‘Timeless impact’

Do not treat it just as a searing reflection of Europe more than a century ago. Think about the trenches in Donbas, and the timeless impact of high explosive on the human body.

Veteran BBC war reporter Jeremy Bowen on All Quiet on the Western Front, the devastating portrayal of World War One and it’s horrendous trenches. Part of a piece in The Times (of London): The best war films — picked by war reporters.

Paved the way

“Next time, we see how a cold war between East and West paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll, which paved the way for countercultural hippies, who paved the way for Steve jobs to pave the way for computers and smartphones, which paved the way for social media, which would pave the way for undoing all the progress humankind had made so far.”

Philomena Cunk, from ‘Cunk on Earth’

‘I don’t understand’

The column is about an anti-trust case, but I liked this line from Rana Foroohar on the importance of having things explained in layman’s terms:

I’ve been amazed in my 30 years as a journalist how often just saying, “I don’t understand — explain this to me again,” can lead to an “aha” moment. When experts can’t explain a complex concept in plain terms, they either don’t understand it themselves, or are trying to get something over on the journalist.

Printer extortion

Charlie Warzel in The Atlantic, writing about the latest in a long line of ink-hustles perpetrated by HP:

The first rule of at-home printers is that you do not need a printer until you do, and then you need it desperately. The second rule is that when you plug the printer in, either it will work frictionlessly for a decade, or it will immediately and frequently fail in novel, even impressive ways, ultimately causing the purchase to haunt you like a malevolent spirit. So rich is the history of printer dysfunction that its foibles became a cliché in the early days of personal computing.

‘Until World War I, pre-work drinks were as common as Happy Hour.’

Great little piece looking back at the time when an early morning pint was not only proper, but the “healthy” option over the local London water supply.

[W]orkmen would easily drink six to eight pints of beer every day, says Jennings. For what else could they drink? The water often came from sewage-ridden sources such as the River Thames, and there were no soft drinks. Tea and coffee eventually arrived, but they were expensive, foreign imports and, even once they became more common, subject to heavy taxation. “So people drank beer with their meals during the day. That lasted well into the 19th century for many people,” says Jennings.

‘At the circus’

Kevin Williamson in the conservative National Review articulates the side of Republicanism that Joe Biden was trying to channel in his prime time speech tonight:

“But we want a Republican majority!” Okay, sure — why? To give a bigger megaphone and a better-placed monkey wrench to Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lindsey Graham? So that Lauren Boebert can have a better position on the House Budget Committee?

Count me less-than-enthusiastic about that.

Mitch McConnell and others have expressed concern at the calibre of candidates being put out there by the “MAGA Republicans” that have taken over politics in the US. Commentators like Williamson feel it too:

How many clowns do you have to see getting out of the clown car before you realize you’re at the circus?

Podcast: How trade unions got their mojo back

Taylor Nicole Rogers, the FT’s US labour and equality correspondent, stands in for regular host Isabel Berwick in this episode to ask what the resurgence of trade union activity in both the US and UK is doing to the relationship between employer and employee. We hear from Mick Lynch, general secretary of the UK’s National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, and Taylor speaks to Dave Lee, the FT’s San Francisco correspondent, about attempts by US workers to form a union at Amazon and elsewhere, and the risks they face.

‘The Buckingham Palace of man caves’

An insightful look behind the scenes of the Joe Rogan Experience, via Substack’s VP of comms, Lulu Cheng Meservey. There’s a bunch of colour like this:

Joe then shows us around the building. There is a large pool room that also serves as an overflow room for all the art and decor and gifts that they haven’t put on display yet. There is a huge gym — probably bigger than a high school basketball gym — with advanced equipment and fighting gear. There is an indoor archery range that includes a Kevlar screen where you can project realistic videos of game animals to shoot with a real bow and arrow, then zoom in on your shots to analyze how you did. 

It is the Buckingham Palace of man caves. 

There’s also some great observations on what makes Rogan a highly trusted interviewer for millions of people.

Joe doesn’t really prepare.

During the show, he sometimes refers to a note with general topics on his phone, but there’s no extensive research or list of questions. He does spend a lot of time with guests before the show, which I’m sure helps make for a better podcast. Joe is a warm and humble guy with no airs despite having a weekly audience larger than the population of Belgium, and he’s good at putting people at ease. That’s it though.

It’s the secret sauce of JRE and what makes it so entertaining: the show is conversational Calvinball.

I’ve long argued that being more willing to show how the sausage is made — i.e Rogan doing his research in real-time, with all the associated risk — is how we get over this current vacuum of trust in today’s media.

Rogan has been positioned, by more mainstream commentary, as a rogue and a renegade. Someone not to be taken seriously as an interviewer. But his listenership tells a different story. When reading Meservey’s observations, I was reminded about the process described by one of the greatest interviewers of all time, Larry King, speaking to NPR:

“The less I know, the better. Now that sounds strange to people. Like, if you wrote a book, I wouldn’t read the book before I interviewed you, because I would then know too much about the book. And I’m in the same boat as the audience; they haven’t read the book.”

