Detrended

Trying to ask the right questions.

I spent a fair bit of time the other week moving my daily newsletter, Brekky Wrap, from Ghost to Eleventy (if you haven’t signed up, do it — it’s free! Nothing to lose, right?). I actually hadn’t heard of Eleventy before (although I’ve previously used other static generators, Jekyll and Pelican) and I have to say… I’m impressed!

Why?

I really like Ghost. It’s fast, the editor is fantastic and it has built-in member and newsletter management. Great — until you want to customise anything.

Want to send a newsletter? You have to use Mailgun, which for whatever reason gets blocked by my hotmail subscribers (not so MailerLite!).

Want to create a referral programme? Only FirstPromoter is supported, which is excessive for free newsletters.

Want to change the look of your emails? Time to manually edit core files after Every. Single. Update.

Enter Eleventy.

The move

Huge props go to David Neal, who wrote a very helpful script for moving posts over from Ghost to Eleventy. The only issue I had was all the dates were off by a day, presumably because I’m in Australia (UTC+0800) and every Brekky Wrap is delivered in the morning at around 9:00pm UTC the day before. I couldn’t think of an easy way to resolve that other than individually editing every post (100+), so that’s what I did — it took me 12 minutes. 🤷‍♂️

Porting my theme was relatively straightforward. Ghost uses Handlebars, which is supported by Eleventy. However, I switched over to Nunjucks purely because the Eleventy documentation and most of the articles I found appeared to be written in it.

The only issue I had was with the .eleventy.js file (which you have to manually create, by the way). The documentation isn’t that clear for plebs like me and I think I went wrong a few times trying to write some Liquid code in there instead of using Nunjucks. In the end I added four customisations, most of which are straight from the official “Quick Tips” documentation:

  • Minify and inline CSS.
  • Passthrough my images.
  • Create an RSS feed.
  • Make post dates readable (this was the most challenging!).

Hosting

Ghost is a fairly lightweight CMS but it still requires a server to store all the files and the SQLite database. You then have to install all the updates in a timely manner and make sure to back it up regularly.

Not so Eleventy, which as a static generator means all I have to do is draft the content locally, build my site with a single command (npx @11ty/eleventy), commit it to GitHub and then wait a moment for Netlify to serve it.

I’m still hosting this blog and a Pleroma instance on my server but the less software I have to maintain, secure and update, the better.

For those interested, here’s my .eleventy.js file:

Read more...

How else can you reconcile these views?

“Facebook said Saturday evening that an article raising concerns that the coronavirus vaccine could lead to death was the top performing link in the United States on its platform from January through March of this year, acknowledging the widespread reach of such material for the first time.

It also said another site that pushed covid-19 misinformation was also among the top 20 most visited pages on the platform.”

And:

“Facebook earlier this year faced a torrent of criticism from President Biden and others who have alleged that the company has allowed misinformation about coronavirus vaccines to flourish. White House officials have alleged that many Americans are reluctant to take the coronavirus vaccine, in part, because of false or misleading information they have read on social media services, including Facebook.”

You might think the controversial popular link cited above goes to Breitbart or something. Nope, it’s the Chicago Tribune. When I plugged the title (“A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after getting a COVID-19 vaccine”) into Google, these were the other outlets also reporting on the story:

  • The New York Times
  • USAToday
  • CBS
  • ABC

If it’s so bad to have a link to that content on Facebook… where’s the outrage that it was also covered prominently by every mainstream media outlet? This is fake news — certain people just love to hate on Facebook.

The AFR ran an article today warning about the hidden dangers of inflation, namely that recent events point to “a future in which we need to worry more about inflation than in recent years”. It contained the following, which is far more concerning than the author realises:

“More widely, the consensus among policymakers is also grounded on some firm evidence of temporary problems in the global economy. A significant part of the recent jump in prices has come from bottlenecks in global supply chains, especially in semiconductors.

Raising the price of imported goods and domestic manufactured products, this surge in costs will bring new investment in manufacturing plants and, eventually, its own cure. Increased spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 is already moderating the recovery in household spending.”

Rising productive investment does indeed “cure” inflation — the number of goods will increase relative to the amount of dollars chasing them — but it also sows the seeds of the next recession.

That’s because demand has been artificially stimulated, and not sustainably so. If supply increases at the same time as demand subsides (or simply stops growing) due to a fading global fiscal and monetary stimulus impulse, many of those so-called inflation-curing investments in manufacturing plants will prove unprofitable.

Businesses will fail, debt will be defaulted upon, many of the employees hired to expand production will be laid off and a chain reaction of resource reallocation could very well sink the economy into a recession.

The US National Institutes of Health spent just 1.8% of its 2020 budget on COVID-19 clinical research. Shameful, but not unexpected.

I said this many times during the pandemic referring to various health decisions (or non-decisions, as they often were). But I suspect you would often have got better results by asking even a small sample of random people on what they thought were the most pressing issues, rather than using the status quo preserving political/bureaucratic decision making process. Otherwise known as the pub test.

HT: Tyler Cowen.

…you might be doing something against your users’ interest. Here’s Facebook’s Will Cathcart, Facebook’s head of WhatsApp:

“This is an Apple built and operated surveillance system that could very easily be used to scan private content for anything they or a government decides it wants to control. Countries where iPhones are sold will have different definitions on what is acceptable.

Can this scanning software running on your phone be error proof? Researchers have not been allowed to find out. Why not? How will we know how often mistakes are violating people’s privacy?”

Remember the promotion, “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.”? That lasted a grand total of two years. And yes, Facebook has a vested interest in slagging Apple. But it’s not alone — the condemnation of Apple has been universal in the privacy space:

“We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again now: it’s impossible to build a client-side scanning system that can only be used for sexually explicit images sent or received by children. As a consequence, even a well-intentioned effort to build such a system will break key promises of the messenger’s encryption itself and open the door to broader abuses.”

Here’s a good comment on Twitter:

This isn’t really a “slippery slope” — it’s a single heavily greased step. You need one order with a gag attached saying “you’re required to add this list of hashes” & your carefully crafted child protection system becomes an all-purpose population-scale search tool.

Hopefully Apple reverses its plan. If not, a quarter of the world’s phones are about to get a lot less secure.

This is great:

“I want to stress that, despite my feelings about the FDA, I don’t think individual FDA bureaucrats, or even necessarily the FDA director, consistently make stupid mistakes. I think that given their mandate – approve drugs that definitely work, reject ones that are unsafe/ineffective, expect people to freak out and demand your head if any unsafe/ineffective drug gets through, nobody will at all no matter how many lifesaving treatments you delay or stifle outright…

…we’re open to paying limitless costs, as long as it lets us avoid a very specific kind of scandal which the media will turn into 24-7 humiliation of whoever let it happen. If I were a politician operating under these constraints, I’m not sure I could do any better.”

You could apply the same to any bureaucracy. I know from personal experience that the incentive structure within bureaucracies can create perverse outcomes, even in less media-obsessed departments. Individual risk aversion (i.e. self preservation) tends to dominate all else.

The Financial Times ran a good opinion piece on central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) last week, arguing that they “are a solution looking for a problem”.

For those out of the loop, CBDCs have been all the rage since China’s central bank announced it was testing the E-Yuan in the real world, with the aim of having it operational by the Beijing winter Olympics in February 2022. The announcement was met with calls from influential authors such as Niall Ferguson and Martin Wolf for central banks in countries such as the United States to introduce their own CBDCs as soon as possible, or risk the “rise of an alternative financial system that essentially bypasses the Federal Reserve and potentially also the U.S. Treasury”.

