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How To Read The Entire Internet

Patrick Appel —  Feb 6 2015 @ 12:30pm
by Patrick Appel

Keely Blogging With Me

“Send me five links a day” was the original job Andrew gave me. Now, in the more than seven years since then, I have almost certainly read more than a million blog posts. It is entirely possible, during that time, that I have read more posts than anyone else on the planet.

Andrew liked to call interns his “leaf cutter ants” because they would go out into the blogosphere, locate Dish-worthy content, and send it to him for posting. When I began working for the Dish, discovering the most intelligent voices online was an exhausting but manageable task. Those five-link memos quickly swelled into 50-link ones. In those days, you could keep on top of the major online conversations by tracking a couple hundred blogs. Within a few years, I was tracking more than a thousand.

As the velocity of the online conversation quickened, my system for digesting it had to become more sophisticated. But, no matter how efficient I got, the torrent was far too great for any one person. And, beyond reading, I needed to find time to write as many as 15 posts a day, schedule others’ drafts, manage the junior staff, edit the occasional Deep Dish piece, and run the business-side of the Dish. Given those realities, a primary project of mine these past years has been figuring out how to collectively read and curate the web.

So I ditched my personal RSS account and set up a group account for the entire staff. The number of blogs we follow grew to over three thousand. I’d send interns batches of 40 or 50 links to evaluate. They would send me memos back. I’d rip apart and recombine those memos into a master memo we dubbed the “Frankenmemo.” After Jonah joined the Dish, we began reading the internet in shifts (Jessie and Matt constructed their own process for the weekend). Later, Chas and I dreamt up and built Dish Prep, our staff-only website that has served as a clearinghouse for identifying and assigning the stories you see published on the Dish. Our unofficial motto eventually became “we read internet so you don’t have to.”

Though I’m hugely proud of the reading system we created, we never fully lived up to that slogan. The way we read, however impressive, is only a the barest outline of the vision in my head. The same is true of the Dish as a whole. We had the potential to become the place for intelligent conversation online. But Andrew, Chris, and I burned out before reaching that promised land. My exhaustion is nearly equal to Andrew’s own (reading a million blog posts will do that to you). And, to survive Andrew’s departure, the Dish would have needed years, not days, to adapt. It was too heavy a lift – for right now. But our goals live on.

And we have demonstrated beyond doubt that our economic model for online journalism is viable. What makes shutting down so difficult is we have done the nearly impossible and created an independent reader-supported media company that was deeply in the black for its two years of existence. Parts of that economic model can and should be applied elsewhere at a grander scale. The same goes for most of our editorial model. My plan going forward is to figure out how to accomplish that end. But my first order of business is to recover from seven years of sleep deprivation. After that, I’ll search for a place where I can apply all of the editorial, business, and managerial skills I’ve honed at the Dish. If you have an idea where that might be, or if you simply want to talk, you can still contact me at

The Dish may be dying, but the mission of the Dish will continue in the future work of this brilliant team. If you want to contact any of them, please email It has been my great honor to have worked with them, and for you, for the better part of a decade.

Until we meet again …

(Photo: How Keely, my chihuahua-terrier mix, tells me it’s time to stop blogging for the day.)

How Long Will We Be In Iraq?

Patrick Appel —  Aug 9 2014 @ 3:28pm

It could be awhile:

President Barack Obama said Saturday he doesn’t have an end date in mind for the end of American strikes targeting Islamic militants in Iraq or airdrops supporting stranded Iraqis fleeing those militants. “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” said Obama told reporters before departing Washington for a family vacation. “This is going to take some time.”

If that’s true, Jack Goldsmith urges Obama to get approval from Congress:

If the President plans to engage in military operations in Iraq for “months” (and almost certainly longer) in an effort to address the militant threat posed over the long term there, then the case for doing so in reliance solely on his inherent Article II self-defense power just grew weaker, legally and especially politically, and the case for seeking authorization from Congress for the military strikes just grew stronger.  As I noted yesterday, the case for seeking congressional authorization in this context was made forcefully and persuasively less than a year ago by President Obama himself, when he explained why he was seeking congressional authorization prior to military strikes in Syria.  (The Syrian strikes were supposedly going to be “limited in duration and scope,” unlike the longer term strikes now planned for Iraq.)

Larison sighs:

As we know from previous interventions, the initial estimates of how long they will last and what they will cost are frequently wrong. If the administration expects that this “project” will last several months, it will most likely continue for a lot longer than that, and it will end up being a larger commitment that originally advertised.

