets are not allowed to simply shrink, but instead inspire aggressive pandering, bizarre advertising, and nichification of products that have no reason to be so differentiated.

This was a fascinating peek into an industry thrown into silliness, and Tiffany is a great storyteller. For my part, I’m one of those double-edge safety razor users mentioned in her article. A few years back, I bought a 1964 Gillette “Fat Boy” Adjustable Safety Razor on eBay. It’s hard to imagine there’s a whole industry dedicated to manufacturing new safety razors when Gillette left all these perfectly good razors lying around fifty years ago.

Published on under Razor Thin Profit Margins

Yves Smith in New York Magazine: Will Uber Survive the Next Decade?

But, but, but — you may say — Uber has established a large business in cities over the world. Yes, it’s easy to get a lot of traffic by selling at a discount. Uber is subsidizing ride costs. Across all its businesses, Uber was providing services at only roughly 74 percent of their cost in its last quarter. Uber was selling its services at only roughly 64 percent of their cost in 2017, with a GAAP profit margin of negative 57 percent. […]

Well, sure, negative 26 percent profit margin seems bad, but you just make it up on volume.

Uber defenders might argue that that’s a big improvement from 2015, when revenues only covered 43 percent of costs, and the GAAP margin was negative 132 percent. But as we’ll discuss in more detail, this reduction in how much Uber spends to get each average dollar of revenue didn’t come from improved efficiency, but was due to almost entirely to cutting driver pay. The transportation company appears to have hit the limit of how much it can squeeze drivers, since churn has increased. […]

Just wait until you see how little these companies plan to pay their autonomous cars!

The only advantage Uber might have achieved is taking advantage of its drivers’ lack of financial acumen — that they don’t understand the full cost of using their cars and thus are giving Uber a bargain. There’s some evidence to support that notion. Ridester recently published the results of the first study to use actual Uber driver earnings, validated by screenshots. Using conservative estimates for vehicle costs, they found that that UberX drivers, which represent the bulk of its workforce, earn less than $10 an hour. They would do better at McDonald’s. But even this offset to the generally higher costs of fleet operation hasn’t had a meaningful impact on Uber’s economics.

For someone like me who only knows Uber as the multi-billion dollar juggernaut, this was an interesting read.

Published on under Headed For a Crash

Apropos of the last post about the Yellow Jackets, here’s BuzzFeed News’s Ryan Broderick on How We Radicalized The World:

Chances are, by now, your country has some, if not all, of the following. First off, you probably have some kind of local internet troll problem, like the MAGAsphere in the US, the Netto-uyoku in Japan, Fujitrolls in Peru, or AK-trolls in Turkey. Your trolls will probably have been radicalized online via some kind of community for young men like Gamergate, Jeuxvideo.com (“videogames.com”) in France, ForoCoches (“Cars Forum”) in Spain, Ilbe Storehouse in South Korea, 2chan in Japan, or banter Facebook pages in the UK.

Then far-right influencers start appearing, aided by algorithms recommending content that increases user watch time. They will use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to transmit and amplify content and organize harassment and intimidation campaigns. If these influencers become sophisticated enough, they will try to organize protests or rallies. The mini fascist comic cons they organize will be livestreamed and operate as an augmented reality game for the people watching at home. Violence and doxxing will follow them.

Some of these trolls and influencers will create more sophisticated far-right groups within the larger movement, like the Proud Boys, Generation Identity, or Movimento Brasil Livre. Or some will reinvigorate older, more established far-right or nationalist institutions like the Nordic Resistance Movement, the Football Lads Alliance, United Patriots Front, or PEGIDA.

While a far-right community is building in your country, a fake news blitz is usually raging online. It could be a rumor-based culture of misinformation, like the localized hoaxes that circulate in countries like India, Myanmar, or Brazil. Or it could be the more traditional “fake news” or hyperpartisan propaganda we see in predominantly English-speaking countries like the US, Australia, or the UK.

Typically, large right-wing news channels or conservative tabloids will then take these stories going viral on Facebook and repackage them for older, mainstream audiences. Depending on your country’s media landscape, the far-right trolls and influencers may try to hijack this social-media-to-newspaper-to-television pipeline. Which then creates more content to screenshot, meme, and share. It’s a feedback loop.

Lest you thought the problem with social media began and ended at Facebook, Broderick’s platform-agnostic 350-word synopsis of our ongoing epistemological crisis is probably the best and most concise one I’ve read. He’s got an interesting perspective on this stuff. In 2015, I started listening to Broderick’s “Internet Explorer” podcast, in which he and co-host Katie Notopoulos shared the weirdest and darkest internet memes they could find. They described their show as covering “things like subreddits where men ejaculate on anime figurines, dragon-shaped dildos, and the adult baby fetish community.” It’s like when the guy who plays Captain America in the movies gets into real-life Twitter beefs with neo-nazis: that’s a career arc that somehow makes perfect and zero sense simultaneously.

There’s also this story from Andy Kroll in Rolling Stone, on the way John Podesta had his life turned upside-down by the Pizzagate conspiracy. I liked this nugget from the middle of Kroll’s article, in which the owner of the pizza parlor at the center of Pizzagate is trying to get social media companies to stop pushing conspiracy theories to their billions of users. At this point, one conspiracy theorist has already walked into the pizza parlor with a rifle and started shooting:

The response from the social media companies ranged from helpful to utterly dismissive, [Comet Pizza parlor owner James] Alefantis recalls. Even before he’d hired lawyers, Alefantis had gotten Yelp to suspend Comet’s page after his staff had reported the abusive reviews. Facebook was responsive to Comet’s complaints. YouTube, however, refused to so much as acknowledge its role in amplifying Pizzagate, saying they were just a platform, that they weren’t an arbiter of truth and falsity and told Alefantis to get back in touch if and when he could get a court order finding the videos that promoted Pizzagate to be defamatory.

“YouTube is a platform committed to allowing a wide range of free expression, but it is not and never has been anything goes,” a YouTube spokesperson tells Rolling Stone, adding that in the first half of 2018 the company removed more than 17 million individual videos that violated its policies.

YouTube’s first response (to the guy who owned the shot-up pizzeria) was basically “hey, it’s not our job to figure out whether the conspiracy theory is true.” It’s cool, I’m sure it’s someone else’s job to moderate the thing you built. Don’t sweat it. And then, when the Rolling Stone reporter got in touch with YouTube for his story, YouTube’s second response was essentially “we kick stuff off our platform all the time but only when they break the rules.” I feel like there’s a possibility that YouTube missed their window to play the ‘we moderate our platform real good’ card in this case.

Here’s hoping the big social media platforms figure this stuff out sooner rather than later.

Published on under It Is Not Rad To Be Radical