Links on the Margins - April 15th

Softbank earnings, food expiration dates, the Post Office and screen time

Ranjan here. This week’s link roundup includes one of the more intense COVID-19 pieces I’ve read from Nicholas Kristof, a reflection on the Strokes’ new album, the Faustian bargain of the bailout package, and my learning that food expiration dates aren’t really real (is anything real?!?!)

Can linked to the fantastic Peter Kafka contemplation on the media’s coverage of COVID, a paean to the Post Office, some advice on managing screen time during these uncertain times, along with some other great pieces.

And regarding the phrase “during these uncertain times”, I’ve read those words so many times now, I was curious about the search results. My favorite was #2.

On to the links….


Life and Death in the ‘Hot Zone’

In early March, I was getting more frustrated that I didn’t feel like I was getting a “real” idea of what it was like in a Northern Italian hospital.

I saw lots of threads and graphs, but never felt a pang of genuine fear. It wasn’t until speaking with doctor friends in NYC in late March that I became terrified. In the past weeks, I get lots of messages from friends around the country asking “what is it really like in NYC? Are things as bad as they say?”

I have a tough time answering because I’m just sitting at home. I relay some of the sentiment from medical friends, but it doesn’t quite capture things.

This Nicholas Kristof piece captured things. Holy shit, did it.  

Note: I know this means absolutely nothing to normal people, but I would just like to register my displeasure having to see the word ‘opinion’ in the URL of this journalistic masterpiece.  

The Strokes’ Eerily Prescient “The New Abnormal”

I’m currently obsessed with the new album from The Strokes. I think it might end up being the creative work I end up most associating with this weird time. 

I really liked the Strokes when they released Is This It, but didn’t quite worship them. It wasn’t until I moved to NYC and saw them live in maybe 2004ish at the Hammerstein Ballroom that things really hit home. They were the aspirational rock and guitar heroes I was looking for at the time. 

I’ve linked to an Amanda Petrusich review (contemplation?) of their new album, and you should start by listening to this:

SoftBank Expects Nearly $17 Billion Loss on Tech-Focused Vision Fund

Those Softbank earnings. Woah.

I mean, we all knew it was coming. But still. Woah.

One part of this entire saga that always frustrated me was the lack of coverage on the opaque and odd financial structures underlying the Vision Fund. What was debt? What was equity? How were they allowed the financial wizardry that combined private market unrealized gains into public market earnings reports? How do we still never have a clear idea of what is the “Vision Fund” and what is “Softbank Corp”?

Anyways, this detail on the Vision Fund capitalization is just bananas:

Of the $100 billion committed to the fund, 40% came via preferred stock sold to the Saudis and Abu Dhabi, constituting a debtlike security that pays an annual interest rate of 7% and allows the holders to get their money back before other Vision Fund investors including SoftBank. That structure can juice positive returns, but also magnify losses.

Meantime, the fund may not be able to backstop its cash-burning companies with follow-up investments because cash intended for that purpose might have to go toward paying interest to the preferred investors.

Markets Are Rising on Another Faustian Bargain

I didn’t read too much financial markets news over the past month. It was an odd feeling during the most chaotic and exciting of market times, but an uptick in work, coupled with stabilizing WFH life with two kids really forced prioritizing what I could spend time thinking about. 

I’ve started dipping my toes back and have really come to appreciate the writing of John Authers on these crazy times. Would highly recommend subscribing to his newsletter:

With hindsight, the post-Lehman bailout can be seen as a Faustian bargain that staved off meltdown and a second Great Depression, but saddled the world with an economy that underperformed for another decade amid mounting political anger and inequality. It looks like that deal is being made again. 

The Food Expiration Dates You Should Actually Follow

Seeing the expiration date of your milk carton approaching feels ominous these days. It’s almost time to go back out there. This, from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (I’m still not exactly sure how to write his name) was pretty helpful: 

Here’s the first thing you should know: Expiration dates are not expiration dates.

Food product dating, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls it, is completely voluntary for all products (with the exception of baby food, more on that later). Not only that, but it has nothing to do with safety. It acts solely as the manufacturer’s best guess as to when its product will no longer be at peak quality, whatever that means. 


What went wrong with the media’s coronavirus coverage?

