2018 Year-Ender

Written by
Categories: Modern, Not an expert
A snowz foggy mountain range with green woods below and streetlights turning on
Nordkette, Christmas Eve, 2018

There is snow in the Nordkette, but it is the warmest year in Austria since measurements began in 1767. This winter I am spending Christmas and New Year in Innsbruck rather than burn a lot of oil and money to visit my family. I have some new books to read, friends to drink a coffee or a Glühwein with, and jobs to apply to.

This year I became Dr. Manning, saw my first journal article printed, went hiking with friends, and discovered that Assyriologists are surprisingly interested in talks about swords. Visits to this site increased about 10% despite my slower posting. The most visited pages were Learning Sumerian is Hard, How Heavy Were Doublets and Pourpoints?, my description of how the historical fencers drifted away from me, Fashion in the Age of Datini, and From Aleph Bet to Alphabet.

This fall produced the usual crop of people wondering if keeping a personal website is anachronistic. I don’t see anything wrong with being anachronistic, and as I look at the political economy of the Internet this decade, I see some things which maybe they have not considered.

A street corner between two walls of five-story buildings with overhanging turrets at the corners and lights stretched across the street
Looking north at the corner of Defreggerstraße and Pradler Straße, Christmas Day, Innsbruck 2018.

The first is that centralized social media are designed to generate what Vi Hart calls Internet Votes,. But most of the numbers they report are bogus, and focusing on maximizing them can distract from what you are actually trying to achieve. As Lucy Bellwood explains, ‘going viral’ does not always translate into money even if you have a product to sell, but spending a lot of time churning out content to satisfy algorithms costs time and energy which you can’t spend in other areas of your life. When friends or colleagues mention that they have read my blog, no field in a database increments by one. When someone without an Instagram reads Armour in Texts in their workshop, the only record is the work of their hands. That does not mean it is useless to me or to them, just to companies which make their money spying on people and propagandizing them.

The second is that behind the chatter about online mobbing, state-sponsored propaganda, and how much so-and-so made on YouTube, the dozen American companies which dominate the Internet quietly work together to prevent some kinds of work being seen or paid (I would list Amazon, Apple, Cloudflare, Facebook, Google (Alphabet), Mastercard, Paypal, and Visa to start). They typically do this by deleting certain results from searches, wording terms of use so that targeted communities will inevitably break them, shadowbanning selected accounts (making them visible to the holder, but not outside accounts), or silently demonetizing them (placing ads but stopping sharing the ad revenues with the account holder). When people run into a problem with one of these companies (say carpet dealers in Isfahan who want to accept tourists’ credit cards now that sanctions have been lifted), they usually find that all the alternatives block them too (both of the big credit card companies are American, and the United States congress had not lifted all the sanctions) and are pushed into a ghetto (paying a 30% surcharge to intermediaries in the Gulf states) or not allowed to do business at all. If you have read Never Shoot a Stampede Queen by Marc Leiren-Young, this is the same racket which landlords in Williams Lake were running on First Nations in 1985: the property listings did not say ‘no dogs or Indians’ but somehow the only apartments offered to First Nations tenants were overpriced and one fire marshal’s visit short of being condemned.

Just like any other bully, appeasing them is impossible because they simply change the rules. Journalists complain that after they invested many of their limited resources in making things which fb finds useful, that site suddenly changed a few lines of code and cut off traffic back to their home sites. Self-publishers are upset that Amazon replaced its “customers who bought X also bought Y” section (which brought them about 30-40% of their sales) with a “sponsored content related to this item” section, while a different community is upset that tumblr is using machine learning to censor content and discovering yet again that the difference between fair dealing and copyright-violating, or between clinical and smutty, comes down to subjective human judgement not a rule which can be implemented mechanically. Even Automattic, the owner of wordpress.com and wordpress.org, has been caught editing users’ posts which refer to a particular trans woman by their former name: under that former name that person had written some pretty concerning things in public, so linking both phases of their life was in the public interest. Impertinent people on the Internet call this the Vader Manoeuvre: “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” So working with these companies can bring visits and money in the short term, but is not a good choice if you want your work to be visible indefinitely. I am an ancient historian, I often read things which were published before the First World War, so the half-life of social media is too short for me.

Two positive developments this year are the spread of a federated model (with services like Mastodon which rely on many separate instances which communicate with one another and decide who to share and who to block, rather than a centralized company trying to impose one standard of behaviour on the entire world) and moves against some of the most extortionate academic publishers by large jurisdictions. I have some complicated thoughts about academic publishing, but some academic books and journals exist to keep things from being read, and physicists and mathematicians do perfectly well by posting PDFs on arXiv, a website they build and maintain and host themselves.

