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 POP LOSER No. 84

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Sanity is Not Statistical

I was supposed to send this last week, but then there was the Manchester bombing and then a very bad tweet about that and I was writing some thoughts about the bad tweet and I realized that was kind of stupid (partly thanks to another tweet by Nav, who is still smarter than me (but he also deletes his tweets so I can’t link to it, thus leaving most of you without much context for any of this… sorry)). Now, instead of that, you get a newsletter with an extra week of links, so it’s stupid long and has no real intro to speak of because I got busy writing other things.

Consider yourself lucky, though. If I’d had more time, there’d be a lot in here about poutine and cultural appropriation and less-bad-but-still-bad tweets people sometimes make.

You’re welcome.
 

CONFUSIONS

Twitter and The Ratio, which never lies.

While opinions on the exact numerical specifications of The Ratio vary, in short, it goes something like this: If the number of replies to a tweet vastly outpaces its engagement in terms of likes and retweets, then something has gone horribly wrong.


The Economist has a million Instagram followers.

A key element to our success on this platform has been staying true to The Economist’s editorial voice, by featuring a mixture of hard news stories with some more playful subjects. From the beginning our strategy was to spark intelligent debate among our followers, and occasionally surprise them. Through carefully curated images and informative captions, our Instagram feed has become a unique destination for the bigger picture and a visual interpretation of the brand.


An Atlantic article went viral last week. How did so many people read an 8,000 word story so quickly? (Disclosure: I read two pieces about the story, but not the actual story. Instapaper said it would take me 35 minutes. Who the hell has 35 minutes?)

This question was all that filled my world on Tuesday, after the Atlantic posthumously published an 8,000-word, complex exploration of an author’s relationship to the woman who was his family’s slave. The story quickly exploded—even amid the endless breaking news cycle in Washington—setting online daily traffic records for the magazine, according to the senior director of communications. It sparked many a twitter essay, blog post, take, and counter-take as the online literati tried to tease apart the difficult and emotional narrative. If you haven’t yet, you should really read it.

But as fascinated as I was by the story and its impact, I was also intrigued by a familiar trope and frenzy that takes place whenever a juicy, intelligent long read is published. People engage in a public demonstration of how well-read they are through the rapid consumption and sharing of the read-du-jour. It’s such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it was parodied on Portlandia. But what I wanted to know was, how did all of these people with day jobs have time to read it?


Are you an accelerationist? It actually sounds like a terrible thing to be.

Accelerationists argue that technology, particularly computer technology, and capitalism, particularly the most aggressive, global variety, should be massively sped up and intensified – either because this is the best way forward for humanity, or because there is no alternative. Accelerationists favour automation. They favour the further merging of the digital and the human. They often favour the deregulation of business, and drastically scaled-back government. They believe that people should stop deluding themselves that economic and technological progress can be controlled. They often believe that social and political upheaval has a value in itself.


Steve Jobs is why your boss is shitty.

Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs didn’t just create a Hollywood hit: It created a manual for any bosses seeking a hall pass for their temper tantrums. Along with recounting Jobs’s blistering behavior and his “perverse eagerness” for putting people down, Isaacson remarks that “people who were not crushed ended up being stronger” and that those employees who were most abused by Jobs ended up accomplishing things “they never dreamed possible” thanks to his harsh treatment.

In other words, it’s okay to tell your employees that their work is shit and to park your Mercedes across two handicapped parking spaces—as long as the end result is a successful product.


I’m always surprised when I find out Second Life is still chugging along. That said, it sounds like things are getting pretty dark in there.

Every Ozimal digirabbit in the venerable virtual world Second Life will starve to death (well, permanent hibernation) this week because a legal threat has shut down their food-server, and the virtual pets are designed so that they can only eat DRM-locked food, so the official food server’s shutdown has doomed them all.


The fidget spinner is the toy we need right now.

Fidget spinners, on the other hand, are masquerading as a helpful contribution to the common weal, while actually they are leading to whole new levels of stupid. YouTube is stuffed with people doing dumb things with spinners—deliberately cracking a smartphone screen with a turbo-charged one, for instance, or spinning them on their tongues. A few days ago, one YouTuber broadcast himself sitting in a chair and spinning a fidget spinner for twenty-four hours straight. By the final half hour—as he flicked the infernal spinner listlessly, like an addled victim of some exquisite form of torture—he had attracted a live audience of more than twenty thousand viewers; the video has since had more than two million views. (As if to underscore the rank idiocy of his enterprise, he occasionally leaned in to the camera to show off a row of stitches on his cheekbone—the consequence of another fidget-spinning video he had made a few days earlier.)

