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Reading, watching, playing, using: June 2020

Here's the media I consumed and found interesting in June.

Apps

Linear. A super-powerful bug tracker designed to speed teams up. I'm using it for personal projects right now, but I might expand that. I particularly like how it connects to GitHub issues, and how it inherits just the right things from Jira's classic design, while discarding the rest.

Streaming

13th. I saw this for the first time in June - and regret being super-late to the party. The entire movie is up on YouTube. If you haven't yet, educate yourself.

Dark Season 3. If you haven't checked out Dark yet, you're missing something. Watch it in its original German with English subtitles. And maybe keep notes: its human-centered science fiction story is densely plotted to say the least. Season 3 adds a whole new dimension, literally.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. I needed this. It's a giant ad for the song contest, really. Which is fine, because I happen to love the song contest. One of those objectively terrible movies that brought me a lot of joy.

Books

Blood Dazzler, by Patricia Smith. The story of Hurricane Katrina told through poetry. Blood Dazzler is heart-wrenching work. Patricia Smith is - as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, among other things - a four-time National Poetry Slam champion, and the spoken-word rhythm underlying her work is impossible to ignore.

Notable Articles

Black Lives Matter

How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change. "So the bottom line is this: if we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both. We have to mobilize to raise awareness, and we have to organize and cast our ballots to make sure that we elect candidates who will act on reform." Barack Obama on Black Lives Matter.

Black Journalists and Covering the Storm That Never Passes. "I can’t tell you how many times I, or someone on my team, has cried into their laptops over the injustices inflicted daily on black people, who have gone to bed with anxiety over what looms in the morning, in the aftermath of another violent act against our humanity."

Why So Many Police Are Handling the Protests Wrong. "Researchers have spent 50 years studying the way crowds of protesters and crowds of police behave—and what happens when the two interact. One thing they will tell you is that when the police respond by escalating force—wearing riot gear from the start, or using tear gas on protesters—it doesn’t work. In fact, disproportionate police force is one of the things that can make a peaceful protest not so peaceful. But if we know that (and have known that for decades), why are police still doing it?"

The American Nightmare. "But only the lies of racist Americans are great. Their American dream—that this is a land of equal opportunity, committed to freedom and equality, where police officers protect and serve—is a lie. Their American dream—that they have more because they are more, that when black people have more, they were given more—is a lie. Their American dream—that they have the civil right to kill black Americans with impunity and that black Americans do not have the human right to live—is a lie." Ibram X. Kendi is the author of How to Be an Antiracist.

Stop focusing on looting in Minneapolis. Be outraged that police keep killing black men. A good opinion from the LA Times editorial board. The constant commentary from people who believe property is more imporant than the murder of a community is sickening.

This Is Fascism. "The message of this federal government is unambiguous. It has been conveyed in part by Customs and Border Protection, the largest law enforcement agency in the U.S.—a force shot through with racism and tyranny, now charged with carrying out Trump’s most knee-jerk nativist impulses—which announced Sunday that it was mobilizing officers to augment police forces “confronting the lawless actions of rioters.”"

Thousands of Americans across the US are peacefully marching against police violence. A beautiful photo record of the protests.

'We Just Want to Live.' Photographers Share What They Experienced While Covering Protests Across America. More vital photo record.

How Did BlackOutTuesday Go So Wrong So Fast? I believe this was deliberately co-opted. he net result was that black voices were silenced on social media for days.

Don’t Fall for the ‘Chaos’ Theory of the Protests. "Why were peaceful protesters being tear-gassed, on national TV? Because Trump and his aides—nearly all of them men and every one of them white—had decided to punctuate his speech with a walk across Lafayette Square to a church where Trump posed, clutching a Bible. What became even clearer, though, was that the Bible-posing was not the photo op the Trump administration was aiming for; the clearing of Lafayette Square was. The video that played out on CNN’s split screen was a document of state power in action: the president, his will made manifest; the protesters, their eyes reddened from tear gas, forced to make way for the leader."

The Police Take the Side of White Vigilantes. "Who are the cops for? Over the last week, all across the country, in ways large and small, they’ve shown us." The slave catchers are living up to their legacy.

We Crunched the Numbers: Police — Not Protesters — Are Overwhelmingly Responsible for Attacking Journalists. "Police are responsible for the vast majority of assaults on journalists: over 80 percent." From the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

The '3.5% rule': How a small minority can change the world. "Once around 3.5% of the whole population has begun to participate actively, success appears to be inevitable." Fingers crossed.

Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop. "American policing is a thick blue tumor strangling the life from our communities and if you don’t believe it when the poor and the marginalized say it, if you don’t believe it when you see cops across the country shooting journalists with less-lethal bullets and caustic chemicals, maybe you’ll believe it when you hear it straight from the pig’s mouth."

The Police Have Been Spying on Black Reporters and Activists for Years. I Know Because I’m One of Them. And if you're not familiar with COINTELPRO, it's worth reading up on that, too.

‘To see this, I am honored’: Brother of man killed by Seattle police reflects on time in CHAZ. "If John were here, he would be honored. All my heart and soul show this will work. The government is listening, that we have had enough. I’m proud of this."

