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Sunday, March 8, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Burn the EARN IT Act

Posted: 08 Mar 2020 04:00 PM PDT

I want to talk about malignant incompetence on the part of our elected officials, and this isn’t even about the pandemic. Rather, it’s about the spectacularly misguided, counterproductive, expensive, and overbearing approach to end-to-end encryption by the USA along with Australia, Canada, the UK, and New Zealand — the so-called “Five Eyes.”

Consider the TSA Lock program. (Bear with me; this is important.) It’s an initiative to ensure all luggage locks can be opened by universal keys, held by the TSA and other aviation security agencies, so that any luggage can be searched at any time. The cited purpose is to prevent terrorism, which of course we all want. Unfortunately, the TSA master keys have been publicly leaked, such that anyone could make copies. Furthermore, TSA agents are numerous, fallible, and prone to misusing their authority.

Still, preventing terrorism is a good thing which we all want, right? Some people may feel that TSA Locks are an unacceptable intrusion into personal liberties, but a majority seem basically OK with them. They’re a trade-off between public security and personal privacy which we have collectively more-or-less agreed on.

Suppose, however, that the situation was tweaked slightly. Suppose that anyone who really wanted to could, at the cost of some slight inconvenience, instead use invulnerable luggage, proof against keys, scans, and external access of any kind, all for free … and airlines were required to convey that luggage anyhow. Call it the “TSA Locks Except For People Willing To Take An Extra Half Hour To Pack” program.

Suddenly that whole program sounds completely insane, doesn’t it? Suddenly this isn’t a trade-off at all. Clearly people with anything to hide, such as terrorists, drug smugglers, etc., would immediately switch to using the invulnerable luggage, and the rest of the TSA Lock mandate would become a gratuitous invasion of personal privacy.

Suddenly the program’s chief impact would be the imposition of significant and unnecessary risks, such as leaked master keys, rogue TSA agents, and misuse by tyrannical governments, on the entire flying public who don’t go to the inconvenience of using invulnerable luggage. Suddenly the program brings no benefit whatsoever. Suddenly it is a poster child for malevolent government overreach, negligence, and authoritarianism.

Well, “TSA Locks Except For People Willing To Take An Extra Half Hour To Pack” is, I am appalled to report, a perfect and exact metaphor for what the Five Eyes want to do with end-to-end encryption. They want a ‘golden key‘ back door — aka a TSA Lock — for all messages sent over messaging systems like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, etc., despite the inescapable fact that unbreakable encryption — aka invulnerable luggage — has long been widely available, open-source, and free to all.

Even if you wanted to put that genie back in the bottle (and you really shouldn’t, as it has granted us many wishes which protect us all) it is far too late now. Even if you wanted to prevent messages with strong encryption from being transferred (which you really really shouldn’t) you couldn’t; there are too many ways to disguise them as other messages, e.g. encode them in images. Invulnerable luggage is a fact of life, and has been for decades.

And yet governments keep trying to legislate it out of existence, with legislation that will only harm people who use the metaphorical TSA locks, courtesy of leaked keys, rogue government workers, and authoritarian governments everywhere. The latest attempt is the EARN IT act, introduced Thursday by a bipartisan coalition. Here is a summary of its most grievous flaws, by Riana Pfefferkorn, he Associate Director of Surveillance and Cybersecurity at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, who previously described the bill as “how to ban end-to-end encryption without actually banning it.”

The cited intent of the bill is to fight “child sexual abuse material,” or CSAM. Which of course is a most laudable goal, which we all desire. Just like the goal of preventing terrorist attacks on airplanes. But as with the TSA Locks metaphor, this will simply drive awful people to use their own encryption — their own invulnerable luggage — while giving authoritarian governments, people with leaked keys, and rogue agents access to potentially trillions of previously secure private messages worldwide. It is a catastrophically dumb idea crafted by people who don’t understand what they’re doing. Let’s hope, just as with the pandemic, there’s still time enough to convince them of the reality.

China Roundup: Enterprise tech gets a lasting boost from coronavirus outbreak

Posted: 08 Mar 2020 02:15 PM PDT

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch's China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. This week, a post from Sequoia Capital sounding the alarm of the coronavirus’s impact on businesses is reaching far corners of tech communities around the world, including China.

Many echo Sequoia’s observation that the companies that are the “most adaptable” are the likeliest to survive. Others cling to the hope of “[turning] a challenging situation into an opportunity to set yourself up for enduring success.”

Two weeks ago I wrote about how the private sector and the government in China are working together to contain the epidemic, bringing a temporary boost to the technology industry. This week I asked a number of investors and founders which of these changes will stand to last, and why.

B2B on the rise

The business-to-business (B2B) space was rarely a hot topic in China until online consumer businesses became relatively saturated in recent times. And now, the COVID-19 epidemic has unexpectedly breathed life into the once-boring field, which stretches from virtual meetings, online education, digital healthcare, cybersecurity, telecommunications, logistics to smart cities, analysis from investment firm Yunqi Partners shows.

For one, there is an obvious opportunity for remote collaboration tools as people work from home. Downloads of indigenous work apps like Dingtalk, WeChat Work, TikTok’s sister Lark as well as America’s Zoom jumped exponentially amid the health crisis. While some argue that the boom is overblown and will dissipate as soon as businesses are back to normal, others suggest that the shift in behavior will endure.

Like other work collaboration services, Zoom soared in China amid the coronavirus outbreak, jumping from No. 180 in late January to No. 28 as of late February in overall app installs. Data: App Annie 

“People are reluctant to change once they form a new habit,” suggests Joe Chan, partner at Hong Kong-based Mindworks Ventures. The virus outbreak, he believes, has educated the Chinese masses to work remotely.

“Meeting in person and through Zoom both have their own merits, depending on the social norm. Some people are used to thinking that relationships need to be established through face-to-face encounters, but those who don’t hold that view will have fewer meetings. [The epidemic] presents a chance for a paradigm shift.”

But changes are slow

Growth in enterprise businesses might be less visible than what China witnessed over the SARS epidemic that fueled internet consumer verticals such as ecommerce. That’s because software-as-a-services (SaaS), cloud computing, health tech, logistics and other enterprise-facing services are intangible for most consumers.

“Compared to changes in consumer behavior, the adoption of new technologies by enterprises happen at a slower pace, so the impact of coronavirus on new-generation innovations [B2B] won’t come as rapidly and thoroughly as what happened during SARS,” contended Jake Xie, vice president of investment at China Growth Capital.

Xie further suggested that the opportunities presented by the outbreak are reserved for companies that have been steadily investing in the field, in part because enterprise services have a longer life cycle and require more capital-intensive infrastructure. “Opportunists don’t stand a chance,” he concluded.

As for changing consumer behavior, such as the uptick in grocery delivery usage by seniors trapped indoors, the impact might be short-lived. “The only benefit that the epidemic brings to these apps is getting more people to try their services. But how many of them will stay? The argument that people will keep using these apps over concerns of getting sick in offline markets is unsubstantiated. The strength of a business lies in its ability to solve user problems in the long term, for example, providing affordability and convenience,” suggested Derek Shen, chairman of Danke Apartment, the Chinese co-living startup slated to list on NYSE.

Summoned by Beijing

The adjacent sector of enterprise services — at-scale technologies tailored to energizing government functions — has also seen traction over the course of the epidemic. Private firms in China have teamed up with regional authorities to better track people’s movements, ramp up facial recognition capacities aimed at a mask-wearing public, develop contact-free consumer experience, among other measures.

Tech firms touting services to the government are no stranger to criticisms concerning the lack of transparency in how user data is used. But the appeal to private firms is huge, not only because state contracts tend to provide a steady stream of long-term revenue, but also that certain public-facing projects can be billed as a fulfillment of corporate social responsibilities. Following the virus outbreak, Chinese tech companies of all sizes hastened to offer contributions, with efforts ranging from making monetary donations to building tools that keep the public informed.

On the flip side, the government also needs private help in emergency management. As prominent Chinese historian Luo Xin poignantly pointed out in podcast SurplusValue’s recent episode [1:00:00], some of the most efficient and effective responses to the public health crisis came not from the government but the private sector, whether it is online retailer JD.com or logistics firm SF Express delivering relief supplies to the epicenter of the outbreak.

That said, Luo argued there are signs that some local authorities’ tendency to centralize control is getting in the way of private efforts. For example, some government offices have stumbled in their attempts to develop crisis management systems from scratch, overlooking a pool of readily available and proven infrastructure powered by the country’s tech giants.

Gates Foundation-backed program will soon be issuing home testing kits for COVID-19 in Seattle

Posted: 08 Mar 2020 01:16 PM PDT

A project funded by the Gates Foundation will soon begin issuing at-home testing kits for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, according to a report in the Seattle Times.

The study, based on a nose-swab should be able to return results in up to two days and will be shared with health officials who can then notify people who test positive. Individuals who have been infected will then be encouraged to answer an online questionnaire to give health officials information about their movements so that those officials can identify and notify other people who may need to be tested or quarantined, according to the Seattle Times report.

“Although there’s a lot to be worked out, this has enormous potential to turn the tide of the epidemic,” Scott Dowell, who leads the coronavirus response effort from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told the Seattle Times.

There’s no clear timeline for the project’s launch as the Foundation looks to finalize the supporting software and draft a final questionnaire for people who request the tests. The Foundation estimates that it could run up to 400 tests per-day, according to Dowell.

The Gates Foundation isn’t the only entity moving quickly to develop at home test kits. In a Twitter thread on Saturday, serial healthcare entrepreneur Jonathan Rothenberg outlined a similar approach, and is apparently now in discussions with a manufacturer on how to bring it to market.

Seattle and the surrounding area has been the epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. The state has confirmed 71 cases and 15 deaths from the disease as of Saturday. At least one health expert estimates that Seattle could have as many as 600 cases, based on computational modeling.

"One of the most important things from our perspective, having watched and worked on this in other parts of the world, is the identification of people who are positive for the virus, so they can be safely isolated and cared for, and the identification of their contacts, who can then be quarantined," Dowell told the Seattle Times.

The project to do develop at-home testing evolved from a two-year-old research project from the University of Washington that was intended to track the spread of diseases like influenza, according to the Times reporting.

All told, the Gates Foundation has poured about $20 million into the effort. The foundation has also committed $5 million to the local response efforts to combat the disease in the area — including the expansion of testing and analysis.

Original Content podcast: ‘Love is Blind’ adds a touch of reality to a silly premise

Posted: 08 Mar 2020 01:10 PM PDT

Even by the standards of romantic competition reality shows, “Love is Blind” has a doozy of a concept: A group of men and women “date” by talking in pods where they can only hear each other’s voices. In just a little over a week, they’re expected to start proposing marriage to someone who they’ve never seen.

On this week’s episode of the Original Content podcast, we’re joined by TechCrunch marketing director (and reality TV expert) Alexandra Ames to review the just-wrapped first season of the Netflix show. As we explain, the series actually moves beyond its initial high concept pretty quickly — after the first few episodes, the newly-engaged couples leave the pods and to see if their relationships can survive in the real world.

So the show prompted plenty of discussion about relationships and reality TV in general. At the same time, we’re happy to gossip about the most and least interesting couples, and about who left who at the altar.

And we also some thoughts about the choice of Nick and Vanessa Lachey as the hosts. (Hey, at least most of their material appears to have been left on the cutting room floor.)

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:

0:00 Intro
0:59 “Love Is Blind” spoiler-free review
28:12 “Love Is Blind” spoiler discussion

If we could see alternate realities, would we want to take a look?

Posted: 08 Mar 2020 11:27 AM PDT

Well, here we are. After many weeks (and a somewhat inconsistent publishing schedule), we have arrived at the final story of Ted Chiang's Exhalation collection, number nine of nine. It has been a fun journey reading each of these speculative science fiction stories, and I do think they have much to tell TechCrunch readers. Even if you missed some of the discussions, these stories are timeless: What's Expected of Us was first published in 2005. So jump in now, or jump in later — they will be waiting for you when you are ready.

