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 POP LOSER No. 82

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Pooped and Demoralized

The Juicero story is exactly what we need right now. History is littered with stupid moments in technology and capitalism, but once in awhile we need something profoundly stupid to help us recalibrate. It helps if the mea culpa is a total wank, too:

The journey from Coca-Cola to carrots to Juicero’s rainbow of fruits and vegetables has let me connect my work to my personal mission and passion: solving some of our nation’s nutrition and obesity challenges. I’m very proud of what my teams and I have accomplished in the last ten years, especially in regard to positively shifting the dialogue about our food system and how it can better serve all of us in health, nutrition, and sustainability. All of that was training for becoming CEO of Juicero — the single most ambitious and inspiring job I’ve ever held. Let me explain.

Christ, what an asshole.

The thing is, I’m not convinced bagged juice with a $400 squeezy thing raising $120 million in capital is that much dumber than Uber’s $70-billion valuation for cars they don’t own, a workforce/inventory they can’t maintain and an app that’s relatively easy to copy. Uber was disruptive, sure, but as a business model I’m starting to think it was a terrible, terrible idea even if it wasn’t a company run by complete assholes.

But I digress. The most important thing to remember right now is that juice is a bunch of bullshit.

Juice itself is a classist lie.

Juice is one of the pillars of the modern wellness movement, right up there with yoga, healing crystals, Korean sheet masks, and whatever else Goop is hawking this week. And wellness is the ultimate 21st-century status symbol. “Luxury has significantly shifted from being a way to signal one’s belonging to a socio-economic group, to a form of self-actualization,” Sophie Doran, an analyst who specializes in the luxury industry, told New York Magazine last year. Forget about designer labels and expensive vacations. There’s nothing more difficult to attain, or more enviable, than a natural glow from within.
 

CONFUSIONS

Uber is awful update: Still awful.

One piece of this campaign is Uber Seattle Partner Podcast, a transparent piece of anti-labor propaganda that shows up in the Uber app. The app alerts drivers to new episodes with a “listen now” button, as The Verge reported last month, and while drivers are not required to listen, the notification stays at the bottom of the screen for four or five days.

Also: The Times goes long on Travis Kalanick. For some reason.

And: Technology isn’t magic.

So the fact Uber worked around Apple’s rules doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, considering the nature of its app doing so probably simplified the company’s life enormously. Not least because it wasn’t, at least on the face of things, using the hack to track its users but to combat driver fraud in markets like China. Its hubris, and the reason Travis Kalanick got a personal slap on the wrist from Tim Cook, was trying to disguise it from Apple. If Uber been more upfront about things it may well have gotten away with it. Anecdotally at least, it wouldn’t have been the first time Apple had allowed “favored partners” to brake the App Store rules.

But as average people become more distant from the underlying mechanisms of how the technology they use every day actually works, it has become harder to explain how technology works.


Facebook Instant Articles were never the solution publishers needed.

After scrambling to rebuild their workflows around Instant Articles, large publishers were left with a system that failed to grow audiences or revenues. Facebook says the adoption of Instant Articles is growing quickly, and that upcoming changes to the platform will lure back some of the major media companies that have abandoned it. But given Facebook’s other priorities, the future of Instant Articles is less certain than ever.

​The Chicago Tribune looks at the data trends and it’s all bad.

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

What did this mean? In baseball terms, we were hitting far fewer doubles and we were striking out 1 every 3 times at the plate. Four months earlier, we struck out 1 of every 90 at-bats.

And it was happening despite solid growth on our Facebook page — which, logically, would translate to increased reach.

Meanwhile, the Guardian has pulled their content from Instant Articles and Apple News entirely.

The publisher ceased running content through both Apple News and Instant Articles today. The move is a clear sign of displeasure in how these platform-publishing initiatives have treated the business needs of the Guardian. Many publishers have complained the money they make off visits to IA pages, for example, do not measure up to what they get on their own sites.


The ambition and disappointment of Google Books.

To date, the full experience of reading a book requires human beings at both ends. An index like Google Books helps us find and analyze texts but, so far, making use of them is still our job. Maybe the quest to digitize all books was bound to end in disappointment, with no grand epiphany.

Related: Things you can check out of libraries.

