3 stars

How Venture Capitalists Are Deforming Capitalism | New Yorker

Several people suggested this piece to me, and I didn’t get around to reading it for a couple weeks — partly thinking it’d tell a familiar story. While that ended up being true, this is well-researched, well-told, and definitely worth your time:

When Jeremy Neuner began having meetings with venture capitalists, he said, “their first question was ‘How do you compete with WeWork? Why should we invest with you instead of them?’ ” WeWork was reportedly losing millions of dollars each month, but it was expanding to new locations at a feverish pace. Neumann’s promises to V.C.s were so wildly optimistic, bordering on ridiculous, that Neuner was convinced WeWork had to be a scam. “They were saying they would become the biggest office-space provider in the world,” Neuner recalled. “What do I say to compete with that? Do I tell V.C.s, ‘You know, WeWork must be lying, so you should accept my smaller returns instead’? No one wanted to hear that. All the V.C.s couldn’t wait to drink the Kool-Aid.” […]

Neuner began hearing similar stories from other co-working entrepreneurs: WeWork came to town, opened near an existing co-working office, and undercut the competitor on price. Sometimes WeWork promised tenants a moving bonus if they terminated an existing lease; in other instances, the company obtained client directories from competitors’ Web sites and offered everyone on the lists three months of free rent. Jerome Chang, the owner of Blankspaces, in Los Angeles, told me, “My average rate was five hundred and fifty dollars per desk per month, and I was just scraping by. Then WeWork arrived, and I had to drop it to four hundred and fifty, and then three hundred and fifty. It eviscerated my business.” Rebecca Brian Pan, who founded a co-working company named Covo, said, “No one could make money at these prices. But they kept lowering them so that they were cheaper than everyone else. It was like they had a bottomless bank account that made it impossible for anyone else to survive.” […]

Particularly in Silicon Valley, founders often want venture capitalists who promise not to interfere or to ask too many questions. V.C.s have started boasting that they are “founder-friendly” and uninterested in, say, spending an afternoon a week at a company’s offices or second-guessing a young C.E.O. Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School, told me, “Proclaiming founder loyalty is kind of expected now.” One of the bigger V.C. firms, the Founders Fund, which has more than six billion dollars under management, declares on its Web site that it “has never removed a single founder” and that, when it finds entrepreneurs with “audacious vision,” “a near-messianic attitude,” and “wild-eyed passion,” it essentially seeks to give them veto-proof authority over the board of directors, so that an entrepreneur need never worry about being reined in, let alone fired.

Whereas venture capitalists like Tom Perkins once prided themselves on installing good governance and closely monitoring companies, V.C.s today are more likely to encourage entrepreneurs’ undisciplined eccentricities. Masayoshi Son, the SoftBank venture capitalist who promised WeWork $4.4 billion after less than twenty minutes, embodies this approach.


‘This Must Be Your First’ | The Atlantic

Is This a Coup? Introducing The Counter | Zeynep Tufekci and Maciej Ceglowski

Regardless of subject, Zeynep Tufekci is quickly becoming a must-read writer. And she does something pretty neat here: she’s launched a new regular feature presenting “someone else’s essay arguing against one of mine. I’m going to do my best to seek out the strongest, most coherent counterarguments I can find to publish.” First up: her (very popular) piece in The Atlantic on the ongoing presidential shenanigans, countered by Maciej Ceglowski — the writer of Idle Words, whom I’ve also featured several times. (Cynics may point out that both writers are left-of-centre, and, as always, I’m open to recommendations for high-quality right-of-centre pieces.)

Over three decades later, I walked up to a counter in Antalya Airport to tell a disbelieving airline employee that our flight would shortly be canceled because the tanks being reported in the streets of Istanbul meant that a coup attempt was under way.*It must be a military exercise, she shrugged. Some routine transport of troops, perhaps? If so, I asked her, where is the prime minister? Why isn’t he on TV to tell us that? Another woman approached the counter. “This must be your first,” she said to the young woman behind the counter, who was still shaking her head. “It’s my fourth.” […]

In Turkish, we do have many different words for different types of coups, because our experience similarly demands it. For example, coups that are attempted through threatening letters from the military are called memorandum coups. A 2007 attempt is commonly referred to as the “e-coup” because the threatening letter from the military was first posted on the internet. (The one before that, in 1997, is often referred to as a “postmodern” or “soft” coup.) We know the difference between military coups that start from the top and follow the military chain of command and those that do not. The term autogolpe comes from the Spanish partly because there have been so many such attempts in Latin America.

