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Reading, watching, playing, using: April, 2021

This is my monthly roundup of the media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for April, 2021.

Books

Captain America Vol. 1: Winter In America, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. To be honest, I was expecting more. Ta-Nehisi Coates is such a brilliant writer, but this volume felt minimalist to the point of being abstracted away from the drama. It does set up the story for a little more, but not enough more. Still, it felt good to read a comic book again - it’s been quite a while.

Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. I read it in one sitting, mesmerized by the writing and the articulation of a recognizable kind of sadness. This is the kind of book I would write if I was brave enough: almost certainly not as skillfully, but with an intention to gather the dark corners of solitude and weaving it into poetry. The translation is superb; I wish I could read it in its original French.

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart. Immersive and real. I could smell Glasgow in every page. The desperation of these well-rounded characters trying to survive through post-industrial poverty, and the moments of human beauty despite it all, ring true. The writing is excellent; the heart at the center of it all beats strong.

Streaming

Nomadland. Naturalistic to the point that fiction and reality are blurred. Frances McDormand gives an impressive performance as always, but what really stands out are the real-life characters drawn into the story. Their lives are written across their faces; tragic but defiant.

The Father. Anchored by kaleidoscopic writing and nuanced performances, we see one man’s dementia play out from all sides. The set is a character in itself, reflecting slips of memory and a rapidly unraveling relationship with time. Watching it from the context of my own parents’ - albeit very different - failing health was tough. One of those films where quiet recognition leaves you cathartically weeping alone in the dark.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines. I guffawed. A lot. Packed full of in-jokes, this has everything you’d expect from the people who made Into the Spider-Verse and The LEGO Movie. A+, five stars.

Notable Articles

Business

The Mysterious Case of the F*cking Good Pizza. “Suddenly, I was seized by a need to get to the bottom of a matter that felt like a glitch in the fabric of my humdrum pandemic existence: Where did these clickbait restaurant brands come from, even if they didn’t seem to technically exist? And why did delivery marketplaces across the U.S., and countries around the world, suddenly seem to be flooded with them?”

The Wrong Kind of Splash. Om on Unsplash: “I was a fan up until last evening when I got an email announcing that the company was being acquired by none other than Getty Images. Hearing this was like a red hot spike through the eyes. A startup whose raison d’être was to upend draconian and amoral companies like Getty Images was going to now be part of Getty. Even after I have had time to process it, the news isn’t sitting well with me.”

Let Your Employees Ask Questions. “But you also have to recognize that as a founder, you’re empowered to fuck things up. If you spend three months chasing a market that turns outs to be a dead end, nobody is going to fire you. You own the place. If someone does that at a large company, they’re maybe getting fired. And your employees will bring that reticence to your startup. So, early on, plan on providing feedback and answering a lot of questions about how you want things to get done.”

Investing in Firefly Health. This announcement caught my attention for this: “Health insurance is undergoing a rapid cycle of unbundling and repackaging. Vertically-integrated “payviders” (groups that both pay for services, like an insurer would, and administer those services, like a provider would) are emerging as a new standard, and provider networks are being recontoured as virtual-first care models take root.” I have some thoughts on what the ultimate “payvider” would be - but I wonder if these sorts of services will help get America more comfortable with the idea of a real healthcare system.

How Index Funds May Hurt the Economy. "In recent decades, the whole economy has gone on autopilot. Index-fund investment is hyperconcentrated. So is online retail. So are pharmaceuticals. So is broadband. Name an industry, and it is likely dominated by a handful of giant players. That has led to all sorts of deleterious downstream effects: suppressing workers’ wages, raising consumer prices, stifling innovation, stoking inequality, and suffocating business creation. The problem is not just the indexers. It is the public markets they reflect, where more chaos, more speculation, more risk, more innovation, and more competition are desperately needed."

If You Love Us, Pay Us: A letter from Sean Combs to Corporate America. "Corporations like General Motors have exploited our culture, undermined our power, and excluded Black entrepreneurs from participating in the value created by Black consumers. In 2019, brands spent $239 billion on advertising. Less than 1% of that was invested in Black-owned media companies. Out of the roughly $3 billion General Motors spent on advertising, we estimate only $10 million was invested in Black-owned media. Only $10 million out of $3 billion! Like the rest of Corporate America, General Motors is telling us to sit down, shut up and be happy with what we get."

Amazon Workers Defeat Union Effort in Alabama. "The company’s decisive victory deals a crushing blow to organized labor, which had hoped the time was ripe to start making inroads." Pretty disappointing.

