Steve Jobs: Book and Movie Comparison

Steve Jobs the biography (by Walter Isaacson) was amazing; Steve Jobs the movie, not so much.

To be clear, I’m not judging the movie based on the quality of the story, the writing, or the acting. The dialogue, as with all Sorkin movies, is witty, fast-paced, and utterly engrossing. Instead, I’m judging the movie based on how accurately it portrayed Steve Jobs, and by that criteria, it absolutely failed. The movie got most of the main facts right, though some were out of order and a few were completely off the mark. But most crucially, it misses the essence of Jobs. It paints a completely one-sided portrait of him. The movie Jobs is an all-show-no-substance huckster scheming to get back to Apple, and a man consumed by the guilt of being a shitty father to his daughter. Maybe I’m naïve for wanting a movie titled Steve Jobs to at least attempt to fully encapsulate the complexities of the person it’s named after. Maybe film is a bad medium for such a task and only a ten-episode Netflix series would give proper treatment to Jobs (I would totally watch that by the way). But, I recently finished the Isaacson biography of Jobs and the difference in nuance between the two is night and day, so I’m going to point out what the movie gets wrong and hopefully give you a more complete understanding of Jobs.

Jobs’s Impact and his Reality Distortion Field

Jobs was a legendarily charismatic leader, famous for his reality distortion field (an ability to get others, and himself, to believe anything). The movie’s interpretation is that those qualities made Jobs a conman and it portrayed him as such. For example, the main conflict between him and Woz in the movie boiled down to Woz’s assertion that Jobs contributed absolutely nothing to the Apple II and that Woz did all the work. We’ll cover this conflict later on in the article, but it was partly introduced to depict Jobs as a showman with no substance behind him. The NeXT demo in the movie served the same purpose by claiming that it had no operating system on the day it was about to launch (untrue by the way; in reality people made the argument that they should ditch NeXT’s hardware altogether and focus solely on licensing the operating system). These scenes and others serve the same purpose: make the viewer equate Jobs to a sleazy salesman, someone who can only hype a product up but cannot actually deliver anything of substance. The truth is entirely different.

The genius of Jobs was that he integrated design and technology to make beautiful, friendly products that people would not only love looking at but would also love using. Yes, he was extremely concerned about his products’ aesthetics, but his obsession went beyond that. He was concerned with all aspects of the user’s experience and was the visionary who pushed his team to accomplish great things that went way beyond the surface level. To quote Isaacson, Jobs’s “passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. You might even add a seventh, retail stores, which Jobs did not quite revolutionize but did reimagine.” Once you’re lucky, twice you’re good. Seven times you’re …? Jobs undoubtedly had help from many people throughout all of this and I certainly don’t subscribe to the Great Man Theory, but my point is that portraying him as a vacuous salesman does him a great disservice, to say the least.

So how did Jobs’s famous reality distortion field actually work? It warped not only the opinions of the people around him about what was possible, but would even affect his own beliefs. This had positive effects, such as when his belief empowered others to achieve the “impossible”. For example, Woz recalled how when he and Jobs were working on a project for Atari, Jobs’s belief in Woz’s engineering pushed Woz to finish in four days what (according to Woz) would take most engineers a few months. Another time, a week before the Mac was to ship, the engineers said their code wouldn’t make the deadline and that they needed two additional weeks. Jobs told them that they were great, so great in fact that he knew they could get it done on time. And so they did. These stories remind me of when people recount that one teacher or coach they had, someone who believed in them, who made them fall in love with a subject and pushed them to achieve things they never thought they could. But, the reality distortion field also had its dark side. Jobs’s belief that the rules did not apply to him had minor consequences that were laughably absurd, such as his refusal to put a license plate on his car and his constant parking in handicapped places, but also major consequences, such as denying his paternity or refusing to confront his cancer (he refused to let his tumor be surgically removed for nine months and tried to get rid of it through his odd diets and a bunch of other unscientific treatments). He was a complicated man indeed.

Jobs the Asshole

Ask anyone who knows anything about Steve Jobs (not personally know, but know through reading or hearing others talk about him) and almost invariably, one of the first things they will say about him is that he was a jerk. There are plenty of anecdotes in Isaacson’s biography to point to as support. Steve Jobs the movie takes the worst ones to one-sidedly paint Jobs as a cold, emotionless jerk. The movie starts with him berating Andy Hertzfeld, moves to Jobs denying his paternity (the absolute low-point in his personal life), goes back to him berating Hertzfeld, and then to him fighting with Woz. This serves to introduce him as an asshole and reinforce that notion again and again. At no point in the movie did I think, “I really want to work for this guy!” and yet he attracted and retained incredible talent at both Apple and Pixar. He got the best out of “A players” and got them to do things that they did not believe was possible. Yet watching this movie, you wonder how anybody could put up with his mere presence.

