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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The cult of American defiance

It's tricky for liberal coastal people to understand America, no matter what generation of immigrants we are. We really don't know firsthand how nuts a lot of this country is.

Something like a quarter of all Americans say that the devil is literally real. Jesus wins when Americans are asked who the greatest American was. And it's not just a Christian thing. Huge numbers of people believe in witchcraft and aliens.

In contrast with Japan and Europe, where sacrifice for the common good is held up as the highest value, we celebrate heroes primarily for their defiance. The most highly popular president of the last two generations was literally an actor who played cowboys, who funneled military support to Saddam Hussein, Iran, and death squads that murdered nuns and priests, and who bragged every chance he could about his willingness to spend so much on the military that the country would become insolvent.

The perception of defiance trumps everything. It makes Donald Trump's suspicious credentials as a conservative not matter to many people who would otherwise say they feel strongly about, say, abortion. I believe it's a big part of why there is nearly universal political support in this country for unconditional military aid to a country in the Middle East that has used its military for decades to enforce the seizing of land from Christians because of their ethnicity and religion. Look at the language over here that politicians use to describe Israel: it stands alone, it is a beacon, it won't back down.

It's the certainty and the defiance that's constant here, not the principles and behavior of the parties. If the Soviet Union had backed Israel's military and the US had backed the PLO, Americans would have had no trouble lining up just as firmly on the side of the displaced Christians, told at gunpoint that they weren't welcome back in their holy homeland; a missile fired at a building populated by Israeli military reservists would get criticized here no more than we currently criticize a missile that hits the homes of suspected Hamas members. All members of the Senate would line up to sign declarations of the Palestinian right to self-defense; their constituents' fundamental sense of loyalty and dignity and strength, their hatred of weakness and betrayal and impurity, would demand no less.

In American political life, "I will never apologize for" are the only parts of the sentence that matter.

Which cause is the recipient of that pure fidelity is beside the point.

The fertilized babies must not fall prey to the impurity and gray area of reproductive choice; never mind that the leading killer of fertilized eggs, failure to implant, goes curiously without funding and without a champion. (I would even guess that most vehement opponents of abortion couldn't tell you what is, by far, the leading cause of death of unborn children.) It is the certainty that matters, not the details.

Gay sex is the impure enemy today. Wait, it's no longer the impure enemy? Standing against it no longer signals brave defiance, and instead awkwardly excludes friends and Ellen? No matter--just don't mention our old hardline position on it anymore, and pick something else. How about trans people?

Oh, and let our justices, who interpret original textual meaning through the lens of their worldview just like everyone does, be hailed as having pure and unwavering originalist principles. Heroic, defiant principles.

This current has always been here, but it hasn't always had such a good way of commanding mainstream attention and power.

Clay Shirky had a compelling analysis recently that basically made the case that there is a wide spectrum of opinion in this country that doesn't fit neatly into party categories. Parties have traditionally had consolidated access to marketing and fundraising and get out the vote, so the progressive 20% and the totally nuts 30% had to content themselves with the Democratic and Republican nominees respectively. That used to be as good as it got for both sets of radicals. In both parties you've had candidates become president who were good at speaking the language of the more radical parts of their parties but when in office really governed from the center and displayed mainstream pragmatism.

But the internet and the data science revolution has made it so that a grassroots effort from the radical wings are way more possible. As evidenced by Howard Dean's campaign, Obama's surprisingly effective campaign against the more established Clinton, Rick "what's next, bestiality?" Santorum spending 5% as much per voter as Romney in Iowa and South Carolina and doing quite well, Sanders's campaign, and somewhat Trump's campaign.

Obviously Trump's campaign isn't quite the same from a funding perspective and he doesn't have a very sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation, but in another sense, he has a very sophisticated communications operation.

Look at Trump's unique use of internet and television to communicate to voters. I think he has a BuzzFeed-quality level of understanding of how communication works today. He doesn't bother to speak in paragraphs; he just says the same five things over and over in entertaining ways. When coverage slows, he crosses a line in a way that is impossible not to cover; he both alienates people and wins fans, while John Kasich and Jeb Bush weep alone. I have literally heard Trump say the words "America" "great" and "again" 30 times just passing by TVs in airports, versus never for anyone else.