Why Can’t American Workers Just Relax?. “Alarmed by the toll of increasingly nonexistent boundaries between work and home during the pandemic, a growing number of nations want to help their citizens unplug when they’re done with work. In the last few months, several governments, including Canada, the E.U., Ireland, and even Japan—which invented the word karoshi, for death by overwork—announced they’re considering “right to disconnect” laws. Similar laws are already on the books in Argentina, Belgium, Chile, France, Ireland, Italy, the Philippines, and Spain.” Some great links to movements for better working conditions here.

Personal Reflection: Empathy In The Workplace. "The best empathetic leaders are frequently grounded in authentic emotional connectivity with those on their team and beyond. Empathy in this context conveys sincere optimism about how “we can make it through life’s challenges together” and gives others the sense of “team” at a time when they feel most vulnerable and alone. Positive corporate culture creates this emotional support in the organization that goes well beyond tackling corporate objectives."

Six fun remote team building activities. Range is leading the way on organizational culture. This is so great. I bought a SnackMagic box for my team.

Changes at Basecamp. This is a shockingly regressive move from Basecamp, a company that literally wrote the book on building team culture. While "paternalistic benefits" like gym memberships are arguable, not being able to discuss societal context or give feedback to your peers in a structured way paves the way for a monoculture that excludes entire demographics of people. Basecamp's workers should unionize. This is the exact opposite of what an inclusive, empathetic company should be doing.

An Open Letter to Jason and David. "Anyways, it appears your reaction to the pleas and asks to recognize that Basecamp already represents a diversity of experiences and that we want the company’s software and policies to do the same has once again been lacking and disproportionate. But what’s particularly disappointing is the direction of your reaction. The oppressive direction. The silencing direction."

Culture

1984: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A wonderful look back on one of the best games ever made, co-authored by Douglas Adams himself.

Non-Fungible Taylor Swift. “To put it another way, while we used to pay for plastic discs and thought we were paying for songs (or newspapers/writing or cable/TV stars), empowering distribution over creators, today we pay with both money and attention according to the direction of creators, giving them power over everyone. If the creator decides that their NFTs are important, they will have value; if they decide their show is worthless, it will not.”

Media

Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack. “Danny Lavery had just agreed to a two-year, $430,000 contract with the newsletter platform Substack when I met him for coffee last week in Brooklyn, and he was deciding what to do with the money.” Some notable details here about Substack’s behind the scenes deals.

NPR will roll out paid subscriptions to its podcasts. Worth saying that PRX's founder Jake Shapiro now works at Apple on podcasts. This is a good partnership, and I trust Jake to maintain an open ecosystem.

SiriusXM Is Buying ‘99% Invisible,’ and Street Cred in Podcasting. "Under the new arrangement, “99% Invisible” will remain available at no cost on all platforms supported by ads. But the parties may explore exclusive partnerships for some products down the line. In addition to a large catalog of free podcasts that are available on all platforms, Stitcher sells a premium service offering special features from podcasts it has a relationship with — including ad-free listening, early access and bonus content — for $4.99 per month."

Politics

Justice Dept. Inquiry Into Matt Gaetz Said to Be Focused on Cash Paid to Women. “A Justice Department investigation into Representative Matt Gaetz and an indicted Florida politician is focusing on their involvement with multiple women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments, according to people close to the investigation and text messages and payment receipts reviewed by The New York Times.”

Yellen calls for a global minimum corporate tax rate. I think I'm in favor of this? But it seems difficult to implement in practice.

What Georgia’s Voting Law Really Does. “The New York Times analyzed the state’s new 98-page voting law and identified 16 key provisions that will limit ballot access, potentially confuse voters and give more power to Republican lawmakers.”

Big Tech Is Pushing States to Pass Privacy Laws, and Yes, You Should Be Suspicious. “The Markup reviewed existing and proposed legislation, committee testimony, and lobbying records in more than 20 states and identified 14 states with privacy bills built upon the same industry-backed framework as Virginia’s, or with weaker models. The bills are backed by a who’s who of Big Tech–funded interest groups and are being shepherded through statehouses by waves of company lobbyists.”

Science

COVID was bad for the climate. “To keep global warming under 2°C, we’d need sustained emissions reductions in this range every year for the next 20-30 years. The pandemic has been hugely disruptive, but it’s still temporary, and all signs point to a strong recovery. The drop in emissions was largely caused by lockdown, not persistent structural changes that will persist for decades to come.”

Finding From Particle Research Could Break Known Laws of Physics. “Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle called a muon is disobeying the laws of physics as we thought we knew them, scientists announced on Wednesday.” So exciting!

A Surprising Number Of Sea Monster Sightings Can Be Explained By Whale Erections. Today I learned.

American Honey Is Radioactive From Decades of Nuclear Bomb Testing. "The world’s nuclear powers have detonated more than 500 nukes in the atmosphere. These explosions were tests, shows of force to rival nations, and proof that countries such as Russia, France, and the U.S. had mastered the science of the bomb. The world’s honey has suffered for it. According to a new study published in Nature Communications, honey in the United States is full of fallout lingering from those atmospheric nuclear tests."

Flu Has Disappeared Worldwide during the COVID Pandemic. ““There’s just no flu circulating,” says Greg Poland, who has studied the disease at the Mayo Clinic for decades. The U.S. saw about 600 deaths from influenza during the 2020-2021 flu season. In comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated there were roughly 22,000 deaths in the prior season and 34,000 two seasons ago.”

Society

Estimates and Projections of COVID-19 and Parental Death in the US. "The number of children experiencing a parent dying of COVID-19 is staggering, with an estimated 37,300 to 43,000 already affected. For comparison, the attacks on September 11, 2001, left 3000 children without a parent."

Clearview AI Offered Thousands Of Cops Free Trials. “A controversial facial recognition tool designed for policing has been quietly deployed across the country with little to no public oversight. According to reporting and data reviewed by BuzzFeed News, more than 7,000 individuals from nearly 2,000 public agencies nationwide have used Clearview AI to search through millions of Americans’ faces, looking for people, including Black Lives Matter protesters, Capitol insurrectionists, petty criminals, and their own friends and family members.”

What an analysis of 377 Americans arrested or charged in the Capitol insurrection tells us . "Nor were these insurrectionists typically from deep-red counties. Some 52 percent are from blue counties that Biden comfortably won. But by far the most interesting characteristic common to the insurrectionists’ backgrounds has to do with changes in their local demographics: Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic White population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges."

Reflexive McLuhanism. "To paraphrase Churchill: First we shape X, then X shapes us. If a defining characteristic of humanity is making and using tools, then a defining characteristic of society is being shaped by those same tools."

‘My full name is Tanyaradzwa’: the stars reclaiming their names. "Names are important and they have meaning, said the cultural historian and campaigner Patrick Vernon, whether that is familial significance or the time or day someone was born, for example. “The fact that people still feel they have to change or anglicise their names, and water down their heritage to fit in or succeed within the dominant culture, says we’ve still got a long way to go.”"

My Son, the Organ Donor. "My son’s vital organs saved four lives. His skin and other tissue donations will go on to help countless others. His strong heart now vigorously thumps inside the chest of a teenage boy." Please consider signing up to be a donor.

How to Name Your Black Son in a Racist Country. "And then warn him. Inform your son that he will likely be the only Tyrone in the cohort of 100 Americans and that there will be white people in his cohort who think gentrification is a good thing and who do not read. Let him know that those white people are not worth his time and that he should make a group chat with the six other Black folks in his cohort because he will regret not doing so later."

Get Ready for Blob Girl Summer. "So many people have died this year, millions, and I have survived to take into my body a miraculous shot that is the very flower of medical science, a code written in my genome to lock out the great threat. And I, imbibing this, have the temerity to not even be sexy. If Vaxxed Girl Summer is meant to be a kind of pan-cultural Rumspringa I ought to be someone that transcends schlubhood under its thrilling aegis. And yet."

Technology

NFT Canon. “The a16z NFT Canon is a curated list of readings and resources on all things NFTs, organized from the big picture, what NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are and why they matter... to how to mint, collect, and do more with them -- including how they play into various applications such as art, music, gaming, social tokens, more.”

Asian Americans in tech say they face ‘a unique flavor of oppression’. “Diversity training was "half-assed, whitewashed," she said. No one said the words "white supremacy" or "institutionalized racism."”

Social Attention: a modest prototype in shared presence. “My take is that the web could feel warmer and more lively than it is. Visiting a webpage could feel a little more like visiting a park and watching the world go by. Visiting my homepage could feel just a tiny bit like stopping by my home.” Nice proof of concept.

