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June 16, 2019
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On the Internet of Women with Moira Weigel

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“Feminism,” the writer and editor Marie Shear famously said in an often-misattributed quote, “is the radical notion that women are people.” The genius of this line, of course, is that it appears to be entirely non-controversial, which reminds us all the more effectively of the past century of fierce debates surrounding women’s equality.

And what about in tech ethics? It would seem equally non-controversial that ethical tech is supposed to be good for “people,” but is the broader tech world and its culture good for the majority of humans who happen to be women? And to the extent it isn’t, what does that say about any of us, and about all of our technology?

I’ve known, since I began planning this TechCrunch series exploring the ethics of tech, that it would need to thoroughly cover issues of gender. Because as we enter an age of AI, with machines learning to be ever more like us, what could be more critical than addressing the issues of sex and sexism often at the heart of the hardest conflicts in human history thus far?

Meanwhile, several months before I began envisioning this series I stumbled across the fourth issue of a new magazine called Logic, a journal on technology, ethics, and culture. Logic publishes primarily on paper — yes, the actual, physical stuff, and a satisfyingly meaty stock of it, at that.

In it, I found a brief essay, “The Internet of Women,” that is a must-read, an instant classic in tech ethics. The piece is by Moira Weigel, one of Logic’s founders and currently a member of Harvard University’s “Society of Fellows” — one of the world’s most elite societies of young academics.

A fast-talking 30-something Brooklynite with a Ph.D. from Yale, Weigel’s work combines her interest in sex, gender, and feminism, with a critical and witty analysis of our technology culture.

In this first of a two-part interview, I speak with Moira in depth about some of the issues she covers in her essay and beyond: #MeToo; the internet as a “feminizing” influence on culture; digital media ethics around sexism; and women in political and tech leadership.

Greg E.: How would you summarize the piece in a sentence or so?

Moira W.: It’s an idiosyncratic piece with a couple of different layers. But if I had to summarize it in just a sentence or two I’d say that it’s taking a closer look at the role that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have played in the so-called “#MeToo moment.”

In late 2017 and early 2018, I became interested in the tensions that the moment was exposing between digital media and so-called “legacy media” — print newspapers and magazines like The New York Times and Harper’s and The Atlantic. Digital media were making it possible to see structural sexism in new ways, and for voices and stories to be heard that would have gotten buried, previously.

A lot of the conversation unfolding in legacy media seemed to concern who was allowed to say what where. For me, this subtext was important: The #MeToo moment was not just about the sexualized abuse of power but also about who had authority to talk about what in public — or the semi-public spaces of the Internet.

At the same time, it seemed to me that the ongoing collapse of print media as an industry, and really what people sometimes call the “feminization” of work in general, was an important part of the context.

When people talk about jobs getting “feminized” they can mean many things — jobs becoming lower paid, lower status, flexible or precarious, demanding more emotional management and the cultivation of an “image,” blurring the boundary between “work” and “life.”

The increasing instability or insecurity of media workplaces only make women more vulnerable to the kinds of sexualized abuses of power the #MeToo hashtag was being used to talk about.

Beyond costs, what else can we do to make housing affordable?

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This week on Extra Crunch, I am exploring innovations in inclusive housing, looking at how 200+ companies are creating more access and affordability. Yesterday, I focused on startups trying to lower the costs of housing, from property acquisition to management and operations.

Today, I want to focus on innovations that improve housing inclusion more generally, such as efforts to pair housing with transit, small business creation, and mental rehabilitation. These include social impact-focused interventions, interventions that increase income and mobility, and ecosystem-builders in housing innovation.

Nonprofits and social enterprises lead many of these innovations. Yet because these areas are perceived to be not as lucrative, fewer technologists and other professionals have entered them. New business models and technologies have the opportunity to scale many of these alternative institutions — and create tremendous social value. Social impact is increasingly important to millennials, with brands like Patagonia having created loyal fan bases through purpose-driven leadership.

While each of these sections could be their own market map, this overall market map serves as an initial guide to each of these spaces.

Social impact innovations

These innovations address:

California moves toward healthcare for more, not yet healthcare for all

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 It was way easier for candidate Gavin Newsom to endorse single-payer health care coverage for everyone than it is now for Gov. Newsom to deliver it.

