Monday 23 November, 2020

Brass plate outside a Dutch Law Firm.

Taken long before anyone had heard of Rudy Guiliani.

Quote of the Day

“People always ask me the most ridiculous questions. They want to know, ‘How do you approach a role?’ Well, I don’t know. I approach it by first saying yes, then getting on with the bloody thing.”

  • Dame Edith Evans

Musical alternative to the radio news of the Day

Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale | live in Denmark August 2006 | with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and choir at Ledreborg Castle,


Long read of the Day Why did Wikipedia’s competitors fail?

Marvellous Chapter (pdf) in Benjamin Mako Hill’s MIT dissertation.


We will not understand Covid until we give up debating it

Terrific essay by Tim Harford. Sample:

The mindset of the debater is not that of the calm seeker-of-truth. Opposing arguments are to be caricatured, statistics to be twisted, examples to be cherry-picked. The audience is to be entertained or even enraged as much as persuaded. Politics rewards anger and in-group loyalty.

When one is used to examining every scrap of evidence as possible ammunition, it becomes hard to use them to navigate towards a truly solid conclusion, or sometimes towards any conclusions at all: just think of Boris Johnson’s notorious pair of opinion columns, one arguing for Brexit and the other, unpublished, arguing the opposite. Such rhetorical gymnastics are familiar to anyone who has spent time in a debate club. They create the illusion of giving the pros and cons a thorough testing. But now that Brexit is happening, the illusion has faded; we realise the referendum barely scratched the surface of the real issues.

The thing about the Coronavirus is that it should have been different. Here we had a common enemy, impervious to spin and misinformation. “But it did not take long”, Harford writes, “for the polarisation to creep back in. Somehow we have now managed to start a culture war about a pandemic. There is a vociferous chorus of lockdown “sceptics” and Covid alarmists.”

The alarmists have natural allies in the media’s love of tragic yet unrepresentative tales of young people slain by the mysterious illness, or worrying reports of “long Covid” symptoms presented without any sense of whether such symptoms are common.

The so-called sceptics, who lack any of the doubt about jumping to conclusions that defines the proper use of that word, are—if anything—even louder. They have moved steadily from one talking point to another: that the virus might be vastly more common—and thus less deadly—than it seemed; that a kind of herd immunity might be in easy reach; that people were “dying with” rather than “dying of” Covid-19; that the virus was mutating to become less dangerous; and most recently, that the number of cases was dramatically overstated because tests were producing so many false positives.

There is something in most of these claims, from both sides. But my point is not that if there is truth on both sides, the centre ground must be right. It is that this grand “clash of ideas” is not bringing us any closer to understanding the truth.

He’s right. And, en passant, the example of both Brexit and the virus show up the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor for what it is: a delusion.

The implications of Substack’s success

This post — on Tanner Greer’s blog, The Scholar’s Stage — is interesting, especially if (like me) you’re interested in media-ecology and the public sphere. Its subject is the way Substack (the platform that sends out the email version of this blog) is changing the ecosystem. Greer doesn’t like this direction of travel.

Substack is the medium of the solo artist. High-rolling soloists at that. Like Patreon, Onlyfans, book publishing generally, or any other medium where creators connect with the masses sans bundled packaging, Substack has (and will continue to have) a power-law distribution. The biggest names will earn in their hundred of thousands; the median user is going to scrape away $100-200 a month, at best. If measured in page hits instead of dollars, the same could have been said for the high and low tiers of the old blogosphere as well. Then the world’s most popular independent writers occasionally drove national news cycles. After a few weeks of feeble posting the vast majority of bloggers in the lower tier gave up writing altogether (by 2009 Technocrati was reporting that there were 133 million blogs in the world—and a full 95% of them had been abandoned).2

However, the blogosphere allowed for a healthy medium layer of independent writers that existed between nationally prominent blogs and your next door neighbor’s defunct site on typepad. What allowed this middle tier to thrive? Other middle tier bloggers! Each writer was embedded in her own little archipelago of other writers all working on the same topics. It might be devoted to climate science, counterinsurgency theory, Black politics, New York fashion, Mormon Mommy blogging, Harry Potter themed slash fan-fiction, or something else altogether, but the archipelago was there. Other bloggers—along with a few of the long term commentators shared by the various blogs—were the intended audience of most pieces. Others’ pieces were the inspiration for one’s own. Bloggers were nodes on a network, and it was the network that sustained them.

Substack, viewed as a blogging platform, is a lot like Medium — a would-be walled garden, though run by less unscrupulous folks than own the big social-media platforms. I’m temperamentally suspicious of them, as I am of any platform that is, ultimately, subject to the whim of a proprietor. So although I use both Medium and Substack, everything I write therein is also published verbatim on my ‘live’ blog, which is completely under my control, and for whose hosting I pay with my own money. For me, Substack provided merely a convenient and reliable way of sending out the email version of what really matters — the live blog on the open Web.

Both Substack and Medium have fairly honourable business models and have facilities whereby writers can get paid, if they wish to be. (I don’t.) And that’s a good thing (though it leads to the power-law outcome that Greer mentions). But it also has the downside in terms of the public sphere that, ultimately, their writing exists mainly inside a walled, members-only, garden. A genteel garden, but still a private garden. That’s why I’ve always followed Dave Winer’s lead: write wherever you like, but always make sure your stuff is also published on the Web.

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • One travel job that is booming during the pandemic is pet delivery specialist. Link

  • 22 Face Masks We Actually Like to Wear. Predictable: mask-fashion is here to stay. Link

  • How to choose and maintain the best masks for use against COVID-19. Not fashion but official guidance from CDC and WHO. And it seems there are only seven. Link

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