Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Author: askpang (page 1 of 521)

On the uncertainty of genetic testing

That’s a map from one of the commercial DNA testing companies showing my ancestry– half East Asian, almost half British, with a little Finnish and Central Asian. The test pretty much confirms what I already knew about my parents’ backgrounds, though the Finnish is a bit of a mystery (and probably something more like a statistical error or algorithmic equivalent of a best guess).

For those of us who’ve had these tests done will appreciate Kristen Brown’s latest article in Gizmodo, “How DNA Testing Botched My Family’s Heritage, and Probably Yours, Too:”

A big problem is that many of us have a basic misunderstanding of what exactly we’re reading when Ancestry or 23andMe or National Geographic sends us colorful infographics about how British or Irish or Scandinavian we are. It’s not that the science is bad. It’s that it’s inherently imperfect, an estimation based on how much our DNA matches up with people in other places around the world….

Heritage DNA tests are more accurate for some groups of people than others, depending how many people with similar DNA to yours have already taken their test…. That the data sets are primarily made up of paying customers also skews demographics. If there’s only a small number of Middle Eastern DNA samples that your DNA has been matched against, it’s less likely you’ll get a strong Middle Eastern match.

I assume that these tests haven’t been as popular with people of East Asian descent, because my dad’s family is pretty clearly been in northern Korea and Manchuria for a few centuries (with some Mongolian ancestors mixed in), and I can’t imagine that the two billion people between Srednekolymsk and Singapore are that genetically similar. So presumably as more people in and from Asia take the test, that giant green blob will get smaller.

And indeed, it turns out, as the databases grow, the places they tell you you’re from change:

Another anecdote that stuck with me came from my friend Alexis Madrigal. Initially, he said, his Mexican family came up as Arab North African, which was surprising. As 23andMe refined its test and its data set grew, it also refined the results: Now, he was descended from Jewish people from Southern Europe. The number of Madrigals in central Spain had long led the family to suspect that their migratory path to Mexico had at some point passed through this region. As more people took the test, the picture of where his family was “from” changed. The Canadian bioethicist Timothy Caulfield shared a similar story. At first a DNA test revealed he was entirely Irish, but as the data set changed, he gradually became less Irish.

It’s an interesting piece, and it raises some good questions about why we even bother with this kind of thing in, as she puts it, “in a world where people have been mixing and matching and getting it on since the beginning of human history.”

Trump has “governed explicitly as a president for white Americans and the racial reactionaries among them”

Jamelle Bouie on “The lasting damage of Donald Trump’s bigotry” argues that in his first year as president, Donald Trump has abandoned his populist and reformist agenda, but held true to his promises to enact policies simmered in racial grievance:

Trump promised generous health care reform. Instead, he delivered a monthslong effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and end a Medicaid expansion that brought insurance and health services to millions of people, many of them his supporters in states like Kentucky and West Virginia. He promised to bring in the “best people” to staff his administration and—upon taking office—promptly staffed his White House and the larger bureaucracy with a cadre of sycophants, opportunists, and ideologues hostile to the missions and values of the departments they lead. Trump promised tax reform that wouldn’t benefit the rich and delivered just the opposite. And, most famously, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” and wash corruption from Washington. What that has meant, in practice, is an open effort to enrich himself and his family at the expense of taxpayers, directing public funds to his private clubs and resorts.

But there’s another way to read Trump’s promise—not as a commitment to economic populism but as a statement of racial solidarity. Far from acting as a president for all Americans, he’s governed explicitly as a president for white Americans and the racial reactionaries among them. He’s spoken to their fear and fanned their anger, making his office a rallying point for those who see decline in multiracial democracy and his administration a tool for those who would turn the clock back on racial progress. If those Americans are the “forgotten men and women” of President Trump’s inaugural address, then he’s been a man of his word. That simmering pursuit of racial grievance has been its defining characteristic and threatens to be its most enduring achievement.

I would add one thing. Ever since the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, it’s seemed to me that Trump has been halting in his criticism of such people because he can’t give up their adulation of him. He can back away from them, criticize their actions, and say that American is bigger than them; yet so long as there’s a sliver that can be interpreted as praise, they’ll stick by him. For someone who needs attention and praise and the spotlight, and yet also needs to lash out and subjugate people, they’re the perfect audience. He’ll never leave them, and they’ll never leave him.

