Mister Rhodes Is Seeking Employment

The world of politics and media in the US is mildly aflutter this weekend after a man most people hadn’t heard of before ran an extended advertisement for his services. Ben Rhodes is President Obama’s deputy national security director for strategic communications, also known to some as “the Boy Wonder of the White House” and the New York Times magazine has a long profile of him. After some interesting background colour about just how an aspiring novelist ended up writing the President’s speeches and directing large chunks of American foreign policy, the piece gives an extended description of how Rhodes and his team shape and disseminate their message across the 2016 media landscape. It’s interesting enough that I even got my crayons out and attempted a chart.

A lot of the ire has been directed at the disdain Rhodes and his boss show for journalists who “literally know nothing”, how dishonest their selling of the Iran trade deal to the public was and how deeply cynical the administration’s playing of the message management game is. ‘Ben Rhodes, Liar’ says the Free Beacon . ‘A stunning profile of Ben Rhodes, the asshole who is the president’s foreign policy guru’ thunders Thomas E. Ricks in Foreign Policy. ‘Why the Ben Rhodes profile in the New York Times Magazine is just gross’ grumbles Carlos Lozada in the Washington Post.

Of these three (and there are plenty more out there), the last one is closest to my thoughts on the profile. There are lots of repugnant aspects to the piece, but none of it strikes me as particularly new. Perhaps it’s never all been stated so arrogantly and bluntly in one place before, but most of the media insiders complaining can’t be unaware of the access journalism game. And I certainly can’t think of a better, more high profile example of access journalism and all the trade offs it requires than the White House beat.

Some of the resentment may come from the methodology of message dissemination described in the piece, which does an end run around some formal, hard won relationships and uses social media to seed and spread the word. The use of Twitter is focussed on in the piece, with only passing reference to Facebook, but to my mind that’s where the really concerning black box stuff is happening.

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So far, so straightforward. The message is decided on, willing hands help push it out through Twitter, with Price’s additional colour added. Other busy and probably desk bound journalists, using Twitter as a supplement and enhancement to traditional wire services write up the story and give it some presentable clothing, as they have seen it appear from multiple sources on Twitter. Then they in turn press publish.

The story appears on news websites but the numbers who read them there are falling. It also shows up on the publication’s Facebook pages and the machines get to work.

As an end user of Facebook, you’ve very little control over what you see in your feed, and very little ability to shape what Facebook’s algorithm decides you will see, when and in what order. There’s an increasing chance that a typical Facebook user gets much or most of their written news through Facebook. As an aside, Facebook would now also aggressively like their users to get much or most of their video news through Facebook. This will happen. Facebook has the scale to do this.

Anyway, back to the print story wending its way though Facebook’s entirely opaque plumbing – a wondrously complicated plumbing system liable to change on a whim. This story shows up in users’ feeds with the message present and correct from a large number of potential news sources. Window dressing around the message has been duly applied, so the stories from different outlets won’t be exactly the same.

The majority of American adults are Facebook users, and the majority of those users regularly get some kind of news from Facebook, which according to Pew Research Center data, means that around 40 percent of US adults overall consider Facebook a source of news.

(from Emily Bell’s ‘Facebook is eating the world’)

In addition to inscrutably dropping news stories from news organisations into users’ feeds, Facebook also does a little bit of curating of its own. The takeaway of concern for journalists here is obviously that Facebook is mostly interested in journalists as a means to train up its algorithms.news-flow-2016

None of the platforms, of which Facebook is indisputably the largest, can be neutral actors in this world. They create the algorithms which now decide which news is presented to which user. In this case, news that has one message from one source, although there is a comforting illusion of a diversity of sources.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. After all, Mr. Rhodes is just advertising his availability for work next January. Prospective employers, if you’re listening, Ben would quite enjoy some time in the sunshine in California.

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✩ Want You To Know: “I Strapped A Lot Of Things To My Head”

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The quote in the subject line is from my new favourite podcast, Note To Self, which is all about the intersection of technology and humanity. How we’re grudgingly getting along with the machines we’ve appointed as our masters and all that.

The episode the quote refers to is Forget Edibles: Get High On Wearables, but go and subscribe and listen to all of them. They’re reasonably short and always fascinating.

Important Internet News

Despite being declared dead and buried a few weeks back, Boaty McBoatface was dug up, taken out the back and submerged. Now all we’re left is this really magnificent GIF.

If you’re looking for tips on how to write a statement that could only be described as scathing, try reading this one from Médecins Sans Frontières a few times before you crack open the word processor: ‘MSF to pull out of World Humanitarian Summit‘.

There are also a few very simple lessons on messaging in this short piece by Theo Beltram, former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Identify your talking points, then make sure all your speakers repeat them until they’re blue in the face. Some of it will inevitably stick.

