April 2019 Links
Apple News Plus is a fine way to read magazines, but a disappointment to anyone wishing for a real boost for the news business (Link)
But there are no companies with greater capacity to do good for both the news industry and the state of news consumption than Apple and Google. They control the operating systems that we spend countless hours staring at and getting information from. When Google decides to show users more news, it works — fast and at scale. When Apple decides to make a News app, it drives a lot of news to people who wouldn’t otherwise have seen it. And because Apple’s customers are the most attractive for news organizations — they on average have more money and consume more news — what they do with paid content matters even more…
Magazine companies wanted to sell issues — what unbundled industry has ever enjoyed the unbundling? so that’s what Apple is hocking today.
But it was in this moment of irrational tablet excitement that those magazine publishers joined forces to make what would become Texture. It was initially for tablets only; an iPhone version didn’t arrive until late 2013. And even then, Texture remained completely optimized for tablets — for magazine-sized pages, rendered in PDF, and shrunken to the phone screen in your hand. Some publishers made versions of their “issues” that could look okay on a phone, but most were content to turn the greatest content-consumption device created by mankind into a janky version of Adobe Reader.
Apple News Plus does nothing for the biggest problem in journalism: the rapid decline of local news.
Unless you happen to live in Los Angeles, Apple News Plus will offer you approximately zero news about your local community. The work that local newspapers do — covering and providing accountability in their towns and cities — is the single most endangered part of our news ecosystem and the part that plays the most important role in our democracy. And this new product likely harms local news on net; I’m sure there will be people who will see the choice as “pay 10 bucks a month for my local daily” vs. “pay 10 bucks a month for 300 magazines” and redirect money that might have otherwise gone into local news.
But Apple likes to present itself as a force for social good. It wrapped its presentation today in the clothing of important journalism, of civic values, of connecting communities and the world. That its news product finds room for ABC Soaps in Depth but not the Arizona Republic, The Pioneer Woman but not The Philadelphia Inquirer, Family Handyman but not The Flint Journal is not surprising — but it is disappointing.
The Strange Persistence of First Languages (Link)
While my father was still alive, I was, like most young people, more intent on hurtling myself into my future than on tending my ancestral roots—and that included speaking the language of my new country rather than my old one. The incentives for adopting the culturally dominant language are undeniable. Proficiency offers clear financial rewards, resulting in wage increases of 15 percent for immigrants who achieve it relative to those who don’t, according to economist Barry Chiswick. A child, who rarely calculates the return on investment for her linguistic efforts, feels the currency of the dominant language in other ways: the approval of teachers and the acceptance of peers. I was mortally offended when my first-grade teacher asked me on the first day of school if I knew “a little English”—“I don’t know a little English,” was my indignant and heavily accented retort. “I know a lot of English.” In the schoolyard, I quickly learned that my Czech was seen as having little value by my friends, aside from the possibility of swearing in another language—a value I was unable to deliver, given that my parents were cursing teetotalers.
But embracing the dominant language comes at a price. Like a household that welcomes a new child, a single mind can’t admit a new language without some impact on other languages already residing there. Languages can co-exist, but they tussle, as do siblings, over mental resources and attention. When a bilingual person tries to articulate a thought in one language, words and grammatical structures from the other language often clamor in the background, jostling for attention. The subconscious effort of suppressing this competition can slow the retrieval of words—and if the background language elbows its way to the forefront, the speaker may resort to code-switching, plunking down a word from one language into the sentence frame of another.
Psychotherapist Jennifer Schwanberg has seen this firsthand. In a 2010 paper, she describes treating a client who’d lived through a brutal childhood in Mexico before immigrating to the United States. The woman showed little emotion when talking about events from her early life, and Schwanberg at first assumed that her client had made her peace with them. But one day, the woman began the session in Spanish. The therapist followed her lead and discovered that “moving to her first language had opened a floodgate. Memories from childhood, both traumatic and nontraumatic, were recounted with depth and vividness … It became clear that a door to the past was available to her in her first language.”
