Sunday Links 26-Aug-2018: Facebook and Nutella, Neanderthal Denisovan mix, infinite book scroll, Angry Angry Hippo

Below is my weekly summary of things I’ve enjoyed reading, with commentary.

1. Facebook and Nutella. The New York Times story Facebook Fueled Anti-Refugee Attacks in Germany was by far the most posted link in my twitter feed this week. Most quoted sentence: “Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.”

Felix Salmon, who I should add is a staunch liberal, if ornery at times, had this to say: “The idea here is that by looking at how many people are active on the Nutella Facebook page, you can get a good indication of how active the broader population is on social media.” Regarding whether the authors of the cited white paper support the Times’ claim of  refugee attacks increasing 50 percent, “The Times’ breathtaking claim, then, is not on the authors—it’s on the New York Times, which should have been much more careful and circumspect in this case. When the Times uses words like “landmark” and “breathtaking,” it starts making claims that would be very difficult for any white paper to stand up to.” Along the same lines, see a skeptical Tyler Cowen. And here is a good bit from Ben Thompsona filter bubble is not a choice, an unfortunate wrong turn on an intellectual journey towards the truth. It is, in fact, a place of comfort, and the issue at hand is not the social networks’ drive for engagement, but our own desire for an escape from day-to-day life.

Rather predictably I noticed very little overlap between people who posted the original NY Times story versus people posting the counter narrative. The irony here is the New York Times is doing exactly what it blames Facebook of doing. Spreading misleading viral stories with words like “breathtaking” and “landmark” to get clicks. Thompson’s line about filter bubbles sadly applies to us all. This doesn’t mean Facebook is doing a good job of keeping fake news off it’s site. Far from it. But it does mean the problem is far more subtle and difficult than just saying Facebook is really really really bad.

There’s a tech angle here worth noting as well. While it’s sexy to blame Trump on the new tech of social media, the data shows old people tuning into the old tech of radio and old tech of cable TV had a far bigger impact on the most recent presidential election. Of course social media does aggravate existing filter bubbles. That’s a real problem. But scapegoating Facebook isn’t the solution.

2. Mum’s a Neanderthal, Dad’s a Denisovan. Paper itself. Nature News article, with subtitle Genetic analysis uncovers a direct descendant of two different groups of early humans. Quote: “A female who died around 90,000 years ago was half Neanderthal and half Denisovan, according to genome analysis of a bone discovered in a Siberian cave. This is the first time scientists have identified an ancient individual whose parents belonged to distinct human groups.” This is very cool. The immediate question here is if those groups interbred, how did they remain distinct for ~300k years? It’s impossible to know. But we’ll find out with more ancient DNA. In the meantime, some possibilities: a) rare event, b) hybrids are less fit, c) population structure. Under c is the possibility that hybrids occurred regularly at the edges of hominin ranges, but these edge lands were population sinks. So gene flow never made it back into the core population. For now I’m guessing c.

3. Two articles by Tyler Cowen. Cowen argues the cohesiveness of the international liberal order was born out the blood shed during the second World War, and held together by a common enemy during the Cold War. Once the USSR collapsed, and the memory of WW2 faded, we went back to bickering amongst ourselves. Cowen: “This is not exactly reassuring. But if you look at the partisan, controversy-laden, personality-intense, and often stupid American politics of much of the 19th century, it seems plausible. Without the presence of strong external enemies, cooperation breaks down.” In a related post, Cowen argues Trump’s Politics Will Outlast Him because “The space for possible policy outcomes has opened up. This will have important implications for the future of our republic.” Ending “In the meantime, my advice: Buckle your seatbelts.” FWIW, I agree with both posts. There is a comforting illusion than once Trump is out of office, things will return to normal. But we are already in the new normal, and our new normal will continue with or without Trump.

4. Kindle infinite scroll reading is great. I just discovered that earlier this year Kindle introduced an infinite scrolling mode for book reading. So you scroll down instead flipping pages. To tun this on “tap the middle of your screen, and then tap Aa. From here, you can toggle Continuous Scrolling on/off.” Here’s my analogy. There’s a certain level of disorientation every time you click a link on a web page, because you relocate to a new place, and have to reorient yourself. That’s why social media scrolls smoothly down forever. Similarly, flipping a page in Kindle causes an unconscious momentary frisson while you relocate to the new book page. Infinite scroll book reading, on the other hand, is smoooooth and easy. The way nature intended books to be read. Recommended!

5. Save you a click. There’s a meme saying all books should be blog posts, and all blog posts should be tweets. Along those lines, here’s a set of posts for which I think the main idea is interesting, but the idea fits into a sentence. But click through if you want details:

6. Angry Angry Hippo. When humans spread out across the planet, they killed off nearly all the megafauna. But not in Africa. Why? Because African megafauna had more time to co-evolve to be nasty to humans. Hence the “hippopotamus is the world’s deadliest large land mammal, killing an estimated 500 people per year in Africa.” Don’t believe me? Watch this clip.


And that’s all for this week. Take care.

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