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Reading, watching, playing, using: November 2020

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

Books

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson. A sobering, intelligent take on America's unspoken caste system, comparing it to similar systems around the world. For me, the history of how the Nazis looked to America's treatment of its Black population was particularly shocking.

Streaming

The Undoing. You know, I was skeptical, but it worked out well. It's somewhere between absolutely trash TV and a gripping thriller. And I like creepy Hugh Grant way more than I like apparently-charming Hugh Grant.

The Flight Attendant. Fresh off The Big Bang Theory, which I consider to be easily the worst television show ever made, Kaley Cuoco redeems herself in this pulpy, funny, unsettling thriller. It reminded me a bit of Run. Definitely a guilty pleasure watch - but that's kind of what I needed.

Save Yourselves! I felt personally attacked. But this hipsters-are-oblivious-of-an-alien-invasion movie is more of a roast than a takedown, and is absolutely hilarious. Recommended.

Notable Articles

Business

Justice Department Files Antitrust Lawsuit Challenging Visa’s Planned Acquisition of Plaid. “Visa’s con­cerns about Plaid un­der­pinned its de­ci­sion to buy the com­pany and pay a large rev­enue mul­ti­ple for it, the law­suit al­leges. The gov­ern­ment said Visa’s CEO de­scribed the deal as an “in­sur­ance pol­icy” to neu­tral­ize a threat to the com­pa­ny’s debit busi­ness. The law­suit quoted an­other ex­ec­u­tive who in 2019 com­pared Plaid to an is­land “vol­cano” whose cur­rent ca­pa­bil­i­ties are just “the tip show­ing above the wa­ter” and warned that “[w]hat lies be­neath, though, is a mas­sive op­por­tu­nity—one that threat­ens Visa.””

Unexpected & Inevitable. “The investor hears it and at first they don’t believe you. “Nah,” they say, as they start to argue with you whether that’s the way the world really works. Then, after a beat or two, they go, “wait, you’re right.” And after another moment, they think “fuck, that’s the only way it can be.”” I agree with Eric: this is what investors are looking for. You have an insight about the world that most people don’t, and you’re uniquely equipped to capitalize on it.

Spotify to acquire Megaphone. Megaphone is the network formerly known as Panoply. Spotify seems to be single-handedly creating value in the podcast market right now, but Apple has been quietly making acquisitions - like to keep its own ecosystem competitive.

Apple’s Shifting Differentiation. I found this exploration of Apple’s chip strategy to be really interesting. “Instead the future is web apps, with all of the performance hurdles they entail, which is why, from Apple’s perspective, the A-series is arriving just in time. Figma in Electron may destroy your battery, but that destruction will take twice as long, if not more, with an A-series chip inside!”

Women-owned businesses are struggling. Stimulus could help.. "Women and people of color were shut out of much of the initial rounds of stimulus because the program was set up to work through commercial banks. Those who didn’t have an existing relationship with a commercial bank found it harder to access the funds. And because the money ran out quickly, it left many without a lifeline."

The Double Standard of Female CEOs Moving Fast and Breaking Things. “We hold our female CEOs to impossible standards while not holding their male counterparts to high enough ones.”

The privacy fight is heading to the office. “I don't think Americans believe in privacy universally. And it's not a constitutional right. It's like, we have a right to free speech, we have a right to bear arms, we don't have a right to privacy in our federal constitution.”

Google Pay relaunch transforms it into a full-fledged financial service. Of note: “Google has co-branded banking accounts coming up in 2021. The new service, called Plex, essentially allows banks to partner with Google and use Google Pay as their own direct banking app.”

How Venture Capitalists Are Deforming Capitalism. "Even the worst-run startup can beat competitors if investors prop it up. The V.C. firm Benchmark helped enable WeWork to make one wild mistake after another—hoping that its gamble would pay off before disaster struck." VCs are upset about this article, but honestly, to me, it rings true.

Secret Amazon Reports Expose Company Spying on Labor, Environmental Groups. "Dozens of leaked documents from Amazon’s Global Security Operations Center reveal the company’s reliance on Pinkerton operatives to spy on warehouse workers and the extensive monitoring of labor unions, environmental activists, and other social movements." Gross.

Hulu raises Live TV price to $65, matching YouTube TV’s latest price hike. Here’s what I can’t fathom: why people tolerate cable TV at all. Every time I dive into it, I regret it. It’s a morass of shitty ads and low-quality programs that shout at you.

Unilever NZ’s 1-year trial of a 4-day week. I'm very into this.

Culture

The Shape of a Story. A beautiful exploration of narrative plot, Moomins, allegory, and the purpose of story in navigating real-world challenges.

Zillow Surfing Is the Escape We All Need Right Now. Is it? Or is it another form of doomscrolling, searching for places we could never afford in aspiration of an unreachable life we were told we could have? Hey, I'm just asking questions here.

