So the other day I came across this tweet:
I swear to god as soon as online publications realize they don't have to publish every day it will be as revolutionary as the printing press
— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) March 25, 2014
And I’ve been thinking about it, because on the face of it the idea sounds great. But I don’t think, generally speaking, it’s feasible. Here’s why:
Nate Silver’s new “data journalism” web site 538 has come under a lot of criticism since it launched recently. One article claimed that quitting your job could help increase your wages. I criticised that one sharply. This excellent piece by finance professor Noah Smith explained the problems with a number of 538′s articles, including the one I mentioned. The author of the 538 post on quitting your job, Ben Casselman, showed up in the comments to defend the piece. Here is his defence of it:
First, we’ve made a conscious choice to distinguish between blog posts, which are intended to be quick-and-dirty, and features, which are intended to be more in-depth. (More about how we’re thinking about this here.) The “quits” post you reference is in the former category–I saw what I thought was an interesting tidbit at the bottom of a Journal story, and wanted to call it out.
Now, I think the distinction is strange (isn’t everything on 538 a blog post?) and I don’t think he really answers the substantive criticisms that have been made of the piece, but that’s not really what I’m interested in here. What I’m interested in isn’t whether the distinction is linguistically appropriate, but why it exists at all. And I think this gets to the root of a major problem with web publishing generally.
If the purpose of 538 is to do “data journalism” then the kind of piece that Casselman wrote – which he expressly acknowledges isn’t really what 538 is about – doesn’t make sense. But that presents a problem. 538 is a “free” (I hate that word, ads aren’t free) web site that makes its money by selling advertising. And advertising is based primarily on page views. (Yes, I know that people love to argue that “the page view is dead” and that other metrics are replacing it, but they still operate on the same kinds of principles).
This may all be Media 101, but I’m going to make a couple of points just to draw this all together. What an ad-supported web site is selling isn’t content, but readers. The business relationship exists between the web site and the advertisers. The goal of an ad-supported web site, then, is to draw in as many readers as possible to sell those readers to advertisers. And not just the greatest possible number of raw readers, but the greatest number of visits from those readers, so that more ads can be served to them. This gets even more complicated when you start taking into account the constant tracking of your web surfing by various ad and Internet companies, who also want as many page views as possible so that they can build up a broader understanding of your browsing habits so that they can target you with increasingly tailored advertising.
This business model essentially requires giving you a reason to visit the site each day, and ideally multiple times each day. In order to do that, there needs to be a constant flow of new content. The problem for 538, though, is that it’s not possible to produce in-depth data journalism every day on a wide variety of topics for a number of reasons: it takes a lot of time to research and write, there simply isn’t enough new research every day to report on, and so forth. But 538 still needs a constant flow of content in order to get people to the site so that those people can be sold to advertisers so 538 can pay its authors to write the more in-depth pieces the site claims to be primarily concerned with. Which means that what we get are poorly thought-out “blog posts” that don’t fulfill the site’s mission or give us much interesting information, because without those “blog posts” what are people going to come to the site multiple times a day for?
While I’ve written here predominantly about 538, what I’ve said is broadly true of any ad-supported news or information-related web site. Buzzfeed, for example, does publish legitimately good journalism, but it’s swamped with awful posts designed to exploit behavioural psychology so that they can draw in readers to sell to advertisers.
And this is a significant cost that we pay as readers (and, I would argue, it is paid by writers as well): there is really only one business model being pursued by the vast majority of information-driven web sites, and it precludes lots of interesting things from being done in terms of web content. When what you’re selling is readers not content, the content that you produce is going to reflect that business arrangement.
So I think it’s a real shame that everyone simply accepts that ad-driven sites are the only possible option. That decision has major effects on how content is produced and delivered. And until people decide to try to pursue other business models to support web businesses, we’re going to be stuck with bad 538 “blog posts” that make the site look worse than it needs to.
I’m currently reading The Victory Lab, a book about the (mostly modern) history of using data analytics, behavioural psychology, and field experiments in political campaigning. That may not sound very interesting to you. But I came across one particular quote that I thought was rather amusing in light of the way that discussions about using advanced statistics in hockey often turn out:
“Those smart guys speak that smart language. They collect smart theories to properly arrange their smart facts. Then they publish smart papers to make sure people know they are real smart,” says Tom Lindenfeld, a former Democratic National Committee campaign director and one of the party’s leading field tacticians. “The rest of us just know what works.”