Losing your native tongue unmoors you not only from your own early life but from the entire culture that shaped you. You lose access to the books, films, stories, and songs that articulate the values and norms that you’ve absorbed. You lose the embrace of an entire community or nation for whom your family’s odd quirks are not quirks all. You lose your context. This disconnection can be devastating. A 2007 study led by Darcy Hallett found that in British Columbian native communities in which fewer than half of the members could converse in their indigenous language, young people killed themselves six times more often than in communities where the majority spoke the native language. In the Midwestern U.S., psychologist Teresa LaFromboise and her colleagues found that American-Indian adolescents who were heavily involved in activities focused on their traditional language and traditions did better at school and had fewer behavior problems than kids who were less connected to their traditional cultures—in fact, cultural connectedness buffered them against adolescent problems more than having a warm and nurturing mother. Such benefits appear to span continents: In 2011, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that aboriginal youth who spoke their traditional language were less likely to binge drink or use illegal drugs.
Why is a heritage language so conducive to well-being? Michael Chandler, one of the authors of the suicide study, emphasizes that a sense of cultural continuity makes people resilient by providing them with a cohesive self-concept. Without that continuity, he warns, aboriginal youth, who have typically experienced plenty of turbulence, are in grave existential danger. They risk losing “the thread that tethers together their past, present, and future.”
I watched as my father grew more and more frustrated at his powerlessness to pass on to his children the legacy he most longed to leave: a burning religious piety, the nurturing of family ties, pleasure in the music and traditions of his region, and an abiding respect for ancestors. All of these became diluted by the steady flow of new memories narrated in English, laced with Anglophone aspiration and individualism. As we entered adulthood and dispersed all over North America into our self-reliant lives, my father gave up. He moved back home.
Phonology’s resistance to both attrition and later learning may be due to the fact that the sound structure of a language is fixed in a child’s mind very early. Before 6 months of age, infants can distinguish most subtle differences in speech sounds, whether their language makes use of those distinctions or not. But over the second half of their first year, they gradually tune their perception to just the sounds of the language they hear around them. Children who hear only English lose the ability to distinguish between dental and retroflex sounds. Children learning Japanese begin to hear “r” and “l” as variants of the same sound. Linguist Pat Kuhl, who has studied this phenomenon for decades, describes the process as one of perceptual narrowing and increasing neural commitment, eventually excluding native-like perception of other languages.
I’ve become aware of the deep sense in which I belong to the Czech language, as well as the extent to which my formative memories are tinged by its “musical key.” For me, the English phrase “pork with cabbage and dumplings” refers to a concept, the national dish of the Czechs. But hearing the Czech phrase vepřo-knedlo-zelo evokes the fragrance of roasting meat, pillowy dumpling loaves being pulled steaming out of a tall pot and sliced with sewing thread, and the clink of the nice china as the table is dressed for Sunday dinner, the fulcrum of every week.
Since coming back from the Czech Republic, I’ve insisted on speaking Czech with my mother. Even though it’s more effortful for both of us than speaking in English, our conversation feels softer, more tender this way. English was the language in which I forged my independence, the language of my individuation—but it was in Czech that I was nurtured, comforted, and sung to.
Like many Czechs I’ve met, my father treated his language like a lovely object to be turned over, admired, stroked with a fingertip, deserving of deliberate and leisurely attention. He spoke less often than most people, but was more often eloquent. I may never regain enough of my first language to write anything in it worth reading, but when I struggle to write prose that not only informs but transcends, I find myself steering my inner monologue toward Czech. It reminds me of what it feels like to sink into language, to be startled by the aptness of a word or the twist of a phrase, to be delighted by arrangements of its sounds, and lulled by its rhythms. I’ve discovered that my native language has been sitting quietly in my soul’s vault all this time.
What happens when Chinese students abroad return home (Link)
JIMMY ZHONG IS a Beijinger who speaks English with an American accent and wears a baseball cap. Sitting in his tatty office in the Chinese capital, he recalls the heady days of life in Manhattan after finishing his degree in maths and computer science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. By then he was already rich, having sold his first company—an online marketplace enabling students to sell class notes—for $40m. He was in New York to help build another internet startup which he had co-founded during his third year at university—a forum for students to buy tutorial help. The money was rolling in.
They are doing so in droves, many of them drawn back to China by a boom in tech-related business. In 2016 more than 430,000 people went back to China after finishing their studies, nearly 60% more than in 2011. In the same period, the numbers leaving rose by less than 40%. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, called this one of the biggest return flows of talent in any country’s history: the “magnetic effect” of China’s rise as a global power. About one-sixth of “sea turtles”, as returnees are jokingly known in Chinese (the words sound the same), take up IT-related work, according to a survey published last year by the Centre for China and Globalisation (CCG), a think-tank in Beijing, and Zhaopin, a job-search website. Most of the 150 or so Chinese companies listed on NASDAQ were launched by returnees.
