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Reading, watching, playing, using: October 2020

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

This month I've changed my process a little: I save my links to a Notion database, export them at the end of the month, and convert them into a blog post using a small script. Instead of taking a couple of hours at the end of the month to put the post together, I save my thoughts on each link as I read it, and collation at the end (in iA Writer) takes much less time.

Streaming

The Queen's Gambit. A beautifully written, impeccably acted drama with gorgeous cinematography and superb attention to detail. I'm still working through it, but I can't recommend it enough.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. It's been pretty controversial, and it's often in hugely bad taste, but I found the broad humor at the expense of American bigotry to be cathartic. And yes, "that" Giuliani scene is everything it's been reported to be.

Seven Seconds. This new-to-me police drama based on a Russian movie is really well done: a story about police corruption and how our criminal justice system fails the people who need it the most.

Ted Lasso. Sure, it's ostensibly about sports, which isn't usually my thing. But it's also a really optimistic, funny comedy that mines a lot of humor from the cultural differences between the US and UK, which is really my thing. Very occasionally it goes broader than it needs to, particularly in its first few minutes, but there's something here for everyone.

Notable Articles

Business

How we built a $1m ARR SaaS startup. I’m always interested to read peoples’ journeys. This one is very clearly written, with lots to think about.

The end of the American internet. “80-90% of internet users are now outside the USA, there are more smartphone users in China than in the USA and western Europe combined, and the creation of venture-based startups has gone global.” This is a broadly good thing: the internet was always American-led, for better or for worse. As the platforms that dominate it become more internationally-based, it becomes less of a monoculture.

Why the Survival of the Airlines Depends on Frequent Flyer Programs. “The Financial Times pegs the value of Delta’s loyalty program at a whopping $26 billion, American Airlines at $24 billion, and United at $20 billion. All of these valuations are comfortably above the market capitalization of the airlines themselves — Delta is worth $19 billion, American $6 billion, and United $10 billion. In other words, if you take away the loyalty program, Delta’s real-world airline operation — with hundreds of planes, a world-beating maintenance operation, landing rights, brand recognition, and experienced executives — is worth roughly negative $7 billion.”

Facebook Just Forced Its Most Powerful Critics Offline. “The Real Facebook Oversight Board, a group established last month in response to the tech giant’s failure to get its actual Oversight Board up and running before the presidential election, was forced offline on Wednesday night after Facebook wrote to the internet service provider demanding the group’s website — realfacebookoversight.org — be taken offline.” Ridiculously petty.

How Clubhouse brought the culture war to Silicon Valley’s venture capital community. "I am convinced that most people in the tech world do not understand the role of a free media in a liberal society."

San Francisco Apartment Rents Crater Up to 31%, Most in U.S. During Covid. “One-bedroom rents in San Francisco fell 24% and two-bedrooms were down 21%, to $2,873 and $3,931 a month, respectively.” Still way too high.

How to Stay Sane While Working at Home. “Staying happy, healthy and productive requires effort when you’re working at home. This essay provides five suggestions for keeping things on an even keel.”

The warmth/competence matrix for women, from the West Wing to the workplace. "The warmth / competence matrix is a useful tool to optimize a leader’s influence in the workplace, especially during a crisis." I found this to be a fascinating insight into how women are stereotyped and held back at work.

U.S. Accuses Google of Illegally Protecting Monopoly. “The Justice Department accused Google of maintaining an illegal monopoly over search and search advertising in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the government’s most significant legal challenge to a tech company’s market power in a generation.” The most significant lawsuit in the tech industry since Microsoft’s own antitrust suit. Whatever happens here, it will remake the internet industry forever.

Surveillance Startup Used Own Cameras to Harass Coworkers. "The big picture for me having worked at the company is that it has opened my eyes to how surveillance can be abused by the people in power."

Reviewing Ben Thompson’s Stratechery. “Competition driven by quality reflects what antitrust and net neutrality advocates want competition to look like — i.e. the better product wins, instead of whomever owns the pipes (or the channels). But that doesn’t mean it is what competition actually does look like, even on the internet.”

