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Links: December 2017

Happy New Year, dear reader!

December is gone, but its links remain.

I did some more film writing this month, most notably on The Disaster Artist and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and I also published a collection of all the shorter film reviews I wrote in 2017.

This month’s links are a good mix of the topical (net neutrality, sexism, the new tax bill), year-end reflections, inspiring art and design, and more. I hope you find something here that does your brain some good, and I hope 2018 is the year you need it to be. As always, if you want to keep up with these links in real time, follow me on Twitter.

How Far Will Sean Hannity Go?

Berry, the senior executive producer of “Hannity,” told me that in shaping the TV show, he and Hannity try to imagine the kind of thing that would appeal to Berry’s family in Oklahoma. “I’m not thinking, Hey, will this make me popular in New York City or in the Hamptons,” Berry says. “Our audience is regular people.”

Ah, that old myopic, unfounded assumption of speaking for the majority. Never mind the fact that New York City is more populous than at least 38 states. It’s also hard not to hear “regular” in this context as a synonym for “white.”

Hannity rarely grants interviews to mainstream reporters, whom he calls “disgustingly biased, ideological and corrupt.”

  1. When do we stop referring to the top personalities on the most-watched news network in the country, which is praised daily by the President of the United States, as something other than mainstream?
  2. Assuming Hannity is making a distinction between news and opinion, this is still a striking statement, since even he surely can’t deny that his show’s bread and butter are bias and ideology.

“Occasionally, we’d talk on Sean’s show knowing Trump was watching,” Gingrich told me. “The two most effective ways of communicating with Trump are ‘Fox & Friends’ and ‘Hannity.’ ”

In August 2015, Hannity’s colleague Megyn Kelly asked Trump at a Fox News-sponsored debate to account for his derogatory comments about women. “I say this just very objectively: I thought the question was patently unfair,” Hannity told me.

Why wasn’t he asked to explain this further? I can’t begin to imagine what that explanation sounds like.

And to watch Hannity regularly is to observe how distant the host is from a figure like the Infowars proprietor Alex Jones. Jones endorses theories; Hannity almost never does, leaving that job to his guests. It is a dance that has the effect of nourishing the more wild-eyed beliefs of his fans while providing Hannity a degree of plausible deniability.

Hannity’s intransigence is Trumpian in its effectiveness: By backing off on reporting on Fox News about Rich, but maintaining his contention that there “is something going on,” he is effectively having it both ways. At least until a killer is found, he will never have to admit he is wrong. And Trump will continue to be the beneficiary.

A waiter appeared with two more pints of beer. When he left, Hannity gestured toward him. “I’m no different to all the service businesses,” he said. It was a theme he returned to frequently, his enduring fixation on consumer demand — what made people angry or happy, what turned them on or off.

Something tells me he wouldn’t accept the same argument from a drug dealer.

Sitting inches from the president, Hannity covered the biggest issues of the day, serving as rudder and prompt — steering Trump gently to friendly terrain.

Sycophant? No. Puppeteer.

Yes, there is a right to discriminate

Up until now, when dealing with claims of a right to discriminate in the context of gay rights, the courts have largely followed the precedents of the civil rights era and rejected such constitutional claims. But by agreeing to hear the baker’s appeal in Masterpiece Cake, the Supreme Court has indicated it may be reconsidering this history of judicial deference to lawmakers on the line between permissible and impermissible discrimination. It should not.

We should debate the boundaries of legal anti-discrimination requirements. We should, when appropriate, recognize exemptions in our laws. But we should not rely on our courts to protect this right — which would foreclose these debates.

Who Gains From the Tax Plan? Economists Face Off

Companies have historically high levels of after-tax profits. Why do we think giving an even larger windfall to shareholders will suddenly fuel investment?

For companies to seek new investment, they need a healthy middle class. Perhaps that is why so few C.E.O. hands went up at a recent event when asked if they would use tax cuts to increase investment; few companies plan new investments in response.

There is simply no economic rationale for a windfall to shareholders based on their prior tax avoidance, and there is no economic evidence that such windfalls promote United States investment or job creation.

This tax bill is not about workers. It is about giving shareholders and businesses lower taxes and merely hoping benefits will trickle down.