Isaacson’s biography does a better job at painting a fuller portrait. Isaacson notes that Jobs had a binary view of the world where we would categorize people as “enlightened” or “an asshole” and their work as “the best” or “totally shitty”. The categorization could change if he changed his opinions about someone or something, but there’d never be a middle ground; it would just go from amazing to shit or vice-versa. When we think of jerks we think of someone who lacks emotional sensitivity. But Isaacson says that Jobs was almost the opposite, that he was very emotionally attuned which allowed him to read people and “made him masterful at cajoling, stroking, persuading, flattering, and intimidating people.” That emotional sensitivity caused him to cry many times when he was frustrated or in a passionate disagreement, which is not something one imagines when picturing an “alpha male” Silicon Valley CEO.

Part of the reason Jobs was perceived as an asshole was because of his extreme attention to detail, especially when it came to anything on the design side. “The design of the Apple II case was one of many examples. The Pantone company, which Apple used to specify colors for its plastic, had more than two thousand shades of beige. ‘None of them were good enough for Steve,’ Scott marveled. ‘He wanted to create a different shade, and I had to stop him.’ When the time came to tweak the design of the case, Jobs spent days agonizing over just how rounded the corners should be.” Such attention to detail may feel excessive to the average person. It certainly does to me. But, that obsession with every little thing is what allowed Jobs and Apple to create such beautiful, consumer-friendly products. Unfortunately, when that meticulousness is combined with his emotional sensitivity, it invariably results in him lashing out at others and being extremely critical, which leads to the belief that he was an asshole. I agree that he could sometimes be an asshole, but I think that viewing him solely as an asshole misses the other sides of him.

And this is where I am somewhat skeptical of even Isaacson’s portrayal of Jobs. There are numerous examples of Jobs being a complete jerk, many examples of him manipulating people to get what he wants, but only a couple of examples of him motivating his team in a positive way or helping someone believe deeper in themselves (like he did with Woz and the Apple II). I don’t know your experience with working in a job and the corporate world in general, but my experience has been pretty mundane. I’m pretty good at my job but I feel no passion towards it. And I don’t think I’m the only person that feels this way. My impression is that this is a pretty ordinary experience for most working adults. Most of us lack meaning in our work. Our lives and especially our work can feel Sisyphean at times. Clock in, clock out. Given that, what would it feel like to have someone infuse meaning into your work? To have someone get you to believe you are part of a project that is changing the world? That is what I think Jobs did for his colleagues and that is what I feel like is underemphasized in even Isaacson’s illustration of Jobs. We know that Jobs is charismatic, that he is able to motivate people to believe in a mission and get them to accomplish things that they never thought they could. What is that feeling worth to someone on the receiving end of it? That, to me, is the flipside of the part of Jobs that could be an asshole and it is something I wish Isaacson emphasized more in his book (Sculley and the sugar water story aside).

Okay maybe you’re still not convinced and you still think Steve Jobs is an asshole. I don’t blame you since I too think he could be an asshole at times. But, please recognize that he is not unique among visionaries. This isn’t me attempting whataboutism. I can accept people viewing Jobs as an asshole. My only objection is when they imagine other visionaries to not be an asshole. Being the leader of a company or a project that is disrupting the old way of doing things or transforming the world takes an extreme amount of perseverance, attention to detail, and motivation. Such extreme people tend to lash out when others aren’t up to par with their expectations. Take Bill Gates. Although he’s perceived as a cuddly teddy bear today, he was a killer back in his Microsoft days. He publicly humiliated employees and said things like “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” or “that’s the stupidest piece of code ever written” so many times that employees basically expected him to say it whenever he was criticizing their work. He even schemed to dilute Paul Allen’s stake in Microsoft when Allen was sick with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Or take Stanley Kubrick, widely regarded as one of, if not the greatest director of all time. He was a perfectionist who was incredibly hard on all his actors. The worst instance was when he emotionally traumatized Shelley Duvall while shooting The Shining. While shooting the iconic baseball bat scene, Kubrick infamously made the cast do a record-breaking 127 takes, and worked Duvall so hard that she ended up with severe dehydration, raw and wounded hands, and a hoarse throat from crying so much. Kubrick was so emotionally abusive to Duvall that her health suffered during the shoot and she started losing hair from the stress. Or Elon Musk who is also a notoriously tough boss and who tweets very ill-advised things. Or Andy Grove, who publicly humiliated an employee for being late to a meeting. The list of visionaries who behave like an asshole at times is endless. Again, I don’t bring all of these examples up to excuse Jobs. I do it to point out that Jobs is not unique among visionaries for being a jerk, and to urge people to consider him holistically.

Woz and Jobs

The conflict between Jobs and Woz throughout the movie was completely made up. Woz did have frustrations about the lack of appreciation the Apple II was receiving (especially since it was Apple’s cash cow at the time), but his frustration extended way beyond just Jobs. Jobs had a lot of power at Apple, but Sculley was the CEO and, as shown by the movie, won the power struggle against Jobs.