Some Chinese companies are offering big remuneration packages to lure tech talent from America. The financial sector and its regulatory bodies are stacked with returnees. Most venture capitalists in China have studied in the West. Zhou Xiaochuan, who stepped down as China’s central-bank governor in March, studied in America in the late 1980s. His successor, Yi Gang, has a PhD from the University of Illinois and was a professor at Indiana University.
Also last October, for the first time in the history of the party’s rule, its most powerful body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, gained a member who had spent time at a Western university: Wang Huning, a former academic who has been playing a central role in crafting the party’s ideology. In the 1980s Mr Wang was a visiting scholar at the universities of Berkeley, Michigan and Iowa. Of the 25 members of the Politburo, three others are also returnees and hold important portfolios: Chen Xi, the chief of personnel; Yang Jiechi, President Xi’s chief adviser on foreign affairs; and Liu He, Mr Xi’s chief economic adviser.
Coding is for Everyone – as long as you speak english (Link)
It’s true that software programs and social media platforms are now often available in some 30 to 100 languages—but what about the tools that make us creators, not just consumers, of computational tools? I’m not even asking whether we should make programming languages in small, underserved languages (although that would be cool). Even huge languages that have extensive literary traditions and are used as regional trade languages, like Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, and Arabic, still aren’t widespread as languages of code.
I’ve found four programming languages that are widely available in multilingual versions. Not 400. Four (4).
Adults, who are not exactly famous for how much they enjoy learning languages, have two other well-localized programming languages to choose from: Excel formulas and Wiki markup.
Yes, you can command your spreadsheets with formulas based on whatever language your spreadsheet program’s interface is in. Both Excel and Google Sheets will let you write, for example,
but also the Spanish equivalent,
and the same in dozens of other languages. It’s probably not the first thing you think of when you think of coding, but a spreadsheet can technically be made into a Turing machine, and it does show that there’s a business case for localized versions.
Indeed, it’s so feasible to translate programming languages that people periodically do so for artistic or humorous purposes, a delightful type of nerdery known as esoteric programming languages. LOLCODE, for example, is modeled after lolcats, so you begin a program with HAI and close it with KTHXBAI, and Whitespace is completely invisible to the human eye, made up of the invisible characters space, tab, and linebreak. There’s even Pikachu, a programming language consisting solely of the words pi, pika, and pikachu so that Pikachu can—very hypothetically—break away from those darn Pokémon trainers and get a high-paying job as a programmer instead.
We have a tendency to look back at this historical era and wonder why people bothered with all that Latin when they could have just written in the language they already spoke. At the time, learning Latin in order to learn how to write was as logical as learning English in order to code is today, even though we now know that children learn to read much faster if they’re taught in their mother tongue first. The arguments for English-based code that I see on websites like Stack Overflow are much the same: Why not just learn English? It gains you access to an entire technological tradition.
How to get a million-dollar book deal: Tomi Adeyemi’s mythical version of Africa is changing the way young Americans think about race (Link)
The great New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling once wrote that all boxers fall into one of two groups. The first are the Eganites, so named for Pierce Egan: powerful fighters such as Rocky Marciano or Billy Neat who deliver “dreadfully severe” punches. The second are the Brounians, after Heywood Broun, who are more cerebral and less “prehistoric” in style, like Archie Moore or Muhammad Ali. Tomi Adeyemi, a 25-year-old Nigerian-American novelist, is a Brounian.
Adeyemi, who describes herself as “a binary person, very all or nothing”, was writing all day. She kept track of the story’s intricacies with a labyrinthine Excel spreadsheet, which included 50 colour-coded tabs setting out the novel’s clans, their history, their clothing, the nuances of each character and their motivations. She also brought in ideas from the real world: behind the tale of myth and magic was a parable of modern America, with its combustible police violence, racism and recrimination.
