Top Reads: December 2021

This month's issue of top reads covers the future of the internet, biotech breakthroughs, and the debates that shaped 2021.

Top Reads: December 2021
Photo by Wilfried Santer / Unsplash

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1. How The Economist evolved for the 21st century

The Economist | 7 minutes

“The app was designed to surface the most important stories in the world and deliver them as a daily morning briefing that would be readable in 10 minutes.”

Interesting case study on how The Economist adapted to the digital, mobile-first era. I’m a big fan of the publication and how it curates brief articles on geopolitics and social issues with less US bias.

2. D.C. Attorney General Introduces Bill To Ban ‘Algorithmic Discrimination’

4 minutes | DCist

Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash
“The legislation would make it illegal for companies to use discriminatory algorithms to make decisions about “key areas” of life, including education, jobs, access to credit, health care, insurance, and housing. It would also require those companies to conduct annual audits on their algorithms and document how their algorithms are built, and have them disclose to consumers how algorithms are used to make decisions. If an algorithm’s decision goes against a consumer, the company would also have to provide an in-depth explanation on why. Violations would be met with fines of up to $10,000.”

I’m proud of the DC local government for taking this bold step to address discrimination online, an evolution of America’s durable systems of oppression. While a $10K fine will be pennies to Big Tech, this bill could escalate these important policy decisions to states or the Federal level.

3. How ‘Web3’ could evolve from a trendy buzzword to a better internet

Fast Company | 5 minutes

“While there’s no one official definition of the term, when people say “Web3” they usually mean a decentralized, blockchain-inspired web architecture that gives users more control over their digital content and currency, and where transactions depend far less on trusting a central authority such as a bank or a tech platform operator... A lot of work has to be done to lay the foundation for Web3. Some of that may be political work, meaning that users, developers, tech companies, special interest groups, and others would have to participate in a variety of standards bodies and hammer out agreements on how the Web3 protocols would work. Only when this work gets going, and when financial incentives align behind it, will Web3 start to get real.”

Web3 holds promise, but could be a dream of a digital utopia. We're already seeing debates around VC funding and "ownership" of what many hope will be a decentralized internet. I’m excited to follow along and hope for the best.

4. Barbados Plants a Flag in the Metaverse

DappRadar | 1 minute

Photo by Kathryn Maingot / Unsplash
“The Barbadian government approved the metaverse embassy in August 2021 and appears to view the move as a unique opportunity. This step into the metaverse could open the door to trade in art, music, and culture. Barbados is also currently among the friendliest countries worldwide for cryptocurrencies. With the release of the embassy, provisionally set for January, Barbados will become the first country to recognize digital sovereign land.”

Barbados is taking a bold step into uncharted virtual territory while also removing the British royal family as ceremonial head of state. I wish the people of Barbados well, and am inspired its embrace of an independent and innovative future.

5. World’s vast networks of underground fungi to be mapped for first time

The Guardian | 5 minutes

“This is believed to be the first major effort to map an underground ecosystem in this way. Climate science has focused on above-ground ecosystems, and although we know that fungi are essential for soil structure and fertility, and the global carbon cycle – as ecosystems with thriving mycorrhizal fungi networks have been shown to store eight times as much carbon as ecosystems without such networks – much of the role of fungi in the soil nutrient cycle remains mysterious.”

The data and models from this study could drastically improve our understanding of the natural world. Fungi is poorly understood and has tremendous potential in areas like alternative packaging and mental health treatment.

6. World's first living robots can now reproduce, scientists say

CNN | 3 minutes

Source: Douglas Blackiston and Sam Kriegman
“The xenobots are very early technology -- think of a 1940s computer -- and don't yet have any practical applications. However, this combination of molecular biology and artificial intelligence could potentially be used in a host of tasks in the body and the environment, according to the researchers. This may include things like collecting microplastics in the oceans, inspecting root systems and regenerative medicine.”

Scientists have created “xenobots" – modified frog stem cells that can coordinate and self-heal. The technology is early, but this news triggered my imagination, especially after reading a few science fiction books with similar innovations shaping society in utopian and dystopian ways. In time, the potential for breakthroughs in biotech and climate will be enormous.

7. Who gets left out of ‘bootstrapping’?

The Hustle | 8 minutes

“Black and Hispanic founders bootstrap their companies at a higher rate than white or Asian founders — not by choice, but because they often can’t get access to venture funding… These disparities are even more pronounced across gender lines.”

A fascinating look at the history, myths and inequities of “bootstrapping,” or building a high-growth company without funding. Entrepreneurship is a glorified privilege for some, but more importantly, a means of survival for many.

8. The Great Bifurcation

Stratechery | 13 minutes

A map of author Ben Thompson's digital circles.
“Where I disagree is with the idea that the physical world and the digital world are increasingly “being overlaid and coming together”; in fact, I think the opposite is happening: the physical world and digital world are increasingly bifurcating. Again, to use myself as an example, my physical reality is defined by my life in Taiwan with my family; the majority of my time and energy, though, is online, defined by interactions with friends, co-workers, and customers scattered all over the world.”

Interesting perspective on the nature of our time spent online vs living in the physical world. I’d you don’t want a deep history of tech, start reading at “Tech 3.0.”

9. Watching A Lecture Twice At Double Speed Can Benefit Learning Better Than Watching It Once At Normal Speed

BPS | 3 minutes

“So, a student could just watch videos at 2x speed and halve their time spent on lectures….Or, according to the results of other studies reported in the paper, they could watch a video at 2x normal speed twice, and do better on a test than if they’d watched it once at normal speed. The timing mattered, though: only those who’d watched the 2x video for a second time immediately before a test, rather than right after the first viewing, got this advantage.”

Nowadays many people consume video or audio content at faster than 1x. This fascinating study examines the impact of this practice on student learning. I’m relieved to see this result, though I’m sure there’s much more research to be done here.

10. The Year in 41 Debates

NYT | 25 minutes

“From the urgent conversations we had as a nation to the minor controversies that fascinated us, these are the things that got people talking, and talking, and talking … on Twitter, in the halls of Congress, on campus and at work.”

A reflective and thought-provoking compilation of debates that together sum up the last year. With topics ranging from space billionaires to the SAT, this collection captures the discourse of 2021. If you’d prefer your year-in-review in a fun video instead, check out Death to 2021 on Netflix.

Happy New Year, everyone! I wish you and yours a healthy and thoughtful year ahead.

If you're setting business goals, these tips I made last year may help.

If you need a reason to be hopeful for the year ahead, check out this incredible list from Future Crunch.

99 Good News Stories You Probably Didn’t Hear About in 2021
What if bad news wasn’t the only news?

And now for this incredible drone jellyfish art exhibit, a biomimicry project at Tate Modern in London. Or if you prefer the real thing, watch this rare footage of a giant phantom jellyfish. What a time to be alive.

St. John, US Virgin Islands