Woz, in the movie, is jealous of Jobs’s fame and chafes at the lack of recognition he and his team received for their work on the Apple II. The irony is that Woz never even craved attention. One of the reasons he was reluctant to quit his job at HP to work full-time as a founder at Apple was because he was scared that if he did so, he would be forced into management. It was only when he was assured that he could remain an engineer at the bottom of the ladder that he ultimately agreed to join Apple full-time. More importantly, Woz’s engineering genius on the Apple II is universally recognized. In fact, Jobs is the one who probably gets less credit than he deserves for his role in the creation of the Apple II. From the Isaacson biography:

Wozniak deserves the historic credit for the design of its awe-inspiring circuit board and related operating software, which was one of the era’s great feats of solo invention. But Jobs was the one who integrated Wozniak’s boards into a friendly package, from the power supply to the sleek case. He also created the company that sprang up around Wozniak’s machines. As Regis McKenna later said, “Woz designed a great machine, but it would be sitting in hobby shops today were it not for Steve Jobs.” Nevertheless most people considered the Apple II to be Wozniak’s creation. That would spur Jobs to pursue the next great advance, one that he could call his own.

The movie also made it seem like the two did not respect each other and it especially depicted that dynamic in a way that was unfair to Jobs. In reality, Jobs always recognized that Woz’s engineering genius was crucial to the Apple II just like Woz always recognized that without Jobs, he would be giving his creations away for free in geeky meetups.

Jobs’s Return to Apple

One of the critical scenes in the Steve Jobs movie is during the NeXT demo day when he reveals to Joanna that the reason NeXT has no operating system is because he’s stalling until he knows what Apple needs so that he can build exactly what they need in order to force them to buy NeXT for half a billion dollars and put him back in charge of Apple. The scene is pure fiction. Instead of abiding by the facts, the movie chose to follow the narrative it wanted to tell. It wanted to portray Jobs as a man obsessed by revenge, as a puppet master who could manipulate Apple’s shareholders to buy a worthless company so that he could be reinstated as King of Apple, and it wanted to continue to present him as an empty marketer without an actual product.

Apple at the time did really need an operating system, but it was considering multiple companies: Be, Solaris, Microsoft, and NeXT. Apple then narrowed it down to Be and NeXT (funny enough, Be was founded by Jean-Louis Gassée, who was also a former Apple exec.), before ultimately choosing NeXT. Isaacson states that the key difference between Be and NeXT was that “NeXT had an actual product, real revenues, and a great team”.

But beyond that, Jobs was actually very ambivalent about returning to Apple. When Gil Amelio, the CEO of Apple at the time (who by the way is not even in the movie; by 1998, Sculley was long gone, having been fired in 1993), purchased NeXT for $427 million, Jobs asked for his payout to be in cash but Amelio insisted that Jobs have skin in the game. They ultimately compromised and Jobs received $120 million of his payout in cash but the remaining $37 million in stock, which he promised to hold for at least six months. Taking the majority of his payout in cash was a big indicator that Jobs didn’t know what he wanted to do. Had he known from day one, he would’ve taken his payout solely in Apple stock. Furthermore, whenever Amelio asked Jobs to return to Apple in a full-time capacity, Jobs would deflect and demur (Jobs returned as a part-time advisor). Even after the board fired Amelio and asked Jobs to return, Jobs would still not commit and instead said he’d remain an advisor.

That’s not to say that Jobs didn’t want to return to Apple. So, why was Jobs so hesitant? Isaacson attributes it to his not wanting to be set up for failure and his personality. “For all of his willfulness and insatiable desire to control things, Jobs was indecisive and reticent when he felt unsure about something. He craved perfection, and he was not always good at figuring out how to settle for something else. He did not like to wrestle with complexity or make accommodations.” “If he knew for sure a course of action was right, he was unstoppable. But if he had doubts, he sometimes withdrew, preferring not to think about things that did not perfectly suit him.”

Jobs ultimately couldn’t help himself and became de-facto CEO while he was still an advisor (eventually becoming interim CEO, or iCEO). After a long courtship of over two years, Jobs officially took the CEO title.

Jobs’s Adoption

Jobs being given up for adoption as a baby undoubtedly affected him immensely. He felt abandoned and would struggle with that fact constantly in his younger years. Isaacson said that more than one person close to Jobs attributed his controlling nature to being abandoned at birth. Abandonment was a key emotion Jobs felt, but not the only one. Isaacson emphasizes that just as key to understanding Jobs was that he was made to feel special from a young age. That feeling of specialness came from the love and care Jobs’s adoptive parents showered on him. For what it’s worth, Jobs believed that feeling of specialness contributed much more to the formation of his personality than the feeling of abandonment.

