Used to be small like a baby but grew to current size. Urban cyclist. Coffee Enthusiast. New media whore. Rabid atheist. Inventor of the sock.
155 stories

YouTube Didn’t Tell Wikipedia About Its Plans for Wikipedia

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Megan Farokhmanesh, writing for The Verge last week:

At SXSW yesterday, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced that the platform would start adding information from Wikipedia to conspiracy-related videos within the next few weeks. “We will show a companion unit of information from Wikipedia showing that here is information about the event,” she said. The company is “using a list of well-known internet conspiracies from Wikipedia” to pull from. However, YouTube appears to have left one party in the dark: “We were not given advance notice of this announcement,” said the Wikimedia Foundation in a statement on Twitter.

According to Wikimedia, this partnership isn’t a formal one with either Wikimedia or Wikipedia. “We are always happy to see people, companies, and organizations recognize Wikipedia’s value as a repository of free knowledge,” the company said. YouTube doesn’t need to officially partner with Wikimedia to use information from Wikipedia, but it’s still a bemusing tactic to make such an announcement without any official word passed between the two.

It really was rather shitty of YouTube not to tell Wikipedia in advance. But what gets me about this whole story is this: if YouTube knows that these videos need these fact-check disclaimers, why are they serving these videos at all? The videos that are flagged by this algorithm shouldn’t be shown with fact-check disclaimers — they should be removed from YouTube.

The answer, of course, is money. YouTube’s executives know these videos are harmful but they want the money from the ads they show against them.


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2 days ago
I imagine this is also going to attract more edit conflicts to Wikipedia.
Brussels, Belgium
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Facebook Now Spamming Users With Texts if They’ve Enabled Two-Factor Security

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Kate Conger, writing for Gizmodo:

I’ve been getting these text-spam messages since last summer, when I set up a new Facebook account and turned on two-factor authentication. I created the new profile with somewhat vague intentions of using it for professional purposes — I didn’t like the idea of messaging sources from my primary Facebook account, where they could flip through pictures of my high school prom or my young nephews. But I didn’t end up using the profile often, and I let it sit mostly abandoned for months at a time.

At first, I only got one or two texts from Facebook per month. But as my profile stagnated, I got more and more messages. In January, Facebook texted me six times — mostly with updates about what my ex was posting. This month, I’ve already gotten four texts from Facebook. One is about a post from a former intern; I don’t recognize the name of one of the other “friends” Facebook messaged me about.

This is nuts — how scummy does Facebook have to be to punish people who do the right thing by setting up two-factor security?


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33 days ago
This happened to me a while back. I have a Facebook account I use for testing apps every so often and setup 2FA on it. I started getting texts asking me to post updates but they came from an unknown number so it took me a while to even figure out who was responsible. Extremely annoying.
Brussels, Belgium
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Arc Weld

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“Language is a virus from outer space”
—William S. Borroughs




Chest-thump to start off the year: Last year’s “ZeroS”, appearing in Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity Wars, made it into a couple of (late-breaking update: into three!) Year’s Best collections: Neil Clarke’s Best Science Fiction of the Year (Vol. 3), and another couple I hesitate to name because they don’t seem to have been announced yet. So that’s cool.


But this is way cooler:

There’s this gene, Arc, active in our neurons. It’s essential for cognition and longterm memory in mammals; knockout mice who lack it can’t remember from one day to the next where they left the cheese. It looks and acts an awful lot like something called a gag— a “group-specific antigen”, something which codes for the core structural proteins of retroviruses. Like a gag, Arc codes for a protein that assembles into  capsids (basically, shuttles containing messenger RNA). These accumulate in the dendrites, cross the synaptic junction in little vesicles: a payload from one neuron to another.

Pastuzyn et al, of the University of Utah, have just shown that Arc is literally an infection: a tamed, repurposed virus that infected us a few hundred million years ago. Apparently it looks an awful lot like HIV. Pastuzyn et al speculate that Arc “may mediate intercellular signaling to control synaptic function”.

Memory is a virus. Or at least, memory depends on one.



Of course, everyone’s all over this. U of Utah trumpeted the accomplishment with a press release notable for, among other things, describing the most-junior contributor to this 13-author paper as the “senior” author. Newsweek picked up both the torch and the mistake, leading me to wonder if Kastalio Medrano is simply at the sloppy end of the scale or if it’s normal for “Science Writers” in popular magazines to not bother reading the paper they’re reporting on. (I mean, seriously, guys; the author list is right there under the title.) As far as I know I’m the first to quote Burroughs in this context (or to mention that Greg Bear played around a very similar premise in Darwin’s Radio), but when your work gets noticed by The Atlantic you know you’ve arrived.