Let’s say you’re at your friend’s house sitting on her couch. It’s a nice couch, and you’re looking to replace the one you’ve got in your living room, so you ask how much that couch cost. She says “The list price is $600, but I got it for $500. The salespeople at the store I bought it from have a sales quota each month, so if you go in on the last weekend of a month and act like you’re not interested they’ll knock the price down.” You really like the couch and it’s only one week into the month but you go to the store anyway. The salesman won’t give you a discount and you pay the full $600.
6 months later there’s a major fire at the couch factory. Suddenly there’s a shortage of furniture available and the couch you bought is now going for $1000. That’s $400 more than you paid for it! You got a $1000 couch for $600, right? What a great deal!
Nope. You still paid $100 more than you needed to because you wouldn’t show a little patience. You’re not up $400, you’re down $100. And it turns out that the new couch isn’t any more comfortable than the old one anyway.
Picture the following scenario:
The people of Mexico have decided that they are fed up with their government. Protests begin, grow, and take over Mexico City. Violence erupts between the government and some of the protesters, and a number of people are killed. Eventually the government comes forward with a number of measures to try to placate the protesters, including the ouster of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Tension remains in the air as embedded powers struggle to maintain their grip on the government while various factions within the protest movement also position themselves to take control. Among those various factions are large groups that want Mexico to remain allied with the United States and are committed to NAFTA. Also among them are groups who aim to ally Mexico closely with Cuba, and perhaps also the Chavistas in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. The situation is highly uncertain and unstable.
In this scenario, how would the United States react? I think it’s a near certainty that they would mobilise troops toward the Mexican border. I also think that there’s a small but real possibility that they would send troops into Mexico, especially if the violence escalated. And I think there’s a pretty high probability that they would try to find other means of assisting the pro-U.S. faction within the opposition; “other means” would be actions like supplying arms or money to the U.S.-allied opposition or going around in the international community very loudly talking up the legitimacy of those factions and attacking the Cuban-allied faction.
And if those things happen, I would judge them like this:
I would say that the United States was behaving in a rational manner by mobilising troops, as it has a legitimate interest in protecting the security of its borders and was understandably concerned about the possibility of violence spilling over. I would also say that their right to use force ends at self-defence and that any actions taken to promote a violent victory by their allies would be unacceptable.
I think these are the kinds of things that are worth keeping in mind when reading stories like this one.
Ever since the NSA mass surveillance story first broke I’ve been reading a lot about spies and spy networks and spy operations and all that fun stuff. This has lead to a sudden urge to read spy novels, so I’ve started in on that too. I recently finished reading John Le Carré’s espionage novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The heroes of spy novels are often characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne, superhuman men who are obviously good guys trying to stop obvious bad guys. Le Carré’s Alec Leamas is different though; the point of the novel is that ultimately Western and Soviet spy agencies were really not so different. [SPOILER in the next sentence] The Brits, for example, are willing to kill an honest, hard-working Soviet in order to protect their own crooked asset, and they’re willing to use questionable methods to do it. [end SPOILER] The point of the novel is not “the Soviet Union and Great Britain are completely indistinguishable” but rather “the so-called good guys often look a lot like the so-called bad guys”.
It’s been interesting reading The Spy Who Came In From The Cold during the Olympics, as a lot of Cold War sentiments directed at Russia have re-emerged. Some of this came to a head today when the Russian men’s hockey team was upset by the Finns. One of the things that I saw and heard in a number of places was a sense of moral triumph, that this was a fitting result for a country whose president has supported laws that seek to oppress and demean LGBT people. And of course there are Russia’s attacks on everyone’s favourite excuse to say an unprintable word, Pussy Riot. Just today people were enraged by reports that some members of Pussy Riot were physically assaulted by Russian security services. These things are awful, and it is right to say so, but to claim moral victory for Western culture in these cases seems to me to require extremely narrow vision. The recent history of Canada and the United States does not suggest a particularly strong moral high ground. You may find that statement hard to believe, but I think even a cursory look at our own history will reveal some extremely troubling similarities.
One of the major policy planks in the last Conservative election platform was to introduce income splitting for families with dependent children under 18. There are a bunch of reasons why I’m against this policy, but I think I can provide a quick demonstration of just how absurd an idea it is.
Imagine the following two families:
- A single parent who makes $75,000 a year. This parent has two children under 18.
