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Reading, watching, playing, using: August 2020

This is my monthly roundup of the tech and media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for August.


Educated, by Tara Westover. I realized about halfway through that the abuse that seems to ahave punctuated Westover's life were not going to stop. This is a brave story, although her unwillingness to condemn the church or the core of her family's beliefs leave us to join some of the dots ourselves.


Nice White Parents. A limited run podcast by the studio behind Serial, about the relationship between wealthy white parents and the public schools they claim to support. Eye-opening.

Mrs America. The story of the Equal Rights Amendment, rendered as a gripping, human story. There's no doubt that the feminist pro-ERA characters are in the right, but it's worth reading Gloria Steinem and Eleanor Smeal's critical editorial about the series. It's certainly true that the financial forces backing the Stop ERA movement are underplayed.

Lovecraft Country. Just spectacular. I'm only two episodes in, but I was hooked from the first minute.

Arlo Parks. I've become absolutely addicted to her music. Perfect for long walks and late nights by myself.

Notable Articles

Black Lives Matter

Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation. John Lewis wrote an editorial to be published upon his death. If you click through to just one article in this post, please make it this one.

Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back. "Black communities like Grays Ferry shoulder a disproportionate burden of the nation’s pollution — from foul water in Flint, Mich., to dangerous chemicals that have poisoned a corridor of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley — which scientists and policymakers have known for decades."

Louisiana Supreme Court upholds Black man's life sentence for stealing hedge clippers more than 20 years ago. "A Black Louisiana man will spend the rest of his life in prison for stealing hedge clippers, after the Louisiana Supreme Court denied his request to have his sentence overturned last week." Only one judge - the only Black person on the court - dissented, pointing out that the sentence was grossly disproportionate to the crime.

Black troops were welcome in Britain, but Jim Crow wasn’t: the race riot of one night in June 1943. "The town did not share the US Army’s segregationist attitudes. According to the author Anthony Burgess, who spent time in Bamber Bridge during the war, when US military authorities demanded that the town’s pubs impose a colour bar, the landlords responded with signs that read: “Black Troops Only”."

Revisiting an American Town Where Black People Weren’t Welcome After Dark. I'm ashamed to say that sundown towns were new to me as a concept.

‘Were your grandparents slaves?’ On the very white-dominated world of venture funding.

The Pandemic

Children May Carry Coronavirus at High Levels, Study Finds. "Infected children have at least as much of the coronavirus in their noses and throats as infected adults, according to the research. Indeed, children younger than age 5 may host up to 100 times as much of the virus in the upper respiratory tract as adults, the authors found."

A Covid Patient Goes Home After a Rare Double Lung Transplant. "The surgery is considered a desperate measure reserved for people with fatal, irreversible lung damage. Doctors do not want to remove a person’s lungs if there is any chance they will heal." I'm writing this from my parents' house, where I'm supporting my mother in the aftermath of her double lung transplant. You don't want one. Please, please, please wear a mask.

How the Pandemic Defeated America. "Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold." They need to go.

In A Twist On Loyalty Programs, Emirates Is Promising Travelers A Free Funeral If Infected With Covid. Innovative.

We thought it was just a respiratory virus. UCSF's report shows damage to the heart, gut, skin and more. The virus may weaponize our own immune systems against us.

Secret Gyms And The Economics Of Prohibition. "What Evelyn uncovered can only be described as a speakeasy gym. You know, illegal, hush hush, like the underground bars during the Prohibition era. These underground gyms appear to be popping up everywhere, from LA to New Jersey."

Trump's America

The cost of becoming a U.S. citizen just went up drastically. And asylum is no longer free. "The Trump administration announced on Friday an exorbitant increase in fees for some of the most common immigration procedures, including an 81% increase in the cost of U.S. citizenship for naturalization. It will also now charge asylum-seekers, which is an unprecedented move."

How the Media Could Get the Election Story Wrong. We shouldn't expect an election night this year. It'll take weeks, and there's a real possibility the election will stretch until January. But the media is set up for a big announcement.

A bipartisan group secretly gathered to game out a contested Trump-Biden election. It wasn’t pretty. Unless Biden has a landslide victory - which, to be honest, he probably won't - there may be violence on the streets and a political stalemate. In a year that's been plenty nasty already, we shouldn't expect this to go anything close to well.

With their visas in limbo, journalists at Voice of America worry that they’ll be thrown out of America. "VOA has long employed journalists who are citizens of other countries because they offer specific knowledge and expertise, including fluency in English and one or more of the 47 languages in which VOA broadcasts. In addition to their language skills, they are steeped in the history, culture and recent politics of the countries they report on, and they often have hard-to-replace sources and contacts among dissident communities." And now their visas are in jeopardy and they worry about having to leave - some to oppressive regimes.