The U.S. president is trying to steal the election, and, crucially, his party either tacitly approves or is pretending not to see it. This is a particularly dangerous combination, and makes it much more than just typical Trumpian bluster or norm shattering. […]

But in English, only one widely understood word captures what Donald Trump is trying to do, even though his acts do not meet its technical definition. Trump is attempting to stage some kind of coup, one that is embedded in a broader and ongoing power grab.

And if that’s hard to recognize, this might be your first. […]

What makes this moment deeply alarming—and makes Republicans’ overwhelming silence and tacit approval deeply dangerous, rather than merely an attempt to run out the clock on the president’s clownish behavior—is that Trump’s attempt to steal this election builds on a process that has already entrenched minority rule around the country.


The most striking feature of the 2020 election has been its ordinariness. At the height of a great pandemic, ballots were printed and sent out on time, mail-in voting was expanded and organized in those states that didn’t already have it, and Election Day itself passed without any of the drama we were warned to expect. There was no organized street violence, no internal sabotage at the post office, no black helicopters. Even the weather was great!

Things have gone just as smoothly after the election, though you wouldn’t know it from the Wagnerian levels of drama that have unfolded on social media and in the political press. Everywhere the votes have been counted, and where necessary recounted, again and again. The few petulant lawsuits Trump managed to file are being thrown out. And thanks to the courage and integrity of our election officials, none of the President’s despicable personal attacks on them has had any effect on the vote count.

Even though the tally was extremely close in five states, there were no organized attempts to doctor the result. Nothing so far has approached the confusion of 2000, let alone the open fraud of 1960, or the felonious artistry of the great stolen elections of our more distant past. Nor has there been any sign of foreign interference.


Preparing to Spin the Wheel of Fortune | New Yorker

I am here to spin. It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Friday in late January, in Los Angeles—specifically, Culver City. I am in a freezing-cold studio on the Sony lot. I like saying “on the Sony lot.” I’m on the Sony lot, in a studio, and it’s freezing cold. But I am thankful for this temperature. My skin rests atop a roiling sea of sweat. I am often a boat adrift on this sea. A friend once saw my wedding photos and asked if I had been flung into a pool—you know, one of those weddings. Nope, just plain old sweat. My friend went silent. I am no longer married. I have three children: boy and girl and girl, eighteen and seventeen and twelve. My parents were married for more than fifty years. My father died five years ago. Toward the end, he became panicked by every chill and practically lived with a pulse oximeter on his index finger. My marriage fell apart a few months after his death. It was sad and painful, Pat, and thank goodness things are much better now. But I’m talking to myself, because Pat Sajak has yet to stroll into this freezing-cold studio on the Sony lot in Culver City. I stand before the wheel while Pat is in his dressing room, putting on his Thursday suit.

I am Thursday. Or one of three people who constitute Thursday, March 26, 2020.

To my right is Mark, from Brentwood.

To my left is Cyndi, from Baltimore.

I am David, from New York.


DeepMind’s superhuman intelligence | UnHerd

More on DeepMind:

Professor Dame Janet Thornton, a pioneer of protein research who has been working on the folding problem for nearly 50 years, told a briefing held by the Science Media Centre ahead of the announcements that possible future applications could be designing enzymes that consume plastic waste, or that suck carbon out of the atmosphere, or improve crop yields.

Similarly, it could help us understand diseases like Alzheimer’s, which seems to be something to do with protein misfolding, as is Parkinson’s. Protein misfolding appears to play a role in the development of some cancers. And DeepMind hopes it will have a role in future pandemic responses: AlphaFold was able to predict the shape of a protein, ORF3a, in SARS-Cov2, as well as other coronavirus proteins. Understanding the shape should help make the discovery of future drugs and vaccines quicker. It is a sudden window into areas of basic science which were simply not visible before.

What fascinates me, though, is the AI angle. Birney made an interesting point when we spoke: that when DeepMind started out, they set out to make a single program that could play lots of Atari games. “People said, ‘you’re just playing silly games.’” Then they made a program that could become superhuman at Go, a fantastically deep and complex game, but nonetheless a game. Then they used essentially the same program to become enormously superhuman at chess. Now, a similar architecture – as far as I can tell, at least – can solve real scientific questions. […]

This is scientific creativity: it is spotting patterns in the universe, working out how things are connected. It is, I think it is fair to say, a computer that is doing science.