Today, we have a fantastic work on the meaning of the choices in our lives and what happens when we have more information about ourselves in alternative timelines. It's a story that combines quantum entanglement with freedom of the will, connecting technology to the very core of what makes us human. We will talk about Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, and then some concluding thoughts on the whole *Exhalation *collection for those who have walked with us every step of the way.

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at bookclub@techcrunch.com (we got a real email address!) or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter (hashtag TCBookClub)
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom

This short story is a beautiful fusion of speculative science fiction and philosophy, punctuated with several plot turnabouts and rivulets of thrill.

The story centers around an invention called the prism, which is a quantum communications device. When triggered, a prism will cause a binary divergence in future timelines. In one timeline, the prism lights up its LED red, while in the other timeline it lights up blue. What's critical is that the prisms in the now diverging timelines are connected together, and the device has a "pad" that allows for limited communications between the two timelines before the pad expires its capacity.

With the right prism, people can talk to themselves in other timelines to explore what might have happened if different decisions were made. For instance, someone could accept a marriage proposal if the prism's LED turned red or reject it if the prism turned blue. Through the device, users can observe how their lives might have been lived — entailing all kinds of psychological consequences in the process.

It's not surprising then that the plot partly revolves around a support group for people obsessed with prisms. One person, Jorge, struggles with the fact that he committed a violent act in this timeline, but then determines that he didn't in any of the other timelines he was able to connect to. What does this say about his character? Does the fact he almost always doesn't commit the violence show that he has a strong and stable character, who occasionally makes mistakes? Or does the evidence prove that there is a monster waiting beneath the surface, always just waiting for the right moment to strike?

Throughout the story, there is a latent question about how we use role models in our decisions. In our world, we can model ourselves off of celebrities or famous people, mentors and coaches, or even historical figures we've read about in biographies. Yet the prisms shrink this intrinsic distance — we can model ourselves after literally ourselves.

That opens up avenues for envy and jealousy. When our role models find success, we have the emotional distance to observe and reflect, and perhaps change our own actions in response. But when those models are ourselves, suddenly we can't help but think that there must be something wrong with us if our counterparts in other timelines are doing well and we are not.

So we dwell on our choices, particularly on the major prophetic decisions that we feel our whole lives revolve around. Much like the prisms and the quantum split that happens inside the device, we ourselves have moments of binary decision-making. If we are angry, do we slash the tires of the car of the person who put us in that position? Do we pull the trigger on a gun?

In one case, Dana, a therapist and a facilitator of the prism support group, harmed her best friend Vinessa in high school during a field trip. When a teacher enters their hotel room on an inspection and sees rows of pills, Dana blames Vinessa, sending her life in a different direction:

It was as if, before that night, Vinessa had been balanced on a knife's edge; she could have become either what society considered a good girl or a bad girl. Dana's lie had pushed her off the edge, onto the side of being bad, and with that label the course of Vinessa's life had taken a different direction.

Yet, Chiang is deeply skeptical of these binaries. We start to see glimmers of this as he explains the quantum dynamics behind the prisms, arguing that even a single atomic difference in different timelines can lead to massive changes in weather patterns and ultimately the macro events that build each of those worlds. This butterfly effect means that our decisions have far more chaotic consequences than we can anticipate. As the author explains, "Many worried that their choices were rendered meaningless because every action they took was counterbalanced by a branch in which they had made the opposite choice."

Yet, much like the last story we read, this story doesn't jump to nihilism. Quite the opposite, it argues that our decisions are really reflections of our character, and therefore our character constrains the probabilities of our actions in future timelines. Nat, our main narrator, asks during a support group session:

"But when I have a choice to do the right thing or the wrong thing, am I always choosing to do both in different branches? Why should I bother being nice to other people, if every time I'm also being a dick to them?"

The facilitator Dana responds with:

"But if you act compassionately in this branch, that's still meaningful, because it has an effect on the branches that will split off in the future. The more often you make compassionate choices, the less likely it is that you'll make selfish choices in the future, even in the branches where you're having a bad day."