Obviously I don't think Sanders is anywhere near the manipulative scumbag that Trump is, but in some ways I think his campaign success is similar. He's all about braggadocious easy answers that play well as sound bites. Maybe we do need more of that to advance a progressive agenda, but I don't perceive anywhere near the same amount of sophisticated analysis and management ability behind the front like I did with Obama. And I think he doesn't understand at all the ways that government regulatory offices and laws are designed to conserve the existing power structure as often or more than they are designed to subvert it.

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Blogger Shawn on Tue Mar 08, 01:20:00 PM:
I really like your framing here, Ben. You've isolated something that often eludes me when I am most baffled by my fellow Americans, and that clearly eludes most of the MSM folks covering Trump and his supporters 24/7. How well/poorly do you think your "defiance" premise dovetails with Matthew MacWilliams's de rigueur analysis/polling regarding what he calls "authoritarianism" (see, e.g., Do you see a meaningful difference between the two frames? Is defiance just one of many masks an authoritarian leader can wear as needed? Does fear drive us to defiant leaders the same way it does to authoritarianism in MacWilliams's telling?
Blogger Ben on Tue Mar 08, 02:01:00 PM:
Great link, thanks for that.

I think I'd dispute calling what MacWilliams is describing "authoritarianism". He writes that "People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies."

I would argue that 1) Trump's supporters in many ways actually admire his violation of social norms, and 2) that big government power, a core aspect of actual totalitarianism, isn't what Trump supporters are really after. I think Trumpism has way more in common with Italian fascism, from Mussolini to Berlusconi: personal bullyishness with military bravado and promises of no compromise. But in the American lens, I think it is the wild and breathtaking refusal to capitulate to the needs of others that is the core attraction, not the power of the state to enforce things.

But I'm not sure if my distinction holds for Trump's racism. Maybe that really is about authoritarian enforcement of norms, more than defiance of perceived PC.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Domain registrar roundup

Followup after paying all of these money over several months (pricing differences are averaged across several popular TLDs):

Hover: great interface. disappointing customer service and feature set, straightforward pricing, low prices, will concierge transfer domains from other services, oh no we won't because it sounds like too much work, fine fine ugh if you really want us to we will, oops we fucked it up and didn't notice

iwantmyname: good interface and features. phenomenal customer service. straightforward pricing. 5% more expensive than hover, 20% higher than google. great domain search tool. will concierge transfer any domains from any other service for free, just feels like good people there who handle their shit.

Google domains: straightforward pricing, lowest prices (about 15% below hover), zero f*cks given by anyone at google about you as a single user, knows your innermost thoughts but chooses not to use that knowledge... for now

1and1: slowest interface ev3r, false prices advertised, favorite Philip K. Dick movie is Paycheck, talks loudly in a whiny voice all through the burn

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That sugar cane, that lemonade, that hurricane, I'm not afraid

Mexican immigrants to the US are importing Mexican Coca-cola, and it's catching on with other Americans too:
"Mexican Coke is selling like crazy bro, and I can't keep up," says Rudy Mendoza of El Gordo Taqueria on Main Street.
My father's friend is crazy about the stuff, and has had it shipped in by the case to her northern California home for years.

So what's the Coca-cola company's reaction? Send in the PR guys to be incredibly condescending!

"We believe that the appeal of Mexican Coke is as much about nostalgia as it is about anything," says [Coke spokesman Matt] Martin...

But it's the "same exact product," and Mexican bottlers are buying the ingredients straight from the company, says Martin.
"It's not like they're stirring it up in some backyard," he adds. "Coke is Coke is Coke.
..."The 'why?' It could just be psychological."

Except it's not:

Mexican Coke may contain the same secret syrup, but its sweetener is entirely different.
It's made from sugar cane, not corn syrup.
Surprisingly, in 2013, Coke in Mexico switched to corn syrup too, though they still use cane sugar for the Coke exported from Mexico to the US as a nostalgia product!

My dad's friend swears that once you drink a couple bottles, you can't stand the American stuff.
By the way, if you like Fresca but hate aspartame, you might not want to taste the sugar cane-sweetened Fresca they have in Mexico... that sacred nectar still haunts me whenever I see the diet version in US groceries.

