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Reading, watching, playing, using: December, 2021

This is my monthly roundup of the books, articles, and streaming media I found interesting. Here's my list for December, 2021.

Books

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. This was a groundbreaking, genre-defining book when it was written, and some of the ideas remain outstanding. Reading it this year was an exercise in uncovering paelofuture: interesting in historical context, but almost completely lacking in the human context I need to really dig into a story. I’m going to alienate a bunch of science fiction fans by saying so, but I didn’t enjoy it at all.

All about Love: New Visions, by bell hooks. A complicated book. On one hand, it’s full of really important insights into the nature of loving that I think every adult should read and understand. (You should read it!) On the other, she’s sometimes too emphatic about ideas that need challenging: in particular, I was struck by her reductive opinions about Monica Lewinsky and her putting the onus on her gay sister to deal with their parents’ homophobia. Her insistence that religion is a required moral authority also doesn’t land with me. Regardless, when this book rings true, it does so deeply, in a way that permeates the soul.

Pemmican Wars, by Katherena Vermette, Donovan Yaciuk, and Scott B. Henderson. Shades of Kindred here: a graphic novel about a fostered Métis teen girl who slips through time to Canada’s colonial past during a history lesson. It’s slight, but the art and writing are evocative. I wish there was more character development, but perhaps that will come in later volumes. This volume plants the seeds for a story to come.

Red River Resistance, by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk. The story being drawn here is important and needs to be told. I wish there were more pages: at times the book feels like a series of impressionistic vignettes rather than continuous plot. But I’m still hooked, and I’m curious to see where this is going. There’s not enough about Echo in the mix for me; we learn about Canada’s sordid past with respect to its indigenous peoples, but not enough about how that connects to the present. I assume that’s coming in future volumes.

Northwest Resistance, by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk. It’s all starting to come together, with an almost Quantum Leap style twist. The narrative is less impressionistic, too: there’s more detail here than in previous volumes, and we’re learning more about Echo. Intriguing, magical, and instructive about Canada’s genocidal past.

Road Allowance Era, by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk. Easily the best of the series. The narrative comes together, and Echo realizes she can control her time travel ability, as well as the poignant source of her ability. The atrocities continue, too, and the book does a great job of contextualizing them both emotionally and historically. The central conceit works really well throughout, in the same way it did for Octavia Butler in Kindred.

Streaming Media

Don’t Look Up. A genuinely great movie about climate change, without ever really being about climate change. Hilarious, sobering, deeply affecting, cynical, and smart. I loved every moment.

Notable Articles

Business

Playing Startup Versus Building a Company. “Figuring out how to build and run a business isn’t easy—and a lot of the moves you need to make aren’t intuitive. However, too many people approach it by just copying what it seems like everyone else is doing without taking a hard look at what your actual goals are and really learning how to go about the job of Founder and CEO. They’re “playing startup” as opposed to actually building a company.”

Google will fire unvaccinated employees. “Workers who haven’t complied with the vaccine mandate — by either sending in proof of vaccination or qualifying for a religious or medical exemption from Google — will go on paid leave for 30 days starting Jan. 18. They had until Dec. 3 to send proof of vaccination or to apply for an exemption. Google won’t accept testing as an alternative to vaccination, according to a company memo cited by CNBC.”

Covid

Pro-Trump counties now have far higher COVID death rates. “Since May 2021, people living in counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump during the last presidential election have been nearly three times as likely to die from COVID-19 as those who live in areas that went for now-President Biden. That’s according to a new analysis by NPR that examines how political polarization and misinformation are driving a significant share of the deaths in the pandemic.”

Secret Investigation Documents Reveal How The CDC’s First COVID Test Failed In The Pandemic’s Early Days. “In the US, the responsibility for developing a test fell to the CDC. [...] The team tasked with developing the nation’s first test was in the tiny RVD lab, which included four smaller procedure rooms, all located on the seventh floor of Building 18 at the CDC headquarters. In January 2020, the RVD lab was staffed by nine people — only three of whom were full-time employees.”

