Matt Giles | Longreads | October 2017 | 7 minutes (1,769 words)
When Erik Malinowski was wrapping up the proposal for what would eventually become Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History, he happened to spot the latest cover story for the New York Times Magazine and his heart nearly stopped. The feature, written by Bruce Schoenfeld in March 2016, detailed the rise of the Golden State Warriors through the guise of its front office and the team’s devotion to analytics and data, which sounded much like the book Malinowski was trying to pitch.
“I was gutted at first,” says Malinowski, a prolific freelance writer who also hosts one of the most insightful and interesting sports writing newsletters. “I thought [the New York Times Magazine] blew up my spot. The story’s framework was in parallel of what I was proposing with book.” But then he took a step back and realized there was so much more to the rise of the Warriors (which has won two of the last three NBA titles) than could be covered in just one magazine piece. It was proof of concept: “If the New York Times Magazine put a story on the Warriors on the cover, then this is a thing people want to read about.”
One year later, Malinowski’s book is a deep-dive into not only the fraught history of the Warriors’ franchise, a once proud team at the NBA’s founding that had been reduced to a bumbling and mismanaged group of castaways, but also a team that had essentially redefined the NBA. Sure, having a player like Steph Curry, a once-in-a-generation talent with endless range, helped fuel its rise, but Malinowski also details how the Warriors helped to drag basketball into the modern age—and, in the process, transformed into an annual title contender.
I recently spoke with Malinowski about the ordeals of writing his book, whether this type of embedded sports journalism is still possible, and why the Warriors represent not just a shift in playing style but also political and societal awareness. Read more…
Ellen Pao, who sued her Silicon Valley employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for discrimination, was saving the names for her upcoming book Reset: Ajit Nazre, a partner who became hostile after she rejected his advances. Ted Schlein, a managing partner who explained he liked white, Eastern European sex workers — during a private flight in which a tech CEO in attendance bragged about meeting Jenna Jameson. In her six years at Kleiner Perkins, Pao was passed over for promotion, her clients were stolen, her performance maligned, and eventually she was fired after complaining about harassment to an independent investigator, who asked “Well, if they look down on women so much, if they block you from opportunities, they don’t include you at their events, why do they even keep you around in the first place?”
The competitive world of venture capital was familiar to Pao, and she played the game as best she could. But the game was stacked against her, she explains in an excerpt from her book featured at The Cut.
Predicting who will succeed is an imperfect art, but also, sometimes, a self-fulfilling prophecy. When venture capitalists say — and they do say — “We think it’s young white men, ideally Ivy League dropouts, who are the safest bets,” then invest only in young white men with Ivy League backgrounds, of course young white men with Ivy League backgrounds are the only ones who make money for them. They’re also the only ones who lose money for them.
Sometimes the whole world felt like a nerdy frat house. People in the venture world spoke fondly about the early shenanigans at big companies. A friend told me how he sublet office space to Facebook, only to find people having sex there on the floor of the main public area. They wanted to see if the Reactrix — an interactive floor display hooked up to light sensors — would enhance their experience. At VC meetings, male partners frequently spoke over female colleagues or repeated what the women said and took the credit. Women were admonished when they “raised their voices” yet chastised when they couldn’t “own the room.” When I was still relatively new, a male partner made a big show of passing a plate of cookies around the table — but curiously ignored me and the woman next to him. Part of me thought, They’re just cookies. But after everyone left, my co-worker turned to me and shrugged. “It’s like we don’t exist,” she said.
At 1843, Emma Hogan reports that in Silicon Valley, microdosing LSD is the new “body-hacking” tool everyone from engineers to CEOs is using to boost productivity and creativity. Interestingly, while apparently everyone is doing it, users are reluctant to have their real names appear in print. Psychedelic secrets, man! Peace out.
Every three days Nathan (not his real name), a 27-year-old venture capitalist in San Francisco, ingests 15 micrograms of lysergic acid diethylamide (commonly known as LSD or acid). The microdose of the psychedelic drug – which generally requires at least 100 micrograms to cause a high – gives him the gentlest of buzzes. It makes him feel far more productive, he says, but nobody else in the office knows that he is doing it. “I view it as my little treat. My secret vitamin,” he says. “It’s like taking spinach and you’re Popeye.”