While all future possibilities are always present, our innate character determines the gravity wells that most timelines fall into. Vinessa is angry at Dana for her lie, but as we later learn, she would have been angry in pretty much every scenario that Dana might have selected. No matter how she handled the situation, Vinessa would have gone through her downward spiral, leading to the story's core message: "If the same thing happens in branches where you acted differently, they you aren't the cause."

We can't control the past, and we certainly can't control alternative timelines. But we can control our actions today, and those actions are going to accumulate to affect every single diverging timeline in the future. Yes, sometimes our other selves might have gotten luckier, or may have faced an unexpected tragedy. Yes, if we knew this we might experience envy, jealousy or horror. But ultimately, all the possibilities in the world are ultimately circumscribed by ourselves. We can only ever really do what we choose to do.

Some concluding thoughts on Exhalation

We've come to the end of Exhalation, and in light of the book's symbol, we can take a breath now to take a look at all that Chiang has put together with these various stories.

To me, the most prominent message that resonates throughout the book is that contingency has no control over our own actions. In many of the stories in this set, Chiang places a new technological object, whether it's a time-travel gate, digients and virtual worlds, or the prisms in this last story, and shows how humans react to their fresh capabilities.

One would think that these technologies would immediately change who we are or how we react. After all, if we can time travel, communicate through timelines, or completely change our perspective in virtual worlds, shouldn't that radically change our identities? Wouldn't we be entirely different people?

And yet, Chiang makes his point stridently clear: no. The characters inside each of us are hardly fixed of course, but they absolutely affect how we use — for good and evil — these new technologies. Humans are going to do what they are going to do, and they are going to do it with whatever tools they have available to them. That's not to say that technologies shouldn't be held accountable for the actions they afford their users. But ultimately, it's a reminder that we each have control over our own actions, and we have the right to judge others for the actions they take when confronted with new options.

We are ultimately all connected, and that means that our actions don't just affect ourselves, but all people everywhere through the air, through quantum mechanics, and through the physical laws of our world. Trust yourself, but also understand how we can control our actions for a better world. If that isn't a message for startups and technology in 2020, I don't know what is.

How the information system industry became enterprise software

Posted: 08 Mar 2020 09:39 AM PDT

If you were a software company employee or venture capitalist in Silicon Valley before 1993, chances are you were talking about "Information Systems Software" and not "Enterprise Software." How and why did the industry change its name?

The obvious, but perplexing answer is simple — “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

As befuddling and mind-numbingly satisfying as it is to your local office Trekkie, the industry rebranded itself thanks to a marketing campaign from the original venture-backed system software company, Boole & Babbage (now BMC software).

While the term "Enterprise" was used to describe complex systems for years before 1993, everything changed when Boole & Babbage signed a two-year licensing agreement with the then-highest-rated show in syndication history to produce an infomercial.

Star Trek fans have been talking about this crazy marketing agreement for years, and you can read the full details about how it was executed in TrekCore. But even Trekkies don't appreciate its long-term impacts on our industry. In this license agreement with Paramount, Boole & Babbage had unlimited rights to create and distribute as much Star Trek content as they could. They physically mailed VHS cassettes to customers, ran magazine ads and even dressed their employees as members of Starfleet at trade shows. Boole & Babbage used this push to market itself as the "Enterprise Automation Company."

Commander Riker says in the infomercial, "just as the bridge centralizes the functions necessary to control the USS Enterprise, Boole's products centralize data processing information to allow centralized control of today's complex information systems." This seemed to scratch an itch that other systems companies didn't realize needed scratching.

Not to be outdone, IBM in 1994 rebranded their OS/2 operating system "OS/2 Warp," referring to Star Trek's "warp drive." They also tried to replicate Babbage's licensing agreement with Paramount by hiring the Enterprise's Captain Picard (played by actor Patrick Stewart) to emcee the product launch. Unfortunately, Paramount wouldn't play ball, and IBM hired Captain Janeway (played by actress Kate Mulgrew) from Star Trek: Voyager instead. The licensing issues didn't stop IBM from also hiring Star Trek's Mr. Spock (played by actor Leonard Nimoy) to tape a five-minute intro to the event:

Outside of OS/2, IBM's 1994 announcement list included 13 other "enterprise" initiatives. Soon, leading software companies began to rebrand themselves and release products using the term "enterprise software" as a valuable identifier. MRP software makers like SAP and Baan began embracing the new "Enterprise" moniker after 1993 and in 1995, Lotus rebranded itself as an "Enterprise Software Company."

