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Reading, watching, playing, using: May 2021

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

Books

Wintering, by Katherine May. Unmistakably written from a position of privilege, I nonetheless found this book to be a kind of warm hug; the written equivalent of a cup of hot chocolate on an icy day. I did find myself occasionally irritated by how carefree this supposedly troublesome life actually was, but mostly I found myself yearning to live in the Love, Actually world she seems to inhabit.

PET, by Akwaeke Emezi. Slight but heavy: a fantasy story with strong themes about ethics, family, history, and the line between good and evil - all drawn together with strong characters and beautiful prose. For me, the epilogue let the story down a little bit with emotion that didn't quite ring true. Nonetheless, I'm quickly learning that I'll follow Akwaeke Emezi anywhere.

While Justice Sleeps, by Stacey Abrams. This was closer to a Dan Brown or John Grisham novel than I’d anticipated: a taut thriller that occasionally stretches plausibility but is a lot of fun from beginning to end. It turns out Stacey Abrams can do it all. I hope there’s a movie.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers: A Memoir, by Jenn Shapland. Infused with longing and written with an eye for poetry, this is a personal exploration of the boundary between love and possession: between lovers, between queer people and communities not ready to accept them, between a long-dead author and her biographer. I found it thought-provoking, sad, and in some ways, triumphant: a suppressed love story finally taking flight. May we all have the courage and the freedom to be and love as ourselves.

The Coming Insurrection, by Comité Invisible. “Power is no longer concentrated in one point in the world; it is the world itself, its flows and its avenues, its people and its norms, its codes and its technologies. Power is the organization of the metropolis itself.” I don’t agree with all of the conclusions about what to do next, but the descriptions of the problems that must be overcome here ring true. Perhaps oddly, I made connections with Emergent Strategy; the two arrive at very similar ideas about decentralization and the power of hierarchy-less organizing through very different lenses.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson. Super-fun, and refreshing in lots of ways. There are some broad characterizations here, but hey, it’s a comic book. I loved it, and hope the TV show is even half as charming.

Streaming

His House. Superficially a horror movie, His House serves as a layered metaphor for the immigrant experience. It's expertly built on every level - both the real-life horror and the supernatural scares had me watching from behind a cushion - but comes into its own in its final act.

Notable Articles

Business

How Basecamp blew up. "This account is based on interviews with six Basecamp employees who were present at the meeting, along with a partial transcript created by employees. Collectively, they describe a company whose attempt to tamp down on difficult conversations blew up in its face as employees rejected the notion that discussions of power and justice should remain off limits in the workplace. And they suggest that efforts to eliminate disruptions in the workplace by regulating internal speech may cause even more turmoil for a company in the long run."

Looking for (more of) a new kind of startup…. "There’s a new and important kind of startup that’s become wildly successful the last few years. These startups, for which we still lack a good name, look to their customers like a direct replacement to some large, familiar incumbent, but uses technology to provide a strictly superior offering."

Forced Entrepreneurs. "Conventional wisdom suggests labor market distress drives workers into temporary self-employment, lowering entrepreneurial quality. Analyzing employment histories for 640,000 U.S. workers, we document graduating college during a period of high unemployment does increase entry to entrepreneurship. However, compared to voluntary entrepreneurs, firms founded by forced entrepreneurs are more likely to survive, innovate, and receive venture-backing. Explaining these results, we confirm labor shocks disproportionately impact high-earners and these same workers start more successful firms. Overall, we document untapped entrepreneurial potential across the top of the income distribution and demonstrate the role of recessions in reversing this missing entrepreneurship."

Poor in Tech. “I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I made more there than I’d ever made before; a daring amount I had been afraid to ask for during the offer process. I discovered through misadventure that I still made less than any of the executive assistants, or the receptionist. I was, in fact, the lowest-paid person in the building including the interns. I hadn’t known what was possible, so I couldn’t even think to ask for what I was worth to them.” This resonated for me hard.

You Probably Shouldn’t Work at a Startup. My experience is different to this - but it's definitely an interesting read. What this piece doesn't really discuss is meaningful work, and getting to work cross-functionally, which is something that's much easier in an early-stage startup than another company. I like to use my whole self: go broad rather than narrow and deep. Big companies typically want you to do the latter.

'FIND THIS FUCK:' Inside Citizen’s Dangerous Effort to Cash In On Vigilantism. "Frame and the entirety of the Citizen apparatus had spent a whole night putting a bounty on the head of an innocent man." This company - and this CEO in particular - sounds absolutely deranged.