Pro-Neutrality, Anti-Title II

The one thing Ben Thompson doesn’t really address here is the idea of the internet as a utility, both public good and consumer good—the heart and soul of the concept of net neutrality—which is why I think many of his assertions are beside the point, but I’ll admit he makes some thought-provoking arguments.

To recap, given that:

  • Regulation incurs significants costs, both in terms of foregone opportunities and regulatory capture
  • There is no evidence of systemic abuse by ISPs governed under Title I, which means there are no immediate benefits to regulation, only theoretical ones
  • There is evidence that pre-existing regulation and antitrust law, along with media pressure, are effective at policing bad behavior

I believe that Ajit Pai is right to return regulation to the same light touch under which the Internet developed and broadband grew for two decades. I am amenable to Congress passing a law specifically banning ISPs from blocking content, but believe that for everything else, including paid prioritization, we are better off taking a “wait-and-see” approach; after all, we are just as likely to “see” new products and services as we are to see startup foreclosure. And, to be sure, this is an issue than can — and should, if the evidence changes — be visited again.

What is worth far more attention is the state of competition in broadband generally: ISPs have lobbied for limits on public broadband in 25 states, and many local governments make it prohibitively expensive for new ISPs to challenge incumbents (and Title II requirements don’t help either). Increasing competition would not only have the same positive outcomes for customers that T-Mobile demonstrated, but would solve the (mostly theoretical) net neutrality issue at the same time: the greatest check on an ISP is the likelihood of an unsatisfied customer leaving.

And, I’d add, if neutrality and foreclosed competition are the issue net neutrality proponents say they are, then Google and Facebook are even bigger concerns than ISPs: both are super-aggregators with unprecedented power and the deepest moats ever seen in technology, and an increasing willingness to not be neutral.

The Science Behind Mona Lisa’s Smile

He is probably the only artist in history ever to dissect with his own hands the face of a human and that of a horse to see whether the muscles that move the lips are the same ones that can raise the nostrils of the horse’s nose.

In the top-left corner of another page, he drew lips that were tightly pursed, under which he wrote, “The maximum shortening of the mouth is equal to half its maximum extension, and it is equal to the greatest width of the nostrils of the nose and to the interval between the ducts of the eye.”

With this knowledge, Leonardo was able to create an interactive smile, one that is elusive if we are too intent on seeing it. The fine lines at the corners of Lisa’s mouth show a small downturn—just like the mouth floating atop the anatomy sheet. If you stare directly at the mouth, the retina catches these tiny details and delineations, making her appear not to be smiling. But if you move your gaze slightly away, to look at her eyes or cheeks or some other part of the painting, you will catch sight of her mouth only peripherally. It will be a bit blurrier. The tiny delineations at the corners of the mouth become indistinct, but you will still see the shadows at her mouth’s edge. These shadows and the soft sfumato at the edge of her mouth make her lips seem to turn upward into a subtle smile. The result is a smile that twinkles brighter the less you search for it.

Scientists recently found a technical way to describe all of this. “A clear smile is much more apparent in the low spatial frequency [blurrier] images than in the high spatial frequency image,” according to the Harvard Medical School neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone. “Thus, if you look at the painting so that your gaze falls on the background or on Mona Lisa’s hands, your perception of her mouth would be dominated by low spatial frequencies, so it would appear much more cheerful than when you look directly at her mouth.”

Every Parent Wants to Protect Their Child. I Never Got the Chance.

You can’t discuss what happened to me without discussing abortion. In what’s called a wrongful-birth case, plaintiffs sue a medical practitioner for the failure to diagnose or inform them of a disease or disability possible to detect in utero; it is understood that in almost all cases, the plaintiff would have aborted the pregnancy had she been able to make an informed decision. The money awarded in wrongful-birth cases goes toward the cost — usually astronomically high — of the child’s medical care. In other words, a mother desperate to help her child declares that she would not have had that child.

It’s one thing to watch a loved one suffer. It’s another to watch and know it’s your fault, even if only because of the way your body is made. And it’s something almost beyond me to imagine, looking into Dudley’s eyes and saying, I’m sorry I didn’t save you, from your own life.

God’s Plan for Mike Pence

“Many evangelicals were experiencing the sense of an almost existential threat,” Russell Moore, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me. It was only a matter of time, he said, before cultural elites’ scornful attitudes would help drive Christians into the arms of a strongman like Trump. “I think there needs to be a deep reflection on the left about how they helped make this happen.”

