Links on the Margins - July 17th
The good kind of tech debt, Bay Leaves, Fake Nerds
Ranjan here. Shockingly, there are no links on the Twitter hack in this week’s curation. There is the same number of links covering COVID-19 and bay leaves. There’s one podcast, one Quibi story, and while we in no way intend this to be a PR briefing, there are two pieces that include shoutouts to the Margins.
A big part of why we do these link roundups is to try to bring a bit of curation to the flood of articles in your feeds, and I’ve included one of the best pieces I’ve read this year (from Alex Danco). It was written back in February, but I just discovered it this week thanks to this thread from fellow Subtack-er Nicolas Colin. I’m the first to fear the corrosive effects of Twitter, but curated threads like this remind me why I spend way too much time on that damned, vulnerable, and dangerous platform.
Bloomberg - Podcast
Longtime readers know I have a special relationship with WeWork. I was an early customer of their shared desks and got to watch the rise and rise of the company while skeptically sitting in the corner wondering if I was losing my mind (an August 2019 Margins’ piece I wrote on it).
Bloomberg recently launched a new podcast called Foundering, and the first season is a deep, deep dive into the Adam Neumann and WeWork story. I’m incredibly thankful to the team for inviting me to share some of my story in the 2nd episode. The episodes are still coming out, and this really feels like it’ll be a perfect time capsule for the 2010s.
Alex Danco’s Blog - 14 min read
I’m almost mad that I missed this Feb 2020 piece from Alex Danco (entered my feed this week via a @Nicolas_Colin tweet). It’s a brilliant look at how the maturity of the “tech” industry should be evolving how the capital stacks are composed, and moving away from speculative equity to predictable growth-oriented debt. He argues its an almost religious adherence to equity as a financing vehicle for technology startups that keeps it as the capital-of-choice, but this could shift, especially outside of Silicon Valley.
He also makes a compelling argument that recurring software subscription revenue should, almost by definition, be a securitization-friendly asset. The way he lays it out makes me genuinely baffled how there hasn’t been more debt issued around SaaS businesses.
Maybe Substack writers can start financing their growth with a special breed of Substack debt?
Bloomberg - 4 min read
I’ve argued that Silicon Valley is not like Wall Street in the way the latter embraces the role of being the asshole, while the former is insistent they’re the good guys.
Here’s another way they’re very different - tech CEOs get paid a helluva lot more than bank CEOs.
Rightly or wrongly, Wall Street CEOs are still excoriated as greedy fat cats who exemplify everything that’s wrong with executive pay.
But look around corporate America these days, and you’ll find any number of executives, particularly in tech, taking home far more than those bankers ever made—even during the boom years before the financial crisis—without a fraction of the scrutiny or the outrage.
The Awl - 6 min read
Another [much] older piece that serendipitously found its way into my feed was this hilarious look at the bay leaf. As someone who has eternally included bay leaves in whatever recipes required them, but never had any idea what the hell they do, this piece is glorious.
It’s also a reminder that I miss The Awl.
Here’s how I imagine it. You have a pot of soup on the stove and you go to your spice area and you think, “Man, I’m glad this area isn’t cluttered up with any shitty leaves. Shitty stupid garbage leaves. Little waste of money green things that make you feel crazy. Like leaves from a tree outside, and you throw them in for no reason. Thank god!”
London Review of Books - 16 min read
A lot of ink has been spilled on the long-term effects of coronavirus. Some people I know still experience a shortness of breath weeks after they are “healed”. Permanent lung damage is not unheard of. Neurological problems, however, need to go under a different kind of scary. Like many others, I cherish my mind maybe a bit more than my body. Patricia Lockwood is a gifted writer, and reading how she and her husband had dealt with the aftermath of this disease sent shivers down my spine.
The first wave subsided, and I thought I’d escaped, but the second hit with redoubled intensity a week later. My delusions became even more bizarre. I came to believe that someone ‘had put a Godzilla statue outside my window on purpose to freak me out’ – this, it transpired, was the silhouette of two black streetlights, one superimposed on the other. I spent two weeks adding 143 words to my novel, about peeing next to Rob Roy’s grave, feeling further from coherence with every draft. Local news graphics of the virion floated through the air, along with glimpses of originating animals: overlapping scales and flickering tongues, wings like black maple leaves. All this happened, it should be said, with a fever that never went higher than 100°F. The persistent feeling was that I would die in the night. I woke fighting to breathe, with the sense of a red tide moving slowly up my chest towards my neck. And all the while strange music marched. A sentence I had seen on Twitter, part of a letter written by a chief surgeon at a New York hospital, kept breaking through my delirium like a line of sled dogs through a blizzard: ‘Anyone working in healthcare still enjoys the rapture of action. It’s a privilege! We mush on.’
