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The Cloud Makes Facebook Durable

By Taylor Marvin

Alexis Madrigal makes a convincing case that Facebook’s business model is durable, despite its fiasco of an IPO. In particular, Madrigal argues, comparing Facebook to the defunct MySpace isn’t informative, because Facebook enjoys a huge international monopoly that would be extraordinarily difficult for an upstart competitor to challenge:

“It has long been trendy to compare Facebook to MySpace and Friendster, two social networks that were once dominant. But let’s get real here. There’s dominant and there’s DOMINANT. No social network has ever commanded a greater share of Internet users, their time, or their shared media. And it is not even close. MySpace got passed by Facebook when they had something like 120 million worldwide visitors a month. That makes Facebook 7.5 times larger than MySpace ever got. Friendster? They were in the single-digit millions.”

Social media users, especially influential young consumers, are finicky, and it’s easy to imagine some users abandoning Facebook for a newer competitor that’s perceived to be more exclusive. However, Facebook’s enormous user base — nearly 1/7th of the entire human species — is an enormous barrier for a smaller competitor to overcome.

In addition to Facebook’s much larger market penetration, the way people share photos on Facebook makes it difficult for them to leave the site:

“And it’s not just *your* photos that matter on Facebook. It’s all those photos other people have taken of you and your friends. That means you can’t simply take your ball and go home; all the other memories captured by friends that you have easy access to through the system? You can’t have them without everyone sitting on the same system.”

This is an important feature of Facebook’s durability, and I think the social media’s approach to storing photos has fundamentally changed since the period of MySpace dominance. Before Facebook, social media users primarily stored photos on their own hard drives, rather than on social media servers. Today that’s different: faster internet connections and lower server costs mean that most Facebook users use the site as their primary photo storage option, rather than their own computer. This is especially true after the advent of smartphones, which removes computers entirely from the photo to social media uploading process. If a Facebook user leaves the site they aren’t just losing access to photos other people have taken of them, but to any of their own photos not stored elsewhere. Of course, it’s possible to download individual photos, but it’s time consuming and Facebook doesn’t provide an easy way to download entire albums — probably deliberately. It’s in Facebook’s interest to make it as inconvenient to leave the site as possible, and as more and more users’ photos reside exclusively on Facebook’s servers leaving the social network will become more difficult.

However, I’m really too young to be making this observation — I joined Facebook in 2007, and never used MySpace. Does this theory sound credible to readers who’ve used both sites?

Update: Michael Wolff has an interesting counterpoint (via Andrew Sullivan):

“On the one hand, Facebook is mired in the same relentless downward pressure of falling per-user revenues as the rest of Web-based media. The company makes a pitiful and shrinking $5 per customer per year, which puts it somewhat ahead of the Huffington Post and somewhat behind the New York Times’ digital business. (Here’s the heartbreaking truth about the difference between new media and old: even in the New York Times’ declining traditional business, a subscriber is still worth more than $1,000 a year.) Facebook’s business only grows on the unsustainable basis that it can add new customers at a faster rate than the value of individual customers declines. It is peddling as fast as it can. And the present scenario gets much worse as its users increasingly interact with the social service on mobile devices, because it is vastly harder, on a small screen, to sell ads and profitably monetize users.”

Read the whole thing.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

By Paul Noble. Via

By Paul Noble. Via

What I read this week:

Missile defense is back.

Jared Diamond reviews Why Nations Fail.

Why the House Armed Services Committee was shortsighted to ban the Navy’s biofuel program.

Does Mona Eltahawy’s approach hurt women?

How the sausage of greenhouse gas accords is made (or not).

How small arms wreck societies.

GQ talks with one of the greatest musicians of our times. Alyssa Rosenberg has a great take on the pressures that nearly destroyed D’Angelo.

Obadiah Parker – Idioteque.

