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The Good Lord Bird is a timely reminder that Americans aren’t usually fans of progress

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At a time when American politicians and media personalities speak glibly of patriotism and freedom, it’s easy to forget that very few people who dedicated themselves to advancing those causes have ever been particularly popular — at least before they’re dead. “Most folks never heard of John Brown,” The Good Lord Bird’s opening narration begins, introducing us to one such unpopular subject. “If they have, they know he was hung for being a traitor, stirring up all kinds of trouble, and starting the Civil War.” The new Showtime series, based on the James McBride novel of the same name, wants to fill in some of those gaps. Every episode begins the same, with these words on-screen: All of this is true. Most of it happened.

Much like the novel on which it’s based, The Good Lord Bird is an incredible tightrope act between historical fiction and absurdist dark comedy. The major beats of Brown’s biography are all there — his single-minded faith, his violent attacks on slave owners, his eventual execution by the state — but the space in between them is what is invented. The comedy, of course, comes in imagining what this man must have really been like. The John Brown we know from history texts was a deeply religious man whose fervor led him to dedicate his life to ending slavery. Like many significant men in American history, his story is recounted with a ponderousness akin to the scriptures he revered, with little semblance of what the movement he led must have been like. The Good Lord Bird gives us one possible answer: like a damn mess.

The show is during the final years of Brown’s life, and we meet the man through the eyes of protagonist Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson). Henry is an enslaved boy who is violently freed by Brown and then promptly mistaken for a girl and nicknamed Onion. Henry isn’t safer with Brown, but he’s left with no other choice — a predicament further complicated by the fact that if Brown realizes he’s a boy, then he’ll make him fight. Through Onion, we get a front-row seat to the last years of Brown’s life, knowing that it ends in failed slave revolt and then, finally, in a noose.

As John Brown, Ethan Hawke delivers a portrait of a patriot we’ve never seen before. He plays Brown as a man of extraordinary conviction and faith in the message of equality reflected in both Scripture and the Constitution, which means he’s dissatisfied with anything less than direct, violent action. John Brown is a zealot, possessed of a devotion that’s downright reckless. He is also a man who hacked off the head of a slave owner with a machete, which is to say few agree with his methods, even if they do agree with his cause.

Other famous men in this story get similarly complex portraits. Frederick Douglass (played memorably by Daveed Diggs), for example, is every bit the moving orator we know from history. But he’s also a cad, using his rising stature to attract partners Black and white, and he’s particularly prickly when he feels his social status is not respected. Brown and Douglass meet in a standout episode, and each man is arrogant in their own way, beholden to his own particular ideology, despite having the same goal. The Good Lord Bird isn’t as cloying as Hamilton, another bit of historical fiction starring Diggs, but both do the vital work of rounding out the humanity of history’s giants by making them petty, boisterous, and disagreeable.

And it’s here that The Good Lord Bird succeeds. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that America has entered another moment of racial upheaval; The Good Lord Bird recontextualizes the fight for emancipation by asking us to closely regard the life of one of its most ardent white proponents. It’s a sly commentary on progress’s cost: believing the enslaved should be free wasn’t hard for Northern abolitionists. What was hard — and, at the time, perhaps even considered deranged — was doing something about it. To Brown, the limits of discourse and legal action had been reached. He understood that the system of slavery could not be reformed.

In this, The Good Lord Bird doubles as sly commentary on what has brought us to another historical reckoning. The bloody path John Brown cut from Kansas to Harpers Ferry made him a wanted and hated man, as much because of the murder he committed as because of the fact that he lived in America, a country built on systemic injustice. The series, like the novel, further complicates its depiction of Brown’s life by suggesting there’s a fundamental arrogance to Brown’s actions that complicated his cause. In the series, there is little room for the thoughts or concerns of the people he wanted to liberate. He thought they’d thank him (and the Lord) for it and join his army out of good sense — an assumption that led to the real-life Brown’s capture at the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, where he attempted to arm an army that did not show.

When the Civil War began, the Union Army would march to “John Brown’s Body,” a song that contextualized Brown’s life and death as another step in our nation’s eventual goal of a free and equitable society. It was a rallying cry to defeat the Confederacy. In The Good Lord Bird, we see him as his contemporaries might have: an unwashed militant who everyone he meets is defined against. A proper understanding of history, one that’s useful to us today, is one that places us firmly in the tension between these two points, that characterizes people and their actions beyond simply calling them “good” or “bad.”

