Creative Destruction

May 1, 2014

Conspiracy with a Dose of Sarcasm

Filed under: Content-lite,Humor,Media Analysis,Popular Culture — Brutus @ 11:36 pm

One the blogs I read and contribute to recently blew up over the subject of conspiracy theories. Among the arguments was the following video: purports to promote rational and scientific thinking through the use of humor, but I must admit its approach is not my cup of tea. I have seen several other videos featuring the character Mr. Deity and thought then the tone was high-handed despite the humor (more like sarcasm and ridicule). Whether I agree (or disagree) with the viewpoint presented is quite beside the point.

I wish that various conspiracies could be laid to rest finally, and maybe the authors at believe they have done so, but there are significant sociological reasons why belief in conspiracy persists. Most examples I discard as not deserving a decision one way or the other, but a couple I believe because I find the evidence convincing and official narrative unconvincing. Yeah, sometimes I feel silly subscribing to ideas others find bizarre, but then, lots of people believed (and still do) that the rush to war in Iraq was justified by disinformation provided by our own government. I didn’t need hindsight to see through that charade.

January 23, 2008

Human Evolution

Filed under: Media Analysis,Science — Brutus @ 3:31 pm

The BBC News has an article reporting that scientists have found evidence to suggest that human evolution is “speeding up.” Scare quotes are used for speeding up in the title of the article for good reason: it’s a reckless remark that can’t be proffered with a straight face. The study on which the article is based

looked specifically at genetic variations called “single nucleotide polymorphisms,” or SNPs. These are single-point mutations, or changes, in the genetic sequence of DNA on chromosomes.

If the mutation is advantageous then it will spread rapidly in the population, along with DNA on either side of the mutation.

It’s unclear to me whether it’s fair to conclude that evidence of a few changes in genetic sequence is tantamount to evolutionary change on the order of species change, which the article never states. Is there a term that describes minor genetic changes without meaningful change in the species? Put another way, isn’t a wide range of genetic variation within the species pretty normal without being evolutionary?

Researchers found evidence of recent selection in 7% of all human genes, including lighter skin and blue eyes in northern Europe and partial resistance to diseases, such as malaria, among some African populations.

This makes me wonder if the usual four mechanisms influencing evolution — natural selection, mutation, random genetic drift, and gene flow — shouldn’t be amended to include cultural election in the case of culturally preferred attributes such as skin type and eye color. (Nope, no suggestion of cultural bias or racial preference there. Move along.)

Also, if I’m not mistaken, when human evolution is discussed by regular folks without specialized training in genetics, the usual context is science fiction and the mode of evolution is either cultural (evolved minds) or biological (evolved bodies) or both. These are wildly divergent from a more narrowly defined science of genetic evolution, which apparently considers even modest change or variation evolutionary.

Without providing suitable context for the science and disclaiming the obvious associations with science fiction, the article invites credulous readers to infer that we’re pointed toward an a evolutionary breakthrough of some sort. What else could “speed up” suggest? The article muddies the waters further with these poorly framed quotes by Steve Jones, a genetics professor at of University College London:

“The general picture that evolution has speeded up in the last 10,000 years as we change from, to put it bluntly, being animals to being humans is clearly true,” he explained. “To suggest it is happening at this instant, I would suggest, is probably wrong.”

“At the moment we are in an evolutionary interval. We are in between two storms. One storm has more or less blown itself out, the storm of farming.”

I won’t bother to comment on the idiotic suggestion that humans aren’t animals. The more immediate problem is timescale. In evolutionary time, 10,000 years is almost nothing. Whether you believe in gradualism or punctuated equilibrium or some blend of both, it typically takes tens of thousands of years to observe changes to the genotype that aren’t merely chromosomal variations. Evolution is happening now, this instant; it’s always happening. But it isn’t instantaneous. Neither is a sunrise. Disclaiming such a thing is absurd to even a novice.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile to remind gentle readers not to get science news from the popular press. Whereas the study may have uncovered something meaningful to a geneticist, it holds almost no value to the general public the way it is reported and veers dangerously toward suggesting things from the realm of science fiction. Science is very good a discovering how things work. It’s not so good at predicting things or even extrapolating trends more than one step beyond the evidence. Take the “suggestion” of human evolution “speeding up” with a sizable grain of salt.

November 15, 2007

Shameless self-promotion

Over at Sophistpundit I’ve written up a pretentious little call to arms against media regulation.  Enjoy!

October 11, 2007

Newspapers Relegated to the Dustbin of History

Filed under: Blogosphere,Business,Economics,Media Analysis — Adam Gurri @ 6:29 am

Note: the following is a paper I wrote for a Microeconomics class, which is why the language is a bit more formal than usual. This paper may also be viewed as a PDF file.

