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Here's what I read in December


The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. A sequel to The Handmaid's Tale that deepens the story and modernizes some of its themes. Deeply feminist, utterly gripping, absolutely essential. One of the best books I read this year.

We the Corporations, by Adam Winkler. The history of corporate rights in America (and earlier), and how those rights have been used to allow corporations to resist regulation. Honestly, I found it a depressing read, but it's a well-written, important story that cuts to the core of American society.

Notable Articles

Best science fiction and fantasy books of 2019. AKA my to-read list.

A Better Internet Is Waiting for Us. "The legacy of social media will be a world thirsty for new kinds of public experiences. To rebuild the public sphere, we’ll need to use what we’ve learned from billion-dollar social experiments like Facebook, and marginalized communities like Black Twitter. We’ll have to carve out genuinely private spaces too, curated by people we know and trust."

After an Amazon Worker Was Crushed to Death by a Forklift, Regulators Helped Cover It Up. "After Amazon appealed citations and fines for the incident, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb quietly overturned those citations to lure Amazon's second headquarters to Indiana." Unforgivable.

Grinding. In startups, slow and steady wins the race - and there's almost never a magical deal or a silver bullet strategy change that will turn everything around.

Facebook Gives Workers a Chatbot to Appease That Prying Uncle. Facebook wrote a bot to help its employees figure out what to say to family members who were concerned about its activities. I'd say this is a pretty good sign it's time to take a step back and re-assess their choices.

TikTok prevented disabled users’ videos from showing up in feeds. Allegedly the policy was to protect users who had a high risk of bullying - but it seems pretty clear that there was more going on here. At any rate, the effect was alarmingly discriminatory.

McKinsey & Company: Capital’s Willing Executioners. "The firm’s willingness to work with despotic governments and corrupt business empires is the logical conclusion of seeking profit at all costs. Its advocacy of the primacy of the market has made governments more like businesses and businesses more like vampires. By claiming that they solve the world’s hardest problems, McKinsey shrinks the solution space to only those that preserve the status quo. And it is through this claim that the firm attracts thousands of “the best and the brightest” away from careers that actually serve the public."

How McKinsey Helped the Trump Administration Carry Out Its Immigration Policies. Savings measures McKinsey identified were sometimes seen as being too harsh on immigrants by ICE staff.

Lawyers and Scholars to LexisNexis, Thomson Reuters: Stop Helping ICE Deport People. "Lawyers, students, and scholars called on legal database providers to end their contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, and private surveillance contractor Palantir, saying the arrangements put universities and immigration lawyers in the untenable position of feeding money and even information into systems that facilitate deportation."

We ran the numbers, and there really is a pipeline problem in eng hiring. "As you can see, it’s not possible to hit our goals, whether or not we’re biased against women at any point in the hiring process. [...] Outside of alternative education programs, the most obvious thing we can do to increase the supply of qualified women engineers is to expand our pipeline to include strong engineers who don’t hail from top schools or top companies." My first act when I took my current Head of Engineering position was to burn the hiring process.

Antitrust Revival, a Reading List. Tim Wu's list of books and articles on anti-trust reform. I believe the current anti-trust movement is one of the most important forces for equality and democracy.

Does Who You Are at 7 Determine Who You Are at 63? I'm excited to see 63 Up. Arguably there's never been a more ambitious documentary film series.

A letter from Larry and Sergey. Their farewell is really just a continuation of a long-term process, but it's fascinating to have followed their journey more or less from the beginning.

A Private Report Alerts Swiss Banks and Their Billionaire Customers About a Warren Presidency. Good. I really hope she gets to be President.

What the C.I.A.’s Torture Program Looked Like to the Tortured. These drawings should be studied by every American. This is what our country is, whether we like it or not. And we shouldn't like it at all.

Anguish and Anger From the Navy SEALs Who Turned In Edward Gallagher. "“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, said in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, told the investigators."

Emotional baggage. "Away’s founders sold a vision of travel and inclusion, but former employees say it masked a toxic work environment." As it turned out, this story was carefully timed to coincide with the announcement of the new CEO shortly afterwards.

Splintered Isle: A Journey Through Brexit Britain. This was eye-opening for me. Both a beautiful, human portrait, and an explanation of how unregulated capitalism paved the way for Brexit. Nationalism and xenophobia are never the answer. But this piece goes some way to better explaining how vulnerable communities could be led down that path.