“Putting Your Mind” to Space Industrialization

By Taylor Marvin

I’m currently reading my way through the works of Welsh science fiction author Alastair Reynolds. A standout is Pushing Ice, which chronicles a human mining crew in the outer solar system encounter an alien artifact. The novel begins in 2057, a date that seems a hopelessly optimistic time frame for routine exploration of the outer solar system. Pushing Ice was published in 2005 — Reynolds is only leaving half a century for the development of fusion drives, life support systems much more complicated than today’s, and the infrastructure to manufacture large spacecraft, presumably in orbit.

Reynolds has clarified that Pushing Ice’s near future setting is less of a forecast than a narrative tool to make the characters and setting more relatable to modern day readers (for comparison, the bulk of Reynold’s Revelation Space series is set in the 2600-2700s), and acknowledges critiques that question the plausibility of his timeline as perfectly understandable. However, Reynold’s argues rapid technological advances aren’t unprecedented, noting that the moon landing followed simple wooden aircraft by only half a century:

“Which, when you think about it, is pretty astonishing. Even more so when you appreciate that many of the key technologies of the Apollo program were essentially mature by the start of the 1960s. The Saturn F1 main engines were part of a program that originated in 1955, a full 14 years before the Moon landings – and a mere 36 after Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop crossing of the Atlantic in a Vickers Vimy.

So you can do quite a lot in 50 years, if you put your mind to it.”

This is a valid point — technological progress can occur extremely rapidly, and often in unpredictable ways. Science fiction authors, whose plots often require them to predict or at least image the future, are often acutely aware of their predecessors’ often hilarious mistaken predictions. In retrospect these are often obvious; the routine space travel of 2001: A Space Odyssey is hilariously — or depressingly — out of place today, merely 4o years after its 1968 premiere and a decade beyond its setting. The point here isn’t that these predictions were foolish but that it’s very difficult to forecast the direction that technological advancements will go; while science fiction authors of the mid-20th century were hugely optimistic about manned spaceflight, authors writing as recently as the 1980’s completely missed the huge advancements in information technology that completely revolutionized the last two decades. This oversight is understandable. All prediction involves some form of extrapolation, and it’s easy to superficially extrapolate our own contemporary assumptions to uncredible ends. Authors writing in the 1960s had experienced two decades of wild advances in human spaceflight that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years before, and saw no reason why these advancements would suddenly come to a grinding halt at the moon. Similarly, while it was possible to predict internet and massive data aggregation technologies, few foresaw how completely they have altered the modern world.

The problem with Reynold’s example is that technological progress doesn’t follow a linear growth pattern. It isn’t a question of saying that since humanity advanced from simple aircraft to the Apollo program in half a century that routine expeditions to the outer solar system will be possible in another fifty years. First, the technological requirements of an outer solar system-capable spacecraft aren’t a linear extrapolation of the advance from a Vickers Vimy to the Saturn V; it’s much more of an exponential jump. Reynolds is right to point out that the main technological hurdles of the Apollo mission were solved in 1955, and it’s arguable that humans possessed the necessary theoretical information to produce a moon rocket in the late 1940s. However, there’s a huge leap between theoretically simple and relatively easily machined F1 engines and a pulsed fusion drive. Arguably more complex is the life support systems, material sciences, and orbital manufacturing infrastructure required to construct large spacecraft. While a Saturn V was at its core a derivative of the early 1940s-era V2 ballistic missile, these technological requirements are fay beyond anything humans have ever pursued.

More importantly, viewing space capability advancements as a purely technological problem is a mistake. There’s a common tendency to look at capability gains in an organization through hardware, rather than the more important institutional software. Contemporary discussions of the Chinese military often suffer from this fallacy — it’s easy to talk about new ships and planes, and harder to discuss the institutional culture, communication systems, and officer corp that are much more important to the quality of a military force than their equipment.