That’s what makes the movie’s portrayal of Jobs’s adoption process so cruel. In the movie, Jobs explains the legal battle that happened during his adoption, which did happen, but then goes on to say “My mother said she refused to love me for the first year, in case they have to give me back.” Sculley responds, “You can’t refuse to love someone, Steve” to which Jobs responds, “Yeah, it turns out you can.” We’ve already established that this movie has major inaccuracies, but this one’s the worst, and if Jobs were to watch this movie, this scene would’ve undoubtedly angered him the most. His adoptive parents loved him unconditionally, from the moment he entered their life. As mentioned earlier, they made him feel special. Throughout his life, Jobs would lose his temper whenever people called them his “adoptive” parents or implied that they weren’t his “real” parents. He treated his parents better than he treated anybody else in his life. I don’t even want to imagine how angry he would get if he saw this pivotal scene. And all for what? Just so that the movie can explain to its viewers why Jobs was controlling? I’m incredibly skeptical that being given up for adoption was the dominant contributor for Jobs being fixated on the smallest details in his work. Plenty of perfectionists obsessed with control exist without having ever been abandoned at birth, such as many of the founders of the largest companies in the world today.


As purely a movie, I’m sure that Steve Jobs is pretty good. I’m definitely not the person to best judge that. But, as a movie about Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs (the movie) is an absolute train wreck. It had a narrative it wanted to tell, so it twisted and made up facts in order to do so. Whereas the real Steve Jobs was full of complexity and contradictions, the Michael Fassbender Steve Jobs is simply a controlling marketer with abandonment issues who can only hype products up but can’t create anything of actual substance. I’m not saying that Steve Jobs was a nice guy, because he certainly wasn’t. But he wasn’t the one-dimensional asshole the movie would have you believe. The man inspired two whole generations and revolutionized multiple industries. He deserves better.

Should you watch the movie? Only if you want to be entertained by snappy Sorkin dialogue, not if you want to learn anything about Steve Jobs. Would this be better as a ten episode Netflix series? Assuming it is done by someone who actually wants to show Jobs in all his complexity, hell yes. Should you read Isaacson’s biography? Definitely. It’s full of gems that I didn’t have time to mention and gave me a much deeper appreciation for Jobs.

Predictions For 2021

Inspired by Scott Alexander, who does predictions every year and grades his predictions at the end of the year, I’m going to do some of my own. Yes, I realize it’s March 17, but better late than never, and this is for myself anyways. Predictions are broken into 3 sections: Finance/Econ, Misc., and Personal. All predictions are about 2021, so if I make a prediction about something happening “at some point”, I mean some point in 2021, not some point whenever.


  1. S&P 500 Index passes $4,200 at some point: 60% (2021 high of $3,984 on 3/17; currently at $3,974)
  2. …passes $4,500… : 30%
  3. …falls below $3,500… : 90% (2021 low of $3,663 on 1/4)
  4. …falls below $3,000… : 60%
  5. …falls below $2,000… : 20% (lowest in the COVID era was $2,237 on 3/23/20)
  6. …falls below $1,000… : 5%
  7. Bitcoin passes $75,000 at some point: 60% (currently at ~$59k; 2021 high of $61,556 on 3/13)
  8. …passes $100,000… : 40%
  9. …passes $150,000… : 10%
  10. …falls below $25,000… : 90% (2021 low of $28,154 on 1/4)
  11. …falls below $20,000… : 80%
  12. …falls below $15,000… : 60%
  13. …falls below $10,000… : 40%
  14. …falls below $5,000… : 20%
  15. …falls below $1,000… : 5%
  16. GLD passes $180… : 70% (2021 high of $183 on 1/5)
  17. …passes $200… : 30%
  18. …falls below $140 (2021 low of $157 on 3/8): 20%
  19. Jerome Powell backtracks on no interest rate hike through 2023: 60%
  20. Powell signals interest rate will be hiked in 2022: 30%

My portfolio is positioned accordingly, so call it motivated reasoning, but I think there’s a good chance that there’s a major stock market correction in 2021. Unemployment is still high and the stock market boom has been fueled by constant stimulus and a zero-interest rate environment. At some point, investors will recognize that there’s no more easy money and that inflation will eventually result in an interest rate hike. I’m skeptical about Biden’s ability to pass another trillion dollar plus bill unless the stock market takes an absolute nosedive. The stock market is frothy and over-valued, though admittedly not at historically high valuations. There are pockets of bubbles all over (GME, BTC, Tesla, SPACs, etc.). For more, see Jeremy Grantham’s post. I’m pretty much aligned with everything he wrote.