A Worker-Owned Cooperative Tries to Compete With Uber and Lyft. "The Drivers Cooperative, which opened for business in New York this week, is the most recent attempt. The group, founded by a former Uber employee, a labor organizer and a black-car driver, began issuing ownership shares to drivers in early May and will start offering rides through its app on Sunday." Hell yes.

The Abusive Corporation's New Tool: Wellness and Mental Health. "If a job is making you commute an hour each way and having you work ridiculous hours with no extra compensation for it, but also giving you free counseling, they’re not really that concerned with your mental health. They’re just concerned with you finding a way to cope with the oftentimes unfair conditions they’re putting you under, and doing so in a way that’s significantly more affordable than making your life better and paying you more money."

Crypto

The Tether Ponzi Scheme. “Tether is a fraud on the scale of Madoff or Enron and we’re in the middle of a bubble for the history books.”

Bitcoin’s most recent adopters are working-class migrants. "Salgado is now part of a growing number of Latin Americans using cryptocurrency to transfer money from the United States south of the Rio Grande. They represent a new wave of crypto users who are not tech enthusiasts or white-collar financiers but rather working-class people whose livelihoods depend on a technology that is often seen as experimental."

Teens Controlling Multi-Million-Dollar DeFi Protocols Are Not Playing Around. "Jai Bhavnani, 19, David Lucid, 20, and Jack Lipstone, who just turned 20, founded Rari Capital in April 2020, less than a month after the founders’ home state of California went into COVID lockdown. That was also shortly after Bhavnani graduated from the college preparatory school which ties together six of the seven members of the Rari team."

A country's worth of power, no more!. I'm excited to see Ethereum move to proof of stake. Its smart contract platform has a lot of potential - but not if it is environmentally disastrous. It's nice to hear that the change is so close.

How Iran Uses Bitcoin Mining to Evade Sanctions and “Export” Millions of Barrels of Oil. "Exact figures are very challenging to determine, but Elliptic estimates that Iran-based miners account for approximately 4.5% of all Bitcoin mining." Interesting detail: Mosques get free electricity in Iran, so it turns out some of them have been illicitly mining coin.

UK police raided a shady Bitcoin mining facility they thought was a weed farm. "Naturally, officers were convinced they were looking at the "telltale" signs of a cannabis factory. But, when they busted in to the site on May 18th, they found a bank of 100 specialized bitcoin miners instead."

Culture

Stacey Abrams Contains Multitudes. "Abrams went on to write seven more Selena Montgomery books (one of which, “Never Tell,” is in development with CBS), as well as two nonfiction works under her own name, while pursuing her day jobs as a tax lawyer, business owner, state lawmaker, candidate for governor and voting-rights advocate, to name a few."

1988: P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A.. Text adventures as a medium for protest in Soviet Czechoslovakia: "Soon the shared games “became a fully-fledged means of communication within a subculture of young geeks, like 8-bit chain letters or, perhaps, social media of the early digital era”: an internet that existed mostly on magnetic tapes shoved into school backpacks and zipping around the country on buses and bicycles. While literature and music was heavily censored by the government and could not be legally distributed by amateurs, software was not on the radar of the Party or its secret police at all. The authorities had not yet realized that the computer could be a medium for expression."

The one where writing books is not really a good idea. An interesting exploration into making money through serial fiction - which is something I plan to try in the future.

Gross Viral Food Videos Like Spaghetti-Os Pie Are Connected to This Guy. I'd been wondering.

Sinead O’Connor Remembers Things Differently. "O’Connor saw herself as a protest-singing punk. When she ascended to the top of the pop charts, she was trapped. “The media was making me out to be crazy because I wasn’t acting like a pop star was supposed to act,” she told me. “It seems to me that being a pop star is almost like being in a type of prison. You have to be a good girl.” And that’s just not Sinead O’Connor."

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: An Explainer. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the grandest, most delightful, most ambitious MGM technicolor musical that was ever based on the story of a mass rape.”

The Linda Lindas on their viral song Racist, Sexist Boy: ‘It’s good to let the anger out and scream’. "The video of Mila and her three teenage bandmates that make up the Linda Lindas screaming “You are a racist, sexist BOYYYY!” is taken from a rage-filled live performance inside the LA public library for AAPI Heritage Month. Overnight, the clip became one of the most cathartic and energizing songs to come out of the pandemic." The Linda Lindas are so great.

How to Write Creative Fiction: Umberto Eco's Four Rules. “Fictional characters live in an incomplete—or, to be ruder and politically incorrect—handicapped world. But when we truly understand their fate, we begin to suspect that we too, as citizens of the here and now, frequently encounter our destiny simply because we think of our world in the same way that fictional characters think of theirs. Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of the actual world is as imperfect as the view that fictional characters have of their world.”