In 2020, this is harder than ever. American government is in the grip of a party that embraces ethnonationalism and white supremacist rhetoric, enamored with a view of history that is alluring — that America is a noble and exceptional project in the free world. The reality, obviously, is more complex, especially to those Americans who are marginalized. It is a terrible and frightening thing, building a nation. John Brown knew that.

What he didn’t know was that his country was so systematically broken that what he thought of as justice could also be seen as madness. Or maybe, as The Good Lord Bird suggests, John Brown really was just mad.

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Pokémon Sword and Shield are $40 each at Amazon and Best Buy

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Pokémon Sword and Shield for the Nintendo Switch have somehow resisted much in the way of a major price drop since they released in late 2019, but both games are $20 off their usual price at Amazon and Best Buy, down to $40 each for the physical cartridge versions. This is the lowest price yet, and if you were holding off until a deal arrived, or are planning to gift the game to someone over the holidays, now is the time to buy.

These two games are the latest in the main Pokémon adventure, and each game offers the same story but with a different selection of pokémon to catch. If you want to catch them all, you’ll need to get both games. Of course, that’s for die-hard pokémon collectors, and buying just one copy will get you a long-lasting adventure with a lot of replayability.

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This price drop comes at a good time. The Crown Tundra downloadable content will be available to play starting tomorrow, and it promises new characters, pokémon to catch and fight, and areas to explore. Buying the expansion pass costs $30 on top of the base game’s price. With today’s deal, you’re essentially getting a huge discount on the DLC, if you really want to expand the playtime.

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Anyscale adds $40M to bring its Ray-based distributed computing tech to the enterprise masses

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The world of distributed computing took on a new profile this year when Folding@home, a 20-year-old distributed computing project, found itself picking up thousands of new volunteers to help Covid-19 researchers generate more computing power to fold proteins and run other calculations needed for screening potential drug compounds to fight the novel coronavirus. Today, a startup that is also tapping the potential and opportunity in distributed computing is announcing a round of growth funding to continue its own work.

Anyscale, a startup founded by a team out of UC Berkeley who created the Ray open-source Python framework for running distributed computing projects, has raised $40 million.

It plans to use the capital to continue developing Anyscale, a platform built on Ray that will make Ray usable not just by high-level developers and computing specialists, but any technical people who are looking to run projects that require large amounts of computing power.

Ion Stoica, Anyscale’s executive chairman who co-founded the company with Robert Nishihara, Philipp Moritz and Berkeley professor Michael I. Jordan, said in an interview that the company is tapping into a moment spurred not just by the events of 2020 but by the bigger demand from companies — spurred by the growth of cloud computing, major digital transformation of their systems, and a need to go that extra mile to remain competitive. Organizations are becoming more ambitious in their technology strategies and goals, whether they are tech companies or not.

“At a high level, the trend that we see is that all applications are distributed and running on clusters, but building these applications is incredibly hard and requires teams with the right expertise,” said Stoica. “What we are trying to build will make it as easy to build a distributed computing project as it would be to run a program on your laptop. It will mean ordinary developers will be able to build scalable applications just like Google can build today.”

The company’s first build of Anyscale — which will let organizations build multi-cloud applications from a single machine and use serverless architecture that scales up and down to meet application demands –
 has yet to launch commercially: it is in a private beta and the plan is to launch it fully next year.

There has been interest from financial services, retail, and manufacturing companies, Stoica said, with companies working in design, informatics and medical research (and Covid-19 vaccines) also using the private beta.

The Series B is being led by previous investor NEA, with Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), Intel Capital, and Foundation Capital also participating. A16z led the company’s Series A less than a year ago (a $20 million round in December).

Intel, meanwhile, is a strategic investor. Along with other tech giants like Microsoft, Intel is using Ray’s distributing computing model to run projects.

Stoica — who also co-founded Databricks, Conviva and was one of the original developers of Apache Spark — and Nishihara declined to comment in an interview on Anyscale’s valuation, but Stoica confirmed that the round was oversubscribed. The company has now raised just over $60 million.