I’m a believer in crypto’s future opportunity and I was a holder since mid-2017 until recently (I owned BTC and ETH and sold on the way up this bull market, selling as high as when BTC was ~$58k and fully liquidating my position when it fell to ~$48k; my profit was in the tens of thousands, not in the hundreds of thousands or millions). Also, full disclosure that I have since bought some medium-term Microstrategy put options [3/19/21 edit: I also own GLD]. Microstrategy is a leveraged bet on BTC so if BTC tanks, they’re screwed. Also, Michael Saylor probably loves the attention he’s getting from this so I’m very skeptical that he’ll sell their BTC to realize their profit (if they even can sell such a large position without the market collapsing). I think crypto is due for a major correction, not only because of its meteoric rise, but also because of Tether. As Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin said, Tether is a ticking time bomb. For some great writing and coverage on Tether and why it’s a ponzi scheme bound to collapse, see here, here, here, and here. Bitcoin has also been highly correlated with stocks over the past year, dropping much more during the panic in March of 2020, and increasing much more in the recent bull run. If Microstrategy is a leveraged bet on Bitcoin, then similarly Bitcoin has been a leveraged bet on the stock market this past year. As a result, I’m more confident that Bitcoin and crypto will tank than the stock market (since Tether is also a variable), and I’m confident that it’ll tank further. If you’re a hardcore cyrpto believer, I doubt anything I wrote caused you to reconsider, and if you’re a crypto skeptic, hope you had fun reading some confirmation bias!


  1. Daily COVID-19 cases in the US doesn’t pass 100k again: 70%
  2. …doesn’t pass 75k again: 50%
  3. 335M COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in the US by 5/31: 60% (111M doses have been given to date so I’m assuming a daily vaccination rate of 3M doses between now and 5/31; current 7 day average is ~2.5M)
  4. Biden’s approval rate dips below 50% at some point according to FiveThirtyEight: 60% (currently at 53.6%, 2021 high of 55%, 2021 low of 52.7%)
  5. Lakers repeat: 20%
  6. Either the Sixers or the Nets win the title: 60%

I’m hopeful that there won’t be a fourth wave now that the weather is getting warmer at the same time people are getting vaccinated. Over 20% of the U.S. already has one dose of the vaccine which grants very good protection, and the vaccines all appear to be effective against the other variants that have popped up to date.

I think Biden has the opportunity to be a transformational president if he can get his infrastructure bill passed and I definitely think there’s a 10-30% that happens, but I’m scared of the Republicans’ ability to obstruct him and polarize the public. To date, Biden has been really popular by overdelivering on COVID vaccines and passing a very popular $1.9T bill, but the Republicans are pretty damn good at obstructing. Also, I’m nervous about the stock market nosediving. Maybe I’m overweighting the stock market’s impact on the electorate since all indications are that most Americans don’t have any stake in the stock market, but I think there are downstream consequences from a tanking stock market that would affect the average American.

As a Lakers fan, I’m hoping they win, and I think 20% is really high, maybe too high considering AD’s status. I’m also pretty sure that either the Sixers or the Nets will come out of the East (80%+), plus they’ve both looked amazing. The percentages I’m assigning to these three teams are probably all too high, but hey, I have to die on a hill somewhere so might as well be this hill.


  1. Finish reading Robert Caro’s 4 released books on LBJ: 90%
  2. Write a summary of at least one of them: 60%
  3. Finish reading the Landmark editions of Herodotus & Thucydides: 30%
  4. Finish reading Jeremy Popkin’s A New World Begins: 90%
  5. Write about it: 30%
  6. Finish reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: 60%
  7. Write about it: 10%
  8. Finish reading David Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon: 20%
  9. Finish writing what I want to write on Steve Jobs: 80%
  10. Publish 5+ blog posts >1,000 words this year: 80% (One down lol!)
  11. Publish 10+ blog posts >1,000 words this year: 30%
  12. Quit my job to get an MBA full-time at [redacted]: 99%
  13. Recruit for [redacted] while I’m there: 90%
  14. Am very happy with my decision to do 12 & 13 at the end of the year: 80%
  15. [redacted]: 80%
  16. Travel internationally: 80% (Iceland’s open as of today to vaccinated people)
  17. Go back to the gym before June 2021: 99%
  18. 3×7 incline bench 90lbs dumbbells: 99%
  19. 3×7 incline bench 100lbs dumbbells: 70%
  20. 4×6 front squat 185lbs: 90%
  21. 4×6 front squat 205lbs: 70%
  22. 3×7 Romanian deadlift 225lbs: 80%
  23. 3×7 Romanian deadlift 255lbs: 60%
  24. Keep up cardio at least twice a week: 80%

I’m pretty confident in 12-23 and probably understated some of those odds but I haven’t been to the gym in a year which is the longest since I started going in high school so I’m not sure how fast muscle memory will kick in. I am probably overestimating 1-11 since there’s also a lot of podcasts I want to listen to and movies I want to watch, but might as well push myself to reach.