As ‘Doonesbury’ turns 50, Garry Trudeau picks his 10 defining strips. Doonesbury is by far the best syndicated cartoon strip. I'm a lifetime fan. I met Trudeau once, at the Edinburgh Book Festival; we talked about Asterix. Lovely man.

Who’s in the Crossword? I loved this: a data-driven exploration of representation in crossword clues, with insight into how they’re produced.

Media

Confusion at BBC as boss says staff can attend Pride marches after all. “He told staff on Friday morning they would still be allowed to attend LGBT Pride marches, providing they remained celebratory and individuals were not seen to be taking a stand on any “politicised or contested issues”.” This is a ridiculous stance.

Google funds mouthpiece of Rwandan regime. “The worst case scenario for the NGO representative, however, is that „Google is signalling that it is funding repression and supports the muzzling of free speech, the closing of political space in Rwanda and attacks on political opponents and human rights defenders.“”

Travel influencers are being paid to whitewash authoritarian regimes. “Uncritically spreading political propaganda is unethical under all circumstances and especially in the form of branded content, where the lines are very blurry, and the audience might therefore not recognize it as such.”

How a crop of startups are trying to make for-profit local news work. "Evan Smith, the CEO of the Texas Tribune, said that when launching the local politics driven news site more than a decade ago, “We decided that for-profit was a non starter and that the market had failed.”"

News publishers dial up the marketing heat on their subscription products. Subscriptions are far better than advertising as a support mechanism. And news sustainability is deeply important.

Yes, Product Thinking Can Save Journalism. Six Reasons Why News Media Need Product Thinkers. "Knight Lab’s series on product thinking in media started with a question: “Journalism Has Been Disrupted. Can Product Thinking Save It?” After more than 25 years in digital publishing -- and as the editor for the series -- I think the answer is “Yes.”"

Politics

How a C.I.A. Coverup Targeted a Whistle-blower. “The C.I.A. has corrupted F.B.I. agents to violate basic rules as to how the Department of Justice does criminal prosecutions.”

Uber and Lyft had an edge in the Prop 22 fight: their apps. “In the weeks leading up to Election Day, the companies used their respective apps to bombard riders and drivers with messages urging them to vote for Prop 22, the ballot measure.” Let’s please make this illegal.

Evidence suggests several state Senate candidates were plants funded by dark money. Just one of a litany of dirty tricks used in this election.

I Lived Through A Stupid Coup. America Is Having One Now. “Ha ha ha, they lede, who’s going to tell him? Bitch, who’s going to tell you? An illegitimate leader has got all the guns and 40% of your population is down to use them. And y’all got jokes.”

We Need Election Results Everyone Can Believe In. Here’s How.. Smart suggestions for improving trust in our elections (undercutting the kind of FUD we’ve seen this month).

Trump races to weaken environmental and worker protections before January 20. Actively ghoulish.

Society

Why is Covid-19 is killing more men than women in middle age? Scientists are looking for answers not only in underlying health risks but also in biological and external factors. “Over­all, how­ever, men make up about 54% of U.S. deaths, and a sig­nif­i­cantly higher por­tion in mid­dle age. The death-cer­tifi­cate data through late Oc­to­ber show men make up nearly 66% of more than 42,000 Covid-19 deaths oc­cur­ring among peo­ple be­tween their mid-30s and mid-60s.”

Americans, Stop Being Ashamed of Weakness. "Too often in America, we are ashamed of being weak, vulnerable, dependent. We tend to hide our shame. We stay away. We isolate ourselves, rather than show our weakness."

Kamala Harris will be the first HBCU grad in the White House. “It’s not just about her being a Black woman. It’s about her being more than that, the intersectionality of who she is.”

Living With a QAnon Family as the Prophecy Crashes Down. “They’re treating it like there’s going to be an apocalypse — no matter who wins.”

Florida passes $15 minimum wage, a hike that could narrow the gender pay gap. Two important facts here: if a higher minimum wage can be passed in Florida, it can be passed just about anywhere. And it will disproportionately help women and people of color.

The new normal: Women and LGBTQ+ people are buying guns in 2020. “Although there is no official demographic breakdown of gun sales by race or gender, interviews with the gun community — new owners, sales people, analysts and activists — reveal a mounting anxiety among women and LGBTQ+ people, particularly those of color. And some are choosing to arm themselves for the first time.”

Why is life expectancy in the US lower than in other rich countries?. “The short summary of what I will discuss below is that Americans suffer higher death rates from smoking, obesity, homicides, opioid overdoses, suicides, road accidents, and infant deaths. In addition to this, deeper poverty and less access to healthcare mean Americans at lower incomes die at a younger age than poor people in other rich countries.”