Libraries are supposed to serve a variety of constituents, some of which have unique needs. After listening to some of their patrons, one librarian at the Ottendorfer branch of the New York Public Library took it upon herself to provide a scarce resource: American Girl Dolls.

According to Amy Geduldig of the NYPL’s Media Relations Office, it all began when Children’s Librarian Thea Taube found a Kirsten doll in library storage, a long-ago donation from the American Girl Doll Company. Former employees had left the doll boxed up, considering her too expensive to display. As an experiment, Taube put Kirsten on her desk—and after enough kids inquired after her, the library began lending her out.

Kirsten now leaves the library regularly, and returns with new hairstyles and clothing, and handwritten tales of exciting trips. When Kirsten had to visit the company doll hospital a few years ago—she needed treatment for a variety of adventure-related injuries—repeat customers threw her a get-well-soon party.

After Kirsten received extensive media coverage, people began donating new and used dolls to the library. Geduldig says there are currently three dolls available for checkout, and each typically gets taken home about once per month.


Should we be looking to break up tech monopolies?

True, the internet never had the same problems of interoperability. And Google’s route to dominance is different from the Bell System’s. Nevertheless it still has all of the characteristics of a public utility.

We are going to have to decide fairly soon whether Google, Facebook and Amazon are the kinds of natural monopolies that need to be regulated, or whether we allow the status quo to continue, pretending that unfettered monoliths don’t inflict damage on our privacy and democracy.


ESPN and the future of television, which has no future.

ESPN broke ground on this $175 million, 194,000-square-foot facility, called Digital Center 2, in 2011. It was billed by executives as “future-proof,” capable of adapting to any possible change in the way people watch sports. At the time, ESPN looked indestructible. Its namesake cable channel had just topped 100 million subscribers and was posting record profits for its parent company, Walt Disney Co., even as streaming apps such as Netflix were growing rapidly. Ratings for live sports, unlike almost everything else on TV, were soaring. And ESPN had big games year-round—Monday Night Football, college football bowl games, Major League Baseball’s opening day, and the NBA playoffs, to name a few. A cover story in this magazine in the fall of 2012 dubbed ESPN the “Everywhere Sports Profit Network.”

Five years later the network’s profits are shrinking, and the 10,000-square-foot SportsCenter studio has already begun to look like a relic. The show’s formula, in which well-fed men in suits present highlights from the day’s games with Middle-American charm, is less of a draw now that the same highlights are readily available on social media. Viewership for the 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter, a bellwether for the franchise, fell almost 12 percent from 2015 to last year, according to Nielsen. Keith Olbermann, the SportsCenter-host-turned-political-commentator, put it bluntly on a podcast last year: “There’s just no future in it.”


Netflix would like to own all of your time.

You know, think about it, when you watch a show from Netflix and you get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. You really — we’re competing with sleep, on the margin. And so, it’s a very large pool of time.


5-star rating systems are not only useless, they are bad for us.

The gig economy has made us comfortable rating the people we pay to do tasks for us. Both data and anecdotes suggest five-star rating systems are subjective, prone to bias, and generally confusing, yet labor marketplaces continue to ask customers to choose from one to five stars to determine who’s good at their job and who isn’t. Last week, Netflix officially replaced its five-star system for rating movies with a more simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down. Maybe it’s time for other data-driven platforms to consider making a change, too.

“They think that 3 is okay, and a 4 is like a B.”
Don’s concern about the impact of a low rating is well-established: Workers in the on-demand economy are at the mercy of the customers, whose in-app ratings can jeopardize an individual’s ability to earn bonuses, land gigs, and generally make a living.​


Digital music and the lost aesthetics of sound.

Precisely what seemed most absurd to us at first about CDs—that nothing need touch them as they played—is what made them truly different from LPs and what ultimately ended the musical era we had grown up in. “Digital” was Orwellian in its misdirection: these were objects nobody handled. By contrast, we put our fingers all over LPs. A friend who owns a record store tells me some collectors even lick them.


What computers have done to and for chess.

Discussion in the chess community about how computers have affected the upper levels of play is ongoing and inconclusive, but there are a few consequences upon which everyone agrees: Chess masters now hire fewer assistants or “seconds” than they used to (they’ve been replaced by chess engines with names like Komodo and Stockfish); the international leaderboards are no longer dominated solely by Russians; using computers to cheat in tournaments has become a problem in recent years; and unprecedented access to resources and opponents has caused a proliferation of ever-younger prodigies, the recent youngest being 12 years, 7 months old.