Me, though, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that something which was once an infection is now such an integral part of our cognitive architecture. I can’t stop wondering what would happen if someone decided to reweaponise it.

The parts are still there, after all.  Arc builds its own capsid, loads it up with genetic material, hops from one cell to another. The genes being transported don’t even have to come from Arc:

“If viral RNA is not present, Gag encapsulates host RNA, and any single-stranded nucleic acid longer than 20-­30 nt can support capsid assembly … indicating a general propensity to bind abundant RNA.”

The delivery platform’s intact; indeed, the delivery platform is just as essential to its good role as it once was to its evil one. So what happens if you add a payload to that platform that, I dunno, fries intraneuronal machinery somehow?

I’ll tell you. You get a disease that spreads through the very act of thinking. The more you think, the more memories you lay down, the more the disease ravages you. The only way to slow its spread is to think as little as possible; the only way to save your intelligence is not to use it. Your only chance is to become willfully stupid.

Call it Ignorance is Bliss. Call it Donald’s Syndrome. Even call it a metaphor of some kind.

Me, I’m calling it a promising premise. The only real question is whether I’ll squander it now on a short story, or save it up for a few years and stick it into Omniscience.


(Thanks to Bahumat, btw, for showing me the link.)
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45 days ago
“Donald’s syndrome”
Brussels, Belgium
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Bedazzled by Energy Efficiency

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Bedazzled by energy efficiency illustration by diego marmolejo

To focus on energy efficiency is to make present ways of life non-negotiable. However, transforming present ways of life is key to mitigating climate change and decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Energy efficiency policy

Energy efficiency is a cornerstone of policies to reduce carbon emissions and fossil fuel dependence in the industrialised world. For example, the European Union (EU) has set a target of achieving 20% energy savings through improvements in energy efficiency by 2020, and 30% by 2030. Measures to achieve these EU goals include mandatory energy efficiency certificates for buildings, minimum efficiency standards and labelling for a variety of products such as boilers, household appliances, lighting and televisions, and emissions performance standards for cars. [1]

The EU has the world’s most progressive energy efficiency policy, but similar measures are now applied in many other industrialised countries, including China. On a global scale, the International Energy Agency (IEA) asserts that “energy efficiency is the key to ensuring a safe, reliable, affordable and sustainable energy system for the future”. [2] In 2011, the organisation launched its 450 scenario, which aims to limit the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million. Improved energy efficiency accounts for 71% of projected carbon reductions in the period to 2020, and 48% in the period to 2035. [2] [3]

What are the results?

Do improvements in energy efficiency actually lead to energy savings? At first sight, the advantages of efficiency seem to be impressive. For example, the energy efficiency of a range of domestic appliances covered by the EU directives has improved significantly over the last 15 years. Between 1998 and 2012, fridges and freezers became 75% more energy efficient, washing machines 63%, laundry dryers 72%, and dishwashers 50%. [4]

However, energy use in the EU-28 in 2015 was only slightly below the energy use in 2000 (1,627 Mtoe compared to 1.730 Mtoe, or million tonnes of oil equivalents). Furthermore, there are several other factors that may explain the (limited) decrease in energy use, like the 2007 economic crisis. Indeed, after decades of continuous growth, energy use in the EU decreased slightly between 2007 and 2014, only to go up again in 2015 and 2016 when economic growth returned. [1]

On a global level, energy use keeps rising at an average rate of 2.4% per year. [3] This is double the rate of population growth, while close to half of the global population has limited or no access to modern energy sources. [5] In industrialised (OECD) countries, energy use per head of the population doubled between 1960 and 2007. [6]

Rebound effects?

Why is it that advances in energy efficiency do not result in a reduction of energy demand? Most critics focus on so-called “rebound effects”, which have been described since the nineteenth century. [7] According to the rebound argument, improvements in energy efficiency often encourage greater use of the services which energy helps to provide. [8] For example, the advance of solid state lighting (LED), which is six times more energy efficient than old-fashioned incandescent lighting, has not led to a decrease in energy demand for lighting. Instead, it resulted in six times more light. [9]

In some cases, rebound effects may be sufficiently large to lead to an overall increase in energy use. [8] For example, the improved efficiency of microchips has accelerated the use of computers, whose total energy use now exceeds the total energy use of earlier generations of computers which had less energy efficient microchips. Energy efficiency advances in one product category can also lead to increased energy use in other product categories, or lead to the creation of an entirely new product category.