Is there anything that can’t be blamed on those mean ol’ cultural elites?

In 2011, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 30 percent of white evangelicals believed “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” By 2016, that number had risen to 72 percent. “This is really a sea change in evangelical ethics,” Robert P. Jones, the head of the institute and the author of The End of White Christian America, told me. “They have moved to an ends-justifies-the means style of politics that would have been unimaginable before this last campaign.”

There is, of course, nothing inherently scary or disqualifying about an elected leader who seeks wisdom in scripture and solace in prayer. What critics should worry about is not that Pence believes in God, but that he seems so certain God believes in him. What happens when manifest destiny replaces humility, and the line between faith and hubris blurs? What unseemly compromises get made? What means become tolerable in pursuit of an end?

Cat Person

Conversation-starter of the year?

Chris Shiflett / Faculty

I’m loving Chris Shiflett’s dual launch: handsome new sites for himself and his new company.

Too Tired to Tap

The cost comes when people train themselves to ignore us.

In Memory of Otis Redding and His Revolution

Otis has been gone 50 years.

Born in Georgia in 1941, the same year as Emmett Till, Otis Redding grew up in a world where any “suggestive” behavior by a black male in the presence of whites was potentially suicidal.

In the way he looked and the way he sang and the way he led his tragically unfinished life, this princely son of Georgia sharecroppers was a one-man repudiation of the depraved doctrine of “white supremacy,” whose dark vestiges still contaminate our world.

Harvey Weinstein Is My Monster Too

But why do so many of us, as female artists, have to go to war to tell our stories when we have so much to offer? Why do we have to fight tooth and nail to maintain our dignity?

I think it is because we, as women, have been devalued artistically to an indecent state, to the point where the film industry stopped making an effort to find out what female audiences wanted to see and what stories we wanted to tell.

According to a recent study, between 2007 and 2016, only 4 percent of directors were female and 80 percent of those got the chance to make only one film. In 2016, another study found, only 27 percent of words spoken in the biggest movies were spoken by women. And people wonder why you didn’t hear our voices sooner. I think the statistics are self-explanatory — our voices are not welcome.

Until there is equality in our industry, with men and women having the same value in every aspect of it, our community will continue to be a fertile ground for predators.

The Internet Is Dying. Repealing Net Neutrality Hastens That Death.

How might we have better empowered non-tech people to participate in the open internet? Could we have stopped its corporate calcification?

a vibrant network doesn’t die all at once. It takes time and neglect; it grows weaker by the day, but imperceptibly, so that one day we are living in a digital world controlled by giants and we come to regard the whole thing as normal.

It’s not normal. It wasn’t always this way. The internet doesn’t have to be a corporate playground. That’s just the path we’ve chosen.

Generation Screwed

I have some issues with the design, but this is an outstanding breakdown of millennials’ uphill economic battle.

The decline of the job has its primary origins in the 1970s, with a million little changes the boomers barely noticed. The Federal Reserve cracked down on inflation. Companies started paying executives in stock options. Pension funds invested in riskier assets. The cumulative result was money pouring into the stock market like jet fuel. Between 1960 and 2013, the average time that investors held stocks before flipping them went from eight years to around four months. Over roughly the same period, the financial sector became a sarlacc pit encompassing around a quarter of all corporate profits and completely warping companies’ incentives.

The pressure to deliver immediate returns became relentless. When stocks were long-term investments, shareholders let CEOs spend money on things like worker benefits because they contributed to the company’s long-term health. Once investors lost the ability to look beyond the next earnings report, however, any move that didn’t boost short-term profits was tantamount to treason.

“Corporations decided that the fastest way to a higher stock price was hiring part-time workers, lowering wages and turning their existing employees into contractors,” says Rosemary Batt, a Cornell University economist.

Plus, as Uber and its “gig economy” ilk perfect their algorithms, we’ll be increasingly at the mercy of companies that only want to pay us for the time we’re generating revenue and not a second more.

In sum, nearly every path to a stable income now demands tens of thousands of dollars before you get your first paycheck or have any idea whether you’ve chosen the right career path.

All of these trends—the cost of education, the rise of contracting, the barriers to skilled occupations—add up to an economy that has deliberately shifted the risk of economic recession and industry disruption away from companies and onto individuals. For our parents, a job was a guarantee of a secure adulthood. For us, it is a gamble. And if we suffer a setback along the way, there’s so little to keep us from sliding into disaster.