The greatest achievement of the Apollo program wasn’t its the sum of its technological parts, but creating the organizational capability to bind hundreds of discrete technologies into one of the most complex engineering projects humans have ever attempted. In the nearly half century since the end of the Apollo program humans have become much better at managing large scale technological projects. However, outer solar system-capability needs to be understood as part of a larger infrastructural framework, one that is a much greater organizational challenge than building a fusion spacecraft. Building a large inter-planetary ship requires advanced orbital construction techniques, and intensive mining of the solar system probably requires an Earth space elevator to be profitable. Even with intense private competition there isn’t reason to suspect that the costs of reaching orbit will ever become economical as long as they rely on chemical rockets, and the technological barriers to cheap LEO will likely remain in to the foreseeable future.

It’s perfectly fine that Reynold’s sets Pushing Ice in the near future — after all it is fiction, and good science fiction’s assumptions should serve the story, not the other way around. However, it’s a mistake to view human space exploration outside of its political and economic determinants. Reynolds remarks that technology can advance quickly, “if you put your mind to it.” But the real issue is whether there’s sufficient motivation for humanity to put its mind to space technology. After all, the opportunity costs of space development are enormous, and the political barriers to large-scale government space development formidable. This isn’t a question of simple will.

The Apollo program was an enormously  expensive effort: costing $98 billion over 14 years at its height consuming 2.2% of the federal budget. Yes, this expenditure is dwarfed by the US defense budget — in 1969 alone the US spent nearly $500 billion in 2009 dollars on military spending — but 2.2% of federal spending comes with large opportunity costs. Governments don’t spend these kinds of funds lightly, especially if there’s little apparent electoral benefit from massive space spending. The Apollo program only scraped above a 50 percent approval rating in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo 11 landing, and without the external Soviet threat it’s unlikely that the massive space expenditure of the 1960s would have been possible.

Unfortunately, once you consider space development within an political economy framework incentives for high-opportunity cost space development tend to disappear. As I’ve argued before, stabilizing world demographics makes the prospect of significant human off-world settlements unlikely. Current UN medium fertility variant-projections forecast a human population that stabilizes at roughly 10 billion mid-century. Of course, there’s uncertainty in any forecast — notably, the 2004 UN population forecast predicted a 2100 world population of 9.1 billion, a figures that less than a decade later has been revised upwards by a billion, an 11% revision. But it’s hard to imagine a plausible scenario where a significant number of humans ever live off planet. Even assuming huge technological advances dramatically reduce the cost of space transport and allow for robust off-world industrial infrastructure, costs of living away from Earth will always be unimaginably high. On Earth atmosphere and surface pressure are free; anywhere else they aren’t. If the world population peaks this century there likely won’t be any pressing demographic reason humans have to live off planet, and it is difficult to imagine any other incentive to leave that satisfies any plausible cost/benefit criteria.

Like many science fiction futures, Pushing Ice avoids this problem by imagining industrial, rather than settlement, human activity in space. This is more plausible, but it is still difficult to imagine an economic environment that would justify intensive industrial activity off world. Even if most of the R&D funding for an outer solar system commercial mining fleet comes from private industry, huge government expenditures would be necessary to lay the infrastructural groundwork. It is possible that competition for increasingly scarce and economically vital rare earth elements could motivate increased space expenditures in the near future. But extracting minerals from asteroids will always be enormously expensive, especially in the absence of economies of scale. Large-scale mining that floods the market and forces down prices would be equally unprofitable. Both are barriers to private investment in space resource extraction, recent news aside.

I’m not arguing that a human future in space is improbable. But narrative considerations aside, Pushing Ice’s regular flights to the outer solar system are not probable this century, for reasons more economic than technological. Ignoring this reality isn’t a fault — after all, science fiction more concerned with government budgets and resource economics would be dry reading compared to encounters with aliens. But it is important for futurists to remember that human institutions, not technology, are the real barrier to space industrialization.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

By João Figueiredo. Via & Andrew Sullivan.

By João Figueiredo. Via & Andrew Sullivan.

What I read this week:

Cash, and time, runs out for Afghanistan’s wi-fi city. Author Spencer Ackerman also has an interesting personal post reflecting on what low pageviews mean.

The Realist Prism: A Closer Look at U.S.-Russia ‘Summit-gate’.

Mining emeralds in the Panjshir Valley.