Yet hardcore advocates say they’re pleased with the moves he’s made thus far—even if it may take years to come to fruition.

“This is a governor that is operating from a compass of action,” said Stephanie Roberson, government relations director for the politically powerful California Nurses Association, which hasn’t exactly been known for its patienceon the issue.

Newsom has taken two tacts. He’s asking the Trump administration to let the state create its own single-payer system offering coverage to all Californians—a move almost everyone regards as a very long shot. And he’s also pushing specific ideas to expand health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of still-uninsured Californians—a move that seems much more do-able.

During his campaign, Newsom promised the nurses that he would make it happen. But the state can’t do it alone. That’s why he sent a letter to the federal government right out of the gate, asking the administration and Congress to set up an “innovation waiver” to allow California to create its own single-payer system.

Experts say there is little chance the Trump administration will give the state the go-ahead on this.

“He’s making a statement and sometimes making statements is important—even if there’s little chance of making progress in the immediate future,” said Gerald Kominski, senior fellow at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. “It’s a way of drawing a line in the sand.”

It’s also a way to stave off criticism from advocates, said Jesus Ramirez-Valles, director of the Health Equity Institute at San Francisco State University. “He can say ‘I tried it’ and there is no risk on him. If he doesn’t do what he promised, then he is risking opposition.”

Federal permission would also require Congress to support a new waiver system—one that would allow the state to redirect funds that usually go to the federal government, such as Medicare income taxes, to a state funding authority that would manage and pay for a single-payer health care system, Kominski said. Current waiver systems do not allow for this type of financial management by the state. Other states have used existing waiver programs for permission to set prices or to implement additional requirements, but not to collect federal money.

“You have to ask for the money,” said Roberson of the nurses union. “We are not going to sit on our hands and hope something is going to happen. This strengthens the governor’s commitment to Medicare for all.”

Meantime, Newsom is tackling the block of 3 million uninsured California residents by chipping away at the edges—proposing spending to help struggling middle-income families buy health insurance, and providing state coverage to some undocumented young adults.

He’ll need approval from the Legislature, now a supermajority of Democrats, many of whom have supported similar ideas in recent years.

Two intertwined proposals in his budget would offer hundreds of thousands of middle-income families additional state subsidies to buy health insurance, and require every Californian to obtain health coverage or pay a tax penalty.

This “state mandate” would replace the controversial federal mandate—a central component of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare— that the Trump administration recently canceled. A few other blue states were quicker to create a replacement state mandate, but California’s progressive lawmakers were wary of penalizing people who failed to buy health insurance unless the state also cushioned the blow by offering people more subsidies to lower the costs.

Newsom also proposes to use $260 million in state funds to extend Medi-Cal, the government health program for people who can’t afford insurance, to low-income undocumented immigrants ages 18 to 26.

It’s a classic “Resistance State” action for Newsom, as California tries to counteract the Trump administration’s federal moves to undermine Obamacare. Last year a joint UCLA and UC Berkeley study found that the uninsured rate in California would rise to nearly 13 percent by 2023 if nothing is done at the state level to prevent it.

Since the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare was enacted, California’s uninsured rate has dropped from about 17 percent to roughly 7 percent. Roughly half of those 3 million remaining uninsured are undocumented immigrant adults who don’t qualify for assistance.

If Newsom’s plan is approved, California would offer additional subsidies to families that earn between 250 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level and already receive some federal help. The state would also start offering state-sponsored subsidies to households that earn between 400 and 600 percent of the federal poverty level, up to $150,600 for a family of four, who currently do not qualify for any assistance. Families that earn above 400 percent of the federal poverty level make up 23 percent of the state’s uninsured, according to data from the UCLA AskCHISprogram.

The federal poverty level for 2019 is set at earnings of $12,140 for one person and $25,100 for a family of four.

The budget does not include cost estimates for the additional subsidies but Newsom intends to pay for the expansion by having the state collect penalties from Californians who forego insurance.  His budget proposal estimates that the mandate penalty could raise about $500 million a year, similar to what about 600,000 Californians paid to the federal government when it had a mandate and collected its own penalties.