Deep computer analysis has also made chess into more and more of a memory game. Whereas playing as many games as possible used to be the best way to build the vast store of patterns great players must hold in their heads, they can now accomplish this by studying massive, easily accessible databases of every chess game ever recorded. As a result, much of upper-level chess skill now comes down to forcing the opponent into a line of play that you’ve analyzed more extensively than they have. As masters memorize an ever-growing set of contingencies, draws become more and more inevitable. A big worry today is that chess is headed toward “draw death,” a phenomenon similar to what happens in tic-tac-toe when both players know the best strategy.


The problem with artificial intelligence is that we don’t really know how it works.

At the same time, Deep Patient is a bit puzzling. It appears to anticipate the onset of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia surprisingly well. But since schizophrenia is notoriously difficult for physicians to predict, Dudley wondered how this was possible. He still doesn’t know. The new tool offers no clue as to how it does this. If something like Deep Patient is actually going to help doctors, it will ideally give them the rationale for its prediction, to reassure them that it is accurate and to justify, say, a change in the drugs someone is being prescribed. “We can build these models,” Dudley says ruefully, “but we don’t know how they work.”


On Charging Bull, Fearless Girl and the appropriation of art.

Fearless Girl also changes the meaning of Charging Bull. Instead of being a symbol of “the strength and power of the American people” as Di Modica intended, it’s now seen as an aggressive threat to women and girls — a symbol of patriarchal oppression.

In effect, Fearless Girl has appropriated the strength and power of Charging Bull. Of course Di Modica is outraged by that. A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art. That would piss off any artist.


Slack is our favourite workplace Big Brother.

We are, I think, on the verge of another Slack pivot, if it hasn’t happened quietly already. As its watchful bots continue to circle, archiving and analyzing, retrieving and praising, the company will be forced to acknowledge that the true value of Slack lies not in its ability to enable productivity, but rather to measure it. The metrics business is booming, after all. Forget the annual performance review; with Slack’s help, managers could track their employees even more closely, and in ever more granular ways. And why stop at performance analytics? Sentiment analysis could automatically alert supervisors when employees’ idle bickering tips into mutiny. Depressed or anxious employees could be automatically served with puppy videos and advice bots.


An interview with “Man In Theatre Line” from Annie Hall, who is apparently also the voice of the Trix Rabbit.

He was the original Mansplainer, one who believed his insights had “well, a great deal of validity.”


Trailer for Obit, a documentary about one of my favourite things: New York Times obituaries.

The movie is structured around individual deaths and the obituaries that followed them. John Fairfax, the record-setting ocean oarsman, who attempted suicide by jaguar. David Foster Wallace, whose dad the obituarist had to call on the day his son died. Jack Kinzler, who saved Skylab, a billion-dollar space station, with a makeshift parasol. In a particularly charming story, Kinzler’s family cold-pitched the Times, which initially didn’t believe them. But after checking the “morgue”—the Times archive filled with obituarizable old clips—the paper was delighted to memorialize this remarkable man, who was otherwise slipping into history’s abyss. 


I want all the old BBSs to come back to life.

With some bulletin board systems being rebooted from long-forgotten floppy disks and with some still running on original 8-bit hardware, the current efforts of these seasoned sysops (that is, system administrators) provide a very literal glimpse into the state of online affairs from more than three decades ago. And while services such as the Internet Archive are an excellent resource for studying the growth of the World Wide Web as it’s frozen in time, these hobbyists are opening portals today for modern users to go places that have been long forgotten.


I am not a god—I am just a person using a pen and notebook during a work meeting.

Please remain calm, colleagues. I know, I am a maverick the likes of which have never graced meeting room 3C. But alas, I cannot take any questions until after this meeting.

Or should I say, “after this episode of Black Mirror.” For that is what I see gathered before me in this pod — the cast of a tragic dystopian satire, faces lit by ominous blue light. The only blue light I will be seeing during this meeting is the blue ruled lines on this recycled paper. Indeed, since switching to the notebook (retail price $29.99) my circadian rhythms feel like a Japanese bullet train, for they are that regular and efficient.


