Search Results for: The Verge

America’s Great Divergence

Longreads Pick

A growing earnings gap between those with a college education and those without is creating economic and cultural rifts throughout the country.

Source: The Atlantic
Published: Jan 30, 2017
Length: 15 minutes (3,811 words)

The Challenges of Translating Seinfeld for a German Audience

Seinfeld’s Jewish references posed a unique challenge: as Sebastian explained, “The Germans have a certain you-know-what with the Jewish.” Her editor was worried about some of Seinfeld’s Jewish jokes. “We better not say it like that,” she remembered her editor saying, “because the Germans may be offended.” She added later, recalling the incident to me, “They should be offended, in my understanding. They did it!”

Sebastian appreciated Seinfeld’s direct approach to Jewish history. She wanted to use jokes in direct translation, but the editor wouldn’t let her. She lost several battles. It was a fine line: Der Suppen-Nazi? Sure. Subtle reference to an uncle who survived a concentration camp? Not so fast. An entire episode based on George being mistaken for a neo-Nazi was problematic. So were references to the TV miniseries Holocaust and the film Schindler’s List. Take Elaine’s voiceover narration in “The Subway” episode when her train gets stuck: “We are in a cage. … Oh, I can’t breathe, I feel faint. Take it easy, it’ll start moving soon. Think about the people in the concentration camps, what they went through.”

— At The Verge, Jennifer Armstrong, the author of the upcoming book Seinfeldia: The Secret World of the Show About Nothing That Changed Everything, describes Sabine Sebastian’s translation and production of all 180 Seinfeld episodes for German television.

When Is an Internet Company Evil?

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke publicly about the role Russian trolls and fake news on Facebook played in shaping public perception and influencing the presidential election. The company has since changed its mission statement from “making the world more open and connected” to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” The timing is no coincidence. The slogan’s also hogwash. Facebook is concerned with its brand, and with two billion monthly users (there’s 7.4 billion people on earth) and an 18% growth rate, Zuckerberg does not want bad publicity to disrupt the lucrative company’s continued expansion, which is based on the acquisition of free content from users, which it then uses to target users with advertising. Calling Facebook users ‘users’ is fitting, since it was always the public that was being used.

At the London Review of Books, John Lanchester examines three actual books to look closely at what Facebook really is on the inside and how it goes about its data-collecting business. It’s essentially an advertising business, which means, in Lanchester’s words, “Facebook is in the surveillance business.”

Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

Now that the public knows how Facebook’s fake election stories have created more reader engagement than top New York Times stories, Zuckerberg has a social responsibility to use his powerful platform in a way that doesn’t further erode its users’ society. Instead of factoring in the social costs of social media, though, Facebook remains committed solely to growth and monetization. Google’s public maxim is “Don’t be evil.” Even if you doubt that maxim’s veracity, as consumers, we have to ask ourselves: when a company cares more about monetizing users’ data than about protecting users from a Russian misinformation campaign, why should anyone use their service? In Capitalist America, too many people see it as un-American to say that businesses have a social responsibility. But when it comes to capitalism, we consumers ultimately wield the most power: we can choose not to spend our money or time on businesses who ignore the social costs of their operations. If you’ve been on the verge of deactivating Facebook, now is a good time.

The fact is that fraudulent content, and stolen content, are rife on Facebook, and the company doesn’t really mind, because it isn’t in its interest to mind. Much of the video content on the site is stolen from the people who created it. An illuminating YouTube video from Kurzgesagt, a German outfit that makes high-quality short explanatory films, notes that in 2015, 725 of Facebook’s top one thousand most viewed videos were stolen. This is another area where Facebook’s interests contradict society’s. We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t. It has two priorities, as Martínez explains in Chaos Monkeys: growth and monetisation. It simply doesn’t care where the content comes from. It is only now starting to care about the perception that much of the content is fraudulent, because if that perception were to become general, it might affect the amount of trust and therefore the amount of time people give to the site.

