Blog Ipsa Loquitur

The other day, I posted my 15,000th tweet since I first signed up for Twitter in July 2007. Back then, it was called Twttr, and there were no hashtags or @mentions conventions. The homepage was a live stream of every single tweet, and a loaf of bread cost only a nickel.

In the decade since, a lot of things have changed about Twitter. For one, the risk of nuclear war being set off via a tweet has increased enormously. For another, there are a lot more people on Twitter. Bread also costs more. But what really strikes me about social media—Twitter and everything else—is that it seems like the same conversation over and over again. Sure, the conversations are about new things, but isn’t it always the same conversation? Something happens, and you’re either for it or against it, but you’re mad either way because you can’t believe half the country is against it or for it.

After this year’s The Super Bowl, The Outline’s Alex Nichols explored the unseemly parentage of some of these conversations in a piece titled Lady Doritos, the patron saint of outrage marketing:

These brief ping-pong games of feigned outrage can be entertaining, but they ultimately accomplish nothing. Each side digs in its heels until the discussion becomes a parody of itself. The only appreciable effect of any given micro-controversy is that the phrase in question — whether it be “well-done steak,” “shithole countries,” or “covfefe” — sees a brief uptick in search traffic and appears organically in millions of users’ feeds. This proposition is undoubtedly highly attractive to advertisers, who normally have to fork over $200,000 to get something trending on Twitter. Here’s my theory: corporate marketing departments are setting out to hijack this process, thus accomplishing the same thing — but for free.

Set aside the tedium in endless cycles of (genuine, but nonetheless) performative outrage. It’s hard to argue with Nichols’s theory. I mean, I’ve been convinced for a while that Urban Outfitters’s marketing strategy seems to revolve around a bimonthly outrage.

Published on under The nuclear war is going to kill us first anyway

Here’s one from NPR that’s sad but not necessarily surprising. Trump Administration Plans To Defang Consumer Protection Watchdog:

The CFPB is considered a powerful and independent watchdog. But many Republicans have wanted to shut it down since day one because they think it’s too powerful. [Acting CFPB Director] Mulvaney is one of them. As a Congressman, Mulvaney called the agency a “sick sad joke.” He drafted legislation to abolish it. So people at the bureau were shocked when the president appointed him to run this consumer protection agency.

Within weeks of coming on board, Mulvaney has worked to make the watchdog agency less aggressive. […] In another move that particularly upset some staffers, the new boss also dropped a lawsuit against an alleged online loan shark called Golden Valley Lending. The suit says the lender illegally charges people up to 950 percent interest rates. It took CFPB staffers years to build the case. […]

Mulvaney hasn’t officially offered details about why the case was dropped. Meanwhile, staffers at the bureau say they are worried Mulvaney will block more of their efforts to go after shady financial firms. He’s reviewing numerous ongoing lawsuits and investigations.

So this guy that runs the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau doesn’t like the CFPB, and thinks consumers are already protected well enough. I think companies like Golden Valley shouldn’t be allowed to charge 950% interest. Reasonable minds can disagree, right? Well, this story isn’t as simple as “hey look another market Republicans don’t want to regulate,” although I do continue to be impressed at the breadth of that belief. Rather, the NPR article explains the other shifty things lenders like Golden Valley are doing, and introduces one of the debtors:

For her part, Julie Bonenfant of Detroit still hasn’t paid off her debt to Golden Valley. And she feels “betrayed” by the president, whose appointee dropped the lawsuit.

“To be honest I’m really mad, really pissed, because I actually voted for Trump,” Bonenfant says. “So knowing that his guy threw out this case that affects people like me. I feel kind of like stupid — just kind of like betrayed.”

I do wonder whether these sorts of profiles in buyers’ remorse over the 2016 election are productive or helpful in any way. On the one hand, actions have consequences and if you vote for someone whose policies are going to make your life worse, that’s kind of on you. Trump’s outlandish promises and visible lack of comprehension about just about every issue made him sound like a grifter on the campaign trail.

On the other hand, who could have imagined the guy with the gold-plated Manhattan penthouse wouldn’t stand up for the little guy?

Ah, crap, that was just the same hand again, wasn’t it?

Published on under Who Watches the Watchdogs

After the 2016 election, one of the ways I dealt with my anxiety was trying to grapple with the extent to which I lived in a news bubble. It was pretty clear that I didn’t understand the world that a lot of other people lived in. A big part of other peoples’ bubble seemed to be Facebook. While I check Facebook maybe three times a year, everyone I know checks it virtually daily. Immediately after the election, there was no shortage of accounts of how Facebook turned itself into a faulty news powerhouse, and I took some notes on my favorites mostly to order my own thoughts.

