News 01.03.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

News 01.03.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web
News 01.03.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web
News 01.03.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

I was only trying to order my contact lenses. A mundane task, undertaken nose-in-phone while walking somewhere, probably late, likely crossing a road, which is my preferred, death-adjacent method for all personal administration. Why look at buildings and trees, at passing humans and oncoming vehicles, when you could be getting stuff done on your phone?

Vision Direct, one of Britain’s most popular online contact-lens stores, promised I could order my lenses in a seamless and rapid process that would involve three clicks and, in its ideal form, zero interaction with another human. Which was precisely what I wanted. I interact plenty. I do not need to interact when I’m ordering contact lenses.

And yet, with a certain inevitability after such a promise, the payment didn’t go through. I clicked again. Nope. Then I went back to the beginning of the much-vaunted three-click process. Nope. Three clicks now felt more like a taunt. I’d done at least eight. After my fourth failed attempt, by which point I figured I’d paid quadruple the appropriate amount for my contact lenses and yet still wasn’t going to receive them, I felt my chest tighten. Oh please, God, no. I was going to have to call.

I never want to call. Who does? People like my mother, maybe. She thinks nothing of getting straight on the phone to a company, as if there might be a dedicated person sitting right at the source of the gas or the broadband or the mobile signal, able to resolve the problem instantly. She is stunned and infuriated when this doesn’t happen, and will pass entire mornings on the phone, waiting, explaining, being transferred, explaining again, gradually discovering new dimensions to her rage.

But most of us know the truth. Call the customer-service number and you enter the underworld. Finding the number is hard enough. Dig it out of the dankest corners of a website – because God knows they don’t want you to call either – and then you’re on hold, in the queue, listening to the music, waiting, hearing the music loop back to the beginning, waiting a bit more. By the time the agent finally gets on the phone, your irritation can’t help but spill over a little, so you apologise even though it’s not your fault, just as it’s not theirs, but then whose fault is it? And why do you never get to talk to whomever is actually to blame?

In the best-case scenario, your problem is resolved and you will probably have been a little curt with someone who doesn’t deserve it. The worst-case scenario – interminable waiting and lack of resolution – is a day-ruiner. Recently, a friend told me she’d actually cried on the phone to her broadband company. The agent tried to make her feel better. “It’s only broadband!” But it’s not only broadband, is it? It’s the distinct sensation of life slipping between your fingers, the feeling that you are lost in a dehumanised process enacted by a giant machine which doesn’t care about either its customers or its employees. It is automated hell. Still, the customer-service industry now believes it has hit on a technological solution that will lead us serenely out of the labyrinth. Or so they say.

Read the rest of this article at: 1843 Magazine

If you read the recently unsealed materials from the federal antitrust lawsuit against Amazon, you’ll see why the company wanted to keep them under wraps. According to the unredacted notes from one meeting, Jeff Bezos directed his team to stuff more ads into search results, even if it meant accepting more ads internally categorized as irrelevant to what users were looking for. Other quoted documents reveal the company working to conceal a mysterious price-hiking algorithm, in part because “of increased media focus.” Similarly unflattering nuggets abound.

But here’s something you won’t find in those materials, because it was deemed too sensitive to unredact: precisely how Amazon makes its money. Nearly 30 years after the company was founded, we still don’t really know. Amazon has long cultivated the impression that it operates its shopping platform at razor-thin margins, relying instead on its cloud division, Amazon Web Services (AWS), for much of its profit. And yet the Federal Trade Commission’s lawsuit contends that Amazon’s e-commerce business is, in fact, “enormously profitable.” The resolution to this dispute is likely to figure heavily in whether the judge finds that Amazon is merely a benevolent retail giant or a destructive monopoly. And regardless of what happens in the Amazon case, the fact that large corporations have been able to keep such basic information private helps explain why policy makers, journalists, and the public were so slow to recognize the growing problem of monopolization in America.

Much has been written about how the economy became dominated by an ever-shrinking number of corporate titans, and about the threats this poses to people, local communities, and democracy itself. The phenomenon is not limited to Big Tech; it’s everywhere you look, including in food, health care, airlines, and live events. The leading cause has been the systematic weakening of antitrust enforcement and the appointment of monopoly-friendly judges to the federal bench since the 1980s. But, as the Amazon case suggests, another important, underappreciated factor has also been at work: a staggering lack of transparency. One reason that today’s juggernauts have managed to get so dominant is that they have been able to conduct much of their business in the shadows.

