Links on the Margins (March 25)

Massive surveillance, corona influencers, Werner Herzog, mindless consumerism and more corona

They say the only people who talk about the weather are those who have nothing else to talk about, and I feel the same way about the virus. It is in air, sometimes literally, in the water. I taste it at every bite, and feel it in every breath. It is in my thoughts, in my news. It casts a heavy shadow on every thought and dominates every conversation. This doesn’t seem very healthy, at least mentally.

Another odd thing is that I can’t see more than a few weeks out anymore. Multiple weddings, including my brother’s, are cancelled. Some of them are as late as September, but how do you ask people to buy plane tickets right now?

We are just living every day, one day at a time, but every hour of that every day feels like a week, and every day a year. As the fourth week of me working from home rolls on for me, I try to maintain routines to keep it together. It’s an ongoing challenge.

I feel lucky to have a stable job with health insurance, as sad of a thing to say as that is. I hope you are all doing the right thing and staying home. And if you are traveling to a new place, please quarantine yourself to not put others around you at risk.

Here we go. Links galore!

Can’s Links

We Need A Massive Surveillance Program

Maciej “Pinboard” Cegłowski - Idle Words

I don’t know if there are atheists in foxholes but looks like there might not be privacy activists in a pandemic. Maciej Ceglowsky has been an advocate for less surveillance for years. He has given talks, and written extensively and often hilariously about the dangers of building a dragnet surveillance program under the guise of serving people better Instagram ads. Now, in our momentous crisis, he argues that as we have built all that machinery, we might as well put it to some good use. It is not a far-fetched idea. Taiwan is already doing it. Anecdotally, so is Singapore and Israel. I am not convinced that we want to entrench the current surveillance machinery just yet, but, hey, maybe?

This tracking infrastructure could also be used to enforce self-quarantine, using the same location-aware devices. The possibilities of such a system are many, even before you start writing custom apps for it, and there would be no shortage of tech volunteers to make it a reality.

The aggregate data set this surveillance project would generate would have enormous value in its own right. It would give public health authorities a way to identify hot spots, run experiments, and find interventions that offered the maximum benefit at the lowest social cost. They could use real-time data and projections to allocate scarce resources to hospitals, and give advance warnings of larger outbreaks to state and Federal authorities in time to inform policy decisions.

The Value of a Life - The Better Letter

Bob Seawright - The Better Letter

Can you put a number on a human life? Obviously, you shouldn’t. But, as the saying goes, we live in a society and there are limited resources. You do have to make some uncomfortable choices at times on how we divide up those resources and everyone has a different methodology. You could discount the future earnings, or look at how much people are willing to pay to avoid death (think protective equipment), or simply observe some other metric like insurance. It’s all grim. Now that we are facing mass deaths all around the world, and the dumbass “but the economy” takes are raging on, the conversation is back on. Bob Seawright takes a look at some of the ways people go about doing that.

One prominent study forecast well over a million deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. if the disease were largely allowed to run its course. Another study projected up to 2.2 million deaths. Strict suppression and mitigation efforts will significantly reduce that toll, but such measures might have to be in place until a vaccine could be widely distributed — as long as 18 months.

The economic costs of such a policy are enormous, and we’re already seeing them. 

The U.S. economy is deteriorating more quickly than was expected just days ago as extraordinary measures designed to curb the coronavirus keep 84 million Americans penned in their homes and cause the near-total shutdown of most businesses. The problem, as economist Larry Summers eloquently put it, is that “economic time has been stopped, but financial time has not been stopped.” 

Why Dr. Anthony Fauci Runs

Ben Cohen and Louise Radnofsky - The Wall Street Journal (Paywalled)

Running is a weird sport. Just a couple of years ago, the idea of running more than a mile would have sounded insane to me. But once you get over the initial hump, you realize why people get addicted to it. It is a high like no other (or so I am told) and it’s been one habit that helped me keep it together during my most tumultuous times. Apparently our new folk-hero Dr. Fauci is also an avid runner and this is such a wonderful profile of him. I am sorry, I tried avoiding corona discourse, but it’s been hard.

What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity

Jay Caspian Kang - The New York Times

I don’t know why this piece popped into my head recently. I always considered myself lucky that I went to college in the US before settling here. It was a crash course in assimilation, as I had to learn very quickly how people in America live. How do you go to a diner and what do you order? How do you rent a car, and drive around in a new city? How do you call up a plumber or the police or millions of small things that you have to figure out when you move to a new country? This piece is not really about that. It chronicles in blood-curdling graphic detail the death of a young kid, an Asian-American freshman pledging to a fraternity during a hazing gone wrong. But it is also about that. It is about how some young Asian-Americans, a term so general that it means nothing, are in a constant state of immigration. You are never fully in, and never out.