"Enterprise" was officially the coolest new vernacular and after industry behemoth IBM bought Lotus in 1996, they incorporated "Enterprise" across all of their products. And while Gartner's 1990 paper "ERP: A Vision of the Next-Generation MRP II" by Wylie is the technical birth of ERP software, no one cared until Commander Riker told Harold to "monitor your entire Enterprise from a single point of control." The ngram numbers don't lie:

Almost 30 years later, we live in a world in which business is run on enterprise software and the use of the term is ubiquitous. Whenever I see a software business plan come across my desk or read an article on enterprise software, I can't help but give Commander Riker a little due credit.

What is the purpose of belief in a world of innovation?

Posted: 08 Mar 2020 06:27 AM PDT

We are reading the penultimate short story in Ted Chiang's collection Exhalation. Omphalos questions what it means to believe: in our world, in alternative worlds, and in ourselves. Given that beliefs are crucial to everything we do in innovation and science, I thought the theme deeply dovetailed with a lot of what TechCrunch readers care about. I'm excited to talk about it more.

Tomorrow, I will post analysis on the final short story, Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom as well as some concluding thoughts now that we have cycled through all the short stories in this collection. What a journey!

Some further quick notes:

  • Want to join the conversation? Feel free to email me your thoughts at bookclub@techcrunch.com (we got a real email address!) or join some of the discussions on Reddit or Twitter (hashtag TCBookClub)
  • Follow these informal book club articles here: https://techcrunch.com/book-review/. That page also has a built-in RSS feed for posts exclusively in the Book Review category, which is very low volume.
  • Feel free to add your comments in our TechCrunch comments section below this post.

Reading Omphalos

Most of the stories in Exhalation have been pieces of deep imagination, filled with worlds that, while tethered to our experience on Earth, remain quite distant to it. Omphalos feels quite different: it very much is our world, but refracted just slightly at every point.

Chiang signals this to the reader right from the beginning, noting that the narrator is traveling to "Chicagou," a city that is obviously recognizable to us, but just slightly off from our expectations. And indeed, as the story progresses, we learn that everything in the sciences are just a bit different from what we presume. Scientific discoveries that have happened in our world have yet to happen in this story (the discovery of DNA, for instance), while exciting fields in our world today like astronomy are essentially complete, with no further innovation to come.

The story's central tension is between faith and science, but the tweaks that Chiang edits into this speculative world force us to observe our own world with new insight. The development of science as a human practice was highly contentious in our history, with Galileo and the fight over heliocentrism being one of many battlefields fought over the centuries.

In this story though, science isn't at war with religion, but in fact provides a path to deepening devotion to belief, undergirding the pursuit of purpose in a world of mystery. Our narrator, an archaeologist, describes why she does her work, and why the single miraculous creation of the human race is so important to belief.

I asked them to imagine what it would be like if we lived in a world where, no matter how deeply we dug, we kept finding traces of an earlier era of the world … then I asked, wouldn't they feel lost, like a castaway adrift on an ocean of time? … this is why I am a scientist: because I wish to discover your purpose for us, Lord.

Indeed, the Earth itself is the very creation of God, and therefore is studied with an intensity that we would find unusual, while astronomy and the exploration of the celestial world is relegated to the side.

I admit, Lord, that I've never had much regard for astronomy; it has always struck me as the dullest of the sciences. The life sciences are seemingly limitless; every year we discover new species of plants and animals and gain a deeper appreciation of your ingenuity in creating the Earth. By contrast, the night sky is just so finite. All five thousand eight hundred and seventy-two stars were cataloged in 1745, and not another has been found since then.

Chiang has pulled a bit of a legerdemain — we are more interested in the possibilities beneath our feet, rather than what floats above us in the skies.