A quick look at the economics behind the fad. ​

There are lots of people in the United States importing fidget spinners en masse, but I noticed that, in particular, the smartphone repair community has recently become obsessed with the craze. That’s because many independent repair shop owners regularly deal with importing iPhone parts and accessories from China’s grey market. It’s easy, then, to have a supplier add 100 or 1,000 fidget spinners to normal parts shipments.

Disclosure: I own three of these things. Because obviously they make you smarter.

Why is fidgeting so hot? Because it’s an adaptation to deskbound lifestyles. Society increasingly demands mental work while enforcing unhealthy, sedentary physical habits. Fidgeting is a way to cope.

It also has cognitive benefits. Julie Schweitzer, a scientist at UC Davis, studied kids with ADHD while they performed mental tests. The more intensely the kids fidgeted, the higher they scored. (The effect didn’t hold for kids without ADHD.) Schweitzer hypothesizes that physical movement arouses us, generating neurotransmitters that improve focus.

Bonus: Fidget Spinners: The Toy That Changed America.

While We’re Here: Breaking a fidget spinner at 50,000 RPM.


There’s a guy posting delightfully crazy NBA conspiracy videos and alternate histories on YouTube.

His signature and most-watched video (six million views) is “Was Michael Jordan’s Retirement A Secret Suspension By David Stern?” Korzemba lays out a somewhat convincing case for a theory that has long fascinated N.B.A. fans: namely, that Jordan, at the pinnacle of his N.B.A. prowess, chose to retire and become a baseball player because Stern secretly suspended him to protect the league from his out-of-control gambling habit. The video relies on period footage enhanced with cheesy “X-Files” music, narrated by Korzemba in breathless stop-start fashion. It all seems so silly—but, wait, isn’t it kind of weird that Jordan, in his retirement press conference, said that he would return to basketball “if David Stern lets me back in the league”? Korzemba also entertainingly pokes at the central mystery: why, really, really, would Jordan, one of the most extreme competitors of all time, walk away to flail at another sport?


Highlight paper. Is this real? This seems like a bad idea to me.


Digital album booklets were also a bad idea.

The idea of digital album booklets may appeal to only the nerdiest of music fans, for whom having everything in one place is a ritualistic way to listen to music and for whom album credits are crucial. But in an age where branding is often as important as skill, the lack of digital booklets feels like a wasted opportunity for artists wanting to communicate directly to fans without a social network as a middleman.


The Oxford Comma’s online dating profile.

Likes
Gouda, Havarti, and Brie; Feta, Mozzarella, and Cheddar; Ricotta, Swiss, and Muenster; Manchego, Gorgonzola, and Provolone; Roquefort, Taleggio, and Pecorino Romano; The Corrections.


The Amazon bookstore is stupid.

Amazon Books is being aggressively depicted by its opponents as the Amazonification of retail, an innovative space that pushes new sales tactics on a public that’s been conditioned to purchase things the Amazon way. But it’s hard to spend an hour in this antiseptic and bewildering store, as I did last week, and see it as an existential threat to anything. At best, it’s a bland attempt at brick-and-mortar retail. At worst, it reflects a company that’s grown so large—and so insanely profitable—that it doesn’t know what to do with itself.


Amazon made the cliché device that represents total oppression in sci-fi books and movies. So that’s probably fine.

I too initially scoffed at the Echo Show, but then I started poring over Amazon’s marketing for this thing and I realized something pretty dope and also kind of scary: Amazon has basically gone and made the tiny two-way video screen device from countless sci-fi books and movies. The ominous telescreen from 1984? Orwell couldn’t have asked for a better physical model than the Echo Show. When Schwarzenegger tells himself to get his ass to Mars in Total Recall? If he’d just waited a bit, he could’ve used an Echo Show to do it.


Zack Hatfield has probably thought about screen savers more than the rest of us combined.

You can’t consume a screensaver in an instant. You can’t you fast-forward or rewind one. The genre, its own kind of endurance art, shuns immediacy. Fugitives from time, screensavers possess no real beginning or end. Their ouroboric nature is perhaps why preservations on YouTube, whether ten minutes or twelve hours long, tend to evoke disenchantment. Decades ago, stumbling upon a screensaver in a shared living room—or perhaps finding an entire office full of them at lunchtime, cubicles lambent with workers’ judiciously chosen modules—likely signaled your own solitude. When you’re watching one intentionally, that feeling never arrives.