What is the rational response to climate change? (via the Browser).

How to run an internment camp.

Archeologists dive for underwater Mayan artifacts.

Imagining myself in Palestine.

“For most Americans, even the war in Iraq brought little worse than marginally higher tax rates and unsettling TV images. Americans don’t much care about foreign policy because it is usually inconsequential to their welfare.”

Blackalicious – Nowhere Fast.

Privilege and Statistics

By Taylor Marvin

Author John Scalzi has a fantastic piece explaining straight white male privilege in the language of video games:

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

“Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.

This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.”

Scalzi’s piece was later reposted at Kontaku. While Scalzi heavily moderates his site Kontaku does not, and many commenters were angry: lots of talk about “reverse racism” and domineering feminism. What stands our are the straight white male commenters who felt personally insulted or attacked by Scalzi’s talk of privilege.

What’s most interesting here is that these commenters seem to not understand the idea of an average. The concept of privilege observes that a randomly selected straight white male is likely to experience less social barriers than a randomly selected non-SWM. This doesn’t imply that your life is not difficult, or that you face no barriers; only that on average, the barriers facing a SWM are lower than for other groups. An average means that half of each group will fall on each side of the mean. Just because an individual SWM commenter faces barriers and perceived — or real — oppression, or can name a successful non-SWM, doesn’t repudiate the concept of privilege.

It’s often observed how poor Americans comprehension of statistics are, and how much more important statistics are to understanding real life political, economic and social issues than more commonly taught subjects like calculus or trigonometry. Obviously the angry reactions to Scalzi’s metaphor are partially emotional, and not just driven by a poor understanding of means and outliers. But it is a good example of how important this understanding is.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

By Audrey Dutroux, via SerialThriller.

By Audrey Dutroux, via SerialThriller™.

What I read this week:

Horrifying violence in Libya.

Americans ready to cut defense.

Political scientists, talkin’ bout the Death Star. My take from a few months ago.

Like physics, the models behind derivatives are becoming increasingly more complex. Also, using neutrino communications to cut lag times in high-frequency trading (both via Felix Salmon).

Via David Axe, photos from the First Chechen War.

What was crime fighting actually like in Sherlock Holmes-era London?

Lupe Fiasco – The Instrumental.

B for the Win! Right?!?

By Taylor Marvin

Sorry that it’s all F-35 week, but in potentially very big news the Cameron government has decided that the Royal Navy will purchase F-35Bs, rather than the longer range, more capable catapult launched C variant. The justification for the reversal is short-term cost: refitting one on the two Queen Elizabeth carriers under construction with the catapult systems necessary to launch the F-35C and other large aircraft was judged to expensive, with the savings hoped to offset the higher price tag and greater uncertainty of the short takeoff vertical landing B variant.

Lewis Page makes the obvious criticism of the decision:

“In fact it’s a lot worse than it seems, as the contest in real life was not between the F-35B and the F-35C: it was between the F-35B and – for the immediate future – one or another cheap, powerful, modern carrier jet already in service. This would most most likely have been the F-18 Hornet as used by the US Navy and many other air forces around the globe, but possibly the French Rafale instead of or alongside Hornets.”

Is this good news for the troubled B variant? Unfortunately for Lockheed, probably not — while the Royal Navy buy will look good on press releases and avert the specter of Boeing jumping into the British market (gasp!) with their proven F/A-18 series, the UK was never buying enough F-35s to have any meaningful impact on the unit price. The F-35, B variant especially, will live or die in congress, not the international market.

At least the Cameron government isn’t the only one bullish on the F-35B. Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the USS Midway museum — it’s a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it if you’re ever in downtown San Diego.

The museum has a small model of the US Navy’s upcoming Gerald R. Ford class aircraft carrier:

The X-47B-type drones on the deck are interesting, as is the mix of F-35s and Super Hornets. The model maker is clearly optimistic about the use of combat drones on future carriers.