For example, LED-screens are more energy efficient than LCD-screens, and could therefore reduce the energy use of televisions. However, they also led to the arrival of digital billboards, which are enormous power hogs in spite of their energy efficient components. [10] Finally, money saved through improvements in energy efficiency can also be spent on other energy-intensive goods and services, which is a possibility usually referred to as an indirect rebound effect.

Beyond the rebound argument

Rebound effects are ignored by the EU and the IEA, and this might partly explain why the results fall short of the projections. Among academics, the magnitude of the rebound effect is hotly debated. While some argue that “rebound effects frequently offset or even eliminate the energy savings from improved efficiency” [3], others maintain that rebound effects “have become a distraction” because they are relatively small: “behavioural responses shave 5-30% of intended energy savings, reaching no more than 60% when combined with macro-economic effects – energy efficiency does save energy”. [11]

Those who downplay rebound effects attribute the lack of results to the fact that we don’t try hard enough: “many opportunities for improving energy efficiency still go wasted”. [11] Others are driven by the goal of improving energy efficiency policy. One response is to suggest that the frame of reference be expanded and that analysts should consider the efficiency not of individual products but of entire systems or societies. In this view, energy efficiency is not framed holistically enough, nor given sufficient context. [12] [13]

However, a few critics go one step further. In their view, energy efficiency policy cannot be fixed. The problem with energy efficiency, they argue, is that it establishes and reproduces ways of life that are not sustainable in the long run. [12][14]

A parellel universe

Rebound effects are often presented as “unintended” consequences, but they are the logical outcome of the abstraction that is required to define and measure energy efficiency. According to Loren Lutzenhiser, a researcher at Portland State University in the US, energy efficiency policy is so abstracted from the everyday dynamics of energy use that it operates in a “parallel universe”. [14] In a more recent paper, What is wrong with energy efficiency?, UK researcher Elizabeth Shove unravels this “parallel universe”, concluding that efficiency policies are “counter-productive” and “part of the problem”. [12]

According to some critics, efficiency policies are "counter-productive" and "part of the problem".

To start with, the parallel universe of energy efficiency interprets “energy savings” in a peculiar way. When the EU states that it will achieve 20% “energy savings” by 2020, “energy savings” are not defined as a reduction in actual energy consumption compared to present or historical figures. Indeed, such a definition would show that energy efficiency doesn’t reduce energy use at all. Instead, the “energy savings” are defined as reductions compared to the projected energy use in 2020. These reductions are measured by quantifying “avoided energy” – the energy resources not used because of advances in energy efficiency.

Even if the projected “energy savings” were to be fully realised, they would not result in an absolute reduction in energy demand. The EU argues that advances in energy efficiency will be “roughly equivalent to turning off 400 power stations”, but in reality no single power station will be turned off in 2020 because of advances in energy efficiency. Instead, the reasoning is that Europe would have needed to build an extra 400 power stations by 2020, were it not for the increases in energy efficiency.

In taking this approach, the EU treats energy efficiency as a fuel, “a source of energy in its own right”. [15] The IEA goes even further when it claims that “energy avoided by IEA member countries in 2010 (generated from investments over the preceding 1974 to 2010 period), was larger than actual demand met by any other supply side resource, including oil, gas, coal and electricity”, thus making energy efficiency “the largest or first fuel”. [16] [12]

Measuring something that doesn’t exist

Treating energy efficiency as a fuel and measuring its success in terms of “avoided energy” is pretty weird. For one thing, it is about not using a fuel that does not exist. [14] Furthermore, the higher the projected energy use in 2030, the larger the “avoided energy” would be. On the other hand, if the projected energy use in 2030 were to be lower than present-day energy use (we reduce energy demand), the “avoided energy” becomes negative.

An energy policy that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel dependency must measure its success in terms of lower fossil fuel consumption. [17] However, by measuring “avoided energy”, energy efficiency policy does exactly the opposite. Because projected energy use is higher than present energy use, energy efficiency policy takes for granted that total energy consumption will keep rising.

That other pillar of climate change policy – the decarbonisation of the energy supply by encouraging the use of renewable energy power plants – suffers from similar defects. Because the increase in total energy demand outpaces the growth in renewable energy, solar and wind power plants are in fact not decarbonising the energy supply. They are not replacing fossil fuel power plants, but are helping to accommodate the ever growing demand for energy. Only by introducing the concept of “avoided emissions” can renewables be presented as having something of the desired effect. [18]

What is it that is efficient?

