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Links: January 2019

The Leaked Louis C.K. Set Is Tragedy Masked as Comedy

Over the years, C.K.’s comedy evolved, as any comic’s will, but at their best and most well known, his jokes were about interrogating himself as a means of interrogating American culture. As C.K. shuffled uncomfortably on stages and sets, clad in rumpled T-shirts and slouchy dad jeans, he served as his own act’s useful idiot: C.K., author and character at once, played the privileged guy who—he’d be the first to admit it—didn’t fully deserve his privilege. It was classic observational humor, bending its lens to examine the warped terrain of C.K.’s own psyche, and while it was winking and postmodern and self-hating and self-elevating, it also contained an implied transaction: Hearing C.K.’s confession would offer, for his audience, its own kind of reconciliation. His performed selfishness could seem, in its twisted way, generous.

But while offense, in that sense, has always been an element of C.K.’s comedy—offense as a means of inflicting discomfort, and thus, the promise went, of illuminating awkward realities—offense, now, is all there is. The layer of alleged truth-telling is entirely missing from the new material. C.K.’s new set, according to its leaked version, doesn’t merely punch down; it stomps, pettily, to the bottom. None of it is smart or brave; it is simply cruel. And yet it tries to justify itself by suggesting that C.K. himself has been the recipient of cruelty.

I Don’t Hate Women Candidates — I Just Hated Hillary and Coincidentally I’m Starting to Hate Elizabeth Warren

I always tell my daughters they can be anything they want, so long as they don’t make other people feel uncomfortable. They can be as ambitious as they want, so long as they do it in an acceptable manner. They can reach for the stars, which you can see right up there on the ceiling painted to resemble a sky.

Leave the phone at home and put news on your wrist

Tiny screens, small snatches of time, clear endpoints, limited engagement, information-dense, and obvious pathways for more context. If the watch can become people’s primary device, it may provide the opportunity to switch the media paradigm from an endless stream to a concentrated dispatch.

How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success

This profile of the Apprentice creator makes me want to set things on fire.

No “Survivor” or “Apprentice” contestants are known to have killed themselves, but in the past two decades several dozen reality-TV participants have. Levak eventually stopped consulting on such programs, in part because he feared that a contestant might harm himself. “I would think, Geez, if this should unravel, they’re going to look at the personality profile and there may have been a red flag,” he recalled.

Kimmel pointed into the audience, and the live feed cut to a closeup of Burnett, whose expression resolved itself into a rigid grin. “Thanks to Mark Burnett, we don’t have to watch reality shows anymore, because we’re living in one,” Kimmel said. Burnett was still smiling, but Kimmel wasn’t. He went on, “I’m going on the record right now. He’s responsible. If Donald Trump gets elected and he builds that wall, the first person we’re throwing over it is Mark Burnett. The tribe has spoken.”

During the making of “The Apprentice,” Burnett conceded that the stories were constructed in this way, saying, “We know each week who has been fired, and, therefore, you’re editing in reverse.” Braun noted that President Trump’s staff seems to have been similarly forced to learn the art of retroactive narrative construction, adding, “I find it strangely validating to hear that they’re doing the same thing in the White House.”

I asked Levak what kind of personality profile he might have prepared for Trump as a candidate for the show. He said he would have noted “the energy, the impulsiveness, the inability to articulate a complete thought because he gets interrupted by emotions, so when he speaks it’s all adjectives—‘great,’ ‘huge,’ ‘horrible.’ ” What made Trump so magnetic as a reality-television star was his impulse to transgress, Levak continued, and it is the same quality that has made a captive audience of the world. “That somebody can become that successful while also being that emotionally undisciplined—it’s so macabre that you have to watch it,” he said. “And you keep waiting for the comeuppance. But it doesn’t come.”

Knock Knock. Who’s There? Kids. Kids Who? Kids Tell Terrible Jokes.

Saying “goed” instead of “went,” for instance, is a smart mistake: Kids know what go means and know the general rule for how to make a word past tense, but haven’t mastered the unusual conjugation of that particular verb. A child telling a nonsensical joke, similarly, results from her having come to understand the linguistic characteristics and the social role of a joke, even if she hasn’t yet grasped what makes one funny.

Why Is America So Angry?

