Links on the Margins - May 14th

A link so nice it's in here twice

For our link roundups, my co-host Can and I both work separately in a Google Doc. We take weekly turns organizing them in Substack, and this week it was my turn. As I was pasting in everything, I realized Can included one of the exact same links as me. I’m going to leave it in there twice because it’s just that good. It’s about personal risk assessments related to COVID-19 (and touches on questions like running without a mask) and I highly recommend you check it out.

We also have pieces on value vs. growth investing, Shopify as a rebel incursion, a Civil post-mortem, Facebook’s oversight board, the President’s plan (or lack thereof), and American manufacturing. I also just bought a Kitchenaid stand mixer and made bread, so we’re at the part of the pandemic where I officially became a quarantine cliche.

- Ranjan


The Risks - Know Them - Avoid Them

This could be the best, most clear explanation of COVID risks that I’ve come across. My favorite part could be the author started with a link to an about the author page; who they are and exactly what they do. I wish every single article from an independent author featured something like this

Also, the overall theme seems to be, indoor, enclosed gatherings where there is yelling, singing or heavy breathing are the most dangerous. That makes sense. 

Indoor sports: While this may be uniquely Canadian, a super spreading event occurred during a curling event in Canada. A curling event with 72 attendees became another hotspot for transmission. Curling brings contestants and teammates in close contact in a cool indoor environment, with heavy breathing for an extended period. This tournament resulted in 24 of the 72 people becoming infected. (ref)

Coronavirus crisis: does value investing still make sense? (paywalled)

This, from Robin Wigglesworth at the FT, is one of the best things I’ve read on value vs. growth investing. This debate has important second order effects as ‘growth’ stocks are now trillion dollar companies that control 

Mr Greenblatt compares value investing to carefully examining the merits of a house purchase by looking at the foundation, construction quality, rental yields, potential improvements and price comparisons on the street, neighbourhood or other cities.

“You’d look funny at people who just bought the houses that have gone up the most in price,” he points out. “All investing is value investing, the rest is speculation.”

Amazon's Empire Is Vulnerable to 'Rebel' Incursions

This is exactly how I picture this battle:

Last October, Shopify Inc. CEO Tobi Lutke said his company’s goal was to “arm the rebels” against the Inc. empire. Since then, the mantra has become a rallying cry for Shopify’s employees and the merchant customers that use its e-commerce store software. And now, the business turmoil sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic is creating an opportunity for the online seller rivals to gain some valuable ground over their giant competitor.

As a side note - one of my favorite discoveries years back was that Shopify ‘s CEO Tobi had written a script that sent you a daily Kindle highlight of yours, at random, via email:

We don’t have a president, or a plan

Remember those Trump press conferences? I was infuriated as my parents would watch and call me ranting, while my Twitter feeds and G-chats would be lit up with endless exclamations of “did he really just say that?” 

In all those hours, there was not one valuable piece of forward-looking information extracted, because there was never any plan. It was clear as day. In fact, the only possible plan was to not have a plan. Anyways, people are recognizing the absolutely shocking lack of any coherent plan at the federal level, and it’s terrifying:

As my colleague Matthew Yglesias has argued, the White House — and thus the country — has not even chosen a goal. The Trump administration has never decided whether the aim is “mitigation,” in which we slow the virus’s spread so the health system doesn’t get overwhelmed, or “suppression,” in which we try to eradicate the virus so as to save lives. It is possible, as Thomas Friedman writes, that the US is actually pursuing neither goal; instead, officials are following Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to the virus, and Trump “just hasn’t told the country or his coronavirus task force or maybe even himself.”

How Civil Didn’t Save Journalism

For anyone who lives somewhere in the sphere of “let’s save journalism”, the whole Civil ride was quite something. This is a decent post-mortem, but it doesn’t quite capture just how absurd it was to hear prominent media folks try to explain blockchain-y things at the time.


Quarantine Fatigue Is Real. Shaming People Won't Help.

From where I live in San Francisco, I can get a sense of the traffic in North Beach in San Francisco. And based on my personal judgment, the car traffic is slowly coming back up. I even saw some Cruise self-driving cars on the road today. Nature is healing? The traffic data from Apple Maps suggests the same: more people are going out and about, regardless of what the local orders might be. And shaming those who do venture outside might even be counter-productive.

