Why Vox/Recode was telling you COVID-19 was less dangerous than the flu (1 month ago): Explained

I recently took to Facebook to explain why my family and I are self-quarantining. It’s not just like the flu. But many people disagree. Many, though not all, are “MAGA-people.” Middle-American types who trust Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh. Where are they getting their talking points? Some of it is from Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, etc. (the son of the President of the United States of America for example)

But today I realized that there was “mainstream media” validation out there. On February 13th Vox/Recode published “No handshakes, please”: The tech industry is terrified of the coronavirus. I didn’t read beyond the headline, because I didn’t take the piece seriously.

Here is what I assumed was going on: the editors at Recode were settling some scores with “tech-bros” with whom they had an adversarial relationship. The journalist who wrote the piece was almost certainly just a pawn in this game of middle-school level social competition and sniping. Underlings know what they editors want, and they’ll produce it. Trust me. I’ve been the target of this myself. Much of the media is dishonest manipulation and an expression of power. If you don’t know that, you’re an idiot (to be frank).

Ten years ago the tech-press was just a marketing and publicity arm of Silicon Valley. That changed with a substantial number of the tech-journalism elite becoming skeptical and antagonistic toward the megalomaniacal and somewhat crazy tendencies of the tech-elite (these tendencies are objectively true, though they are features, not bugs!). Much of the antagonism is now masked with social justice and Lefty politics, but ultimately a lot of this is personal. Journalists have power and influence, but not too much money and security.

They think they’re “punching-up” so it’s OK.

Today people are surfacing this Vox/Recode piece again to settle some scores. So I reread the whole thing to be fair. This part shocked me:

“That’s like saying you can’t come in if you visited Chicago because of the flu outbreak in New York City,” the employee told Recode [find someone to say what you want to say -Razib].

Some [“Some”, who? -Razib] have criticized comparing the coronavirus to the flu because it has a far higher fatality rate and that it distracts from the new virus’s severity. But the fact remains that, so far, the flu has impacted far more people [No shit. Exponents. It’s true. It’s disturbing -Razib]. The CDC estimates that 10,000 people have died from the flu this season, with some 19 million people in the US having experienced flu illness. Data from the CDC suggests that the flu is a greater threat to Americans than the coronavirus. Yet unlike the flu, the coronavirus is new and not well understood, which makes it especially scary to the public, including Silicon Valley’s elite.

What. The. Fuck.

This was, and is, technically true. But we all know this is misleading. In mid-February, there was some uncertainty and lack of clarity. Being cautiously skeptical would have been fine. But the tone of this piece is not sober. On Twitter, the tech-journalism elite made their views more nakedly clear. The “tech-bros” are weird and nutty. The coronavirus alarmism was an opportunity to get at them. This was middle school. Not objective analysis.

To be clear, I’m angrier at Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump Jr., Donald Trump, and Sean Hannity. People need to be calm. They don’t need to go crazy. But it was clear a long time ago this was worse than the flu, with high downside risk. Now many MAGA-boomers are now digging into the idea that it’s not as bad as the flu (and making life decisions that are agonizing for their children, like going on vacation because it’s cheap and no lines in airports).

Vox has some great journalists. I probably read everything Julia Belluz writes. These are big organizations, and there isn’t always clear communication or accountability. People differ in their opinions. But let’s be obvious what was happening above: some people within the organization were using “objective journalism” to settle scores. That’s what some journalism is. Now they’re trying to pretend like it didn’t happen. It happened. We will remember.

Put that into a “card-stack” somewhere.

Why I am very bearish on Netflix

I’ve been a subscriber to Netflix for 15 years. It’s a small cost. There are months I go without watching anything. But it’s there. And that’s how I want it.

That being said, I just want to put it on the record (again) that I’m bearish on the future of Netflix. The proximate reason is that major competitors with deep pockets and huge corporate backing are coming into the field of streaming (hello Disney!). But the ultimate rationale is that I think Netflix’s “superstar” system in relation to employees is going to kill any ability to navigate a tough patch with all hands on deck.

Here is a positive view of the firm’s system, How Netflix Reinvented HR.

Basically, Netflix’s culture is hyper-rational and takes for granted that its employees are similar. “Grown-ups.” This is fine during a growth phase, or when times are good. But if Netflix seems like it might not be the future, why wouldn’t all the superstar employees find better opportunities? And once some superstars start leaving, that will reduce Netflix’s prospects, meaning all the superstars will leave en masse, accelerating the decline. And according to Netflix’s credo, they would be behaving entirely rationally.

