Mental Health Basest

This is an ad on Instagram from Basis, a putative mental health startup. I do not like it.

According to the company’s website, Basis provides on-demand mental health support from “specialists… who have completed a comprehensive training program.” Users can book 45 minute phone or video sessions to talk to someone about stresses, fears, anxieties, etc. You know, like therapy.

Here’s the rub. These “specialists” aren’t mental health professionals. They’re just people who have completed Basis’s training program and then been deemed qualified by the company. From The Verge:

Basis does not offer traditional video or chat therapy. Unlike apps like TalkSpace, Basis doesn’t connect you to licensed therapists, who are governed by professional boards and have at least a masters’ degree in social work. The service connects you to Basis specialists that complete about 15 hours of online training and, according to its website, don’t need a healthcare background or formal training in psychology. A GED, emotional intelligence, and a desire to help might be enough. (For context, training for the volunteer suicide hotline Samaritans involves eight three-hour modules and observing a mentor for up to six months.)

Basis claims that this makes mental healthcare more accessible by making it cheaper and easier to navigate with a low-intensity solution suitable for most people. Not everyone needs some expensive doctor with a fancy medical degree after all, right?

The solution to our mental health crisis is not sham telemedicine. Licensure in healthcare is not a formality. It’s how we set and enforce standards for training and clinical practice.

You cannot simultaneously argue that mental health is important/should be valued and also that any old schmo can do it. You wouldn’t go to your buddy to figure out a heart condition or cancer if s/he weren’t a physician. Your mental health is no less important or delicate.

Basis CEO Andrew Chapin is right in arguing that there’s deep problems of stigma against treatment and lack of affordable options. And he’s also correct that not everyone qualified to provide mental health treatment has to be an MD or PhD. Social workers, counselors, and certain nurse practitioners are all trained and licensed to provide mental health treatment. It’s an insult to their expertise and dangerous to patients to pass off Basis’s fly by night counseling as real care.

Licensure is important because some outside body is enforcing a standard (however arbitrary it may be). Otherwise we’re left to self policing. So the standards may not be good enough but they exist for a reason. If Basis (or anyone else using unlicensed practitioners) is being sketchy there’s zero accountability or redress.

Mental heath care is too expensive. The need to improve access/affordability is tremendous. But this ain’t it. I think the most effective lever would be to improve insurance coverage and bring more practitioners in-network. There’s so much waste in healthcare. Eliminating waste is another way to improve CoGS and therefore improve access. Finally there’s tons of underemployed social workers and counselors who would love to pick up extra work they can do from home. That’s an available labor pool of qualified professionals for exactly what Basis claims to be building.

All of these are much harder than on-demand randos but hard things are hard.

Now I’m sure Basis’s lawyers have vetted their marketing communications enough that nothing the company is saying is illegal but that doesn’t mean it’s ok. Maybe the licensing standards are bad. Maybe they’re overly restrictive. Maybe anyone really can provide quality mental healthcare (NB: the research says they can’t). Maybe someone needs does need to challenge the status quo. Even if all that is true, one has to wonder the costs and risks of just plowing ahead.

One the most common questions we get at Tusk is whether it’s better to ask for forgiveness or permission. Should startups work to navigate the system or should fight to break it? Time and time again the answer is “it depends.” It depends on context and laws and necessity. Most of all it depends on the consequences of getting it wrong.

At Tusk we are, basically as a rule, investing in companies and founders pushing the limits. Sometimes that even means operating in flagrant opposition to them. But the key is always to understand whether or not companies are operating in good faith. Do they understand the importance of what they’re doing and are they committed to acting as faithful stewards of their customers/users’ (in this case, patients’) trust?

I am down for pushing boundaries in critical areas only when I really really trust the founder and his/her intentions. But I don’t see Basis as a good faith effort. It feels crass and cynical. They’re just waving their hands and saying “research.” It’s some ex-Uber guy who saying “sometimes people yelled at me at Uber and I wanted to vent” so he literally invented Uber for emotional labor.

This is not how we’re gonna solve mental healthcare. But I’m sure as hell excited about all the serious people doing good work to try.