In an economy where wages are precarious and the safety net has been hacked into ribbons, one piece of bad luck can easily become a years-long struggle to get back to normal.

In The Age of Responsibility, Yascha Mounk, a political theorist, writes that before the 1980s, the idea of “responsibility” was understood as something each American owed to the people around them, a national project to keep the most vulnerable from falling below basic subsistence. Even Richard Nixon, not exactly known for lifting up the downtrodden, proposed a national welfare benefit and a version of a guaranteed income. But under Ronald Reagan and then Bill Clinton, the meaning of “responsibility” changed. It became individualized, a duty to earn the benefits your country offered you.

More people are renting homes than at any time since the late 1960s. But in the 40 years leading up to the recession, rents increased at more than twice the rate of incomes. Between 2001 and 2014, the number of “severely burdened” renters—households spending over half their incomes on rent—grew by more than 50 percent. Rather unsurprisingly, as housing prices have exploded, the number of 30- to 34-year-olds who own homes has plummeted.

My father’s first house cost him 20 months of his salary. My first house will cost more than 10 years of mine.

That’s because all the urgency to build comes from people who need somewhere to live. But all the political power is held by people who already own homes. For homeowners, there is no such thing as a housing crisis. Why? Because when property values go up, so does their net worth. They have every reason to block new construction. And they do that by weaponizing environmental regulations and historical preservation rules. They force buildings to be shorter so they don’t cast shadows. They demand two parking spaces for every single unit. They complain that a new apartment building will destroy “neighborhood character” when the structure it’s replacing is… a parking garage. (True story.) All this extra hassle means construction takes longer and costs more. Which means that the only way most developers can make a profit is to build luxury condos.

This dilemma is feeding the inequality-generating woodchipper the U.S. economy has become. Rather than offering Americans a way to build wealth, cities are becoming concentrations of people who already have it. In the country’s 10 largest metros, residents earning more than $150,000 per year now outnumber those earning less than $30,000 per year.

Even amid the awfulness of our political moment, we can start to build a platform to rally around. Raise the minimum wage and tie it to inflation. Roll back anti-union laws to give workers more leverage against companies that treat them as if they’re disposable. Tilt the tax code away from the wealthy. Right now, rich people can write off mortgage interest on their second home and expenses related to being a landlord or (I’m not kidding) owning a racehorse. The rest of us can’t even deduct student loans or the cost of getting an occupational license.

Right now, permitting processes examine, in excruciating detail, how one new building will affect rents, noise, traffic, parking, shadows and squirrel populations. But they never investigate the consequences of not building anything—rising prices, displaced renters, low-wage workers commuting hours from outside the sprawl.

Architect-Turned-Baker Designs Beautiful, Bold Cakes Inspired by Art and Math

I love these so goddamned much.


This is great. Creative prompts à la Oblique Strategies.

Google Maps’s Moat

Thoroughly fascinating detective work on the arcane specifics of how and why Google Maps is far ahead of Apple Maps.

Lynn Fisher

Just when you think the web has run out of surprises, something like this comes along. Lynn created 20 distinct designs for her homepage, spread out over 20 breakpoints. So fun. Try it at all the viewport sizes. 💫

Artwork Personalization at Netflix

Before it gets into the nitty gritty of machine learning and gives up on making sense to humans, this is a neat explanation of a surprisingly thoughtful design process.

Our teams of artists and designers strive to create images that are diverse across many dimensions. They also take into consideration the personalization algorithms which will select the images during their creative process for generating artwork.

How Trump’s skepticism of U.S. intelligence on Russia left an election threat unchecked

U.S. officials declined to discuss whether the stream of recent intelligence on Russia has been shared with Trump. Current and former officials said that his daily intelligence update — known as the president’s daily brief, or PDB — is often structured to avoid upsetting him.

McMaster gained an internal ally on Russia in March with the hiring of Fiona Hill as the top Russia adviser on the NSC. A frequent critic of the Kremlin, Hill was best known as the author of a respected biography of Putin and was seen as a reassuring selection among Russia hard-liners.

Her relationship with Trump, however, was strained from the start.

In one of her first encounters with the president, an Oval Office meeting in preparation for a call with Putin on Syria, Trump appeared to mistake Hill for a member of the clerical staff, handing her a memo he had marked up and instructing her to rewrite it.