Well, just about a year into the Trump presidency, Facebook is getting itself out of the news business. Charlie Warzel for Buzzfeed:

In many ways, Facebook’s planned changes to News Feed are a retreat from the online public square the company helped create. They’re a tacit admission that the company’s great news experiment — which made it one of the most successful publishers in the world — failed. And now Facebook wants to go back to an idealized safe space, free of hyperpartisan pages, misinformation, and fake news. But when you’re home to nearly 2 billion humans, no change is ever simple; Facebook moved fast, broke things, and changed the way that the world produces, consumes, and shares information. And changing course more than a decade into one of the most disruptive social experiments ever might prove more than just a little difficult.

So Facebook is adjusting the algorithm to show fewer posts from Pages in favor of more posts from People. I suppose that’s a start, but what happens when People share propaganda from Pages?

Warzel continues:

While it may cut down incidental exposure to misinformation, the changes could, in some cases, only harden filter bubbles with a steady stream of content from people with similar ideologies. Meanwhile, a retrenchment from News Feed into more walled-off Groups and communities could exacerbate exposure to misinformation. As one platform executive told BuzzFeed News, “the people who end up being chemtrailers or anti-vaxxers do so because of friend and community groups.”

According to one of Facebook’s executives, even if conspiracy theorists and agitprop outfits like “End The Fed” and the “George W Bush Did 9/11 Herald-Gazette” aren’t going to get quite as much bang for their advertising buck anymore, you’ll go back to getting your misinformation from your friends. What a horrible, horrible platform.

Also, none of this addresses the clickbait ads. While Facebook is far from the only offender here, they’re the biggest and it’s especially ironic that even their mea culpas are accompanied by bullshit:

“We take misinformation seriously,” Facebook’s CEO posted Saturday. Right next to two very obvious pieces of misinformation… Note the lying advertisers to the right of his status update? (No, Hugh Hefner [wasn’t] dead, and no, Tiger Woods hasn’t left the PGA forever.) Those ads don’t even lead to news stories. The first one leads to a site selling cures for erectile dysfunction, and the second leads to a site selling testosterone booster. But there’s something even worse about these two advertisers. Both of their web sites are designed to look like actual news sites.

Facebook is not up to the task, whether it’s Pages, the overall News Feed, or even its own ads. I can’t help but recall what Rick Webb wrote last year to Facebook about their business:

In short, you’ve set foot into being a player in the news media, with zero interest in actually helping the news media, or in the social responsibilities that come with it. Now sure. You share ad revenue. But only popular stories garner ad revenue. You’ve aggravated the fundamental problem with internet news: only the most sensationalist stories generate the revenue. Whether the income came from subscriptions or ad revenue, in the old days, revenue to a paper was revenue to a paper. […] You could have helped fix this on the internet, but you didn’t. You made it worse.

What bothers me is not necessarily that Facebook failed, it’s that they so carelessly entered, destroyed, and departed the publisher market. They built something they can’t control to replace something they don’t understand, and they’re blowing it up once the market has adapted to accommodate it for better or worse.

Published on under Exeunt, Pursued by a Bear

Joshua Rothman for the New Yorker, reviews Kate Cole-Adams’s new book “Anesthesia: The Gift of Oblivion and the Mystery of Consciousness,” which—in addition to having a remarkably poetic subtitle—explores a variety of stories and studies on the weird stuff that happens when people go under general anesthesia:

In her attempts to understand what going under anesthesia really entails, Cole-Adams encounters what Kate Leslie, an Australian anesthesiologist, calls “spooky little studies”—odd, suggestive, and often unreplicable experiments. In one such study, from 1993, Ian Russell, a British anesthesiologist, ties a tourniquet around the forearms of thirty-two women undergoing major gynecological surgery. He administers his anesthetic cocktail—the hypnotic drug midazolam, along with a painkiller and a muscle relaxant—then, by tightening the tourniquet, prevents the muscle relaxant from entering each woman’s hands and wrist.

During surgery, a recorded message plays through headphones in which Russell addresses each patient by name. “If you can hear me, I would like you to open and close the fingers of your right hand,” he says. If the woman moves her hand, Russell lifts one of the earpieces and asks her to squeeze his fingers; if she squeezes, he asks her to do it again if she is in pain.