Peter Lee, who directs the state health insurance exchange Covered California, praised Newsom’s proposals during a recent board meeting.

“Not only does his initiative propose an individual penalty show courage,” he said, “it shows some thoughtfulness about the challenges that middle-class Americans face.”

Enrollment for Covered California, which recently ended, was down 15 percent over last year. Lee said the elimination of the federal penalty is partly to blame.

A draft affordability report Covered California is preparing for the Legislature concludes that if Newsom’s two proposals—expanded subsidies and a mandate—are adopted, enrollment could rise by nearly 650,000 people.

Funding the subsidies with penalties is, of course, a bit of a Catch-22: The more successful California is in getting people to obtain health care, the smaller the penalty fund to pay for the subsidies that help fund that care.

“You’re accomplishing your goal, but you’re taking away revenue,” Kominski said.  “This is the kind of problem we should be happy to have.”

The conundrum is reminiscent of the state’s tobacco tax, which was intended to deter people from smoking. Success has meant a drop in the amount of money the tax brings in.

Despite what many see as dismal prospects for single-payer in California so long as the Trump administration can quash the state’s waiver request, the California Nurses Association is undaunted. They’re working on a soon-to-be-introduced single-payer bill, more detailed than the version that died in 2017. That one carried a $400 billion price tag, more than three times the state’s annual budget, lacked support from then-Gov. Jerry Brown and was scant on details. The new version, nurses union rep Roberson said, will be specific about how single-payer would work and how it would be paid for.

“We’re not eradicating providers, we are not seeking to dismantle hospitals,” she said. “The fundamental structure of healthcare delivery will stay in place, what we are changing is how healthcare is financed.”

And if the Trump administration rejects the waiver request? Roberson sees other paths to a state single-payer system, including petitioning the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, or trying to set up a system under Affordable Care Act provisions.

If the nurses union and other single-payer advocates end up pursuing those other avenues, the question becomes whether Newsom will as well.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Campuswire launches to redesign classroom communications

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Tade Oyerinde is obsessed with communications inside educational institutions. A few years ago, while studying at Leeds University in England, he founded Gleepost, a Craigslist-like service targeting college campuses.

The startup flopped, so Oyerinde moved on to build with his college roommate and twin brother Uniroulette, a Chatroulette clone but limited to people with .edu email addresses. It was here that he got a searing introduction to product design and also learned how to become a social hacker, using design choices to drive conversations and engagement. “With Uniroulette… we needed to have about 20 kids concurrently on just to make it work,” he explained to me. To get those numbers, the startup officially opened at 8pm each evening, and anyone who tried to login earlier was given a countdown timer.

To further drive engagement, Oyerinde created dozens if not hundreds of Facebook pages around the concept of love and missed connections targeting different campuses, such as Leeds Crushes or Bodleian Library Secrets. Students were hooked — and also getting carefully calibrated advertising messages to spend more time on Uniroulette. He raised $250k from angels in London, but ultimately, the startup lost traffic and eventually twinkled out.

Oyerinde hopes that the third time is a charm with his new project, Campuswire. The platform, launching publicly today, is designed to maximize the efficiency of classroom conversations, even among different disciplines from math to English. The product is certainly inspired from Slack and other current campus communications tools, but with an intense focus on saving the time of teachers and faculty.

“70% of the things that students need to communicate in a college class is asking a question,” Oyerinde said. “You need a balance of synchronous and asynchronous communications, and we had a bunch of experience with this.”

The challenge for campuses these days is that the methods by which faculty and students communicate couldn’t be more different. Existing incumbents like Blackboard have forums features, but the community is often moribund. Professors use email, which is asynchronous, but not easily shared among students attending a class. Meanwhile, today’s students are obsessed with SMS, Instagram, and YouTube as channels for communication. Campuswire’s goal is to meet everyone halfway.

Campuswire’s platform allows students to ask questions and upvote answers, creating community in a lecture

There were several design decisions that make Campuswire unique. One is that students can post questions anonymously in their classes. “40% of students were never going to ask questions unless they can do it anonymously,” Oyerinde said. He noted that they have had limited issues with trust and safety issues since class discussions are closed to non-enrolled students.