Culture

Correction by Hal Maclean. We regret the error.

Work, Float, Eat, Dream: Life on the International Space Station. “You need to become an extraterrestrial person.” First-hand descriptions of what it’s like to live on the ISS. What an adventure.

A Book Of Beasts – an accumulation of things. A very sweet modern bestiary.

Praise Song for the Kitchen Ghosts. “Remembering her grandmother’s jam cake, biscuits, and sweet black tea, Crystal Wilkinson evokes a legacy of joy, love, and plenty in the culinary traditions of Black Appalachia.”

Inside Creative Growth, the Always Inspiring Oakland-Based Incubator For Artists With Disabilities. My friend Madelyn works at Creative Growth. As well as the insightful New Yorker profile, it’s fun to see examples of the art made there. This organization is a gem, and we need more like it.

How a Revered Studio for Artists with Disabilities Is Surviving at a Distance. “As their artists endure month after month of quarantine, Creative Growth faces an extreme version of the dilemmas that other arts organizations and educational institutions have struggled with during the pandemic: if your purpose is to foster the ideal conditions for learning and making things together, how do you proceed when those conditions are suddenly impossible?”

The return of Spitting Image shows how toothless British satire has become. When I was growing up, Spitting Image was an important part of the social landscape. The satire was biting. This modern reboot sounds rubbish. In life and comedy, the rule is: always punch up.

His Writing Radicalized Young Hackers. Now He Wants to Redeem Them. "Doctorow says that the intention of Attack Surface wasn’t to swing in the other direction on the spectrum between “nerd triumphalism” and “nerd despair,” as he puts it. Instead, it’s to find a more nuanced middle ground, one that acknowledges that technology can win some battles, but that others must be won with human willpower and political struggle, sometimes with the aim of controlling technology’s most dangerous applications."

Noelle Stevenson Shares Her Coming Out Story in an Original Comic. This is completely lovely on every level.

Easily Diminished at the Edges by Amanda Hollander. “Fay had expected many different emotions in the wake of the aliens arriving, but she had not anticipated the ennui.”

Shonda Rhimes Is Ready to "Own Her S***": The Game-Changing Showrunner on Leaving ABC, "Culture Shock" at Netflix and Overcoming Her Fears. “Shonda Rhimes was tired of the battles. She was producing some 70 hours of annual television in 256 territories; she was making tens of millions of dollars for herself and more than $2 billion for Disney, and still there were battles with ABC. They'd push, she'd push back. Over budget. Over content. Over an ad she and the stars of her series — Grey's Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder — made for then-presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.” A fascinating portrait of an inspiring creator.

About Face. A remarkable graphic essay about authoritarian cultural signifiers, conformity, and an alarming breakdown in American society.

WarGames: A Look Back at the Film That Turned Geeks and Phreaks Into Stars. The film that got me - and so many other people - into computing. It’s a fundamentally ethical, anti nuclear war film.

The NYT Best-Seller List Has an Awful Lot of Right-Wing Trump-Loving Conservative Authors. ... and they’re buying their way there. This is a bigger problem than political books, but it’s clear that conservative authors in particular are purchasing legitimacy.

Media

UK gov report links local newspaper circulation and voter turnout: Absence of journalism in some areas potentially 'catastrophic'. "Government -backed research has found that for every percentage point growth in a local daily newspaper’s circulation, electoral turnout on its patch goes up by 0.37 percentage points."

James Murdoch: Rebellious Scion. “A contest of ideas shouldn’t be used to legitimize disinformation. And I think it’s often taken advantage of. And I think at great news organizations, the mission really should be to introduce fact to disperse doubt — not to sow doubt, to obscure fact.”

Kat Downs Mulder named managing editor/digital of The Washington Post. It’s exciting to see a product leader take on this kind of role in media.

The Problem of Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation. “Other democracies, in Europe and elsewhere, have taken a different approach. Despite more regulations on speech, these countries remain democratic; in fact, they have created better conditions for their citizenry to sort what’s true from what’s not and to make informed decisions about what they want their societies to be. Here in the United States, meanwhile, we’re drowning in lies.”

