A Brexit puzzle

Simon Wren-Lewis has a thoughtful blog post about the great British public’s attitude to Brexit.

On the one hand, there’s this opinion-poll chart…

… which shows that people are increasingly convinced that Brexit will have a bad impact. On the other hand, there’s the evidence from the YouGov tracker poll, which suggests that, despite that deepening pessimism, people are not suffering ‘buyer’s remorse’ about the vote.

What should we infer from this? Wren-Lewis’s hypothesis is:

Voters feel that once a democratic decision has been made, it should be respected, even if they personally now feel less comfortable with the reasons behind the decision. It is important to respect the ‘will of the people’ for its own sake, just as it is important to keep to a contract even though you may now regret signing it.

If true, this would reflect well on the British public’s respect for democratic values. But somehow I doubt it. Probably it has more to do with a kind of weary acceptance. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we just shrug and get on with life.

Jimmy Breslin had Trump sussed in 1990

For example, in his Newsday column of June 7, 1990:

Suddenly, we have all these prudent, responsible bankers, loan papers crackling in their frightened hands, chasing madly after Donald Trump for money. It seems like great sport, but I must tell you that I believe this to be temporary and that Trump, no matter what kind of a crash he experiences now, will come back as sure as you are reading this. I now will tell you why.

Trump survives by Corum’s Law. This is a famous, well-tested theory and is named after Bill Corum, who once wrote sports for the Hearst papers when they were in New York. He had a great gravel voice and did radio and television announcing for the World Series and heavyweight championship fights.

Corum went on to run the Kentucky Derby on the invitation of local businessmen who were alarmed that the event had acquired a sleazy reputation. People who came to the race were routinely fleeced by hoteliers, touts and whores. Corum’s genius, according to Breslin, was that he understood that this was a feature, not a bug.

Corum glanced at the [newspaper] clips and threw them in the air. “This is great. There is nothing better for a championship event than a treacherous woman. If a guy from North Dakota goes home from here after the race and has to be met because he doesn’t even have cab fare left, that guy is going to say to himself, ‘Wow. I must have had a hell of a time. I can’t wait for next year.’ But if that same guy goes home and he still has half his money, he is going to say ‘I guess I didn’t have such a great time at the Kentucky Derby after all.’

“Because, gentlemen, this is the rule. A sucker has to get screwed.”

This is Corum’s Law and the one person who has understood it best is… Donald Trump. For years, the suckers he screwed were bankers, City planners and journalists. Now he’s playing for much bigger stakes, and the suckers are the unfortunate inhabitants of the United States.

Hacking your tractor used to be a crime. Now it’s a breach of contract.

This morning’s Observer column:

John Deere is a large corporation that makes tractors. They’re green, big and powerful and they don’t come cheap. I’ve just noticed a nearly new 6175R model for £77,500 plus VAT, for example. That’s £93,000 in real money, so imagine how proud you’d feel if you were fortunate enough to own one of these magnificent machines.

Well, it depends on what you mean by “own”…

Read on

One Nation Under Fox

If anyone thought that old-style media power was over, then Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox, is the living refutation of that comforting hypothesis. Fox News, according to the New York Times “has been the most watched cable news network for 15 years, but depending on the hour, the news narrative it presents to its large and loyal conservative audience can sharply diverge from what consumers of other media outlets may be seeing.”

Times reporters watched Fox News from 6 a.m. until midnight last Thursday to see how its coverage varied from that of its rivals on a day when cable news was dominated by the health care debate in Congress, the terrorist attack in London and the investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election.

One notable way Fox News stood apart from its competition, as it has been known to do for years, was in the stories it chose to highlight and the tone — in some of its opinion shows, unapologetically supportive of Mr. Trump and his agenda — with which it covered them.

There was extensive coverage of the health care vote, for example, but there was also considerable time given to topics, like a rape case in Maryland, that viewers would not have heard about if they had turned to CNN or MSNBC. The rape case, which involved an undocumented immigrant and went virtually uncovered on most networks, received almost hourly updates on Fox, and at times was used as proof that Mr. Trump’s calls for tighter borders and a crackdown on immigration were justified.

The key role played in the US election by TV is also a cautionary tale for those who thought that the Internet would eventually wipe out TV. This is the most common misconception about new communications technologies: what John Seely Brown calls “endism” — the belief that new media wipe out older media. That’s why I’ve argued for many years that a better metaphor for our communications environment is ecological. New media don’t wipe out older ones; but new relationships (many of them symbiotic, and sometimes parasitic) evolve. Broadcast TV has, of course, been eroded by the rise of ‘on-demand’ viewing, Netflix, etc. But TV hasn’t gone away, and Fox’s dominance confirms that.

Jimmy Breslin, RIP

Jimmy Breslin died last week at the age of 88. May he rest in peace: his writing gave some of us a lot of pleasure. The NYT gave him his due in a nice obit. Sample:

Love or loathe him, none could deny Mr. Breslin’s enduring impact on the craft of narrative nonfiction. He often explained that he merely applied a sportswriter’s visual sensibility to the news columns. Avoid the scrum of journalists gathered around the winner, he would advise, and go directly to the loser’s locker. This is how you find your gravedigger.

“So you go to a big thing like this presidential assassination,” he said in an extended interview with The New York Times in 2006. “Well, you’re looking for the dressing room, that’s all. And I did. I went there automatic.”

And if you’re wondering what that refers to, here’s his column on the funeral of JFK.

Gary Kasparov on fake news

From an interesting interview:

Q: Does the term “fake news” have a Russian equivalent, and if so, what is it, who uses it and, in your experience, why?