Stoking the emotion is easy. Learning how to channel it to useful ends, he told me, is harder. For anger to be productive, at some point, it must stop. Victory often demands compromise. “You have to know how to arouse passions to fuel the fight, and then how to cool everyone down so they’ll accept the deal on the table,” Ganz said.

The method at both networks was, and is, to tap into our reservoirs of moral indignation. But the point isn’t to start a social movement or really even to effect political change, though the programming on Fox News and MSNBC does have political consequences. The point is to keep viewers tuned in, which means keeping them angry all the time. No reconciliation, no catharsis, no compromise.

The more recent rise of social media has only further inflamed our emotions. Facebook and Twitter don’t create content; they’ve outsourced that work to their users, who have quickly noticed that extreme statements attract more attention. On social media, the old rewards of anger—recognition of our unhappiness, resolution of our complaints—are replaced with new ones: retweets, likes, more followers, more influence. The targets of our rage, meanwhile, tend to be strangers less inclined to hear us out than to fire back. It’s a vicious cycle for users, though a virtuous one for the social-media companies, which profit from our engagement.

“The thing about political professionals is, we get to leave after the campaign is over,” the pollster Jefrey Pollock told me. “[We] don’t have to worry about what comes after the election.” These professionals aren’t moral crusaders, as Cesar Chavez was; they’re hired guns. After a long campaign, Pollock said, there’s “this huge group of passionate, energized people” who don’t know where to direct their anger.

But when we come to believe that justice is impossible, we get the desire for revenge. We no longer expect our anger to be heard; we don’t express ourselves with the hope of finding accommodation. Rather, some people become willing to do anything to advance their interests, regardless of who is standing in the way. “When we want revenge, we keep going until we feel like we’ve taught the other person a lesson,” Tripp said. “The goal is to hurt the other person.”

When Walt Whitman Was Dying, It Was Front-Page News — for Months

The paper noted that the 72-year-old Whitman had “taken a chill” and was “quite feeble.” From that point on, no detail about his final illness was too small to cover: how many sips of milk punch he drank or pieces of toast he managed to consume, whether he had the strength to sit up in bed, what he said to his doctor.

Before Trump, Steve King Set the Agenda for the Wall and Anti-Immigrant Politics

Last week, as the new Congress was sworn in, Mr. King sat on his side of a chamber sharply delineated by demographics. The Democratic majority included record numbers of African-Americans and women, including the first Native American and the first Muslim women. Mr. King’s side was mostly people who look like him.

“You could look over there and think the Democratic Party is no country for white men,” he said.

Aw, shucks

Be generous with praise. Kind words from people we look up to mean a lot. I love this post (and new site!) from Jina Anne.

Redefining Representation: The Women of the 116th Congress

This collection of portraits is a beautiful piece of work, and a logistical feat.

As the Cabinet Churns: Who’s Still Standing Among Trump’s Top Advisers

We updated our Cabinet Cards to mark two years of the Trump administration, and it got pretty messy pretty quickly.

The Great Divide

Ironically, while heaps of tooling add complexity, the reason they are used is for battling complexity. Sometimes it feels like releasing cougars into the forest to handle your snake problem. Now you have a cougar problem.

Through all the possibilities that swirl around the idea of serverless combined with prepackaged UI frameworks, a front-end developer can build just about anything without needing much, if any, help from other disciplines. I find that exciting and enticing, but also worthy of pause. It’s certainly possible that you become so framework-driven going down this path that your wider problem-solving skills suffer. I heard that sentiment from Estelle Weyl who goes so far as to say she thinks of developers more as “framework implementers,” reserving the title of engineer for tool-agnostic problem solvers.

Social-Media Outrage Is Collapsing Our Worlds

I’m sitting in a coffee shop as I write this. Imagine that a man sitting at a nearby table spilled his coffee, got a phone call just afterward, and simply left, so that staff had to clean up his mess, a scene that culminated in a haggard-looking barista drooping her shoulders in frustration. Was the call a true emergency? We don’t know. But if not, almost everyone would agree that the man behaved badly.

Yet almost all of you would react with discomfort or opprobrium if I followed the man back to his office, learned his name, spent half an hour waiting to see his boss, adopted an outraged tone, explained his transgression, felt righteous, then commenced a week-long mission to alert his extended network of friends, family, and professional contacts to his behavior, all the while telling masses of strangers about it, too.