Media

Scroll is joining Twitter!. Absolutely huge news in medialand. And Tony told me that Scroll still has a commitment to the open web.

Just 12 People Are Behind Most Vaccine Hoaxes On Social Media, Research Shows. “"The 'Disinformation Dozen' produce 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms," said Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which identified the accounts.”

Lovely eulogies to Fleet Street’s John Kay, but they overlook one important fact. "In this more sensitive era, there are presumably good reasons why anyone new to Kay will have finished the prominent Sun and Evening Standard pieces unaware of the existence of Kay’s first wife, Harue, whom he killed in 1977."

'On The Media' Co-Host Bob Garfield Fired Over Bullying Complaints. "Garfield’s termination follows two investigations into his conduct. The first, an internal investigation conducted last year, “resulted in disciplinary action, a warning about the potential consequences if the behavior continued, and a meaningful opportunity to correct it,” New York Public Radio said in a statement. The organization said a second, more recent outside probe found Garfield had again violated the anti-bullying policy."

Stunned: UNC Hussman Faculty Statement on Nikole Hannah-Jones by Hussman Faculty. "Failure to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones in her role as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is a concerning departure from UNC’s traditional process and breaks precedent with previous tenured full professor appointments of Knight chairs in our school. This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman Dean, Hussman faculty, and university. Hannah-Jones’s distinguished record of more than 20 years in journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism."

John Oliver places fake sponsored content on to local news: ‘Far too easy’. "The “Venus Veil” also got airtime on KVUE Austin’s sponsored show airing immediately after Thursday evening news, and an in-person showing on Denver’s Mile High Living. “None of this was nearly difficult enough to get on to TV, and it wasn’t even that expensive,” Oliver mused; the Denver Mile High in-person segment cost $2,800, KVUE Austin cost $2,650 and ABC 4 Utah cost $1,750. “It was all shockingly affordable and sadly, on some stations, didn’t even look that out of place,” he said." That is affordable. Can I place segments on how great single-payer healthcare is?

Politics

Pentagon Surveilling Americans Without a Warrant, Senator Reveals. "The Pentagon is carrying out warrantless surveillance of Americans, according to a new letter written by Senator Ron Wyden and obtained by Motherboard."

Rise of a megadonor: Thiel makes a play for the Senate. “The largesse has transformed Thiel, an early Facebook investor and PayPal co-founder, into an outsize figure in the fight for control of the 50-50 Senate, providing fuel to two longtime associates who embrace his populist-conservative views. Top Republicans have expressed astonishment at the size of the donations and say they’ve turned Vance and Masters — who’ve never before run for elected office and will have to overcome primary rivals with far longer political resumes — into formidable contenders in the blink of an eye.”

Risk of Nuclear War Over Taiwan in 1958 Said to Be Greater Than Publicly Known. "When Communist Chinese forces began shelling islands controlled by Taiwan in 1958, the United States rushed to back up its ally with military force — including drawing up plans to carry out nuclear strikes on mainland China, according to an apparently still-classified document that sheds new light on how dangerous that crisis was. [...] Mr. Ellsberg said he also had another reason for highlighting his exposure of that material. Now 90, he said he wanted to take on the risk of becoming a defendant in a test case challenging the Justice Department’s growing practice of using the Espionage Act to prosecute officials who leak information." Daniel Ellsberg is one of my heroes.

Stop glorifying ‘centrism’. It is an insidious bias favoring an unjust status quo. Amen. “Centrists in the antebellum era were apathetic or outright resistant to ending slavery in the US and then in the decades before 1920 to giving women the vote. The civil rights movement was not nearly as popular in its time as moderates who like the more polite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr think it was.” It is not a moral stance.

Science

The Pastry A.I. That Learned to Fight Cancer. "In Japan, a system designed to distinguish croissants from bear claws has turned out to be capable of a whole lot more."

Mammals can breathe through anus in emergencies. "Although the side effects and safety need to be thoroughly evaluated in humans, our approach may offer a new paradigm to support critically ill patients with respiratory failure."

Researchers force two mice to hang out and induce FOMO in a third. "So the researchers generated “synchronized interbrain activity” by stimulating two mice with 5-Hz tonic (continuous) stimulation for five minutes and desynchronized activity by stimulating other pairs of mice with 25-Hz bursting stimulation for five minutes. About twice as many of the synchronized mice chose to socialize with each other—grooming, sniffing, etc.—as the desynchronized mice did. When two mice were synchronized into a 5-Hz pair and a third mouse got the 25-Hz burst, the pair shunned the desynchronized third. The researchers conclude that “imposed interbrain synchrony shapes social interaction and social preference in mice.”"