To celebrate David Attenborough‘s 90th birthday, Ed Yong got to watch ALL his documentaries and rank them. This is the most jealous of someone else’s project I’ve probably ever been.

Worth Pondering

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Eye Candy

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#StarringJohnCho | context

Totally Confused

Plot generator, a dense badger lie, eliminate raccoon dogs, jewellery and Bread. Cat. Arms.

Yours etc., @loughlin


 

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✩ Want You To Know: Contains No Traces Of Trump Tacos

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in media res

Perhaps because participation in reading groups is perceived as a female activity, some all-male book clubs have an outsize need to proclaim the endeavor’s masculinity. In addition to going by the name the Man Book Club, for instance, Mr. McCullough’s group expresses its notion of manliness through the works it chooses to read. “We do not read so-called chick lit,” he said. “The main character cannot be a woman.”

From a New York Times trend piece on Manly Men’s book clubs.

There’s also a real problem with setting up a book club devoted to manliness in which writing by women is excluded. Because the fact is, in my experience as a man and (dare I admit) a reader, the most daring, thoughtful, and insightful discussions of masculinity have been written by women.

This isn’t some sort of bizarre accident. It’s rooted in the same cultural givens which led some significant number of men to think that they’d look more manly if they put the word “MANLY” in the title of their book group. Women, for their own well-being, have to know how masculinity and the patriarchy work; men, for their own perceived well-being, have to keep themselves ignorant.

From a response to the New York Times trend piece on Manly Men’s book clubs.

There’s a hashtag, because of course there’s a hashtag. #ManlyBookClubNames. The Gripes of Wrath is simple yet beautiful and destined to become a classic.

Speaking of the New York Times, it’s come up with a rather odd / inspired plan to deliver ingredients to people’s homes so they can cook the recipes it prints. Go on, get those jokes about snackable content out of your system now.

I’m not a large media conglomerate so I can’t get into the headspace where launching a print publication in February 2016 for an audience who have ‘fallen out of love with newspapers’ was a good idea, especially as the same group shuttered Ampp3d and UsvsThem just under a year ago. Both of these are now widely and mostly badly copied across the digital publishing industry but, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Apple steals your music. Or does it? Either way, get used to the concept of renting, consumers. I’m comfortable with regarding the cloud as someone else’s hard drive they’ve lent to me in exchange for some personal information, and using it as such, but when the cloud wants to tidy up my hard drive I feel the cloud may have overstepped the mark a bit.

Finally, there may be a totally unstable government cobbled together in Ireland later today. Everything points to it being powered primarily by neo-liberal garbage juice. So there’s a cheery thought for your weekend.

Worth Pondering

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Eye Candy

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‘Borderline, Frontiers of Peace’

Totally Confused

A moist cringe, water in voxels, this is fine, ping pong and hippos eating watermelons.

Yours etc., @loughlin


 

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Competition Time!

Bank Holiday puzzler: can YOU work out the connections here?

‘Google and Microsoft have made a pact to protect surveillance capitalism’, 2/05/2016

Microsoft and Google, two of the world’s greatest monopolies, have been bitter rivals for nearly 20 years. But suddenly, in late April, they announced a startling accord. The companies have withdrawn all regulatory complaints against one another, globally. Rather than fighting their battles in public courts and commissions, they have agreed to privately negotiate.

And here the most sinister upshot of Microsoft’s decision to stop needling Google with legal disputes becomes clear. “A key theme I write about is that surveillance capitalism has thrived in lawless space,” says Zuboff. “Regulations and laws are its enemy. Democratic oversight is a threat. Lawlessness is so vital to the surveillance capitalism project,” she continues, “that Google and Microsoft’s shared interest in freedom from regulation outweighs any narrower competitive interests they might have or once thought they had. They can’t insist to the public that they must remain unregulated, while trying to impose regulations on one another.”

Data privacy is as important as tax, Google exec warns Noonan, 12/04/2015

In November, the Finance Minister met with Google’s vice president of engineering Urs Holzle, the company’s eighth employee and the man who leads its technology planning and data centre efforts. Google Ireland chief John Herlihy also attended.

Data privacy was one of the main topics of conversation, records show. Holzle raised Ireland’s policy of requesting information from internet companies, urging Minister Noonan to make sure the rules are clear.

‘Get off Facebook if you value your privacy, EU commish tells court’ , 26/03/2015

In the current case, a group called Europe v Facebook, led by privacy activist and “Angry AustrianTM” Max Schrems, alleges that Facebook violated European citizens’ “fundamental rights” (defined in the European Convention on Human Rights) by transferring their personal data to the US National Security Agency (NSA).

After the Irish data protection commissioner refused to investigate, citing Safe Harbour rules, the case was referred first to the Irish High Court and now the ECJ.