Book sales and “the slow death of the literary novel”

The New Statesman has a piece on “The slow death of the literary novel,” and how lower advances and royalties are making it harder for authors to make a living.

a dramatic report published by Arts Council England (ACE) in December has raised the spectre of the highbrow novelist as an endangered species – and started a combative debate about how, if at all, writers should be funded.
The study claims falling book prices, sales and advances mean that literary authors are struggling more than ever to make a living from their fiction. In today’s market, selling 3,000 copies of your novel is not unrespectable – but factor in the average hardback price of £10.12 and the retailer’s 50 per cent cut, and just £15,000 remains to share between publisher, agent and author. No wonder that the percentage of authors earning a full-time living solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2013….
It is the “midlist” authors – once supported by publishers despite modest sales – who are most vulnerable, especially when it comes to advances. Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, tells me of a writer who had an advance of £60,000 for her last book and is being offered £6,000 for her new one – a not unrepresentative slump.

How to weaponize editing: The Daily Stormer’s style guide

Ashley Feinberg has a scary but great piece dissecting the Daily Stormer’s style guide.

It’s more than a style guide for writing internet-friendly neo-Nazi prose; it’s a playbook for the alt-right…. The site’s stylistic decisions, the subjects it covers, the specific racial slurs it employs — all are consciously chosen for the purpose of furthering The Daily Stormer’s ultimate goal, which, according to the style guide itself, is “to spread the message of nationalism and anti-Semitism to the masses.” Everything is deliberate.

The guide is particularly interested in ways to lend the site’s hyperbolic racial invective a facade of credibility and good faith. Or at the very least, in how to confuse its readers to the point where they can’t tell the difference. The Daily Stormer, for instance, uses block quotes for much the same reason Richard Spencer stuffs himself into vests…: it allows writers to borrow some of mainstream media’s air of scrupulousness and good hygiene.

I know that manipulation is nothing new– rhetoric and music were seen by ancient Greek philosophers as tools for manipulating the passions of the unwise– but I think we’re living in a Cambrian explosion for manipulation, thanks to two trends: the weaponization of behavioral economics or persuasive technologies, A/B experiments that aim to fine-tune products to suit our preferences, and technologies technologies that behave like car salesmen– adjusting their sales pitches based on our previous purchases and current behavior; and the growing use of these strategies for ends that are, at best, sketchy. When Facebook encourages you to spend time with friends on Facebook so they can track your social graph and sell it to advertisers; when games are designed to have no clear end-point so you feel like you’re abandoning your friends if you stop playing; when the Daily Stormer uses humor and block quotes in an effort to normalize virulent anti-Semitism; it becomes easy to assume that these kinds of efforts are lurking in the background of every interaction or communication.

The story of Max, the library cat

The Washington Post as the low-down on “Max, the cat who lost the library but won the Internet:”

Max spent time on the streets as a young cat, so he learned to roam early on. About a year ago, he was adopted at a shelter by Connie Lipton, who lives across a small street from Macalester, where Lipton’s husband teaches religious studies. Max made very clear that he wanted to continue roaming, Lipton said in an interview Wednesday, so they let him. And roam he did, making friends across campus. Last summer, Max hung out at a reunion event that featured live music and a large tent. He enjoyed spending time on a vast green where students play Frisbee. He frequented student housing down the street, entered the science building more than once, and stopped by the Spanish and Portuguese department….

But when Max began entering the library, zipping by students whose arms were loaded with books, “he started getting in trouble,” Lipton said.

“I recommend never taking off one’s pants at work, for any reason whatsoever”

Daniel Drezner, riffing on a hilarious article in which Sebastian Gorka explains why he never leaves the house without two guns, a one-handed tourniquet, and a pocket Constitution, describes a real public intellectual’s everyday carry. At the top of the list?

Pants. This being 2017, I feel it is important to point out how useful a nice pair of pants are to my everyday life. There is nothing like a functional, aesthetically appropriate set of trousers that are kept on for the entire work day. The great thing about men’s pants is that they have pockets that can carry almost all of my EDC. I recommend never taking off one’s pants at work, for any reason whatsoever. I highly recommend keeping those trousers on whenever one has to invite a colleague into one’s office.

