The nauseating White House Press corps

I’ve always been revolted by the annual dinner of the White House Press Corps, but never more than this year — after the pompous umbrage the hacks have taken to the scathing monologue delivered at the dinner by comedienne Michelle Wolf.

The Economist‘s US correspondent is no admirer of the event, either, and has written an equally scathing commentary on it. Extract:

Calls for press-corps civility are in fact calls for servility, and should be received with contempt. Some might argue that insults do not deserve the same protection as investigative journalism, but that is a distinction without a difference. Anyone who wants to outlaw or apologise for the former will end up too timid to do the latter.

In open societies, self-censorship—in the name of civility, careerism or access preservation—is a much greater threat to the media than outright repression. The only person owed an apology here is Ms Wolf, for being scolded by the very people who invited her to speak, and who purport to defend a “vigorous and free press.”

Right on! But there’s a serious point here. Trump and his acolytes treat serious journalism with contempt. (See Jay Rosen’s splendid NYRB essay). Given that, why should they be entitled to civility or respect?

Facebook’s sudden attack of modesty

One of the most illuminating things you can do as a researcher is to go into Facebook not as a schmuck (i.e. user) but as an advertiser — just like your average Russian agent. Upon entering, you quickly begin to appreciate the amazing ingenuity and comprehensiveness of the machine that Zuckerberg & Co have constructed. It’s utterly brilliant, with a great user interface and lots of automated advice and help for choosing your targeted audience.

When doing this a while back — a few months after Trump’s election — I noticed that there was a list of case studies of different industries showing how effective a given targeting strategy could be in a particular application. One of those ‘industries’ was “Government and Politics” and among the case studies was a story of how a Facebook campaign had proved instrumental in helping a congressional candidate to win against considerable odds. I meant to grab some screenshots of this uplifting tale, but of course forget to do so. When I went back later, the case study had, well, disappeared.

Luckily, someone else had the presence of mind to grab a screenshot. The Intercept, bless it, has the before-and-after comparison shown in the image above. They are Facebook screenshots from (left) June 2017 and (right) March 2018.

Interesting, ne c’est pas?

Book you ticket

From today’s Financial Times. Clearly they were so excited by the coup of landing Steve Bannon as a speaker that they omitted to employ a proof-reader.

Interesting also that the FT regards Bannon as an “influencer”. Just as Marine le Pen does, apparently.

Interesting uses for blockchain technology #15610

From a lovely rant by Paul Ford:

The blockchain can be a form of media. The writer Maria Bustillos is starting a magazine that will publish on the blockchain — which means it will be impossible to take down. (Disclosure: In theory, I’ll write for Maria, who’s a friend, and she’ll pay me in cryptocurrency, or what she calls “space jewels.”) One of her aims is to make it impossible for people—Peter Thiel, for example, who backed Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker—to threaten publications they dislike.

You could even make a distributed magazine called Information of Vital Public Interest About Peter Thiel that would be awfully hard to sue into oblivion. It’s the marketplace of ideas. Literally. Try another thought experiment. Remember that anonymously created list of men who worked in media and who were alleged sexual harassers? You could, by whispering the allegations from one wallet to the next, put that information on a blockchain. You could make a web browser plug-in so that whenever someone visited a sexual harasser’s LinkedIn page, that page could glow bright red. You could have a distributed, immutable record of sexual harassment allegations on the internet. (Is there an economy around such allegations? Well, people do pay for gossip. GossipCoin?)

Roger Bannister, RIP

Roger Bannister, the first man ever to run a mile in under four minutes, has died at the age of 88. I heard the news just after listening to radio reports of the latest in a long line of scandals about doping in sports. Then I read the splendid obit in the New York Times. This is how it begins:

On the morning of May 6, 1954, a Thursday, Roger Bannister, 25, a medical student in London, worked his usual shift at St. Mary’s Hospital and took an early afternoon train to Oxford. He had lunch with some old friends, then met a couple of his track teammates, Christopher Chataway and Chris Brasher. As members of an amateur all-star team, they were preparing to run against Oxford University.

About 1,200 people showed up at Oxford’s unprepossessing Iffley Road track to watch, and though the day was blustery and damp — inauspicious conditions for a record-setting effort — a record is what they saw. Paced by Chataway and Brasher and powered by an explosive kick, his signature, Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes — 3:59.4, to be exact — becoming the first man ever to do so, breaking through a mystical barrier and creating a seminal moment in sports history.