Did the media miss coronavirus? If you buy the narrative coming from the technorati I belong to, yes. Not only that, they even mocked those who were concerned. I am not one to characterize an entire industry by a single act, and neither should you. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that we weren’t as informed as we could be. My personal theory, as I hinted last week, is that it was our lack of empathy in the West towards those in China. However, Peter Kafka does a deep dive into what has happened during the early days of coronavirus coverage. If you are as media-curious as I am, this one is worth your time. Trust me, this will make you smarter than rage-tweeting at Vox.

The truth is, there’s no good answer to this. You can be as diligent about your sourcing as possible and still get it wrong if the experts you talk to get it wrong. And you can err on the side of not scaring people, when scaring people into action may be the only thing that saves their lives. I don’t know that we’ll do better next time, and we may just have to live with it — no matter how early the warnings are. 

Post Office Business Trouble - Why We Should Save the Post Office

There are horrifying things about the Trump administration but this one is particularly puzzling. Imagine, in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis in our lifetimes, a group of people decided to dismantle the US Postal Service. I am not sure it’s motivated by some misguided libertarian agenda, or if it's a hamfisted attempt at voter disenfranchisement or both, but it’s sickening. This 2013 piece by Esquire is a good explainer on why the USPS is so critical, how it is kneecapped financially, and why we should keep it.

Take the most contentious issue: the seventy-five years' worth of future-retiree health benefits that in 2006 a lame-duck session of Congress legislated the postal service prepay over the following ten years as part of a broad overhaul of the way the postal service operates. No other government agency must do this, and most private companies would have spread those payments over forty years. But the postal service was flush at the time, and Congress figured out that since health-care payments are counted as general government revenue, it could use them to prop up its own books. (Five-and-a-half billion dollars a year coming in from the postal service was $5.5 billion less Congress would have to cut elsewhere to remain budget-neutral, as the Bush administration was demanding.) But then the economy crashed and with it the amount of first-class mail being sent around the country. Suddenly a law designed to keep the postal service solvent in the long term began bankrupting it. Of the $15.9 billion the postal service lost last year, 70 percent — $11.1 billion — was in future health-care payments.

How Chinese Apps Handled Covid-19

Hangzhou health QR codes

Now that the virus is here and looks like it’s going to be with us for a while, it’s become a habit to wonder what our new normal is going to look like. Are we going to have offices? What about the schools? You can make whatever wild claim you like, and nobody cares how wrong you’ll be when the dust settles. But, you know, you could also look at how Chinese apps have handled it. Now that we all live on our phones and experience the phone through a handheld piece of glass filled with shiny pixels, it’s illustrative to see what our new normal might look in pixels. This entire thing is just so, so fascinating.

Should the American tech industry try to launch solutions more like the ones in China? Wouldn’t it be cool if these UIs in our apps had a kajillion buttons with stuff you can actually do about the coronavirus?

No, that sort of thinking never works. We’ve got completely different problems in the US, which need different solutions. The most pressing ones seem to be that community spread is still rampant in states that haven’t closed schools or issued curfews, people don’t want to or aren’t able to wear masks, and there still aren’t enough tests. These are largely political problems, not really ones that can be addressed through apps. So for tech to help, we might need to get political.

How to Limit Your Screen Time While Self-Distancing

Speaking of experiencing the world through shiny pixels, remember the screen time scare? I’m guilty of waving the flames as much as anyone else, though I did concede some of my concerns were also overblown. However, now that I am fully quarantined and confined to a single bedroom, my screen time, like everyone else’s, has increased to insane limits. There’s gotta be a point where it does cease to be healthy, and become actively dangerous to my physical and psychological well-being.

The casual use is resonating because I’ve started watching more TV in quarantine to turn my brain off the end of the day, and I can barely make it through an episode of a show without checking my phone. You had that great quote from Laurence Scott in your book about “a moment can feel strangely flat if it exists only in itself”—that is now how these moments feel to me.

This is what I discovered during that experiment where I had 1600 people spend a month away from all these optional technologies—especially on the younger end of the spectrum. People had a very hard time being alone with their thoughts. They just weren't used to it. Solitude, by the way, used to be a skill like speaking: yeah, it's very complicated if you didn't learn to do it, but most people just learn to do it naturally because they were exposed to it.