Recall That Ice Cream Truck Song? We Have Unpleasant News For You. ""N***** Love A Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!" merits the distinction of the most racist song title in America. Released in March 1916 by Columbia Records, it was written by actor Harry C. Browne and played on the familiar depiction of black people as mindless beasts of burden greedily devouring slices of watermelon."

Elsewhere in American fascism

Dozens Of Immigrant Families Who Were Separated At The Border Likely Shouldn't Have Been, An Internal Report Found. "The inspector general's report found that 40 children were separated from their parents for at least four weeks, although one didn't see their family for more than a year."

Political Symbols at Demonstrations. "Researchers at the Tow Center and Columbia’s Journalism and Engineering schools have developed a tool that can help reporters decipher the symbols and acronyms used by political groups which may be helpful as they report on political actions now and during the election season." The far right is out in force.

A letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Pentagon policy official James Miller's resignation letter. "You have made life-and-death decisions in combat overseas; soon you may be asked to make life-and-death decisions about using the military on American streets and against Americans. Where will you draw the line, and when will you draw it?"

James Mattis Denounces President Trump, Describes Him as a Threat to the Constitution. "Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us [...] We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children."

The Real Apprentice. "At this time, most native New Yorkers saw Trump as a bit of a joke: a fame-thirsty, tasteless rake with a history of high-end failure. He made disastrous deals, like the Plaza Hotel. His airline failed almost as soon as it began. He even found a way to go bankrupt on casinos. But on television, through careful editing—turning three hours into thirty seconds—Mark Burnett made Trump seem decisive, funny, and likeable."

How The Antifa Fantasy Spread In Small Towns Across The US. "Rumors of roving bands of Antifa have followed small protests all over the United States. Why are people so ready to believe them?" There's a lot of value in keeping people scared - particularly of a bogeyman that seeks to undermine your ideology.

No, Trump probably can’t list antifa as a ‘terrorist group.’ Here’s what he’s really doing. "The Trump administration is unlikely to designate antifa a terrorist group in counterterrorism law. If it did, that designation would be difficult to enforce, since antifa is not really an organization. Nor is it clear how much antifa supporters have committed actual terrorism. But Trump’s announcement could suggest that U.S. counterterrorism agencies are shifting their priorities. This is worth watching."

The U.S. Military Has a Boogaloo Problem. "Some of the largest private Facebook groups catering to the [neo-confederate] boogaloo movement have scores of members who identify as active-duty military."

‘State-sanctioned violence’: US police fail to meet basic human rights standards. "Police in America’s biggest cities are failing to meet even the most basic international human rights standards governing the use of lethal force, a new study from the University of Chicago has found."

America’s wholesome square dancing tradition is a tool of white supremacy. It turns out this information is still not widely known.

And finally, two pieces of good news from the Supreme Court: Civil Rights Law Protects Gay and Transgender Workers, Supreme Court Rules; California’s ‘sanctuary’ cities rules stay in place after Supreme Court rejects Trump’s challenge.

Technology

A New iOS Shortcut Blurs Faces and Wipes Metadata for Protest Images. Neat!

IBM will no longer offer, develop, or research facial recognition technology. I was very pleasantly surprised by this ethical stance. "In his letter, [IBM CEO] Krishna also advocated for police reform, arguing that more police misconduct cases should be put under the purview of federal court and that Congress should make changes to qualified immunity doctrine, among other measures."

The Racial Bias Built Into Photography. "Photography is not just a system of calibrating light, but a technology of subjective decisions. Light skin became the chemical baseline for film technology, fulfilling the needs of its target dominant market."

Black tech founders say venture capital needs to move past ‘diversity theater’. "There’s a dearth of black investors in venture capital’s upper echelons and little investment in start-ups with black founders".

This startup is working to bring full anonymity to the internet. Kudos to Harry Halpin and his team.

Pinwheel is the API platform for income verification that every fintech and neobank needs. Meanwhile, a quiet fintech revolution is taking place. As always, in a gold rush, you make money providing spades (building infrastructure that others can build on).

Colin Kaepernick to Join Medium Board of Directors. Kudos to Ev and everyone at Medium.

Facebook Pitched New Tool Allowing Employers to Suppress Words Like “Unionize” in Workplace Chat Product. "One Facebook employee who spoke to The Intercept on condition of anonymity said he saw the blacklisting feature, with a suggested use case around unionization, as a clear effort to give employers the ability to exert control over employees." It would be illegal for an employer to use this, right? Right?

Facebook Groups Are Destroying America. "Dynamics in groups often mirror those of peer-to-peer messaging apps: People share, spread, and receive information directly to and from their closest contacts, whom they typically see as reliable sources. To make things easier for those looking to stoke political division, groups provide a menu of potential targets organized by issue and even location; bad actors can create fake profiles or personas tailored to the interests of the audiences they intend to infiltrate. This allows them to seed their own content in a group and also to repurpose its content for use on other platforms." I'm a little skeptical of this, but it's worth reading.

The Ghost in the Machine. "We could expect a Black programmer, immersed as she is in the same systems of racial meaning and economic expediency as the rest of her co-workers, to code software in a way that perpetuates racial stereotypes. Or, even if she is aware and desires to intervene, will she be able to exercise the power to do so?" A good exploration of the ideas in Dr Ruha Benjamin's excellent Race After Technology.

