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Reading, watching, playing, using: December 2020

This is my monthly roundup of the tech and media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for the final month of the hell-year.

Books

Intimations, by Zadie Smith. Six personal, revealing essays about living in the pandemic. Real; insightful; human.

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury. A classic, of course, but new to me. I love the way he melds a very folksy, warm linguistic approach with mind-bending, often horrifying ideas.

Streaming

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. Anchored by two astonishing performances, this does feel like a filmed play rather than a movie in itself, but is no worse for it. Chadwick Boseman is remarkable; Viola Davis's complete transformation even more so.

Soul. Just about as good a movie as Pixar has ever made - which is to say, it's very good indeed. I'm not sure what kids get out of it, but the themes of parenting and what it means to really live come through loud and clear.

Notable Articles

Business

Corporate Reporting in the Era of Artificial Intelligence. “Company managers specifically consider machine readers, as well as humans, when preparing disclosures.” An interesting new world, where human-readable articles are actually designed for artificial intelligence readers, approaches. SEO was our first toe-dip. Now it's maybe just Robot Reader Optimization?

Investing in Moov: Open Source Financial Services Building Blocks. I really like this approach. Open source + a modular structure will empower just about everyone in the financial services ecosystem, and in turn makes Moov a good investment.

How This CEO Creates an Internal Culture With a “Crazy Focus” on Good Storytelling. "When we have communication issues within the company or with our customers and prospects, it all comes back to the fact that we didn't spend enough time trying to understand the story." I love everything about this.

Death of an Open Source Business Model. I've spent a huge amount of my career - well over a decade - on open source businesses. This all rings true to me, and is an important reminder (unfortunately).

Big Tech risks big fines, and even break-up, under Europe's new content and antitrust rules. I’m not against it.

The Making of a Dumpster Fire. Now this is marketing.

Czech Startup Founders Turn Billionaires Without VC Help. I like this a lot. I use JetBrains personally, but had no idea that this was how the company was built. Inspiring.

Culture

Andrew Bird’s Cozy Melancholy. Andrew Bird is the absolute best.

Why Is Publishing So White?. “There’s a correlation between the number of people of color who work in publishing and the number of books that are published by authors of color.” Which is shown clearly in this very revealing, well-presented data.

Whatever Happened to ______ ?. “There are studies showing that some men “feel insecure” — to put it mildly, and possibly euphemistically — when a woman earns more than her male spouse. What those articles aren’t saying is that a woman’s life may be in danger if she outpaces a male partner in her chosen career, tipping the scales away from tattered patriarchal mythology.” A sad, beautifully-written account of one such story in the arts.

every tv show I have binge-watched since march: part one. “My conclusion is that Buffy is a television show about a beautiful young queer witch named Willow trying and failing to leave her toxic hometown friend group, and the ways in which being unable to let go of the people we loved in our youth who are no longer able to have healthy relationships with us can warp us and turn us evil.”

Media

Mapping Black Media. “We’re offering a map and directory of nearly 300 community media outlets across the U.S. that primarily serve Black communities across the diaspora.”

Substack launches an RSS reader to organize all your newsletter subscriptions. Yes! I welcome new RSS readers with open arms.

A contentious local election revealed an information gap. High school reporters stepped up to fill it.. One of those heartwarming stories that is actually kind of dystopian - local news is vital for democracy - but still, I’m a big fan of this.

'I figured I'd give it a year': Arthur Sulzberger Jr on how the New York Times turned around. “Paul Goldberger, a longtime Times architecture critic and one of the paper’s wisest observers, said the most relevant description of Sulzberger Jr’s philosophy could be found in an Italian novel, The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.””

True equity means ownership. "For far too long, newsroom leaders have been wringing their hands over how to serve Black and brown communities. How many diversity initiatives, recruitment efforts, and implicit-bias trainings do we have to endure without the follow-through?"

Why on Earth Is Someone Stealing Unpublished Book Manuscripts?. “Whoever the thief is, he or she knows how publishing works, and has mapped out the connections between authors and the constellation of agents, publishers and editors who would have access to their material.” Kind of fascinating as a mystery.

Politics

Trump administration officials passed when Pfizer offered months ago to sell the U.S. more vaccine doses.. "Before Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine was proved highly successful in clinical trials last month, the company offered the Trump administration the chance to lock in supplies beyond the 100 million doses the pharmaceutical maker agreed to sell the government as part of a $1.95 billion deal months ago."