As a parable of police violence, Adeyemi’s fantasy is only partially successful, the fiction is flatter and less horrific than the reality. Her novel contains no white characters, which disrupts its relationship with modern American racism. But in depicting an all-black universe, it also broaches a gnarlier and perhaps more fruitful entanglement: the one that black people have with each other. The absence of white characters shifts its focus to intraracial disputes and the fault lines of gender, caste, class, pigment and political identity. Like “Black Panther”, a film from 2018 which made over $1bn at the box office, “Children of Blood and Bone” engages in a form of historical reimagining, showing a pre-colonial African past untouched by the scourge of transatlantic slavery. In the end it is a work concerned with how black people of various classes and ethnicities relate to each other. The myths of Orisha, and the structure of the African society that Adeyemi depicts, are integral to that. She wanted to explore her “deep pull towards the past, towards everything that got us here”.
“I kind of realised how messed up I was,” Adeyemi says. As she read her other early stories, she saw that the characters were fantasies of a beauty very different from her own. The comic books, manga, anime and young-adult fiction she loved hardly ever featured black people of any kind, let alone young black women, so she had seldom encountered versions of herself. “I realised that my protagonists were all white or biracial,” she said. “I wasn’t just writing the adventures I wanted to have, I was writing who I wanted to be. I was writing myself out of my own stories.”
Flossmoor had some of the best schools in the state of Illinois – schools that were almost entirely white. Of the 2,600 students at one of Adeyemi’s schools, there were only 16 black children. She found both the racial homogeneity and the curriculum alienating. She was fed a diet of classic literature from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. Instead of exploring the canon of dead white men, she fed herself with books she found outside school, including Mary Pope Osborne’s “The Magic Treehouse”, “Harry Potter” and “Naruto”, a manga series about an adolescent ninja. “I wrote 300 pages of ‘Naruto’ fan-fiction – single spaced!” she says. The contrast between what she wanted to read and what she had to read was painful. “You have these teachers that convince you that what you’re doing is not reading and writing.”
Martin’s death further affected her writing. Stauffer encouraged her, recognising not only her “beautiful prose” but also her artistic and commercial nous. She seemed to have an intuitive grasp of where writers got their material, he says, and how they shaped their characters, settings and themes. These were all filtered through her sense of what would sell. “It was another sign of her maturity,” Stauffer argues.
Adeyemi rejects the perceived trajectory of the writer’s life. Before she began writing full time, she did internships at Morgan Stanley and at a consulting firm. “Being in these very corporate worlds helped me to realise that this is a business…You can’t just go in and say, ‘Yay, it’s all rainbows’.”
Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got ‘Greedy.’: How America’s obsession with long hours has widened the gender gap. (Link)
American women of working age are the most educated ever. Yet it’s the most educated women who face the biggest gender gaps in seniority and pay: At the top of their fields, they represent just 5 percent of big company chief executives and a quarter of the top 10 percent of earners in the United States. There are many causes of the gap, like discrimination and a lack of family-friendly policies. But recently, mounting evidence has led economists and sociologists to converge on a major driver — one that ostensibly has nothing to do with gender.
The returns to working long, inflexible hours have greatly increased. This is particularly true in managerial jobs and what social scientists call the greedy professions, like finance, law and consulting — an unintentional side effect of the nation’s embrace of a winner-take-all economy. It’s so powerful, researchers say, that it has canceled the effect of women’s educational gains.
Just as more women earned degrees, the jobs that require those degrees started paying disproportionately more to people with round-the-clock availability. At the same time, more highly educated women began to marry men with similar educations, and to have children. But parents can be on call at work only if someone is on call at home. Usually, that person is the mother.
Overwork is most extreme in managerial jobs and in the greedy professions, a term coined by the sociologist Lewis Coser in 1974 to describe institutions that “seek exclusive and undivided loyalty.” (Rose Laub Coser, a sociologist and his wife, also used it to describe the expectations of motherhood). But overwork (or at least time in the office or online, regardless of whether much work is getting done) has become increasingly common in more jobs, whether it’s accounting, information technology or any job in which someone’s manager stays late or sends emails on weekends and expects employees to follow suit.
Also, they would be leaving money on the table — both now and later, because by putting in long hours now, he’s setting himself up for higher future earnings. If he had a 40-hour-a-week job and she had her current half-time job, they would be working 60 hours a week total — but earning significantly less than he now earns working 60 hours, they said.
“Being willing to work 50 percent more doesn’t mean you make 50 percent more, you make like 100 percent more,” she said. “The trade-off between time and money is not linear. It took a long time to get myself to the point of accepting that.”