Facebook Stymied Traffic to Left-Leaning News Outlets. “Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein expressed frustration with Facebook in a Twitter thread Friday, explaining that the loss of traffic had “real effects” on the organization. Mother Jones saw a roughly $400,000 drop in the site’s annual revenue, and couldn’t fill positions or pursue certain projects as a result, she said.” No single company should ever have this kind of power.

Climate news Trump can use. “The vast majority of news stories published about Biden’s climate plan since Thursday’s presidential debate have adopted the Trump campaign’s framing of the conflict. They focus solely on Trump’s attacks on Biden’s climate plan, and ignore the fact that Trump doesn’t have a climate plan at all.” Infuriating when so much is at stake.

Politics

‘Where are all of the arrests?’: Trump demands Barr lock up his foes. “Donald Trump mounted an overnight Twitter blitz demanding to jail his political enemies and call out allies he says are failing to arrest his rivals swiftly enough.” Seems like a normal thing that definitely happens in a democratic society.

Is America in Decline?. A fascinating discussion between J. Bradford DeLong and Om Malik on Pairagraph, which seems like an interesting platform for intellectual debates.

The Swamp That Trump Built. “An investigation by The Times found over 200 companies, special-interest groups and foreign governments that patronized Mr. Trump’s properties while reaping benefits from him and his administration. Nearly a quarter of those patrons have not been previously reported.”

Don’t know any COVID-19 patients who’ve died or been in the hospital? That may explain a lot. “Other research suggests that a failure to embrace COVID-19 restrictions may be fueled by a lack of empathy, in the same way that someone in rural Pennsylvania may not view urban gun violence as an urgent problem, or that those without military family members may give less thought to the ongoing toll of combat.”

As Trump Flouts Safety Protocols, News Outlets Balk at Close Coverage. “Among the concerns raised by reporters: Many flight attendants and Secret Service agents on Air Force One have not worn masks; White House aides who tested positive for the coronavirus, or were potentially exposed, are returning to work before the end of a two-week quarantine; and the campaign has instituted few restrictions at the raucous rallies that Mr. Trump is now pledging to hold on a regular basis until Election Day.”

Inside the Fall of the CDC. “How the world’s greatest public health organization was brought to its knees by a virus, the president and the capitulation of its own leaders, causing damage that could last much longer than the coronavirus.”

HHS halts a taxpayer-funded advertising effort that aimed to ‘defeat despair, inspire hope’ on the pandemic by using Santa and celebrities like Dennis Quaid. The single most insane scandal of the Trump administration. I can’t stop laughing about it. Don’t miss the audio.

Judge cites Trump tweets in restricting feds at protests. “A federal judge found Friday that tweets by President Donald Trump helped incite improper conduct by federal officers responding to racial justice demonstrations in Portland, Oregon.” Finally.

Biden Camp Cancels Austin, Texas Event After Pro-Trump ‘Ambush’ on Campaign Bus. ““We’ve got you now,” the man shouted. “You’re going to vote for Trump whether you like it or not, you’ve got no choice.”” This whole account is genuinely frightening, not just in itself, but for the implications.

Society

Stay-at-home orders cut noise exposure nearly in half. “People’s exposure to environmental noise dropped nearly in half during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, according to University of Michigan researchers who analyzed data from the Apple Hearing Study.”

How Teens Handled Quarantine. “The percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower in 2020 than in 2018, and the percentage who were unhappy or dissatisfied with life was only slightly higher.” It turns out that making kids go to school at ungodly hours has a negative effect. Who knew?

8 Million Have Slipped Into Poverty Since May as Federal Aid Has Dried Up. “The number of poor people has grown by eight million since May, according to researchers at Columbia University, after falling by four million at the pandemic’s start as a result of a $2 trillion emergency package known as the Cares Act.”

Megan Thee Stallion: Why I Speak Up for Black Women. “Wouldn’t it be nice if Black girls weren’t inundated with negative, sexist comments about Black women? If they were told instead of the many important things that we’ve achieved?”