New Year. Same Me.

Good recs and better links

Hey team.

Happy 2019. Welcome to another year in hell. Big news: I read a book! Then I read another book! I generally really struggle to read books (versus magazines and newspapers) so this is big for me. I’m hoping that I’m now far enough removed from school that I can start reading for pleasure again more easily. I want to keep it up. I’m not soliciting recommendations (though I’m not opposed). I’m just, as a 24 year old adult, bragging that I read two books… SAD!

  • Check out: this handy tool to list out all the various platforms, widgets, and plug ins that a given website is using (Built With)

  • Buy: Not Pot. This is my fave new CBD product. Awesome mission and it’s actually fun to take (unlike tinctures, which are gross!)

  • Read: The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. It’s ostensibly a Trump book (everything has to be to get published) but really it’s a glowing paean to the federal bureaucracy (Amazon)

  • Watch: Vice, Adam McKay’s latest exploration of world-shaping fuckery. He makes some strong choices but I think it’s all for the best. Funny. Illuminating. (Trailer)

The case for why Big Tech is violating antitrust laws - Sally Hubbard, CNN

Google, Amazon and Facebook are following the same playbook. The tech giants have "platform privilege" — the incentive and ability to prioritize their own goods and services over those of competitors that depend on their platforms. By doing so, they contend they are improving their products and benefiting customers. An entrepreneur can create a superior product or service and still get crushed because Big Tech is controlling the game and playing it, too.

I’ve long been an adherent to Joseph Schumpeter’s “Creative Destruction” theory of monopolies. The basic idea is that monopolies are a short term but constant problem. Facebook’s monopoly won’t be disrupted by a direct competitor to Facebook but rather by something totally different (IBM wasn’t taken down by better mainframe computers but rather by personal computing). This is an idea heavily borrowed by Clayton Christensen in his theory of disruptive innovation (a term that has become so overused as to be meaningless).

But increasingly people like Hubbard and Tim Wu have been making the case that dominant internet companies are substantively different than anything we’ve seen before. Technologies like machine learning, the argument goes, mean that data and network effects will further entrench the dominant companies, even as one technological paradigm gives way to the next. That would mean we need to take a more muscular anti-trust approach.

I just started reading Tim Wu’s latest book The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age so expect anti-trust to take up even more real estate in my head.

'Smart' Pill Bottles Aren't Always Enough To Help The Medicine Go Down - Lauren Silverman, NPR

This is not new (the article came out in 2017 and the underlying studies before that) but it’s nonetheless interesting. Basically there seems to be enough substantive data to show that “smart” pill bottles are not a way to solve for medication adherence. Why? No one knows. 

Let's recap here: We've looked at two large studies of pill bottle reminder systems. One was pretty basic and the other, higher-tech. Neither one seemed to help patients stay on top of their medication.

What's going on? Volpp says it could be a problem with the study's design, or with the devices. Or maybe, just maybe, the main problem isn't forgetfulness.

"Patients in many cases don't like taking medicines every day," Volpp points out. "It reminds them of the illness and they'd rather not be reminded of that."

Any medication can have negative side effects, and some cost a lot, he says. Using a smart pill bottle won't make the drug cheaper or get rid of nasty side effects like impotence or severe fatigue.

Something interesting to watch for as lots of companies (including Zero, a subsidiary of a Tusk portfolio company Ro) try to improve adherence to treatment plans.

Addicted to Vaped Nicotine, Teenagers Have No Clear Path to Quitting - Jan Hoffman, New York Times

This has been a personal hobby horse for a while but Juul is an evil company. 

The survey, which polls 8th, 10th and 12th graders across the country, found the rise in nicotine vaping was the largest spike for any substance recorded by the study in 44 years. About 21 percent of high school seniors had vaped within the previous 30 days, researchers found, compared to about 11 percent a year ago.

The survey also found that many students believe they are vaping “just flavoring.” In fact, just about all brands include nicotine, and Juul has particularly high levels of it.