Europe’s highest court strikes down Safe Harbor data sharing between EU, US, 6/10/2015

Europe’s top court, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), has struck down the 15-year-old Safe Harbour agreement that allowed the free flow of information between the US and EU. The most significant repercussion of this ruling is that American companies, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, may not be allowed to send user data from Europe back to the US.

The case was originally sent to the CJEU by the High Court of Ireland, after the Irish data protection authority rejected a complaint from Maximillian Schrems, an Austrian citizen. He had argued that in light of Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, the data he provided to Facebook that was transferred from the company’s Irish subsidiary to the US under the Safe Harbour scheme was not, in fact, safely harboured.

Minister Richard Bruton T.D. Joins Microsoft to mark the start of construction of Microsoft’s new €134m Campus, 20/10/2015

“Technology is an area we have specifically targeted as part of our Action Plan for jobs and we have put in place a range of measures to support growth in this area. Microsoft was one of the first US companies to choose Ireland as a location for its EMEA operations.”

‘DRI challenges independence of Ireland’s Data Protection Authority’, 28/01/2016

Digital Rights Ireland has instructed its lawyers to serve legal papers on the Irish government, challenging whether the office of the Irish Data Protection Commissioner is truly an independent data protection Authority under EU law.

Ireland’s position as the EU’s centre for technology multinational companies makes it critical for the protection of all EU citizens’ rights that the state has a world class data protection regulatory regime.

A series of cases from the CJEU, the EU’s top court, have stressed the critical importance of a truly independent data protection authority. Most recently, in the Schrems case on Safe Harbour, the lack of such an independent watchdog was cited as one of the most significant differences between the EU and US privacy systems.

DRI’s case is that Ireland has failed to properly implement EU data protection law, or to follow the requirements of the Charter of Fundamental Rights by failing to ensure the Irish DPC is genuinely independent from the Government.

✩ Want You To Know: What A Load Of Teatox

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The weather forecast here is precipitation for the weekend. Probably beyond the weekend too and possibly even stretching into the next decade. I got this forecast from the Accuweather app, which big meteorology says is a liar.

Hooking up on the Internet has been mostly solved. Making friends hasn’t.

“The teatox industry is enormous … paying as much as a quarter of a million dollars per post …promoting teatoxes has become one of the fastest growing businesses on Instagram.” You learn something new, and a new word, every day. Teatox is also a load of unscientific teatox. There’s an impressive number of layers of shadiness on show here, from celebrity woo endorsements to the mystery of whether these ostensibly competing companies are actually all the same. Of course there’s a Mormon connection.

In this age of easily spread misinformation, who will debunk the famous debunkings of yore? Chuck Tingle?

Bad software has partially digested cars and maybe it might be better if we just admit defeat and let the self-driving ones take over.

Turns out the best Pixies cover version ever is by a bunch of yelling animals. It had never crossed my mind before, but this is just what a song about surrealism needed to complete it as a fully realised piece of art.

For your further listening pleasure here’s a couple of podcasts.

The latest episode of Let’s Make Mistakes is called ‘hashtaggarbagefire’ and is about writing good copy for the Web, which not enough people know how to do. C’mon folks, Jakob Nielsen has been wittering on about this for twenty years now. Also digs into how to do superficial customer service well on Twitter. Placating angry people rather than fixing problems works, for a while at least.

‘Pls Pee On Me’ from The Heart covers an app that lets people talk about sexytimes with their partners without directly talking to them. Raises an interesting point about how comfortable people have become with talking via text as compared to face-to-face.

Worth Pondering

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Eye Candy

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‘Daily Life: April 2016’

Totally Confused

First mall contact, flirting responses, Rube Goldberg forms, wood pulp caused bad journalism and on bullshit jobs.

Yours etc., @loughlin


 

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✩ Want You To Know: Bits And Bots

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All the breathless tech world chatter of the moment is about bots that chatter back at you and, more importantly, try to sell you things and / or replace customer support jobs. The feeling seems to be that the public have had a taste of the botty future through interacting with the digital butlers on their phones over the past couple of years and are now ready for swarms of the things to pop up, often unbidden, in every corner of their digital spaces.

Full disclosure of my experience in this field – I have made a few somewhat generative Twitter bots, taught Slackbot to be a snobby grammarian and display doomy demotivational quotes on startup and rejected all the advances of the personal assistant on my phone.

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After reading that there were now bots in Skype that would talk to me I tried a few out. The results were uninspiring.

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Anyway, here are a few articles cleverer people than I have written about the coming bot supremacy.

Conversational UI is now trying to be a thing because, I think, enough people have said they want it to be a thing. At present the main outcome of this is that it increases the amount of clicking, tapping and guessing required to get something done. But at least the end user had a stilted experience along the way.