The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free. Some of the best journalism in the country is paywalled, offered up to a limited, wealthy audience, but disinformation is available to all. The effects of this disparity of information may be profound. (I like patronage models like The Guardian's.)

Trump Might Try to Postpone the Election. That’s Unconstitutional. I just have no way to gauge if this is something that is actually going to happen or if we're all just engaging in hyperbole. Reality just seems so spongey at this point. Maybe both?

The myth of unemployment benefits depressing work. "If anything, research to date suggests the federal benefit supplement has boosted macroeconomic activity and, therefore, likely supported hiring. That’s because these benefits have supported consumer spending, which in turn helps retailers, landlords and other businesses keep workers on their own payrolls." Benefits are not some drag on productivity. They boost the economy and help people in real need.

As election looms, a network of mysterious ‘pink slime’ local news outlets nearly triples in size. "The run-up to the 2020 November elections in the US has produced new networks of shadowy, politically backed “local news websites” designed to promote partisan talking points and collect user data. In December 2019, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism reported on an intricately linked network of 450 sites purporting to be local or business news publications. New research from the Tow Center shows the size of that network has increased almost threefold over the course of 2020, to over 1,200 sites."

What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon. "QAnon is not an ARG. It’s a dangerous conspiracy theory, and there are lots of ways of understanding conspiracy theories without ARGs. But QAnon pushes the same buttons that ARGs do, whether by intention or by coincidence. In both cases, “do your research” leads curious onlookers to a cornucopia of brain-tingling information. In other words, maybe QAnon is… fun?" Also see Dan Hon's excellent deep-dive exploration of this idea.

Ronald Reagan Wasn’t the Good Guy President Anti-Trump Republicans Want You to Believe In. Ronald Reagan was a terrible President. I love that this is just the latest in a series of really high quality explorations in Teen Vogue.

The Unraveling of America. Wade Davis in Rolling Stone on the situation we find ourselves in. Not just the proximal one, but the existential situation that's been building for decades.

'Christianity Will Have Power'. "Evangelicals did not support Mr. Trump in spite of who he is. They supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are. He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly. White straight married couples with children who go to church regularly are no longer the American mainstream. An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction. And Mr. Trump offered to restore them to power, as though they have not been in power all along."

Noam Chomsky wants you to vote for Joe Biden and then haunt his dreams. Sold.

U.S. Government Contractor Embedded Software in Apps to Track Phones. "A small U.S. company with ties to the U.S. defense and intelligence communities has embedded its software in numerous mobile apps, allowing it to track the movements of hundreds of millions of mobile phones world-wide, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal."

Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots. "Anticipating an avalanche of absentee ballots, the U.S. Postal Service recently sent detailed letters to 46 states and D.C. warning that it cannot guarantee all ballots cast by mail for the November election will arrive in time to be counted — adding another layer of uncertainty ahead of the high-stakes presidential contest."

Society and Culture

How a Cheese Goes Extinct. "There are countless ways for a cheese to disappear. Some, like Holbrook’s, die with their makers. Others fall out of favor because they’re simply not good: one extinct Suffolk cheese, “stony-hard” because it was made only with skimmed milk, was so notoriously bad that, in 1825, the Hampshire Chronicle reported that one ship’s cargo of grindstones was eaten by rats while the neighboring haul of Suffolk cheese escaped untouched."

The Global God Divide. I'm on Team Godless. But 44% of Americans say you need to believe in God to be moral.

Indian Matchmaking Exposes the Easy Acceptance of Caste. "The pervasiveness of caste in Indian communities, even beyond the ambit of arranged marriages, has dangerous consequences for those of us born into “lower” castes."

Lilly Wachowski finally confirms that, yes, The Matrix is an allegory for the trans experience. I think this is super-cool.

Lorenzo Wilson Milam, Guru of Community Radio, Is Dead at 86. What an inspiring human being.

Bat Boy Lives! An Oral History of Weekly World News. I used to delight in seeing Weekly World News headlines when I traveled to the US. This history was fascinating to me.

‘Bel-Air’: Drama Series Take On ‘The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’ From Morgan Cooper & Westbrook Studios Heats Up Streaming Marketplace. I cannot overstate how amazing this is.