Minitel, the Open Network Before the Internet - Julien Mailland, The Atlantic

Many services of the dotcom-and-app eras had precursors in 1980s France. With a Minitel, one could read the news, engage in multi-player interactive gaming, grocery shop for same-day delivery, submit natural language requests like “reserve theater tickets in Paris,” purchase said tickets using a credit card, remotely control thermostats and other home appliances, manage a bank account, chat, and date.


The American implementation of a network derived from Minitel was done by private industry alone. It failed in part because its usage was not regulated by the government. For this reason, it offers a view from the past on why the FCC’s move today might be misguided. It turns out that regulated networks might offer better market opportunities.

How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation - Anne Helen Petersen, Buzzfeed

Millennials take a lot of shit but ultimately the joke is always on us. We’re fucked. We just refuse to accept it.

The crisis affected everyone in some way, but the way it affected millennials is foundational: It’s always defined our experience of the job market. More experienced workers and the newly laid-off filled applicant pools for lower- and entry-level jobs once largely reserved for recent graduates. We couldn’t find jobs, or could only find part-time jobs, jobs without benefits, or jobs that were actually multiple side hustles cobbled together into one job. As a result, we moved back home with our parents, we got roommates, we went back to school, we tried to make it work. We were problem solvers, after all — and taught that if we just worked harder, it would work out.


Crises, Justice, and Opportunity

The internet, despite famously being for porn, seems to be losing its horniness. Increasingly, the newly dour internet is cracking down on sex work.

This week, Tumblr, which had long been a haven for the horny internet (especially for women and queer folks), announced it would ban adult content in a ham-fisted attempt to crack down on a child exploitation bot-net problem that had been plaguing the platform:

Another Tumblr user, Luke Healy, told NBC News that the microblogging site was his safe space before he came out to people offline, and the explicit content allowed him room for self-discovery. “It gave me a way to watch and view things and allowed me to explore my sexuality without being scared of someone in my school finding out,” Healy said. “Even now, seven years later, it still feels like that place. I’m scared young people in the closet today won’t have that.” (NBC)


[The] ability to curate and tag search — Chase calls Tumblr “Pinterest for sex” — was instrumental. Sex could be ruled by sensibility, allowing vulnerable and underprivileged communities to connect and start exchanging real information along with nudes. To this day, the top-reviewed and most-followed porn Tumblrs include not just explicit-content curators, but blogs like Orgasmic Tips for Girls,which teaches women how to masturbate, or xxuntilweod, which mixes relatively vanilla clips of women kissing and holding hands with more graphic images of lesbian sex, letting women explore a whole range of queer intimacy without either sensationalizing or censoring it. (Elle)

Separately, a group of incels (far-right violent misogynists) has started filing complaints with payment processors to silence critics and cut off female independent adult content creators/pornographers’ livelihoods:

When Lily Adams, an actor and model who sells access to her pornographic photos and videos, first noticed the ThotAudit movement gaining traction Saturday evening, she took to Twitter, calling it a witch hunt. Within one minute, a ThotAuditor flagged her account and tweeted that she had been added “to the review list for Monday morning.” By Monday, Adams’ PayPal account had been terminated. Wired

In July, Patreon, a platform for independent creators (podcasters, youtubers, artists, etc.) to get paid by their fans announced it would suspend the accounts of anyone posting adult content.

Patreon updated its content policy to limit the sale of adult content including images, video, and other services. The company started preventing creators from advertising adult content on their public-facing page and limited mature content to posts only visible to backers. It also put restrictions on what could be offered through its platform […] The policy change resulted in a ton of backlash, as sex workers and others in the adult industry that rely on Patreon as a primary source of income expressed fear for their livelihoods. (Gizmodo)

Over the summer the the federal government seized and shut down Backpage, a marketplace for prostitution, after finding the site site to be no longer protected by safe harbor laws (the rules that say Facebook isn’t liable for everything that gets posted) under the terms of new anti-human-trafficking legislation (SESTA):

In the aftermath of the new law, sex workers have claimed that efforts to control sex work in the name of public safety are forcing them into riskier situations—working with unknown clients, who they can no longer screen, or on the streets, where the risk of violence is greater. An oft-cited study by researchers from Baylor University and West Virginia University found that, from 2002 to 2010, when Craigslist’s erotic-services site was active and solicitation moved indoors, the female homicide rate fell by seventeen per cent. (New Yorker)