That setup delivers the story's main thrust: an astronomer has discovered that another planet elsewhere in the galaxy is actually the stationary point of the entire universe, which means that Earth's orbit around the sun demonstrates not intelligent design or a message of purpose, but rather pure nihilism. It likely serves no purpose at all.

Chiang refracts our massive historical conflict over heliocentrism, and in so doing forces us to confront the true challenges of modern life. The astronomer's discovery forces our seemingly devout narrator to question her own faith — not in religion, but actually in science. For if conducing scientific experiments was about finding purpose in life, why should we continue doing them when we know they don't have a purpose at all?

The title of the story, Omphalos, comes from Greek mythology and symbolizes the navel of the world, or the place where the world is centered on. The astronomer's discovery dissolves what we thought was the Omphalos — Earth — and prods us to search for a new point to center us and our lives.

Our narrator's loss of faith causes her to stop praying and live in a cabin for a few months, but she ultimately comes to the conclusion that the openness of choice around these events is actually empowering for humans, forcing us to confront our own actions and realize we have agency over them.

If we had no evidence for the miracle of creation, we might think physical law was sufficient to explain every phenomenon in the cosmos, leading us to conclude that our own minds were nothing more than natural processes. But we know that there is more to what we observe than physical law can encompass; miracles happen, and human choices are surely among them.

Chiang isn't critiquing religion or believers, but rather those rationalists who believe deeply in the thesis that we are bags of atoms pre-destined to make the choices we already have made at conception. It's a relatively oblique critique, one only really brought into relief in the story's closing paragraphs.

Earlier in the story, our narrator asks God, "Let me always be inquisitive, but never be suspicious." That's ultimately a comment about cynicism and nihilism, that the purpose to everything is nothing and useless. Even in a secular world, there is meaning in every action and reaction, and physics doesn't determine how we approach our lives. With refractive lenses, we can see that we are each our own Omphalos, architecting the meaning of what we observe.

Reading Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom

As you read the final short story in Exhalation, here are some questions to think about:

  • Would you use a prism? Who would you talk to on the other side? What would you want to know?
  • What does the short story say about envy and empathy? Are we destined to constantly compare ourselves to others?
  • Is having more information about our alternatives better or worse for us? Is there a path of contentment through more information?
  • Do we need role models to redeem ourselves?
  • What does the story say about choice and predestination?

Crypto wallet app ZenGo launches savings mode

Posted: 08 Mar 2020 05:40 AM PDT

ZenGo is expanding beyond the basic features of a cryptocurrency wallet — letting you hold, send and receive crypto assets. You can now set aside some of your crypto assets to earn interests. In other words, ZenGo now also acts like a savings account.

The company has partnered with two DeFi projects for the new feature. DeFi means "decentralized finance", and it has been a hot trend in the cryptocurrency space. DeFi projects are the blockchain equivalent of traditional financial products. For instance, you can lend and borrow money, invest in derivative assets and more.

If you want to learn more about DeFi, here's an article I wrote on the subject:

But let's come back to ZenGo. When you have crypto assets in your ZenGo wallet, you can now open the savings tab, pick an asset, such as Dai, and select what percentage of your holdings you want to set aside.

After that, all you have to do is wait. You get an overview of your savings "accounts" at any time. This way, you can see your total earned interests. Interests are automatically reinvested over time. You can move your money from those DeFi projects back to your wallet whenever you want.

Behind the scene, ZenGo uses the Compound protocol, a lending DeFi project. It works a bit like LendingClub, but on the blockchain. Some users send money to Compound to contribute to liquidity pools. Other users borrow money from that pool.

Interest rates go up and down depending on supply and demand. That's why you currently earn more interests when you inject DAI or USD Coin in Compound. But that could change over time.

ZenGo also uses Figment in order to stake Tezos. This time, it isn't a lending marketplace. When you lock some money in a staking project, it means that you support the operations of a particular blockchain. Few blockchains support staking as they need to be based on proof-of-stake.

For the end user, it looks like a savings account whether you're relying on Compound or Figment. There are other wallet apps that let you access DeFi projects, such as Coinbase Wallet and Argent. But ZenGo thinks they're still too complicated for regular users.

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