When COVID patients get new lungs, sould vaccine status matter? “About one in 10 lung transplants in the United States now go to COVID-19 patients, according to data from the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS. The trend is raising questions about the ethics of allocating a scarce resource to people who have chosen not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.” Healthcare should save everybody’s life, regardless of choices. But this is such a frustrating trend.

Laclede County, MO Health Department stops COVID work. “The local health department of a rural southern Missouri county is halting its COVID-19 response efforts after Attorney General Eric Schmitt wrote agencies this week demanding they drop mitigation measures.” It’s like they’re actively trying to kill people.

Trump White House made 'deliberate efforts' to undermine Covid response, report says. “Birx also told the panel that Atlas and other Trump officials “purposely weakened CDC’s coronavirus testing guidance in August 2020 to obscure how rapidly the virus was spreading across the country,” the report said. The altered guidance recommended that asymptomatic people didn’t need to get tested, advice that was “contrary to consensus science-based recommendations,” it said, adding, “Dr. Birx stated that these changes were made specifically to reduce the amount of testing being conducted.”

US Army Creates Single Vaccine Against All COVID & SARS Variants, Researchers Say. “Within weeks, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research expect to announce that they have developed a vaccine that is effective against COVID-19 and all its variants, even Omicron, as well as from previous SARS-origin viruses that have killed millions of people worldwide.”

Crypto

Is web3 bullshit? “The hazy vision of new decentralized internet, built on the blockchain, to succeed the “Web 2.0″ of Google and Facebook seems to be reaching a threshold of ambient cultural awareness such that non-tech pundits, news-engaged normies, magazine editors, uncles, online attention-seekers etc., feel the need to weigh in on the question.” This is a great round-up of different perspectives on the topic: from enthusiasts to cynics, and everything in between.

Smart Contract Bug Results in $31 Million Loss. “The basic problem is that the code is the ultimate authority — there is no adjudication protocol — so if there’s a vulnerability in the code, there is no recourse. And, of course, there are lots of vulnerabilities in code. To me, this is reason enough never to use smart contracts for anything important. Human-based adjudication systems are not useless pre-Internet human baggage, they’re vital.”

New Study on NFTs Deflates the "Democratic" Potential for the Medium. “Ten percent of NFT buyers and sellers make as many transactions as the remaining 90 percent, it found, suggesting high concentration in the NFT marketplace. This statistic suggests that decentralized marketplaces have given way to more specialized platforms, which have come to occupy similar roles as gallerists and brand names in the non-crypto economy. The study also revealed that the average sale price of three-quarters of NFTs is just $15; meanwhile, only 1% of NFTs sell for over $1,594.” This seems like a pretty standard power law distribution, which I’m not sure why crypto would be exempt from.

How Cryptocurrency Revolutionized the White Supremacist Movement. “Hatewatch identified and compiled over 600 cryptocurrency addresses associated with white supremacists and other prominent far-right extremists for this essay and then probed their transaction histories through blockchain analysis software. What we found is striking: White supremacists such as Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents, race pseudoscience pundit Stefan Molyneux, Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer and Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer, and Don Black of the racist forum Stormfront, all bought into Bitcoin early in its history and turned a substantial profit from it.”

Melania Trump Launches an NFT and Blockchain Venture Based on Solana. “The former first lady of the USA – Melania Trump – will join the cryptocurrency universe by releasing her non-fungible token platform. The first NFTs, called “Melania’s Vision,” will be available to purchase for a limited period around the Christmas holidays.” Oh no.

The Future Is Not Only Useless, It’s Expensive. “It’s tempting to say they suck the way everything sucks now, but it’s more like how one particular strain of American aesthetics has sucked for the last 20 years. NFTs are the human capacity for visual expression as understood by the guy at the vape store.” This piece is so beautifully brutal.

Web3/Crypto: Why Bother? “A blockchain is a worse database. It is slower, requires way more storage and compute, doesn’t have customer support, etc. And yet it has one dimension along which it is radically different. No single entity or small group of entities controls it – something people try to convey, albeit poorly, by saying it is “decentralized.””