To the future occupants of my office at the MIT Media Lab. "He was very happy to hear from the current resident of our office, and explained that it should be no problem to get the window up and running. I’d need to set up a dedicated Linux box and download some Python to control the climate logic, but it shouldn’t be that hard to debug. He was willing to help."

Dead plots. Charles Stross on plots no longer available to authors in 2020.

Living in Switzerland ruined me for America and its lousy work culture. I'm a Swiss citizen. Sometimes I think I just might make the jump ... But a lot of what's listed here are things I recognize from Scotland, too.

“This Plane Is Not Going to Land in Cairo”: Saudi Prince Sultan Boarded a Flight in Paris. Then, He Disappeared. Surreal, and evil.


Women Are Leading Latin America’s Fintech Revolution. "Including women entrepreneurs equally could boost the global economy by $5 trillion, and companies with women founders generate 2.5x more revenue for every dollar invested than male-led companies. They also have higher stock prices and a 35 percent higher return on investment."

TikTok and the Law: A Primer (In Case You Need to Explain Things to Your Teenager). Ageism aside, this is a pretty good primer on the legal issues behind the forced TikTok sale.

TikTok and Microsoft’s Clock. "If Microsoft is able to buy the service and users of just the countries listed, how are they going to separate them from the rest of TikTok? Understatement: this sounds extremely complicated. How long will it take to do that? Weeks? Months? Will it operate as-is until that’s completed?"

Ad Industry Launches New Organization, Will Push Google And Apple On Tracking. Pfffft. Good luck with that. Doc Searls, who I hugely respect, wrote a great post on the subject, too.

Can Killing Cookies Save Journalism? "Instead, the company found that ads served to users who opted out of cookies were bringing in as much or more money as ads served to users who opted in. The results were so strong that as of January 2020, NPO simply got rid of advertising cookies altogether. And rather than decline, its digital revenue is dramatically up, even after the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic."

The Need for Speed, 23 Years Later. "The internet is faster, but websites aren't". Instead of embracing speed, we've layered our pages with more and more cruft.

The UX of LEGO Interface Panels. An exploration of UX ideas using LEGO as a cipher. Sure, why not. (It's delightful.)

Scientists rename human genes to stop Microsoft Excel from misreading them as dates. Oops.

Facebook Fired An Employee Who Collected Evidence Of Right-Wing Pages Getting Preferential Treatment. "Individuals that spoke out about the apparent special treatment of right-wing pages have also faced consequences. In one case, a senior Facebook engineer collected multiple instances of conservative figures receiving unique help from Facebook employees, including those on the policy team, to remove fact-checks on their content. His July post was removed because it violated the company’s “respectful communication policy.”" Inexcusable stuff.

Facebook algorithm found to 'actively promote' Holocaust denial. "Last Wednesday Facebook announced it was banning conspiracy theories about Jewish people “controlling the world”. However, it has been unwilling to categorise Holocaust denial as a form of hate speech, a stance that [the Institute for Strategic Dialogue] describe as a “conceptual blind spot”." Understating it somewhat, I would say.

To Head Off Regulators, Google Makes Certain Words Taboo. A surely losing battle to ensure that internal communications revealed during discovery don't suggest monopoly control.

Design Docs at Google. Here heard second hand, but worth studying.

Judge Agrees to End Paramount Consent Decrees. Netflix and its cousins are now free to run movie theater chains.

Google's secret home security superpower: Your smart speaker with its always-on mics. Either super-cool or super-creepy, or maybe creepy-super-cool. Google Home has the ability to listen to your smoke alarm, or for broken glass, and then tell you about it.

tech brain. "what is tech brain? there are lots of things to point to, but if i had to come up with a thesis it would be that tech brain is a sort of constant willful reductionism: an addiction to easy answers combined with a wholesale cultural resistance to any kind of complexity."

Twitter launches new API as it tries to make amends with third-party developers. Once bitten ... but I really appreciate this new, non-advertising-centric direction.

RFC 8890: The Internet is for End Users. "As the Internet increasingly mediates essential functions in societies, it has unavoidably become profoundly political; it has helped people overthrow governments, revolutionize social orders, swing elections, control populations, collect data about individuals, and reveal secrets. It has created wealth for some individuals and companies while destroying that of others. All of this raises the question: For whom do we go through the pain of gathering rough consensus and writing running code?"

A Kenosha Militia Facebook Event Asking Attendees To Bring Weapons Was Reported 455 Times. Moderators Said It Didn’t Violate Any Rules. "In a companywide meeting on Thursday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that a militia page advocating for followers to bring weapons to an upcoming protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, remained on the platform because of “an operational mistake.”" People are dead.

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