David Streitfeld

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Peter Thiel can move to New Zealand if Donald Trump really trashes America, but you’ll have to stay here and die. 

The Silicon Valley billionaire, a poor man as well as a rich one, isn’t only insulated by his money if the sociopathic bully he enabled into the White House wrecks the place, he’s also secured citizenship in the island nation. Tad Friend’s excellent 2016 New Yorker portrait of Y Combinator’s Sam Altman reported on the subject’s desire to ditch civilization and flee to the land of Mount Victoria with his pal Thiel in case of natural disaster or societal collapse. Death sounds preferable.

Some natives are restless over the entrepreneur’s acceptance, noting he hasn’t satisfied requirements for officially becoming a Kiwi–you know, like actually living in the country for the required five years–but they also may be wary of welcoming a “genius” who was sure there were WMDS and Iraq and is certain that an unhinged ignoramus is the best choice to lead America.

From David Streitfeld and Jacqueline Williams of the New York Times:

SAN FRANCISCO — Peter Thiel is a billionaire, the biggest Donald J. Trump supporter in Trump-hating Silicon Valley and, above all, someone who prides himself on doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing.

So it makes perfect sense that right after President Trump proclaimed that “the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America,” Mr. Thiel was revealed to have become in 2011 a citizen of a small country on the other side of the world: New Zealand.

In these uncertain times, it may be smart to have a backup country. But the news that one of the richest citizens of New Zealand is a naturalized American who was born in Germany set off an immediate furor in the island nation, with questions being raised about whether being a billionaire gets you special treatment.

If you like New Zealand enough to want to become a citizen, the country’s Department of Internal Affairs noted on Wednesday, you are usually supposed to actually live there. Mr. Thiel does not appear to have done this.
The investor, who retains his American citizenship, was one of the biggest backers of Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign. Mr. Thiel reveled in his unusual position, giving a speech shortly before Election Day outlining the reasons for his support. He was vilified for it in tech circles.•

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It’s not likely that Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are spoken to honestly very often, certainly not by those who work for them. What good could come of that for an employee? Perhaps, then, no one has been brazen enough to directly point out that their defense of Trump supporter and emotional homunculus Peter Thiel, if not his politics, is utter horseshit. 

“There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault,” Zuckerberg wrote in defense of maintaining Thiel as a Facebook board member. Bezos added at a Vanity Fair event that “it’s way too divisive to say if you have an opinion, you can’t sit on my board…that makes no sense.”

What really makes no sense is Thiel being treated as if he just so happens to be supporting a fellow conservative, a right-of-center politician who earned the Republican nomination. But Trump isn’t that. He’s someone who’s called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, used anti-Semitic memes online, labeled Mexicans rapists and African-Americans inherently lazy, threatened to jail his political opponent who’s been found guilty of no crime, promised to change libel laws to diminish journalistic freedom and boasted about sexually assaulting women.

Thiel, who’s spoken out against multiculturalism, made puzzling comments about suffrage and had a checkbook ready when racists like Hulk Hogan or Trump needed an assist, wants people to accept that he loathes his candidate’s overt bigotry–his “personal characteristics,” as Thiel terms it–and only supports the GOP nominee because he somehow possesses the magical talents to “fix America,” or some such thing, despite having demonstrated not even a basic understanding of foreign or domestic policy. As I’ve said before, Thiel is the single best argument for a return to the draconian progressive tax rates of the Eisenhower Administration. 

The venture capitalist has the absolute right to support financially and otherwise this Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, but sitting on the board of Facebook and working for the Y Combinator is a privilege, not a right. Zuckerberg and the rest can’t pretend this is politics as usual. Il Duce and his fellow 1930s Fascist Adolf Hitler also were popular with millions of their citizens. That wasn’t “diversity,” but tyranny. So it is, perhaps, again.

From David Streitfeld at the New York Times:

Two weeks ago, Mr. Thiel revealed that he was donating $1.25 million to support the election of Donald J. Trump. As these things go, it was a small gift. Dustin Moskovitz, a founder of Facebook, is giving tens of millions to support Hillary Clinton. But the news made Mr. Thiel a pariah in much of the tech community.