Exam Surveillance Tools Monitor, Record Students During Tests. “On one occasion, I was ‘flagged’ for movement and obscuring my eyes. I have trichotillomania triggered by my anxiety, which is why my hand was near my face. Explaining this to my professor was nightmarish.” It’s absurd that students are so afraid that they’re not using their real names. Abolish surveillance - at school and everywhere.

The House on Blue Lick Road. I should probably start a “weird” category. Don’t miss this link.

'We are broken': Montana health care workers battle growing Covid outbreak. “If I have to stay late after working, if it means doing it on my day off. They're not going to pass alone on my unit. Again. None of them.” Healthcare workers are superheroes and I’m grateful for all of them.

Technology

What Working At Stripe Has Been Like. A pretty great summary of working for Stripe during a period of hypergrowth from Patrick McKenzie, who famously was a successful sole operator beforehand.

SpaceX Is Building a Military Rocket to Ship Weapons Anywhere in the World. "SpaceX and the Pentagon just signed a contract to jointly develop a new rocket that can launch into space and deliver up to 80 tons of cargo and weaponry anywhere in the world — in just one hour." We should not be uncritically cheerleading for this company.

Cory Doctorow: ‘Technologists have failed to listen to non-technologists’. "Technologists have failed to listen to non-technologists. In technological circles, there’s a quantitative fallacy that if you can’t do maths on it, you can just ignore it. And so you just incinerate the qualitative elements and do maths on the dubious quantitative residue that remains. This is how you get physicists designing models for reopening American schools – because they completely fail to take on board the possibility that students might engage in, say, drunken eyeball-licking parties, which completely trips up the models."

Git scraping: track changes over time by scraping to a Git repository. A really smart way to track changes to a website or dataset over time and commit it to git. The example, using fire data, is brilliant.

Data & Society — Good Intentions, Bad Inventions. “Lenhart and Owens break down 4 common “healthy tech” myths by explaining where they come from, what they obscure, and how we can move beyond them. Intended for those designing, developing, and regulating emerging technologies, the primer provides teams with fresh ideas for how to analyze and improve user well-being.”

When It Rains, Rotterdam’s Bikers Get To Go Through Lights Faster. “Now, when it starts to shower, the traffic lights prioritize cyclists so they don’t wait so long to cross. At the same time, car drivers need to wait a little longer, because they are inside and can stay dry.” I think this is the coolest thing.

Various first words. “The first characters sent on ARPANET, the predecessor to the internet, by Charley Kline, 1969: lo – for “login,” but it crashed.”

How Google Drive Can Make Every Corner of Your Life Easier. An absolutely epic guide to the platform, with full instructions for every tip.

Something Awful, a Cornerstone of Internet Culture, Is Under New Ownership. It was (1) a hugely important source of early internet culture, (2) a cesspool.

50 years ago, I helped invent the internet. How did it go so wrong? “When I was a young scientist working on the fledgling creation that came to be known as the internet, the ethos that defined the culture we were building was characterized by words such as ethical, open, trusted, free, shared. None of us knew where our research would lead, but these words and principles were our beacon.”

Flamethrowers and Fire Extinguishers – a review of “The Social Dilemma”. This is how I felt about The Social Dilemma, too. It’s an important problem that needs to be discussed. But I wouldn’t trust the people who claim to have the solutions here. Not at all.

Moxie Marlinspike Has a Plan to Reclaim Our Privacy. Moxie is a hero of mine, and Signal is one of the most important apps and projects on the internet. This portrait only increased my respect for him.

Animals Keep Evolving Into Crabs, Which Is Somewhat Disturbing. I’m ready.

Dutch Ethical Hacker Logs into Trump’s Twitter Account. The President of the United States had set his password to “maga2020!”

Apple, Google and a Deal That Controls the Internet. “Apple now receives an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion in annual payments — up from $1 billion a year in 2014 — in exchange for building Google’s search engine into its products. It is probably the single biggest payment that Google makes to anyone and accounts for 14 to 21 percent of Apple’s annual profits.”

Police are using facial recognition for minor crimes because they can. “Law enforcement is tapping the tech for low-level crimes like shoplifting, because there are no limits. But the tool often makes errors.”

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.”