The maze like world of QAnon, where we’re at on climate change and views on British class identity

It has been an interesting couple of weeks with the fallout that accompanied the departure of Donald Trump and on a more personal note, my return to work coming back from furlough. Find below some of the stories that caught my eye, with lively coverage of QAnon, some guarded optimism on climate change and insights on how British see their own social class among other stories.

The debacle that was the storming of the U.S. Senate has left many of us thinking how could this happen. Kevin Roose interviews “QAnon meme queen” Valerie Gilbert, giving a more personal take on how people can fall down this particular rabbit hole:

What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution.

David Gilbert on the other hand looks at how we can help family and friends step outside the maze of QAnon:

It’s not a one-time interaction process; it has to be incremental over time,” Hasan said. “That’s why family members and friends are the best agents to effect change over time, because they can also say, ‘Hey, I grew up with you, we used to play basketball together. Do you remember?’ That brings up warm feelings and your real self, not your cult self.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have begun to engage more actively with content moderation on their platforms – something which has came to the fore with the storming of the United States Senate recently. Alex Kantrowitz looks at how newer platforms to content moderation such as Substack, Spotify and Clubhouse are engaging with the subject:  

Though the big social networks have been the main focus in the debate over how — and whether — online platforms should moderate user content, the fight is migrating toward smaller platforms devoid of rollicking social feeds. They include email providers like Substack, podcast platforms like Spotify (hello Joe Rogan), and nascent startups like Clubhouse.

The departure of Donald Trump and America’s rejoining of the Paris climate agreement has provides us with some more hope on the subject of climate change. David Wallace-Wells argues we have turned a corner, although we’re still in for bumpy ride:

All year, a planet transformed by the burning of carbon discharged what would have once been called portents of apocalypse. The people of that planet, as a whole, didn’t take much notice — distracted by the pandemic and trained, both by the accumulating toll of recent disasters and the ever-rising volume of climate alarm, to see what might once have looked like brutal ruptures in lived reality instead as logical developments in a known pattern. Our time has been so stuffed with disasters that it was hard to see the arrival of perhaps the unlikeliest prophecy of all: that the plague year may have marked, for climate change, a turning point, and for the better.

The growth of single person households and the relative decline of the traditional nuclear family norm is encouraging suburbs to rethink how they can attract and retain residents. June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones talk about the phenomenon of “suburban retrofitting” in the US:

The suburbs largely sold themselves on the value of the terrific private realm that they present. The suburbs emphasize privacy. As these demographics are changing, there’s more and more people recognizing, “I’m lonely. I would like a little bit more of a public realm.”

Have you got an interesting product idea that you would like to turn into a viable business? Digits to Dollars provide a look at what’s involved in turning an idea into a viable business and it makes you realise why many people choose to stick to purely startups that are all code:

That being said, the realities of hardware can be daunting. Take the $3 million the company needs to get a product out the door, a similarly sized team could build a software application that can potentially grow much faster and they would still have a million dollars to do customer acquisition. Compounding this, the software would come with a recurring revenue stream. The trouble with hardware is that for the company to grow, they have to come out with the Smart Horn 2 and the Smart Horn 3, and go through all of the above again, and again.

Hardware has immense financial leverage, but the upfront costs and more crucially the time required are daunting.

Having spent much of my formative years growing up in New Zealand, I find it fascinating when academics provide a more critical look at that strange species known as the English. Sam Friedman, Dave O’Brien and Ian McDonald’s recent work on class identity definitely fits the bill:

Why do people from privileged class backgrounds often misidentify their origins as working class? We address this question by drawing on 175 interviews with those working in professional and managerial occupations, 36 of whom are from middle-class backgrounds but identify as working class or long-range upwardly mobile. Our findings indicate that this misidentification is rooted in a self-understanding built on particular ‘origin stories’ which act to downplay interviewees’ own, fairly privileged, upbringings and instead forge affinities to working-class extended family histories. Yet while this ‘intergenerational self’ partially reflects the lived experience of multigenerational upward mobility, it also acts – we argue – as a means of deflecting and obscuring class privilege. By positioning themselves as ascending from humble origins, we show how these interviewees are able to tell an upward story of career success ‘against the odds’ that simultaneously casts their progression as unusually meritocratically legitimate while erasing the structural privileges that have shaped key moments in their trajectory.