Beauchamp unpacks Obama’s speech:

“Ultimately, there’s not going to be an American military solution to this problem,” President Obama said in his press conference on the Iraq crisis on Saturday. “There’s going to have to be an Iraqi solution.” This is the key line to understand if you want to grasp the administration’s approach to Iraq — and why the goals of the US military campaign are more narrow than you might think. …

If the United States can beat ISIS back in Kurdistan, why not elsewhere? That line about an Iraqi solution is the administration’s answer. In fact, the Obama administration has been consistent on this question since June, when ISIS first took control of big chunks of Iraq. They see ISIS as, at its heart, a political problem — one that can’t be solved solely with force. But the march on Kurdistan and the siege on Sinjar are narrow military problems, and thus merit military solutions. This distinction between military and political problems is at the heart of the Obama administration’s thinking on Iraq.

Obama further explained his thinking in an interview with Tom Friedman:

“I do think the Kurds used that time that was given by our troop sacrifices in Iraq,” Obama added. “They used that time well, and the Kurdish region is functional the way we would like to see. It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it’s important to make sure that that space is protected, but, more broadly, what I’ve indicated is that I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force. I don’t want to get in the business for that matter of being the Kurdish air force, in the absence of a commitment of the people on the ground to get their act together and do what’s necessary politically to start protecting themselves and to push back against ISIL.”

Why Russia Wants A Cease-Fire

Patrick Appel —  Jul 22 2014 @ 12:20pm

It’s a tactical move Russia has used before:

Putin supports a cease-fire, as he has all along, because that leaves the Russian-sponsored forces in control of Ukrainian territory, a status quo that suits Russian interests. This is precisely why the Ukrainian authorities originally ended the cease-fire, and why they have continued operations even after the downing of the aircraft. They suspect that the longer the territory remains in Russian hands, the more likely it is that it will never be returned.

To see why a cease-fire works to Russia’s advantage, the Ukrainian leadership need only look to Ukraine’s western border, where a slice of its neighbor Moldova known as Transnistria has been occupied by pro-Russian forces since 1992. The conflict began when a group that did not want Moldova to secede from the Soviet Union took up arms, with extensive support from the Soviet/Russian military. A cease-fire was declared in July 1992, and the conflict has remained “frozen” ever since.

Anna Nemtsova reports that fighting in Donetsk has heated up:

Clearly, all of the statements from Moscow and Kiev about a cease-fire for the period of the investigation have been forgotten. Rebels reinforced their positions in Donetsk, bringing tanks and armored personnel carriers closer to the railway station on Panfilova Avenue. Glass was blown out of the windows of five-story buildings on Slavatskaya Street. Local radio reported that the Ukrainian military blew up railroad tracks and blocked approaches to the city.

Once again civilians paid the price of this ferocious war. Shells killed pedestrians running to try to escape into basements. A young woman’s body was lying on the dusty road by a row of garages: her head was destroyed, both of her shoes had been thrown in the air by the shock wave of the explosion and had landed a few steps away from her motionless body.

Mental Health Break

Patrick Appel —  May 26 2014 @ 4:20pm
by Patrick Appel

A beautiful, melancholy tale of life and death told through yarn:

by Patrick Appel


A biology professor writes:

While the scientific reviews of Nicholas Wade’s new book have been almost uniformly negative, your treatment of the matter seems to have missed the major point of both Wade’s book and the damning criticisms. What Wade gets wrong is not that there are genetic differences among human populations, and that you can tell where a person (or his ancestors) are from by looking at these differences (on this point he is simply correct: the geographic division of humanity into genetically diagnosable groups is not a “social construction,” but a fact of nature). Rather, Wade’s major and unsupported claim is that differences between contemporary human societies are genetic and have evolved extraordinarily quickly.

Here, for example is Jerry Coyne on the book. Allen Orr, in the New York Review of Books, has a very similar view of Wade’s book. Both Coyne and Orr are geneticists, experts in the study of species and their origins (they coauthored a book on the subject 10 years ago). While the fact of geographically-based genetic subdivision (which is what biologists mean by “race”) may drive some to apoplexy, its not news to a geneticist. It’s Wade’s “second part” that doesn’t hold up to critical analysis, and this is what knowledgeable scientific reviews have pointed out.