He Removed Labels That Said “Medical Use Prohibited,” Then Tried to Sell Thousands of Masks to Officials Who Distribute to Hospitals. "Using TaskRabbit and Venmo, a Silicon Valley investor and his business partner had workers repackage non-medical KN95 masks so he could sell them to Texas emergency workers." This is overt, life-threatening fraud.

How to Know You’re Not Insane (And how a Cards Against Humanity Staff Writer was fired.) My copy - acquired at XOXO in the early days - is finally finding its way into the recycling bin.

And finally

The Seven Billion Habits of Highly Effective Robots. A cute science fiction short.

 

6 observations about fintech after my first 9 months

Nine months ago, I joined ForUsAll as Head of Engineering. It's my first fintech company.

Long-term readers will know that I've spent most of my life in the open source web world, building one of the first white label social networking platforms, and in media, where I helped build the way journalists at networks like NBC securely send footage back to the newsroom. Every startup I've ever joined has had a strong social mission; here, in the midst of widening income inequality, we're trying to help ordinary people build a stronger financial future.

This is my personal space; opinions here, as in all of my posts, are mine alone.

Here are some things I've observed.

 

1. Financial technology is broken.

It's common for financial institutions to have web platforms that look like they were built in 1998. Some of them were. I'm certain that some smaller institutions are running their software on decrepit Windows servers. APIs are virtually nonexistent. Interoperability between institutions is often in the form of faxes (you read that correctly; please breathe) or checks in the mail.

Over in Europe, open banking has become an important movement. It's inevitable that institutions in the US will need to modernize to adopt similar ideas. The institutions that haven't invested in in-house technology, or don't have strong technology partnerships, are going to find themselves in very rocky waters.

Elsewhere, businesses understand that open, standard APIs are a way to build ecosystems and gain value through partnerships. They also understand that they need to build technical teams that are first-class contributors to the business. In the financial sector, a very closed, old-world view of technology is still prevelant. The institutions that can't let go of these archaic mindsets will eventually die. There's a new batch of fintech startups - ForUsAll among them, alongside the likes of Chime and Digit - that will take their place and redefine the ecosystem.

Which brings me to ...

 

2. Scraping is everywhere.

Plaid was recently acquired by Visa for $5.3 billion. It provides a unified auth and limited API for most institutions. Its connections are sort of flaky, but it's remarkably better than the previous status quo.

And it largely works using Puppeteer.

Because institutions don't have APIs, Plaid spends a lot of time and energy maintaining headless browsers to log into banking websites on your behalf. In order to be able to log in, it has to be saving your banking password in plain text. (Compare and contrast with a typical API, which would use secure, revokable tokens for authentication.)

If you're connecting to a bank using Venmo, Robinhood, Coinbase, and others, you're probably saving your banking password in plain text in Plaid. Infuriatingly, because there are no APIs, let alone API standards, there's very little alternative. But it's worth saying that if you're giving credentials to a third party, many banks will absolve themselves of any liability in a data breach.

 

3. Operations teams are vital.

The first rule of technology on the internet is that if it looks like magic, there's probably an army of people in an office park somewhere (often the Philippines) making it happen. In the finance world, a lot of the magic isn't done by technology as much as teams of people whose role is to reconcile data and perform financial operations that can't be automated.

There's room for a kind of Financial Operations as a Service platform - but because of the sensitive data involved, the workers on demand would need to be certified, heavily insured, and security tested. You'd also lose their most important feature: the institutional knowledge about a customer that is grown when you spend time with them.

 

4. There's a lot of opportunity for growth.

Institutional technology myopia means there's a lot of room for innovators to enter the market and change it for the better.

But there's also a lot of opportunity to create ecosystems. Perhaps that's even how you win: create an open ecosystem that allows institutions to easily interoperate with each other in a peer-to-peer, secure way. The older institutions won't bother to connect, but the newer ones could potentially form alliances and band together. Eventually, the incumbent institutions will have to join in.

Imagine a banking system built on openness, human-centered design, software libraries, SDKs, and running code, instead of armies of Excel spreadsheets and ties behind desks.

Imagine beautiful experiences that give you full control over your money. Imagine institutions that aren't all just controlled by old, white men for their own benefit. Imagine wealth for all.

It sounds kind of good, right?

Now imagine the ecosystem that makes it all possible.

I know what you think that sounds like. I know what many readers are going to say. But trust me:

 

5. It's not about blockchain.

Programmable money isn't cool. You know what's cool? Money people can use.

I'm sure there will come a time when cryptocurrencies do allow the open banking ecosystem I describe above to be built. But that time isn't now. And while I'm grateful for the people working on building the financial system of 2030, we still need to drag the existing one into the 21st century.

Again: people are, today in 2020, using faxes and paper checks as forms of inter-bank communication. When technology is used, user passwords are often saved in plain text. And many of the people involved don't really see anything wrong with it. Blockchain might be one of the technologies that helps us, but the point isn't about technology; the point is what people are able to do with their money.

 

6. It is about wealth for all.

So that's what we need to build. We need to build the infrastructure that brings banking in line with today, in that way that the internet is so good at, where gatekeepers are crushed and ordinary people are empowered.

