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Links: August 2018

Hello, dear reader!

August is gone, but its links remain.

My site was quiet in August, as I’ve been heads-down on a project I’m pretty excited about. Its release is just one facet of the ambitious September I have planned, so if all goes well, there will be much to report in next month’s newsletter.

My alter-ego Windhammer recently returned to the competitive air guitar stage for his 10th anniversary, tying for second in the nation, his best finish ever. Amusingly, the event was chronicled by Sports Illustrated, linked below. Another link of note below is an engrossing long read on the known and unknown implications of what automation might ultimately do to the job market and how our attitudes about work will need to adapt.

As always, you can keep up with most of these links in real time by following me on Twitter.

The Bullshit Web

So that’s the tip of the bullshit web. You know how building wider roads doesn’t improve commute times, as it simply encourages people to drive more? It’s that, but with bytes and bandwidth instead of cars and lanes.

An honest web is one in which the overwhelming majority of the code and assets downloaded to a user’s computer are used in a page’s visual presentation, with nearly all the remainder used to define the semantic structure and associated metadata on the page.

I’m a WNBA player. Men won’t stop challenging me to play one-on-one.

Collegiate and professional male basketball players have too much respect for us to be jerks; they understand the game at the highest level and know that we’re extremely talented and that what we do is remarkable. Instead, it’s always the men with the broken hoop dreams who didn’t have the grades or the talent to play in college. The men who “dominate” in their 25-and-up rec league at the gym. The ones who know absolutely nothing about playing basketball at this level but are still strong enough to rough me up when things go south.

How journalists should not cover an online conspiracy theory

How and whether to cover a story must also hinge on what the story might do, and whose interests it will ultimately serve.

Reporters’ credulous coverage also feeds into a range of unintended narratives. For those who are actively engaged in media manipulation, it underscores’ journalists gullibility and exploitability (and is very funny to participants). For those who believe the narrative sincerely, it affirms that QAnon adherents are really on to something; otherwise mainstream journalists wouldn’t be in such a panic.

How QAnon and Sacha Baron Cohen Speak to the Same Desperate Need

Conspiracy-mongering and laughter—especially angry, resentful laughter—are two common responses to the unimaginable. September 11th gave rise to truthers, the election of Barack Obama brought forth the birthers, and school shootings enabled Alex Jones. The experience of living in a country governed by a deranged Twitter addict who may or may not be reined in by a group of variously flailing adults has brought us Q. The QAnon message to its followers is that someone is in charge, that reality is knowable even if it is convoluted—and that someone, reassuringly, knows much more than you do. The Q theories acknowledge that the state of the country is awful, but they promise that the insanity is temporary because the great leader is conjuring order from chaos.

Baron Cohen’s message is equally clarifying. He demystifies power to an unprecedented extent. He shows that idiocy and incompetence are all there is. Here, the person who knows everything is Baron Cohen himself—and because we viewers are in on the secret, it makes us feel competent. The state of the country is, as in Q’s theories, horrifying, but also temporary, because these buffoons can’t possibly stay in power. We, the more intelligent people, will somehow prevail.

What It’s Like to Wallow in Your Own Facebook Data

If anything, Download Your Information is a consolation prize offered to those of us on the losing end of surveillance capitalism.

A World Without Work

Industriousness has served as America’s unofficial religion since its founding. The sanctity and preeminence of work lie at the heart of the country’s politics, economics, and social interactions. What might happen if work goes away?

In 1964, the nation’s most valuable company, AT&T, was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees—less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday.

Google and WebMD already may be answering questions once reserved for one’s therapist. This doesn’t prove that psychologists are going the way of the textile worker. Rather, it shows how easily computers can encroach on areas previously considered “for humans only.”

Hunnicutt said he thinks colleges could reemerge as cultural centers rather than job-prep institutions. The word school, he pointed out, comes from skholē, the Greek word for “leisure.” “We used to teach people to be free,” he said. “Now we teach them to work.”

Most people want to work, and are miserable when they cannot. The ills of unemployment go well beyond the loss of income; people who lose their job are more likely to suffer from mental and physical ailments. “There is a loss of status, a general malaise and demoralization, which appears somatically or psychologically or both,” says Ralph Catalano, a public-health professor at UC Berkeley.

The post-workists argue that Americans work so hard because their culture has conditioned them to feel guilty when they are not being productive, and that this guilt will fade as work ceases to be the norm. This might prove true, but it’s an untestable hypothesis. When I asked Hunnicutt what sort of modern community most resembles his ideal of a post-work society, he admitted, “I’m not sure that such a place exists.”

The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers. Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose.

The 21st century, if it presents fewer full-time jobs in the sectors that can be automated, could in this respect come to resemble the mid-19th century: an economy marked by episodic work across a range of activities, the loss of any one of which would not make somebody suddenly idle. Many bristle that contingent gigs offer a devil’s bargain—a bit of additional autonomy in exchange for a larger loss of security. But some might thrive in a market where versatility and hustle are rewarded—where there are, as in Youngstown, few jobs to have, yet many things to do.

Today’s coastal cities are a jumble of office buildings and residential space. Both are expensive and tightly constrained. But the decline of work would make many office buildings unnecessary. What might that mean for the vibrancy of urban areas?

This is a singular challenge of imagining a flourishing post-work society: How will people discover their talents, or the rewards that come from expertise, if they don’t see much incentive to develop either?

Decades from now, perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration, with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, its attenuations of family in service to job opportunity, its conflation of income with self-worth.

Dinesh D’Souza and the Decline of Conservatism

The desire to wipe the smirk off the condescending face of some resented critics—to expose them, diminish them, hurt them—is that not the mainspring for so much of the pro-Trump political movement?

The psychology of aggrievement joined to racial resentment: Perhaps that is the recipe from which Trumpism has been brewed. It’s a dismaying thing to see so many in one’s political generation succumb to it.

The Unassuming Greatness of “Jaws”

This director, at that time, was constitutionally incapable of cheating audiences. He didn’t just give them what they wanted, he gave them what they didn’t know they wanted: a witty workout for the senses and a feeling of exploding possibilities.

The finished movie remains a glistening example of an American filmmaker turning pulp fiction into pop art.

How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monopoly Game and Stole Millions

I either totally missed or somehow forgot about this crazy story of over a decade of McDonald’s Monopoly fraud. Wow.

Dent opened an official investigation, naming it Operation “Final Answer,” after the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” McDonald’s game. The operation would involve 25 agents across the country who tracked 20,000 phone numbers, and recorded 235 cassette tapes of telephone calls.

Three Children, Two Abortions

You know what pro-life policies actually look like? Universal health care, so all women could afford prenatal doctor visits and the birth itself; paid maternity and paternity leaves, to allow parents to actually care for a living baby without emptying their bank accounts; subsidized daycare, so parents could go to work without paying all or most of their income to private babysitters; and a school day that hews closer to the workday, not to some outmoded agrarian schedule designed to get kids home in time to harvest crops.

Though I pay a backbreaking $2,298.30 a month for our insurance, my daughter, like all Americans on the pill, must visit her doctor in person for a new prescription every year. This is not easy when your prescribing physician is in New York, you’re a full-time premed student in Illinois, and you work 10 to 20 hours a week on top of that as a condition for your financial aid.

Matt ‘Airistotle’ Burns and the U.S. Air Guitar Championships Will Rock Your World

After a lifetime of sporting feats and fanaticism, I’ve finally made it into Sports Illustrated.

But Burns gets excited again when Windhammer takes the stage. Windhammer is completely bald with a bushy red beard. He’s shirtless, wearing only a pair of leather chaps, and hasn’t smiled once in character in the 10 years he’s been doing this. Burns and Rob Weychert (Windhammer’s real name) love each other, but Windhammer and Airistotle are sworn enemies.

Do Men Enter Bathtubs on Their Hands and Knees?

He continued, “I just feel like the balls are basically in the middle of the X, Y, and Z axes of the body and there’s no way to make them go anywhere last. Head, torso, balls, legs. No matter how you dunk a body in water the balls can’t be the last in.”

How the Enlightenment Ends

Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing its meaning. They rarely interrogate history or philosophy; as a rule, they demand information relevant to their immediate practical needs. In the process, search-engine algorithms acquire the capacity to predict the preferences of individual clients, enabling the algorithms to personalize results and make them available to other parties for political or commercial purposes. Truth becomes relative. Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.

The Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spread by a new technology. Our period is moving in the opposite direction. It has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy. Other countries have made AI a major national project. The United States has not yet, as a nation, systematically explored its full scope, studied its implications, or begun the process of ultimate learning. This should be given a high national priority, above all, from the point of view of relating AI to humanistic traditions.

Writing efficient CSS selectors

One of the things I love about CSS is that it comfortably accommodates many skill levels. You can be a regular practitioner for years and years, and still learn something new and significant on a regular basis, like this post I just uncovered from 2011.

Selectors have an inherent efficiency, and to quote Steve Souders, the order of more to less efficient CSS selectors goes thus:

  1. ID, e.g. #header
  2. Class, e.g. .promo
  3. Type, e.g. div
  4. Adjacent sibling, e.g. h2 + p
  5. Child, e.g. li > ul
  6. Descendant, e.g. ul a
  7. Universal, i.e. *
  8. Attribute, e.g. [type="text"]
  9. Pseudo-classes/-elements, e.g. a:hover

You can have standalone selectors such as #nav, which will select any element with an ID of ‘nav’, or you can have combined selectors such as #nav a, which will match any anchors within any element with an ID of ‘nav’.

Now, we read these left-to-right. We see that we’re looking out for #nav and then any a elements inside there. Browsers read these differently; browsers read selectors right-to-left.

Where we see a #nav with an a in it, browsers see an a in a #nav. This subtle difference has a huge impact on selector performance, and is a very valuable thing to learn.

Beto O’Rourke, John McCain, and Respecting Fellow-Americans

Sacrifice, O’Rourke pointed out, has not been the sole province of the military; the claim to citizenship, particularly for African-Americans, is anchored in blood shed in theatres much closer to home.

The claim that it is disrespectful to the military to protest unchecked state violence directed largely at black people is rooted in a euphemistic version of the American past and a blinkered version of the present. The presumption overlooks the fact that a disproportionately high percentage of the members of the armed forces are African-Americans, and that they are among those Americans who have endured the skewed version of belonging—the discrimination and the disrespect—that fuelled the N.F.L. protests.

McCain, who, the current President notwithstanding, was for most Americans the most visible embodiment of the term “war hero,” recognized in Lewis’s past a kindred brand of heroism—the same kind that O’Rourke described, one defined simply by the willingness to make sacrifices and to endure pain on behalf of one’s country.