Links on the Margins - May 28th, 2020

Innovation Labs, Turkish yogurt, Facebook & chairs

Ranjan here. I always would’ve thought that something like this week’s news of Trump’s Section 230 executive order would dominate both Can’s and my headspace. Speech, platforms, and regulation dominate a good deal of our writing, and this link list would normally be full of analyses and soliloquies about the impact of this order.

There are none.  

Charlie Warzel captured how I’ve been feeling about all of this:

My co-host Can did note Charlie’s Titanic deck chairs reference, and reminded us of the famous Chairs are like Facebook ad. Given everything that has happened since this came out in October 2012, just watch it again. I’m not quite sure what the words are to describe it.

But we do have articles on corporate innovation labs, the accelerating pace of economic change, analyzing personal COVID risk, Turkish yogurt, taxation on tech, Turkish yogurt, and an app/quiz that tests your web design sensibilities. 

Happy reading!



The Death Of Corporate Research Labs

David Rosenthal’s Blog - 13 min read

Thinking about innovation in the corporate context occupies a good deal of my professional life, though it’s more on how they talk about it versus how they actually “do” innovation. This is an incredible, historical look at how corporate research labs have changed and we’re at this weird stage where the “research” now takes place at Universities and the “development” takes place at corporations (and the author, who worked at Sun Microsystems for a long time thinks this is not the best way):

They describe the successor to the labs as: a new division of innovative labor, with universities focusing on research, large firms focusing on development and commercialization, and spinoffs, startups, and university technology licensing offices responsible for connecting the two.

An unintended consequence of abandoning anti-trust enforcement was thus a slowing of productivity growth, because the this new division of labor wasn't as effective as the labs.

Our Economy Was Just Blasted Years Into the Future

Marker - 9 min read

I’m still unsure of what exactly the Medium business model is, but this Steve LeVine piece is so good it makes me think they still have a shot at whatever it is:

Last week, Seidman Becker launched Clear into a brand new digital space — “touchless technology,” a play built around the fear that the coronavirus may lurk on any surface, anywhere. Against this threat, airports are deploying a new level of security including thermal cameras, all but assuring exceptionally long lines once people resume flying. Seidman Becker is responding with hands-free navigation: Clear will upload its clients’ Covid-19 test results, ID, air tickets, credit card, and health quiz. This, along with iris and face scans. will allow them to pass through the new phalanx faster.

6 feet away isn’t enough. Covid-19 risk involves other dimensions, too.

Vox - 11 min read

The trader in me loves analyzing risk. I wrote in mid-March about just how hard it would be to assess the risks associated with COVID-19. We’re now entering that point where every single one of us will start placing ourselves in situations where we are assessing risk tens of times a day.

This Vox piece did a pretty good job of how to start trying to think about risk and had this incredible line, which as absurd as it is, sounds about right:

A simple suggestion: Imagine people are smoking, or farting really bad, and try to avoid breathing it in

He was part of Amazon's coronavirus hiring spree. Two weeks later he was dead

LA Times - 7 min read

Regular readers know that I’ve been exasperated by what was (and potentially still is) happening at Amazon warehouses throughout the pandemic. This piece was brutal.

When Harry Sentoso got called back to work at an Amazon delivery center in Irvine in late March, he was excited.

He had been working in Amazon warehouses on and off for two years, always hoping to get a full-time position but always laid off after seasonal demand died down. Just a few weeks earlier, at the beginning of March, his bosses had told him they didn’t need him anymore. He had spent most of the month cooped up at home in Walnut, looking for other work.


The “Frankenstein” That Wasn't: A Realistic Appraisal of Today's China

Macro Polo (Think Tank) - 9 min read

Are you really an enlightened person these days in tech if you do not have a China take? Whether it is about China soon overtaking Silicon Valley or that we should be building our own national champions to compete with Chinese ones, it’s hard to avoid hearing about China. It is easy to fall back on tired cliches at best, and caricaturize at worst a giant country with a long history as both a single entity and as one whose story is over. 

Such gaps between reality and perception are not confined to technology. On the economy, the usual battles between bulls and bears have metastasized into more extreme polarization: China’s economy is either teetering on the edge of collapse or it is a triumph of a state capitalist model that will be exported to developing nations.

But these debates hover at 30,000 feet and miss the trees. Accumulating enormous debt in the decade after the global financial crisis was a major risk for the Chinese economy, but Beijing seemed to have gotten a grip on the problem when it began to deleverage in earnest a few years ago. Policymakers clamped down on the shadow banking system and then moved to gradually dispose of nonperforming loans, all the while tightening the credit spigot to reduce wasteful investments.

There has never been a better time to make Big Tech pay its way

Financial Times - 3 min read

We’ve discussed Marc Andressen’s essay “It’s time to build” here and there. Here’s the former member of the European Parliament and the current Director of Policy at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center making the case that a big chunk of the burden of building should fall on the tech companies which have prospered disproportionately in the past decade or so, and even more so during the pandemic.

Even some of Silicon Valley’s big players are waking up to the merits of redistribution to meet society’s needs. “Why don’t we make things?” asks venture capitalist Marc Andreessen in a provocative essay. Apparently, it took the pandemic to wake him up to the reality of depleted public resources: he wonders why quality healthcare, infrastructure and education are not accessible to all Americans. But this imbalance between private profits and public shortages did not come out of nowhere. Venture capital deployed $136.5bn in US-based companies in 2019 and around double that amount globally. The funds largely flowed to tech companies, not to those who were “building things”, and certainly not to public services. That’s because the tech sector has become expert at exploiting cross-border tax rules to minimise the taxes they pay.

American billionaires got $434 billion richer during the pandemic

NBC News - 1 min read

I’ve made the case before (TK)  that there’s nothing tackier and less tasteful than valorizing the billionaire class. I don’t know the answer to what the acceptable level of income and wealth inequality is, but it’s hard to argue things were sustainable before the pandemic. And they are less so now. Definitely gives some context to Marietje Shaake’s arguments too.

According to the report, the net worth of America’s billionaires grew 15% during the two-month period, to $3.382 trillion from $2.948 trillion. The biggest gains were at the top of the billionaire pyramid, with the richest five billionaires -- Bezos, Bill Gates, Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison -- seeing combined wealth gains of $76 billion.

Yogurt: The Turks' other delight

Al-Monitor - 5 min read

My fridge is primarily a yogurt cold-storage unit first, and a fridge second. I am probably the most yogurt obsessed person I know (Ranjan is a fried chicken person) but then most Turkish people are. This piece has nothing to do with business, or technology, but it is about something closer to my heart than either. 

Yogurt even occupies a place amid Turkish proverbs. “No one would admit that their yogurt is sour” indicates that auto-criticism has little place in Turkish culture. “Each hero has his own way of eating yogurt” is equivalent to “there's more than one way to skin a cat.” If an unmarried female is capable of making sweet yogurt, it is a sure sign that she will find love and peace with a husband, because after all, “sweet of hand, sweet of tongue,” suggesting the charm a woman has with words.

Can't Unsee


Earlier in my career, I used to work as a front-end person. I think I still carry some of that PTSD, where I’d painstakingly implement a designer’s pixel-perfect mock in HTML or Objective-C and then have all the places I’ve misplaced a button by a pixel be pointed out to me. Maybe, if I had this cute little app to practice and improve my visual acuity, I’d never have ventured into what I am doing now.