He was accused of promoting racism and intolerance. There were demands that Facebook drop him from its board of directors and that Silicon Valley’s leading start-up incubator, Y Combinator, sever ties with him. Emotions and accusations raged on Twitter. …

“I was surprised by the intensity,” Mr. Thiel said. “This is one of the few times I was involved in something that was not a fringe effort but was mainstream. Millions of people are backing Trump. I did not appreciate quite how polarizing the election would be in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.”

“By lending his image, his voice, his influence and substantial capital to Trump, Thiel isn’t simply exercising his legal right to vote: He is fueling and enabling racism, sexism, sexual assault, violence and tyranny,” Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital, a Los Angeles venture firm, wrote in a blog post.

She said she turned down an investment of $500,000 — a huge sum for a small firm like Backstage — because of the investor’s ties to Mr. Thiel. Ms. Hamilton did not identify the investor or respond to an email.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, defended the company’s association with Mr. Thiel, emphasizing that it did not endorse his views — and much less Mr. Trump’s — but was striving to be inclusive toward those whose values differed from its own. Critics noted that if diversity was such a cherished value in Silicon Valley, why wasn’t there more of it?•

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Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

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Things deemed inconvenient if you are employed at Amazon: getting cancer, having a relative get cancer, miscarriages. If you are “selfish” enough to engage in these activities, you’ll be put on notice and likely reduced to tears. Jeff Bezos’ gigantic success has long been reported to be a ridiculously bruising and demanding workplace only a sociopath could love, a place that attracts the highest achievers and routinely lays them low. 

Tremendous job by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld of the New York Times for the deepest profile yet of a company that’s the envy of the business world and a pretty horrible place to work. How can Amazon get away with such practices, a seeming social experiment that preys on workers psychologically? “Unfairness is not illegal,” is the way one lawyer in the piece puts it. The question is whether some of the tools used to quantify employees at the online retail behemoth will become common. Probably.

An excerpt about Elizabeth Willet, a former Army Captain who discovered a new kind of combat during her brief employment at Amazon:

Ms. Willet’s co-workers strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management. (While bosses know who sends the comments, their identities are not typically shared with the subjects of the remarks.) Because team members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year, it is in everyone’s interest to outperform everyone else.

Craig Berman, an Amazon spokesman, said the tool was just another way to provide feedback, like sending an email or walking into a manager’s office. Most comments, he said, are positive.

However, many workers called it a river of intrigue and scheming. They described making quiet pacts with colleagues to bury the same person at once, or to praise one another lavishly. Many others, along with Ms. Willet, described feeling sabotaged by negative comments from unidentified colleagues with whom they could not argue. In some cases, the criticism was copied directly into their performance reviews — a move that Amy Michaels, the former Kindle manager, said that colleagues called “the full paste.”

Soon the tool, or something close, may be found in many more offices. Workday, a human resources software company, makes a similar product called Collaborative Anytime Feedback that promises to turn the annual performance review into a daily event. One of the early backers of Workday was Jeff Bezos, in one of his many investments. (He also owns The Washington Post.)

The rivalries at Amazon extend beyond behind-the-back comments. Employees say that the Bezos ideal, a meritocracy in which people and ideas compete and the best win, where co-workers challenge one another “even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting,” as the leadership principles note, has turned into a world of frequent combat.•

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No shocker that NYC landlords with large holdings in popular Manhattan neighborhoods are illegally exploiting Airbnb, though the city is pretty much turning a blind eye to individual residents on the wrong side of zoning laws. For better or worse, the Sharing Economy is a thing now and will continue to be. From David Streitfeld in the New York Times:

“The housing broker and its imitators, like the taxi service Uber and its clones, have been prompting upheaval just about everywhere they go.

Admirers say these stars of the so-called sharing economy are breaking up monopolies that have grown greedy and lazy. They are empowering individuals. Critics say that the start-ups are unsavory efforts to avoid regulation and taxes, and that the very term ‘sharing economy’ is ridiculous.

In some contentious spots, like San Francisco, where the local government endorsed a plan last week to essentially legalize Airbnb, a resolution may be in sight. But in New York, where real estate is often viewed as a blood sport, the battle is only deepening.

Mr. Schneiderman and city regulators will also announce Thursday a joint enforcement initiative to shut down illegal hotels. Various regulators will investigate violations of building and safety codes and tax regulations.

‘Anyone operating an illegal hotel should be on notice that the state and city will take aggressive enforcement actions in this area,’ said Mr. Schneiderman. ‘A slick advertising campaign doesn’t change the fact that this is illegal activity.’

