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A to-the-point explanation for why Musk bought Twitter

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There's a lot of speculation about why Elon Musk really bought Twitter, and why he seems to be running it into the ground so quickly. It's hard to see where reasonable analysis ends and conspiracy theory sets in. I think Matt Binder nails it in this thread.Read the rest

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kvarley
16 days ago
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On Faith

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What is “faith”, anyhow? The answers can become abstract, but concretely it’s what gets Salman Rushdie stabbed in the face. Oh wait, is that statement anti-Islamic? Guilty as charged; but then I’m also anti-Christian, anti-Hindu, anti-Buddhist, and, well, there are too many organized religions to list them all. Herewith too many words on Faith and Truth, albeit with pretty pictures. I do find positive things to say, but at the end of the day, well, no.

I’m not a moderate on this issue. I don’t believe, in general, that any supernatural event has ever occurred or, in particular, that any prayer has ever been answered. In my lifetime the outputs of organized religion have been mostly war, sexual abuse, and political support for venal rightist hypocrites.

Does it even matter?

Maybe religion has become irrelevant to your life, a common experience these days. It’s worth studying anyhow, as an example of the human propensity to believe things that are not just untrue, but wildly unlikely. Things that entirely lack supporting evidence. Things that make you shake your head.

Images of the Virgin Mary and child for sale

I may not partake in faith but I’m a keen amateur student of religions. Perhaps it comes of having grown up in Lebanon, where a whole lot of ‘em run up against each other with a mostly disastrous impact on the civic fabric. I’ve visited Jerusalem and Damascus and Chartres and Stonehenge and Avebury and Carnac and Kamakura and Izumo and Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, and some of the world’s great forests.

Faith is real

I think that in my youth I maybe knew a saint. No, really; Father Leonard Guay, a Jesuit architect and astronomer. He built a university in Baghdad which was taken over by the Ba’ath, so he built another in Aleppo; the same thing happened. He offered no regrets. An American Midwesterner, he was in a combination monastery, winery, and observatory in rural Lebanon when we knew him. He loved coming over to talk English, eat corn-on-the-cob, and swap crossword-puzzle books; he took regular puzzles and did them diagramless, with just the clues. He loved kids, knew a million utterly lame jokes, and enjoyed telling us about the current research in the observatory, apologizing for using pagan language, as in the names of constellations and Zodiac signs. His faith glowed within him and around him.

This is the challenge to my personal aversion to the supernatural. I observe empirically that faith exists and that it’s real and that it appears to be good for some people. But my mind recoils at all the crazily baroque apparatus that is inextricably attached to every organized religion. I believe in belief and have no faith in faith.

But I went to Sunday School and my Dad even taught it in his youth. Once, when I boarded for a semester with family friends, I attended a Southern Baptist congregation which even at the age of twelve struck me as pretty looney-tunes. In my own mainstream-Protestant scientist family, the religious pressure was more or less zero.

Buddhist temple in Lahaina

Jodo Buddhist Mission in Lahaina, Maui

What I’m not buying

So I understand pretty well what it is. I’m not buying a deity who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, provoking plague and child slaughter across a whole population. Nor, in general, gods that purport to exhibit gender. Nor any who thrive on praise and consider it essential from their devotees. Hindutva smells to me like old-fashioned ethnofascism with Pujas. I scoff at a putative Savior who lectures that lust is morally equivalent to adultery. I’m not down with Wahhabi support for autocratic murdering princes nor with Crusading nor with throwing settler garbage down into lower Hebron. And the phrase “blasphemy law” makes me shiver with anger.

Faith and humans

But religion comes naturally to Homo sapiens. Perhaps the first big reason is that for much of humanity’s passage across time we were manifestly not in control of our destiny, just ephemeral sparks of life blown about by whims of climate and disease and geography and the population dynamics of our prey and predators, those sparks often snuffed out with no warning. It would have been comforting to think that Someone was in control. Maybe the improved ability to steer one’s own life, enjoyed today by those in developed societies and with an education, is partly responsible for the fading of faith?

Second, worship is a human built-in. We are small after all, regularly confronted by things much greater than ourselves: Our starfield, away from light pollution. The meeting of the Eastern Pacific with the Western Americas. Canyons and waterfalls and great ancient trees.