Jeff Bezos is being ‘harassed’ by US regulators, says Amazon

Amazon has accused the US Federal Trade Commission of harassing its top executives, including founder Jeff Bezos and chief executive Andy Jassy, as part of a probe into the ecommerce group’s Prime membership scheme.

Since March 2021, the regulator has been investigating whether Amazon uses deceptive techniques to lure customers into signing up for Prime, the subscription service that offers free delivery and other benefits at a cost of $139 a year.

The FTC is also examining whether Amazon unfairly complicates the process for customers who want to cancel their membership.

Has TikTok turned?

In his seminal 2018 book — 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now — computer scientist Jaron Lanier talks about the joy of being an early adopter on new social platforms. It’s the brief moment in time when the platform has yet to turn its users, through the subtle nudges of algorithmic amplification, into “assholes”, as Lanier puts it.

Think of the biggest platforms. You know what this honeymoon period felt like. On Twitter, it was when the most high profile “row” would be about a t-shirt slogan at Topman, and the most outspoken person on it was Stephen Fry, or Ashton Kutcher. On Facebook, it was when you saw only your friends, could find out that the girl you liked was single, and planned your birthday night out. On YouTube, it was when plucky creators worked with tiny budgets and big creativity, and the only rabbithole to be found was a cute video of a rabbit… in a hole.

I was thinking about Lanier’s observations when reading this piece in the Guardian about TikTok creator Andrew Tate, who has risen to fame on TikTok by posting — what else — misogynistic comments:

[The] 35-year-old is not a fringe personality lurking in an obscure corner of the dark web. Instead, he is one of the most famous figures on TikTok, where videos of him have been watched 11.6 billion times.

Styled as a self-help guru, offering his mostly male fans a recipe for making money, pulling girls and “escaping the matrix”, Tate has gone in a matter of months from near obscurity to one of the most talked about people in the world. In July, there were more Google searches for his name than for Donald Trump or Kim Kardashian.

His rapid surge to fame was not by chance. Evidence obtained by the Observer shows that followers of Tate are being told to flood social media with videos of him, choosing the most controversial clips in order to achieve maximum views and engagement.

That last paragraph. Sound familiar? We’ve hit the tipping point — enough is known about the algorithms of TikTok, about the reach it can have, for the next wave of users (and uses) to start to settle in. Tate’s fans being told to flood TikTok with his most controversial clips is a pattern we’ve seen on the likes of Reddit and others, where coordinated pile-ons are richly rewarded.

Lanier’s asshole argument doesn’t let you or me off the hook, either. He argues that this kind of content, coupled with the advertising models that rely on triggering your impulses, turn us into worse, angrier people. Twitter used to be such fun, Facebook used to be so useful. Similarly, I fear the joy of TikTok is showing signs of ebbing away. Conspiracy theories — previously daft and fleeting — are being formalised; stars made of peddlers. The app has become a forum for division and fear. Until now, TikTok had largely been free of such dreck.

For me it has been, for the past maybe two years or so, the only “cheerful” social network, a place where you feel better having used it, most of the time. In a podcast interview a few years ago I described TikTok as a reason to be optimistic, due to an algorithm that rewarded creativity over negativity. But Lanier’s theory on the shittification of popular new social media apps is that there’s an inevitable perfect storm when bad actors want to flood in with engagement, and platforms all too willing to oblige in the name of growth and revenue.

Different teams within a tech company can be working on features that, in isolation, seem harmless, but end up amplifying the worst of what is now on offer. Things such as this, for example:

Some of the commentary out there sees the above — linkable keywords in comments — as a welcome threat to Google’s search dominance, an argument that makes no sense whatsoever. What I see is the internet’s newest exploitable space.

And that’s not to say bad actors (of a certain definition) are the only ones that might stand to ruin the experience that has made TikTok such a beloved app, and such a threat to Facebook. Here’s what advertisers think:

I’m not saying advertisers shouldn’t see TikTok as a channel, or have a strategy to capitalise on it. That’s what these platforms are literally designed for. I’m just saying that once they do, once they know what makes users tick, and they learn the tricks to get attention… that’s when a social network moves into its next, more miserable phase. On the internet, we can’t have nice things for long.

How to stop California burning

Most people driving through Napa County, California’s famed wine region, see only beauty. Steven Burgess sees something different. Spotting clumps of juniper along the edge of a multimillion dollar property, he calls out the combustible shrub’s local nickname: “green gasoline!”

The 49-year-old volunteer firefighter and former vintner is giving the Financial Times a history tour, pointing out the scars of mega blazes that have intensified here and around the world over the past decade, capturing global attention and concern.