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HLG Notebook | February 2016

1. College Pranks

Another spectacular academic hoax. Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College, tells how he submitted a phony, meaningless abstract to a major international sociology conference. Spoiler: his paper, “On the Absence of Absences,” was accepted:

My paper had no point at all. It was filled entirely with non-sequiturs. I didn’t even bother to mention anything about “the absence of absences,” because I had no idea what it meant and would have thus revealed my ignorance of the panel’s organizing theme.

Even better: the titles of the real papers that were accepted for the conference.

2. Energized

The release of the Gates Foundation’s annual report has become an intellectual policy event – and the high-order bid for all non-profit communication. The latest, “Two Superpowers We Wish We Had,” will draw praise for its visually striking artistry. But Bill Gates’s message on energy is the real contribution:

Many people, and you may be one of them, are also changing their lifestyles to conserve energy. They’re biking and carpooling to save gas, turning down the heat a couple degrees, adding insulation to their homes. All of these efforts help cut down on energy use. Unfortunately, they don’t get us to zero. In fact, most scientists agree that by 2050 we’ll be using 50 percent more energy than we do today.

At a time when most annual reports read like Hallmark cards, Gates avoids clichés, makes provocative arguments, and even tucks in links to rigorously argued scientific proofs, like this one, which dispels the idea that we can store the energy we need if only we could create a large enough battery.

3. Game of Phones

All of the sudden, there’s a surfeit of books and articles claiming we’re addicted to phones and social media. What took so long? In The New York Review of Books, Jacob Weisberg asks the essential question:

What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines?… In a 2015 Pew survey, 70 percent of respondents said their phones made them feel freer, while 30 percent said they felt like a leash. Nearly half of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds said they used their phones to “avoid others around you.”

Meanwhile, anyone over the age of 20 should read Ben Rosen’s priceless “Teenagers Are Much Better At Snapchat Than You“, in which Rosen is schooled by his 13-year-old sister in the ways of the world.

4. Social Media Has Crashed National Politics

If you don’t mind an article written in the form of 50 separate tweets, Clay Shirky offers this assessment on how social media’s “post-web world” is shaping national political campaigns:

The new scale Facebook introduces into politics is this: all registered American voters, ~150M people, are now a *medium-sized* group. ‘All voters’ used to be a big number. Now it’s <10% of FB’s audience. Reaching & persuading even a fraction of the electorate used to be so daunting that only two national orgs could do it. Now dozens can.

5. Apple vs FBI: The Only Two Articles You Need

Who is the real defender of freedom, Apple or the FBI? Here are two of the best articles to help you pick a side of the debate. In the unambiguously titled, “Cut the Crap Apple and Open Syed Farook’s Phone,” Gabriel Malor knocks down the major objections to the government’s case:

[One] objection is that the court’s order is a step down a slippery slope to pervasive and secret government surveillance of our electronic devices. This is lingering fear from the National Security Agency scandal projected onto a transparent and lawful process. The court’s order was issued publicly, is now being debated publicly, and, as noted above, was only made possible because of a previously issued warrant.

Tech Crunch, on the other hand, makes the “dangerous precedent” case:

The FBI is asking Apple to crack its own safe. It doesn’t matter how good the locks are if you modify them to be weak after installing them. And once the precedent is set then the opportunity is there for similar requests to be made of all billion or so active iOS devices.

6. The Looming Drone of Oscar Speeches

Tim Robey of The Telegraph provides a well-timed primer on the worst-ever Oscar acceptance speeches. He also tells of a new rule by the Academy aimed at saving broadcast time: all Oscar nominees must submit a list of the people they want to thank, so all names can be scrolled on the screen, much like a hurricane warning. Be sure not to miss Robey’s disdain for Hollywood pretension. Here he is on Tom Hanks after winning Best Actor for Philadelphia:

Anyone who thought Philadelphia was a wee bit overwritten needs to get a load of Tom Hanks’s first Best Actor speech, which makes the film’s script sound like Hemingway.

Better advice: go watch Peter O’Toole’s 2003 acceptance speech for his Lifetime Achievement award. Likely the most elegant two minutes in Oscar history.