When the last newspaper goes bankrupt, people will be better informed. This is counterintuitive only if you hold to the popular misconception that newspapers developed as an institution in order to filter out all but the highest quality information. The problem that newspapers address is reality is not one of quality, but one of distribution. They utilized mass-production in order to provide consumers with a cheap medium with a wide variety of content. This was a highly efficient solution to the problems of the printing press, but the internet is rendering such problems obsolete. As a result, the newspaper model will rapidly be overtaken by more effective online alternatives.

The incentives provided by the newspaper business model are unnecessary for the production of content. As pointed out in Price Theory and Applications, “Some people are willing to create without material reward, simply for the pleasure and glory.” (Page 330) This is as true for nonfiction writing as it is for creative works—writer William Zinsser famously categorized nonfiction as a type of literature. The fact that content is produced for pleasure does not imply that it will be poor in quality, either. The reason is simple—often people who have a passion for something will invest a great deal of time on it. Whether it’s spent on research or taking art classes, it refines the tools that they will have available to produce content later on.

In some cases, they may be indulging in extracurricular pursuits on topics related to their profession. Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution, is but one of many economists who write on weblogs, or “blogs”. Since his professional career is dedicated to accumulating information on a particular subject, the marginal cost of finding relevant information for a new publication in his field is significantly less than it would be for a non-economist. In fact, it’s safe to say that it would cost a journalist far more to produce something of comparable quality on the subject. In the world of nonfiction, newspapers cannot compete with their online alternatives—Cowen is but one example of the professional blogging in his spare time. Eugene Volokh, of The Volokh Conspiracy, is a professor of law who offers far more educated insights than a newspaper could hope for, without asking for any subscription fee.

In terms of specific content, newspapers are simply unable to compete. Webcomics are abundantly available, free, and popular. Crosswords and Sudoku puzzles are numerous, as are puzzle games of every imaginable variety. Photosharing websites such as Flickr allow for the dissemination of photographs of far more diverse subjects than newspapers ever provided. Perhaps most significantly, websites such as Craig’s List are providing substitutes for the Classified Ads pages.

The myth of the fact-checker aside, the content creation aspect of the internet does not actually come in direct competition with newspapers in and of itself. For newspapers in fact provide not high quality content, but variety in a world where the time to accumulate various sources is scarce. Just as the price system economizes the distribution of information that is fragmented across many minds, so too do newspapers economize the access to certain categories of content that would otherwise be fragmented across many different specialized publications.

What newspapers offer is not authority, but a bundle, in which quality must to a certain extent actually be traded off for variety. For this reason, the fact that an article in Nature magazine on Climate Change may be more accurate than an article in the New York Times does not necessarily make the former a threat to the latter. A newspaper competes, not on the quality of a particular article, but on the quality of the bundle it offers as a whole. So while the New York Times may not be concerned with whether or not a particular article is as accurate as an article in Nature, it probably has to be concerned with whether or not it provides a higher quality product, with greater variety, than the Los Angeles Times.

What newspapers truly have to fear from the internet, then, is the fact that it gives consumers to ability to customize their own bundles of content. For almost as long as there have been web browsers, there have been “bookmarks”, which allow users to save the location of their favorite websites. More recently, websites such as have given users the ability to “tag”not only to save locations, but to provide categorical data “metadata” about those websites. This means that even if a user saves a massive amount of bookmarks, all they need to do to locate a particular one is search for the particular word or words that they “tagged” it with. For instance, one might tag Marginal Revolution, with both words in the title, then “Tyler”, “Cowen”, “economics”, and “blog”, and be relatively confident that it could be found again by searching any combination of those words, even if there are a thousand other websites bookmarked.

Another tool is the feed aggregator, such as Google Reader, that allows users to subscribe to the content of many different websites and access it all in one place. The setup is then almost like a custom made newspaper; you can subscribe to your favorite blogs, webcomics, even online newspapers, and you can access them all in one place, which signals you which of them have updated. Unlike physical paper, however, you don’t have to waste storage space if you ever want to access old content. You can simply scroll back to old updates.

In the past, consumers had to decide between the bundles offered to them by different newspapers, all or nothing. The tradeoffs that were made whenever it was decided to hire a particular journalist, or run with a particular story rather than an alternative, were taken on by the editorial staff. The consumer had no direct input in that process, and effected the outcome only insofar as competition between different newspapers made it clearer the sort of content consumers were interested in.

In a world where consumers make those decisions for themselves, however, the margin of competition will shrink to the level of content. In Price Theory and Applications, it states that content may be given away free of charge because “original composition may yield indirect material gains” (page 330) and it is for those gains that content producers on the internet will have to compete. The reason is that, as shown above, many people will produce content for no other reason than the pleasure of it, including high quality content. The market will be flooded with content, creating a stiff competition to be included in the bundles of consumers. Prices will be undercut until producers no longer even ask for money in exchange for the goods that they supply; merely the attention of consumers.