More unexpected: the F-35 variants shown are the Marines’ F-35Bs (look at the lift fan doors behind the cockpit and the shape of the tailplanes), not the Navy’s F-35C. Since the STOVL variant will serve on amphibious assault ships like the Wasp and upcoming America class, depicting them on a CVN’s an odd choice.

Anyway, here’s a F/A-18A in Russian aggressor colors if you’re interested.

Student Journalism and Campus Climate: An Interview with UCSD Guardian Editor-in-Chief Angela Chen

By Taylor Marvin

Once again, cultural tensions at UCSD are in the news.

Two weeks ago UCSD Associated Students Campuswide Senator Ashton Shahyad Cohen was photographed at a costume party wearing traditional Middle Eastern garb. The image was later posted to Cohen’s private Facebook profile with a caption alluding to the women posing alongside him as his “three wives”; the caption was apparently written by one of the women pictured.

After being emailed the image by a friend, fellow UCSD student Noor El-Annan disseminated the photo of Cohen on Facebook, later describing it as offensive and culturally insensitive. On April 26th UCSD student newspaper the Guardian published a front page story “Controversy Over Photo of A.S. Senator”, with the subheading “Students say image of Campuswide Senator Ashton Cohen in Muslim garb is an example of campus-wide racism.” In the Guardian piece El-Annan was quoted as “offended and disgusted” by Cohen’s decision to wear the outfit to the costume party. Cohen denied that his actions represented an anti-Muslim bias, complaining that “rather than debating the issue, [offended students] threw out the racist card.” Cohen also noted that two of the three women pictured alongside him are Muslim.

Notably, the Guardian title phrase “Muslim garb” is an inaccurate description of Cohen’s outfit, and mistakenly conflates the comprehensive term “Muslim” with the Middle East.

Front page of the Guardian, 26 April.

Front page of the 'Guardian', 26 April.

Two days later political blogger Bruce Kesler commented on the story under the vitriolic title “Palestinian Clown Union at UCSD”; Kesler termed El-Annan “a pro-Palestinian fanatic”, and asked if she and other offended students would have “preferred photos of clitorectomies, which is also a common Moslem practice?” BuzzFeed then picked up the story, publishing “A Joke About ‘Three Wives’ Re-Ignites Jewish, Muslim Tensions At California College” on May 2nd. In addition to covering the current controversy BuzzFeed summarized UCSD’s ongoing problems with campus climate, recounting the debate over the “divestment” movement at UCSD, which has unsuccessfully attempted to bar the university from investing in corporations that profit from arms sales to Israel. El-Annan is a member UCSD student organization Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports divestment; in his role as A.S. Senator Cohen has opposed it.

BuzzFeed also discusses the April 2011 “Open Letter”, a paid ad placed in the Guardian by 28 faculty authors that described pro-Palestinian student groups as “driven less by positive impulses of fraternity toward fellow Arabs and Muslims than by hateful impulses to destroy the world’s only sovereign Jewish nation.”* BuzzFeed additionally referenced a faculty response to the 2011 open letter, “An Open Appeal to Chancellor Fox and the UCSD Community”, published here April 18th, 2011.

A week later in the Thursday, May 3rd issue the Guardian retracted the story, with Editor-in-Chief Angela Chen authoring a thousand word statement explaining the reasons behind the decision. Chen termed the story “a failure of reporting,” and wrote that the Guardian incorrectly assumed that “El-Annan was speaking on behalf of the political movement of divestment when she was speaking, more specifically, about an [sic] cultural issue.” The original story was removed from the Guardian’s website, and is only viewable online through a PDF of the entire April 26th edition (Chen’s statement misidentifies the publication date of the original story).

The Guardian also offered both Cohen and El-Annan the opportunity to author guest commentary pieces; Cohen’s, “Students Should Work Towards Fostering Climate of Mutual Respect”, was published May 3rd. “Though I understand the photo could be misinterpreted, I feel the attacks were politically motivated,” writes Cohen, closing with a call for student leaders to “maintain a firm commitment  to engage in respectful dialogue and put our cultural differences aside.”