For more on the Gorka article, check out this critique in Task and Purpose. (When I read the article it sounded like he only carried one gun, and toggled between his two favorites. Though it was hard to tell.)

“one of the key markers of the class divide is confidence”

Rebecca Nicholson writes in The Guardian about social mobility in the UK:

I was born into a working-class family in north Lincolnshire…. I was the first in my family to get A-levels, and then the first to go to university…. [At Oxford] I learned that one of the key markers of the class divide is confidence – if you’re born into an advantaged background, confidence practically comes home with you from the hospital; otherwise, you have to learn it as carefully as you would a musical instrument.

I’ve been interested in the question of why lots of history’s greatest social reformers, saints, and other religious and social leaders come from backgrounds that were somewhere between privileged and princely; and I think that this kind of confidence is one of the keys. Nicholson puts her finger on the way privilege makes confidence– confidence in one’s self, in the fairness or easiness of the world, and in a belief that one can change it for the better– simply part of one’s character and inheritance, rather than something you have to struggle to claim.

Watching Carter Page tumble down Uncanny Valley

Rick Wilson on The Strange Pleasure of Seeing Carter Page Set Himself on Fire:

[Carter Page] gives off the creepy Uncanny Valley vibe of a rogue, possibly murderous android or of a man with a too-extensive knowledge of human taxidermy and a soundproofed van.

I do sometimes wonder if he escaped from a lab in Mountain View and refuses to respond to his firmware updates. Or maybe he’s hoping for a dramatic exit:

“Trump is simply and unceasingly angry on their behalf”

Another journalist reports from Trump country about the president’s popularity and its origins:

Johnstown voters do not intend to hold the president accountable for the nonnegotiable pledges he made to them. It’s not that the people who made Trump president have generously moved the goalposts for him. It’s that they have eliminated the goalposts altogether.

This reality ought to get the attention of anyone who thinks they will win in 2018 or 2020 by running against Trump’s record. His supporters here, it turns out, are energized by his bombast and his animus more than any actual accomplishments. For them, it’s evidently not what he’s doing so much as it is the people he’s fighting. Trump is simply and unceasingly angry on their behalf….

So many people in so many other areas of the country watch with dismay and existential alarm Trump’s Twitter hijinks, his petty feuds, his penchant for butting into areas where the president has no explicit, policy-relevant role. All of that only animates his supporters here. For them, Trump is their megaphone. He is the scriptwriter. He is a singularly effective, intuitive creator of a limitless loop of grievance and discontent that keeps them in absolute lockstep.

Then there are gems like this:

“Everybody I talk to,” he said, “realizes it’s not Trump who’s dragging his feet. Trump’s probably the most diligent, hardest-working president we’ve ever had in our lifetimes. It’s not like he sleeps in till noon and goes golfing every weekend, like the last president did.”…

If Obama, I asked, is the antichrist—whose arrival is said to precede the second coming of Christ—what would that make Trump?

“The savior?” Del Signore suggested.

“Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You”

Lindy West admits that “Yes, This Is a Witch Hunt. I’m a Witch and I’m Hunting You.” It’s a terrific piece:

When Allen and other men warn of “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere” what they mean is an atmosphere in which they’re expected to comport themselves with the care, consideration and fear of consequences that the rest of us call basic professionalism and respect for shared humanity. On some level, to some men — and you can call me a hysteric but I am done mincing words on this — there is no injustice quite so unnaturally, viscerally grotesque as a white man being fired….

In a just system, Weinstein would have faced career-ruining social and professional consequences the first time he changed into a bathrobe and begged a horrified woman for a massage. In a just system, the abuse wouldn’t have stayed an open secret for decades while he was left free to chew through generation after generation of starlets. Weinstein’s life, like Cosby’s, isn’t the story of some tragic, pitiable downfall. It’s the story of someone who got away with it.

The witches are coming, but not for your life. We’re coming for your legacy. The cost of being Harvey Weinstein is not getting to be Harvey Weinstein anymore. We don’t have the justice system on our side; we don’t have institutional power; we don’t have millions of dollars or the presidency; but we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them. Happy Halloween.

I look forward to the day when great writers don’t have to spend time writing about things like this (I wish I could write as well as her), but this is the world we live in.

Older posts

© 2018 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