Wade’s application of genetics to the differences between societies is indeed the most troubling and evidence-starved part of his book. I didn’t miss it; I highlighted Coyne’s and Orr’s reviews last week. And I fully accept “the geographic division of humanity into genetically diagnosable groups.” But what’s the utility of calling those genetic divisions “race”? Having two definitions for race, one biological and one societal, is liable to make individuals think the socially constructed racial categories are exactly the same as the biological ones and lead individuals to incorrectly justify social hierarchies using biology.

The graphic at the top of this post, from Jennifer Raff’s review of Wade’s book, shows the “United States census classifications of race or color, 1890-1990.” A highlight from Raff’s takedown of A Troublesome Inheritance:

Human biological variation is real and important. I’ve studied it my entire professional career. We can see this variation most easily in physical traits and allele frequency differences between populations at extreme ends of a geographic continuum. Nobody is denying that. Let me repeat this: no one is denying that humans vary physically and genetically. All anthropologists and geneticists recognize that human differences exist. But Wade, and others who agree with him, have decided that certain patterns of variation—those which happen to support their predefined notions of what “races” must be—are more important than others.

Wade’s perspective fits with a larger pattern seen throughout history and around the world. Folk notions of what constitutes a race and how many races exist are extremely variable and culturally specific. For example, the Bible claims that all peoples of the world are descended from Noah’s three sons, mirroring the popular concept of three racial divisions (Caucasians, Africans, and Asians). On the other hand, the five-part division of races seems most “logical” to Wade. Anticipating confusion on this point he claims: “Those who assert that human races don’t exist like to point to the many, mutually inconsistent classification schemes that have recognized anywhere from 3 to 60 races. But the lack of agreement doesn’t mean that races don’t exist, only that it is a matter of judgment as to how to define them” (p. 92).

A matter of judgment. So, rather than being defined by empirical criteria, as Wade had asserted so confidently earlier in the book, it really is just a subjective judgment call. The differences between groups are so subtle and gradual that no objective lines can be drawn, so Wade draws his own on the basis of his own preconceptions.

A reader adds:

It should be mentioned that there are some reputable scientists who defend something like Wade’s conception of broad races, while being much more careful than he is to point out that these are not really discrete groups, that the number of them and boundaries between them are somewhat arbitrary.

You may have seen the recent comments by Jerry Coyne, Steven Pinker and Alan Orr—none of whom is much bothered by Wade’s assertions of race-as-reality, though they’ve all rubbished his grand, gene-based account of human history. Personally, I have yet to see any of these guys fully justify the notion of fixed, coarse racial categories vs. the much more fluid and contextual idea of populations, which exist at various levels of scale and whose definition depends entirely on what you’re interested in learning.

There is a big cultural and, some would say, ideological split between this subset of evolutionary biologists who’ve denounced the “race as social construct” idea as a “myth,” and the majority of anthropologists, who continue to hold that position.

Another reader takes issue with Charles Mills’ speech on the social construction of race:

My gripe with this clip is that it attempts to illustrate the social construction of race by still preserving fairly recent forms of “racial” categorization as its model: i.e. “whiteness” and “blackness.” Mills then goes on to take these categories, which emerged slowly between four hundred and two-hundred and fifty years ago, and transpose them onto the medieval period.

Neither Medieval Europe nor any portion of Sub-Saharan Africa during Medieval days utilized these markers “white” and “black” as social divisions. A more useful alternative universe might imagine a social order in which completely different categorization schemes emerged. For instance, we know that through the early 1700s Europeans were more likely to classify Africans by their “tribal” origins (I’ll leave aside the problematic ways in which the encounter with Europeans actually served to construct these tribal boundaries as they came to be known). As such, where slave traders captured their labor force was a more prominent marker than that labor force’s “blackness.” “Blackness” emerges as a primary marker only after several generations of intermarriage in the Americas among slaves.

So we’re better served, I would argue, imagining a system that eschewed Blackness and Whiteness as the primary dividing line altogether, and imagine a world where, say, the Iberian Moors, with the help of darker skinned Africans from both East and Sub-Saharan Africa succeeded in displacing the authority of Europeans. In such a system, there may have been a hierarchy that placed Iberian Moors at the top of the social order (perhaps because of language skills that enabled them to serve in clerical positions in dominance of fellow Europeans). And then a “racial” scheme that divided the world according to gradations of skin (or hair, or a combination of features) that privileged something akin to a mocha over various gradations of lighter and darker skin (i.e., the darker or the lighter you were, the lower your status). Or perhaps one in which blonder and redder hair became the marker for subjugation.