… messenger apps’ apparent success in fulfilling such a surprising array of tasks does not owe to the triumph of “conversational UI.” What they’ve achieved can be much more instructively framed as an adept exploitation of Silicon Valley phone OS makers’ growing failure to fully serve users’ needs, particularly in other parts of the world.

It turns out that a lot of these bots are actually people masquerading as bots, which is an interesting, or perhaps nonsensical inversion of the whole idea.

The goal for most of these businesses is to require as few humans as possible. People are expensive. They don’t scale. They need health insurance. But for now, the companies are largely powered by people, clicking behind the curtain and making it look like magic.

Just to reiterate, most of these bots aren't very good.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve played with a handful and have struggled to make much use of them. I recently needed to make a reservation for a work lunch. I fired up Operator to find me a table, and it quickly sent back a pleasant but unhelpful reply — declining my request, as it didn’t yet have that capability.

Mostly forgotten Philly psych-soul maestro Billy Paul died and the Guardian lists five of his best. Do also listen to this bass line which is one of the most elastic ever laid down.

Worth Pondering

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Eye Candy

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'Making Matzo in the Lower East Side'

Totally Confused

Uber Ex, new sarcophagus, incompetent robots, positive impostor syndrome and snow leopard show off.

Yours etc., @loughlin


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✩ Want You To Know: Get It Over With

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It’s been a while, apologies for that but there was a serious amount of election ignoring, and then post-election to be done. My big pile of ignorage has probably never been so swollen. Yet still it continues.

Last night I listened to a live stream of a local Minnesota radio station. They were playing Prince‘s entire back catalogue in chronological order, interspersed with listener and staff anecdotes about him. Despite frequently being a garbagefire of despair the Internet can still amaze and move in surprising ways.

The ‘Purple Life’ mixtape on Mixcloud by Dave Wrangler and DJ Alykhan, done to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Purple Rain is worth squeezing into your earholes today. Next week’s New Yorker cover is beautiful.

Sort of continuing on that theme of what the Internet has wrought, this piece by Rex Sorgatz about growing up isolated in a very small town, leaving and returning is fascinating. There was no Internet so the source of knowledge was the library with subscriptions to a whole five magazines. Now everything has changed utterly, information-wise, whilst the town has mostly remained the same. There’s a great story about a scandal involving the naughty words in ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ as well.

Here are a few more things I’ve enjoyed reading over the last while, mostly about the intersection of media and technology.

Emily Bell wrote this piece about Facebook and the future of media and journalism, and it really sums up everything I’ve been thinking over the last few years about this. Tough times for publishers, certainly, but they have handed over control of the distribution of their product with barely a squeak of protest. As discrete items of content become separated from major media brands and appear free-floating in the streams of media consumers, where now for the brands?

There are huge benefits to having a new class of technically able, socially aware, financially successful, and highly energetic people like Mark Zuckerberg taking over functions and economic power from some of the staid, politically entrenched, and occasionally corrupt gatekeepers we have had in the past. But we ought to be aware, too, that this cultural, economic, and political shift is profound.

‘Don’t Trust Your CMS’ is a sobering look at the realities of publishing workflows inside media organisations. Learn to write in markdown folks.

“Can I share this video with my family?” ‘The Secret Rules Of The Internet’ delves into content moderation and the still haphazard and often exploitative way it is carried out.

While public debates rage about government censorship and free speech on college campuses, customer content management constitutes the quiet transnational transfer of free-speech decisions to the private, corporately managed corners of the internet where people weigh competing values in hidden and proprietary ways.

The New York Times gave an insight into how the media sausage is made nowadays with ‘How The Times Covers Breaking News: The First 12 Hours of the Brussels Bombings’. Eyewitness David Crunelle gave a rather startling view of this process from the other side of the newsdesk.

Worth Pondering

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Eye Candy

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‘Lost Parisian Cafes In Rainy Nights’

Totally Confused

Celebrity mountain lion, alsatians in totalitarianism, film dialogue broken down by gender and age, 38.0000,-97.0000 and making a bot that isn’t racist.

Yours etc., @loughlin


 

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Every Day Is Like Sunday

And every website looks the same, because people are lazy and unwilling to take chances. When I worked in web design and development around the turn of the century we had to work hard to convince clients that this was a different medium and they shouldn’t just shovel their existing marketing collateral onto their domain. Brochureware was everywhere.

Forbes was still writing about brochureware in 2010.

I recently came across online design package Visme, which among many other things will produce presentations. Rather grimly, the lacklustre template design of contemporary website has now slithered its way into presentation templates.

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Cog symbols and a wrench, curly brackets and a Wi-fi symbol equals technology now.