🎂 Margins Turns 1

A birthday link roundup

Photo by Joshua Chun on Unsplash

We’re hitting the one-year mark for the Margins. My co-host Can’s first edition was on a Zuckerberg memo, while mine was on the Amazon Coat. This began as a simple experiment where we were holding each other accountable for regularly writing. We’ve grown this to 4,000 subscribers, along with unlocking a number of #NewsletterHero achievements.

We got cited by global media outlets like The New York Times, subservient blogs hiding in global media outlets like FT Alphaville, and many other newsletters like The Interface by Casey Newton, Why is this Interesting by Noah Brier and Colin Nagy and Money Stuff by Matt Levine. We are pretty sure this newsletter is not securities fraud, but we are honored.

Our biggest achievement by far, however, has been the human connections we made through Margins. Countless of you chimed in piece after piece, sharing with us your expertise and experience. Both Can and I got to meet many of you in person. Those meatspace, real, human conversations are what make this all worth it. It’s cheesy, but the real subscribers are the friends we made along the way.

One minor change for year number two: We experimented with a few link roundups last year, and people seemed to like them. So, from now on, every Tuesday will each be jotting down a few of our favorite pieces from the week. We’ll reserve the longform stuff for Fridays. 

Thank you all for reading, the emails, the sharing, and all of that. Seriously. Writing for the sake of writing is tough enough. Writing when no one is reading is even tougher. 


Robots aren’t taking our jobs - they are becoming our bosses

As software eats the world, Taylorism eats the management. What used to be prohibitively expensive to measure is now automatically captured by the digital exhaust. A common reproach to “automation is going to kill all employment” is “automation is going to create more jobs, actually”. But what kind of jobs?

The robots were so efficient that more humans were needed in other roles to keep up, Amazon built more facilities, and the company now employs almost three times the number of full-time warehouse workers it did when the robots came online. But the robots did change the nature of the work: rather than walking around the warehouse, workers stood in cages removing items from the shelves the robots brought them.

Why Your Name Matters

Not a lot of you have names that happen to be a modal verb in English. I do. There’s a lot I can say about it; how embarrassing it is when people try making jokes around as if they can say anything I haven’t heard in 30+ years, or how it can become alienating when people assume I must be a foreigner because I don’t have a “white-passing” name. Do not make fun of people’s names, or make them feel less “normal”. You’d think people would get this, but they obviously don’t.

The effects of name-signalling—what names say about ethnicity, religion, social sphere, and socioeconomic background—may begin long before someone enters the workforce. In a study of children in a Florida school district, conducted between 1994 and 2001, the economist David Figlio demonstrated that a child’s name influenced how he or she was treated by the teacher, and that differential treatment, in turn, translated to test scores. 

Orbiting Jupiter - My Week with Macron

Mayor Pete dropped out. I always thought of him as a store-brand Macron. Like his French counterpart, he’s arrogant. He too is overly credentialed but lacks experience. Macron was an investment banker at Rothschild, Pete a consultant McKinsey. They are both globalists to their core, unapologetic neoliberal shills. They both showed, in different ways, that your romantic life does not matter as a presidential candidate. Two major differences though: I like Macron. And he won.

And what an adventure! This is a guy who only runs for a single office in his entire life, that of president of the republic, and wins. A guy who understands that the parties that have structured French public life since the end of the second world war are clinically dead, and that it is time to offer the French something new. What we’re seeing, he maintains, is a clash between old and new, navel-gazing and openness, routine and audacity, conservatism and progress – and it goes without saying that he, Macron, embodies progress, openness, audacity, the new. He says he’s neither on the right nor the left – although saying that usually means you’re on the right. So wouldn’t it be more accurate to say he is on the right and on the left at the same time?

The Intelligence Coup of the Century

I used to say, when I was kid, I’d grow up to become a spy. I think it was mostly caused by a boyish fascination with James Bond and all the international intrigue. Most spycraft is boring, tedious work, turns out. But, every once in a while, you hear about a story so crazy, so full insane details page after page, you wonder, maybe I should have been a spy. Most Margins readers probably read this, but for those few who haven’t, this thing is so bonkers, I cannot even.

In 1982, when Argentina became convinced that its Crypto equipment had betrayed secret messages and helped British forces in the Falklands War, Widman was dispatched to Buenos Aires. Widman told them the NSA had probably cracked an outdated speech-scrambling device that Argentina was using, but that the main product they bought from Crypto, the CAG 500, remained “unbreakable.”