In the nineties, we empowered everyone to communicate. In the 2000s, we let everyone publish. In the 2010s, we put limitless knowledge in everyone's hands, wherever they were. And in the 2020s, we're going to reimagine the financial system to be an open ecosystem where anyone can innovate, for the benefit of us all. The old gatekeepers will give way to new, decentralized tapestries of value, where anyone can share, earn, and save in a way that they fully control.

The 2020s are about tearing down the same old thing and building something more equitable and agile in its place. That's the opportunity - and it's an opportunity for all of us.

 

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

 

Tim Hortons, the surveillance state, and you

Journalist James McLeod examined the data gathered about him by the app for Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee chain:

From my home to my office to a Blue Jays game at Rogers Centre, even all the way to Morocco, where I travelled on vacation last June, the company’s app silently logged my coordinates and relayed them back to its corporate servers.

The app uses tracking technology by Radar Labs, which is also used by a host of other retail apps, including Burger King and DryBar. Users opt into data collection when they begin using the app.

The Supreme Court has held that cellphone location data is generally protected by the Fourth Amendment. That means that law enforcement needs to get a warrant before it can tap this information. The court case actually dealt with cell carrier data, rather than data stored by services like Radar Labs, Facebook, or Foursquare, so between this discrepancy and the ominous word "generally", there's certainly some wiggle room.

The President recently called for anti-fascists to be designated as terrorists. Although legal scholars seem to agree that this isn't going to be possible, this call provides a call to action for law enforcement to focus on protesters (rather than white supremacists, who are the largest domestic terrorism threat).

Geofence warrants allow police to sweep up information from any cellphone that happened to be in the vicinity of a crime. While protests are protected under the Constitution of the United States, many have tried to paint the current civil rights marches as riots, even though violent activity has often been instigated by police. These clashes allow them to obtain blanket rights to search phones that were present during a protest - and of course, in a world where data is in the cloud, they don't need physical access to the device to do so. Republicans like Matt Gaetz have called for surveillance to be stepped up.

Further warrants are possible to obtain from sympathetic judges. The fact is, though, that a lot of location data is available on the open market in a semi-anonymized form - law enforcement can obtain it like any other customer. It's possible to reverse engineer this data to determine an individual's actions and associations over time. This information can and is used to spy on and harass activists.

So when a coffee chain gathers data in this way, presumably for its own commercial intelligence, it is also feeding into a broader surveillance apparatus that can be used to track protesters, determine associations between people, and stifle dissent.

I don't believe that anyone at Tim Hortons is intentionally trying to create a police state - but actions are more important than intentions. It's now up to them, and everyone who builds technology, to do the right thing.

 

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

 

Donate

So far, these are the organizations I've donated to this month:

NAACP
NAACP Legal Defense Fund
Alameda County Community Food Bank
Black Family and Child Services
Peoples' Breakfast
Freedom Fund
Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment
Official George Floyd Memorial Fund
Equal Justice Initiative
Southern Poverty Law Center
ACLU

I'm interested in recommendations for other justice organizations. And if you have the means, I encourage you to join me.

 

Kimberly Jones on Black Lives Matter

Please watch. It's just six minutes and forty-six seconds of your time.

Black lives matter. Black equality matters. Black opportunities matter. Black justice matters.

 

Love and sayur lodeh

My Oma taught me to make food. That wasn't exactly her intention: she had become too old and frail to chop vegetables and stand over a hot stove, so I did those things for her. I was her kitchen surrogate. Through her instructions and careful corrections, I learned the superficial mechanics of cooking, and the generations-deep love and attention that goes into making a meal. Indonesian food made with American ingredients. Spices and stories, stirred together. Love and sayur lodeh.

Every morning, more or less as soon as she woke up, she would begin to think about what we would eat for dinner. She would make sure we had the right ingredients, and get to work (and get me to work) hours in advance. Then we would prepare the meal, the two of us, and we would eat it all together. We would spend time together as a family in the evening. Then she would sleep, and the horrors of the concentration camp would creep into her dreams. Through the walls, I would hear her wail and cry throughout the night. Then she would wake up, and begin to think about what we would eat for dinner.

Turlock, California is a small town in the San Joaquin Valley, next door to Modesto, and about two hours west of San Francisco. The air is hot and thick with almond dust, and the last bookstore that sold more than Bibles closed years ago. When my parents moved there in 2002, every radio station played country music, and the roads were littered with disposable American flags. It was less than a year after 9/11, and the feverish patriotism that had followed the attacks was waning.

They had moved from Oxford, a university town where many of the buildings dated back to the 1500s. A steady stream of scholars from around the world made for a cosmopolitan culture, even if the institution itself was long set in its ways. The museums and art galleries were free and numerous. Countless languages could be heard on its streets. Tolkien and Radiohead were among its children. Turlock was a universe away.

But it was important to be there for Oma. Even then, the rising cost of living in the Bay Area was pushing my family out, and as they scattered to the wind, my parents moved in to provide her with a home. That's why, when I graduated from university in Edinburgh with an honors degree in Computer Science and a popular website under my belt, I found my way to Turlock, too.

My Opa died before I was born. He was a leader of the resistance against the Japanese in Indonesia, and before that, the founder of a bank. My Dad's whole family was captured; Opa was placed into a work camp, while Oma and her children were imprisoned separately.