El-Annan declined to publish a commentary. When I spoke with El-Annan she supported Chen’s decision to retract the Guardian story, claiming the piece reduced the issue to “the person who posted the photo or posed in the photo, instead of the reason why the photo was being criticized.” El-Annan reemphasized that though she was “speaking on behalf of my community as well as myself,” Students for Justice in Palestine “had nothing to do with this specific incident,” and that the Guardian did not convey this distinction. Chen’s statement “addressed some [of my] concerns,” El-Annan added, “but again personalized this situation.”

To better understand the Guardian’s actions, on Monday May 7th I sat down with Angela Chen to discuss the issue and the Guardian’s role in UCSD campus climate. A lightly edited transcript follows:

Taylor Marvin: In recent years the Guardian has run numerous stories relating to the Israeli-Palestinian issue on campus; specifically, the ongoing divestment debate and the 2011 faculty open letter. What are the Guardian’s goals when covering these issues?

Angela Chen: As the official student newspaper the Guardian above all strives to be relevant to what’s happening to students on campus. Our goals in covering [the on-campus Israel-Palestine debate] are to bring up an issue that’s hugely important to a majority of campus, both those who are pro-divestment and anti-divestment. This issue reoccurs each year, is tied to a national and global political issue, and is something that’s happening on campus. In the Guardian’s opinion section we usually run two guest commentaries, giving each side a platform to express their opinions. We are the campus paper, and I think that it would be a huge act of negligence on our part if we weren’t to cover it. It is a difficult issue to cover, but is important, emotional, and has large implications.

TM: When covering these issues has the Guardian’s editorial staff ever come under external pressure, either from student groups or the UCSD administration?

AC: I have personally covered this issue for quite a while — in 2010 and this year — and we have not come under pressure from the UCSD administration; no one has said ‘you can’t publish this’, or anything like that. I don’t think there’s any direct censorship on the administration side.

On the student side, when we make mistakes — and we do make mistakes, whether in terms of mistaken terminology or bias, and we try our best to correct them — students will contact us, but it’s never anything as explicit as ‘don’t you dare record this’ or telling us how we should do our reporting, or how to write our editorials.

TM: What type of influence or contacts do you receive from student organizations?

AC: People will contact me complaining that a story misrepresented an issue. It is rare that [students] will say that they were misquoted, and never that we made up a quote. It’s more often an issue of how [the Guardian] presented information, or how an article was structured — sometimes writers or editors aren’t careful enough in editing.

TM: To the best of my knowledge article retractions by the Guardian are rare. Can you describe the process that lead to last week’s decision to retract the April 26th story?

AC: Retractions are rare; we’ve run a couple this year. This retraction was more of a personal- if you look at the story you’ll see that it doesn’t say “editorial board”; it is under my name and my position as Editor-in-Chief. The process behind the decision [involved] thinking about the Guardian and the goal of journalism in a holistic way. As I said in the piece, aside from issues of terminology people weren’t misquoted and there were no blatant accuracy issues, but having talked with both sides I think journalists have a duty, especially in issues like this, to give context and be more careful in their writing. In the past I don’t think we’ve necessarily done that.

Like I’ve said, our articles are online, and people link to them. People’s names will show up in searches. I think that it is our responsibility to look really closely at this kind of thing. Given that, the article was poorly written, it did take some things out of context, and did not include that Ashton [Cohen] had said he was reaching out [to his critics]; that’s why it was retracted.

At the same time people have already asked me if they can get their names removed from divestment-related articles published two years ago. Right now I’m still open to feedback from the general public, but it’s an entirely new can of worms to do things retroactively. I’ve never taken an article offline before besides this one, and if I were to do so again the burden of proof on the person requesting [a retroactive retraction] would be extremely heavy. Now I’m open to hearing more feedback about what we’ve done wrong, and which articles have portrayed people badly in the past. But going way back anyone could say ‘I was portrayed in a bad way’ and we have no way of assessing the claim.

TM: Are you specifically talking about removing past articles that former students say portrayed them inaccurately, or just unflattering?