Current Affairs - 19 min read
Is Peter Thiel still the defining luminary of Silicon Valley? Part of me wants to say yes, given his disproportionate impact on the valley’s psyche and his buddy-buddy relationship with the Trump administration with his oligarch-in-training. But then, that’s probably giving him too much credit, given he’s not even living in Silicon Valley anymore but in a bunker in New Zealand with a bought Kiwi passport, and is a frequent misinpreter of books, such as The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t know two things form this piece: that so many people were obsessed with the series and that Thiel was actively a financier of Mencius Moldbug.
The days are growing darker. I would guess that after nostalgic space dreams, the next imaginative phase for Silicon Valley will be neo-feudalism. This is an easy prophecy to make, because it’s already begun. The best-known proponent of neo-feudalism in Silicon Valley is Curtis Yarvin, a “mouthbreathing Machiavelli,” as Corey Pein described him in the Baffler. Voluntarily writing under the pen name “Mencius Moldbug,” Yarvin advocates an anti-democratic ethos known as the “Dark Enlightenment,” which “oppose[s] popular suffrage, egalitarianism and pluralism.” You might expect Moldbug to be just some internet crank, but he’s relatively wealthy and influential—largely thanks to Peter Thiel, who has invested in several of Moldbug’s ventures. As Pein points out, “there is definitely a whiff of something Moldbuggy in Thiel’s own writing. For instance, Thiel echoed Moldbug in an infamous 2009 essay for the Cato Institute in which he explained that he had moved beyond libertarianism. [Thiel wrote] ‘I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.’” Thiel also said that the extension of voting rights to women plus the existence of too many “welfare beneficiaries” makes “capitalist democracy” impossible (after public outcry, he walked back his comments about women’s suffrage at least.)
Vulture - 14 min read
Yes? No? Apparently more than 90% of the people who have signed up for the free Quibi trial have canceled their membership. That sounds like a big failure, but could also be in-line with the industry benchmarks around free trials. Still, having been bombarded with tone-deaf Quibi (and Masterclass) ads for weeks (or months: my ability to discern time has long atrophied), it’s hard to not muster a bit of Schadenfreude with the failure of this enterprise a bit. Of course, when your competitors like Netflix and Amazon have multiple billion dollar production budgets, it seems the only way to compete is to have your own multi-billion fund-raise. Still, it feels like the horse and the cart might be misordered here, and the personalities of the people involved don’t seem to be helping.
People have wondered why Katzenberg and Whitman, in their late and early 60s, respectively, and not very active on social media, would believe they have uniquely penetrating insight into the unacknowledged desires of young people. When I ask Whitman what TV shows she watches, she responds, “I’m not sure I’d classify myself as an entertainment enthusiast.” But any particular shows she likes? “Grant,” she offered. “On the History Channel. It’s about President Grant.”
Katzenberg is on his phone all the time, but he is also among the moguls of his generation who have their emails printed out (and vertically folded, for some reason) by an assistant. In enthusing about what a show could mean for Quibi, Katzenberg would repeatedly invoke the same handful of musty touchstones — America’s Funniest Home Videos, Siskel and Ebert, and Jane Fonda’s exercise tapes. When Gal Gadot came to the offices and delivered an impassioned speech about wanting to elevate the voices of girls and women, Katzenberg wondered aloud whether she might become the new Jane Fonda and do a workout series for Quibi. (“Apparently, her face fell,” says a person briefed on the meeting.)
The Verge - 11 min read
I assume most Margins readers are familiar with Clubhouse. It’s an iPhone app with a bunch of voice-based chat rooms. Imagine IRC, or Slack, but only with voice instead of text. The currently invite-only app has become a...clubhouse with who’s who of Silicon Valley (I too have an account, though I am rarely on it anymore), with the notable exception of journalists. You can imagine, then, how it became a place for tech people to complain about journalists. In some ways, the somewhat inside-baseball drama was only the final precipitation of what was boiling under the surface for years. This is something that has bothered me for a while (and Margins gets a shoutout in this piece) and I found this piece balanced, and a sober assessment of where we are.
If the venture capitalists’ rhetoric feels familiar, it’s because the tactics aren’t new. In 2014, under the banner of “ethics in games journalism,” an online mob attacked outspoken women and progressive figures within the game industry for months. Eron Gjoni penned a vengeful screed about his ex, developer Zoe Quinn, in August 2014, which Gamergate supporters used to create a narrative about the games media at large. In addition to doxxing and harassing Quinn, Gamergaters coordinated harassment against several other prominent women with vicious online attacks; figures like Brianna Wu fled their homes out of concern for personal safety. Gamergaters also badgered advertisers in an effort to silence voices they disagreed with.