Fffound is closing.


Why your shoelaces always come untied.

In principle, the lace could slip either way, giving an equal chance of the bow eventually undoing completely or turning into a non-slip knot of the sort that long fingernails are needed to deal with. In practice, the former is far more common. The reason turns out to be that the free ends of the bow can swing farther than the looped ends do. The extra inertial force this causes favours slippage in the direction of the longer of the free ends. To start with, the effect is small. But as the free end in question continues to elongate, the disparity in inertial force gets bigger—and, eventually, only two or three strides are needed to take a shoe from being apparently securely tied to being untied.


Cookie Monster on the dole.

Elmo spiral into depression and eat his goldfish, Dorothy. Pepé the King Prawn worry about deportation. Miss Piggy now glorified geisha, forced to be active listener. Only good thing is most of us newly politicized. Me is totally woke. Use new free time to rally colleagues and to dialogue. Camaraderie good! Camaraderie powerful! During long hours together in unemployment line, you can really get deep, you can really go beyond the felt.
 

INTERPLAYS

Obits: Robert M. Pirsig, Albert Freedman and Erin Moran. A Google Map of every pro baseball stadium in North America. The updated Tommy Westphall Universe. MST3K + Stranger Things. Google Autodraw. The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America. Trailers: Beatriz at Dinner, Baby Driver, Buster’s Mal Heart and The B-Side. Old website designs. StarCraft has been re-released for free. Polaroids of Andy Warhol in drag. Classic Mac emulator (plus six original Mac games). DystopIKEA. The Moderators is a short film about moderating terrible things online.
 

PROPOGANDA

Mike Judge, the Bard of Suck // The New York Times Magazine
From “Idiocracy” to “Silicon Valley,” the writer and director has established himself as America’s foremost chronicler of its own self-destructive tendencies.

America’s New ‘Anxiety’ Disorder // The New York Times Magazine
In 1947, W.H. Auden published a very long poem that, despite winning a Pulitzer Prize, is now remembered less for its contents than for its title: “The Age of Anxiety.” Something about the idea that an age can be anxious must resonate deep in America’s cultural bones, because the phrase has been used to describe countless moments since, from the vogue for tranquilizers like Miltown and Valium in the ’50s and ’60s to the coronation of today’s young adults as, in The New York Post’s recent estimation, “The Anxious Generation.”

Amended Legacy: The Kinks’ Ray Davies Interviewed // The Quietus
As Ray Davies prepares for the launch of the next phase of his colossal Americana project, Patrick Clarke speaks to the Kinks frontman on America, Britain, and why he’s never voted.

Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia // The New Yorker
Her fiction has imagined societies riddled with misogyny, oppression, and environmental havoc. These visions now feel all too real.

Death of a Dystopian // The New Yorker
Alt-right conspiracy theorists think that the government killed the aspiring Libertarian filmmaker David Crowley. The truth is far stranger.

\#Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement // The New Yorker
What began as an attempt at a simpler life quickly became a life-style brand.

Salinger’s Nightmare // The Paris Review
An unemployed actor tracked down Salinger to get his permission to adapt The Catcher in the Rye.

Rise of the Machines // n+ 1
The Fast and the Furious was released in June 2001, on the second day of summer. Though it took its name from a 1955 Roger Corman noir, it was neither a remake nor a reboot. It certainly wasn’t conceived as the start of a massively lucrative franchise.

Ghost in the Cloud // n+1
Transhumanism’s simulation theology. 

Bong Puffer Forever: The Story of History’s Chillest Baseball Card // Vice Sports
Brandon Puffer was the 743rd player chosen in the 1994 MLB Draft, and was still pitching in rookie ball when the Minnesota Twins cut him loose in May of 1996. In the years that followed, Puffer backed his way up through the minors.

How The Rock Became Our Favorite Populist Hero // Buzzfeed
Whether he’s playing an action star or a woke bae, The Fate Of The Furious star is ready to be who you want him to be.

“You are pooped and demoralized,” read Dwayne. “Why wouldn’t you be? Of course it is exhausting, having to reason all the time in a universe which wasn’t meant to be reasonable.”
Kurt Vonnegut


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

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