In What is wrong with energy efficiency?, Elizabeth Shove demonstrates that the concept of energy efficiency is just as abstract as the concept of “avoided energy”. Efficiency is about delivering more services (heat, light, transportation,…) for the same energy input, or the same services for less energy input. Consequently, a first step in identifying improvements depends on specifying “service” (what is it that is efficient?) and on quantifying the amount of energy involved (how is “less energy” known?). Setting a reference against which “energy savings” are measured also involves specifying temporal boundaries (where does efficiency start and end?). [12]

Shove’s main argument is that setting temporal boundaries (where does efficiency start and end?) automatically specifies the “service” (what is it that is efficient?), and the other way around. That’s because energy efficiency can only be defined and measured if it is based on equivalence of service. Shove focuses on home heating, but her point is valid for all other technology. For example, in 1985, the average passenger plane used 8 litres of fuel to transport one passenger over a distance of 100 km, a figure that came down to 3.7 litres today.

Consequently, we are told that airplanes have become twice as efficient. However, if we make a comparison in fuel use between today and 1950, instead of 1985, airplanes do not use less energy at all. In the 1960s, propeller aircraft were replaced by jet aircraft, which are twice as fast but initially consumed twice as much fuel. Only fifty years later, the jet airplane became as “energy efficient” as the last propeller planes from the 1950s. [19]

If viewed in a larger historical context, the concept of energy efficiency completely disintegrates.

What then is a meaningful timespan over which to compare efficiencies? Should propeller planes be taken into account, or should they be ignored? The answer depends on the definition of equivalent service. If the service is defined as “flying”, then propeller planes should be included. But, if the energy service is defined as “flying at a speed of roughly 1,000 km/h”, we can discard propellers and focus on jet engines. However, the latter definition assumes a more energy-intensive service.

If we go back even further in time, for example to the early twentieth century, people didn’t fly at all and there’s no sense in comparing fuel use per passenger per kilometre. Similar observations can be made for many other technologies or services that have become “more energy efficient”. If they are viewed in a larger historical context, the concept of energy efficiency completely disintegrates because the services are not at all equivalent.

Often, it’s not necessary to go back very far to prove this. For example, when the energy efficiency of smartphones is calculated, the earlier generation of much less energy demanding “dumbphones” is not taken into account, although they were common less than a decade ago.

How efficient is a clothesline?

Because of the need to compare 'like with like' and establish equivalent of service, energy efficiency policy ignores many low energy alternatives that often have a long history but are still relevant in the context of climate change.

For example, the EU has calculated that energy labels for tumble driers will be able to “save up to 3.3 Twh of electricity by 2020, equivalent to the annual energy consumption of Malta”. [20]. But how much energy use would be avoided if by 2020 every European would use a clothesline instead of a tumble drier? Don’t ask the EU, because it has not calculated the avoided energy use of clotheslines.

Clothesline by diego marmolejo

Neither do the EU or the IEA measure the energy efficiency and avoided energy of bicycles, hand powered drills, or thermal underwear. Nevertheless, if clotheslines would be taken seriously as an alternative, then the projected 3.3 TWh of energy “saved” by more energy efficient tumble driers can no longer be considered “avoided energy”, let alone a fuel. In a similar way, bicycles and clothing undermine the very idea of calculating the “avoided energy” of more energy efficient cars and central heating boilers.

Unsustainable concepts of service

The problem with energy efficiency policies, then, is that they are very effective in reproducing and stabilising essentially unsustainable concepts of service. [12] Measuring the energy efficiency of cars and tumble driers, but not of bicycles and clotheslines, makes fast but energy-intensive ways of travel or clothes drying non-negotiable, and marginalises much more sustainable alternatives. According to Shove:

“Programmes of energy efficiency are politically uncontroversial precisely because they take current interpretations of ‘service’ for granted… The unreflexive pursuit of efficiency is problematic not because it doesn’t work or because the benefits are absorbed elsewhere, as the rebound effect suggests, but because it does work – via the necessary concept of equivalence of services – to sustain, perhaps escalate, but never undermine… increasingly energy intensive ways of life.” [12]

Indeed, the concept of energy efficiency easily accommodates further growth of energy services. All future novelties can be subjected to an efficiency approach. For example, if patio heaters and monsoon showers become “normal”, they could be incorporated in existing energy efficiency policy – and when that happens, the problem of their energy use is considered to be under control. At the same time, defining, measuring and comparing the efficiency of patio heaters and monsoon showers helps make them more “normal”. As a bonus, adding new products to the mix will only increase the energy use that is “avoided” through energy efficiency.

