What's Good?

Thanksgiving leftovers, in the form of some thoughts on OpenAI, tech journalism, and bro-science. Also the week's food and fitness tech news

Happy Black Friday to those who celebrate. What's good?

The tech industry, which I'd argue includes the tech press, has been up-in-arms all week over the firing of Sam Altman by the OpenAI board of directors. Everyone in tech seems to have "a take," even though few of the details about why Altman was abruptly let go (and then re-hired) are available.

Some are framing this whole thing as The Accelerationists versus The Effective Altruists, which sounds like a such neat and tidy dichotomy, where one team wants to move fast and break things and upload our consciousness into the machine and the other team wants to go a bit more slowly and break fewer things more gently. But don’t be fooled that this is “good guys” versus “bad guys,” because while the former are absolutely dangerous and rotten to the core, the latter are also wacky as hell (and cryptocurrency hustlers to boot). So neither of these are “sides” that healthy, normal people — those of us who care about a just and inhabitable planet for all living creatures — would want to align with. And frankly, coming on the heels of Marc Andreessen's recent techno-fascist manifesto, this OpenAI brouhaha sure does feel like a nice little manufactured crisis that will have the rich and powerful doubling down on their investment / their fantastic storytelling about robots replacing workers — those damned workers who keep unionizing and striking at rates not seen in decades.

This all might seem far afield from my focus here at Second Breakfast on food and fitness — but we're all about food and fitness and "wellness" technologies, let’s not forget, and of course, on the stories that we tell and are told about these technologies. What is the future that we’re being sold/told about our bodies — our bodies at work and at play and in the (LOL) singularity.

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I was listening to Christy Harrison's Rethinking Wellness podcast this week as, speaking of fitness technologies, I was on my longest bike-ride to date — one hour! Progressive overload! Anyway, she had journalist Rina Raphael (author of The Gospel of Wellness1) on as a guest, and the two were discussing why journalists seem to do so poorly at covering the wellness industry. Raphael suggested that it's because those on the beat are often lifestyle reporters, rather than, say, health or science reporters. As such, their Rolodex of sources is different — turning to a dermatologist rather than a toxicologist, for example, for a comment about "dangerous chemicals." These reporters’ understanding of "the science" and "the research" (i.e. statistics), Raphael argued, might be poor. And the burden of proof, if you will, for lifestyle reporting is different: n=1 is good enough. ("I tried it. It worked for me!")

This whole discussion certainly reminded me of how much of ed-tech is covered — often as a "lifestyle" matter and not a political or pedagogical (or even business) one. Covered, all too often, by those who truly believe the marketing pitch they get from entrepreneurs without ever talking to teachers or educational researchers or students (or, rather, to teachers and educational researchers and students who haven't been provided by the company who pitched them the story).

Certain people in these industries become media darlings — cough cough Sal Khan — regardless of expertise or experience. These folks — cough cough Sam Altman — tend to cultivate relationships with reporters and then when/if the shit hits the fan, the media coverage tends to be, as Max Read argues, a referendum on the personality, not on the shady business dealings or overblown promises or crappy tech.

Why, we might ask, has Sam Altman become such an appealing figure as the spokesperson/salesperson for the future of "good" AI? I'm so curious about that! He doesn't have a background in machine learning. He dropped out of Stanford after one year because, like Elizabeth Holmes, he thought that dropping out of Stanford looked better than studying at and graduating from the school. He founded a startup that failed — a Foursquare clone, if I recall correctly. He was, nonetheless, hired to run Y Combinator, Silicon Valley's premier startup funding clinic. As author Malcolm Harris observed in an interview with TechCrunch earlier this year,

He’s been doling out other people’s money and some money that they let him use for a while despite him not doing anything successfully.