Each of these enforcement actions is bad enough on its own. Tumblr is showing that it doesn’t have a real interest in solving the real problem (child porn) while hurting its users, many of whom are women and LGBTQ. Incels filing complaints with payment processing shows how tactics developed by groups like Sleeping Giants are fair game for anyone to weaponize. Patreon is making it harder to earn a living in sex work independently. And by killing Backpage, the government has risked the lives of sex workers and may have permanently weakened safe harbor laws. And nevermind that attempts to censor “adult” content historically tend to unduly target/affect marginalized groups generally.

Taken together, this all says something insidious about the state of the internet and our social/sexual mores. Sex workers are being banned from vital infrastructure not because they’ve broken any laws but because we find them and their lives distasteful, icky. Because that infrastructure is owned by so few companies, there’s not a damn thing we can do.

So accept that trying to police sex work winds up as harassment and bad faith attempts to control people’s (women's) bodies/limit autonomy. Accept that sex work will never go away, despite how uncomfortable it may make you. Even if you think it’s a mortal sin, focus on harm reduction. Remember that exclusion from the mainstream economy makes sex workers vulnerable. If you can’t/won’t/don’t believe that sex work could be fulfilling to anyone or just under any circumstance, then at least focus on minimizing exploitation. 

Without safe harbor and access to infrastructure to monetize their work, sex workers have to rely on centralized, powerful institutions (the studio system and pimps, of one shape or another). Porn is an powerful example of the core features of the internet: the expansion of options and cultivation of sub-groups and the dangers of ceding moral judgement to a few private actors. (Revisit my post “Free Speech and Fuckery” for more). The internet has led to a massive flourishing (in the long tail) of human sexuality and has allowed individuals in the grey and black market sex economies to operate independently for the first time. Now the clock is turning backwards.


  1. Porn might be the most obvious use case for cryptocurrency generally and an ICO specifically (incentivize adoption on a two sided market). If transactions happen in cryptocurrency and are processed over a decentralized network, PayPal, Stripe, and the rest can GFTO with their puritanical rules. There’s been some traction on this front and different groups have tried to launch a “vice coin” but none have taken off in any meaningful way. Still, the truism that porn is the first mover for any new consumer tech looks like it could really hold water here if the right team took it up.

  2. As sex workers are increasingly being kicked off mainstream internet infrastructure/service providers, there would seem to be an opportunity to create a publishing platform  focused entirely on independant sex workers. Go indy, focus on underserved groups/demographics/fetishes, and build some cross of Medium and Patreon. 

  3. Prostitution will be legal eventually. That will make life a lot safer for sex workers and create obvious opportunities for both marketplaces and brands. Until then, I’d imagine there’s an opportunity to recreate something like Backpage with a more careful eye towards DMCA Safe Harbor and SESTA compliance. 

Mis-Adventures in Co-Living

99D Classic

This is a re-post from the old 99D site. The original was published February 8, 2018.

Bloomberg covered a rental and co-living boom in China as US and Chinese investors pour huge sums into new tech-forward managed rental companies. (Link)

The initiative to encourage renting homes is spurring some of the most important policy changes in private property ownership since 1988. It’s also creating opportunity for half a dozen companies, including Ziroom, You+ and Mofang Apartment. With already about 1.2 million tenants using Ziroom alone across nine cities in China, the startups are becoming the new gate keepers of social credit: tapping data and technology to determine rent prices, screen tenants and generate uncannily detailed profiles of their hobbies and habits.

This strikes at two trends I’ve long been interested in: surveillant alternatives to traditional credit scoring and co-living. I wrote about the former recently. (Link) Now it’s time to dive into the latter. Quickly, co-living, often referred to as “WeWork for housing,” is the general area of alternative real estate where strangers live in shared apartments with communal resources. I really believe in co-living and want it to succeed.