There’s no gender gap in the financial rewards for working extra long hours. For the most part, women who work extreme hours get paid as much as men who do. But far fewer women do it, particularly mothers. Twenty percent of fathers now work at least 50 hours a week, and just 6 percent of mothers do, Ms. Cha and Ms. Weeden found. There has always been a pay gap between mothers and fathers, but it would be 15 percent smaller today if the financial returns to long hours hadn’t increased, they found.
“New ways of organizing work reproduce old forms of inequality,” they wrote in another paper.
Men are much more likely to have a spouse who’s on call at home, which enables them to reap the benefits of being on call at work, found a new paper by Jill Yavorsky, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and colleagues. Three-quarters of men in the top 1 percent of earners have an at-home spouse. Just a quarter of women in the top 1 percent of earners do — and they are likely to be self-employed, suggesting that they have more control over their hours.
Conventional wisdom, especially in the greedy occupations, is that this is impossible — certain people are too valuable and need to be available to clients anytime. But some professions have successfully challenged that notion.
Obstetricians, for instance, used to be on call when patients went into labor. Now it’s much more common for them to work eight-hour shifts in a hospital — and many more women do the job. At an elite global consulting firm, one team gave everyone one weeknight off, no calls or emails allowed — and realized that working late nights might not be necessary after all.
Exclusive: The Saga Of ‘Star Citizen,’ A Video Game That Raised $300 Million—But May Never Be Ready To Play (Link)
What’s really rough is the current state of Star Citizen. The company Roberts cofounded, Cloud Imperium Games, has raised $288 million to bring the PC game to life along with its companion, an offline single-player action game called Squadron 42. Of this haul, $242 million has been contributed by about 1.1 million fans, who have either bought digital toys like the Kraken or given cash online. Excluding cryptocurrencies, that makes Star Citizen far and away the biggest crowdfunded project ever.
Rough playable modes—alphas, not betas—are used to raise hopes and illustrate work being done. And Roberts has enticed gamers with a steady stream of hype, including promising a vast, playable universe with “100 star systems.” But most of the money is gone, and the game is still far from finished. At the end of 2017, for example, Roberts was down to just $14 million in the bank. He has since raised more money. Those 100 star systems? He has not completed a single one. So far he has two mostly finished planets, nine moons and an asteroid.
This is not fraud—Roberts really is working on a game—but it is incompetence and mismanagement on a galactic scale. The heedless waste is fueled by easy money raised through crowdfunding, a Wild West territory nearly free of regulators and rules. Creatives are in charge here, not profit-driven bean counters or deadline-enforcing suits. Federal bureaucrats and state lawyers have intervened only in a few egregious situations where there was little effort to make good and a lot of the money was pocketed by the promoters. Many high-profile crowdfunded projects, like the Pebble smartwatch ($43.4 million raised) and the Ouya video game console ($8.6 million), have failed miserably.
If you don’t play video games, you probably have never heard of Roberts. But in the world of consoles and controllers, he is Keith Richards: an aging rock star who can still get fans to reach into their pockets. Roberts first gained fame with his early 1990s hit Wing Commander, a space combat series that grossed over $400 million and featured Hollywood stars like Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell. He followed that success by starting his own studio, Digital Anvil, with Microsoft as an investor. There, he spent years working on Freelancer, a spiritual successor to Wing Commander, which was eventually released years behind schedule and was far from a blockbuster. Roberts also dabbled in Hollywood, spending tens of millions on a movie version of Wing Commander that he directed himself and that was a critical and commercial flop.
On a summer Saturday in 2007, a trespasser slipped by a security gate and entered Chris Roberts’ L.A. home. Inside, Madison Peterson, Roberts’ former common-law wife, with whom he had a long on-and-off relationship, was startled and feared her young daughter could be harmed or kidnapped. Peterson later identified the trespasser as Sandi Gardiner, who is now Roberts’ wife (for the second time) and a cofounder of Cloud Imperium. Roberts reported the incident to police, and a California judge issued a temporary restraining order that required Gardiner to stay 100 yards away from Peterson, who claimed in her temporary restraining order application that Gardiner had been stalking and threatening both her and her daughter for nearly three years.
Cloud Imperium has churned out new versions of ships it has already sold and allows players to trade in their old ships to help buy new ones. The company also introduced the concept of “warbonds,” selling ships at a discount if new cash is used to purchase them. Players gain elite concierge club status by spending $1,000 (High Admiral) or $10,000 (Wing Commander). High-status players get bonus items like the “arclight II laser pistol executive edition” or a digital bottle of space whiskey.