Culture

Here's Why Movie Dialogue Has Gotten More Difficult To Understand (And Three Ways To Fix It). In general I don’t agree that movies have become less easy to understand - I have no trouble with Christopher Nolan dialogue, for example, and I don’t get why people can’t understand Tom Hardy - but this is an interesting look into the industry and how the different pieces fit together.

Michael Sheen turns himself into a 'not-for-profit' actor. “But when I came out the other side, I realised I could do this kind of thing and, if I can keep earning money, it’s not going to ruin me.” This is the coolest thing.

‘They were a bit abrasive’: how kids’ TV Clangers secretly swore. “The Clangers were briefly drawn into this combative arena in a special one-off episode called Vote for Froglet, in which Postgate tried to persuade the planet’s residents of the virtues of the two-party system. After a snap election, with the Soup Dragon running on the “free soup for all” ticket, the Clangers were unconvinced and stuck with their enlightened autonomous collective.”

Acclaimed author bell hooks dies at 69 . Rest in power, bell hooks. What an intellectual, moral, literary force. If you haven’t read her work, please do. It’ll change the way you see the world.

Love Actually Child Star Labels Festive Romcom Cheesy And Sexist: 'I Think It's A S*** Film'. “I think it’s aged badly. All the women in it are sort of passive objects. I think that there was an article describing them as passive objects to be acquired.”

Coldplay will stop making music in 2025, lead singer Chris Martin announces. Why wait?

Betty White, a TV Fixture for Seven Decades, Is Dead at 99. Such a loss; such a life.

Media

Nobel winner: ‘We journalists are the defence line between dictatorship and war’. “Ressa has spent much of the last four years trying to point out that none of this is happening in isolation and that the “assault on truth” is doing the same to western democracies as it has done to her country. Muratov is even more gloomy. “It’s terrifying that countries that have been living in a democracy for so many years are rolling towards a dictatorship. That’s just a terrifying thought.””

Number of journalists behind bars reaches global high. “It’s been an especially bleak year for defenders of press freedom. CPJ’s 2021 prison census found that the number of reporters jailed for their work hit a new global record of 293, up from a revised total of 280 in 2020. At least 24 journalists were killed because of their coverage so far this year; 18 others died in circumstances too murky to determine whether they were specific targets. China remains the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the third year in a row, with 50 behind bars. Myanmar soared to the second slot after the media crackdown that followed its February 1 military coup. Egypt, Vietnam, and Belarus, respectively, rounded out the top five.”

Politics

Trump social media company claims to raise $1bn from investors. “Donald Trump’s new social media company and its special purpose acquisition company partner said on Saturday the partner had agreements for $1bn in capital from institutional investors.” I don’t believe them.

How Donald Trump Could Subvert the 2024 Election. “Only one meaningful correlation emerged. Other things being equal, insurgents were much more likely to come from a county where the white share of the population was in decline. For every one-point drop in a county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the likelihood of an insurgent hailing from that county increased by 25 percent. This was a strong link, and it held up in every state.” A well-reported, frankly terrifying story.

Trump called aides hours before Capitol riot to discuss how to stop Biden victory. “Trump’s remarks reveal a direct line from the White House and the command center at the Willard. The conversations also show Trump’s thoughts appear to be in line with the motivations of the pro-Trump mob that carried out the Capitol attack and halted Biden’s certification, until it was later ratified by Congress.”

Kanye West publicist pressed Georgia election worker to confess to bogus fraud charges. “Weeks after the 2020 election, a Chicago publicist for hip-hop artist Kanye West traveled to the suburban home of Ruby Freeman, a frightened Georgia election worker who was facing death threats after being falsely accused by former President Donald Trump of manipulating votes. [...] She said she was sent by a “high-profile individual,” whom she didn’t identify, to give Freeman an urgent message: confess to Trump’s voter-fraud allegations, or people would come to her home in 48 hours, and she’d go to jail.”

Kanye West’s 'Independent' Campaign Was Secretly Run by GOP Elites. “The Kanye 2020 campaign committee did not even report paying some of these advisers, and used an odd abbreviation for another—moves which campaign finance experts say appear designed to mask the association between known GOP operatives and the campaign, and could constitute a violation of federal laws.” Kanye believe it?