While the startup continues to build out Anyscale, in the last year it has also been making more headway with Ray, which they also maintain.

At the Ray Summit — Anyscale’s conference for developers run as a virtual event at the end of September —  Anyscale released Ray 1.0, which provides, in addition to a universal serverless compute API, an expanded library to use on Ray 1.0. Nishihara described it as a “huge milestone,” not least because it is one step along the path for the bigger vision they have for Anyscale to be used by non-tech companies for tech work.

A typical example was a recent recommendation algorithm built by Intel for Burger King. “The thing that is hard to do is not making the recommendations but learning from the interactions that users are having, and the choices they are making, and having that experience reflected back very rapidly,” he said. It’s a process that can be done in other ways, but with a far less good user experience due to lags.

This past year Nishihara said that interest in Ray has seen “tremendous growth,” but that it’s hard to say whether that is because of people working from home or just wider computing trends.

“It’s clear if anything that the pandemic is accelerating the transition,” said Stoica. “Ray has good support for the cloud, including Azure, Google Cloud Platform and others, which makes it quite compelling.”

We’ve seen an interesting trend in enterprise IT, where startups are finding an opportunity in the market by making it possible for non-technical organizations to bridge the digital divide, by providing better access to the most technical advances in computing to organizations beyond those that can build and operate such tools themselves. Just as groups like Element AI are working on ways to democratize advances in AI, the same kind of tech built, acquired and used by the likes of Apple, Google and Amazon, so too is Anyscale looking to do the same in enterprise computing.

And the two areas of AI and computing, of course, are interconnected: these days you need vast amounts of computing power to run AI applications, something the average company typically lacks.

“The demand for distributed computing continues to increase with the widespread adoption of AI and machine learning in application development,” said Pete Sonsini, General Partner at NEA, in a statement. “Still, scaling applications on clusters remains extremely challenging. Serverless computing is emerging as the preferred platform for developing distributed applications. Unfortunately, today’s serverless offerings support only a limited set of applications, and most of them are cloud-specific—but not Ray and Anyscale. The company’s path thus far bears the hallmarks of a standout technology pioneer, and we’re thrilled to partner with the team through this next phase bridging their open source and commercial offerings.”

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PayPal to let you buy and sell cryptocurrencies in the US

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PayPal has partnered with cryptocurrency company Paxos to launch a new service. PayPal users in the U.S. will soon be able to buy, hold and sell cryptocurrencies. More countries are coming soon.

PayPal plans to support Bitcoin, Ethereum, Bitcoin Cash and Litecoin at first. You’ll be able to connect to your PayPal account to buy and sell cryptocurrencies. Behind the scenes, Paxos takes care of trading and custody.

In early 2021, PayPal wants to let you use your crypto assets as a funding source for your PayPal purchases. This could be a good way to use cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases without having to convert cryptocurrencies on an exchange first.

There are 26 million merchants that offer PayPal around the world. For those merchants, customers paying in crypto won’t have any impact. Everything will be converted to fiat currency when a transaction is settled.

As part of today’s move, PayPal has been granted a conditional BitLicense by the New York State Department of Financial Service. It should be able to launch its crypto service in partnership with Paxos in New York.

PayPal’s crypto service isn’t live just yet. You can head over to PayPal’s website and join the waitlist. The company has already updated its fees with more details about cryptocurrency exchange fees.

The company will charge high fees on fiat-to-cryptocurrency and cryptocurrency-to-fiat exchange transactions. You can expect to pay 2.3% for transactions below $100, 2% for transactions between $100 and $200, 1.8% for transactions between $200 and $1,000 and 1.5% for transactions above $1,000. There’s a minimum fee of $0.50 for transactions below $25. The page also says that there will be some spread between buy and sell prices.

As a comparison, Coinbase charges 1.49% in conversion fees for any transaction over $200, and a fixed fee below that amount. Square’s Cash App charges variable fees and Robinhood hides its fees behind some markup on market prices.

Revolut, which also partners with Paxos in the U.S. to offer cryptocurrency trading, charges 2.5 to 3% in exchange fees for free customers. If you’re a premium user, you pay 1.5% in fees.

Many companies have been trying to build the PayPal of crypto. It turns out that the PayPal of crypto could just be PayPal.

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