Links on the Margins - April 22nd
Oprah on pseudoscience, crude oil, The Virus, TikTok, and sports
Hi! Can here.
I spent the last weekend disconnected. All I did, as far as I can remember, was watching Community on Netflix, going for runs, finishing up some work, and reading. Coming back online on Monday was disorienting. The bottom had come out of oil prices, and it was trading in the negative! Some tech VC had written a blog post and the tech industry and the tech journalists were all out in shouting matches over Twitter.
None of what is happening is normal. As an extrovert, I am struggling to keep my marbles without meatspace social interaction. But, I am also incredibly lucky to be healthy, and have the means to complain like I do. It’s easy to lose that perspective sometimes and get caught up in pointless fights.
I hope all of you are hanging in there.
Now, on with the links.
There aren’t many well-known Turkish-Americans. When I lived in Turkey, I thought Dr.Oz was an icon in the US. A famous doctor, I thought. Someone who has made it. Little did I know that his main contribution was peddling pseudoscience on daytime television. What a shame. My compatrirate has made the news again recently, and it made me look up how he came to be. Turns out Oprah did play a huge role in raising this charlatan’s profile. And he did the same thing with Dr. Phil. What a shame indeed.
For a study in the British medical journal BMJ, a team of experienced evidence reviewers analyzed Dr. Oz’s on-air advice—80 randomly chosen recommendations from 2013. The investigators found legitimate supporting evidence for fewer than half. The most famous physician in the United States, the man Oprah Winfrey branded as “America’s doctor,” is a dispenser of make-believe.
It’s insane, right? I don’t want to go “it’s time to build” on you, but it is insane that the supposed richest country on earth could not provide plastic eye goggles and clothing for its doctors. It is insane that we are beholden to swabs being shipped from Italy and everything else from China. I don’t think anyone could have failed as spectacularly as Trump did during this time, but it’s also true that America feels like a failed state in many ways. It might be time to reinvent things?
Behind the ideological squabbling, the main problem with Western government is simple: It is out of date. If you want a symbol of this, look no further than U.S. school calendar, which was designed for an agrarian economy where children needed long summer holidays to bring in the harvest. Think of all the changes that America’s private sector has been through over the past century: vertical integration followed by contracting out; steep hierarchies followed by delayering; skyscraper headquarters followed by suburban campuses followed by a return to the city. Think of all the companies that have been created and destroyed in a never-ending whirlwind of creative destruction. Now think of Washington. The Department of Agriculture remains a giant despite the fact that agriculture accounts for only 2% of GDP.
Speaking of Andreessen...You might know him for having invented the art of VC Twitter, but I am old enough to have vague recollections of the original Netscape browser, and somehow the image of a young Marc Andreesen with his bare feet on the cover of Time is forever seared into my brain. This is less of a profile of the original tweeter-in-chief (now that’s a legacy) but a fascinating look at the drama that toils in Sand Hill Road. The personalities that drive billion dollar decisions are almost as big as themselves and their Twitter followings.
A16z was designed not merely to succeed but also to deliver payback: it would right the wrongs that Andreessen and Horowitz had suffered as entrepreneurs. Most of those, in their telling, came from Benchmark Capital, the firm that funded Loudcloud, and recently led the A rounds of Uber and Snapchat—a five-partner boutique with no back-office specialists to provide the services they’d craved. “We were always the anti-Benchmark,” Horowitz told me. “Our design was to not do what they did.” Horowitz is still mad that one Benchmark partner asked him, in front of his co-founders, “When are you going to get a real C.E.O.?” And that Benchmark’s best-known V.C., the six-feet-eight Bill Gurley, another outspoken giant with a large Twitter following, advised Horowitz to cut Andreessen and his six-million-dollar investment out of the company. Andreessen said, “I can’t stand him. If you’ve seen ‘Seinfeld,’ Bill Gurley is my Newman”—Jerry’s bête noire.
We talk a lot about identity here. In the age of social media, where every piece of content can be priced perfectly to the last cent, bought and and sold instantly, identity vehicle to attach your stories. If the identity and the narrative match, your stories get a free boost: people share them because the stories validate their identity and the narrative carries them along for free. But, sometimes, it is best to forget about all this economy of content and stories crap, and just focus on the stories and what they all tell us about our hidden privileges. My long-time friend Will Larson argues that we need more stories from the trenches in the tech industry. I agree.
There are arguments to be made that it doesn’t matter if accurate narratives prevail in the carefully managed economy of stories, but I think it does. Folks with limited story access spend years of their lives working at challenged companies and with problematic people, despite folks “in the know” being well aware of the issues. Whisper networks are an effective means of distribution, but not all folks have access to the appropriate whisper networks to retrieve a given story or are even aware they ought to be asking the question.
A lot of the “big tech is problematic” ideas I had can be traced back to Tim Wu’s writing. Wu is able to trace back what is happening today to what has happened, and warn about what’s coming ahead. He’s arguing for years that the dominance of big technology firms, which have their analogues in the big telecom firms of the past, are existential risks for our way of life. Watch him debate against the University of Chicago scholar Richard Epstein on this.`
When I was a trader, there was a story that managers would tell you about a misbooked futures contract by a young commodities trader that ended with Bank of America needing to find a dock for a tanker full of oil barrels. I never knew whether it was true, or just a scare tactic so you quadruple-checked the numbers you entered, but this week’s action in the oil market brought back memories of that.
It also reminded me of this legendary Tracy Alloway I was happy to see circulating on fintwit this week:
"Don't buy a barrel of oil," the broker said. "It'll kill you."
A fortuitous meeting between a gas trader and his broker at a bar in downtown New York was not going the way I had hoped. After revealing a long-held plan to try to buy a barrel of crude, I was now receiving a disappointingly stern lecture on the dangers of hydrogen sulfides. The wine tasted vaguely sulfuric, too.
I’m in a few Indian family WhatsApp groups where I have to force myself to avoid mediasplain’ing things to older relatives (there are some egregious fake news-y things). There has been a steady drumbeat of increasingly nationalistic posts over the past few years.
This WIRED longread about the Whatsapp-driven radicalization of a Hindu vigilante is terrifying and illuminating. It should win some kind of award. Also, given the Facebook-Reliance news from yesterday and the country’s usage of WhatsApp, we should all keep an eye on:
I won’t pretend that I understand TikTok SEO, but this piece on how song titles are changing to optimize for burgeoning search platforms made a lot of sense. I call out for songs to an Amazon Echo tens of times a day, and if a title or artist’s name is hard to pronounce, it usually ends with me moving on:
“Especially what we see with younger generations is they’re more and more comfortable with voice search,” Savage notes. In that space, “it’s all about how much data can you attach to each song,” she continues. “The more you have, the more powerful your search terms are gonna be.”
Astralwerks’ Andrews says “we’ve seen a lot more people using Alexa and voice search since they’re stuck at home.” And when the label attached the “(i love you baby)” to “ily,” “voice search results for the song tripled overnight.”
I’ve been doing a lot of watching, participating and learning about virtual events. I’ve run a number of webinars in my time, and won’t pretend they were always the most engaging things (often just more of that bland corporate variety). I’m sure many of you have been on those. The medium is completely underdeveloped because the incentives were never quite there. They are now.
It’s amazing just how democratizing the entire thing feels. No one has any idea what to do, but we all know remote events, in a multitude of formats, will become central to our lives. I really liked how this piece from Jay Acunzo drew a connection between online communication and narrative, This American Life, style podcasts.
I miss sports.