Zuckerberg himself has spoken up on this issue, in a Facebook post addressing the question of ‘Facebook and the election’. After a certain amount of boilerplate bullshit (‘Our goal is to give every person a voice. We believe deeply in people’), he gets to the nub of it. ‘Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 per cent of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.’ More than one Facebook user pointed out that in their own news feed, Zuckerberg’s post about authenticity ran next to fake news. In one case, the fake story pretended to be from the TV sports channel ESPN. When it was clicked on, it took users to an ad selling a diet supplement. As the writer Doc Searls pointed out, it’s a double fraud, ‘outright lies from a forged source’, which is quite something to have right slap next to the head of Facebook boasting about the absence of fraud. Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter and founder of the long-read specialist Medium, found the same post by Zuckerberg next to a different fake ESPN story and another piece of fake news purporting to be from CNN, announcing that Congress had disqualified Trump from office. When clicked-through, that turned out to be from a company offering a 12-week programme to strengthen toes. (That’s right: strengthen toes.) Still, we now know that Zuck believes in people. That’s the main thing.

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America’s First Addiction Epidemic

Christopher Finan| Drunks: An American History | Beacon Press | June 2017 | 28 minutes (7,526 words) 

The following is an excerpt from Drunks, by Christopher Finan. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

The men full of strong drink have trodden in the fireplaces.

In spring of 1799, Handsome Lake, a Native American, joined members of his hunting party in making the long journey from western Pennsylvania to their home in New York. Handsome Lake was a member of the Seneca Nation, one of the six nations in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). He had once been renowned for his fighting skill. But the Iroquois had been stripped of almost all their lands after the American Revolution. Now fifty years old, Handsome Lake, too, was a shadow of what he had been. He would later say that heavy drinking had reduced him to “but yellow skin and dried bones.” After stopping in Pittsburgh to trade furs for several barrels of whiskey, the hunters lashed their canoes together and began to paddle up the Allegheny River. Only those in the outer canoes had to work. The rest of the party drank whiskey, yelling and singing “like demented people,” Handsome Lake said. The good times didn’t stop after they picked up their wives and children, who had accompanied them on the hunting trip and were waiting at a rendezvous. Everyone looked forward to being home in Cornplanter’s Town, named for its Seneca Leader.

The joy of their homecoming did not last long. There was enough whiskey to keep the men drunk for several weeks. Handsome Lake described the horror of that time:

Now that the party is home the men revel in strong drink and are very quarrelsome. Because of this the families become frightened and move away for safety. So from many places in the bushlands camp fires send up their smoke.

Now the drunken men run yelling through the village and there is no one there except the drunken men. Now they are beastlike and run about without clothing and all have weapons to injure those whom they meet.

Now there are no doors in the houses for they have all been kicked off. So, also, there are no fires in the village and have not been for many days. Now the men full of strong drink have trodden in the fireplaces. They alone track there and there are no fires and their footprints are in all the fireplaces.

Now the Dogs yelp and cry in all the houses for they are hungry.

Henry Simmons, one of three Quakers who had recently come to the village and had been contracted by the US War Department to “civilize” the Indians, said that some natives died. “One old Woman perrished out of doors in the night season with a bottle at her side,” he wrote. In a community meeting later, Simmons denounced “the great Evil of Strong Drink.” But the Indians did not need much persuading. After several days of deliberation, a council of Seneca elders announced that they were banning whiskey from the village. Read more…

Why Oil-Loving Louisiana Should Embrace America’s Coming Offshore Wind Boom

Justin Nobel | Longreads | August 2017 | 8 minutes (2,051 words)

The United States is on the verge of an energy transformation. This spring the nation’s first offshore wind farm officially began powering homes and businesses on Block Island, in Rhode Island. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management maps show 12 areas that have been leased for potential offshore wind development along the East Coast, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Cape Cod, and a thirteenth will be leased later this year. In December 2016, Statoil Wind US, part of the Norwegian oil and gas giant, bid $42.5 million to lease, for offshore wind development, a tract of ocean that begins about 15 nautical miles southeast of New York City.