In short, neither the EU nor the IEA capture the “avoided energy” generated by doing things differently, or by not doing them at all – while these arguably have the largest potential to reduce energy demand. [12] Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, there has been a massive expansion in the uses of energy and in the delegation of human to mechanical forms of power. But although these trends are driving the continuing increase in energy demand, they cannot be measured through the concept of energy efficiency.

As Shove demonstrates, this problem cannot be solved, because energy efficiency can only be measured on the basis of equivalent service. Instead, she argues that the challenge is “to debate and extend meanings of service and explicitly engage with the ways in which these evolve”. [12]

Towards an energy inefficiency policy?

There are several ways to escape from the parallel universe of energy efficiency. First, while energy efficiency hinders significant long term reduction in energy demand through the need for equivalence of service, the opposite also holds true – making everything less energy efficient would reverse the growth in energy services and reduce energy demand.

For example, if we were to install 1960s internal combustion engines into modern SUVs, fuel use per kilometre driven would be much higher than it is today. Few people would be able or willing to afford to drive such cars, and they would have no other choice but to switch to a much lighter, smaller and less powerful vehicle, or to drive less.

Making everything less energy efficient would reverse the growth in energy services and reduce energy demand.

Likewise, if an “energy inefficiency policy” were to mandate the use of inefficient central heating boilers, heating large homes to present-day comfort standards would be unaffordable for most people. They would be forced to find alternative solutions to achieve thermal comfort, for instance heating only one room, dressing more warmly, using personal heating devices, or moving to a smaller home.

Recent research into the heating of buildings confirms that inefficiency can save energy. A German study examined the calculated energy performance ratings of 3,400 homes and compared these with the actual measured consumption. [21] In line with the rebound argument, the researchers found that residents of the most energy efficient homes (75 kWh/m2/yr) use on average 30% more energy than the calculated rating. However, for less energy efficient homes, the opposite – “pre-bound” – effect was observed: people use less energy than the models had calculated, and the more inefficient the dwelling is, the larger this gap becomes. In the most energy inefficient dwellings (500 kWh/m2/yr), energy use was 60% below the predicted level.

From efficiency to sufficiency?

However, while abandoning – or reversing – energy efficiency policy would arguably bring more energy savings than continuing it, there is another option that’s more attractive and could bring even larger energy savings. For an effective policy approach, efficiency can be complemented by or perhaps woven into a “sufficiency” strategy. Energy efficiency aims to increase the ratio of service output to energy input while holding the output at least constant. Energy sufficiency, by contrast, is a strategy that aims to reduce the growth in energy services. [4] In essence, this is a return to the “conservation” policies of the 1970s. [14]

Sufficiency can involve a reduction of services (less light, less travelling, less speed, lower indoor temperatures, smaller houses), or a substitution of services (a bicycle instead of a car, a clothesline instead of a tumble drier, thermal underclothing instead of central heating). Unlike energy efficiency, the policy objectives of sufficiency cannot be expressed in relative variables (like kWh/m2/year). Instead, the focus is on absolute variables, such as reductions in carbon emissions, fossil fuel use, or oil imports. [17] Unlike energy efficiency, sufficiency cannot be defined and measured by examining a single product type, because sufficiency can involve various forms of substitution. [22] Instead, a sufficiency policy is defined and measured by looking at what people actually do.

A sufficiency policy could be developed without a parallel efficiency policy, but combining them could bring larger energy savings. The key step here is to think of energy efficiency as a means rather than an end in itself, argues Shove. [12] For example, imagine how much energy could be saved if we would use an energy efficient boiler to heat just one room to 16 degrees, if we install an energy efficient engine in a much lighter vehicle, or if we combine an energy saving shower design with fewer and shorter showers. Nevertheless, while energy efficiency is considered to be a win-win strategy, to develop the concept of sufficiency as a significant force in policy is to make normative judgments: so much consumption is enough, so much is too much. [23] This is sure to be controversial, and it risks being authoritarian, at least as long as there is a cheap supply of fossil fuels.

Kris De Decker

Illustrations by Diego Marmolejo.


[1] "Energy Efficiency", European Commission.