Candles in Chartres cathedral

Candles in Chartres cathedral.

Of course, we build some of the things we worship. I know of two people who say they acquired faith following on a visit to Chartres, and I believe them. If you can enter that great stone poem without your sense of worship activating, I think you’re weird. The first time I walked in, it felt like a giant hand round my chest, interfering with my breathing.

But I dunno, I’ve had the same feeling at concerts by Laurie Anderson and Slava Rostropovich and The Clash and a host of other artists. Is my gratitude for being alive at the same time as these exceptional people “worship”?

Temperate rain-forest trees

Trees

My family has the great good fortune to own a cabin on a small island in Howe Sound near Vancouver, where I regularly experience worship of that Pacific perimeter, and especially the island’s great evergreens and bigleaf maples that tower into the filtered forest light, never still, wind never entirely absent in the greenery. I keep telling my kids they should shut up and listen to the damn trees and they’ll learn things and I’m right but they don’t, usually.

Feeling reverent around trees has the advantage that they’re not avatars of anything that is said to be twitchily concerned about how and with whom you deploy your genitals, or whose intercedents will require your cash to support their lifestyles.

Positives

I think it probable that religion will continue to decline, to the extent that its concerns are absent from public discourse. In my own civic landscape it already has.

That’s not entirely a good thing; you can admire aspects of religion without actually believing it. One of them is ritual, prescribed and choreographed public actions. It’s a thing that a high proportion of humans once experienced on a weekly basis; but no longer. I think we miss it. Military services retain rituals, as do the centers of government – consider America’s State of the Union address, or the opening of various nations’ parliaments. Weddings and funerals retain a ritual dimension but are infrequent. While I have no patience for Catholic dogma I often tune in their midnight Christmas mass for its own sake – the singing and chanting, the inner space of St Peter’s basilica, and priestly processions carrying the Host. I love the opening and closing of each Olympic games.

Sacred texts

Every faith has them. While I decline to honor their claims, it’s good to believe that written-down words are important, because they are. The use of language defines what’s special about our species as much as anything else does and I believe the single greatest cultural shift in humanity’s story came when it could be written, and lessons could outlast the storage provided by a human skull.

The Shinto shrine at Izumo

Shinto shrine at Izumo

The worlds of sci-fi, fantasy, and computer games are full of powerful and magical texts; obviously this notion speaks to many people. Religious texts are also historically important because they were replicated a lot and are thus well-represented among the fragments of language that have survived the ravages of centuries. Some of the books and the verses and words are very beautiful.

In fact, the Christian Bible, particularly in its seventeenth-century “King James” embodiment, has been at the center of the cultural experience of my own ethnic group to the extent that I think it probably deserves routine study at some point in the standard curriculum. A whole lot of our ancestral history and much wonderful literature and art is going to elude understanding without at least a basic grasp of its scriptural embedding.

If you want to get inside the head of someone who really held close to those values, go listen to Hildegard von Bingen’s O vis aeternitatis (“The Power of Eternity), probably written around 1150. It’s wonderful music! The world Hildegard inhabited, of faith made real in cloisters and their communities, is as remote from mine as that lived by the characters in the sci-fi I enjoy reading.

Christian wall decoration at the Abbey of  Montserrat, near Barcelona

At the Abbey of Montserrat, near Barcelona

The flavor of truth

Of course, since sacred texts are said to express eternal absolutes, they must necessarily be immutable. Which seems boring and just wrong. It is a core value of scientists and engineers and philosophers and reference publishers that truth is contingent and dynamic; always capable of being better-expressed or deepened or falsified. On top of which, the language we use to express truths grows and mutates across the centuries. I’m not holding my breath waiting for Christendom to convene a Third Council of Nicaea and revise the doctrine of the Trinity. Still, we should respect and preserve and study the sacred texts because they are full of lessons about the people who wrote them and believe them.

Exegesis

Around those scriptural mountains are the rolling hills of exegesis; works of commentary and analysis, for example the Hadith and the Talmud. Christian exegesis is unimaginably vast in scale although it lacks a single named center.

I got lost in the exegetical maze during a failed youthful attempt to write a novel about the rise and wreck of the Tower of Babel, when I tried to understand what that crazy story might really be about.