The company doesn’t make a pretense of loyalty to its employees beyond what they can bring to the table for the company. Similarly, the company won’t be able to lean on any sentimental loyalty from its employees if it needs to right its ship or seems like anything less than a sure bet.

Slack killed IRC? (sort of)

Interesting piece channeling some early internet nostalgia, Picking Up The Slack:
Internet Relay Chat beat Slack to real-time chat by decades and helped define much of our early online culture, yet way more people use Slack. Why is that?
. The article caught my attention because I use Slack at work, and have for a couple of years. In contrast, I probably check in to IRC once every few years now (I actually just installed an IRC client on my computer, it’s been so long).

And yet back during the summers between school years in college, I’d spend a fair amount of time haunting several IRC channels, mostly on UNDERNET. You met some weird people, some nice people, and some unpleasant people. Generally, my utilization of IRC was heavily cyclical, just like my reading and posting in USENET groups. If I had better thing to do, I’d go do them.

Perhaps one of the strangest things about IRC and USENET is a few people from those days actually ended up finding me on the web, with the rise of the paleoblogosphere. At least one long-time commenter knows me from a USENET group back in the late 1990s, while the RSS aggregator that pushes my total content feed was written by an anarcho-libertarian programmer and philosopher who I actually met first when he was a teen nerd in the Deep South.

That old internet culture is disappearing and becoming legend, just like the “homebrew computer” era of the 1970s was for my generation.

How Craigslist stays at 1 by not moving on from the year 2000

In the open thread, I made a casual comment that I’ve become a bit more skeptical of market efficiencies lately. Remember, in the perfect market, the profit of the firms should converge upon zero. Is this to anyone’s benefit? Obviously, it is to the benefit of the consumer. But what happens in the long term when firms can’t make any money?

This crossed my mind recently in regards to Craigslist. Craigslist is notoriously no-frills and reflects an aesthetic and functionally stuck in the year 2000. The founder, Craig Newmark, is a pretty weird person. The company has 50 employees and does not maximize profit. But Newmark and Craigslist have had a culturally huge impact. They destroyed the newspaper classifieds.

And yet Craigslist stays stuck in the year 2000. This was obvious to me when they went after Padmapper. Padmapper was clearly a service which added value to Craigslist. And yet today I wonder if this behavior by Craigslist actually allows it to continue providing the services it does.

Imagine that Craigslist opens up its API and all sorts of other web applications develop around it. What I can imagine is that Craigslist would become the locus of massive and highly efficient arbitrages. Consider programs which match buyers and sellers in a way which minimizes the “deals” that sellers can today gain from buyers who are naive. Perhaps instead of two people going into an exchange, an ecosystem of “runners” who would transport products.

My thoughts on this are vague and cloudy, but perhaps reduced efficiency and rationality actually means Craigslist can persist for far longer?

The rapid fading of information

In Robert Heinlein’s uneven late work Friday the mentor of the protagonist mentions that because of a possible collapse of technological civilization he maintains a collection of paper books.

This crossed my mind when I saw that Storify is shutting down. Or Kevin Drum’s reflections on the changes in blogging.

I’ve put a lot of content out there over the years. Probably on the order of 5 million words across my blogs. Some publications here and there. Lots of tweets. But very little of it will persist into future generations. Digital is evanescent.

But so is paper. I believe that even good hardcover books probably won’t last more than a few hundred years.

Perhaps we should go back to some form of cuneiform? Stone and metal will last thousands of years.

The iPhone killed commenting

Back when this domain received about 15 or 20 percent of the traffic it now receives there were many more commenters. What happened? One of the reasons the Sepia Mutiny weblog was shut down was that as the commentariat withered after 2007 there was less motivation to keep a community going (there was none).

The explanation at the time was that people were moving conversations to Facebook. Today we would add Twitter and Reddit to the list of “culprits.”

But there’s another thing that is hard to ignore: about half the traffic that comes to this website is now on iOS or Android. That is, half the traffic to this domain is mobile.

I’m pretty sure that the nature of browsing content on a phone discourages the sorts of intense back & forth exchanges which were the bread & butter of comments sections of weblogs in the days of yore.

Samsung Galaxy S8 is pretty good

One of the more convenient things with having a blog that has more than a few readers is that you can ask questions and get some answers.

Recently I was figuring out whether I’d go full-Apple, and get an iPhone. I got a lot of feedback, but ultimately I decided to to be boring and get a Samsung Galaxy S8.