Neural implant lets paralyzed person type by imagining writing. "This week, the academic community provided a rather impressive example of the promise of neural implants. Using an implant, a paralyzed individual managed to type out roughly 90 characters per minute simply by imagining that he was writing those characters out by hand."

Society

New Study Estimates More Than 900,000 People Have Died Of COVID-19 In U.S.. "The analysis comes from researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, who looked at excess mortality from March 2020 through May 3, 2021, compared it with what would be expected in a typical nonpandemic year, then adjusted those figures to account for a handful of other pandemic-related factors."

Take profit out of jail calls. Make it free to talk to loved ones behind bars. “I spend more than $100 every month to hear my son’s voice for just 15 minutes a day, time I split with his children. And I spend hundreds more to get him everything he needs inside: real food, basic toiletries, fresh linens and clean socks. I often have to choose between utility bills and supporting him, a choice no mother should ever have to make.”

Seeing the Real Faces of Silicon Valley. “For many midlevel engineers and food truck workers and longtime residents, a region filled with extremes has become increasingly inhospitable.”

Long working hours killing 745,000 people a year, study finds. “The research found that working 55 hours or more a week was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared with a working week of 35 to 40 hours.”

White People Never Supported Racial Equality; They Just Said They Did. “It was a fad. White people love Black people like they love TikTok dances and acid-washed jeans and liberty and justice for all. Have you never seen a white woman cry on cue or a Democrat campaigning in a Black barbershop? You really believed that shit? Even after the most white people in the history of America voted for a white nationalist authoritarian?”

We Need To Get Real About How the Pandemic Will End . "We seem to be holding onto the comforting fiction that we will eventually get around to vaccinating people in countries that have so far either had success keeping out the pandemic completely, or have had small outbreaks before, while they just keep up mitigating a little longer. I do not believe that the story we tell ourselves is realistic."

Remains of 215 children found at former indigenous school site in Canada. “The remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found at the site of a former residential school for indigenous children, a discovery Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described as heartbreaking on Friday.” The absolute horror - and this isn’t an isolated case.

Technology

What's Salesforce?. This is a pretty good overview for engineers! I've lost count of the times I've needed to answer the exact same question.

Berkshire Hathaway’s Stock Price Is Too Much for Computers. When stock prices get larger than 32-bit integers.

Some experiences with neutral technology. "Sometimes I look at my phone and think: I’m looking through a portal to California. My phone will never feel quite as part of the world as it does under Californian skies lit by the Californian sun. Here in London, or anywhere else really, my phone will always very slightly shimmer with an otherworldly light."

Facebook is still censoring groups fighting the military coup in Myanmar. “Following the February 1 coup d’état in Myanmar, activists, pro-democracy campaigners, and even supporters of the remnants of the NLD government, are asking for that ban to be rescinded. After a dramatic reshuffling of the political landscape, the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) are no longer opponents of the democratically-elected government, but core members of the resistance to the new government. They say that Facebook’s moderation is now penalizing the broader anti-coup movement because of its loose association with groups proscribed by the last government, which in turn is limiting their ability to organize and communicate.”

Local-first software: You own your data, in spite of the cloud. "In this article we propose “local-first software”: a set of principles for software that enables both collaboration and ownership for users. Local-first ideals include the ability to work offline and collaborate across multiple devices, while also improving the security, privacy, long-term preservation, and user control of data."

Google Chrome testing RSS-powered 'Follow' button, feed. Yes please.

How the cookie poisoned the Web. "Today our poisoned minds can hardly imagine having native capacities of our own that can operate at scale across all the world’s websites and services. To have that ability would also be at odds with the methods and imperatives of personally targeted advertising, which requires cookies and other tracking methods. One of those imperatives is making money: $Trillions of it."

Twitter's revved-up product focus piques publisher, advertiser interest. "After years of criticism for being slow-footed and indecisive, Twitter has finally started to spread its wings, shipping a torrent of product changes this year." I'm really bullish on Twitter - and I like it considerably more than Facebook.

US Soldiers Expose Nuclear Weapons Secrets Via Flashcard Apps. This isn't in any way the fault of the flashcard apps, which are clearly being used for effective learning. But someone needs to teach soldiers better infosec practices.

Secret Chats Show How Cybergang Became a Ransomware Powerhouse. ““Any doofus can be a cybercriminal now,” said Sergei A. Pavlovich, a former hacker who served 10 years in prison in his native Belarus for cybercrimes. “The intellectual barrier to entry has gotten extremely low.””