Exegesis is fun to read! Intellectually challenging on its own terms, and if you have any familiarity at all with the Bible, the depth of meaning apparently waiting to be uncovered in the crevasses between adjacent words is astonishing. Next time you’re in a good library, I recommend looking up “Anchor Bible” in the catalog and poking around the stacks where the call-number takes you. If you’re like me your mind will be boggled at the vastness and complexity of the collection.

On this subject, if you ever find yourself in a colloquy of theologians or bibliophiles or antiquarians, even a brief mention of “The Church Fathers” will get you nods and smiles. They constitute the first few waves of Christian theological writing, there were really a lot of them (no Church Mothers, though), and they wrote an incredible number of books, many beautiful in form and content.

Worshipper at Jing’an temple, Shanghai

At Jing’an Temple in Shanghai

What a certain number of these theologians are trying to do is very similar to the goals of Physics theorists: An explanation of the universe from pure logical principles, showing how it really couldn’t possibly be any way other than the way it is. Christian theologians assert that this must be the Best of All Possible Worlds because what else could God have made?

They want the necessary outcome, via pure logical reasoning, to include an omnipotent omniscient male-gendered Creator and also a Savior, a single instance of God-made-flesh, plus a really hard to understand “Holy Spirit”. Which is to say, they have a heavier lift than physicists do. But to this day, Proofs of the Existence of God remain an amusing sub-sub-domain of theology and exegesis.

[I think you were supposed to be writing about the redeeming features? -Ed.] [Oh, right, thanks. -T.] Finally, it would be unfair to consider religion without acknowledging its leading role in philanthropy across the generations and continents.

Faith why?

None of which means we need to believe what the religiosos claim is true. But why, in the 21st century, do they still believe it? I really don’t have much to add to the two points I made above: The feeling that Someone must be in charge, and our built-in capacity for worship.

Let me offer an incredibly cynical but kind of entertaining take on the subject from Edward Gibbon, in his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, six massive volumes dating from the late 1700s. [You didn’t actually buy it and read it, did you? -Ed.] [Sometime around 1984 I joined the “Book of the Month Club” and these great-looking books were the sign-up bonus. I read a lot of it, but got bored around 1000AD in Vol. 5, all that endless Byzantine treachery. -T.]

In a garden across from a Catholic school

In a garden across the street from a Catholic school

Gibbon is discussing the rise of Christianity in the Empire, which he argues contributed to its fall, but that’s neither here nor there. He includes a sprawling survey of the religious landscape and, while discussing the Jews, notes that unlike many other faiths of the time, they weren’t prepared to go along and get along, host an occasional sacrifice to one Caesar or another in their temple; they resisted militantly and to the death. So, quoting from Chapter XV, Part I:

But the devout and even scrupulous attachment to the Mosaic religion, so conspicuous among the Jews who lived under the second temple, becomes still more surprising, if it is compared with the stubborn incredulity of their forefathers. When the law was given in thunder from Mount Sinai, when the tides of the ocean and the course of the planets were suspended for the convenience of the Israelites, and when temporal rewards and punishments were the immediate consequences of their piety or disobedience, they perpetually relapsed into rebellion against the visible majesty of their Divine King, placed the idols of the nations in the sanctuary of Jehovah, and imitated every fantastic ceremony that was practised in the tents of the Arabs, or in the cities of Phœnicia.10 As the protection of Heaven was deservedly withdrawn from the ungrateful race, their faith acquired a proportionable degree of vigor and purity. The contemporaries of Moses and Joshua had beheld with careless indifference the most amazing miracles. Under the pressure of every calamity, the belief of those miracles has preserved the Jews of a later period from the universal contagion of idolatry; and in contradiction to every known principle of the human mind, that singular people seems to have yielded a stronger and more ready assent to the traditions of their remote ancestors, than to the evidence of their own senses.11

10 For the enumeration of the Syrian and Arabian deities, it may be observed that Milton has comprised, in one hundred and thirty very beautiful lines, the two large and learned syntagmas which Selden had composed on that abstruse subject.

11 “How long will this people provoke me? And how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewn among them?” (Numbers xiv 11). It would be easy, but it would be unbecoming, to justify the complaint of the Deity, from the whole tenor of the Mosaic history.