The point (which I don’t think Mills did a great job of emphasizing), is that there was nothing inevitable about skin color even being a social marker. For much of human history, it doesn’t appear to have been so.

Another reader adds some context on epigenetics:

Jonathan Marks is quoted as writing:

“the ways in which DNA can be modified in direct response to the environment, and those DNA modifications can be stably transmitted…”

He should clarify what he means by “stably transmitted.” In fact, epigenetic modifications are very rarely felt beyond perhaps third generation. Jerry Coyne wrote, about 3 years ago, a great commentary on how epigenetics is being hyped.

And final reader theorizes about why Wade largely ignores culture:

Apparently Wade has it in his head that culture = easy to change through an implicit logic that if it’s not hard-coded it must be infinitely and immediately mutable. Which is sheer nonsense, of course, but betrays the unscientific bias in his thinking. There’s actually no reason at all to presume that it should be easy to transfer an institution from one society to another given actual institutional behaviors usually depend on a whole accumulation of wider behaviors.

The idea that cultural institutions, which have changed radically over the centuries in those regions, are hard-coded in genes is just kooky. And it’s dangerously self-excusing and deceptive to ascribe inability to easily, in a facile fashion, transfer institutions to genetics. All this is a pity as there is a lot of learning to come from the real – but subtle – influence of genetics in framing human action. That learning is deeply distorted by primitive and fuzzy-minded thinking.

Most of all, though it’s really disappointing to see a science writer for the Times betray the fact he really has a poor grasp of science.

Previous Dish coverage of Wade’s book here.

by Patrick Appel

UI Cut Off

Ben Casselman makes clear that Congress cutting off unemployment benefits “hasn’t spurred the unemployed back to work.” He finds that “the roughly 1.3 million Americans whose benefits disappeared with the end of the program, only about a quarter had found jobs as of March, about the same success rate as when the program was still in effect”:

There has been no sudden surge of former benefits recipients into jobs. Nor have they abandoned the labor force in droves. Most have done what [Helene] Laurusevage [who lost her unemployment benefits] has done: continued looking for work, but without the lifeline that benefits provided.

For Laurusevage, the cutoff has been wrenching. Her husband’s salary, combined with the $563 a week she got in unemployment benefits — the equivalent of about $30,000 a year — was enough to make ends meet. But once her benefits expired in December, life got harder. Their savings depleted, they scraped together this month’s mortgage payment only by borrowing from David’s 79-year-old mother. They don’t know what they’ll do this month.

“We are about to go under,” Laurusevage said. “My entire savings account is gone. Everything I spent years to save is gone.”

by Patrick Appel


On Monday, a Detroit meatpacking company recalled 1.8 million pounds of beef. Susannah Locke conveys how the centralization of the meat industry amplifies the risks of widespread contamination:

Just four companies slaughter 80 percent of cattle in the United States. (The meat-packing company involved in the current recall isn’t one of those big four, however.) And three companies control half of America’s chicken, according to Christopher Leonard’s new book The Meat Racket.

That industry concentration has, in turn, led to more meat being slaughtered and processed in larger, centralized facilities — since it’s more efficient that way. And that, in turn, can make it easier for contamination to spread more widely.

Lindsay Abrams also warns of the disease-spreading potential of modern-day slaughterhouses:

As thousands of cows pass through assembly lines, a single ceiling drip, to take one example, could contaminate large swaths of them in record time, and safety inspectors can have a hard time spotting a problem amid the chaos. Then, of course, there’s the poop: “These animals are all raised on factory farms now,” Leonard explained, “where they’re much more crowded than ever before. And chickens and cows literally live their whole lives standing on beds of manure and feces.” They enter the slaughterhouse already covered in fecal matter, upping the odds of contamination once they’re killed.

It’s not just your mass-produced, factory farmed meat that’s in danger, however. A full quarter of the cows slaughtered in Ranchero’s slaughterhouse, site of the 8.7 million pound recall [in February], came from small, local and sustainable ranchers who sold “niche” products like grass-fed and organic beef. Even mid-sized slaughterhouses are closing their doors, said Leonard, meaning those ranchers didn’t have much of a choice but to rent out space from a large facility that was also processing cattle for the big four meat companies. Once there, those animals, regardless of how responsibly they were raised, became a disease risk as well.