Society

Man donated his body to science; company sold $500 tickets to his dissection. “But instead of being delivered to a research facility, David Saunders’ body ended up in a Marriott Hotel ballroom in Portland, Oregon, where http://deathscience.org/ held an “Oddities and Curiosities Expo.” At the October 17 event, members of the public sat ringside from 9 am to 4 pm—with a break for lunch—to watch David Saunders’ body be carefully dissected. Tickets for the dissection sold for up to $500 per person.” Horrifying.

“This Is Blackface”: White Actors Are Playing Black Characters In Virtual Reality Diversity Training. “One employee described the use of white actors in Black roles as “a really tough thing for a lot of us to stomach.” Two raised concerns about white actors mimicking Black dialect while acting as Black characters. Three independently described an incident in which a white simulation specialist used the n-word while acting as an avatar of color. That actor now trains other simulation specialists. Employees also raised concerns about the visual creation of Mursion’s avatars, citing lack of variation in the skin tone, hair, and facial features of their characters of color, and about the company’s failure to promote and support women employees of color.”

Women may soon qualify for the draft. Here’s what you need to know. ″“This overall lack of strong support, though, illustrates what we call benevolent sexism, which is a sexism that rests on paternalistic beliefs: ‘Women need protection, and their skills are nurturers, not fighters. We need to protect them from war so as to not corrupt their virtue and purity and inhibit them from fulfilling their duties as wives and mothers,’” Chod said. “This was the same argument made in the 19th and early-20th centuries to bar women from voting.””

New Zealand plans to make it illegal for kids to buy cigarettes — for life. “People aged 14 and under in 2027 will never be allowed to purchase cigarettes in the Pacific country of five million, part of proposals unveiled on Thursday that will also curb the number of retailers authorized to sell tobacco and cut nicotine levels in all products.” Wait, we can do this?

Peter Thiel’s Free Speech for Race Science Crusade at Cambridge University Revealed . “Their common concern was the increasing threat from the advancement of a ‘liberal’ agenda to traditional Christian religious and theological beliefs – including an unnerving fascination with race science.” Lots to digest here.

The Anti-Abortion Movement Could Reduce Abortions if It Wanted To. “Why would groups that want to end abortion not support the most efficient way to make abortions less common? The answer is that their mission extends beyond abortion and into the regulation of sex, gender roles and the family. Contraception and abortion are tied together because both offer women the freedom to have sex for pleasure in or outside of marriage, and both allow women greater control over their lives and futures. The “pro-life” goal isn’t an end to abortion. It’s to establish another means of controlling women.”

About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated. I’m one of them, and it’s still weird to me to be in a minority (vs the UK, where some polls have over 50% of respondents not identifying with any faith). There’s nothing wrong with being religious, but there’s nothing wrong with not being religious, too. I’d love to have better representation of that in this country.

FDA permanently allows medication abortion pills through mail. “The Thursday announcement upholds a decision from April to temporarily suspend federal requirements that had previously required in-person purchase of abortion pills from a clinic, hospital or medical office.” Trump challenged it; I’m glad this has gone through.

Technology

Crime Prediction Software Promised to Be Free of Biases. New Data Shows It Perpetuates Them. “Millions of crime predictions left on an unsecured server show PredPol mostly avoided Whiter neighborhoods, targeted Black and Latino neighborhoods. [...] “No one has done the work you guys are doing, which is looking at the data,” said Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at American University who is a national expert on predictive policing. “This isn’t a continuation of research. This is actually the first time anyone has done this, which is striking because people have been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for this technology for a decade.””

US rejects calls for regulating or banning ‘killer robots’. “Speaking at a meeting in Geneva focused on finding common ground on the use of such so-called lethal autonomous weapons, a US official balked at the idea of regulating their use through a “legally-binding instrument”.” It may seem laughable now, but technology improvements will make this feasible very shortly. Internationally agreed upon protections would be smart.