And then, having broken the barrier, what did he do? Why, he ‘retired’ from competitive athletics in order to do something serious. “Now that I am taking up a hospital appointment,” he said in an address to the English Sportswriters Association that December,

I shall have to give up international athletics. I shall not have sufficient time to put up a first-class performance. There would be little satisfaction for me in a second-rate performance, and it would be wrong to give one when representing my country.

He worked as a neurosurgeon for the rest of his life.

It’s impossible to read this and not reflect on how competitive sport has changed in the intervening decades.

Even today, the Pathe news footage of his run is thrilling. May he rest in peace.

That ‘tulip-mania’ meme…

Historians are such spoilsports: they undermine stories that are too good to check. Consider this distressing piece by Anne Goldgar:

Tulip mania was irrational, the story goes. Tulip mania was a frenzy. Everyone in the Netherlands was involved, from chimney-sweeps to aristocrats. The same tulip bulb, or rather tulip future, was traded sometimes 10 times a day. No one wanted the bulbs, only the profits – it was a phenomenon of pure greed. Tulips were sold for crazy prices – the price of houses – and fortunes were won and lost. It was the foolishness of newcomers to the market that set off the crash in February 1637. Desperate bankrupts threw themselves in canals. The government finally stepped in and ceased the trade, but not before the economy of Holland was ruined.

Trouble is, the story is mostly bunkum. Detailed excavations in Dutch archives for her book — Tulipmania: Money, Honor and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age— failed to find much evidence for the ‘mania’ beloved of us commentators.

Tulip mania wasn’t irrational. Tulips were a newish luxury product in a country rapidly expanding its wealth and trade networks. Many more people could afford luxuries – and tulips were seen as beautiful, exotic, and redolent of the good taste and learning displayed by well-educated members of the merchant class. Many of those who bought tulips also bought paintings or collected rarities like shells.

Prices rose, because tulips were hard to cultivate in a way that brought out the popular striped or speckled petals, and they were still rare. But it wasn’t irrational to pay a high price for something that was generally considered valuable, and for which the next person might pay even more.

And it wasn’t a ‘frenzy’ either.

Tulip mania wasn’t a frenzy, either. In fact, for much of the period trading was relatively calm, located in taverns and neighbourhoods rather than on the stock exchange. It also became increasingly organised, with companies set up in various towns to grow, buy, and sell, and committees of experts emerged to oversee the trade. Far from bulbs being traded hundreds of times, I never found a chain of buyers longer than five, and most were far shorter.

Oh – and she found no records of anyone throwing themselves into canals.

Sigh. The slaughter of a beautiful meme by ugly facts.

Brevity is the soul of wit — and of citation indices

The Journal of Economic Bahavior & Organization has an interesting article by Yann Bramoulléa and Lorenzo Ductor entitled “Title Length”. The Abstract reads:

We document strong and robust negative correlations between the length of the title of an economics article and different measures of scientific quality. Analyzing all articles published between 1970 and 2011 and referenced in EconLit, we find that articles with shorter titles tend to be published in better journals, to be more cited and to be more innovative. These correlations hold controlling for unobserved time-invariant and observed time-varying characteristics of teams of authors.

Highlights include:

• Strong and robust negative relation between the length of the title of an article and its scientific quality.

• Articles with shorter titles are published in better journals.

• Articles with shorter titles tend to receive more citations, controlling for journal quality and team characteristics.

• Title length is negatively associated with the novelty of the article.

• The association between title length and citations is stronger in better journals.

Wow! Who knew?

The bounder’s charm

I’m reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s NYRB review of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s last book.

It’s a fine review — perceptive, affectionate but also critical. PLF was a charming writer but he was also a show-off and a bit of a cad. Still, when he was on song he was terrific. As in this passage from another of PLF’s books, Mani, quoted by Mendelsohn:

I often have the impression, listening to a Greek argument, that I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like the long balloons in comic strips…:the perverse triple loop of Xi, the twin concavity of Omega,…Phi like a circle transfixed by a spear…. At its climax it is as though these complex shapes were flying from the speaker’s mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire.

Wonderful.

Politics and the English language

From this morning’s Observer:

Theresa May is facing a growing revolt among party donors, with one senior backer warning that the Tories will be “decimated” at an election unless the prime minister ends her indecision and shows leadership.

With mounting accusations across the party that May is dithering over Brexit and lacking an inspiring domestic agenda, Sir John Hall, the former owner of Newcastle United, told the Observer that the prime minister was facing a make-or-break period of her premiership. wipeout

If one is being pedantic (and one is) this doesn’t sound like much of a threat. Losing a tenth of her MPs in an election would not be good news for Mrs May, but it wouldn’t be the wipeout that Sir John is envisaging. Could it be that he has fallen prey to the dreaded Etymological fallacy?