Google wins copyright clash with Oracle over computer code. “In siding with Google, Breyer wrote that, assuming for the sake of argument that the lines of code can be copyrighted, Google’s copying is nonetheless fair use. The fair-use doctrine permits unauthorized use of copyrighted material in some circumstances, including when the copying “transforms” the original material to create something new.” An important win in for Google at the Supreme Court.

Target CIO Mike McNamara makes a cloud declaration of independence. It makes sense that Target would want to move away from AWS, and their approach avoids lock-in to any cloud provider. All of this is made possible by free and open source software tools.

At Dynamicland, The Building Is The Computer. "Instead of simulating things like paper and pencils inside a computer, Realtalk grants computational value to everyday objects in the world. The building is the computer. Space is a first-class entity — a building block of computation. Digital projectors, cameras, and computers are inconspicuously attached to the ceiling rafters, creating space on tables and walls for projects and collaboration. Most of the software is printed on paper and runs on paper. But the deeper idea is that when the system recognizes any physical object, it becomes a computational object." Magical.

Signal adopts MobileCoin, a crypto project linked to its own creator Moxie Marlinspike. "Security expert Bruce Schneier thinks it’s an incredibly bad idea that “muddies the morality of the product, and invites all sorts of government investigative and regulatory meddling: by the IRS, the SEC, FinCEN, and probably the FBI.” He thinks the two apps—crypto and secure communications—should remain separate. In his mind, this is going to ruin Signal for everyone."

After Working at Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again. "After I quit, I promised myself to never love a job again. Not in the way I loved Google. Not with the devotion businesses wish to inspire when they provide for employees’ most basic needs like food and health care and belonging. No publicly traded company is a family. I fell for the fantasy that it could be."

Revealed: the Facebook loophole that lets world leaders deceive and harass their citizens. “The investigation shows how Facebook has allowed major abuses of its platform in poor, small and non-western countries in order to prioritize addressing abuses that attract media attention or affect the US and other wealthy countries. The company acted quickly to address political manipulation affecting countries such as the US, Taiwan, South Korea and Poland, while moving slowly or not at all on cases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mongolia, Mexico, and much of Latin America.”

DoJ used court order to thwart hundreds of Microsoft Exchange web shells. “In an unprecedented move, the Department of Justice used a court order to dismantle ‘hundreds’ of web shells installed using Exchange Server vulnerabilities patched by Microsoft six weeks ago.” A court order that allowed the FBI to go in and pre-emptively patch compromised systems. Fascinating.

Australian firm Azimuth unlocked the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone for the FBI. “Azimuth specialized in finding significant vulnerabilities. Dowd, a former IBM X-Force researcher whom one peer called “the Mozart of exploit design,” had found one in open-source code from Mozilla that Apple used to permit accessories to be plugged into an iPhone’s lightning port, according to the person.”

Exploiting vulnerabilities in Cellebrite UFED and Physical Analyzer from an app's perspective. "Cellebrite makes software to automate physically extracting and indexing data from mobile devices. They exist within the grey – where enterprise branding joins together with the larcenous to be called “digital intelligence.” Their customer list has included authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Russia, Venezuela, and China; death squads in Bangladesh; military juntas in Myanmar; and those seeking to abuse and oppress in Turkey, UAE, and elsewhere. A few months ago, they announced that they added Signal support to their software." This is a genuinely incredible blog post.

Why not faster computation via evolution and diffracted light. "What is the ultimate limit of computational operations per gram of the cosmos, and why don’t we have compilers that are targeting that as a substrate? I would like to know that multiple." Inspiring and mind-bending in that way that many genuinely new ideas are: connecting multiple existing ideas to create something fresh. A really great blog post.

University duo thought it would be cool to sneak bad code into Linux as an experiment. Of course, it absolutely backfired. "Computer scientists at the University of Minnesota theorized they could sneak vulnerabilities into open-source software – but when they tried subverting the Linux kernel, it backfired spectacularly."

Read Facebook's Internal Report About Its Role In The Capitol Insurrection. "From the earliest Groups, we saw high levels of Hate, VNI, and delegitimization, combined with meteoric growth rates — almost all of the fastest growing FB Groups were Stop the Steal during their peak growth. Because we were looking at each entity individually, rather than as a cohesive movement, we were only able to take down individual Groups and Pages once they exceeded a violation threshold. We were not able to act on simple objects like posts and comments because they individually tended not to violate, even if they were surrounded by hate, violence, and misinformation. After the Capitol Insurrection and a wave of Storm the Capitol events across the country, we realized that the individual delegitimizing Groups, Pages, and slogans did constitute a cohesive movement."