Lovers in Auschwitz, Reunited 72 Years Later. He Had One Question. "Was she the reason he was alive today?" A tale of lost love reunited, questions answered, and a horror that will continue to echo for generations.

At war with the truth. "U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress [in the war in Afghanistan]. They were not, and they knew it, an exclusive Post investigation found. [...] A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable." Echoes of Vietnam. This is not just one article, but 2,000 pages of interviews and much more. This was a crime, and it's shocking that more hasn't been made of it.

How William Gibson Keeps His Science Fiction Real. "“With each set of three books, I’ve commenced with a sort of deep reading of the fuckedness quotient of the day,” he explained. “I then have to adjust my fiction in relation to how fucked and how far out the present actually is.”"

Still Asleep at the Wheel. "According to our analysis, 37% of the charter schools that were funded by CSP during those years either never opened (11%) or opened and then closed (26%). That figure is the result of our confirmation of the status of nearly 5000 charter schools that received funds from CSP." Charter schools are a distraction. Let's build a better public school system instead.

Made in America: White House veterans helped Gulf monarchy build secret surveillance unit. "Between 2012 and 2015, individual teams were tasked with hacking into entire rival governments, as the program’s focus shifted from counterterrorism to espionage against geopolitical foes, documents show."

Greta Thunberg Is TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year. And rightly so.

Men and white people believe the news is less reliable now than it was in the past. Women and people of color think it’s gotten more reliable. Hopefully this points to better representation.

The blood of poor Americans is now a leading export, bigger than corn or soy. " One study found that the typical blood-seller derives a third of their income from selling blood. Princeton's Kathryn Edin called the commercial blood industry the lifeblood of the $2 a day poor." People need help and we're not giving it to them.

How I Get By: A Week in the Life of a McDonald’s Cashier. "The bus was late today, and it reminds me to get back to saving for a car. I used to have one, but I couldn’t keep up with my car note or insurance with my McDonald’s paycheck. I’ve been trying to save towards a car, but every time I save money, I have to use it. It feels like I'm not getting anywhere. I figure I need at least a $1,000 down payment. I had about $300 saved, but I had to use it to get groceries, pay my phone bill, and get back, and forth to work. So I’m back at zero. I’m thinking about this while I deliver meal trays to patients."

Unmasking the secret landlords buying up America. "America’s cities are being bought up, bit by bit, by anonymous shell companies using piles of cash. Modest single-family homes, owned for generations by families, now are held by corporate vehicles with names that appear to be little more than jumbles of letters and punctuation – such as SC-TUSCA LLC, CNS1975 LLC – registered to law offices and post office boxes miles away. New glittering towers filled with owned but empty condos look down over our cities, as residents below struggle to find any available housing."

How a cheap, brutally efficient grocery chain is upending America's supermarkets. I'm actually a pretty big fan of this model - particularly in a world where many Americans struggle to buy food.

How Racism Ripples Through Rural California’s Pipes. The communities where black farmworkers settled decades ago are still marked by terrible infrastructure.

Nobody Knows How Many Kids Die From Maltreatment and Abuse in the U.S. "We got around 7,000 records in response, a number that’s already slightly higher and much more detailed than the information available to the public from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System — the main source of this data since the 1980s — over the same period. But experts agree that it’s still a substantial undercount and that child fatalities may be three times higher."

A Child’s Forehead Partially Removed, Four Deaths, The Wrong Medicine — A Secret Report Exposes Health Care For Jailed Immigrants. "Immigrants held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails around the US received medical care so bad it resulted in two preventable surgeries, including an 8-year-old boy who had to have part of his forehead removed, and contributed to four deaths, according to an internal complaint from an agency whistleblower." Again: this is who we are.

It’s a Vast, Invisible Climate Menace. We Made It Visible. A pretty impressive New York Times report on vast quantities of methane gas escaping from oil and gas sites nationwide. It's invisible, so the newspaper built a camera: "To create images of methane emissions in the Permian Basin, The Times used a custom-built FLIR camera that converts infrared energy into an electronic signal to create moving pictures. The camera’s filter allows infrared wavelengths between 3.2 to 3.4 micrometers on the electromagnetic spectrum to pass through to the sensor. To visualize gas, the camera uses helium to cool down the sensor to the temperature of liquid nitrogen, around minus 200 degrees Celsius. Unlike traditional photography lenses, which are glass, the infrared images were created using metal lenses made from germanium, which is transparent at infrared wavelengths."