However the authors, Stephen Cecchetti and Kim Schoenholtz, argue that such fears are misguided. Their reasoning is threefold —

  • one, “the public and private sectors are already moving to provide cheaper, faster, more reliable, and more accessible systems that operate both within and across borders”;
  • two, CBDCs would risk “disintermediation, currency substitution, and a greater role for the state in credit allocation”; and
  • three, “using CBDC means everything we do becomes traceable”.

Last month the RBA told the committee on Australia as a Technology and Financial Centre that its report on wholesale market use of CBDCs was close to being finalised, and that it was “continuing to closely monitor the case for a retail CBDC and is engaging with some other central banks on possible use cases, including for cross-border payments”.

While RBA governor Philip Lowe has previously said Australia’s central bank “does not consider that a policy case has yet emerged for issuing a CBDC”, if every other central bank jumps off the CBDC bridge, you can be sure the RBA will follow. If that looks like it might happen, the issues highlighted above will warrant serious debate.

There was a key departure from the FTC last week, with former Obama-era antitrust official and University of California-Berkeley economist Carl Shapiro walking away:

“The lead economics expert in the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust suit against Facebook has parted ways with the agency, two individuals familiar with the case said — adding yet another impediment to the regulator’s largest court fight.

The FTC is now looking for a new expert, just three weeks before the agency must decide whether to file the new version of the Facebook lawsuit after a D.C.-based judge threw it out last month.” … Shapiro has been critical of [FTC Chair] Khan’s approach to antitrust, particularly her view that enforcers focus too heavily on a so-called consumer welfare standard that emphasizes price as the main sign of a lack of competition.”

As I’ve said before, Khan — an unelected political appointee — wants to rewrite the law to one where proving consumer harm is no longer a requirement of antitrust, opening it up to be used as a cudgel to beat down any company not in favour with the administration.

One of the biggest (of many) failures during this pandemic surely has to be public officials — experts, if you will — systematically undermining their own advice to the point where only those with wearing political blinders can take them seriously in anything related to their… expertise. Take Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to both Trump and now Biden:

“Additional evidence suggests that… Fauci’s reversal, which came at a time of political polarization, contributed to the evolution of masks from a basic, precautionary mitigation strategy to a badge of political allegiance. … Such high-profile mixed messages in a short time frame, without substantive new data to justify the change, generated confusion and a backlash from politicians, other experts, and the general public.”

In Australia, our government’s ‘expert’ panel of immunisation advisors, ATAGI, has been farcical in its constant shifting of the goalposts to the point where the public’s confidence in a perfectly good vaccine is so low that half of Australia is imprisoned in a lockdown while more than 3 million vaccine doses sit unused.

I’m not optimistic that a reliance on ‘experts’ will wane with the pandemic. Politicians love being able to deflect “to the best available advice”, in an attempt to avoid accountability for their decisions. This isn’t new — many consultancies exist purely to ex post facto justify a political decision by reverse-engineering a report, which the politician can hold up and call “independent, expert advice”.

Then there’s the experts themselves, who clearly love the attention — Fauci will no doubt profit handsomely from this crisis, already capitalising on his newfound fame to publish a short book.

It’s a vicious cycle.

“Shares of Chinese companies listed in the US have seen their biggest two-day fall since the 2008 financial crisis.”

China’s government is coming down hard not just on Big Tech (which has been ongoing for several months) but also Big Education. Xi Jinping is clearly trying to restore some kind of Marxist, anti-profit anti-speculation mantra and he’s doing it by hitting China’s largest companies.

But Marxism isn’t confined to China as Joe Biden clearly has a taste for it too, with his albeit slower push to break up US Big Tech. I bet he wishes he had the authority of Xi Jinping — then he wouldn’t have to mess around appointing antitrust zealots to lead agencies, putting a coherent consumer welfare argument to a judge, and so on.

But when you tear back the institutional protections that exist in the US, there isn’t much difference between Biden and Xi: both are determined to split up their respective country’s most productive firms to score cheap ideological points, consumers be damned.