Movie credits keep getting longer.

The names can occupy five to 10 minutes or more of a movie’s running time. And we’re often staying put so as not to miss a possible extra scene or a tease to other films in a franchise. In the meantime, we learn about film jobs we had no idea existed. (Hello, render wrangler!) And yet many names are still missing, and some in the industry don’t think the credits are long enough.


I, for one, am completely shocked the tool teenagers use to send photos to each other with dog faces isn’t the cash cow we all imagined.

Just two months into its life as a public company, Snap is struggling.

On Wednesday, the parent of the messaging app Snapchat reported earnings that missed Wall Street expectations in almost every regard. Not only did Snap record a $2.2 billion loss for the first quarter, its revenue was lighter than expected and its user growth decelerated.


The record industry hasn’t really recovered.

If – and, by Christ, it is a big IF – the industry manages to replicate the same level of growth (5.9%) that it did in 2016 (and we’ll let them keep their performance rights and sync money in the pot), it is going to take until 2024 until the numbers are better than the $23.8bn reported in 1999. It is only then that anyone can truly claim the record business is “saved”. Like a streaming-based Steve Austin, they can rebuild it – but it’s just going to take a lot longer than they’d like.

Also, when we look at where the growth was – essentially in streaming as with the myth of the “vinyl revival” is not going to save anyone’s arse here – there is a time bomb that is going to fracture growth. For subscribers (so people paying for Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer and – no laughing at the back – Tidal etc.), the best way to explain their value is through the horrible acronym ARPU (average revenue per user) to show what each subscriber is “worth” to the record industry. Last year, there were 112m of them and they collectively brought in $3.48bn – meaning an ARPU of $31.07. Back in 2013, there were just 28m and they collectively brought in $1.12bn – an ARPU of $40.

So, in blunt terms, there are more subscribers but they are individually worth less.


Why do some people not return shopping carts? Because society is basically thisfuckingclose to Lord Of the Flies.

There are norms that are intended to provide overall governance for the benefit of society at large but as individuals we have goals that intersect with these norms and can create conflicts. Yes, we want to generally behave like others of our choosing because we want to be accepted, but we also have goals that serve ourselves or provide us with immediate satisfaction. The data above suggests that as a situation broaches on deviance, more people will trend toward disorder; once we have permission to pursue an alternative action, we will do so if it suits us.


The influencer is dead.

As with all slippery slopes, it’s easy to hop on but also easy to end up in a heap at the bottom. Which raises the possibility that we are on the verge of a new (hopefully more considered) age in the evolution of Influencer culture.

Long live the influencer.

Another advantage of partnering up with smaller celebs, Detert claims, is that they probably won’t “go against their morals or their audience because they’re still in a fragile state where they can’t sell out too early,” he says.

That’s vital in a digital age in which “authenticity”—or at least, perceived authenticity—is key.


The personal-essay book is over.

The market, in Bennett’s view, had overinflated. She was right: a year and a half later, it barely exists. BuzzFeed Ideas shut down at the end of 2015, Gawker and xoJane in 2016; Salon no longer has a personal-essays editor. Jezebel, where I used to work, doesn’t run personal essays at its former frequency—its editor-in-chief, Emma Carmichael, told me that she scarcely receives pitches for them anymore. Indie sites known for cultivating first-person writing—the Toast, the Awl, the Hairpin—have shut down or changed direction. Thought Catalog chugs along, but it seems to have lost its ability to rile up outside readers. Of course, The New Yorker and other magazines continue to publish memoir of various kinds. Just this week, The Atlantic published a first-person cover story by Alex Tizon, with the provocative headline “My Family’s Slave.” But there’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers. The change has happened quietly, but it’s a big one: a genre that partially defined the last decade of the Internet has essentially disappeared.

I once almost wrote about a years-long period where my balls hurt. Pretty happy I didn’t, in retrospect.


Please make yourselves at home in my Airbnb and have sex.

I know that having sexual intercourse with your partner in a stranger’s home is an essential part of a romantic getaway in the sharing economy, and I want you to have a special weekend together in my house. I hope that by being upfront about that reality, I can make you feel as comfortable as possible about ravishing each other in my bed while I stay at my friend’s place a few blocks away.


Is art over? (This is also a brief history of people declaring art is over.)