The Black List: Identifying Screenplays in Hollywood

The Black List, an annual list of the year’s most-liked unproduced screenplays is a genius idea that seems so obvious in hindsight. Planet Money does a good podcast that explains what the Black List is and how it started. In short, it was started anonymously by Franklin Leonard, a junior producer working at Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company who had to sift through piles of screenplays to find the best one for Leo to star in. Hollywood, like many industries, is a pattern matching machine, so the movies that end up being created are movies that are similar to previous movies that have been hits. Those movies, due to historical circumstance, tend to be written by white men, for white men, starring white men.

Franklin Leonard, while sifting through all those scripts, saw some incredibly interesting scripts that may have made great movies, but he did not feel comfortable surfacing those to his bosses as those scripts tend to be really different and really hard to explain (I forget the specific example that he used, but I’m sure you can think of many successful movies where the one-sentence synopsis sounds very peculiar). One day, he had an idea, which was to anonymously email all his connections in Hollywood (junior producers also sifting through mountains of scripts) to ask them for their top ten favorite scripts. Information is power in Hollywood, so most people would ordinarily be loath to share such information, but here was the catch: Leonard would compile the results and send back the ten most voted on scripts to anybody who responded. 90 people responded and Leonard had his first annual Black List.

The genius behind this idea is that he finds a way to extract information out of people who would have otherwise not been willing to share such info. And then, by compiling the results, he is able to provide everybody with additional insights. Junior producers who might be nervous about surfacing a really odd but intriguing script to their superiors can vote for it in the Black List, and if enough other people vote on that same script, they are able to receive validation from their peers. Win-win for all parties. In an industry that so heavily factors what was previously successful, this was a way to produce different movies from unique screenplays that many people thought were fantastic. Many of the screenplays in the Black List have resulted in massive hits such as Juno, which was written by someone living in Montana without previous screenplay experience. Additionally, the Black List touts its effect on bringing more diversity to Hollywood by surfacing screenplays from people who may have otherwise been overlooked. It has provided a way to bypass the gatekeepers.

I can easily imagine having a similar concept in other industries and the one that comes quickest to my mind is the world of VC-backed startups. It is similar to Hollywood in many ways. Silicon Valley also heavily indexes (some would argue over-indexes) on founders that are similar to previously successful founders, is a hits driven business, has a relative lack of diversity, and heavily values information and relationships. The biggest difference is probably that startups are much easier to get off the ground than movies as it takes far fewer people and can be done with far less money. Other than that, the similarities are eerily similar. Imagine a Black List that asks a group of VC associates for the ten most interesting companies/pitches they saw that year but that their firm passed on and then circulated the list to the VC community. Seems like it would be highly valuable to me, though I don’t know the inner-workings of the VC world.

Though I think the Black List is a genius idea, I do see some downsides, assuming its success and influence continues. I mentioned earlier that the Black List accumulates data that people otherwise would not share and then is able to provide a product that has value for both the accumulator of data and the people who provided the data. What else does that sounds like? Facebook and Google. When they started, they also accumulated data that people otherwise would not have shared and the value they provided was a free product that people loved. In the beginning, everybody celebrated how Facebook was able to bypass the gatekeepers in the mainstream media and provide education to the masses. But now, things have changed. Facebook and Google have become so powerful that they are now the institutions they decried. I think the Black List is far from that right now, but what makes it so incredible is that people provide their unvarnished opinion. I’m not sure about its current state, but in the beginning, nobody was trying to game the Black List. But as its power and influence grows, so will the amount of people trying to game the system. That’s the danger with any aggregator of information. Still, that’s pretty far down the line and right now, I would love to see a concept similar to the Black List emerge in other industries.

Beyond Mass Media Portrayals of Privilege

The two catalytic events of our time that have pushed forward the discussion of privilege, sexism, and racism are without a doubt the Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter (most recently rejuvenated by the George Floyd protests). The conversations that have resulted from those two events are extremely important and I’m not trying to downplay them in any way. Instead, I want us to consider more than just the two simple frames our conversations have been forced into as a result of those two events and to shine some light on some less-discussed dynamics. But first, let me describe the range of conversation that each movement permits us to have.

The Me Too Movement almost exclusively focuses the lens on the dynamic between men and women of the same race, specifically white men and white women. The movement argues that men, specifically white men, have used their position of power to silence, keep down, and sexually harass women (ranging from inappropriate jokes to unwanted sexual advances) with impunity. The George Floyd protests focuses on the indignities that black people have to suffer at the hands of the police, especially in comparison to white people, ranging from racially profiling to outright murder of black people.