Most importantly, the design of the product is driven by efficiency. Questions are easy to surface for students, helping teachers limit repetitive answers. The other side of efficiency is encouraging students to chime in with their own answers. We wanted to “incentivize the top 5% of students to help each other out,” Oyerinde explained. “They literally jump in, so professors have to do less work.” That’s critical in classes where the number of students can be in the hundreds if not thousands.

The platform has been in beta since last fall at UCLA, and usage in the initial set of classes has been heavy. “Users use us over five hours per day in three out of the four classes in UCLA, and in all of them it was over three hours per day on average,” Oyerinde said. He also said that “we had over 75% 10-week retention.” The team chose UCLA because of its quarterly schedule, “so it meant we had twice the iteration half-life.”

Campuswire debuts just as the kickoff for the new school season gets underway. We are going to “continue with the student outreach and getting a wide cross-section of classes this fall,” he said. The startup now has a team of six based in New York City.

This 3D-printed AI construct analyzes by bending light

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Machine learning is everywhere these days, but it’s usually more or less invisible: it sits in the background, optimizing audio or picking out faces in images. But this new system is not only visible, but physical: it performs AI-type analysis not by crunching numbers, but by bending light. It’s weird and unique, but counter-intuitively, it’s an excellent demonstration of how deceptively simple these “artificial intelligence” systems are.

Machine learning systems, which we frequently refer to as a form of artificial intelligence, at their heart are just a series of calculations made on a set of data, each building on the last or feeding back into a loop. The calculations themselves aren’t particularly complex — though they aren’t the kind of math you’d want to do with a pen and paper. Ultimately all that simple math produces a probability that the data going in is a match for various patterns it has “learned” to recognize.

The thing is, though, that once these “layers” have been “trained” and the math finalized, in many ways it’s performing the same calculations over and over again. Usually that just means it can be optimized and won’t take up that much space or CPU power. But researchers from UCLA show that it can literally be solidified, the layers themselves actual 3D-printed layers of transparent material, imprinted with complex diffraction patterns that do to light going through them what the math would have done to numbers.

If that’s a bit much to wrap your head around, think of a mechanical calculator. Nowadays it’s all done digitally in computer logic, but back in the day calculators used actual mechanical pieces moving around — something adding up to ten would literally cause some piece to move to a new position. In a way this “diffractive deep neural network” is a lot like that: it uses and manipulates physical representations of numbers rather than electronic ones.

As the researchers put it:

Each point on a given layer either transmits or reflects an incoming wave, which represents an artificial neuron that is connected to other neurons of the following layers through optical diffraction. By altering the phase and amplitude, each “neuron” is tunable.

“Our all-optical deep learning framework can perform, at the speed of light, various complex functions that computer-based neural networks can implement,” write the researchers in the paper describing their system, published today in Science.

To demonstrate it they trained a deep learning model to recognize handwritten numerals. Once it was final, they took the layers of matrix math and converted it into a series of optical transformations. For example, a layer might add values together by refocusing the light from both onto a single area of the next layer — the real calculations are much more complex, but hopefully you get the idea.

By arranging millions of these tiny transformations on the printed plates, the light that enters one end comes out the other structured in such a way that the system can tell whether it’s a 1, 2, 3, and so on with better than 90 percent accuracy.

What use is that, you ask? Well, none in its current form. But neural networks are extremely flexible tools, and it would be perfectly possible to have a system recognize letters instead of numbers, making an optical character recognition system work totally in hardware with almost no power or calculation required. And why not basic face or figure recognition, no CPU necessary? How useful would that be to have in your camera?

The real limitations here are manufacturing ones: it’s difficult to create the diffractive plates with the level of precision required to perform some of the more demanding processing. After all, if you need to calculate something to the seventh decimal place, but the printed version is only accurate to the third, you’re going to run into trouble.

This is only a proof of concept — there’s no dire need for giant number-recognition machines — but it’s a fascinating one. The idea could prove to be influential in camera and machine learning technology — structuring light and data in the physical world rather than the digital one. It may feel like it’s going backwards, but perhaps the pendulum is simply swinging back the other direction.

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