2 stars

The Man Who Found Forrest Fenn's Treasure | Outside

It took two months of correspondence before the man who found Forrest Fenn’s treasure told me his name.

We’d been emailing since September, and I honestly didn’t expect to ever know who he really was. I was fine with that; as a fellow treasure hunter, I completely understood his desire for anonymity. 

Since 2017, I had been pursuing Fenn’s treasure, too, becoming a kinda-sorta searcher in order to tell the story of Fenn’s hunt in my upcoming book Chasing the Thrillto be published by Knopf in June. I’d been in the trenches, read Fenn’s clue-filled poem over and over, ended up in places I probably shouldn’t have been, and gone to places where other people died trying to find it. 

A decade ago, Fenn hid his treasure chest, containing gold and other valuables estimated to be worth at least a million dollars, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Not long after, he published a memoir called The Thrill of the Chase, which included a mysterious 24-line poem that, if solved, would lead searchers to the treasure. Fenn had suggested that the loot was secreted away at the place where he had envisioned lying down to die, back when he’d believed a 1988 cancer diagnosis was terminal. Since the hunt began in 2010, many thousands of searchers had gone out in pursuit—at least five of them losing their lives in the process—and the chase became an international story. 


China's Attack on Australia is About America | Scholar’s Stage

I’m finding the Foreign Policy paywall a bit too unpredictable to link directly, but if you’re able to read Tanner’s article there, you should. Regardless, his companion blog post is worthwhile on its own:

The escalating crisis in Sino-Australian relations prompts a new piece. Foreign Policy publishes my latest under the title "Biden's First Foreign Policy Crisis is Already Here." I approve of the title. Not everything is about America, and I often spend my time trying to show how the moving force behind any given international event has nothing to do with Washington. This case is different. Here the American element in China's decision-making is greater than many analyses, especially those written in Australia, would have you think.

Sino-American competition is the setting in which Beijing's “punishment” of Australia has taken place. Beijing's actions do not make sense except in reference to the PRC's larger strategic goals vis-à-vis the United States. This is true both in the larger strategic sense of what Beijing is ultimately hoping to achieve with this attack and in the narrower tactics of timing and target.


Why Do So Many Americans Think the Election Was Stolen? | New York Times

Ross Douthat:

There have been few surprises this past month in how Donald Trump has dealt with the reality of his electoral defeat.

Anyone familiar with his career could have predicted that he would claim to have been cheated out of victory. Anyone watching how he wielded power (or, more often, didn’t) as president could have predicted that his efforts to challenge the election results would be embarrassing, ridiculous and dismissed with prejudice in court. And anyone watching how the Republican Party dealt with his ascent could have predicted that its leaders would mostly avoid directly rebuking him, relying instead on the inertial forces of American democracy, the conscientiousness of judges and local officialdom, and Trump’s own incompetence to turn back his final power grab.

So far, so predictable. But speaking as a cynical observer of the Trump era, one feature of November did crack my jaded shell a bit: not his behavior or the system’s response, but the sheer scale of the belief among conservatives that the election was really stolen, measured not just in polling data but in conversations and arguments, online and in person, with people I would not have expected to embrace it. […]

Others have taken note of the same phenomenon: At National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes that “friends who I did not know were political are sending me little snippets of allegations of voter fraud and manipulation.” At The American Mind, the pseudonymous Californian Peachy Keenan describes watching a passel of lukewarm Trump-supporter moms in her Catholic parish suddenly “get MAGAfied” by election conspiracy theories. (As a fraud believer herself, she thinks that’s a good thing.) […]

Drawn from my conversations in the past few weeks, here’s an attempt at a taxonomy of these unlikely seeming fraud believers.


Why So Many Men Stuck With Trump In 2020 | FiveThirtyEight

Given how unreliable the exit polls were this year, it will likely be a while before we know exactly how differently men and women voted in 2020. But a new survey from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life offers some clues, indicating that once again, gender and sexism may have been a big dividing line, as was the case in 2016.

That may seem surprising since this year’s contest pitted President Trump against another white man instead of a woman, much less the first woman to run for president on a major-party ticket. […]

But according to research conducted before and after the election, the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a large role in exacerbating gender divisions in the electorate. This split wasn’t enough for Trump to win this time, of course, but his attitude toward the coronavirus crisis may actually have been a bonus for some men, which could present a real challenge for Biden moving forward.