So, in summary, the two resulting frames that get adopted by mass media are:

  1. Me Too Movement = focus on men vs. women, specifically white women in relation to white men
  2. Black Lives Matter = focus on black people in relation to white people

One relationship that was touched on briefly in the George Floyd protests but not in great detail, and which also intersects with the Me Too Movement, is the one between white women and black men. It was not really explored when Me Too was at its peak, but there was an implied undercurrent that black men were more privileged than white women, mainly because the movement kept pushing male privilege as a whole. After all, black men can join their fellow white male colleagues in oppressing and harassing women. However, that has now been flipped on its head during the time of the George Floyd protests. A video came out recently of a black male bird-watcher in Central Park trying to gently convince a white woman to leash her dog, per city rules. The woman was indignant and called the police, claiming that the man was threatening her life. Here the #BelieveAllWomen of Me Too runs against the systemic racism of Black Lives Matter. In a different time, that innocent black man might have gotten lynched.

So, does that mean that white women have more privilege than black men? Should the problems the Me Too Movement tries to address be subjugated below those of Black Lives Matter? I think such an interpretation is way too simplistic. One problem that many have with the Social Justice Warriors of the left is that they create a hierarchy of privilege based on the indignities you have to suffer. To simplify greatly, in their mind, white men have more privilege than white women and so the opinions of white men, especially when talking about the Me Too Movement are invalid. Similarly, white people have more privilege than black people. But such a hierarchy can be way too simplistic. There is no strict hierarchy. Privilege is fluid. For example, walking home at night from a party, a black man is almost always in a position of privilege in comparison to a white woman as he does not have to worry about the potential dangers that white women have to deal with. Conversely, when stopped by a police officer, white women are in a position of privilege in comparison to black men, and probably even white men. Let me repeat it again. Creating a strict hierarchy of privilege from which to evaluate the world is way too simplistic. Let me give a couple other examples that are close to my heart: evaluating privilege between Asian men and Asian women and between black men and black women.

Men are believed to have more privilege than women, so therefore Asian men must have more privilege than Asian women, right? After all, Asian men make more money than Asian women and can rise in the corporate ladder as a result of the patriarchal society we live in. That is certainly true to a certain extent. Yet, what if we consider the two in a different angle, that of sexual desirability? I think the importance of sexual desirability is obvious enough that I don’t have to argue for why, but if I do, here’s a quick summary.

From time immemorial the goal of the human race was to procreate and pass their genes onto the next generation. We have all been beneficiaries of the powers of natural selection. You cannot procreate and pass your genes onto the next generation if you aren’t sexually desirable. Instead, your genes will be wiped from the gene pool and you will miss out on a central part of the human experience.

So, why am I bringing this up in relation to privilege? Well, it turns out that Asian men are one of the two least desirable groups when it comes to dating. This also bears itself out when it comes to portrayals in mass media and the world around us. Most interracial couples involving Asians are between a white man and an Asian woman. The reverse is extremely rare. In fact, Asian men are depicted as being nerdy, feminine and without any interest in sex. No wonder they’re so undesirable! So how are we to weigh the privilege Asian men receive in the corporate world against the privilege Asian women receive in the dating world? I don’t have a good answer for you. My point is simply that you can’t put the two of them on a strict hierarchy.

I mentioned that Asian men are one of the two least desirable groups in relation to dating. The other is black women. Okay, you say. That’s a double whammy against black men when comparing them to black women. Not only do they benefit in the corporate world, but also in the corporate world? Black women must be lower in the privilege hierarchy then. Well, not quite. Black men face far higher incarceration rates than black women (1 in 3 black men vs. 1 in 18 black women, according to this site). It’s pretty hard to live a privileged life when you’re looking at the world behind the bars of a prison cell. And that’s not including the indignities suffered at the hands of police that I’m sure black men have to deal with a lot more than black women. Black men are constantly depicted as violent, a stereotype that extends beyond the United States and therefore bear the brunt of police harassment.

My goal in writing this essay isn’t to invalidate the Me Too Movement or Black Lives Matter. I agree with the goals of both of those movements at a high level (though of course I have plenty of issues with some specifics). Rather, my goal is to highlight that the frames adopted by most large media organizations, and therefore the public, are only a subset of all possible frames and that privilege isn’t necessarily a strict hierarchy. There are plenty of other examples out there (for instance, the racism Jeremy Lin faced on his path to the NBA). You just have to make sure to look.


On Mèng Wéizhān’s Article About U.S.-China Relations

I read Meng Weizhan’s (孟维瞻) article about how to improve U.S.-China relations from Jordan Schneider’s newsletter, and though I agreed with many of the things Meng said about what Americans get wrong about China, I couldn’t help but notice that he gets a lot wrong about the U.S. For example, in the opening paragraphs, he states:

“In the American intellectual community, criticizing China has a few unspoken rules. First, you cannot say anything that violates American political correctness. For example, you cannot attack China from the perspective of civilization and race. Second, you can’t express disappointment in the Chinese people, though some conservatives feel this way in their hearts.”

