Digest: 19 August 2014
In I Liked Everything I Saw on Facebook for Two Days. Here’s What It Did to Me, Mat Honan (for Wired) discusses how his experiment quickly meant that his news feed filled up with brand advertisements and increasingly extreme political messaging. Facebook feeds are determined by formulas based on the user’s online actions. Liking everything that appeared had an interesting result – brand advertisements replaced updates from friends, political messaging became worryingly extreme both to the right and to the left, and the items appearing in his feed increased in stupidity. Finally, his ‘likes’ started to overwhelm the news feeds of his friends’ Facebook accounts. Ultimately, by liking everything, his and his friends’ Facebook environments became very unpleasant places to be.
In The Emerging Pitfalls of Nowcasting with Big Data, MIT Technology Review discusses how care must be taken in the use of search query data sets in policymaking. Much has been made of the potential usefulness of search data in responding to real world situations such as flu outbreaks, but less has been made of the incidences in which that data has been misunderstood. Failure to correctly understand what the data says can have major economic repercussions.
In The Carnage of Capitalism, Paul Buchheit (for Nation of Change) discusses the effects of the expansion of capitalism into the health and education sectors. In the education sector, administrators outnumber faculty at universities across the country and are paid high salaries derived from increased employment of low-paid adjunct and student faculty, and from massively increased university fees. In the health sector, Buchheit argues, the extension of capitalism means exorbitant profit margins for drug companies and unaffordable health insurance.
In The History Inside Us, Christine Kenneally (for MIT Technology Review) discusses Svante Pääbo’s book, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. Pääbo is director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. Recent research shows that from DNA samples we can gain understanding not only of large events, such as resulted from the appearance of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, but also of the living dynamics of people over time, such as the choice to drink milk and the genetic ability to tolerate lactose. Pääbo is using DNA sequencing techniques that he developed to better understand the relationship between Neanderthals and humans, specifically discovering that 1-3% of the modern non-African genome contains variations deriving from Neanderthals, and that another group altogether, unknown till now and called the Denisovians, are responsible for 5% of the DNA of indigenous Australians.
In Why We Fight Wars, Paul Krugman (for The New York Times) discusses how for wealthy modern nations war simply doesn’t pay, but points out that it does seem to confer political advantages for those directing it. Krugman asks why we keep seeing war despite the economic disadvantages involved. Once upon a time war could be immensely profitable, and many wars were fought for the spoils. But in the modern world of interconnected markets, war has not proved to confer economic advantage. Perhaps politicians simply don’t understand this, but probably the answer lies with the popularity of leaders in wartime, and the usefulness of war as a means of distracting from other issues. Krugman points out that if China follows this trend the result may be troubling.
In The Fragmentation of Bretton Woods, Mohamed A. El-Erian (for Project Syndicate) discusses how US and European countries’ resistance to change within the context of the Bretton Woods framework is bringing about the irrelevance of that framework. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund framework was created to preserve global stability in the aftermath of World War Two. They were devised to encourage international economic cooperation as a means of increasing geopolitical security, and they have been, largely, very successful at meeting that goal. However, recently the BRICS countries have instituted their own competing framework as a result of their displeasure with ongoing entitlements that they believe unduly benefit the US and Europe. This fragmentation increases geopolitical risk.
In The Rise of Putinism, Fareed Zakaria (for The Washington Post) discusses how Putin’s brand of government may be proving somewhat infectious. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban last month described in a speech his intention of making Hungary the first European nation to denounce liberal democracy. He wants an illiberal democracy instead, something more resembling what Putin has in Russia. Zakaria describes Putinism as having certain crucial elements: nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism and government domination of the media, and points out that these traits can be found in other current political movements elsewhere as well.
In Death of Our Clown, Tim Kreider (for Al Jazeera America) discusses, in light of comedian Robin Williams’ recent suicide, why comedians often suffer from clinical depression. He argues that perhaps it is necessary to be depressed to be a good comedian, that to be a good comedian suggests an ability to see things as they are, that truly funny comedy is the sort that challenges by saying things that would be too uncomfortable except in the form of a joke. Kreider considers whether humor and depression are responses to the absence of delusion – one hates the world for the injustice witnessed, the other attempts to make light of that injustice as a matter of survival.