“Since Block Island came online interest in offshore wind along the East Coast has gone through the roof,” says Lorry Wagner, an engineer whose company, Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation is pushing for a wind farm off Cleveland, in Lake Erie. “Every major developer in the world wants to get into the United States and get a project.”

In my first column we journeyed across toxic Louisiana, learning that many of the state’s most terrifying environmental problems are connected to the petrochemical industry. But is there another way to provide jobs for people in south Louisiana oil country? The answer appears to be yes. Read more…

To Be an Instagram-Ready Restaurant, Don’t Forget Your Selfie-Optimized Lamps

Back in the 1970s, memorabilia-heavy restaurants became popular as they facilitated the loosening-up of sexual mores. These days, colorful tiles, bold wallpaper, and the occasional (ironic?) taxidermy piece can all trace their origins to our need to capture and broadcast our well-curated pleasures. As Casey Newton shows at The Verge, Instagram is the driving force behind the current vogue for easily reproduced, sleek-kitschy idiosyncrasy — including adjustable lighting that allows diners to take the most flattering selfie possible.

Few restaurants have taken photo-friendliness as seriously as Bellota, a Spanish restaurant that opened in San Francisco last year. The entryway is enclosed, creating a pleasing shadowbox effect as you look into the dining room. The kitchen is open, and encourages patrons to take 360-degree videos of the space. Many Instagram posts feature pictures of “the ham wall,” which is just what it sounds like: a window that looks into the temperature-controlled room where Bellota stores $50,000 worth of Spanish jamón ibérico.

The most striking thing about Bellota may be the custom lamps at its 25-seat bar, which let patrons adjust the lighting in order to get the perfect shot. “I’m probably the most avid Instagram user of the group, so I kept bringing it up,” says Ryan McIlwraith, Bellota’s chef. He wanted the lighting to do justice to the restaurant’s tapas plates and signature paellas. “It turned out these lamps we got were just perfect for it,” he says. The lamps can be tilted or turned 180 degrees, and the light’s intensity can be adjusted up and down. An “advanced feature” allows patrons to rest their phones on the lamp’s neck so as to take a selfie. (I did, and must admit the lighting was lovely.)

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The Resilience of a Middle Distance Runner

At Sports Illustrated, Tim Layden tells the story of middle-distance runner Gabriele “Gabe” Grunewald, who discovered in 2009 that she had a very rare form of cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), which is found primarily in the salivary glands and for which there is no standard of care. Then 22, she was on the verge of winning a Big Ten title and about to launch her professional running career. So they removed the tumor and she fought ACC.

“It all marked the beginning of Gabe’s life with cancer, not the end,” writes Layden. Within less than a decade, cancer has come back in different forms — again and again and again. Through it all, Gabe keeps running.

Since that morning in Tempe, cancer had come back three times. First there was thyroid cancer in 2010, just a year after her initial diagnosis. This was an entirely different kind of cancer, which at first confused everybody (but which now seems like a footnote). In the days between those first two cancers, Gabe, now 31, had lived—and run—voraciously. She learned that ACC five-year survival rates are very high (approximately 89%), and she attacked those five years. “Just fit in everything I can,” Gabe says. She procured that extra year of eligibility and took a whopping 10 seconds off her 1,500-meter PR, down to 4:12.06. She finished second at the Big Ten championship, second at the NCAAs and scored a modest pro contract with Brooks. Justin was away at medical school, in Duluth, so she also stayed out a little later, drank a little more beer and a little more red wine, escaping and experiencing a life she’d avoided in her past. “Sometimes those nights ended in tears and drama,” she says, “because I would get emotional about everything.” She had surgery on the thyroid cancer that fall, followed by one treatment with radioactive iodine, and then she bounced back quickly.

