Links on the Margins (March 10)
Fitness apps, crypto, index funds, and time are all bad now
Hi. Can here with this week’s links roundup.
This week, like last week, and probably the next, I am working home. San Francisco feels on edge, but no one really knows what to do. The streets aren’t empty by any means, but you can feel the palpable tension. We aren’t very political here on The Margins, but we are human. So, I’ll use my tiny platform to ask every reader to use these moments for self-reflection.
Let’s remind ourselves how the health of people around us matters to us all. And how, us living in the modern, developed world, who will go to such extreme lengths like stocking up on food and medicine, should do our best extend our sympathy to those who have been left without a home, for any reason. The minor disruptions to our lifestyle are nothing compared to the travails of those who travel long and far for safe shelter. In the end, however, we are all after the same thing: a safe home for ourselves and family. Stay safe, wash your hands, and be nice to each other.
We talk often here on data as a liability. The more data you have, the more liabilities you accrue. Often, the risks are not priced in accordingly, and thus externalized for us mere mortals to internalize. Well, here’s a case. A man uses Runkeeper on Android to track his bike rides, and a house on route gets burglarized. Google, which powers the location collection, shares the data with local law enforcement part of an investigation, and yeah, this is depressing.
“I didn’t realize that by having location services on that Google was also keeping a log of where I was going,” McCoy said. “I’m sure it’s in their terms of service but I never read through those walls of text, and I don’t think most people do either.”
Meanwhile in fitness apps, you can’t avoid talking about Strava. I run a couple times a week but I refuse to use Strava for two reasons: First, their product stayed the same for the last 5+ years and second, and more importantly, I find their growth hacks insufferable. Every time I sign up with a new account, even with a throwaway email, it still manages to notify people I might know to follow me. How? Its app manages to identify my device somehow, even after I reset everything. Someone should look into it! Anyway, some people really like it, and it has a huge cultural impact on the running itself. (I use Nike Run Club on an iPhone)
Because of Strava, I know how many miles my shoes have covered and whether I need new ones, as the app will email me to tell me (without sending me ads for shoes). After a race, I can launch Strava’s Flyby feature, an ingenious interactive map, and watch my digital self rerun the race route alongside anyone else who ran it. It is addictive, to watch these ghosts in the machine, and see where they got away, or where I caught them up, to see if they went wrong and how badly. For my efforts, I can be given “kudos” by anyone who follows me – the Strava “like”, signified by a thumbs up – and I can do the same for them. I can leave supportive comments and add photos. I can change the name of my activity from the default “morning run” or “lunch ride” to something witty and punning, and it is one of the unwritten rules of Strava that I should.
And of course, if you live in the Bay Area and do road biking (which I also do, since I am often the actual subject of most of my jokes), this should make you cringe-grin:
Strava forums have plenty of fuming users enraged about cheating. E-bike users who “forget” to mark their rides as an e-bike and end up on leaderboard are a growing problem. Taking your GPS watch for a drive is another. In Hong Kong, one user wrote on Strava’s forum: “A large percentage of segments is polluted by people using cars or electric scooters.”
Did Economists ruin the Economy? [Podcast]
I’ve babbled on about Capitalisn’t to I think every single I’ve met in the last few years. Had quite a bit converts, but you should all listen. It’s still my favorite podcast, and this episode with Binyamin Appelbaum where he talked about his book The Economists’ Hour was a pretty good one. Appelbaum argues that we are now to obsessed with economy much to our every other field’s demise. I’ve especially enjoyed the part where Kate Wolduck casually mentions how people in every other field knows so much about the economy but the economists know so little about other fields. Reminded me of an industry that I am closely associated with.
Stocks are bad now! It’s OK, we have Bitcoin. Hahaha, just kidding. Bitcoin is also down. Should that really be surprising to anyone? Will Bitcoin ever grow up? I often go back to this piece about how Bitcoin came about. It’s less about the math and technical nitty-gritty but more about the cultural underpinnings of the entire ecosystem. It was written in 2016 but seems largely applicable in 2020 as well. Bitcoin, in some ways, is like AGI or Level-5 AVs. It’s always 10 years out, even after a decade. But this time, it’s different. It’s a wonderful read I linked to before (when we had 20 readers), and has amazing stories like this in it too:
On 1 October 2013 Ulbricht was sitting in a public library in San Francisco, logged into Silk Road via the library’s wifi. He was in an online chat with an FBI agent whose job was to make sure Ulbricht was still online when his colleagues swooped. Ulbricht was at a desk across from a slight young Asian woman when a couple of typical San Francisco street people began arguing loudly just behind him. He turned to look, and the young woman grabbed his laptop: she was an FBI agent. So were the street people. Nice one, the Feds. Ulbricht was logged into Silk Road under the account ‘/Mastermind’. Game over for Dread Pirate Roberts. Ulbricht went on trial in 2015, was convicted, and is serving two life sentences without the possibility of parole.