Hill’s standing was further damaged when she was forced to defend members of her staff suspected of disloyalty after details about Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — in which the president revealed highly classified information to his Russian guests — were leaked to The Post.

The White House subsequently tightened the circle of aides involved in meetings with Russian officials. Trump was accompanied only by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a meeting with Putin at a July summit of Group of 20 nations in Hamburg. In prior administrations, the president’s top aide on Russia was typically present for such encounters, but Hill has frequently been excluded.

The Last Jedi’s Biggest Storytelling Innovation

I tried not to get caught up in Last Jedi takes, but I can’t help it. Here’s my favorite one so far.

Future Historians Probably Won’t Understand Our Internet, and That’s Okay

The world as we experience it seems to be growing more opaque. More of life now takes place on digital platforms that are different for everyone, closed to inspection, and massively technically complex. What we don’t know now about our current experience will resound through time in historians of the future knowing less, too. Maybe this era will be a new dark age, as resistant to analysis then as it has become now.

“Algorithms aren’t artifacts, they are collections of human practices that are in interaction with each other,” he told me. And that’s something that people in the social sciences have been trying to deal with since the birth of their fields. They have learned at least one thing: It’s really difficult. “One thing you can do is replace the word ‘algorithm’ with the word ‘society,’” Seaver said. “It has always been hard to document the present [functioning of a society] for the future.”

No, naming and shaming sexual offenders doesn’t always help

There is nothing necessarily wrong with some quick victories to boost the morale of all involved. But such responses have their limits: They are superficial fixes. Over time, they crowd out lower-profile work that could ultimately create the structural changes needed to really resolve the problem.

My fear is that the immense power of #MeToo is about to be squandered. We risk congratulating ourselves for a slew of high-profile dismissals that address particular harms suffered by a privileged subset of victims, without ever grappling with the harms occurring across the board.

If the power of #MeToo has been to reveal the pervasiveness of work-related sexual assault and harassment, then meaningful change demands solutions that tackle the depth and breadth of these problems. This means acknowledging the inherent conflict of interest that arises when human resources departments are tasked with addressing allegations against their own companies’ employees — while remembering that many working people have no human resources department to report to. It means challenging the gaping disparity in access to legal services in this country, while recognizing that not all harms are best addressed through the legal system. It means getting more women into leadership roles, but not assuming that women are always better at dealing with the abuse and harassment of their staffers than men are.

As #MeToo becomes a movement, we need to be meticulous about distinguishing criminal and noncriminal behavior, without minimizing the chilling effect that even noncriminal behavior can have. We need to listen to the many women (and men) whose stories do not involve newsworthy perpetrators, and not demand that the signature “name and shame” action of this moment be the price of entry into the conversation about how to deal with all of this.

The downfall of predatory men with household names is worth celebrating. But it is not nearly enough.

Music consumption in the era of smart speakers

The challenges of connecting with music in the age of smart speakers, from the always-thoughtful Elliot Jay Stocks.

Confessions of a Digital Nazi Hunter

The Nazis realized they couldn’t beat the bot, so they started mass-reporting it to Twitter for “harassment.” Just as they duplicitously cast themselves as minorities, they disingenuously recast our response to their ongoing abuse as harassment.

Twitter sided with the Nazis.

The great irony of this whole affair is that Impostor Buster was doing Twitter’s job for it. The platform has been notoriously prone to abuse since its inception and has struggled to curb it. Rather than asking Twitter to provide a top-down solution, however, we created a bottom-up one. We used Twitter’s tools to police itself — until Twitter fired the sheriff. If the platform is going to rescue itself from the trolls, it will need to foster these efforts, not fight them.

‘What Are We Going to Do About Tyler?’

One last bit of 2017 work to share: this troubling story of Mississippi’s systemic failures with mental illness.

The Year in Visual and Interactive Storytelling

A nice roundup by David Sleight of our work at ProPublica this past year.

A Twitter user claims to have made the ‘swatting’ call that led police to kill a man

Swatting finally got someone killed. This is so, so ugly, and a host of societal ills have their fingerprints on it, including (but not exclusive to) police militarization and increasingly toxic corners of internet and gamer culture.

What is a freestyle?

A quick primer on freestyle rap, which has evolved beyond being strictly improvisational.