A friend who is really into film introduced me to Letterboxd as a way of tracking wanted and watched films. I was more than happy to move part of my digital life out of the clutches of Amazon (via IMDB) and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s a New Zealand startup that’s nourishing a new breed of film critic as Calum Marsh reports:

Although May said she is “first and foremost a fan of film,” and The unedited, anything-goes spirit of Letterboxd can be off-putting: D’Angelo confessed he finds it “maddening” when writers “use all lowercase” or refuse “to use normal grammar or punctuation,” which on the site is often. But the lack of rules or structure can also lead to some interesting, unconventional criticism, and offers a platform to voices that might otherwise not be heard. On Letterboxd, you can discover not only new movies to watch, but new critics to follow.

Thought starters: QAnon, avocado politics, the decline of Iran and pizza arbitrage

A look at interesting articles, features and opinion pieces that have caught my attention since I last posted here…

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that many governments and organisations have had to make decisions act under a cloud of uncertainty. Cathleen O’Grady takes a critical look at some of the research emerging from the social sciences compounding already present concerns about the replication crisis:

So are the social sciences ready to help us navigate the pandemic? Evidently, experts disagree, and their scuffle is part of a broader debate about how much evidence we need before we act. The coronavirus crisis forces a tough, society-wide lesson on scientific uncertainty. And with such escalated stakes, how do we balance the potential harm of acting prematurely with the harm of not acting at all?

There have been quite a few countries where more decisive action would have made a huge difference in the health outcomes from the coronavirus pandemic. Tim Harford explores the different factors that people and organisations too slow to take action when faced with a crisis:

While I realise some people are paranoid about catching Covid-19, it’s egotistical optimism that I see in myself. Although I know that millions of people in the UK will catch this disease, my gut instinct, against all logic, is that I won’t be one of them. Meyer points out that such egotistical optimism is particularly pernicious in the case of an infectious disease. A world full of people with the same instinct is a world full of disease vectors. I take precautions partly because of social pressure and partly because, intellectually, I know they are necessary. But my survival instinct just isn’t doing the job, because I simply do not feel my survival is at stake.

The rise of the QAnon community in the US points to something even more concerning where there is willful blindness to facts and information. Adrienne LaFrance’s account is concerning particularly given the movement’s proximity to Donald Trump:

Nine years later, as reports of a fearsome new virus suddenly emerged, and with Trump now president, a series of ideas began burbling in the QAnon community: that the coronavirus might not be real; that if it was, it had been created by the “deep state,” the star chamber of government officials and other elite figures who secretly run the world; that the hysteria surrounding the pandemic was part of a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances; and that media elites were cheering the death toll. Some of these ideas would make their way onto Fox News and into the president’s public utterances. As of late last year, according to The New York Times, Trump had retweeted accounts often focused on conspiracy theories, including those of QAnon, on at least 145 occasions.

I can remember being involved in campaigning in 1990s New Zealand and being made aware of the different shades of environmentalism. Climate change has raised the profile of environmental causes and Nils Gilman look at potential synergies between far right groups and environmental causes with interest and trepidation:

Right-wing environmentalism and climate alarmism are coming, and as they do, the political battle lines over the environment are going to look very different from the ones we have experienced during the past few decades. No longer will the primary battle be between conservative climate change deniers or skeptics, on the one hand, and liberal climate realists on the other. Instead, the primary fight will be between those who treat the reality of climate change as an imperative for creating a more inclusive and egalitarian world, and those who see it as a justification for exclusion and hoarding, retreating into ever-smaller circles of empathy. Indeed, right-wing environmentalism may be how the post-Trump anti-globalist Right repositions itself for broader appeal by reclaiming the impulses that motivated American conservationism to begin with. After all, if globalized neoliberal capitalism is what is both driving climate change and preventing any effective response, then an alliance of green and nationalist anti-globalizers (albeit motivated primarily by different things) seems all too possible.

