Weekend Briefing No. 392

Welcome to the weekend.

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Prime Numbers

501,008—Northern California’s Dixie Fire has grown to the largest single-source wildfire in state history and the second biggest overall, having consumed roughly 501,008 acres.

55—U.S. Women’s Basketball won its seventh consecutive Olympics gold medal in a 90–75 victory over host Japan. The win was the team’s 55th consecutive Olympics win, meaning that the American women have not lost a game in the Olympics since 1992.

1.1—Global temperatures over the past decade rose almost 1.1 degrees Celsius.

Bamboo Ceiling in Silicon Valley

There’s some basis to see Silicon Valley as a beacon of progress in the representation of Asian Americans, who account for a quarter of the population in the Bay Area. Alphabet, DoorDash and Zoom all have Asian American CEOs. Pichai, who’s originally from southern India, leads a company where more than 40% of the U.S. workforce is Asian. At Facebook Inc., the figure is even higher, and Asian employees slightly outnumber White ones. And yet, even here—among workers who seem to have found significant success in the tech industry—the story is more complicated and discouraging. Many Asian Americans in tech, especially women, face subtle yet ever-present discrimination. It takes many forms: sexualized comments, assumptions based on stereotypes (“You must be great at programming!”) or performance reviews that seem to be more about identity than actual performance. The racism starts at the earliest stages of their careers and builds as they break into middle management. It can be hard to escape even for those who become executives. Making things more maddening for those who experience it is that anti-Asian racism is barely acknowledged. The message from tech companies is “we’re post-race,” says Eric Bahn, a partner at the venture capital firm Hustle Fund. But Bahn, who was born in Michigan to parents from South Korea, says that’s an incomplete story. “It looks awesome in the beginning,” he says. “But then there’s a wall you hit. It’s a bait and switch.” Bloomberg (18 minutes)

Revolutionary

In January of 2001, a startup news website broke a huge technology story: A charismatic millionaire was secretly developing an incredible invention, one that would change the world, in his lab in New Hampshire. The news came via a leaked, secret book proposal, which was then sold to the academic publisher Harvard Business School Press for $250K. Within hours, the story was everywhere. The proposal quoted Steve Jobs saying the invention would be “as significant as the personal computer.” Jeff Bezos said it was “revolutionary.” But what was surprising about the book deal wasn’t merely the praise the invention and its inventor, Dean Kamen, garnered from tech world luminaries. It wasn’t merely the substantial investment the inventor had received from famed venture capitalist John Doerr, the largest in the firm Kleiner Perkins’ history. What stood out most of all was the detail that Harvard was paying a quarter-million dollars for the book—and it didn’t even know what the invention was. In December 2001, a year after the initial leak, the world finally learned what this technology was, as Dean Kamen presented his invention on Good Morning America. With great fanfare, an actual curtain raised to reveal a bulky two-wheeled scooter. “The Segway,” Kamen announced proudly. “That’s it?” Diane Sawyer asked. “That can’t be it.” The Segway did not change the world. It was not bigger than the PC. It ended up a joke, the province of mall cops and G.O.B. Bluth on Arrested Development. The Segway flopped. This is the story behind the Segway. Slate (21 minutes)

Carbon Capture

Reducing global greenhouse gas emissions is an important goal, but another challenge awaits: lowering the levels of CO2 and other substances already in the atmosphere. One promising approach turns the gas into an ordinary mineral through entirely natural processes; 44.01 hopes to perform this process at scale using vast deposits of precursor materials and a $5 million seed round to get the ball rolling. The process of mineralizing CO2 is well-known among geologists and climate scientists. A naturally occurring stone called peridotite reacts with the gas and water to produce calcite, another common and harmless mineral. In fact, this has occurred at enormous scales throughout history, as witnessed by large streaks of calcite-piercing peridotite deposits. TechCrunch (5 minutes)