Overall, most Americans consistently disapproved of the way Trump handled the pandemic, but the AEI poll found one notable exception — men who identify as “completely masculine.” As the table below shows, a majority (52 percent) of men who identified as completely masculine on the survey agreed that the Trump administration has a strategy on COVID-19 — setting them apart from all other men and women.


1 star

The intriguing maps that reveal alternate histories | BBC

In these times of turbulence and upheaval, I have often found myself turning to fiction – and particularly to alternate history. These are the “what if” stories that ask us to imagine our world on a different path: what if a battle, election or assassination had gone the other way, or a pivotal person had never been born? Some of these stories involve time travel to make the change, but many alternate histories are simply imagined differences. What if the Nazis had not been beaten, as in the novel The Man in the High Castle, or what if the Soviets had landed a man on the Moon first, like in For All Mankind?


The Northern Lights Photographer of the Year for 2020 | Kottke

Capture the Atlas has collected some of the best aurora borealis and aurora australis photos taken this year in their 2020 Northern Lights Photographer of the Year competition. I’ve highlighted two photos from the competition above, by Ben Maze & Nico Rinaldi respectively. Maze’s photo, of the aurora australis in Tasmania, is stunning — one of the best astronomy photos I have ever seen.


To Lose Weight With Exercise, Aim for 300 Minutes a Week | New York Times

Good news…? It’s not only about diet and genes:

But to benefit, the study suggests, we most likely have to exercise a lot — burning at least 3,000 calories a week. In the study, that meant working out six days a week for up to an hour, or around 300 minutes a week.


Why More Young Guys Are Embracing the Sugar Daddy Life | InsideHook

This culture of transparency is particularly handy for those who aren’t interested in a romantic or monogamous relationship and don’t have the time or energy to sift through hordes of hopeful monogamists on mainstream dating apps. […]

Essentially, sugar dating is just a more polished version of what’s known in mainstream dating culture as “friends with benefits.” The difference being: the benefits can be whatever you want, two people in a single arrangement might be getting different benefits, and there’s a certain level of respect for the quid-pro-quo agreement that makes arrangements less susceptible to one party “catching feels” or agreeing to something casual in the hopes of eventually wiggling their way into a full-fledged relationship.


These 5 Words Destroyed a Car Brand | BetterMarketing

The press had been following this production story for years. There was considerable excitement. Many speculated the Nano would become the most popular car in the second-most populated country in the world.

Behind all of the initial hype, was a good first wave of sales via 200,000 pre-orders. The Nano even won a slew of awards for its design, fuel efficiencies, and weight.

However, quite quickly, everything slumped precipitously from tens of thousands of units sold per month to mere hundreds. […]

Tata’s marketing team positioned the Nano as the “cheapest car in the world” which, at face value, seems like a logical thing to do in a cost-sensitive market.

But only a quick glance beneath the surface will tell you those five words were a massive blunder.

While Indian consumers are indeed cost-conscious, there are powerful cultural factors that make the “cheapest car in the world” a repulsive slogan.

Indian society has lots of pressure around class and status. For many buyers, to be seen owning “the cheapest car in the world” was to be seen as poor, which is a very sensitive word in India.

Consumers with new money were eager to participate in conspicuous consumption (purchases that project achievement and status). In turn, they opted to spend a few extra bucks for slightly nicer cars with better reputations.


A Taste of Los Angeles | Vimeo

If you’re not a fan of sudden movements, this may not be for you — but I thought it was great:

For the fourth episode of our independent “A Taste of ...” time lapse series we travelled for 13 days to Los Angeles to bring you a time lapse video full of new and highly experimental post production techniques. […]

We shot 155.568 photos, which use 5.3 Terabytes of data on our HDDs. The edit took 64 days.


New CRISPR-based COVID-19 test uses smartphone cameras to spot virus RNA | Marginal Revolution

This one brings us closer to the Star Trek medical universe


Watch a Chicken Embryo Grow in a Transparent “Egg” | Kottke

If you crack a fertilized chicken egg into a transparent container — in this case, plain old kitchen plastic wrap — and incubate it, you can observe the embryo as it develops and eventually “hatches” into a chick, heartbeat and all. The process takes about 21 days from start to finish.


The Vaccine Works Fast | Marginal Revolution

Two doses is great but one dose already looks good even though sample is small. “Efficacy against severe COVID-19 occurring after the first dose was 88.9%.”


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