Performative philanthropy and the cost of silence. "Days after joining the Criminal Justice Reform department, I was warned by a senior member of the team that I should avoid pushing for grantmaking strategies that centered racial equity, as Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan did not believe race was relevant to the issue of mass incarceration. I was told that previous attempts to educate the couple on this matter had contributed to a former employee being terminated."

Less screen time and more sleep critical for preventing depression. "A cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis of data from the UK Biobank, involving almost 85,000 people, has found that lifestyle factors such as less screen time, adequate sleep, a better-quality diet, and physical activity strongly impact depression." Also, water is wet.

Federal government to execute first woman since 1953. It was a heinous crime, but the death penalty is a disgusting, brutal practice that is not befitting of a supposed democracy.

A dinner party killed my Dad. Please stay safe this Thanksgiving.

AMA: Racism is a threat to public health. “The AMA recognizes that racism negatively impacts and exacerbates health inequities among historically marginalized communities. Without systemic and structural-level change, health inequities will continue to exist, and the overall health of the nation will suffer.”

Period poverty: Scotland first in world to make period products free. I miss living in a progressive nation.

Technology

I became an unwanted woman in tech.“There is something innately different now about my words. They’ve not changed, but their context has entirely shifted. It’s as though I walk around now with a badge that invites dismissal and disrespect. That badge is called womanhood.”

Roam: My New Favorite Software Product. I have a Roam account but I haven’t made it work for me yet. Articles like this make me want to try harder to get on the bandwagon.

A new way to plug a human brain into a computer: Via veins. Do not want. (But future iterations might be more interesting / palatable.)

DHS Buying Cellphone Geolocation Data To Track People. "The Department of Homeland Security is purchasing consumer cellphone data that allows authorities to track immigrants trying to cross the southern border, which privacy advocates say could lead to a vast “surveillance partnership” between the government and private corporations." Hands up if you're surprised.

User Stories Not Wireframes. "User stories provide the context of what a wireframe is for. When you give user stories to a developer, you greatly increase the chances they will be thoughtful about the product and features they are implementing. When they understand the bigger picture — who is this for, what are they trying to accomplish and why are they trying to accomplish it — they can take ownership over the project."

Product Hunt requirements document. A wonderfully concise example of what a good requirements document can look like.

HP ends its customers' lives. There's a reason why the free software movement started with printer drivers. It's mind-boggling to me how HP can continue to be so antagonistic to their customers. (Inkjet printers are the worst deal in technology.)

What using AT&T’s 768kbps DSL is like in 2020—yes, it’s awful. A reminder that if you’re serving all of America, you can’t assume a high-quality broadband connection.

Apple Silicon M1 Chip in MacBook Air Outperforms High-End 16-Inch MacBook Pro. I’m waiting for version 2, but this is super cool.

Your Computer Isn't Yours. "This means that Apple knows when you’re at home. When you’re at work. What apps you open there, and how often. They know when you open Premiere over at a friend’s house on their Wi-Fi, and they know when you open Tor Browser in a hotel on a trip to another city."

Parler, Backed by Mercer Family, Makes Play for Conservatives Mad at Facebook, Twitter. Bleuch.

How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the internet. I’m not a gamer, so I was late to Discord. But it does feel like part of the future of online communities.

The iOS COVID-19 app ecosystem has become a privacy minefield. “It's hard to justify why a lot of these apps would need your constant location, your microphone, your photo library.” Relatively few of these apps use the comparatively privacy-protecting APIs developed by Apple and Google.

How the U.S. Military Buys Location Data from Ordinary Apps. “A Muslim prayer app with over 98 million downloads is one of the apps connected to a wide-ranging supply chain that sends ordinary people's personal data to brokers, contractors, and the military.” This is spectacularly not okay.

We Need Mandatory Enduser APIs for Social and Search Systems. This is an older piece (from 2018) but it still holds up, and I agree with it completely.

As internet forums die off, finding community can be harder than ever. It feels like this problem has been solved lots of times over on the internet - but it's both a huge problem and a real opportunity for the right startup.

How a young, queer Asian-American businesswoman is rethinking user safety at Twitter. “Su's goals sit at the heart of what could become a very different Twitter one day, if — and it remains a very big conditional — the company is serious about the changes it's been signaling over the last year.” Fingers crossed.

Rock-star programmer: Rivers Cuomo finds meaning in coding. The only time "rock star programmer" is an acceptable phrase.

The Secrets of Monkey Island's Source Code. A deep look into assets and code behind my favorite game of all time.

‘Tokenized’: Inside Black Workers’ Struggles at Coinbase. “One Black employee said her manager suggested in front of colleagues that she was dealing drugs and carrying a gun, trading on racist stereotypes. Another said a co-worker at a recruiting meeting broadly described Black employees as less capable. Still another said managers spoke down to her and her Black colleagues, adding that they were passed over for promotions in favor of less experienced white employees.”

Building your own website is cool again, and it's changing the whole internet. All hail the indieweb. I’m here for it.