Few Words

I am not much of a skier. I snowboard, but barely. Why would I even watch this? The answer is a hazy one. This documentary hit me hard, both in a good and a bad way. Of course, you do not become the world’s greatest skier by not putting in the work. That is table stakes. At the same time, while taking in the gorgeous photography and the overwhelming beauty of the snowy nature, you can’t help think that some people internalize their passions in a way that escapes most of us mere mortals. It feels like less like Candide Thovex is skiing at times, but more that the sport, the mountains, the snow, the skis, they all expose what it is capable of, what beauty and elegance they hold us for through him.


Why America Is Losing The Toilet Race

A few years ago, I spent two weeks at my in-law’s place in Taiwan. They owned a fancy Toto bidet-style toilet, the kind which I previously had experienced in a Japanese Starbucks. The moment I got back, I knew I had to get one. The Wirecutter delivered on recommending something around $400, which is certainly not cheap. But, it’s one of those things that once you experience, there’s no turning back. 

Planet Money covered Toto in their newsletter, and I just LinkedIn requested the guy featured in the piece, because I want to help them spread the gospel.

Strang is originally from the Midwest, and he joined Toto 17 years ago. That's when he had his first experience with the Washlet bidet, and it was much like mine. It began with "apprehension, a little bit of angst," he says. But then he pushed the spray button and had a joyous sensation. The bathroom would never be the same

What the Dubious Corona Poll Reveals

I had a bunch of friends sharing the “stat” that 38% of Americans won’t drink Corona now, often with some commentary about “this is why Trump won.” It’s such a funny thing that we want it to be true, but trivial enough, that when we’re informed it was misleading, we just discount it as just “fun”. A friendly reminder if a “news” story makes you want to share it, you probably shouldn’t share it.

The original press release from 5WPR notes that in a survey of 737 beer-drinking Americans, 38 percent said they “would not buy Corona under any circumstances now.” By presenting this finding in the context of other questions that are explicitly about the coronavirus, the press release creates the impression that Americans’ reluctance to drink the beer is due to the coronavirus. 

Of those Americans who did report regularly drinking Corona, only 4 percent said they would now stop drinking the beer.

Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India

There was a spate of horrifying political violence in New Delhi last week. Reading about it made me do two things. First, I went and read the Wikipedia entry about the 2002 Gujarat riots. I remember as the riots broke out, I read some world news coverage and probably caught some CNN segments, but it never quite hit. Going back and reading about it was intense. Next, I went into my Instapaper and pulled up the New Yorker piece on how Narendra Modi has changed India from December 2019. It’s a long one, but important. 

Also, this isn’t completely relevant, but, curious to see where this goes:

Swinging the Vote?

Sometimes things are written that so perfectly nail a very specific combination of your interests, you want to inject the words directly into your veins. This is one of those moments for me. Politics, campaign emails, algorithmic content sorting, marketing, big tech opacity, data-driven journalism. You name it, this had it.  

As one of their first pieces, the Markup tracked how the Gmail Promotions Tab system treated marketing emails from all the campaigns, along with some nonprofits, to try to ascertain some pattern around how the system works. It’s a fantastic look into an algorithm that normally does not make its way into the democracy conversation.

Even better - The Markup has a companion “show your work” where they outline how they approached the experiment, in intricate detail. I wish every article I ever read had this level of transparency.

Why We're Betting Against Real-Time Team Messaging Apps Like Slack

My co-host Can got me into using Todoist. I long ago accepted that the quest for the perfect workflow is more about the journey than the destination, so I have no illusions about finding said workflow. But, I do enjoy thinking and reading about workflows, and I really enjoyed this blog post from the Doist team on the problems with Slack. 

It’s great content marketing in the sense that it’s promoting a new product of theirs, but in a thoughtful manner. Also, I have to recognize, they nailed how your funding structure invariably defines your product:

Whether it’s Facebook or Slack, today’s communication apps compete to grab your attention and maximize your time spent inside their apps. That’s how they raise VC money and bolster huge valuations (Slack is currently valued at $3.8 billion).

We want Twist to do well and be profitable, but we want it to be because it truly empowers teams (including ours) to do their best work, not because it hijacks their time and attention. It’s about having a product that’s built to serve users’ needs and not the other way around

💕Ranjan and Can