Those producers of content that are able to make a living off of that particular trade will be the ones who manage to obtain “indirect material gains” through the acquisition of consumers’ attention. In fact, this is already occurring. Webcomics predominantly offer their content for free, and the popular artists manage to make a living by selling merchandise. Successful comics such as Questionable Content and Penny Arcade sell a lot of Tshirts, with the latter even managing to sell large volumes of printed editions of their online works. Blogs have integrated Google Ads, which give them a small payment whenever their readers click on the ads. Glenn Reynolds, who gained fame through his highly popular blog Instapundit, wrote a book that sold quite well—safe to say far better than it would have, without the online fame he had achieved.

The end result is that consumers are able to eliminate the newspaper’s role entirely. They can experience a far greater variety of content than newspapers could have afforded to provide. At the same time, the sources of content will be engaged in a level of competition over quality that used to be relegated to the specialized publications, such as scientific journals. As people increasingly turn away from the old media, newspapers will go out of business one after another. When the time comes that the last one goes under, we will all already be much better informed. This trend will likely continue long after its timely demise.

(Cross posted at Sophistpundit)

October 8, 2007

What Passes for Political Coverage

Filed under: Election 2008,Media Analysis,Politics and Elections — Brutus @ 10:00 pm

It is any wonder so many Americans ignore politics and don’t vote? One of the big stories emerging in the past few days has been dubbed Chucklegate, which is in-depth analysis of Hillary Clinton’s laugh. Um, yeah, her laugh. See just a few examples here and here and here. There is undoubtedly room for some consideration of personal character or characteristics in a presidential race, but the way the media has jumped on this issue is frankly embarrassing, considering actual issues bear greater scrutiny than hairdos, wardrobe, or how someone laughs.

If this pseudocontroversy isn’t lowbrow enough to convince you that journalism is at a particularly low ebb, how about a manufactured controversy about actual wardrobe? Barack Obama is being pilloried for his refusal to wear an American flag pin. See a few examples here and here and here. Who on earth bases political strategy or the decision whether to cast a vote for a candidate on something so entirely mundane? This particular stupidity was parodied in the movie Office Space, where the servers were judged not on their service but on pieces of flair. Simply substitute patriotism for service and it’s the same foolishness.

These cooked-up stories apparently have the power to kill a candidacy and are pathetic examples of political theater. Howard Dean’s now infamous scream comes to mind as a good example. Both candidates are apparently engaged in these utterly meaningless and ephermeral issues, which gives the issues legs and makes them fodder for endless spin, conjecture, and strategizing. And once the jokes and parodies start rolling in on YouTube and Comedy Central and such, we take lots of humorous enjoyment but lose sight of the fact that we’re considering these candidates for an office of far greater importance than the elements on which we apparently prefer to rank and rate them. It’s little wonder, then, that we get what we deserve out of the political process: buffoons, poseurs, and incompetents.

August 28, 2007

Nation of Readers

Filed under: Education,Media Analysis — Brutus @ 10:35 pm

A new poll by the Associated Press and the accompanying story published everywhere (I link to USA Today for no particular reason) reveals that 73% of Americans read a book in the last year. That’s a much higher number than the 6% I remember seeing reported elsewhere or even the 57% noted in a 2004 report mentioned in the article. How the question is posed and how response error (or straight up lying) is handled could account for a lot of the variance. Interestingly, readers gravitate toward religious works and popular fiction, and the typical number of books read yearly is about seven.

True to form, though, the news story tries to scare us with the spectre of 27% of Americans who are nonreaders. A percentage of them are no doubt illiterate, and another percentage of them are non-English speakers/readers or are functionally illiterate in English.

It’s impossible to know quite what to make of such a story. Although book sales are reported to be flat for the past few years, there are still many, many books being read, and not just by enthusiasts. I always see lots of people on the train commute reading, and the Chicago Public Library routinely has lots of patrons. Moreover, lots of folks are reading newspapers, journals, and blogs. But the book, understandably, remains the flagship bearer of textual value. So are we really curious and well-informed folks, or are our reading habits marked by lethargy and enthusiasm for mere entertainment?

Ultimately, this poll (where is the poll data, BTW?) and story have all the earmarks of a “significant” bit of information that is in actually just so much fluff. The fuller story is told in “Reading at Risk.” If it’s true that responsible civic participation requires both knowledge and paying attention, to say nothing of the ability to think critically about what’s going on, then I fear we far more likely to see the average citizen offering up blithering nonsense like the would-be beauty queen who couldn’t respond to the question about a fifth of American’s inability to find the U.S. on the map.

Create a free website or blog at