The children survived through Oma's ingenuity. My Dad was a toddler; without her wiles and instincts, I simply wouldn't exist. While the guards weren't looking, she would gather snails from around the camp and secretly cook them. My aunt would quietly escape and swim through the sewers to gather more food. The Japanese guards were brutal. Torture and killings were commonplace in the camp. These were dangerous activities.

When they emigrated back to the Netherlands after the war, escaping the Indonesian National Revolution, their property had been stripped as part of a rejection of colonial rule. (The Dutch, it must be added, were themselves a brutal colonial power.) Eventually, they found their way to California, where they ran a gas station on Highway 12 outside of Sebastopol, and a second one in Bodega Bay, which had previously featured in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. They lived in a small mobile home, and built their lives up from scratch several times. Even when flood waters destroyed their possessions, washing away the physical evidence of their life before, they picked themselves up and started again.

My aunts' lives were interrupted; their educations permanently put on hold. Generations later, this trauma still ripples through my family, waves of hardship emanating from a central event.

My Dad was drafted during the Vietnam War era, and became a non-citizen member of the US Army. It was through this, and the GI Bill that he was able to take advantage of afterwards, that he was able to get an education. He earned degree after degree, and found himself in Berkeley, studying philosophy and leading anti-war protests. He met my mother, an upper middle class Ukrainian Jewish American from upstate New York, herself descended from a family that escaped pogroms and had been forced to build a new life from scratch.

When it became clear that they would have a child, they chose to get married and move to Europe. I was born in Rotterdam and raised in England, the product of the ebbs and flows of immigrants caught in the wake of world-changing events. The toddler who survived the concentration camp earned a PhD in Economics from Oxford.

I wouldn't exist without Oma. When they moved back to California to give her a place to live and become her carers, I was completely supportive. But beyond those first four months in Turlock, the closest place to the Bay Area my parents could afford, I didn't stay.

It was almost a decade later when my mother was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. The persistent cough that had dogged her for years took permanent hold. Her lungs began to scar up and shrivel, and she began to carry oxygen on her back. It became clear that she might not have much longer to live. There was no known cause and no known cure. It wasn't clear that a lung transplant would be possible, or that she would survive it.

So I moved to California to help look after my own parents, just as my parents had moved to look after my Oma. I wanted to be closer and help where I could. It ripped my life apart, and I found myself building it up again from two suitcases.

It's now been close to a decade. My mother often tells me what she wants me to make for dinner. I'll be her surrogate in the kitchen, mixing ingredients together to her instructions. The food I cook is made from spices and the history of all of us, our family and the families like ours, fractals of ebbs and flows of people that form the atoms of history and culture.

This is the world. We're all part of a constantly-changing map of humans caught up in each others' wake: twisting currents in the tide of generations. We are constantly moving and we have always been. All of us are immigrants. All of us belong. All of us survive through kindness and ingenuity, despite the forces of militarism, hate, and intolerance. The only constant is change. The only savior is love.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: May 2020

Here's the media I consumed and found interesting in May.

I'm scared for the world and sick to my stomach about the injustices faced by black communities. The pressure cooker exploded in May, and it looks like June will continue this trend. I hope we can find our way to a more equal, more compassionate world where everyone can live a good life. It certainly feels like we're a long way from it now.

Apps

Stardew Valley. I'm late to the party but hopelessly addicted. It's like a cross between The Sims and The Secret of Monkey Island, with all of the humor and weirdness of the latter. Every time I think I've got a handle on it, it adds a new angle.

MSCHF. Part art project, part commercial enterprise, MSCHF releases a new drop twice a month. They're the people who brought us The Office on Slack, Jesus Shoes, and the cut up Damien Hirst painting.

Streaming

Atlanta's Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children. A timely, pointed documentary on the 30+ African American children and young adults who disappeared or were found murdered between 1979-81. The implications are devastating and highly relevant to what's happening on our streets today.

The Invisible Man. Tense from the first minute, this is a strongly feminist movie about gaslighting that is viscerally terrifying tonally and conceptually. Elisabeth Moss is excellent.

The Valhalla Murders. A taut Icelandic murder mystery that, again, has implications beyond its premise. It sounds like there's going to be a second season; I can't wait.

The Half of It. I expect this to continue to be the most beautiful film I've seen this year. I'm inspired by director Alice Wu, who was a computer scientist working at Microsoft before she changed directions and moved into filmmaking.

Notable Articles

The Pandemic

Flattening the Truth on Coronavirus. Dave Eggers on the convoluted, contradictory advice we're being offered.

“Political Connections and Cronyism”: In Blistering Whistleblower Complaint, Rick Bright Blasts Team Trump’s Pandemic Response. "Two weeks after being pushed out of his post, the former head of a $1.5 billion federal health agency formally accuses top officials of pressuring him to approve unproven chloroquine drugs and award pricey contracts to friends of the administration."

I'm Immunocompromised and Freaking Out About the World Reopening. I'm not immunocompromised, but I have loved ones who are, and this sums up how I feel, too.

 The Curious Case of the People Who Want to “Reopen” America—But Not Wear Masks. "The lesson here is that these stories aren’t really about vaccines or bioweapons or population control. Instead, they’re meta-parables about how the people telling them see themselves and feel about their place in the world."