The combination of delayed marriage, financial uncertainty, and inequality are causing young people to put off buying homes longer and longer. (Link) As a result, cohabitation (unmarried couples living together) is on the rise. (Link) But this leaves a hole in the market for single people. Yes, there are a million and a half rental and roommate marketplaces, but the underlying asset (the apartments) are still generally designed for couples. Supply is staying the same even as demand is changing. We’re shoving a square peg in a round apartment-sized hole.

The continued housing crisis in American cities should prompt us to rethink housing altogether. Obviously we need more units on the market to lower prices (it’s Econ 101, despite what the NIMBYites would have you believe). The difficulty of new construction and the high proportion of single family homes left over from the post-war housing boom:

The reality is that most of the housing stock and most of the land area of America’s metros is made up of relatively low-density suburban homes. And a great deal of it is essentially choked off from any future growth, locked in by outmoded and exclusionary land-use regulations. The end result is that most growth today takes place through sprawl. (Link)

Instead of just making smaller or crappier versions of existing housing (smaller single family units and homes), we need to imagine wholly new possibilities/models for affordable housing. That is, rather than maintaining the same relationship between people and stuff (renters to kitchens, example), which sets an upper limit on price and square footage efficiency, we can invent a new type of housing that is built for affordability and single people.

I take inspiration from “reverse innovation,” which finds that affordable solutions are not just worse versions of their more expensive counterparts. This is a mental trap that is easy to fall into when exporting products to the developed world (or downmarket). The downmarket version of a wedding cake isn’t a smaller wedding cake; it’s a cupcake.

As Winter and Govindarajan put it, you need to “[cast] off preconceived solutions before you set down to define problems [to] help your company avoid the first trap—and spot opportunities outside its existing product portfolio. Consider the problem of irrigating farms in emerging markets. Farmers will argue for the expansion of the power grid so that they can use electricity to run water pumps and irrigate fields. However, farmers need water, not electricity, and the real requirement is getting water to crops—not power to pumps. If they isolate the problem, engineers may find that creating ponds near fields or using solar-powered pumps is more cost-effective and environmentally appropriate than expanding the power grid.”

We need to take a similar approach to urban housing. If you could build develop new units that are purpose-built as affordable housing with an emphasis on shared communal space, you could dramatically increase the efficiency of urban housing, both in terms of people:square footage and dollars spent. If you increase the ratio of people to real estate resources, you can optimize for utilization while controlling for price. Not everyone needs their own kitchen.

The problem is, most of the early co-living entrants in the US are starting at the top of the market. They promise turnkey luxury real estate replete with features and amenities like house-cleaning, social events, luxury bedding, etc. All that comes at a premium to market-rate apartments, totally defeating the purpose of co-living. I don’t even think it’s good business. The people who can afford to rent an apartment for $1500/month or more have other options. They’re not likely to stay long, leaving companies with empty units with high customer acquisition costs.

Co-living does not solve an acute housing problem for the wealthy. If it solves any problem, it is the difficulty of finding roommates and the problem of modern loneliness. However, co-living introduces renters to potential future roommates and friends, making it easy for people to move out together. (See: other options above). 

Sure, the rentals may be more affordable than they appear when you factor in all those amenities and luxuries, but that’s not what matters here. The people who really, desperately need housing can’t afford co-living as presently constituted. They don’t want or need the amenities that these companies use to attract renters and which, in turn, make the leases more expensive. The thing to watch is whether or not these companies will use their position at the top of the market to establish some traction and prove product viability before pivoting downmarket. Smartphones started as luxury items for the rich and now they’re staples for everyone, for example.

To return to Winter and Govindarajan and reverse innovation, co-living is focused on providing electricity, not on providing water. The problem to solve is making housing more affordable to those can’t otherwise afford it, not making faux-affordable housing appealing to those who can.

Co-living needs to shift its focus from amenities to affordability and reorient itself around solving a real problem for renters. Until it does, co-living is neither useful nor viable.


Check OutLanded, a very cool startup that uses grant/foundation money to subsidize down payments for teachers to help them live within the communities they serve. Obviously it’s relevant to the above.

Avoid: Altered Carbon on Netflix. It’s just derivative Blade Runner fan fic with awful writing that takes gratuitous nudity to the point of discomfort.