[2] "Energy Efficiency", International Energy Association (IEA).

[3] Sorrell, Steve. "Reducing energy demand: A review of issues, challenges and approaches." Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 47 (2015): 74-82.

[4] Brischke, Lars-Arvid, et al. Energy sufficiency in private households enabled by adequate appliances. Wuppertal Institut für Klima, Umwelt, Energie, 2015.

[5] "Poor people's Energy Outlook 2016", Practical Action, 2016.

[6] "Energy use (kg of oil equivalent per capita)", World Bank, 2014.

[7] Alcott, Blake. "Jevons' paradox." Ecological economics 54.1 (2005): 9-21.

[8] Sorrell, Steve. "The Rebound Effect: an assessment of the evidence for economy-wide energy savings from improved energy efficiency." (2007).

[9] Kyba, Christopher CM, et al. "Artificially lit surface of Earth at night increasing in radiance and extent." Science advances 3.11 (2017): e1701528.; Tsao, Jeffrey Y., et al. "Solid-state lighting: an energy-economics perspective." Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics 43.35 (2010): 354001.

[10] Young, Gregory. "Illuminating the Issues." (2013).

[11] Gillingham, Kenneth, et al. "Energy policy: The rebound effect is overplayed." Nature 493.7433 (2013): 475-476.

[12] Shove, Elizabeth. "What is wrong with energy efficiency?." Building Research & Information (2017): 1-11.

[13] Calwell, Is efficient sufficient? Report for the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

[14] Lutzenhiser, Loren. "Through the energy efficiency looking glass." Energy Research & Social Science 1 (2014): 141-151.

[15] Good Practice in Energy Efficiency: for a sustainable, safer and more competitive Europe. European Commission, 2017.

[16] Capturing the Multiple Benefits of Energy Efficiency. IEA, 2014.

[17] Harris, Jeffrey, et al. "Towards a sustainable energy balance: progressive efficiency and the return of energy conservation." Energy efficiency 1.3 (2008): 175-188.

[18] How (not) to resolve the energy crisis, Low-tech Magazine, Kris De Decker, 2009.

[19] Peeters, Paul, J. Middel, and A. Hoolhorst. "Fuel efficiency of commercial aircraft." An overview of historical and future trends (2005).

[20] Household Tumble Driers, European Commission.

[21] Sunikka-Blank, Minna, and Ray Galvin. "Introducing the prebound effect: the gap between performance and actual energy consumption." Building Research & Information 40.3 (2012): 260-273.

[22] Thomas, Stefan, et al. Energy sufficiency policy: an evolution of energy efficiency policy or radically new approaches?. Wuppertal Institut für Klima, Umwelt, Energie, 2015.

[23] Darby, Sarah. "Enough is as good as a feast–sufficiency as policy." Proceedings, European Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. La Colle sur Loup, 2007.

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68 days ago
Brussels, Belgium
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1 public comment
40 days ago
TL;DR, here is the top highlight:

> Because of the need to compare 'like with like' and establish equivalent of service, energy efficiency policy ignores many low energy alternatives that often have a long history but are still relevant in the context of climate change.

Pharmaceutical Ads in the U.S.

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From Harper’s Index for January:

Amount the US pharmaceutical industry spent in 2016 on ads for prescription drugs: $6,400,000,000

Number of countries in which direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical ads are legal: 2


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70 days ago
It always surprises me when I go to the USA and see tv ads for pharmaceuticals. Their packaging is also wilder – made to sell – vs the neutral style they have here in Europe.
Brussels, Belgium
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You Get What You Get

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Stay with me. This isn't my typical link-post. It's also long so if you don't care about the web or independent writing, here's a nice article about genealogy and statistics.

Two recent articles by Jason Kottke mesh nicely with something that has been weighing on me for the past couple of years. Let's set the context though. I think is a wonderful site and I read every article he publishes on his RSS feed. Jason is an originator in the type of Internet content I love. But is struggling along with every other site that respects people as more than a monetization model.

Jason on the new membership model:

From a business perspective, it’s an understatement to say that it’s been a bit unnerving seeing 10 years of steadily growing revenue being replaced by something else entirely. I’ve been trying (and failing) to come up with a metaphor to explain it...the site is exactly the same, the revenue is in the same ballpark as before, but the financing is completely different.

I've considered the membership model for Macdrifter but I'm not sure I'd like the obligations that come with most memberships. Bonuses like special newsletters and access restrictions always seem like the opposite of web-publishing. It's nice to see that Jason is making a simple membership sustainable.