San Francisco appears to be at the epicentre of the new trend, just as it was during the original craze five decades ago. Tim Ferriss, an angel investor and author, claimed in 2015 in an interview with CNN that “the billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.” Few billionaires are as open about their usage as Ferriss suggests. Steve Jobs was an exception: he spoke frequently about how “taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life”. In Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, the Apple CEO is quoted as joking that Microsoft would be a more original company if Bill Gates, its founder, had experienced psychedelics.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, every struggling startup struggles in its own way. Except they all seem to feature extravagant soirées, hazy business plans, and round after round of beer pong on a SoMa roof deck. At Fast Company, Ainsley Harris charts the decline and fall of Tilt, a social-payments platform billed as the “Facebook of Money.” Joining other examples in the emerging genre of schadenfreude-laced startup postmortems, it offers an almost-wistful glimpse at Silicon Valley culture at the precise moment when easy funding became a thing of the past.
Over time, Beshara’s leadership alienated some of Tilt’s more experienced hires, who chose to move on rather than challenge their rookie boss. Meanwhile, Tilt continued to attract young talent barely old enough to join the company’s happy hours.
“There was too much focus on culture and creating this nirvana of a company. This is not a fraternity, this is a business,” says a former manager. Beshara seemed determined to keep the party going until the bitter end. Last September, for example, with a cash crunch imminent, he pressed forward with Tilt’s final Lake Tahoe retreat. Only a small group of employees had any idea that a sale was already in the works.
Looking back now, Beshara acknowledges the imbalance. “I feel very strongly that you want to end up on the side of human connection, human relationships,” he says. “But I think you can index too far on that and really miss the importance of really high standards.”
Is the app that ate email eating into a whole lot more—like privacy, productivity, and personal time? In The Baffler, Jacob Silverman explores the darker side of Slack, the app that became so ubiquitous so fast, that there’s already a literature of Slack-detox—which puts the burden of mitigating the app’s downsides entirely on the user, and not on the app or the work culture in which it’s used.
It’s worth noting that at some Slack-using companies, these mini detoxes are enthusiastically endorsed by the higher-ups. Alexis Madrigal, then editor in chief of Fusion, offered his advice to other bosses: “If I could give one piece of advice to other media companies, it’s that they should be cool with people deleting the app,” he told Nieman Lab last year. “If someone’s going on vacation or their anniversary, or if they’re going to be away on a long weekend, we tell them to delete Slack from their phone because otherwise the temptation to check it is too great. Deleting the app really helps people disconnect, because it’s that addictive as a social experience.”
The boss is allowed to seem magnanimous—you’re on vacation, delete the app!—as he encourages his employees to take steps to temporarily manage their addictions. Meanwhile, the onus of change falls back on each individual employee. The slacklash may be growing, but it is splintered into a thousand isolated quests, each featuring a lone worker facing off against the snarling beast of Information Overload. The recurring lament of the slacklash is, roughly, “I wish I could change, have more self-control”—a refrain that could not be more different from, say, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
In between heatsticks, you holster the cyberpipe in a mobile charger, a smooth, palm-size contraption that calls to mind a cigarette pack mated with a smartphone and designed by Apple’s Jony Ive. “I was a smoker before,” Calantzopoulos said as he handled a charger. “I switched to this completely, and I cannot smoke cigarettes anymore.” Somewhere in flavor country the Marlboro Man is turning over in his grave.
The show’s signature gag, from the first season, was a minute-long montage of startup founders pledging to “make the world a better place through Paxos algorithms for consensus protocols,” or to “make the world a better place through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints.” This scene was set at TechCrunch Disrupt, a real event where founders take turns pitching their ideas, “American Idol”-style, to an auditorium full of investors. Before writing the episode, Judge and Berg spent a weekend at TechCrunch Disrupt, in San Francisco. “That’s the first thing you notice,” Judge said. “It’s capitalism shrouded in the fake hippie rhetoric of ‘We’re making the world a better place,’ because it’s uncool to just say ‘Hey, we’re crushing it and making money.’” After the scene aired, viewers complained about the lack of diversity in the audience. Berg recalled, “A friend of mine who works in tech called me and said, ‘Why aren’t there any women? That’s bullshit!’ I said to her, ‘It is bullshit! Unfortunately, we shot that audience footage at the actual TechCrunch Disrupt.’”