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Uber's new icon will not last

Prediction: in a year, there will be no one left who thinks this new Uber icon makes design sense, including Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

I know less about UX than Evan Spiegel

A friend writes: "I have given up on thinking I know more about UX than Evan Spiegel." That's Evan Spiegel, the co-founder of Snapchat.

It's a great point. We product folks love to armchair quarterback user experience design that we don't get. And there's a ton I don't get about Snapchat. (Which, given my age, is certainly a feature of Snapchat, not a bug!)

Nothing amazes me as much as the ability of some product people to see as far into the future as Spiegel does. So far that even after using their product, I still can't explain quite what it is and why it's compelling.

E.g.: Pinterest, Slack, Medium.

Though with Medium i'd say it was partially due to poor brand communication -- that's the only one of these (including Snapchat) where i'm the target user. I think they should have written a prominent "What is Medium, anyway?" post and explained, "Medium is a blogging platform with the best WYSIWYG editor ever, where it's kinda one giant co-blog that steers traffic to whatever's popular, so you don't have to agonize over starting your own blog or how often you blog." Admittedly, that's still convoluted and hard to follow.

These are the opposite of, say, Uber, where 90% of people are convinced of its value on seeing that "whoah, Jane is summoning a cab via an app, and she can see it coming on the map! And it automatically charges her card with no end-of-ride mental calculations!"

So, what else has brought the future here so successfully, but so non-obviously?

Maybe the original Mac? Where people would like dress it in costumes and love it and they didn't quite know why?

Evernote makes perfect sense to me--I'm the quintessential user, and I'm sure they wish they knew how to charge me ten times as much without alienating new users. But it's completely opaque to most people. Same with Twitter.

And though I've made progress, I still don't really get what Pinterest is!

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Monday, February 01, 2016

Each revolution is conventional in all ways but one

Recently I came across an app that gives career advice by profiling prominent people in a given career.

I noted that one of the main ones mentioned had, in my opinion, failed a test of integrity. And yet there they were, an example of what to do, and how it's done.

This a little bit like learning about transforming philanthropy from Kiva or making government accessible to the citizenry from Bill de Blasio. In other words, perfectly normal, even impressive. It added cache to the product.

Kiva, as essentially no one recalls, turned out to be lying to all of its donor users about the basic details of their microloans.

De Blasio, when he was Public Advocate, didn't seem to know whether or not his staff was actually picking up the phone at their hotline, where the mailbox was often full.

Including leading figures like these is a decision based more on success in brand marketing then on the reality of the work.

I'm reminded that the natural tendency of established ideas, people, and power is to become further consolidated, because that norm gets recapitulated by default. whereas to articulate an alternative norm of what should or might be, rather than what is, requires a critique that must be delicately articulated and defended. Such a critique is inherently distracting from your core message, whereas echoing conventional wisdom requires no special justification and benefits from association with assumptions that are already accepted.

So you may depart from the norm by emphasizing the need for career contacts to be less obscure, or you may depart from the norm by emphasizing uncomfortable ambiguities conflicts of loyalty that many jobs involve, but you really can't do both at the same time or you're getting too many steps away from people's assumptions about what's valuable.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has one of the most fascinating soul-searches I've read, about why he didn't write more about Bill Cosby's rape accusations when he wrote a 2008 profile on Cosby.

At the time I wrote the piece, it was 13 peoples’ word—and I believed them. Put differently, I believed that Bill Cosby was a rapist.

...should I have decided to state what I believed about Cosby, I would have had to write a much different piece. It would not have been enough to say, "I believe he is a rapist." A significant portion of my reporting, perhaps the lion’s share of my reporting, would have had to be aimed to investigating the claims.

The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else's salary.

I'm also reminded of the extreme misogyny within leftist movements in the 1960s, symbolized--though by some accounts unfairly--by Stokely Carmichael's joke that "The proper position of women in [SNCC/the movement] is prone." (Several women from SNCC maintain that the tone of the joke was meant to poke fun at his own, and SNCC's own, misogyny.) As they used to say, "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." Each revolution is conventional in all ways but one.

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