Even with new business models, I think that the idea of people regularly reading the same websites as part of their daily routine is a hobby left to old people like me. To be relevant we all need to accept that the open web is not going to exist much longer and certainly isn't important in a way that the average person understands. Adapt or languish.1

Jason, again:

But I’ve also been thinking a lot about how the information published here is delivered. I love the web and websites and believe the blog format is the best for the type of thing I want to communicate. But fewer and fewer people actually go to websites. I largely don’t. You can follow on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and via RSS, but fewer people are using newsreaders and Facebook et al are trying their best to decrease visibility of sites like mine unless I pay up or constantly publish.

It's right to complain and lament. Those were rich and vibrant times on the web. But no one wants to be arranging blog posts on the Titanic. Everything changes.

I loved when blogs were conversations between different people. Person "A" writes something. Person "B" writes a reply on their own site and links to person "A." The web was made of threads and it was rich and varied and wonderful. But it wasn't profitable and it was hard work to create and follow. It took guts and time. It was before Facebook made the internet a comment thread.

I think Kamer (and to a lesser degree Kottke) are wrong on this point:

We blame Walmart for decimating small businesses, but ultimately, small town shoppers chose convenience and lower prices over the more local and diverse offerings from their neighbors. And for the past several years, readers have been doing the same thing in favoring Facebook. What Kamer is arguing is that readers who value good journalism, good writing, and diverse viewpoints need to push back against the likes of the increasingly powerful and monolithic Facebook...and visiting individual websites is one way to do that.

It's arguing against capitalism, tribalism, and all other types of human nature. We can complain about Facebook and Twitter (as I regularly do) but we can't negotiate a treaty with their users. There will be consequences of Facebook and Twitter but if humans are experts at anything, it's misidentifying consequences. We still don't even understand what killed newspapers.

Advertising on Macdrifter stopped being fun for me several years ago. I never did anything popular enough to be on The Deck so I did most of my ads by hand. At one time I produced lengthy product walk-throughs as an alternative to just running an ad.2 It paid me a bit of money but it also helped out products that I like. There's no future in ads if you care about the people at the other end of them. Chronic internet users are calloused and immune to most ads. Everything seems like a scam so it's hard to trust anyone. Ads have become malware that publishers foist on readers for a few pennies. The arms-race of ads and ad blockers is just starting and it will be expensive to keep up.

Back to our main character, Jason Kottke. The plot thickens as we see our hero take a foreshadowed turn:

The newsletter is very much a work in progress and a departure from the way I usually do things around here. For one thing, it’s a collaboration…almost everything else I’ve done on the site was just me. We’ve previewed it over the last two weeks just for members, but it’s still more “unfinished” than I’m comfortable with. The design hasn’t been nailed down, the logo will likely change, and Tim & I are still trying to figure out the voice and length. But launching it unfinished feels right…we aren’t wasting time on optimization and there’s more opportunity to experiment and move toward what works as time goes on. We hope you’ll join us by subscribing and letting us know your thoughts and feedback as we get this thing moving.

As much as I am a fan of email as a self-documenting form of asynchronous communication, I'll be honest: I don't understand the popularity of newsletters. I do not enjoy reading in email. I do not like leisure mixed into work. I do not like the options I have for mobile access. I do not like more things coming into my inbox that need to be managed. It's just not for me.

It's interesting to see how the final few fish struggle for their existence in the pond. Some are choosing to evolve and branch out. To do more work, not less. Others, like me, are just biding time until death takes us off of the DNS for good.

So much of what I enjoy reading is gone. Most of the friends I made over the years have given up the ghost on their blogs. Those that continue to scratch out the rare post here and there do so with less humor and less excitement. The generally benign group of sites left to write about the random weirdness of the world makes me feel less curious. When I search for answers on the internet most of the truly interesting stuff are hits from blogs that stopped publishing in 2014.

So there you go. I write less on Macdrifter because it's depressing. To all of those people that take the time to write in and ask questions or suggest topics, I really like you. You are all oddballs. You're all my people and you're why I keep going with this dumb project.

I automatically collect server stats but in the most rudimentary way possible.3 I've been collecting them since 2011 and the historic perspective is heartening. The numbers haven't declined even though my posting has. I don't put much weight on these stats. I haven't looked at them in over a year.


I read these as a trend not a precise number. I've basically found my niche. I've posted over 3000 articles since 2006. That breadcrumb trail has lured a consistent number of readers that seem to like what I make.