Kasparov: My honest reply to this is that the word for “fake news” in Putin’s Russia is simply “news.” There isn’t a syllable uttered or printed in Russia without its author being very much aware of what the regime thinks of it and what would happen to him if he crosses a certain line—except perhaps the weather! Often those lines are explicit, sent out in memos about new topics and how to promote or spin them. But by now, after 17 years of Putin, everyone knows where the lines are. Under those conditions, what can news be except fake? Even if nearly everything that is published is, in and of itself, true, there is an ocean of falsity in what isn’t said, what isn’t asked, and how basic facts are presented. This is the story of the media in a modern dictatorship. It’s not like Pravda, with one official storyline that everyone knows is probably BS. There are hundreds of layers of carefully calibrated propaganda and censorship in Putin’s Russia, creating the illusion of freedom. One outlet says Putin is great 100 percent of the time about everything. Another only 80 percent, about, say, the economy or security. One writer can complain a little about education, while another is allowed to criticize the regime on one or two specific things, etc. It’s like the Matrix, a complex illusion. And since almost all Russians still depend on television news, it’s very effective.

Information overload is nothing new

Alan Jacobs putting forward some theses for disputation:

Francis Bacon, in the essay “Of Studies,” provided a stringent model for how to narrow our attentiveness: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” In her wonderful book Too Much to Know, Ann Blair explains that Bacon in this essay offered instruction in the skills of intellectual triage for people afflicted by information overload. Blair points out that one of the most common complaints of literate people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the proliferation of stuff to read. Cried Erasmus in 1525, “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?”

And many of those books were simply not good — not good for you, lacking nutrition. Therefore Bacon recommends that we begin with tasting; and in many cases that will be sufficient. It is unhealthy to read worthless books “with diligence and attention.”

YouTube, dodgy content and the advertising business

There’s much hoo-hah about major corporations suddenly being scandalised by the discovery that their digital advertising appears alongside all kinds of objectionable YouTube videos. A sceptic might ask: what took them so long to realise this? One answer might be that most corporate executives don’t ever look at the kind of stuff on YouTube that kids watch. But, anyway, now they have discovered what’s been going on and they are reacting like scandalised Victorian spinsters who have just caught a glimpse of a naked ankle.

And they’re withdrawing their ads. As the NYT reports this morning:

But the technology underpinning YouTube’s advertising business has come under intense scrutiny in recent days, with AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and other deep-pocketed marketers announcing that they would pull their ads from the service. Their reason: The automated system in which ads are bought and placed online has too often resulted in brands appearing next to offensive material on YouTube such as hate speech.

On Thursday, the ride-sharing service Lyft became the latest example, removing their ads after they appeared next to videos from a racist skinhead group.

Google, sensing that this is going to turn into a PR nightmare, is responding in textbook fashion. Soothing noises, promises of technological fixes, plus gentle chiding of advertisers for apparently not being aware that they are not using the ‘tools’ that Google provides for decreasing the likelihood of their ads being seen in undesirable company.

The big question, of course, is whether this fuss is likely to do real damage to the company. Lots of investment analysts are crawling all over this. Here’s one assessment from RBC Capital Markets:

We built a very simple analysis based on the following assumptions: YT [YouTube] is roughly $14B of Revenue in 2017, and GDN [Google Display Network] is $4.8B (GOOG does not disclose so these are very rough ests); GDN pays 70% TAC; YT & GDN have roughly the same Net margins as our estimates for Alphabet as a whole (26.7% GAAP NI margins on Net Revenue). With this as a backdrop, a 10% hit to YT and GDN revenue in 2017 would be a 1.7% reduction to Net Revenue / GAAP EPS ($1.5B / $0.59) and a 2% hit would be 0.3% reduction ($309MM / $0.12).

If that’s right, this controversy is relatively small beer as far as Google is concerned. My conclusion: expect more soothing PR-speak and very little action.

The ideology behind the gig economy

Jia Tolentino has a very good piece in the New Yorker about the ideology that underpins the gig economy. The piece opens with the story of Mary, a Lyft driver in Chicago who kept accepting rides even though she was nine months pregnant – and even kept going when her contractions began!

In the end, it ended well. Mary had a customer who only needed a short ride, so she was able to drive herself to hospital after dropping him off. Once there, she gave birth to a baby girl — who appears on the company blog wearing a “Little Miss Lyft” onesie.

The point of the company blog post is to laud the spirit of workers like Mary. But, writes Tolentino,

It does require a fairly dystopian strain of doublethink for a company to celebrate how hard and how constantly its employees must work to make a living, given that these companies are themselves setting the terms. And yet this type of faux-inspirational tale has been appearing more lately, both in corporate advertising and in the news. Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur”—as its name suggests, services advertised on Fiverr can be purchased for as low as five dollars—recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.” One ad, prominently displayed on some New York City subway cars, features a woman staring at the camera with a look of blank determination. “You eat a coffee for lunch,” the ad proclaims. “You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

Quite so. Lyft drivers in Chicago earn about $11 per trip.

Perhaps, as Lyft suggests, Mary kept accepting riders while experiencing contractions because “she was still a week away from her due date,” or “she didn’t believe she was going into labor yet.” Or maybe Mary kept accepting riders because the gig economy has further normalized the circumstances in which earning an extra eleven dollars can feel more important than seeking out the urgent medical care that these quasi-employers do not sponsor. In the other version of Mary’s story, she’s an unprotected worker in precarious circumstances.

Spot on.