Dexter Filkins paints a tragic story of Iranian society under the leadership of Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran has been one of the countries most heavily hit by coronavirus but this appears a symptom of wider problems:

Isolated and dysfunctional, the Islamic Republic had reached a dead end, she said: “The regime has lost all popular support, and yet it is incapable of change. The result is that the Iranian people have lost hope. We are hopeless now.”

As countries such as Iran look to block their citizens access to the unfiltered internet people and organisations look for ways to get around it. Reporters without Borders has created The Uncensored Library in Minecraft to help people access materials that are likely to be censored in their home countries.

Barton Gellman provides a first hand account of what it’s like to be a under the spotlight from different state apparatus. It’s enough to put my own complaints about IT problems and security in perspective:

Most hacking attempts are sent to thousands, or millions, of people at a time, as email attachments or links to infected websites. This one was customized for me. It was a class of malware known as a “remote access trojan,” or RAT, capable of monitoring keystrokes, capturing screenshots, recording audio and video, and exfiltrating any file from my computer. “Piss off any Russians lately?” Marquis-Boire asked. The RAT was designed to link my computer to a command-and-control server hosted by Corbina Telecom, in Moscow. If I had triggered the RAT, a hacker could have watched and interacted with my computer in real time from there. Other IP addresses the malware communicated with were in Kazakhstan. And internal evidence suggested that the coder was a native speaker of Azeri, the language of Azerbaijan and the Russian republic of Dagestan. But the moment Marquis-Boire tried to probe the RAT for more information, the command-and-control server disappeared from the internet.

I understand many startups are racing to grow their audience to a point where they can take advantage of network effects. This has led to some puzzling situations with investors and venture capitalists throwing cash at startups where there’s little in the way of barriers to entry. Ranjan Roy’s account of pizza arbitrage makes for an interesting illustration of how some of this funding is missing the mark:

My mind, as a combination trader and startup person, instantly had the though – just run this arbitrage over and over. You could massively even grow your top-line revenue while netting riskless profit, and maybe even get acquired at an inflated valuation 🙂 He told me to chill out. Maybe this is why he runs an “actual business” while I trade options while doing brand consulting and writing newsletters.

If you are looking to launch a startup, Lenny Rachitsky’s review of how various high profile startups reached their first 1000 users is reviewing:

How startups acquired their first 1000 users

Navneet Alang explores explores how whilst are diets are becoming more diverse, all too often those people introducing them aren’t raising concerns about cultural appropriation among other issues:

The question that such representations present for the food world is a difficult one: Who gets to use the global pantry or introduce “new” international ingredients to a Western audience? And behind that is an even more uncomfortable query: Can the aspiration that has become central to the culinary arts ever not be white?

I have been happily watching the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance with its celebration of his immense sporting prowess. I would also suggest what were getting is a sanitised version of the truth given that Jordan was given the opportunity to have the last word. Wesley Morris’ review in the New York Times provides a pretty even handed review but if you really want a clearer view on what shaped Jordan including racism of the Deep South, I’d suggest reading Wright Thompson’s profile.

Kendall Baker has pulled together a suggested list of the 50 greatest sports documentaries of all time. I certainly don’t object to the high placing of Hoop Dreams and OJ: Made in America where as much about society as they were about sports but do wish the list had included a Sunday in Hell which is a personal favourite.

One of my favourite directors is Werner Herzog with great work on Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, Wrath of God. You can get a further taste for his idiosyncratic personality in David Marchese’s interview in the New York Times:

I advise you to go outside on a clear night and look out into the universe. It seems utterly indifferent to what we are doing. Now we are taking a very close look at the sun with a space probe. Look at the utmost hostility of the hundreds of millions of atomic bombs going off at the same time in its interior. So my personal interpretation of nature comes from taking a quick look at the stars.

Header image: Ministry of Highway Construction taken on a cycle tour around Georgia. More photos of the building here.