Rejecting Opposition From Judiciary, House Passes Bill to Make PACER Free. "The U.S. House on Tuesday passed bipartisan legislation that would make PACER free for the public, handing a win to transparency advocates despite the federal judiciary’s opposition to the bill." Thinking of Aaron Swartz.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping: The Full(est Possible) Story. If you dig into it, the story gets no less remarkable and crazy.

Society

'Juno' Star Elliot Page Announces He Is Transgender. "Hi friends, I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot. I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life."

New report reveals alleged horrors of sex testings in international sports. Absolutely horrifying story, including forced operations.

'Nobody knows': Experts baffled by mystery illness in India. Extremely troubling.

The pandemic was already testing me. Then a man covered in Nazi tattoos showed up in my ER. “We all saw. The symbols of hate on his body outwardly and proudly announced his views. We all knew what he thought of us. How he valued our lives. But our job was to value his.”

Sharrows, the bicycle infrastructure that doesn’t work and nobody wants. I grew up cycling, and really wish I could feel safe doing it here. I just don't. I've known one person who sadly died in a cycling incident, and many more who have been seriously hurt. We need to take back our cities from cars.

How one woman is building the future for Google in Silicon Valley. I’d say it’s the other way around: one woman is building the future of Silicon Valley on behalf of Google. I’m excited to see this come to fruition, although I wish this kind of thing could be government-driven.

Texas Wedding Photographers Have Seen Some $#!+. "The photographer who got sick after shooting the COVID-positive groom said her experiences throughout the pandemic have left her a little depressed. She recalled one conversation from that wedding, before she left the reception. “I have children,” she told a bridesmaid, “What if my children die?” The bridesmaid responded, “I understand, but this is her wedding day.”"

Tax cuts for rich don't 'trickle down,' study of 18 countries finds. "Large tax cuts for the rich lead to higher income inequality and don't fuel economic growth or cut unemployment, a new paper by academics from the London School of Economics and King's College London says." Ya don't say.

Preindustrial workers worked fewer hours than today's. “Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed. Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure. When capitalism raised their incomes, it also took away their time. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that working hours in the mid-nineteenth century constitute the most prodigious work effort in the entire history of humankind.”

The Life in The Simpsons Is No Longer Attainable. “The most famous dysfunctional family of 1990s television enjoyed, by today’s standards, an almost dreamily secure existence.” Just an absolute punch in the gut.

The Journalist and the Pharma Bro. “Why did Christie Smythe upend her life and stability for Martin Shkreli, one of the least-liked men in the world?” And she still seems to be neck-deep in his gravitational pull.

Technology

Web Conversations With the Year 2000. It’s funny because it’s true. I thought we’d be in such a different place.

Web Conversation From the Other Side. A more serious rewrite of Paul Ford’s other piece. Both are worth reading side by side.

Command Line Interface Guidelines. “These are what we consider to be the fundamental principles of good CLI design.” Well-researched and smartly presented.

How our data encodes systematic racism. “What is the difference between overpolicing in minority neighborhoods and the bias of the algorithm that sent officers there? What is the difference between a segregated school system and a discriminatory grading algorithm? Between a doctor who doesn’t listen and an algorithm that denies you a hospital bed?”

Social Networking 2.0. A vital piece about the future of the internet. It’s surreal seeing pieces in the more mainstream / less radical tech business sphere talking about things many of us were advocating over ten years ago. But I’m glad we got here.

Firefox Was Always Enough. I agree with all of this. I'm a die-hard Firefox user, for all the reasons that make Mozilla great, and none of the reasons that have caused it problems.

Wildfire smoke is loaded with microbes. Is that dangerous?. I worry about this: having been evacuated for a wildfire, and helping to care for a parent who had to have a lung transplant, this is a confluence of worries. (Filing this under “technology” because I don’t have a “science” category. I should fix this for next month.)

Zoom helped China suppress U.S. calls about Tiananmen, prosecutors allege. Horrendous.

Inside the Whale: An Interview with an Anonymous Amazonian. "Jeff loves Prime Video because it gives him access to the social scene in LA and New York. He’s newly divorced and the richest man in the world. Prime Video is a loss leader for Jeff’s sex life."

Creating Decentralized Social Media Alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. A reasonable overview, although it necessarily skips out on some detail. This is where I’ve spent much of my career, and honestly, I’m eager to go back. The time is right.

Inside India’s booming dark data economy. “Thanks to lax privacy laws and high consumer demand, details on everything from how you shop to who you date are all for sale.”

Taking a Fresh Look at APIs Across All the United States Federal Agencies. Super-interesting!