Life on a Screen. My friend Oliver Mahony on his life working remotely.

‘How Could the CDC Make That Mistake?’ "The government’s disease-fighting agency is conflating viral and antibody tests, compromising a few crucial metrics that governors depend on to reopen their economies. Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, and other states are doing the same."

An Incalculable Loss. A remarkable, human New York Times piece on the 100,000+ lives lost to Covid-19.

Black Lives Matter

Proportionate Response. "When destroying a police precinct is a reasonable reaction."

The Only Thing, Historically, That's Curbed Inequality: Catastrophe. "Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities."

How Western media would cover Minneapolis if it happened in another country. "In recent years, the international community has sounded the alarm on the deteriorating political and human rights situation in the United States under the regime of Donald Trump. Now, as the country marks 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, the former British colony finds itself in a downward spiral of ethnic violence. The fatigue and paralysis of the international community are evident in its silence, America experts say."

The Pandemic Is the Right Time to Defund the Police. "The coronavirus has slowed much American police work, but the rate of police killings has remained relatively unchanged."

Black Journalists Are Exhausted. "As we’ve heard again and again, these are extraordinary times. However, it’s an especially peculiar time to be a black journalist. The pandemic has laid bare many of the same racial inequities that generations of black journalists have been covering since 1827 when the Freedom’s Journal birthed the black press. While this pandemic is unique, the waves of trauma crashing down on my community are not."

George Floyd’s brother says Trump ‘kept pushing me off’ during phone call. "Philonise Floyd says president dismissed him during a phone conversation – he ‘didn’t give me a chance to even speak’."

Politics

The Unbelievable Story Of The Plot Against George Soros. "How two Jewish American political consultants helped create the world’s largest anti-Semitic conspiracy theory."

Trump Is a Superspreader—of Distraction. "An added benefit of trolling, from the President’s perspective, is that it is also diverting the attention of the nation’s many Trump-haters, for whom his prolific stupidities and public feuds offer an endless supply of new outrage."

What Trump doesn't get about his new executive order: it'd backfire. "Trump seems oblivious to the fact that his new executive order, if it were implemented, would almost certainly backfire on him personally."

Culture & Society

The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months. It's far more uplifting than the book would have you believe.

The End of Meat Is Here. "If you care about the working poor, about racial justice, and about climate change, you have to stop eating animals."

David Foster Wallace, "This Is Water". "In 2005 author David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College. This thoughtful and moving talk inspires in me feelings of grief and anger and terror and hope, a response no doubt influenced by my awareness of Wallace's suicide some 40 months later in September 2008."

Brick Lane’s Beigel Bake reveals recipe for iconic bagels for stay-at-home bakers. Oh hell yes. I miss the Beigel Bake a great deal.

A Window Onto an American Nightmare. "Homelessness afflicts nearly one in five hundred Americans. As a crisis, it’s insidious, because its victims rarely plunge toward the abyss; they slide. Maybe you’ve been couch surfing in between jobs and you overstay your welcome. Maybe you’ve been in Airbnbs while apartment hunting and the search is harder than expected. Maybe, like Hickson, you lived on the momentum of a private dream until you had a reason to put down roots."

The Overlooked Black History of Memorial Day. "Researchers have traced the earliest annual commemoration to women who laid flowers on soldiers’ graves in the Civil War hospital town of Columbus, Miss., in April 1866. But historians like the Pulitzer Prize winner David Blight have tried to raise awareness of freed slaves who decorated soldiers’ graves a year earlier, to make sure their story gets told too."

Masculinity As Radical Selfishness: Rebecca Solnit on the Maskless Men of the Pandemic. "Why is doing what literally billions of women do day after day framed as some terrible ordeal? Where is the headline “Local Man Cannot Parent Own Child”?"

The Vintage Beauty Of Soviet Control Rooms. Pretty.

Journalism

U.S. drops to 45 in ranking of countries based on freedom of the press. "The report calls out Trump as a ‘media-bashing enthusiast’." I mean, to say the least.

Like it or not, Google and Facebook are becoming the leading patrons of the news industry. To be clear: I don't like it at all.

How Civil Didn’t Save Journalism. "Civil indeed helped launch a handful of publications, but it fell short on its promise to solve the media industry’s problems by finding a viable, alternative funding model. This might be because Civil’s mission was always more about investigating the viability of cryptocurrency."

CNN crew released from police custody after they were arrested live on air in Minneapolis. These are dark times.

Technology

Psychicpaper. Fascinating, technical details about a serious bug in iOS. "I dubbed it “psychic paper” because, just like the item by that name that Doctor Who likes to carry, it allows you get past security checks and make others believe you have a wide range of credentials that you shouldn’t have."

Amazon VP Resigns, Calls Company ‘Chickenshit’ for Firing Protesting Workers. Thank you, Tim Bray. The post on his blog is here.

Deno 1.0. An interesting alternative to Node that disposes of centralized package managers.

The Next Social Era is Here: Why Now Is the Time for Social Products Again. "Now is the best time in eight years to be a Founder of social/communications products, and we believe it will kick off a second wave of product-first Founders who are true artists of their craft."