Why Trump’s path to reelection is totally plausible. "First, the campaign intends to repackage Trump, albeit within the narrow limits possible for a politician whose public image is already indelibly cast. The message: Sure, Trump is wild, but a disruptive character is precisely what’s needed to disrupt a failed status quo and force change. Second, the campaign will use its overwhelming financial advantage to repackage — i.e., viciously demolish — the public image of whoever becomes the Democratic nominee." I hope Trump and everything he stands for fades away quickly. But I think it's likely we get four more years of this.

Trump adviser: Expect more aggressive poll watching in 2020. "One of President Donald Trump’s top reelection advisers told influential Republicans in swing state Wisconsin that the party has “traditionally” relied on voter suppression to compete in battleground states, according to an audio recording of a private event obtained by The Associated Press."

Guess Who’s Behind Facebook’s Political Ad Policy. "Peter Thiel has reportedly been lobbying Mark Zuckerberg to refrain from fact checking political ads on the platform." Thiel is a scumbag.

New disclosures to our archive of state-backed information operations. "Today, we are sharing comprehensive data about 5,929 accounts which we have removed for violating our platform manipulation policies. Rigorous investigations by our Site Integrity team have allowed us to attribute these accounts to a significant state-backed information operation on Twitter originating in Saudi Arabia."

‘Star Wars’ Fans Are Angry and Polarized. Like All Americans. "And a recent study by Morten Bay, a University of Southern California digital media researcher, revealed that over 50 percent of the venom directed on Twitter at Rian Johnson, director of “The Last Jedi,” came from the same sources as Russian election meddling."

India’s Internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest ever in a democracy. I'm certain we'll begin to see National Internets before too long. Russia has been testing exactly this.

The Decade the Internet Lost Its Joy. "What began as cheerful anarchy was devoured by vulture capital and ruthless consolidation." I don't want to go backwards, but maybe we can find an inclusive, empathetic version of that anarchy. I hope we can. Otherwise, really, what's the point?

How Your Phone Betrays Democracy. "It is not difficult, in other words, to imagine a system of social control arising from infrastructure built for advertising. That’s why regulation is critical."

Is it Time for the U.S. Government to Drag Tech Jobs out of Silicon Valley and Into the Heartland? I'm not against it - and I do think it requires government involvement.

Predictions for Journalism 2020: Saying no to more good ideas. "I’ve yet to meet a team in a news organization that suffers from a shortage of good ideas. But I have met teams that have clogged up their roadmaps with lots of good ideas that, cumulatively, have little impact."

Predictions for Journalism 2020: Some kinds of journalism aren’t worth saving. "The question of how we save journalism (meaning newsrooms) will begin to shift to how do we save journalism (meaning the process)."

Building tools to bring data-driven reporting to more newsrooms. Simon Willison's JSK Fellowship project to empower data-driven journalism is inspiring. More of this, please.

Federal study confirms racial bias of many facial-recognition systems, casts doubt on their expanding use. "Facial-recognition systems misidentified people of color more often than white people, a landmark federal study released Thursday shows, casting new doubts on a rapidly expanding investigative technique widely used by law enforcement across the United States." Ban its use by law enforcement.

Washington Legislator Matt Shea Accused Of 'Domestic Terrorism,' Report Finds. "According to investigators, Shea visited the Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville for a couple of days. While there, he "developed a strategy for leadership over future Patriot Movement armed resistance against the federal government by creating" a coalition of western state leaders from Idaho, Washington, Arizona and Nevada." I would not be at all surprised to learn that this is more prevalent in the GOP than we had previously thought.

A Conversation With Rudy Giuliani Over Bloody Marys at the Mark Hotel. "As he spoke, he fixed his gaze straight ahead, rarely turning to make eye contact. When his mouth closed, saliva leaked from the corner and crawled down his face through the valley of a wrinkle. He didn’t notice, and it fell onto his sweater." Completely bizarre.

What Happens When Your Career Becomes Your Whole Identity. "Psychologists use the term “enmeshment” to describe a situation where the boundaries between people become blurred, and individual identities lose importance. Enmeshment prevents the development of a stable, independent sense of self. Dan — like many in high-pressure jobs — had become enmeshed not with another person, but with his career." Speaking from first-hand experience, it's a horrible trap.

We've spent the decade letting our tech define us. It's out of control. So let's take it back.


Here's what I read in November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, and January.

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Twitter: @benwerd

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