It’s a familiar American tale: people living in poverty amid great wealth. In Palo Alto, California, where the per capita income is over twice the state average, the tech boom has driven real estate values up, and evictions have left many renters homeless. In the New Republic, Monica Potts profiles an elderly couple who lived in their van while searching for affordable housing, and portrays the hostilities and NIMBYism that Silicon Valley’s homeless face, as well as the social services available to them.
One night, about a month after leaving Cubberley, the police pulled Suzan and James over. Their registration was expired. “This officer, he got a wild hair, and he said, ‘I’m going to impound your car,’ and called the tow truck.” Suzan told me. They got out of the car. Without pushing and demanding, she realized, she was never going to get out of the situation. She told me she said to the officer, “This is our home, and if you impound it we will not have a home.” He insisted. “I said ‘That’s fine. You do that. We will stay right here. I will put the beds out, I will put what we need here, right here on the sidewalk.” Other officers arrived and talked to them. They asked Suzan whether, surely, there was some other place they could go. “I said, ‘We have no place to go, and we’re staying right here.’ I was going to make a stink. They were going to know about it.” Suzan told me people were poking their heads out of their homes, and she realized the bigger fuss she made, the more likely officers might decide just to leave them alone.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that many tech workers in San Francisco turn to psychics for a glimpse of the future. Or that psychics, in turn, are rebranding themselves as spiritual therapists, executive coaches, and corporate counselors. The trend is common enough to be spoofed on HBO’s Silicon Valley, where the show’s fictional tech CEO confers with a spiritual guru. Meanwhile, real-life tech execs are increasingly candid about their spiritual hygiene: Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff endorses yoga; LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner advocates mindful meditation; and the late Steve Jobs, a student of Buddhism, was mentored by a Zen priest.
The San Francisco Yellow Pages list 128 psychics and mediums in the city; there are 141 listings for astrologers (with some overlap between the categories). In the Bay Area at large, psychics are keen to cash in on tech’s spiritual awakening.
IBM has announced that it has made the world’s most powerful computer chip. The breakthrough “could lead to a 50% performance and power boost over chips that are on the market today, effectively keeping Moore’s Law more or less intact for the time being,” Quartz reported. This Scientific Americanexcerpt of the biography Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary, by Arnold Thackray, David C. Brock and Rachel Jones, reveals the 86-year-old billionaire who made the observation 50 years ago, and went on to change the world:
He is one of the world’s most exceptional achievers, yet he has consistently avoided opportunities to raise his profile. When Intel was named Electronics Company of the Year, his right-hand man, Andy Grove, beamed straight into the photographer’s lens at the awards presentation. Moore— Intel’s CEO—was mostly out of the frame, doing “something inscrutable in the margins.” Internally driven and governed by the ticking of his watch, Moore believed his vision had global consequence yet worked quietly, within miles of where he was born and raised, eschewing the trappings of wealth and fame. His pursuit of revolutionary electronics brought extraordinary change, even as—with remarkable focus—he stuck to his knitting, doing one single important thing to the best of his ability. The logo “Intel Inside” speaks both of transistors and of Gordon Moore.
Whereas Larry Ellison, Andy Grove, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and a host of other immigrants to Silicon Valley command media attention, Moore has chosen to stay low-key. He has always known who he was, understood what he needed to do, and stayed on task. As far back as the mid-1970s, he was pointing to silicon electronics as “a major revolution in the history of mankind, as important as the Industrial Revolution.” With his immediate colleagues, he was at its leading edge and foresaw how the transistor would leverage the power of human intellect. With a modesty that belied his passion, tenacity, and clarity of vision, Gordon Moore built one of the world’s most successful companies, demonstrated the power of silicon technology, and established the relentless cadence of Moore’s Law.