Of the thirty-two patients Russell tested, twenty-three squeezed to suggest they could hear, and twenty squeezed again to say they were in pain. Although Russell was supposed to test sixty patients, he was so unnerved by these results that he ended the trial early. It’s possible, he suggests, that the women were​ conscious and suffering on the operating table. If that’s the case, then general anesthesia might be better described as “general amnesia.” (Afterward, none of the women recalled hearing Russell’s voice or squeezing his hand.)

On my very first date with my now-partner, I explained how terrified I was of general anesthesia because I’d heard a handful of stories not unlike this. It’s only right to make sure she knew what kind of neurotic ride she was boarding fairly early on.

While I won’t be able to bring myself to read Cole-Adams’s book, this review definitely piques one’s curiosity; just how much do—and don’t— we understand about anesthesia? As one of the doctors interviewed by Cole-Adams explains: we don’t really understand consciousness, so how can we possibly understand what turns it off? If we don’t know how the sun rises, what makes us think we can make it set? ​

Published on under The Nope Nope Nope Files

From the Washington Post’s Ellen McCarthy, a slice of life piece on one librarian’s life under a growing cloud of student debt. Just your typical story about a young parent with a home and a car and a job and the crushing psychological weight of knowing you’ll make loan payments until you die:

Three years ago, when she finished her master’s degree, Sarah’s student loans totaled $60,000. She has paid steadily ever since and now owes $69,000 — more than twice the annual income she earns working as a children’s librarian.

“I keep paying,” the 31-year-old says. “But it’s like pouring into a bucket with no bottom.” […]

The glimmer of hope Sarah clings to is her enrollment in a public service student loan forgiveness program that would clear her remaining debt if she puts in seven more years of work with the government and continues to make payments on time. But she’s heard horror stories of borrowers being disqualified from the program — which is available to people who work for the government or certain nonprofits after they have paid their loans on time for 10 years — because of a paperwork error. And she’s terrified the program will be quietly eliminated. (President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal did suggest cutting it for new borrowers but would still forgive debts of people currently enrolled.)

​Same, Sarah. Same.

Published on under Amen, Sister

Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s latest in the Washington Post is on How robo-call moguls outwitted the government and completely wrecked the Do Not Call list. The title is actually a bit misleading, because there’s not so much outwitting the government as flouting the law and hoping the government doesn’t have enough resources to enforce the law. It’s been a good bet so far:

Since the robo-call ban went into effect in 2009, the FTC has brought just 33 cases against robo-callers. In those cases, defendants have been ordered to pay nearly $300 million in relief to victims, and nearly $30 million in civil penalties to the government. But even then, the FTC can’t force perpetrators to pay the fine if they argue they’re broke. Which robo-callers often seem to be. So the FTC has only collected on a fraction of those sums: $18 million in relief and less than $1 million in penalties.

Shell companies have insulated these folks from nearly 94% of the fines and damages they owe for breaking the law. Imagine if bank robbers could skirt the law like that.

In van Zuylen-Wood’s retelling, the government draws the ire of the public for failing to stop robo-calling spam.

At the root of this public relations problem is a likely misapprehension about how the Do Not Call Registry works. When you add your number to the list, nothing actually happens. No legal muscle or technological wizardry suddenly prevents a solicitor from calling you. All the list does is provide you with vague recourse in the event you are called, by allowing you to complain that someone has called you. So, you can report the violation by calling a toll-free number or filling out a form on the Do Not Call website. Then, if the number you were called from shows up in enough complaints, the FTC will leap into action and prosecute the offending dialer.

Except, it almost certainly won’t. In the age of live telemarketing, the mere threat of prosecution or penalty was enough to deter companies with shareholders and reputations to protect. In the robo-calling epoch, dialers couldn’t care less. One, nobody knows who they are or where they’re calling from, because they all spoof their numbers. Two, more of them are doing it every year, since it’s cheap and easy to blast out automated calls from anywhere in the world. All this makes it nearly impossible to identify robo-callers, let alone penalize them. At a hearing on robo-calls in October, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was getting so many of them, she’d disconnected her home phone. “The list,” she said, “doesn’t work.”

​The article also covers a series of variously effective technological band-aids for the underlying problem. Spoilers: none of them work, and we have to rely on the phone companies to fundamentally change how telephony works. Don’t hold your breath, only your calls.

Published on under I, Robot on the other line