Though American intellectuals may be more politically correct than most, and though the practice of criticizing anybody other than white men have grown more and more taboo over the years, Meng appears to have deeply misunderstood Americans. First and foremost, Americans have a long history of racial conflict and racial resentment, some of which has been targeted at Asians (the Japanese internment camps in WWII), and some specifically at Chinese people (The Chinese Exclusion Act). Yes, American intellectuals are politically correct right now, but that can turn at the drop of a dime if relations between China and the U.S. heavily deteriorate. Also, keep in mind that American intellectuals have to grapple with the atrocities being committed in China. It might ordinarily be hard to criticize a different culture, but it tends to be easier when said culture is committing atrocities such as locking up Uyghurs in concentration camps.

Seeing Coronavirus Like A State

People who analyze or manipulate data on a regular basis very quickly figure out how imperfect data can be. Scott Alexander has a great post about this. Take surveys for example. The data can be screwed up in many ways. People can misread and misinterpret questions; willfully lie in their answers, either to troll the survey-taker or because they’re embarrassed by their answer; or answer as their idealized self as opposed to their actual self. Usually, this doesn’t matter because if you collect enough information, you’ll generally be able to sort signal from noise and draw some conclusions. But, sometimes being off just a little can lead to mistaken beliefs that have dire consequences (see Brexit or Donald Trump’s election).

Now how does this relate to coronavirus? Well, take the CDC’s website for example. It tells you on May 9, 2020, there were 1,274,036 cases of coronavirus and 77,034 deaths. The precise count leads you to think that the numbers are accurate, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Though these numbers are prominently displayed, if you click on the “About the Data” footnote, it brings you to a section explaining that those numbers are based on “confirmed & probable cases”. Don’t let the word probable fool you. For a probable case to be reported, someone had to say, “this has not been confirmed by a laboratory test, but they displayed the symptoms for it.” This means that a large number of asymptomatic cases go uncounted and who knows how many deaths. On a theoretical level, we know that the reported cases aren’t accurate, but we don’t really grasp how inaccurate they are. We probably think, “Okay, so obviously there’s not exactly 1,274,036 cases and 77,034 deaths, but that means that there’s probably around 1.3 million cases and 80k deaths.” But the reality of the situation is those reported cases can be off by orders of magnitude. Instead of 1.3 million cases, there could be 2.6 million, or 3.9 million. Instead of 80k deaths, there could be 160k deaths, or 240k deaths. We just don’t know. With deaths especially, we won’t know the toll until months later when we can compare how many people have died compared to the baseline. And that’s the problem. You might say that those are just numbers I made up, and I would concede your point. But, what’s important to remember is that the numbers reported by the CDC everyday is the absolute baseline. A year from now, we might discover that there were actually 160k or 240k deaths by May 9th caused by coronavirus, but we will definitely no discover that there were less than 77,034. Fog of war is dangerous indeed. Here, we mistake precision for accuracy.


Okay, so what’s the point of writing this article? What’s the punchline? Is it to say that the CDC’s data collection is useless? No, that’s not it at all. I’ll get to the punchline but first I want to emphasize that it is important to be collecting this data and even though it’s inaccurate it’s better than nothing; what I want people to understand though, is that these numbers serve as a base and can be off by many orders of magnitude. So now the punchline.

There are two main points that I want to get across. The first is just how important it is for government and people to act once just one case has been reported. We already knew that coronavirus was a big problem in Wuhan, so when the first case was discovered in the U.S., we should have started taking precautions and creating contingency plans. To be clear, we shouldn’t have panicked at that time, and shouldn’t even panic now. But, once the first case is officially reported, it should be clear to everyone that there is already many more cases in the U.S. Just because the CDC says that as of a certain date, there is only one official case in the U.S. doesn’t mean that there is only one case in the U.S. I hope my previous sections make that clear. This virus and other viruses can remain asymptomatic for multiple days, so if we discover just one case, we have to think about not only all the people who have symptoms who just haven’t been discovered yet, but also the asymptomatic carriers. The ship has sailed for this pandemic but it’s a lesson we should learn for the future.

The second is to emphasize how inaccurate comparisons to the flu are. During the early stages of the coronavirus, people would compare the reported numbers to the annual flu numbers. The only problem, as pointed out by an ER doctor in Scientific American is that the flu statistics are estimates, not actual cases. He details how he’s only seen one person die of the flu in all his years as an ER doctor and that his colleagues have had similar experiences. What he ultimately realized was that the 25,000 to 69,000 annual flu deaths number cited by Trump is an estimate from the CDC based on multiplying reported numbers by a coefficient determined by an algorithm. That ultimately represents our best estimate for annual flu deaths, but comparing that number to reported coronavirus deaths is irresponsible. Actual annual counts of flu deaths over the last six years range from 3,448 to 15,620, much lower than the estimates.

Ultimately, I believe that having data on coronavirus across the U.S. is helpful, but citizens should remember that those numbers are not a representation of reality and definitely should not compare those numbers, which are most likely undercounting as is, to estimates. The map is not the territory.