He was careful, however, to speak of ‘illegal hotels’ rather than ‘illegal rentals.’ Airbnb is already too popular to dislodge completely, no matter what the housing laws say. It also delights travelers, who get a cheaper and usually more interesting place to stay.”

‘Most of our hosts are regular New Yorkers, and the overwhelming majority live outside of Manhattan,’ Mr. Papas said.

As for the 72 percent of listings that Mr. Schneiderman said were illegal, {Airbnb spokesperson Nick] Papas said it was hard to tell what was going on.”

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I’m fascinated by what Jeff Bezos may do with the Washington Post, and I’m not the only one. I think he certainly has a big-picture idea of where it’s going, no matter what he says. He’ll work out the details as he goes, but he has a blueprint. From an article by David Streitfeld and Christine Haughney in the New York Times, another traditional newspaper trying to traverse the digital divide:

“‘Jeff may be outwardly goofy, with that trademark laugh, but he’s a very tough guy,’ said James Marcus, who was Amazon employee No. 55. ‘If he goes even halfway through with his much-vaunted reinvention of journalism, there is no way he’s not going to break some eggs.’

Mr. Bezos is the sole founder, the public face, the largest shareholder and the visionary of Amazon. ‘For many of us, creating Earth’s biggest bookstore would have been enough,’ said Kerry Fried, employee No. 251. ‘Jeff’s goal was a touch grander: to conquer the world.’

He has more than his share of detractors — just ask your neighborhood bookseller, if you can find one. But it is increasingly hard to dispute that he is the natural heir of Steve Jobs as the entrepreneur with the most effect on the way people live now.

Amazon, which is as much a reflection of Mr. Bezos’ personality as a corporation worth $125 billion can be, is by far the fastest-growing major retailer, although that simple label long ago ceased to suffice. It is also a movie studio, an art gallery (a 1962 Picasso,’Jacqueline au Chapeau Noir,‘ can be had for $175,000) and a publisher. It is an empire that spans much of the globe and even has its own currency, Amazon Coins. What it does not have much of, and never did, are old-fashioned profits.”

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From a New York Times article by David Streitfeld, a reminder that paperback books, now endangered by digital books, were once themselves considered a disruptive technology:

“Penguin and Random House were innovators who made paperbacks into a disruptive force in the 1940s and ’50s. They were the Amazons of their era, making the traditional book business deeply uneasy. No less an authority than George Orwell thought paperbacks were of so much better value than hardbacks that they spelled the ruination of publishing and bookselling. ‘The cheaper books become,’ he wrote, ‘the less money is spent on books.’ Orwell was wrong, but the same arguments are being made against Amazon and e-books today. Amazon executives are not much for public debate, but they argue that all this disruption will ultimately give more money to more authors and make more books more widely available to more people at cheaper prices, and who could argue with any of that? This was not a prospect that many on Wednesday were putting much faith in.”

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A boarded-up Montgomery Ward store in Georgia. (Image by Caldorwards4.)

Really good article by David Streitfeld in the New York Times about the phenomenon of Groupon, a company running forward at a breakneck pace but still (wisely) looking over its shoulder. The Internet outfit inhabits the Chicago building made famous by Montgomery Ward, the once-powerful retailer which also changed the face of commerce in its own day. An excerpt:

“CHICAGO has revolutionized retailing before. In 1872, a dry-goods salesman named Aaron Montgomery Ward wearied of visiting far-flung stores, so he mailed descriptions of goods directly to rural residents. The orders were sent by a new delivery system that wreaked havoc on traditional commerce: the railroad.

Ward’s innovation was as much of a cultural achievement as a merchandising one — farmers read his catalogues for pleasure, dreaming of a better world. They were the foundation of a retail empire that lasted more than a century until the management failed one time too often to anticipate a shift in consumer tastes. Ward’s went bust a decade ago.

Groupon’s corporate headquarters are in the old Montgomery Ward building, which should be reminder enough of the dangers of neglecting the customer’s desires. But Mr. Mason, the chief executive, sought to underline the point by putting on the wall certain business magazine covers. They celebrate tech start-ups — the social network Friendster, the music site MySpace — at the moment they seemed poised for greatness, before they irrevocably stumbled.”


Montgomery Ward commercial, 1967:

Montgomery Ward commercial, 1982:

Montgomery Ward going-out-of-business commercial, 2001:

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