Read the rest of this article at: The Atlantic

News 01.03.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

Are you an “ISFP” like Bob Dylan and Rihanna or an “ENTJ” like Bill Gates and Margaret Thatcher? Perhaps you’re an “INTP” like Albert Einstein and Tina Fey? If you are one of tens of millions of people who have taken a Myers-Briggs personality test—a staple of business schools and online quizzes—you know the answer. But are these personality categories meaningful or just a bunch of nonsense?

Developed during World War II, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, as it is formally known, or MBTI, is likely the most popular personality test in the world. It purports to break the populace down into 16 categories based on four personality dimensions: extraversion (E) or introversion (I), which measures whether you get energy from outwardly focused action like socializing or from inwardly focused activities like quiet reflection; intuition (N) or sensing (S), which measures how much you see big picture patterns rather than focusing on sensory information from direct experience; thinking (T) or feeling (F), which measures whether you make decisions using logic rather than by focusing on feelings; and judging (J) or perceiving (P), which measures your preference for structure rather than spontaneity.

Read the rest of this article at: American Scientific

News 01.03.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

IN FEBRUARY OF LAST YEAR, Donggang Jinhui Foodstuff, a seafood-processing company in Dandong, China, threw a party. It had been a successful year: a new plant had opened, and the company had doubled the amount of squid that it exported to the United States. The party, according to videos posted on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, featured singers, instrumentalists, dancers, fireworks, and strobe lights. One aspect of the company’s success seems to have been its use of North Korean workers, who are sent by their government to work in Chinese factories, in conditions of captivity, to earn money for the state. A seafood trader who does business with Jinhui recently estimated that it employed between fifty and seventy North Koreans. Videos posted by a company representative show machines labelled in Korean, and workers with North Korean accents explaining how to clean squid. At the party, the company played songs that are popular in Pyongyang, including “People Bring Glory to Our Party” (written by North Korea’s 1989 poet laureate) and “We Will Go to Mt. Paektu” (a reference to the widely mythologized birthplace of Kim Jong Il). Performers wore North Korean colors, and the country’s flag billowed behind them; in the audience, dozens of workers held miniature flags.

Drone footage played at the event showed off Jinhui’s twenty-one-acre, fenced-in compound, which has processing and cold-storage facilities and what appears to be a seven-floor dormitory for workers. The company touted a wide array of Western certifications from organizations that claim to check workplaces for labor violations, including the use of North Korean workers. When videos of the party were posted online, a commenter—presumably befuddled, because using these workers violates U.N. sanctions—asked, “Aren’t you prohibited from filming this?”

Like Jinhui, many companies in China rely on a vast program of forced labor from North Korea. (Jinhui did not respond to requests for comment.) The program is run by various entities in the North Korean government, including a secretive agency called Room 39, which oversees activities such as money laundering and cyberattacks, and which funds the country’s nuclear- and ballistic-missile programs. (The agency is so named, according to some defectors, because it is based in the ninth room on the third floor of the Korean Workers’ Party headquarters.) Such labor transfers are not new. In 2012, North Korea sent some forty thousand workers to China. A portion of their salaries was taken by the state, providing a vital source of foreign currency for Party officials: at the time, a Seoul-based think tank estimated that the country made as much as $2.3 billion a year through the program. Since then, North Koreans have been sent to Russia, Poland, Qatar, Uruguay, and Mali.


Read the rest of this article at: The New Yorker

News 01.03.24: Five Essential Articles from Around the Web

They are ravenous and roving. Newly emerged from a six-month state of suspended animation, over a dozen larvae scale the crumpled paper towel inside a plastic cup. One determined individual undulates past the others to the top of the paper peak. There, it anchors its hind prolegs, raises its head and abdomen, and begins a kind of dance. About the length of a paper clip, the caterpillar sways its black and bristly body back and forth. It reaches toward the light streaming in through the greenhouse glass and the face of the woman beaming down.

“It brings out the little-kid excitement in me,” says butterfly technician Heather, “something I haven’t felt in a long time. They want to see what’s going on. It’s like a little snake-charmer thing.”

Heather wears her dark hair in braids. She’s also wearing a bright red sweater marked DOC for Department of Corrections, identifying her as an inmate of Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, a minimum security prison located near Belfair, Washington. Heather is not her real name. She says she feels lucky to be participating in this work while she serves her sentence here. She shows me around with a proud, almost parental smile. Along with eight other incarcerated women, Heather is entrusted with the care and feeding of nearly 4,000 members of an endangered species, the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. With this trust comes the privilege of working just beyond the razor-wire fence during the day before returning to life among the general prison population each night.

Read the rest of this article at: Hakai