Follow: Oversharing, a newsletter from Ali Griswold about the “proverbial sharing economy.” (TinyLetter)

Go: to Philly sometime. I had a great time there and will definitely be back. It’s got a lot of charm. 

Read: here’s what I was thinking about when I wrote this post

Engineering Reverse Innovations - Amos Winter and Vijay Govindarajan, Harvard Business Review

Our research suggests that the problem stems from a failure to grasp the unique economic, social, and technical contexts of emerging markets. At most Western companies, product developers, who spend a lifetime creating offerings for people similar to themselves, lack a visceral understanding of emerging market consumers, whose spending habits, use of technologies, and perceptions of status are very different. Executives have trouble figuring out how to overcome the constraints of emerging markets—or take advantage of the freedoms they offer. Unable to find the way forward, they tend to fall into one or more mental traps that prevent them from successfully developing reverse innovations.

For Health Care Workers, the Worst Commutes in New York City Winnie Hu, New York Times

Affordability has become so bad that we’ve literally marginalized our service workers by pushing them beyond the pale of the communities they serve. Commute times are a pernicious form of inequality. Poor people have less time in each day.

The report, “An Unhealthy Commute,” by the Center for an Urban Future, a research institute, concluded that health care workers endure some of the worst commutes in the city. Many rely on public transit — yet live and work in neighborhoods with limited and unreliable bus and subway service. The median commuting time for health care workers using public transit stands at 51.2 minutes — the longest for any class of private-sector workers — compared with 47.3 minutes citywide, the report said.

Density's Next Frontier: The Suburbs - Richard Florida, CityLab

many urban cores are actually developing and densifying. And lots of housing continues to get built at the suburban periphery. Romem argues that America’s real housing problem—and a big part of the solution to it—lie in closer-in single-family-home neighborhoods that were built up during the great suburban boom of the last century, and that have seen little or no new housing construction since they were initially developed.

California’s housing crisis – it’s even worse than you think - Matt Levin, Mercury News

Half the state’s households struggle to afford the roof over their heads. Homeownership-once a staple of the California dream – is at its lowest rate since World War II. Nearly 70 percent of poor Californians see the majority of their paychecks go immediately to escalating rents.

Back on my bullshit

Links and some retro 99D

I know it’s been a very long time. Whenever I stop writing I start feeling like I can’t start again until I have something really good, which… 1) nothing I write I ever really good and 2) is bullshit. But still, that 100% endogenous pressure just compounds over time even as the writing habit/muscle atrophies and picking it up again becomes harder. 

The point is, I’m back with my usual bullshit/garbage. Enjoy, my fellow trash monsters.

  • Buy: this sick burn of Carlyle x Supreme parody tee from Hasan Minhaj. Or don’t because it’s totally sold out and reselling at 10x markups. (Patriot Act Store)

  • Watch: Bodyguard on Netflix. Shades of House of Cards but way more British and slightly less dumb. Tbh I still don’t super get all the twists but it’s a fun watch. (Trailer)

Also make sure to check out the long block at the bottom where, in light of news about China’s social credit system, I’ve republished a post on surveillance and credit-worthiness from the old 99D.


The death of small businesses in big cities, explained - Rebecca Jennings, The Goods

Couple of things I liked from this interview about neoliberalism and local businesses. One thing in particular stood out in a larger point about developers creating pop-up locations:

They’re curated by these developers, but there’s nothing organic. There’s nothing truly urban or diverse about them. You can’t start a business with a one-year lease. In the first year, you don’t make any profit. If we are a society, we need each other, and we need those small-business people to maintain the social network of our neighborhoods, and they’re being destroyed. Pop-ups are not going to replace that.

It’s interesting to think about how pop-ups don't represent urban dynamism/chaos/vitality but instead are inorganic representations of it - that they’re most like facsimiles of city life. Reminds of this great essay from Amanda Hess in the New York Times: The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’.

Beauty and the Backlash: Disney’s Modern Princess Problem - Erich Schwartzel, WSJ (paywall removed)

For nearly 20 years, Disney employees have debated how far the company should go in updating its heroines for the modern age. The crux: How do you keep princesses relevant without alienating fans who hold fast to the versions they grew up with? Billions of dollars of revenue—dolls, sequels, stage shows and dresses—hang on getting that balance right.