- A married couple where one spouse makes $75,000 a year and the other is a stay-at-home parent to their two children under 18.
Looking at the chart in this op-ed by Andrew Coyne, we see that family 2 will gain $2,261 under the Conservative proposal. Family 1 will gain nothing.
So under the Conservative plan, not only will family 2 have a person who is dedicated full-time to raising their children, that family will do so with and additional $2,261 a year. In fact, because family 1 will almost certainly incur significant child care costs they’ll actually be far more than $2,261 a year behind family 2. Family 2, which already has a financial advantage is being given even more money despite not having any additional burdens relative to family 1. Family 2 is being given more for needing less. Isn’t that perverse?
While the NSA in the United States and GCHQ have come under a lot of scrutiny and criticism for their actions in terms of mass surveillance of their citizens, the role that CSEC (the Canadian equivalent) has played has been subject to significantly less attention. All three countries are part of an intelligence sharing program called Five Eyes that also includes Australia and New Zealand. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook or wherever else you may have noticed that I’ve spent a lot of time complaining that Canada’s role in the coalition had not been reported on nearly enough and that our intelligence services were surely involved in some of the misdeeds that the other spy organisations were taking part in.
A few details began trickling out last fall, but nothing like the broad public surveillance that had been revealed in the U.S. or Britain. Back in October it was reported that CSEC had hacked the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy but that was economic espionage, not mass surveillance. In late November the CBC reported that the NSA had “conduct[ed] widespread surveillance in Canada during the 2010 G8 and G20 summits” but the source document didn’t really back that assertion up. The document states that the NSA had assessed that there was no credible information that Islamic extremists were planning to attack the summits (the kind of legitimate work one might want a spy organisation to do) but said nothing that would indicate that there was mass surveillance of private citizens at or around the summits.
But over the past week or so we’ve finally started to learn about CSEC’s role in some of the more nefarious kinds of work that the other Five Eyes countries have been involved in. The Guardian reported that the NSA and GCHQ had a program to collect private info on the users of smartphone games like Angry Birds by taking advantage of the lax security evident in the ad networks that help fund many smartphone games. One thing that went unreported in every story that I saw about this program failed to notice a detail written in one of the slides that The Guardian published.
Bit of an intro here because, you know, I can’t pass up an opportunity to drone on about things. Back in October of 2013 a man named Tevis Thompson wrote a piece called “On Videogame Reviews” that was highly critical of Bioshock Infinite and of the lavish praise it received in the gaming press. The article makes a lot of good points, but one thing that I’ve been thinking about since then is his argument that a serious review system on a 10 point scale ought to have games fall everywhere along that spectrum, meaning it shouldn’t be uncommon to see 2s or 3s and average games should be 5s. It occurred to me that many movie reviewers do follow a system like this. Roger Ebert, for example, gave lots of 1 and 2 star reviews (his scale went to four). So I thought that as an experiment I would try rating all of the games that I played in 2013 in this manner.
I’ve started by treating an average game – that is, one that I enjoyed but didn’t stand out in any way – as a 5 out of 10. Good games would be 6s. Very good would be 7s. 9s would be rare and 10s would be reserved for only the greatest of experiences. Conversely, 4s would be games that were OK, 3s would be games I disliked, 2s would have major flaws, and 1s or zeroes would be virtually unplayable. Using this system, I came up with 6 games that seemed to fit in a list of “best of the year”, and I describe those games below. After discussing those 6 games I’ll post a list of all of the games I played in 2013 and how I would rate them. Assuming that I’ve been honest, the average should come out pretty close to 5 (possibly a bit higher since I tend to play games I know I’m more likely to enjoy).
This year was a really good year for music so I expanded my best-of list to 15. I left off some good albums here, but these are the ones I feel most strongly about recommending. I think music reviews generally are nonsense so I’m not going to bother trying to review these albums. I’m just going to say a few words about what I think about them and then link to a song that you should check out if you’re interested.
Here’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: the way we disguise the actors behind certain events by describing the organisation that they work for rather than the people themselves. This manifests most prominently, I think, in two places. The first is talking about government. We talk about “the government” as though it’s some sort of monolithic entity, but it’s actually a particular group of people who wield power in very specific ways. I am including both the political party currently in power and the civil service as “the government” here, which already highlights how the term can be problematic. The second place I frequently see this problem is discussing businesses. I’m going to stick with just businesses in this post for the sake of brevity, but I do intend to write about how this all applies to government in an additional post later.