Talented and insightful philosophers of art have taken this claim quite seriously, even while acknowledging that artworks will continue to be produced in larger numbers, and in new and exciting ways. When these philosophers claim that art has ended, they are not saying that there will be no new artworks. Their claim is quite different. They are telling us that art has some kind of goal, or line of development, which has been completed; plenty more will happen in art, but there is nothing left to achieve.


Your privacy is a privilege and a commodity.

We’ve come to understand that privacy is the currency of our online lives, paying for petty conveniences with bits of personal information. But we are blissfully ignorant of what that means. We don’t know what data is being bought and sold, because, well, that’s private. The evidence that flashes in front of our own eyes looks harmless enough: We search Google for a new pair of shoes, and for a time, sneakers follow us across the web, tempting us from every sidebar. But our information can also be used for matters of great public significance, in ways we’re barely capable of imagining.


Minecraft on the Nintendo Switch is better than this plate of international cheeses. This is a true statement, and I love cheese a lot.

Perhaps like Ollie Barder you lament leaving Dragon Quest Builders behind as you switch to Minecraft. I’ll tell you what you won’t lament, trying this Fromage a Raclette as it is slowly melted onto your plate.

Still prefer the 60fps and 720p resolution of the Minecraft world on the Nintendo Switch? I get it. I mean, the Nintendo Switch offers hours upon hours of fun. Years even. Cheese, well, that’s more of a momentary taste thing. One area cheese and gaming enthusiast asked me, “can I have two pounds of blue cheese molded into the shape of a Switch?” No, you cannot. You have to choose.


The decline and fall of Elvis.

There’s no denying Elvis maintains posthumous popularity: Spotify reveals he achieved 382m streams in 2016. Yet compare this to other deceased stars such as Bowie (who clocked in at more than 600m), Michael Jackson (also more than 600m), or the long-disbanded Beatles (1.3bn), and these numbers look less impressive.

Elvis has fallen to the status of “novelty act”, according to David Hesmondhalgh, an author and professor of music at the University of Leeds, who says that any musician whose image transcends their music will ultimately fade away: “If you ask a small child about Elvis, the fact he died on a toilet through overeating or wore a silly suit is all that registers. The music has become far less important than the caricature. His image has been cheapened.”


“I misspoke”, a weaselly phrase.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist, distinguishes two kinds of speech mistakes: “typos” and “thinkos”. Typos are ubiquitous and listeners hardly notice many of them. Thinkos go deeper; they betray that the speaker might actually not know something. If someone says the capital of Italy is Florence, that’s probably a true thinko, unless the person is an expert in Italy who just happened to be thinking about a forthcoming holiday in Florence. But when people are caught in a thinko, they are often tempted by the “misspoke” explanation—it’s hard to prove them wrong, after all, if they say they knew the right thing but just accidentally said the wrong one. It could happen to anybody.


The MP3 is dead.

If you grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, you probably still remember downloading MP3 files to build your music collection, and burning up to 10 times as many of these onto audio discs than you could with traditional CD tracks.

I didn’t just remind you of MP3s to make you feel old first thing on a Monday morning; I also wanted you to know that the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits – the German agency that invented the audio format and licenses some patents for it – has officially terminated its licensing program.

This doesn’t mean that MP3s stored on your hard drive will stop working, but don’t expect to see many new devices professing support for the format from here on out.

Except maybe it’s not dead (though these examples make it sound pretty dead).

On top of that, we all know that people who create software, hardware, and other things on the internet do not have the capability to decide when they die. Just as Pepe lives on despite its artist having a funeral for him earlier this month; just as hospitals, telecom companies, and other enterprise services are getting hit with Ransomware for using the “dead” Windows XP; just as there are still healthy communities of Zune and iPod Classic users and new operating systems for the Apple II, a 40-year-old computer.

But anyway

AAC and other newer audio codecs can produce better quality than MP3, but the difference is only significant at low bitrates. At about 128 kbps or greater, the differences between MP3 and other codecs are very unlikely to be noticed, so it isn’t meaningfully better for personal music collections. For new music, get AAC if you want, but it’s not worth spending any time replacing MP3s you already have.

AAC makes a lot of sense for low- and medium-quality applications where bandwidth is extremely limited or expensive, like phone calls and music-streaming services, or as sound for video, for which it’s the most widely supported format.