Li, 21 at the time, would later tell prosecutors that Deng was making ‘‘groaning sounds.’’ According to Li, Sheldon Wong, who was 21 and the pledge educator, picked Deng up and, with others’ help, carried him inside the rental house. Charles Lai, who was 23 and Deng’s Big, told detectives that Deng’s body felt ‘‘straight like a board.’’ Fraternity members stripped off his clothes, cold and wet with frost, and laid him down by the fireplace and covered him with a blanket. At 5:05 a.m., the police timeline indicates, one brother called his girlfriend, a nurse, to ask what she thought could be causing Deng to be so unresponsive. Eight minutes later, another brother Googled ‘‘conscious’’ and ‘‘unconscious.’’ At 5:55, a fraternity brother named Revel Deng texted a friend four times to ask about his grandfather’s fatal fall down the stairs. During this period, none of the three dozen brothers in the Poconos called 911. Nobody summoned an ambulance because, according to a statement given to detectives, someone had looked up how much it would cost and determined that the price would be too high.

Werner Herzog Has Never Thought a Dog Was Cute

David Marchese - The New York Times

Just trust me.

Ranjan’s Links

It’s All So … Premiocre

Amanda Mull - The Atlantic

When I was a mid-20s, my trader-bro roommate and I decided we needed “good” furniture. We were ready to move past IKEA, but still too recently out of college brokeness to pay for genuinely nice things. Enter CB2. It was the perfect “looks nice, but isn’t really” quality and price point for every guy’s black leather couch. This Amanda Mull piece from The Atlantic (her writing on consumer culture is amazing) introduced me to the term “premiocre” or premium mediocre:

The presence of many nice-enough choices without any meaningful way to distinguish among them is a fundamental dysphoria of modern consumerism. Anybody can track in intimate detail how the wealthy and stylish spend their money via social media, and just when you’ve learned exactly what you can’t have, the internet swoops in to offer a look-for-less utopia of counterfeits, rip-offs, and discount cashmere sweaters, perfectly keyed to the performance of a lifestyle that young Americans desperately want but can’t afford.

“I’m Not An Epidemiologist But…": The Rise Of The Coronavirus Influencers

Ryan Broderick - Buzzfeed News

I have a lot of thoughts about that Medium piece. No, not that other Medium piece that got taken down. The first big one. 

As a content marketer, it was a truly masterful piece of content. Case studies should be written for generations. From its genesis (aggregating tweets that were already proving successful) to the initial distribution (a growth marketer with a built-in following, leveraging the Medium algo) to the growth push (hiring a PR-ish firm to promote it) it was pure genius. On that, I’m certainly impressed and a bit envious. 

But that is the opposite of what we need right now. We need information not built for the algorithmic feeds. We need to hear from boring scientists who are not communications professionals and have their thoughts filtered by smart, ideally science journalists. Otherwise, we’ll all end up ingesting chloroquine as we prematurely go back to work:

A representative for the content marketing firm currently promoting Pueyo and his coronavirus article to journalists would later email BuzzFeed News a full list of the celebrities who had shared his post, complete with bios and a link to their tweets. Which included former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, actor George Takei, Twitter cofounder Ev Williams, author Margaret Atwood, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker.


“You want to get the message out as fast as possible and correct it if it's wrong,” he said. “You make decisions first and then you correct later.”

Under quarantine, media is actually social

Josh Constine - Techcrunch

My piece last week was filled with pandemic dread, but I have had the joy of Zoom conference calls with cousins and college friends that I had not spent group time with in any fashion for years. This Josh Constine piece is absolutely perfect in explaining how this crisis is redefining how digital connections work. If there was a Margins jealousy list this would be on it:  

What is social media when there’s nothing to brag about? Many of us are discovering it’s a lot more fun. We had turned social media into a sport but spent the whole time staring at the scoreboard rather than embracing the joy of play.

But thankfully, there are no Like counts on Zoom .

Why Are You Panic-Working? Try This Instead

Gianpiero Petriglieri - Bloomberg

I’ve worked remotely forever, so other than my kids climbing on me, that part of all this hasn’t been too bad. It’s been fascinating watching my corporate friends try to squeeze their hyper-driven selves into a completely new environment. Many were already obsessive parents and are now also responsible for their children’s education. It’s a lot. I liked this Gianpiero Petriglieri piece on how we respond to challenges:

Psychoanalysts have a name for such frenetic behavior and the magical thinking that goes with it—a manic defense. Like all defenses, the obsession with staying productive is a source of dubious comfort. It sustains the pretense that if we work hard enough, we can hold onto the world we once knew.

The Weight | Playing For Change

That Gal Gadot “Imagine” video was not received terribly well, but it reminded me that there will hopefully be more distributed music being made (yes, I just called it “distributed music”). It made me remember the Playing for Change initiative from almost a decade ago and this version of The Band’s The Weight: