Weekend reading

Grey Lady Steel Man, Covid Data Superstar, and Staying at Google Too Long

Grey Lady Steel Man by Will Wilkinson

Will Wilkinson offers a late-to-the-party salvo in the whole Slate Star Codex affair — which if you’ve managed to avoid it, kudos, you live a much healthier internet life than I do. I’ve read so many takes. There was Matt Yglesias’sIn defense of interesting writing on controversial topics” and Noah Smith’sSilicon Valley isn’t full of fascists.” I found myself agreeing with both Yglesias and Smith, while not really thinking they were in conflict with the underlying Times piece as much as the authors seemed to think they were. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Spiers wrote “Slate Star Clusterfuck” from the vantage point of someone who has known Balaji Srinivasan for 20 years (and briefly dated him), but also as someone who co-founded Gawker, the publication Srinivasan’s mentor Peter Thiel helped destroy. It was another smart take.

But I’m glad Wilkinson took his time. The piece is long, but if you want to argue with a group of people who self-describe as “rationalists” it makes sense to be thorough. Wilkinson dissects Scott Alexander’s introductory post to his Substack, now called Astral Codex Ten. In that piece, Alexander seems to slide between admitting that he’d overreacted to the Times’s inquiry while defending his overreaction. Wilkinson takes him to task for the gymnastics and picks apart the argument.

But Wilkinson also hammers the point that Alexander clearly likes to play games with his proximity to noxious voices. Wilkinson points out that Alexander highlights advice he received from Srinivasan in his piece introducing his new Substack. Alexander wrote:

I got an email from Balaji Srinivasan, a man whose anti-corporate-media crusade straddles a previously unrecognized border between endearing and terrifying. He had some very creative suggestions for how to deal with journalists. I'm not sure any of them were especially actionable, at least not while the Geneva Convention remains in effect.

It’s just another of example of Alexander’s proficiency at keeping certain toxic elements close, while purporting to hold them at arm’s length. Cade Metz smartly captures Alexander’s writing style in the Times piece that launched a thousand Substacks. Cade describes Alexander as writing in a “wordy, often roundabout way that left many wondering what he really believed.”

More evidence has emerged since Metz’s piece ran that Alexander seems to be playing games. Wilkinson highlights leaked email screenshots that emerged, from 2014, showing that Alexander articulated an explicit strategy of quietly embracing reactionaries while publicly distancing himself from them. Alexander writes that he gets “5X more hits” when he writes about reactionaries or gender. Alexander wrote that he thought his writing may be contributing to media interest in reactionaries. According to the screenshots, Alexander allegedly indicated he may believe in a theory of human biodiversity, which many people think is just newfangled racism.

Alexander wrote, according to the screenshots:

I will appreciate if you NEVER TELL ANYONE I SAID THIS, not even in confidence. And by “appreciate”, I mean that if you ever do, I’ll probably either leave the Internet forever or seek some sort of horrible revenge.)

The screenshots only further affirm Metz’s decision to pay attention to the crowd that Slate Star Codex was attracting in the comments section.

I asked Alexander to comment for this piece and particularly asked him whether he contests the veracity of the 2014 email. Alexander replied, “I don't actually want more pieces about me and would prefer not to contribute to them, sorry.” When I asked him if he’d said anything about the 2014 email, he responded simply, “No.”

I DM’ed the person who posted the screenshots and has since deleted them. Topher Brennan wrote, “They are 100% real, beyond that I don't want to speak further on the record.”

After Metz’s piece ran, I took to Clubhouse (as one does) and defended the Times piece. Facebook’s former Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos made the case that people like Srinivasan don’t represent Silicon Valley. And certainly I agree that most of the Silicon Valley rank-and-file disagrees with Srinivasan and his ilk. But I think the question we still don’t have the answer to exactly is where do tech leaders like Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel stand on liberal democracy these days? Does Srinivasan’s hostility to the free press reflect his fellows’ views?

Until we get clear answers on what they believe, we’re going to continue to see proxy wars like the Times piece on Slate Star Codex.

That’s what I think is really going on here. The games these certain tech leaders play in articulating their views allow standard Silicon Valley Democrats to look the other way. That’s why we’re obsessing over some random blog and why it’s not crazy that the Times says this blog reflects Silicon Valley’s psyche when only a subsection of Silicon Valley is interested in what it has to say.

Andreessen, Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg don’t spend their days unpacking their philosophy online. But together they are in charge of one of the most controversial companies of our time — a company that’s increasingly coming into direct conflict with governments around the world. So instead, we search for meaning in a blog that a certain pocket of tech leaders pays attention to.

The reason Silicon Valley writ large is getting lumped in with “rationalists” — and part of the reason I think the backlash to the story is so strong — is because normie Silicon Valley Democrats would prefer to avoid reckoning with the actual views of the people with whom they do business. The Times is forcing their hand by surfacing this strain of thinking and saying this says something about you.

I get that it can all seem a little specious. You have a blog that is coy about its proximity to reactionaries. (Most of the posts are unobjectionable and some are excellent!) Then you have tech leaders who read it but don’t subscribe to everything they read. Relatedly, you have extreme tech figures like Srinivasan articulating views that people like Andreessen and Thiel don’t seem to publicly repudiate. And then you have a lot of people in tech who totally disagree with these strands of thinking, whisper about what these people really believe, but then still want Andreessen Horowitz or Founders Fund to mark up their Series A.

I asked Metz if he had anything to say about the reaction to his piece over Twitter direct message. He said, “If you haven't read my story, read it. If you have read it, read it again.” Fair enough.

I’m eager to read what he digs up next.

The 27-Year-Old Who Became a Covid-19 Data Superstar by Ashlee Vance

Don’t let anyone tell you that the media doesn’t write inspiring stories about scrappy people using tech and math to save the world. The Times wrote a glowing story this month about an Airbnb employee who built his own vaccine availability tracking website. Now Ashlee Vance has a compelling read on an MIT grad who came up with a Covid death prediction model that beat many of the established experts.

In mid-April, while he was living with his parents in Santa Clara, Calif., Gu spent a week building his own Covid death predictor and a website to display the morbid information. Before long, his model started producing more accurate results than those cooked up by institutions with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and decades of experience.

“His model was the only one that seemed sane,” says Jeremy Howard, a renowned data expert and research scientist at the University of San Francisco. “The other models were shown to be nonsense time and again, and yet there was no introspection from the people publishing the forecasts or the journalists reporting on them. Peoples’ lives were depending on these things, and Youyang was the one person actually looking at the data and doing it properly.”

Spiers responded to the notion that tech coverage is too critical in the piece I referenced earlier, though it serves as a nice sort of metacommentary here.

“But tech journalism is overwhelmingly negative!” I hear a self-described empiricist whining somewhere on Twitter. No it is not, my friends. You just don’t notice it when it isn’t. This is a cognitive bias: your brain is wired to perceive threats in a way that it does not perceive neutral or positive information.

Like many in tech, the media seems inclined to believe individual actors can do great things but corporations can start to muck things up.

Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long? by Noam Bardin

The recently departed Waze CEO describes his decision to finally leave Google after seven years at the company. Noam Bardin painted a picture of a lackadaisical and complacent corporate culture at Google where employees are far more worried about getting promoted than working for their users.

He writes:

After being acquired by Google, we had a “fun day” at the Google campus where we were shown around, wide eyed, to see the facilities. We had lunch in the cafeteria and while on line, a Googler ahead of us was overheard saying “What? Sushi again???” which became our inside joke around entitlement. But several months later, we had been co-opted as well and it was Waze employees complaining about the food... 

I emailed Bardin to see if he wanted to talk about his piece. “I am not talking about my post as it has gotten way out of control,” he wrote. But like many people these days he’s interested in “how to enable access to trustworthy information as well as make journalism profitable” — so we’re scheduled to chat about that instead.