I miss the human-sized communities and collaborative long-term projects of the old Internet, and I am no longer sure where to share things from one community interested in the past with another. The old mailing lists, groups, forums, and websites have mostly faded. I could explore fb groups and birdsite hashtags, but those places are not right for me. If any of my gentle readers feels comfortable in those spaces, feel free to share my posts there!

Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me for five years, and for the new visitors who are discovering this site for the first time.

Tentatively I plan to post every two weeks this year with more book reviews and announcements of academic conferences, reenactment events, books my readers might be interested in, and craft workshops. Maybe I will add some more Near Eastern philology too. Budget permitting, there might be one sword to go along with the books. I also plan to move at least part of my site off WordPress and onto a hard-coded site on a server I rent. As a famous ancient inscription puts it, “death becoming a PhD is only the beginning.”

A pale-skinned hand examines an inscription scratched into black stone, from Stephen Sommers' film "The Mummy" (1999)
I have seen emails from strangers full of photos of undeciphered inscriptions appear in my inbox, but that was years ago and its not like any horrors long thought mythical have emerged to plague the earth in the meantime, have they?

17 thoughts on “2018 Year-Ender

  1. woodcrafter1372 says:

    Doctor Manning I presume ?! 🙂
    Congratulations my friend!

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You’re welcome Dan! I hope to see you in the coming year.

  2. Aaron Bell says:

    Always an interesting corner of the internet to visit, Doctor! Please keep doing what you do.

    Best wishes,
    Aaron

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You’re welcome Aaron! I check in on your blog every so often and see how the modelbuilding and solo wargaming are going.

  3. Jeff S. says:

    This American isn’t at all pleased about a handful of gigantic corporations curating what we can say online. I have a great many friends who used to pay lip service to notions of free speech but who now are quick to tell me that since it’s not the American government doing the censoring and curating, then all is well. They’re just delighted that quite a few terrible people no longer have platforms for their views, and they can’t countenance my own view, which holds that a culture of free speech—on campus, online, anywhere—is about more than enforcing a stringent, Jesuitical interpretation of our First Amendment; and that letting the devil speak necessarily safeguards our own freedom to spout off. So many writers and artists, once champions of the transgressive, the offensive, the oddballs and outliers, are now as stuffy, as self-righteous, and as censorious as fundamentalists on “The 700 Club” in the 1980s.

    My online life began in the mid-1980s, on single-line, dial-up BBSes run out of my fellow teenagers’ bedrooms. Later I graduated to text-only BBSes accessible via Telnet on the Internet, and later, to blogs. The worst aspects of those early online communities have been scaled up to monstrous proportions; the best have been smothered. I never imagined that everyone would be so quick to let large corporations control our political and personal communication—but there it is. I’ll keep maintaining my little blog as a passive protest, and I’ll be ready to read new blogs by refugees who start to find social media stifling.

    Here’s to a happy and prolific 2019!

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Thanks Jeff! I like Vi Hart’s point that systems designers are responsible for the behaviour they encourage: so even if one of these sites went to a ‘common carrier’ model, they still shape the culture which the site will have with choices like “are comments automatically enabled?” or “what do we suggest that people who have seen/read X see/read next?” These companies also rely on the lack of effective privacy laws in the United States, and that creates problems in countries like Canada or Germany where tracking people and sharing information about them is not unrestricted.

      I thought that I was signing up to rent a server, a domain, and a proprietary version of wordpress as an all-on-one package, but Automattic seems to think of it as a kind of social network where the images are stored at their domain not my domain and links to other wordpress.com and .org sites redirect to wordpress.com/read/feeds/xxxx

    2. Sean Manning says:

      Also, I don’t understand why more people who were on the Internet before 2006 don’t feel in their bones that if its on a ‘free’ site it may vanish or be mangled or be put behind a login at any moment, and that text, photos, HTML and CSS last much longer than fancy scripts or videos.

      After one web forum ‘upgraded’ itself twice, deleting text in ‘obscure’ scripts like the Greek alphabet and assigning every thread a new URL so that outside links broke, I resolved to never put anything I cared about on a system like that without backing it up on a hard drive I can touch with my hands.

  4. Pen Name says:

    I have read that in Europe the ability of Ski Resorts to secure loans depends on their elevation, with the boundary level going up higher each year as snow becomes less frequent at lower elevations.