The power of Open Source in the fight against COVID-19. "In every crisis, Open Source has empowered organizations to do more with less. It's great to see this play out again. Open Source teams have rallied to help and come up with some pretty incredible solutions when times are tough."

Doordash and Pizza Arbitrage. "If someone could pay Doordash $16 a pizza, and Doordash would pay his restaurant $24 a pizza, then he should clearly just order pizzas himself via Doordash, all day long. You'd net a clean $8 profit per pizza [insert nerdy economics joke about there is such a thing as a free lunch]." Kind of a fun story. But these food delivery startups have extremely screwy economics.

New York Times phasing out all 3rd-party advertising data. They're big enough that they can - but others will follow.

Automattic pumps $4.6M into New Vector to help grow Matrix, an open, decentralized comms ecosystem. I met the Matrix team earlier in their journey, when I was still working on Known. I tried to invest in them at Matter, because I knew this would be big, but no dice. I'm excited for their continued success.

The open podcast ecosystem is dying — here’s how to save it. Podcasting is one of the last bastions of popular openness. It is successful and vibrant because it is open. Let's keep that going.

Remote-team managers can learn a lot from open-source communities. "Instead of trying to reinvent management from first principles, we can turn to other areas with experience navigating distributed teams with individuals managing competing commitments. Open-source software communities—which also are remote communities connected by the internet—have long included the role of community managers. These are the people who tend to the health of the community, by maintaining communication, motivation, efficiency, and engagement. It’s a well-honed practice that remote managers can learn a lot from."

 

Yes and

Yes, America is burning, and it has always been burning.

And then, in the middle of a pandemic and a financial crisis, with millions of people suddenly out of work and unable to so much as greet each other for fear of contracting a deadly illness, a Minneapolis Police Officer called Derek Chauvin holds his knee down on George Floyd's neck until he becomes unresponsive, and then continues to hold it there for another two minutes and fifty-three seconds.

And this event that rips a man away from his community and the people who love him is just the latest in a long series of killings of black men and boys by police across the country.

And these killings are just another part of the systemic, generational horror that black families have had to endure since before the inception of this country.

And it is no surprise, given the atrocities and indignities faced by them and their ancestors, long lines of families and children, people with hopes and dreams with their necks held down by countless knees, that people have had enough.

And it is no surprise that they march, and that they protest, and that they rise up.

And it is no surprise that our institutions burn, because if this was you, and your history, and your oppression, wouldn't you want to burn it down too?

And it is no surprise, too, that the white supremacists, dressed in Hawaiian shirts that betray their lack of reverence for this horror, march too, and incite violence, seeking to spark a second civil war in order to reassert their own generational power.

And it should not be a surprise, though it might surprise some who have not been watching carefully, that the police drove SUVs into crowds of people, pepper sprayed the elderly in the face, and arrested and shot at journalists who were reporting the violence to their fellow citizens.

And it is no surprise, finally, that the President of the United States, who is sworn to uphold his oath of office to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, nonetheless, in the midst of all this, quotes word for word a famous call to violence from a racist police chief from the 1960s.

And we - none of us - can avoid making a choice. We can look away and do nothing, or we can help to overcome them and help this country to, for the first time, fully realize its promise.

And the people who look away are in effect supporting the white supremacists and the perpetuators of these horrors, and are one with them.

And the people who help will never be able to help enough, but if they listen, and if they lend their privilege and resources in support of the preservation of black lives, and they let black communities lead, it will be something.

And America will still be burning, but perhaps, over time, if we put value and sweat into building inclusion and equality, it will burn a little less.

...

If you're wondering what to do, here is an open source list of bail funds to donate to.

 

Moving away from Silicon Valley

More and more technology companies are realizing that they're just as productive as a remote team, with lower overheads. Simultaneously, tech employees are realizing that they're better off in an environment where they don't need to commute, can eat their own food, and can spend more time with their families.

I agree. Even without a pandemic going on around me, I vastly prefer working remotely. I get more work done, spend dramatically less time in transit, eat far better, do more exercise, etc. At a time when my parents are in need of more support for health reasons, it's also allowed me to be there for them in a way that I couldn't have been if I was required to be present in an office every day.

Most people prefer their homes - and even the ones that don't are happier in coworking spaces than their own offices. What does that mean for the Bay Area?

So far, house prices have continued to rise. Here's a graph of median house sale prices in San Francisco vs last year:

And in Alameda County (which encompasses Oakland and Berkeley):

We'll see what happens - because house prices lag by at least a month, we may yet see a pandemic-related reduction - but it looks like house prices are continuing to rise.

At any rate, the median prices in April were $1.69M and $1.05M respectively. To get a mortgage on a million dollar home, you need to earn around $220,000 a year. While tech employees are disproportionately highly-paid, the average salary in the sector is $145,000 a year. Most tech workers can't afford to own their own homes. This might not be a factor for workers who are just out of college, but the vast majority of people want to own - particularly if they start a family.

So in a world where you can work remotely (or from a coworking space that you choose), why stay in the Bay Area, where you're disproportionately likely to be renting? Even the super-rich - those who can afford to buy a home for millions of dollars - would be better off fleeing north to Marin or wine country, where they'll get more for their money.

