Saturday Links 10-Feb-2018 Subscription news is innately partisan, Voice UI, Europa and Enceladus, Hobbits back to the trees

1. Subscription news will inevitably skew partisan. The journalistic code of objective news is a legacy from last century. With only three national TV stations and at most a handful of newspapers per city, news gatekeepers had monopoly power. And that power led to a journalistic code of balance, showing two sides to every story. What Jay Rosen calls the view from nowhere. Fine. This gloss of impartiality was helpful in its day, and clearly in the public interest. But what’s less obvious is a second support for the view from nowhere: advertising. Journalism funded by advertising created powerful financial incentives to reach a mass audience and exclude no one. These two great pillars supporting journalism’s (now stubbornly legacy) culture have crumbled to dust. The internet took away the news monopoly. And now is taking away advertising. Moving journalism towards subscriptions. And don’t get me wrong. Subscriptions are great! A viable way to support news in our internet age. With an honorably history going back to the earliest subscription print magazines. But let’s not fool ourselves. The subscription model, like the loss of monopoly, skews incentives strongly towards having an actual point of view. That is, towards partisanship. The hard job of today’s journalists is to exercise the omniscient ghost Walter Cronkite, still haunting our newspaper dreams. And instead find an honest kind of partisanship appropriate for today. Perhaps, if so inclined, attempting highbrow partisan. Say the Jacobin (subscription since 2010) or The Economist (subscription since 1843, predating the 20th century mass media era!). And with that, here’s Alex Tabarrok:

I’d add one more factor to Potter’s analysis. Since the advertisers care about eyeballs, advertisement-funded media are incentivized to produce more eyeballs. Such incentives tends to encourage lowest-common-denominator entertainment but also more political balance. Subscription-funded media, in contrast, face a tradeoff: subscribers want content that supports their world view so moderating the content to appeal to a larger audience will likely reduce the price that any one reader is willing to pay. Revenues are therefore larger with a smaller but more political extreme audience.

2. Fox News has no competition. Related to the death of omniscient news gatekeepers above. Couldn’t resist Ross Douthat’s tweet below. A point many have noticed: lack of competition for Fox news. Many claim the upheaval in news started with the internet. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The news monopoly was broken back in the 1990s, by infinite cable news. Or at least 500 channels. Just ask our current president. Or look at a survey of partisanship by demographic. Fox News was birthed at the dawn of the subscription and partisan news era. And so swims easily in the internet ocean. Whose true depths we’re only now starting to plumb.

3. Everyone believes Voice UI is the future, but nobody knows when. Good post on difficulty of timing Voice UI going mainstream by Jean-Louis Gassée. Properly quoting Horace Dediu: “Those who predict the future we call futurists. Those who know when the future will happen we call billionaires.” I do contest one point Gassée makes though. He says “Because of its current domination of Voice UI and e-commerce — a synergy no one saw coming — Amazon is uniquely positioned for further episodes of conquest.” Caveat first. I said Google would own stock-Android voice on mobile. Didn’t mention Amazon. Caveat granted, <clears throat>, my post from 5 years ago did anticipate how voice UI and e-commerce were a natural synergy. From my 2013 post Voice interaction becoming the “God particle” of mobile.  Quoting last graf:

By the way, another aspect of living in a world where voice interaction is commonplace is Google will take back from OEMs a central interaction (and related advertising opportunity) of everyone using a stock Android device. Especially for the demographic that’s computer averse. What do you call it when people ask their phone “What’s the best used car?”, and get all the way to purchase decision just by talking? God particle. Competition in voice interaction will be fierce and fascinating to watch over the next decade. Plus, you know, talking to your phone and getting an answer right back is pretty awesome.

4. Europa and Enceladus: Hotspots for Life. As much as I and everyone except haters enjoyed seeing a sports car in space this week, I wanted to link to a different post. It’s by Kostas Konstantinidis on searching for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. This is not a new idea. Europa and Enceladus have a hard icy surface with liquid water underneath, where the environment is similar to deep thermal vents on Earth’s ocean bottom. The place where we believe life first evolved on Earth. So we’re looking for microbes, not Spock. I enjoyed reading the latest on how those moons might be explored by probes. My extremely high variance/high uncertainty priors lean slightly towards microbes being found. And at age 54, it’s the one space mission I’m most hoping to live long enough to see.

5. Flores Hobbits. Homo floresiensis, or informally the Flores Hobbits, were discovered on Flores island in Indonesia in 2003. Dated to 60-100k years ago. The current thinking is they are an island dwarfed (3-4 feet tall) population of Homo erectus, the first Homo species to get out of Africa and populate Asia. Island dwarfing is a well known phenomena where isolated populations on islands tend to get smaller. Dwarf elephants being a canonical example. Greg Cochran has a post called Back to the trees. I’ll finish with quotes from Cochran’s post.

Island dwarfing of a homo erectus population is the dominant idea right now. However, many proponents are really bothered by how small the Hobbit’s brain was. At 400 cc, it was downright teeny, about the size of a chimpanzee’s brain. Most researchers seem to think that hominid brains naturally increase in size with time. They also suspect that anyone with a brain this small couldn’t be called sentient – and the idea of natural selection driving a population from sentience to nonsentience bothers them.

They should get over it. Hominid brain volume has increased pretty rapidly over the past few million years, but the increase hasn’t been monotonic. It’s decreased about 10% over the past 25,000 years. Moreover, we know of examples where natural selection has caused drastic decreases in organismal complexity – for example, canine venereal sarcoma, which today is an infectious cancer, but was once a dog.

Last graf:

Of course, this could only have happened if there was an available ecological niche that did not require human-level intelligence. And there was such an opening: Flores had no monkeys.

Categorized as Link post

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.


  1. On the Flores Hobbits filling the gap left by a lack of monkeys – confirms that the “stupid” niche will always fill up first! Could this relate to your item 2 (Fox News)?
    Equally disturbing to economic efficiency theory is the lack of competition to Google. I remember an era in which at least a dozen search engines battled for market share. I miss those days.

    1. Comparing my parents to monkeys for watching Fox News isn’t exactly endearing, or especially original.

      But to the point, I linked to Ross Douthat because he’s exactly the kind of center right conservative (currently at the New York Times) who is being ill served by the lack of media competition on the right. So my true hope is that the center right media market gets much more competitive. We could use a Vox news for the center right. That would be good for me, for my parents, and anyone right or left who wants the republic center to hold during the internet age. Where the temptation to dehumanize those you politically disagree with is easier to fall into than ever.

    2. There are quite a few companies that should be broken-up under monopoly law, but the government has no appetite for that kind of thing.

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