My understanding of cryptocurrencies is that the best application for cryptocurrencies are platforms for people to talk about future applications of cryptocurrencies. The real hope is cryptocurrency revolution wills itself into existence through the sheer volition of its believers. Is that so different from paper money? Maybe. I remain skeptical, but I know it’s not a good idea to bet against billions of dollars invested in it. Regardless, this video by 3blue1brown remains as the best technical introduction to the technology. It’s not short at 26 minutes and it is somewhat technical but it is still quite accessible. If you’ve taken middle school math and can understand exponential growth, you should be fine.
As the stock market gets walloped, I’m keeping a close eye on the weird distortions and moves that might arise from recent innovations like roboadvisors and the huge rise in passive investing (I long ago wrote on the hidden dangers of index funds). This week’s Odd Lots podcast had an incredible line about the dynamics that have kept pushing money into FAANG or FAMGA or whatever the current acronym for big, concentrated, trillion-dollar company tech stocks is:
“If you were to run a business and you don’t have to turn a profit, you don’t have to pay dividends, you don’t pay taxes and you don’t pay interest on your debt, or at least you can postpone it, and even better, you only pay half of your employees salaries [because the rest is in stock comp], yeah, I think I could beat the competition too.”
I’ve written a good deal on WeWork, but I never quite understood the Rebekah Neumann story. This piece from Bustle provided an entirely new angle on a story I thought I previously understood:
“I am nothing without you,” he often told her, including from the stage as he delivered the Baruch commencement address. Financially speaking, it was true: In addition to all those life lessons, she gave him a million dollars, which was a lot of money to have in the bank during a credit freeze. The money was a wedding gift from her parents, for a down payment on an apartment. They moved into a tiny East Village space and saved the money for a “capitalistic kibbutz,” or communal office space, inspired by a business plan Adam had originally dreamed up in a college entrepreneurship contest.
Even little details like those early summer camps...I never quite understood how they pulled off the financing side of it, but:
She also helped orchestrate the parties for which WeWork became legendary, including a three-day bacchanal in the summer of 2012 for all 400 WeWork tenants at a tony upstate summer camp owned by her aunt.
There are certain pieces that you can’t believe you missed. They hit you so perfectly that, for voracious media consumers like myself, I’m almost mad that I hadn’t previously found them. This Katherine Miller Buzzfeed piece from last October was one of those that recently appeared in my Twitter feed:
The 2000s were a bad decade, full of terrorism, financial ruin, and war. The 2010s were different, somehow more disorienting, full of molten anxiety, racism, and moral horror shows. Maybe this is a reason for the disorientation: Life had run on a certain rhythm of time and logic, and then at a hundred different entry points, that rhythm and that logic shifted a little, sped up, slowed down, or disappeared, until you could barely remember what time it was.
For the unfamiliar, creating plastic uses fossil fuels, and some just might blame our plastic addiction to oil producers hedging themselves from renewable energy. *shakes fist*
More than half the plastic now on Earth has been created since 2002, and plastic pollution is on pace to double by 2030. At its root, the global plastics crisis is a product of our addiction to fossil fuels. The private profit and public harm of the oil industry is well understood: Oil is refined and distributed to consumers, who benefit from gasoline’s short, useful lifespan in a combustion engine, leaving behind atmospheric pollution for generations.
But this same pattern — and this same tragedy of the commons — is playing out with another gift of the oil-and-gas giants, whose drilling draws up the petroleum precursors for plastics. These are refined in industrial complexes and manufactured into bottles, bags, containers, textiles, and toys for consumers who benefit from their transient use — before throwing them away.
I vividly remember my senior year of college, after years of a slow, Linkin Parky-y, Limp Bizkit-y death of rock music, the Strokes were supposed to save us. I think they kind of did. I also wonder if I had known about their Swiss private school upbringing*, it would’ve colored my opinion of them, but I didn’t know, so it didn’t. It reminds me that maybe not knowing too much about your creative heroes can be a good thing.
They have a new album coming out and I’m excited. I also did not realize you could pre-save albums on Spotify.
*: Hi, Can here again. As The Margins’ resident expert on credentialism, the whole Le Rosey to Bernie trip is just…something else.