AC: Some of the articles in question are just be letters to the editor, and the author will say that, for example, they are now going to law school and don’t want juvenile writing to be associated with their name. We receive a lot of these requests, and in most cases don’t take them down — it is their writing, there’s no libel or slander involved, and this is how they chose to portray themselves. The only articles I would be open to taking down are ones that can be proven to be false.

TM: Would you say that your decision to retract the April 26th article was strictly related to the article’s “failure of reporting”, or was it driven by external considerations?

AC: The majority of the decision was a due to a failure of reporting. The Guardian as an entity has been under fire from both sides, who have implied that we’re both pro-Israel and anti-Israel. I think that my retraction did consider the Guardian’s [wider] context, simply because we want to continue reporting this issue. If we write articles that even I admit are poorly written or poorly edited then we are not going to be a relevant, trusted source of information. If we retract an article it is because of the reporting, but also because it is the Guardian’s duty to provide articles that are informed, and both sides can agree portrayed them fairly. This article didn’t do that.

TM: What steps are the Guardian taking to avoid this type of situation in the future?

AC: I am trying to set up a meeting with [student organizations] to address this issue. I think one of the the Guardian’s weaknesses is outreach; we’re focused on what’s happening, but we’re not necessarily out there ourselves. Few of the Guardian’s editors are involved in other student organizations, and the staff can become very insular. I am trying to institutionalize more outreach, like attending campus climate meetings and talking to all student orgs. I am specifically focusing on the news and opinion sections, where sensitive issues are most commonly touched upon. I am personally working with these sections to develop a guide to covering sensitive issues. Obviously I’m not the expert on [these issues], but there are just some things writers are not aware of: terminology, or how to phrase questions to avoid bias. I plan on taking a bigger role on working with my editors and my writers on this. That’s something I hope to institutionalize as well, because a lot of knowledge at the Guardian gets lost when key people leave. If we can guarantee that we will regularly meet with other student orgs, we will check these guidelines, we will fact check more carefully, and it will help the role of the Guardian in the future.


1. In recent years the Guardian has run numerous stories relating to the Israeli-Palestinian issue on campus; specifically, the ongoing divestment debate and the 2011 faculty open letter. What are the Guardian’s goals when covering these issues?
2. When covering these issues has the Guardian’s editorial staff come under external pressure, either from student groups or the UCSD administration?
3. What is the Guardian’s policy for dealing with these pressures?
4. To the best of my knowledge article retractions by the Guardian are rare. Can you describe the process that lead to this decision? What steps is the Guardian taking to ensure that this does not happen again?
5. The Guardian’s retraction statement, authored by you, references “institutionalizing many of its formerly non-existent guidelines”; can you specify how these prospective guidelines will impact coverage of campus climate, if at all?
*In April 2011 I published a post critical of the original open letter “An Open Letter To Our University Community About Troubling Hypocrisy On Our Campus” and its faculty authors, titled “UCSD Professors Accuse Student Groups of Hypocrisy, Anti-Semitism.” After hosting the faculty response letter “An Open Appeal to Chancellor Fox and the UCSD Community”, I published two counter-responses by faculty authors of the original Open Letter: “Justice in Palestine Week at UCSD” by Dr. Ron Evans, and “A Response to ‘An Open Appeal to Chancellor Fox and the UCSD Community'” by Dr. David Feifel.

Continuing Adventures in the Military-Industrial Bureaucracy

By Taylor Marvin

The F/A-XX: Stir aluminum and composite, add powdered unicorn horn to taste. Boeing concept art.

The F/A-XX: Stir aluminum and composite, add powdered unicorn horn to taste. Boeing concept art.