Weather Whiplash

The Verge spoke with Alex Ruane, one of the authors of the new report and a research physical scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He walks us through the phenomena that’s supercharging extreme weather events. And he explains why scientists have gotten so much better at seeing the “human footprint” in each weather disaster. I particularly liked the description of weather whiplash. Weather whiplash is the idea that you can go from one extreme to the next very rapidly, giving society the sensation of a whiplash. This is part of the idea of an intensified water cycle. The water is moving faster, so when a wet condition comes, it can be extremely wet. And then behind it could be a dry condition that can quickly get extremely dry. That type of shift from wet to dry conditions is something that we explore and understand in our climate models, but the lived experience of it can be quite jarring—and not just uncomfortable, but a direct challenge for ecosystems and other things that we care about in society. They really are connected in many cases to the same types of phenomenon, and this new report connects the dots between this phenomenon and our human footprint. The Verge (8 minutes)

Robot Bricklayers

When will brick-laying robots revolutionize the construction industry? There have been attempts over the years. This is a tough question to answer. Fundamentally, it seems like it depends on what progress in robotics, software, computer vision and other technologies (which I’ll lump together as “automation”) looks like. For all its difficulties, masonry has been more successfully automated than other building systems—it’s one of the few systems where commercial robots for building it are actually on the market for general use. If automated masonry systems got smaller, faster, could more easily handle corners and finish joints, it might start to look like a very attractive system. However, it could just as easily be a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats scenario; advancing automation technology could easily be applied to other building systems (wood, steel, etc.) as well. It becomes a question of what the relative improvement curves look like: What gets better the fastest, how long does that stay true? Construction Physics (17 minutes)

Sci-Fi

I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction recently because I want to open up my mind to possibility. In some ways, the creative act of writing sci-fi gives humanity a concrete goal to aim at. That’s why I liked this article. Figuring out just how the future will work depends on this interplay between fact and fiction. But it turns out that fictionalizing the future can be an effective way of realizing it and making it familiar. When commentators and entrepreneurs debate future worlds in which power is generated by solar panels, fuel cells, wind farms or fusion, their imagined futures make sense to us largely because they seem familiar. And they seem familiar because we already know about other fictional futures that work like that. Though this might seem less clear to us, ours is a culture with a history of thinking like that about the future. Put another way, our fictions offer a means of fixing the future’s technologies in the form of cultural expectations. Aeon (12 minutes)

Meetings Multiplying

We are deep in the age of the never-ending check-in. Meetings have gotten shorter during the pandemic, according to researchers, with one paper finding the average length dropped 20% in spring 2020. But meetings are multiplying. There’s the 25-minute client touch base, the general life catch-up with your manager, the bite-size performance feedback session, the meeting to prep for the meeting. It just never ends. We were already on the road to meeting burnout before the pandemic. A shift from hierarchical organizations to de-layered, matrixed ones means more bosses and teams to coordinate with. Increasingly, global business means invites for times when we’d normally be in bed. In recent years, many of us have started feeling like meetings are just something that happens to them. You have no control over your workday. Wall Street Journal (6 minutes)

Bookshelf

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson. In this first volume of Neal Stephenson’s genre-defying epic series, Daniel Waterhouse, fearless thinker and courageous Puritan, pursues knowledge in the company of the greatest minds of Baroque-era Europe in a chaotic world where reason wars with the bloody ambitions of the mighty, and where catastrophe, natural or otherwise, can alter the political landscape overnight. The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson’s award-winning series, spans the late 17th and early 18th centuries, combining history, adventure, science, invention, piracy and alchemy into one sweeping tale. It is a gloriously rich, entertaining and endlessly inventive historical epic populated by the likes of Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Benjamin Franklin and King Louis XIV, along with some of the most inventive literary characters in modern fiction. Amazon

Most Read Last Week

Bobos Broke America—In a study for the Atlantic, Amanda Ripley found that the most politically intolerant Americans “tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban and more partisan themselves.”

China Smashes Tech—Those who pay attention to business news have probably noted an interesting and curious phenomenon over the past few months: China is smashing its internet companies.

August Playlist—This is a playlist I made for you. 

About the Weekend Briefing

A Saturday morning briefing on innovation & society by Kyle Westaway—Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose. Photo by Nasser Mu.

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Weekend Wisdom

Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.Ray Bradbury

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