It may seem to make sense for podcasts, but it doesn’t. Podcasters need to distribute a single file type that’s playable on the most players and devices possible, and though AAC is widely supported today, it’s still not as widely supported as MP3. So podcasters overwhelmingly choose MP3: among the 50 million podcast episodes in Overcast’s database, 92% are MP3, and within the most popular 500 podcasts, 99% are MP3.

Yeah, not dead.


The Ringer is moving to Vox and Medium is, well, I don’t even know.

The Ringer’s move to Vox is a blow to Medium, the blogging platform created by the Twitter co-founder Evan Williams. Envisioned as a counterpoint to Twitter, with an emphasis on long-form writing and thoughtful commentary, Medium has struggled to find its place on the web.


Inside the oddly obsessive Internet keyboard community.

As he follows me to my rental car, Alexander extols the virtues of the K-Type. “It’s not perfect, but it’s closer to what I envision you can do with keyboards,” he says. He notes how all its custom settings are stored on the keyboard itself. Want to move the Escape key to the Tab key, or change the Caps Lock to a Shift? Or maybe you’re finally ready to move from the common QWERTY layout to the hipster Colemak, which completely rearranges the order of the keys to put the most frequently used keys under the strongest fingers. It’s merely a matter of using Input Club’s open source firmware to change things around. Once its installed on the keyboard, there’s no extra software to load onto a computer, which means it remembers settings from computer to computer. It’s a minor thing for most people, but for his legions of fans, it’s a big deal.
 

INTERPLAYS

Brick Block. TotalEclipseOfTheHe.art Nice One Dad, a compendium of dad jokes. Every colour of cardigan Mister Rogers wore. Jazz album covers by Andy Warhol. Girly Mags podcast. A History of the Entire World. 30 for 30 Short: Birth of Gonzo Journalism. Star Trek with Tron music. Okja trailer Obits: Chris Cornell, Robert Miles and Frank Deford.
 

PROPOGANDA

The Barbarians Are at Etsy’s Hand-Hewn, Responsibly Sourced Gates // Bloomberg
The ur-Brooklyn online craft marketplace is under pressure to start acting more like a conventional, shareholder-focused company.

Pet Project // Esquire
While you’re looking at pictures of puppers to take your mind off the collapse of society, college sophomore Matt Nelson is building his WeRateDogs twitter account into an adorable empire.

Inside the Fight Between Free Speech and Hate Speech on Canadian Campuses // This Magazine
At universities across the country, contempt among right wingers is brewing—and lefties are swinging back.

Canada’s Rebel Is Joining the Global Class of Paranoid, Far-Right Media // Maclean’s 
The company’s White House correspondent typifies its push to feed the world-wide appetite for wild-eyed rhetoric. And he’s a keen fan of fantasy.

This Graffiti Fanboy Steals Priceless Street Art Under the Cloak of Darkness // Narratively
On the prowl with the Thomas Crown of the New York City streets.

The Circus Leaves Town // BBC
Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, say goodbye to the ‘Greatest Show on Earth.’

The Last Moment of the Last Great Rock Band // Vulture
The inside story of how the Strokes — and the early-aughts New York rock boom — went bust, told by the people who lived it.

How Temple of the Dog Pioneered a New Genre of Music Videos in the ‘90s // Longreads
Fronted by Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, Temple of the Dog was the original rock supergroup. Their music video “Hunger Strike” helped launch a musical movement.

Gerhard Steidl Is Making Books an Art Form // The New Yorker
He is the printer the world’s best photographers trust most.

The Legend of Screech vs. Horshack // The Ringer
Revisiting Dustin Diamond’s infamous boxing match with Ron Palillo, 15 years later. 

Can Prairie Dogs Talk? // The New York Times Magazine
An Arizona biologist believes that their sounds should be considered language — and that someday we’ll understand what they have to say.

Discipline and Parse: The Politics of Close Reading // Los Angeles Review of Books
When I was a freshman in college in 1967, I took a full-year course in what turned out to be called “close reading.” I had no idea what close reading was, and no one explained. Sitting in the classroom was an unnerving experience.

The Pleasures of Pessimism // The New York Review of Books
Why do we read writers who are profoundly pessimistic? And what sense are we to make of their work in our ordinary, hopefully not uncheerful lives?

English Is Not Normal // Aeon
No, English isn’t uniquely vibrant or mighty or adaptable. But it really is weirder than pretty much every other language. 

“Sanity is not statistical.”
George Orwell


Pop Loser is a weekly newsletter of innumerable confusions collected and written by Tyler Hellard.

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