You don't have to move to the sticks to get a better life. Cities like Seattle, Portland, Austin, Madison, Boston, and Boulder are all liberal, highly educated, full of arts and culture, and cheaper than the Bay Area. Seattle and Portland are even on the same time zone and a short flight (or longer train journey) away.

The Bay Area isn't dead - far from it - but I think we'll see a tech migration away as remote work becomes more permanent. Eventually, that will depress prices. In an area of legendarily high income inequality, that's probably good for everyone.

 

Why I don't want to open up (yet)

Dan Crenshaw, who represents Texas's second congressional district, published a pretty partisan op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week. In it, following a series of misrepresentations of liberal policy positions on the crisis, he offers:

It is time to reopen America in a smart and deliberate fashion and stop calling people murderers because they want to get back to work. The American people are responsible enough to live free and confront risk. Let them do so.

You might recall his Texan senate colleague Dan Patrick's suggestion that we should sacrifice the elderly to get the economy moving. Sacrificing lives to get back to work seems to be a common argument among Texas Republicans.

Still, there's a good reason why these arguments will be attractive to a lot of people: people are really hurting right now.

I'm one of the lucky 37% of Americans whose job can be done from home; the majority do not have this luxury. There have been 38.6 million unemployment claims over the last eight weeks, bringing the unemployment rate to 17.2% as of last week. This in a country that has arguably the worst worker protections in the developed world, and the only industrialized nation without universal healthcare. America is a brutal place to live through a pandemic.

In this environment, it makes sense that a lot of people feel they need to get back to work. Without a steady paycheck, and with no social safety net to fall back on Americans are much more likely to fall into homelessness than citizens of most countries. It's an utterly dire situation, brought about by a steady erosion in workers' rights, and rising income inequality over decades. Around 133,000 deaths a year are caused by individual poverty in the United States - a number that will surely get worse as more people lose their livelihoods.

But going slow to go fast works for pandemics, too.

Research into the 1918 Spanish flu indicates that cities which implemented stronger measures to contain the outbreak didn't perform worse during the pandemic, and performed better than other areas once the pandemic was over. The pandemic, not the lockdown, is the source of economic collapse: the Wall Street Journal, a conservative-leaning newspaper that published Crenshaw's op-ed, reported last month that economies without lockdowns were freefalling too.

If there's a choice at all, it's not between locking down and a thriving economy; the economy will nosedive either way. The choice comes down to how many people we want to die along the way. (Spoiler alert: the number of people you should be okay with dying is zero.)

Americans are dying at a rate of one 9/11 every one to two days. People of color are particularly at risk. The US death toll has eclipsed every other country's death toll in absolute terms (although it's currently 12th in the world per capita). The government's own estimates imply a death toll anywhere between 300,000 and 1.8 million Americans without shelter in place orders - and many statisticians believe they've been lowballed.

People aren't stupid. In an environment where hundreds of thousands of people are dying, most Americans are not going to start eating at restaurants, gathering in large groups, or going back to work in crowded offices. They're not going to take flights if they can help it, or go on lavish holidays. Polls show that most Americans don't want to reopen at all. And all this before the predicted second wave, which will cause a spike in the number of deaths and depress the economy further.

Abandoning lockdowns when the death rate is still rising will damage the economy more than continuing the quarantine. It will also potentially kill millions of people with lives, loved ones, hopes and dreams. Which should probably be the primary concern for anyone who isn't absolutely soullessly dead inside.

If we don't tackle the source of the problem rather than the symptoms, the economy will be depressed for years, and many people will needlessly die. Nobody in any party should want that. So let's go to the source, and put some more faith in science and innovation.

Researchers are curently trialling a Covid-19 test that will report results in 20 minutes, without being sent to a lab. If it works, we'll all be able to test ourselves on a regular basis, and self-quarantine if we get a positive result. Even if it doesn't work, reliable, slower tests are available, and there are some promising early results from vaccine trials (even if scientists, wisely, are urging for caution).

As Keith Humphreys at Stanford writes, widespread testing has controlled the virus in countries like Germany, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. But embracing these kinds of testing programs requires putting a confidence in government that doesn't come easily to Americans. It's not a part of America's DNA, for the same reason that we haven't managed to create a safety net or establish universal healthcare like every other developed nation.

If one was feeling particularly jaded, one might argue that caring for other members of our communities wasn't part of American culture. But it is. This is a compassionate country, full of people who energetically do care about each other. I believe we can do this.

Provable, widespread testing holds the key to opening up in the shorter term, and vaccinations will help in the medium to longer term. We will need to prove that we have been tested recently in order to go back to work. Once vaccinations are available, we'll need to prove that we've had one to combat this year's strain. The key isn't in a gung-ho belief in American risk-taking; it's in our ability to rise to the challenge and find a cure.

We also need to finally accept that the conditions experienced by the most disadvantaged in our society affect all of us. We need to provide stronger social support. We need to follow the advice of the American College of Physicians and enact universal healthcare, bringing American standards up to meet the rest of the world. We need to become community-minded, rather than ruthlessly individualistic, once again.

I'm over this pandemic. I hate being locked down. I want to see my friends and loved ones, and I want to go back to the office. But I want to do it right: in a way that establishes a true path forward and brings us all back to health for good. Widespread testing, investment towards a vaccine, and true social support while we wait for safety. That's the only way forward.

 

Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response.