The verdict? Bixby sucks. Everything else is pretty good. Would recommend.

Dodging the Apple Premium (still)

Because of what I have been provided by my employers over the last few years I’ve been working on a Macbook Pro. These are fine machines, but they have not converted me to being a convert to all things Apple. I have two machines with Ubuntu at home that I have no problem with using (one of them has a dual-boot where I have a copy of Windows which I use every six months or so to make sure that security updates are installed).

In any case, my current phone has been acting erratically over the past few weeks. Up until now I had been resisting getting a new phone because it wasn’t as if I really needed one…but when there is a jeopardy that your phone will decide to not boot up, one has to act.

So I was agonizing over the Samsung 8 or iPhone 8. I’ve had multiple Samsung’s before. And the Samsung 8 seemed fine. The flip side is that everyone in my office uses an iPhone 8, and I get crap for staying with Android. This is not a major issue…but I can’t lie, I’m curious about the iPhone.

In the end, I probably stayed with Android for one primary reason: people in the Apple ecosystem seem totally hostage to Apple. Upgrades are a total pain, and there are minor things I need to get fixed in regards to my Macbook Pro‘s OS which is going to require a “Genius.” The whole situation strikes me as farcical and not futuristic. I’d rather tinker with my Ubuntu distribution than wait in line at a crowded Mac store.

So pass for now….

Smartphones killed the fabulist


In The Wall Street Journal Nicholas Carr has a bizarre but unsurprising op-ed, How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds:
Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens
. By the title, you can immediately pick out tells that should induce skepticism. “Research suggests” is usually indicating that the author has a hypothesis, and they went and searched the literature for research that confirmed their hypothesis. Carr actually did better than much of modern journalism. He found peer-reviewed literature, instead of quote mining, or selective elisions. Journalism, you have a story to tell, and you’ll make someone else tell it!

And to his credit, Carr cites the publications transparently, with links. Unfortunately, you see that in some cases the sample sizes are very small, and the statistical significance is marginal. In other instances, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real causality. One can’t know if there is a confound with who decides to take phones to class and who does not. It may be that those students who are very focused simply don’t take their phones. Finally, a lot of the research cited in the piece looks like it was sliced and diced to me.

This is where a little history and cognitive neuroscience would go a long way. Traditionalists have inveighed against new information technologies for the whole history of the human race. No doubt when complex syntax emerged some spoiled-sport argued that it was being abused to gossip and waste time.

Most people know that some of the ancient Greeks worried that the spread of literacy was eroding the power of memory. Less well known is that the printing press helped usher in the final decline of the art of memory.

And literacy does rewire our brains. In Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene outlines just how certain regions of the brain focused on shape perception are co-opted to recognize letters effortlessly. This may not be without cost. Muhammed Ali was semi-literate, in part due to dyslexia, and a recent biographer has argued that he had better visual-spatial abilities in part because he didn’t waste his attention and focus on learning to read instinctively.

Nicholas Carr has now built a career in large part on skepticism of the internet and information technology. He knows exactly how to write viral stories which travel on the internet by criticizing the internet.

And it is certainly hard to deny the distracting effect of the internet. But that’s looking at the glass half-empty. One of the positives of the ubiquity of smartphones is that it has forced the retirement of so many bullshitters. Today people can make something up, and you can just “look it up.” Everyone is fact-checking everyone, and distracting from the fabulous bullshit stories and “facts” that a certain type of person has always specialized in.

Like free trade, it’s easy to see the downsides of the internet, and mine the social science literature to “prove” that you’re right. That’s one of the benefits of the internet, it lets you find scientific research which can confirm any assertion you make under heaven. Carr’s leveraging the literature to service his likely false arguments is one of the internet’s downsides.

Google still wants to be Apple (sort of)

Google Is Buying HTC’s Smartphone Expertise for $1.1 Billion. This, after Google has already bought and sold Motorola. Remember when Microsoft bought part of Nokia?

The problem is that Apple and Samsung are starting to create a duopoly. And though most phones run Android, iPhones are much more profitable. There’s a reason many companies develop for iOS but not Android. A friend at Google years ago bemoaned how much more profitable iPhone owners were compared to those bought Android phones.

With all that being said the Apple launch and comments on this blog have convinced me I’m not going iPhone. I don’t know if I’ll go for an HTC, Motorola or Samsung. But for me a phone is functional, not an accessory. Perhaps that explains some of the psychological reasons that iPhone owners spend so much more money on apps….