Hackers Are Spamming Businesses’ Receipt Printers With ‘Antiwork’ Manifestos. ““Someone is using a similar technique as ‘mass scanning’ to massively blast raw TCP data directly to printer services across the internet,” Morris told Motherboard in an online chat. “Basically to every single device that has port TCP 9100 open and print a pre-written document that references /r/antiwork with some workers rights/counter capitalist messaging.”” I love this.

The Popular Family Safety App Life360 Is Selling Precise Location Data on Its Tens of Millions of Users. “Life360, a popular family safety app used by 33 million people worldwide, has been marketed as a great way for parents to track their children’s movements using their cellphones. The Markup has learned, however, that the app is selling data on kids’ and families’ whereabouts to approximately a dozen data brokers who have sold data to virtually anyone who wants to buy it.” This should be illegal.

This Swiss Firm Exec Is Said To Have Operated A Secret Surveillance Operation. “The co-founder of a company that has been trusted by technology giants including Google and Twitter to deliver sensitive passwords to millions of their customers also operated a service that ultimately helped governments secretly surveil and track mobile phones, according to former employees and clients.”

A mysterious threat actor is running hundreds of malicious Tor relays. “Since at least 2017, a mysterious threat actor has run thousands of malicious servers in entry, middle, and exit positions of the Tor network in what a security researcher has described as an attempt to deanonymize Tor users. [...] at one point, there was a 16% chance that a Tor user would connect to the Tor network through one of KAX17’s servers, a 35% chance they would pass through one of its middle relays, and up to 5% chance to exit through one.”

An Open Letter to Mr. Mark Zuckerberg: A Global Call to Act Now on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Science. “We do not believe that the methodologies seen so far meet the high scientific standards required to responsibly investigate the mental health of children and adolescents. Although nothing in the leaks suggests that social media causes suicide, self-harm, or mental illness, these are serious research topics. This work, and the tools you are using should not be developed without independent oversight. Sound science must come before firm conclusions are drawn or new tools are launched. You and your organisations have an ethical and moral obligation to align your internal research on children and adolescents with established standards for evidence in mental health science.”

Kickstarter plans to move its crowdfunding platform to the blockchain. “Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter is making a big bet on the blockchain, announcing plans to create an open source protocol “that will essentially create a decentralized version of Kickstarter’s core functionality.” The company says the goal is for multiple platforms to embrace the protocol, including, eventually, http://kickstarter.com/.” The word “eventually” is doing a lot of work here! But it’s a way more and more startups will try and expand - by creating a bigger pie and being the owners of the way their market business is conducted. They get to stay clear of antitrust regulations while literally owning the market. Will it take years for this to happen? Yes. Is it near-inevitable? Also yes.

Reimagining projections for the interactive maps era. “We have put a lot of thought into making this feature feel seamless and natural, so that our customers could adopt it on all kinds of map apps by adding one line of code. Let’s take a deep dive into why we did it, and how it works under the hood.” Superb work from the Mapbox team.

I blew $720 on 100 notebooks from Alibaba and started a Paper Website business. “TLDR; I started a business that lets you build websites using pen & paper. In the process I went viral on Twitter, made $1,000 in two days, and blew $720 on 100 paper notebooks from Alibaba.”

The Asymmetry of Open Source. “With the recent revival of the discussion about sustaining open source spurred on by multiple severe CVEs in a popular logging library, and with so many hot takes clamoring for more funding—some calling on companies, others on maintainers—I wanted to write about the problem and its solutions more holistically, as I have spent many years thinking about this from my own experience with both failing and succeeding… a perspective that I hope some of you will find helpful.” An excellent list of open source funding techniques.

Reporter likely to be charged for using "view source" feature on web browser. “The reporter discovered that the source code of the website contained Social Security numbers of educators. The reporter alerted the state about the social security numbers. After the state removed the numbers from the web page, the Post-Dispatch reported the vulnerability. Soon after, Governor Parson, “who has often tangled with news outlets over reports he doesn’t like, announced a criminal investigation into the reporter and the Post-Dispatch.”” Idiocy.