Silicon Valley ideology in a nutshell

The proprietor of N-gate is an engineer who grew up in Palo Alto and now lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he works in high-performance computing. He agreed to exchange e-mails on condition of anonymity. “Almost every post deals with the same topics: these are people who spend their lives trying to identify all the ways they can extract money from others without quite going to jail,” he wrote. “They’re people who are convinced that they are too special for rules, and too smart for education. They don’t regard themselves as inhabiting the world the way other people do; they’re secret royalty, detached from society’s expectations and unfailingly outraged when faced with normal consequences for bad decisions. Society, and especially economics, is a logic puzzle where you just have to find the right set of loopholes to win the game. Rules are made to be slipped past, never stopping to consider why someone might have made those rules to start with. Silicon Valley has an ethics problem, and ‘Hacker’ ‘News’ is where it’s easiest to see.”

From a terrific New Yorker essay on the task of moderating Hacker News.

The perils of being regarded as a ‘liberal’ institution

The Twitter firestorm over the way the New York Times covered Trump’s speech after the El Paso shootings was a thing to behold. (In its Tuesday first edition, the Times had a page One banner headline, “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” — which was changed to “Assailing Hate, But Not Guns” for the remainder of the print run.)

The furore also spurred Jack Shafer, the Politico columnist, into action. “The fury uncaged by the five-word Times headline”, he wrote,

had less to do with the language used and more to do with the political validation that liberals and lefties have come to demand from the news media they consume. It’s not good enough for some liberals that the Times has kept a tight vigil on Trump since he announced his candidacy four years ago, exposing him as a tax cheat, tracking his lies, aggressively covering the Mueller investigation and the Stormy Daniels case, cataloging everybody he’s insulted on Twitter, fending off his “enemy of the people” charges, recording his abuse of emergency powers, and documenting his contempt for the rule of law. They want every column-inch of copy in the Times to reinforce and amplify their resistance values, right down to the headlines. Anything perceived as even a minor deviation from that “mission,” they seem to think, requires the mass cancelation of subscriptions and calls for the executive editor’s resignation.

The defect with this resistance view of the Times is that the paper completely rejects it. “Our role is not to be the opposition to Donald Trump,” Baquet said at the SXSW conference in March 2017. “Our role is to cover him aggressively.” Times reporter David Sanger reiterated Baquet at another conference later that year. “The biggest single mistake we could do in navigating our coverage of the Trump administration would be to let ourselves become the resistance to the government in place,” Sanger said. In expecting the Times to be something it has vowed it will never, ever be, members of the resistance have positioned themselves for perpetual disenchantment.

Yep. And quite right too.

Journalism and mass shootings

Somber reflections from the journalist who was Editor of the Rocky Mountain News when the Columbine shootings happened, and who covered that story exhaustively.

I’m out of daily journalism now. But whenever there’s a mass shooting I have no desire to read the stories or watch the footage. There’s a ritual to the coverage, and it feels like it always follows the same arc and ends the same way. Journalists tell the story of what it was like to survive the slaughter. Then they offer tender accounts of the victims’ lives, detail where and how the weapons were purchased, publish profiles of the killer or killers, and write accounts of the struggles of the wounded. And then most of us move on, until the next shooting. Even the killing of 20 elementary-school children in Newtown, Connecticut, changed nothing.

This ritual can make journalism seem futile. I am forced to ask why journalists are doing this work in this way, and whether in the end it’s worth it.

Journalists feel the need to bear witness. But to the same horror, again and again? I can’t say anymore that I believe we learn from terrible things. I can say that I’ve seen the limits of journalism—and of hope. And I’m struggling with what to do about it.

I feel much the same. These atrocities have become, somehow, ‘normalised’.

The new Cold War

Timely piece in the Economist:

Three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the unipolar moment is over. In China, America faces a vast rival that confidently aspires to be number one. Business ties and profits, which used to cement the relationship, have become one more matter to fight over. China and America desperately need to create rules to help manage the rapidly evolving era of superpower competition. Just now, both see rules as things to break.

Consider the Tardigrade

From a remarkable Aeon essay on ‘extremophiles’ (creatures that can survive in extreme conditions) by the evolutionary biologist David Barash:

Typical extremophiles specialise in going about their lives along one axis of environmental extremity – extreme heat or cold, one or another heavy metal, and so forth – tardigrades can survive when things get dicey along many different and seemingly independent dimensions, simultaneously and come what may. You can boil them, freeze them, dry them, drown them, float them unprotected in space, expose them to radiation, even deprive them of nourishment – to which they respond by shrinking in size. These creatures, also known as water bears, are featured on appealing T-shirts with the slogan ‘Live Tiny, Die Never’ and in the delightful rap song that describes their indifference to extreme situations, entitled Water Bear Don’t Care.

Tardigrades might be the toughest creatures on Earth. You can put them in a laboratory freezer at -80 degrees Celsius, leave them for several years, then thaw them out, and just 20 minutes later they’ll be dancing about as though nothing had happened. They can even be cooled to just a few degrees above absolute zero, at which atoms virtually stop moving. Once thawed out, they move around just fine. (Admittedly, they aren’t speed demons; the word ‘tardigrade’ means ‘slow walker’.) Exposed to superheated steam – 140 degrees Celsius – they shrug it off and keep on living. Not only are tardigrades remarkably resistant to a wide range of what ecologists term environmental ‘insults’ (heat, cold, pressure, radiation, etc), they also have a special trick up their sleeves: when things get really challenging – especially if dry or cold – they convert into a spore-like form known as a ‘tun’. A tun can live, if you call their unique form of suspended animation ‘living’, for decades, possibly even centuries, and thereby survive pretty much anything that nature might throw at them. In this state, their metabolism slows to less than 0.01 per cent of normal. Compared with them, a deeply hibernating mammal is living at lightning speed.

In the bad old days of the Cold War, we used to think that the only living things that would survive a nuclear holocaust would be beetles. Now that we are headed for a climate catastrophe, my money’s on the tardigrades.