    I am not sure that big corporations control the internet. Isn’t the surface web part that you can google only 3%, with the deep web being more than an order of magnitude larger, possibly more 100 times the size of the surface web?

    The technology behind the dark web, including Tor (The Onion Router) was funded by the USA Military to allow spies and intelligence agencies to send and receive information anonymously.

    Unfortunately they often make use of less effective techniques and keep using them despite being inherently open to compromise and loss of agents lives.

    https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/11/how-did-iran-find-cia-spies-they-googled-it/

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2018/11/03/dozens-us-spies-killed-iran-china-uncovered-cia-messaging-service/

    ‘ The government had already been warned about the hackability of the system by a defence contractor named John Reidy, whose job it was to hire human sources for the CIA in Iran. He alerted authorities in 2008. His official statement claimed that 70 percent of operations at the time may have been compromised already and that any agents using versions of the system were in danger. “The design and maintenance of the system is flawed,” he said. ‘

    1. Sean Manning says:

      In Tirol the strategy is to promote mountain biking and mountain climbing so that summer sports become more popular as winter sports less so.

      The way the system works is that if you run into problems with one of the big Internet companies you usually find that the others will block you too, OR that it has no serious competitors. Violet Blue, a SF journalist/activist/artsy person, discovered that someone had added her name to a blacklist of “things to delete from search results” which was being passed around different California software companies. Vloggers tired of letting algorithms decide whether ad revenues from a video would be passed on to them tried vidme only to see it driven out of business. Popular or controversial sites need protection against DDoS attacks and find that Cloudflare and ReCaptcha (a Google service) dominate that area, so if Cloudflare stops doing business with them they drop off the Internet.

      As long as multiple search engines exist, real websites in HTML and CSS and JPG will be findable, but not necessarily on big social networks, and your ability to make money from a website is always precarious.

      1. Pen Name says:

        Here in Canada we see more USA residents vacationing in places such as Victoria to take a break from unrelenting heat.

        High Elevation Parts of Texas such as Alpine Texas (1,364 metres) have Hoar Frost at the moment, but a few years ago am IEEE Distinguished Speaker from a Texas marvelled at how he did not have to rush from the Airport to an Air Conditioned car and could walk around the University of Victoria campus in comfort. That was in November.

      2. Pen Name says:

        I have read that science and technology in the UK before the 20th century was focused in Scotland and in particular in Edinburgh. Glacial Acetic Acid got its name because the acid would tend to form crystals below16.6 °C (61.9 °F) in unheated or poorly heated Edinburgh chemistry labs. The English had an attitude that engineers and chemists were Social Inferiors for “working with their hands” and tended to leave both professions to Scots and Germans and folks working their way up from the “lower classes”. James Watt was a Scot, after all. Some of the early work on heats of fusion and evaporation of ice and water were done to optimize the production of Scotch.

        Note that people born in Scotland are Scots. Nobody is Scotch, except by absorption from drinking it.

        1. Sean Manning says:

          With amateur astronomers and people reconstructing historical artefacts getting together on the Internet and launching micro-presses, we might be going back to the days of a lot of innovative research being conducted outside the universities.

  5. Niels Just Rasmussen says:

    Congratulations Sean on being a Doctor Manning – perhaps getting a PhD is only the beginning of death? As a lowly Master it might end up going three years earlier because of mental stagnation, because I didn’t get that PhD 🙂

    I also miss the old internet, but then we old-timers must strive to keep forums alive as best we can; or at least keep stimulating discussions running through the “antiquated” email medium as I haven’t even gotten modern enough to even create a blog.

    Always stimulating to read what you have to say!
    Cheers

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You’re welcome Niels! I hope to have time for the occasional post on MyArmoury and to add some more Near Eastern texts to Armour in Texts this year, but I have to complete paid writing and writing which counts on my CV and emails back and forth with friends too.

      1. Niels Just Rasmussen says:

        I’ll try as well to keep posting on myArmoury with archaeological news as often as times allow. Still awaiting eagerly if the newly found sword from sewer-renovation in Aalborg has an interesting inscription on the blade.
        Good luck with getting further papers published!

        1. Sean Manning says:

          Thanks! I had not heard about that sword except there. I think I will write a post on Mark Verčík’s book on Iron Age single-edged swords in spring.

          Lots of people who get a PhD end up regretting it, lots of people who get a PhD and get any kind of job you can name wonder if they should have made a different choice … the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.