But now he is one of those guys, right? He’s one of the top 20 tech oligarchs at this point in history, which is ridiculous. Whenever his face appears in anything, he’s got this look of a guy who told the king he’s going to turn the straw into gold by tomorrow. He doesn’t know how he’s gonna do it. He’s sitting at home hitting the Rumpelstiltskin button trying to figure out how he’s gonna get Microsoft their money back.

(Sidenote: it’s 2023 and people still lose their minds over Bill Gates controlling the future of tech. No wonder Microsoft wants to funnel its AI investment through a totally different brand.) As Max Read writes, "if you are not the kind of A.I. enthusiast for whom Altman represents an inspiring hero, or the kind of aging venture investor captivated by Altman’s fluency, or the kind of Silicon Valley founder to whom Altman has been nice — and, cards on the table, I am none of those things — it can be a bit hard to see what, exactly, is so impressive about the guy. Indeed, if you mostly know him for his tweets and blog posts you might think to yourself: this guy seems like a kind of dull mind."

Anyway. There's a connection here — somewhere, really, I swear — between fitness and fascism and labor. Something about bro-science, once again, being able to wave its hands around and convince a lot of people — okay, men mostly — that it's got shiny new solutions for sale to very old and challenging problems. I'll try to pull these threads together in my infamous end-of-year "Top Trends" posts. Coming soon.

In other news…

The week in sports: Joasia Zakrzewski, a Scottish ultramarathoner, has been banned from the sport for a year after admitting she used a car during  a race. Um. Yeah. That does seem like cheating. "Jury finds Kaitlin Armstrong guilty of killing pro cyclist" Mo Wilson. In some ways, this — "The Man Who Ran 365 Marathons in 365 Days" via kottke.org — is a classic feel-good story. Except I don't think "streaks" like this, particularly when they're 26.2 miles a day, are a particularly good thing. "Can a Very Fit Human Run 25 Miles Faster Than a Horse?" My money is on the horse. "Kids Don't Need a Barbie Feet Workout," Virginia Sole-Smith reminds us. Toxic fitness culture has come for your children. "A’s Will Finally Turn Out the Lights on Pro Sports in Oakland." Football is fucking terrible. And not because of the whole Jim Harbaugh thing, although I guess that’s bad too. Because it's killing people. Also terrible: Lululemon where "Being Black Is ‘Off-Brand’." And gymnastics — bad.

Food news: "The Secret Behind Libby's Original Pumpkin Pie Recipe," from The Food Historian. “How The US Military's Meat Research Helped Birth McDonald's McRib.”  "Cocktails Are Sandwiches Now. Deal with it," writes Grub Street. "A Takeout Restaurant Sold Thousands of Meals Made by Robots. Did Anyone Notice?" "More Americans on Ozempic Means Smaller Plates at Thanksgiving." "Eating fewer calories can ward off ageing." "Sharon Osbourne reveals she weighs less than 100 lbs. after Ozempic." God, these food stories are depressing. But have no fear, the best food article of the year is here: Helen Rosner's annual holiday gift guide. Rejoice.

The wellness hustle: "How to Be 18 Years Old Again for Only $2 Million a Year."  "America Is Getting Lonelier and More Indoorsy. That’s Not a Coincidence," The Atlantic tells us.  (Related: Walking has plummeted across America.) Why are there so many Urgent Cares? Because capitalism? Rina Raphael on "the meaning crisis" and how wellness is the new religion. (Wellness is the new religion for women, maybe. But AI is definitely the new religion for dudes.) "When War Sells Serum." In a follow-up, perhaps, to my recent essay on the supplements pitched to post-menopausal women, two of the most recent Barbell Medicine podcasts have looked at collagen and creatine.

Reminder: if you have the time or inclination, I'd love your thoughts on how things are going here at Second Breakfast. Leave a comment. Fill out the survey. Send me an email. Enjoy your weekend!

  1. Affiliate link. Proceeds from the sales of books go to Marcus Books, the oldest independent Black-owned bookstore in the country, located in Oakland, California.