Disney develops and manages characters such as Mulan or Rapunzel similar to the way Apple Inc. handles new iPhone models, with a secretive process that allows the princesses to debut in public fully formed. Interviews with nearly two dozen current and former employees working across Disney’s sprawling princess operations reveal a perennial push-and-pull over getting the mix of tradition and modernity right, from producing remakes and merchandise built around longtime characters to introducing new characters.

David Stern has no time for war stories - Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated

The Commish has not slowed down since stepping down from the NBA.

To spend time with Stern is to note his brash, tell-it-like-it-is charm, but to also feel as if he's about to hand out an exam, only you're not sure what it's on. His default expression communicates that he is listening to you just long enough to form an opinion or to marshal an argument. He has a tendency to make pronouncements that are directly confrontational but, upon further review, also true. 

I’m a sucker for a good profile, sue me.

You Already Email Like a Robot — Why Not Automate It? - John Hermann, New York Times Magazine

Fair point. Email-talk is weird. Great read on what Google’s quest to automate our email writing reveals about the mode of communication itself and our modern working world.

If, for example, it suggests a certain completion, and enough users take it, that one will be more likely to appear in the future. If a canned reply is never used, this is a signal that it should be purged; if it is frequently used, it will show up more often. This could, in theory, create feedback loops: common phrases becoming more common as they’re offered back to users, winning a sort of election for the best way to say “O.K.” with polite verbosity, and even training users, A.I.-like, to use them elsewhere. Such a dynamic would take root only where a behavior is already substantially automated — typed, at work, more as a learned performance rather than as an expression of will, or even an idea. Smart Compose is, in other words, good at isolating the ways we’ve already been programmed — by work, by social convention, by communication tools — and taking them off our hands.

One particularly great detail here is that the basis for the machine learning models Google uses for Smart Reply and Smart Compose is a cache of 600,000 emails from Enron made public through discovery, now know as “The Enron Corpus.” It’s apparently the biggest such set of emails out there. For more, check out this read from 2013:

Beijing to Judge Every Resident Based on Behavior by End of 2020 - Bloomberg News

China’s plan to judge each of its 1.3 billion people based on their social behavior is moving a step closer to reality, with Beijing set to adopt a lifelong points program by 2021 that assigns personalized ratings for each resident.

The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get “green channel” benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.

Been talking about this one for a while so I want to re-up a post from the old 99D about this (in full below):

Surveillance and Credit - January 3, 2018

I got into an argument with a lady on a plane. A flight attendant had to be called. The details of this fight are not important but to suffice to say the stewardess wound up apologizing to me and various passengers remarked to me that the lady was crazy. So I was right and I won. I was even given an opportunity to file a complaint against my new nemesis!

Filing the complaint would have had one of two possible outcomes: either nothing would happen because the complaint would go into a void where it wouldn’t merit enough attention to demand followup, or it would linked to the lady’s customer data in the airline’s customer relationship management database. In the former case, it would obviously not matter. In the latter case, the complaint could follow my enemy around like a scarlet letter, marring any and all future interactions with customer service reps from the airline who, upon opening her file each time she called, would see a note about her being “difficult” on a flight in late 2017. That might make them less likely to do her favors in the future. Each denied request would be my small victory. 

I did not wind up filing the complaint against her for two reasons: the first was the it seemed like too much bother. My pettiness and vindictiveness are only matched by my laziness. The other reason was my fear that filing a complaint could go on myrecord in the airline’s CRM (they software they use to keep customer records). So, as is often the case in my petty feuds, nothing happened.

We are increasingly at the mercy of invisible, un-questionable data and analytical systems that drive crucial life events like who we meet, what job we can get, whether we can buy a house, etc. So an online tiff might seem silly and frivolous until it potentially affects your ability to book a flight. This is explored really well in the January 2018 issue of Wired, which delved into the depths of China’s “Social Credit Ratings,” and Alibaba’s “Zhima Credit” score, each more technologically and ubiquitous versions of credit scores:

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