Now let's have a series of self-serving questions to answer. Readers love that.

Why do it then?

That's a great question. Thanks for asking it. I asked myself this question a long time ago. I also asked a bunch of other bloggers this question too. Some answered and some didn't. But it colors how I see everything on the internet now. Why is this person writing this article? Why are they making a podcast? What do they get out of it?

I post to Macdrifter because it makes people notice me and that attention has provided both casual and real friendships. It gives me a ticket to some awkward party that everyone pretends they don't care about but still loves.

I also write because it gives me an outlet for thinking more deeply. In contrast to podcasting, writing is deliberate and methodical and gives me time to consider ideas more completely. Podcasting is fun but because it's fleeting and not yet searchable there's very little long-term consequences for lazy thinking. I love podcasts, A LOT, but it makes most smart people dumber whereas blogging seems to hone them.

The last reason for blogging is also self serving. It's one of the best ways I can think of to help developers that make things I like. The AppStore is terrible. Reviews are broken. Editor picks seem to be thoughtless. I buy apps used by people I respect. I usually don't care what "coolkid369" thinks about something on the AppStore. But if Merlin Mann uses an app, you can be damn well be sure I'll buy it. I'll tell everyone I know, then that app has a better chance of making it long term. The developer wins and I win. Hakuna Matata.

So what now?

Another great question. You're on a roll. Macdrifter loses money. I pay for the domain, hosting, and every app I review.4 That kind of stinks. The consequence is that I don't review as many apps or products because it's a waste of my money. But, I also don't want to run ads. The only real option is reader support. Without direct reader support I just don't have the motivation to do much here. That's the truth. Now you know.

What's going to happen?

Have you not learned anything? I'm very unmotivated but I'm also meticulous in my research. Nothing is going to change immediately. I will continue to post to Macdrifter and Hobo Signs while I figure out the sponsorship model and the technical implementation. If membership works and you don't subscribe then you'll just notice an increase in publishing at Macdrifter and maybe a small pain of guilt in your darkest of hearts.

Here's what I'm thinking:

I'll probably use Patreon for membership processing and member communication.

I like the format Dave Winer is using at It's informal and stream-like. I don't like the actual news-stream format he has but I like his chatty posting style.

I also like to solve problems and share solutions so I'll need some method of communicating that's better than email. I also don't want to moderate a community.

I like RSS so I need a membership feed.

I don't like DRM but, like door locks, a minimum amount of effort helps keep honest people honest. This means that a feed will need to be member-only but still work with all RSS readers.

The membership should be monthly and relatively inexpensive because I know I have subscription exhaustion myself.

You Get What You Get and Don't Get Upset

The web has changed. It's not what I had hoped for, but here it is. It's the web we have.


You’re Descended From Royalty and So Is Everybody Else

Home of Fine Hypertext Products Memberships, an Update One Year Later

Support With a Membership

In Tech and Media, You Can’t Remain Neutral on a Moving Train

Stop Using Facebook and Start Using Your Browser

Saving the Free Press From Private Equity

iThoughts Is the Premier Mind Mapping Software for Mac and iOS [Sponsor]

Casper’s war on mattress bloggers

Ad Targeters Are Pulling Data From Your Browser’s Password Manager

Noticing, a New Weekly Newsletter From

Free Real-Time Logfile Analyzer to Get Advanced Statistics (GNU GPL).

Asking Why

Hobo Signs

It's Even Worse Than It Appears.

You Get What You Get

  1. Yes, I'm very cynical about the future of the internet. I was cynical when Facebook wanted to get into publishing. I was cynical when Twitter said it would block hate groups. I was cynical when republicans took over the FCC. I've seen very few positive changes on the internet in the past five years that would make me optimistic. 

  2. These were actually fun to make but they were a huge amount of work. I'd wager that my hourly rate for these ads was about $10 which is not a good business to be in if you like money and things. 

  3. I got rid of Google stats long ago because it was slowing down the page loading and I also try to avoid Google whenever it's within my control. 

  4. This is still my biggest pet peeve of sites that review apps. Not paying for app out of your own bank account means value is never really a part of the assessment. We can pretend it is for the sake of a good narrative but if you didn't pay the $50 that app costs then you really can't feel the sacrifice a reader feels when they choose between a bunch of similarly priced apps. Say that up front. Say that the app didn't cost you anything and that your review doesn't take the cost into consideration. 

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70 days ago
The rise of the content silos is depressing.
Brussels, Belgium
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