The anger behind shaming is understandable. Photos of crowded beaches or videos of people at a large indoor party may make viewers feel as if they’re watching coronavirus transmission in action. Calling out seemingly dangerous behavior can also provide an illusion of control at a time when it’s particularly hard to come by. But, as years of research on HIV prevention have shown, shaming doesn’t eliminate risky behavior—it just drives it underground. Even today, many gay men hesitate to disclose their sexual history to health-care providers because of the stigma that they anticipate. Shaming people for their behavior can backfire.

The Risks - Know Them - Avoid Them

Since the epidemic, every time I’ve gone out for a run, at least one or two people have yelled at me on the street to put on a mask or stay away from them. On the one hand, I understand. I am moving around a lot, exhaling heavily, lots of bodily fluids and droplets are flying around. On the other hand, it’s frustrating because study after study shows that outdoors is much safer than indoors and running with a mask just sucks. I’ve however succumbed to the pressure that I carry a mask with me that I can wear till I arrive by the waterfront where I can be farther away from people. Anyway, this is a relatively dense but fascinating overview of some of the science of infection.

If there’s a tl:dr here, it’s that indoors is bad, outdoors is good.

Basically, as the work closures are loosened, and we start to venture out more, possibly even resuming in-office activities, you need to look at your environment and make judgments. How many people are here, how much airflow is there around me, and how long will I be in this environment. If you are in an open floorplan office, you really need to critically assess the risk (volume, people, and airflow). If you are in a job that requires face-to-face talking or even worse, yelling, you need to assess the risk.

Facebook and the Folly of Self-Regulation

I hate Facebook, not because I hate Facebook, the Company, or Facebook, The People, but Facebook, The Idea. The notion that there should be a global rolodex that is controlled by a single person, that exists for no discernible reason other than some weird ambition of that single person, is unsettling to me.

New York based writer Max Read once called it a “[..] a four-dimensional object, we catch slices of it when it passes through the three-dimensional world we recognize”. Now, the tesseract is collapsing on itself and wants to self-regulate. You might have guessed what I think about it: I hate it.

That’s not exactly the case. Industry groups have long practiced such self-regulation through outside bodies, with infamously mixed results. But there is no industry group to set standards and rules for Facebook. One-third of humanity uses the platform regularly. No other company has ever come close to having that level of power and influence. Facebook is an industry—and thus an industry group—unto itself. This is unprecedented, though, because Facebook ultimately controls the board, not the other way around.

Why American Manufacturing Can't Handle the Coronavirus

Say what you want about Marc Andressen, the man knows how to come up with a slogan. “Software eats the world” has successfully entered the vernacular and only time will tell if “It is time to build!” will have such lasting impact. Dan Wang, one of my favorite writers, argues that America hasn’t built in such a long time that we’ve forgotten to do so. Dan puts into words what can be hard to express in terms of numbers; if you want to manufacture and build things, you need to not just make those low-margin businesses financially viable, but also you need to breathe upon those industries a newfound life, make those jobs respectable. Or, I guess, you could write a blog post?

What the U.S. really needs to do is reconstitute its communities of engineering practice. That will require treating manufacturing work, even in low-margin goods, as fundamentally valuable. Technological sophisticates in Silicon Valley would be wise to drop their dismissive attitude towards manufacturing as a “commoditized” activity and treat it as being as valuable as R&D work. And corporate America should start viewing workers not purely as costs to be slashed, but as practitioners keeping alive knowledge essential to the production process.

Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic

Well, that’s a fun one. One of my early Covid bets was that we’d not run out of things not because we’d run out of things (we have a lot of things) but because there’s simply no slack in our demand-forecasted, SAP-optimized supply chains. The loss in fidelity that makes modeling computationally and cognitively possible might come back to bite you. But here, a retail-chain in Texas seems to have done what so many other companies failed to do so. They saw the storm coming from afar, and prepared.

America might not be good at building things anymore, but there are still pockets of excellence.

Craig Boyan, president, H-E-B: Justen leads our emergency preparedness with a group of folks, and that is a full-time, year-round position. We are constantly in a year-round state of preparedness for different emergencies. We keep emergency supplies at almost every warehouse and have water and other supplies staged and ready to go and kept in storage to make sure that we are ready to [react quickly] when a crisis emerges, whether it be a hurricane or a pandemic. We take being a strong emergency responder in Texas, to take care of Texas communities, very seriously.