On the other hand, if that man spilled his coffee, leaving that same haggard barista to clean it up, and if I captured the whole thing on my phone camera and posted it to Twitter with a snarky comment about the need to better respect service workers, some nontrivial percentage of the public would help make the clip go viral, join in the shaming, and expend effort to “snitch-tag” various people in the man’s personal life. Some would quietly raise an eyebrow at my role in that public shaming, but I mostly wouldn’t be treated as a transgressor.

The Real Origins of the Religious Right

In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

For decades, evangelical leaders had boasted that because their educational institutions accepted no federal money (except for, of course, not having to pay taxes) the government could not tell them how to run their shops—whom to hire or not, whom to admit or reject. The Civil Rights Act, however, changed that calculus.

Bob Jones University did, in fact, try to placate the IRS—in its own way. Following initial inquiries into the school’s racial policies, Bob Jones admitted one African-American, a worker in its radio station, as a part-time student; he dropped out a month later. In 1975, again in an attempt to forestall IRS action, the school admitted blacks to the student body, but, out of fears of miscegenation, refused to admit unmarried African-Americans. The school also stipulated that any students who engaged in interracial dating, or who were even associated with organizations that advocated interracial dating, would be expelled.

The IRS was not placated. On January 19, 1976, after years of warnings—integrate or pay taxes—the agency rescinded the school’s tax exemption.

For many evangelical leaders, who had been following the issue since Green v. Connally, Bob Jones University was the final straw. As Elmer L. Rumminger, longtime administrator at Bob Jones University, told me in an interview, the IRS actions against his school “alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference” in the affairs of evangelical institutions. “That was really the major issue that got us all involved.”

The $238 Million Penthouse, and the Hedge Fund Billionaire Who May Rarely Live There

About 79,000 people, most trapped by out-of-reach rents and low wages, are homeless, a record number, and the most of any city in the United States, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite

“The choice isn’t between automation and non-automation,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, the director of M.I.T.’s Initiative on the Digital Economy. “It’s between whether you use the technology in a way that creates shared prosperity, or more concentration of wealth.”

The Real Wall Isn’t at the Border

The Berkeley political theorist Wendy Brown diagnoses the tendency to throw up walls as a classic symptom of a nation-state’s looming impotence in the face of globalization — the flashy sports car of what she calls a “waning sovereignty.”

Facebook Moves to Block Ad Transparency Tools — Including Ours

This is not the first time Facebook has changed its code in a way that has broken our tool. For example, all ads are supposed to contain the word “sponsored” as part of a mandatory disclosure, so users can distinguish between ads and their friends’ posts. Our tool recognized ads by searching for that word. Last year, Facebook added invisible letters to the HTML code of the site. So, to a computer, the word registered as “SpSonSsoSredS.” Later, it also added an invisible “Sponsored” disclosure to posts from your friends. Many of the participants in our project noticed the effects of this change because it caused some menus to pop open unexpectedly or the page to scroll to the top repeatedly. Nowadays, the disclosure says “SpSpSononSsosoSredredSSS.” Some of these changes were likely also intended to thwart ad blockers.

HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points

There is something remarkable about the fact that, with everything we have created in the past 20 years or so, I can still take a complete beginner and teach them to build a simple webpage with HTML and CSS, in a day. We don’t need to talk about tools or frameworks, learn how to make a pull request or drag vast amounts of code onto our computer via npm to make that start. We just need a text editor and a few hours. This is how we make things show up on a webpage.

Bug 194028 - Add limits to the amount of JavaScript that can be loaded by a website

This doesn’t seem to address privacy concerns, which are a big use case for ad blockers, but I think it’s the beginning of a great idea.

Today’s JavaScript developer is acting like they have a 100 GHz CPU with terabytes of memory. And being lazy and uninspired as a result.

The situation I’m envisioning is that a site can show me any advertising they want as long as they keep the overall size under a fixed amount, say one megabyte per page. If they work hard to make their site efficient, I’m happy to provide my eyeballs.

New Year, New Website

A great post from Meagan Fisher outlining the decision-making process behind her new site design.

The Many Ways to Change an SVG Fill on Hover (and When to Use Them)

Clever techniques for manipulating color with CSS filters and SVG filters.

Goodbye Big Five

Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill is cutting the big tech companies out of her life and reporting on the consequences, expected and unexpected. She’s done four so far.

I Tried to Block Amazon From My Life. It Was Impossible.

Amazon has embedded itself so thoroughly into the infrastructure of modern life, and into the business models of so many companies, including its competitors, that it’s nearly impossible to avoid it.

In her blockbuster academic article, Lina Khan, now a legal fellow at the Federal Trade Commission, argues that Amazon is breaking the spirit of antitrust law, but that regulators have failed to act because that law has evolved in a way to ignore monopolies if they result in immediate low costs to consumers.

But Khan says that our increasing reliance on Amazon in our everyday lives carries harms that we are only beginning to see, including Amazon being able to exploit its workers (who reportedly pee in bottles to keep up with the company’s punishing pace), being able to massively data-mine Americans whose activity it has vast access to (meaning it could charge different people different prices based on what it knows about them, which it experimented with in the past), and being able to kill off competitors who would otherwise offer consumers a variety of options and prices (R.I.P. Diapers.com).

Amazon does not see itself as a monopoly. “There is an important difference between horizontal breadth and vertical depth,” said a spokesperson in a statement sent after this story was published. “We operate in a diverse range of businesses, from retail and entertainment to consumer electronics and technology services, and we have intense and well-established competition in each of these areas. Retail is our largest business and we represent less than 1% of global retail and around 4% of U.S. retail.”

But, based on my experience this week, I find Khan’s conclusions chilling and prescient, especially her points around Amazon’s luring third-party sellers to its site. That allows the sellers to make more money by providing access to Amazon customers in the short term, but Amazon slurps up these businesses’ data and can ultimately crush them with cheaper prices.

“I’d be stunned if AWS product managers aren’t using data from the usage patterns of their platform to decide with whom and how to build competitive products,” said Matthew Prince, who runs Cloudflare, one of the content delivery networks that frustrated my blocker this week. “They’ve done this relentlessly in retail, there’s no reason to think they won’t use the data from their platform to do the same with digital services. Companies that use AWS are feeding critical market data directly to the company that, almost certainly, will one day be their largest competitor.”

I cut Facebook out of my life. Surprisingly, I missed it

Late in the week, Instagram notices I haven’t opened the app in a while and sends me an email prompting me to see what my friends are up to. And I realize I don’t really know what people are up to. My friends now largely expect that I’ll see their broadcasts on various social networks, which means they don’t tell me things individually anymore, unless I see them in person.

Or the alternative happens: I assume I know everything that’s going on with someone because I’ve been following their feed. I recently went to visit a college friend who lives across the country. We text each other every weekend with our favorite photos from the week, and I felt like we were in relatively good touch, but once I’d spent a few days with her, I discovered there was ground-shaking stuff happening in her life about which I’d had no clue. It made me realize just how limited many of my digital communication channels are.

It’s the proverbial double-edged sword: I feel both out of touch when not on these channels, but like I’m worse at being in touch because they exist.

I Cut Google Out Of My Life. It Screwed Up Everything

“Your smart home pings Google at the same time every hour in order to determine whether or not it’s connected to the internet,” Dhruv tells me. “Which is funny to me because these devices’ engineers decided to determine connectivity to the entire internet based on the uptime of a single company. It’s a good metaphor for how far the internet has strayed from its original promise to decentralize control.”

Most of the websites I visit have frustratingly long load times because so many of them rely on resources from Google and get confused when my computer won’t let them talk to the company’s servers. On Airbnb, photos won’t load. New York Times articles won’t appear until the site has tried (and failed) to load Google Analytics, Google Pay, Google News, Google ads, and a Doubleclick tracker.

I Cut Microsoft Out of My Life—or So I Thought

When I tell Dhruv about this, he points out that there are many more places I could potentially be using Microsoft services without realizing it, like when I buy coffee at a coffee shop that uses Windows as the operating system for its payment system or when I use public transportation that uses Microsoft to power its back-end services. As the New York Times points out, Microsoft is “mainly a supplier of technology to business customers.”

That means that Microsoft is virtually impossible to completely avoid without also retreating from society entirely, which, at least for me, isn’t an option. Just as Amazon was inescapable on the web, Microsoft is unavoidable IRL.

The big difference between Microsoft and the others in the Big Five is that it’s been forced into the shadows while the others are freely operating their respective empires right in our faces all the time.

So if the conclusion is that I can live (sort of) without Microsoft today because of the government’s antitrust crackdown in the 90s, the question is what the government should do now about the behemoths I am finding I can’t live without.