The big cancer, ACC, stayed away for seven years, and in that time Gabe carved out a career as a solid professional middle-distance runner. She finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the 2012 Olympic trials, ran a personal best in the same event in ‘13 (4:01.48; only 10 American women have ever run faster) and won the indoor 3,000-meter national title in ‘14.

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Jeff Bezos: Hero or Villain?

Jeff Bezos

When the news of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods broke, some wondered whether Amazon owner Jeff Bezos was flying too close to the anti-trust sun, teetering on the verge of an unfair monopoly.

Tim Wu, a Columbia Law School professor who specializes in such questions, tweeted:

Wu did not immediately respond to inquiries, but further Twitter-digging showed varied theories about the business deal:

It’s notable that the news broke alongside The New York Times’ report on Bezos’ lack of philanthropic giving. As ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis highlighted on Twitter, Bezos is the second-wealthiest person on the planet and has given away a mere .1 percent of his wealth.

After the Times questioned Bezos, he turned to Twitter with a “request for ideas.” As the Times noted, Bezos is a hero of sorts for some in journalism since he purchased The Washington Post in 2013. The Post is, of course, a for-profit business, so the purchase hardly makes him a philanthropist. But in an industry where the editorial rank-and-file are being laid off in droves, up against ownerships that devalue deep work who are intent on repeating the same failed strategies in floundering attempts to turn a craft into a viable business, the fact that the Post has been on a hiring spree and Bezos has appeared to value good, hard-won journalism is a bright spot in a bleak landscape.

And, for what it’s worth, he threw $1 million at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press last month, an organization that seems increasingly vital as journalists face decades in prison for covering protests on U.S. soil.

Of course, the flipside of that is Amazon. Amazon has:

In The New Republic in 2014, Franklin Foer accused the company of “cannibalizing the economy,” insisting that it “must be stopped.”

Good deeds by Amazon include providing a space to a homeless shelter in Seattle — which could indicate this Whole Foods deal is a chance for Bezos to use his new properties for good in cities like New York and San Francisco, where homelessness is a chronic, persistent issue and housing costs have become prohibitive for many. And while the company is often criticized for lowering prices to a point that is deadly to their competitors, if Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods makes home delivery of healthful groceries affordable for low-income people — who tend to struggle more both with health issues and access to transportation — that would be a good thing.

For now, it’s unclear what Bezos will do with Whole Foods, though Amazon’s foray into brick-and-mortar bookstores may provide a clue.

 

We Need to Talk About Uber: A Timeline of the Company’s Growing List of Problems

In a piece for the Financial Times titled “Fire Travis Kalanick,” Kadhim Shubber wrote of the founder of Uber: “One day we will look back at what will hopefully be the smouldering wreckage of Kalanick’s career and ask how a person so lacking in basic human and corporate ethics was allowed to run a company for so long.”

Founded in 2009, Uber was able to portray itself as an underdog “disruptor” into 2012, galvanizing support to beat back city lawmakers in Boston and Washington, D.C. who sought to impose regulations.

But then their practice of surge pricing during crises came under fire when ride prices doubled in New York City after Hurricane Sandy devastated the metropolis in 2012. When surge pricing reached nearly eight times the fare during a snowstorm in 2013, riders got angry.

At first, few reporters took to criticizing the company. When they did, Uber’s public relations machine responded by trashing those reporters in other outlets. When reports of assaults and misconduct by Uber drivers started to roll in, the company responded by claiming they were not responsible for the incidents because the drivers are “independent contractors.”

And since 2013, the missteps and scandals have only continued to pile up. Here is a not comprehensive timeline of all of the trouble Uber has gotten into to date:

January 2014: Pando reported that an Uber driver suspended after assaulting a passenger in San Francisco had a criminal record, including a felony conviction involving prison time. Uber has no explanation for why the driver cleared the background checks that California mandated they run. That same month, outlets nationwide report on the company getting hit with its first wrongful death suit stemming from a driver killing a 6-year-old girl in a San Francisco crash on New Year’s Eve. That driver also had a criminal record that included a conviction for reckless driving. Read more…