At Flight Global, Dave Majumdar reports on the obstacles facing the Navy’s nascent F/A-XX program, intended to develop a F/A-18E/F Super Hornet replacement by the mid-2030s. In short: there just isn’t the money in the Navy’s 2014 budget to support the development effort necessary for an optimistically-planned 2030 service introduction. With the massive F-35 program sucking up 38 percent of the current DoD-wide procurement budget, this isn’t surprising. The Navy’s tried to skirt this math by positioning the F/A-XX as a complement, rather than substitute for their F-35C, but this is more of an optimistic fiction than reality. Objectively, a twin-engined, long-range, optionally-low observability Super Hornet successor is a very different aircraft than the single engined, single seat F-35C that shares more design similarities with an F-16 than the F/A-18A though Ds it’s intended to replace. But planning on the budget for two different aircraft development programs in the 2014-2020 period is an extremely optimistic assumption on the Navy’s part, especially given the widespread resignation in the Pentagon to a falling future defense budget and the fact that the Navy — unlike the USAF — has plenty of things to buy besides aircraft. Is another Navy fighter program justified? Given the well-documented inherent problems with the common Joint Strike Fighter design philosophy, probably. Is it realistic? Probably not.

Particularly interesting is Majumdar’s focus on the USMC’s aversion to the F/A-XX program. “A bigger problem is that the USN is working on the F/A-XX effort by itself,” writes Majumdar. “Not even the US Marine Corps, with which the USN’s tactical fighter force is integrated, has had any input into the F/A-XX.” This actually isn’t surprising at all. The USMC is perpetually last in the budgetary line; ‘doing more with less’ is a part of their institutional mythos. Yet in an era where the US faces no near-peer enemies — yes, China doesn’t come close the threat posed by the USSR — the Marine Corps is on track to acquire a supersonic, low observability STOVL combat jet! It’s worth reflecting on just how incredible this is, and the Marine Corps understands that if the Navy cuts its F-35C buy, rising unit costs put the entire program in jeopardy. The Marine Corps’ enthusiasm for its beloved STOVL jet means it won’t accept any rival program that might dispace the USN buy laying down. When the retired USMC officer quoted argues that skipping the F-35C in favor of relying on legacy platforms until the F/A-XX materializes isn’t realistic, he has a point — but is also defending the Corps’ institutional interests. This logic also puts Flight Global’s more vitriolic quote from a former USMC deputy commandant for aviation in perspective:

“It sort of validates the naval aviators’ overall lack of commitment to the F-35,” he says. “It shows how much they’re in bed with Boeing to include a whole host of retired navy aviators who work for Boeing. And it shows, frankly, their lack of commitment to unmanned systems.”

Again, there’s truth here, and reasonable people can disagree about what systems are worth funding in the face of a future more uncertain than any the US defense establishment’s faced in recent history. But institutional loyalties are powerful, and it’s important to remember that the collective defense-industrial bureaucracy isn’t anything close to a rational decision maker.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Kilian Eng, Caotico Album Artwork, 2012. Via

Kilian Eng, Caotico Album Artwork, 2012. Via

What I read this week:

UCSD student left in DEA cell for five days without food, water.

Botching the Bomb: “Despite regular warnings that proliferation is spinning out of control, the fact is that since the 1970s, there has been a persistent slowdown in the pace of technical progress on nuclear weapons projects and an equally dramatic decline in their ultimate success rate.”

The rust belt of France (via The Browser).

Meet the children of the Chinese workers assembling Apple products.

Letters from Abbottabad.

Why cancel the C-27J and not the F-35?

Wages of the Sinai: “The reason for Israel’s mobilization is not only because the IDF does not believe that the Egyptian armed forces are up to the task of cleaning up the mess in the Sinai, but the Egyptian military happens to share that view… Israeli leaders have clearly determined that if the next rocket to land on Eilat kills someone, they are going to have to deal with the problem themselves.”

Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup – Class 4 Notes Essay.

Taiwan and the F-16.

It’s a dismal prospect, all right, and in the future the collapse of the eurozone — if it happens — will probably become a textbook example of the difficulty of collective action, right along with climate change and the League of Nations.

Prospect alum Sarah Alaoui has a new podcast show out. Check it out.

Felix Salmon’s writing about the art market is always interesting.

SpaceX heads to the ISS.

Feist and Ben Gibbard – Train Song.