(Gibbons’ footnotes, included just for fun.)

Um, is that anti-Semitic? Maybe… and some other things Gibbon said definitely were. But he was also anti-Muslim and arguably anti-Christian. And his scoffing seems more aimed at theologies than ethnicities. In fact, the only religion to get many kind words was Rome’s indigenous paganism, because of its tolerance.

While his text is loaded with nods to Christianity being The Right Answer because of Its Divine Provenance, those passages glisten with cynicism (see above) and he was frequently attacked as an enemy of the faith. Gibbon is fun to read.

A miracle

Finally, let’s consider what miracles are: Things that happen for which there is no conventional explanation in our physical understanding of the universe. At least one miracle has happened. The universe, including its cosmic background radiation, its galaxy clusters, its black holes, me and my thread of consciousness, you and yours, and the text I’m writing and you’re reading: They all exist. There’s no explanation at hand as to why anything at all should. Miraculous!

However, check out Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, by Jim Holt (Norton, 2012), a serious but entertaining tour through metaphysics and religion looking for an answer to the question in the title. Spoiler alert: While Holt’s best attempts are stimulating, I was still left thinking of the existence of anything and everything as a miracle.

Former Lutheran church

Former Lutheran church,
property soon to be filled with condos.

Future?

You could think of religion as a pathology of society as a whole, consequent on ignorance, fear, and certain built-in features of the human mind. I don’t think it’s going away, although a faith-free world would probably be a kinder, more humane place.

With these words, I may have offended some who partake in faith. I can’t honestly apologize, because an apology is at some level a promise to Stop Doing That.

I really, really just don’t buy it.

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kvarley
104 days ago
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Technical reasons to choose FreeBSD over GNU/Linux (2020)

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kvarley
123 days ago
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Lessons From a Startup Pivot

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Building a startup is easy. You file some paperwork and bam! You’re a startup!

Building a start-up that’s sustainable and can pay everyone a nice salary, on the other hand, is very tough. We are launching Abbot on Product Hunt today, and preparing last week made me reflect on some of the lessons we’ve learned since starting our business.

Abbot is a Slack App (and bot) that helps teams scale their customer conversations in Slack.

Some of you might be thinking, “Wait! I thought Abbot was ChatOps as a service?” Indeed, that was our original goal, but we found it tough to sell. Conversations often would go like this:

them: What problem do you solve? us: What problems do you have? Abbot can help with them all! them: snoring

Yeah, not too effective as a sales pitch.

Lesson: Start with selling a Product not a Platform

Abbot started off as an automation platform. With Abbot, we could quickly write and host new capabilities of the bot from within Abbot. We used it internally to solve whole classes of problems and run experiments. Platforms give people the tools to solve whole classes of problems, but they don’t solve any specific problems on their own. And this is why platforms are hard to sell. For example, Amazon didn’t begin with selling their Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform. They started with an online bookstore. A concrete product. And over time, they reached the point where they could sell the underlying platform (AWS) the bookstore was built on.

Lesson: A Platform does make it easy to experiment and pivot

One thing we did do well during this time was to listen to our current and prospective customers. We noticed a theme. Many of them struggled to support their own customers in Slack. Slack has a neat feature called Slack Connect that lets you invite other companies into a shared Slack channel. We discovered that a lot of companies used this feature to provide support for their own customers. Their customers liked the immediacy of being in a shared chat room. It’s more responsive than getting on a phone or dealing with email. And it makes hand-off of discussions easy.

But supporting customers in chat brings its own set of problems. With so many conversations coming in, it can be tough to keep track of them all. Did we respond to every conversation? Is there any conversations waiting on a response? What’s our average response time? There are a ton of tools to answer those questions for email support, but not so much for chat.

This sounds like a very specific problem to solve! Fortunately, we had a flexible platform we could leverage and build upon to solve this specific problem. So we pivoted.

But as we did so, it didn’t take us long to run into other problems.

Lesson: Don’t completely neglect engineering and infrastructure in order to achieve Product Market Fit

Before I get into the problems we ran into, it’s important to understand some context, lest you think we’re running a clown shoes operation. When we joined the YCombinator startup program, one of the key lessons drilled into us is that Product Market Fit is our top priority. And the reasoning is simple, if you don’t achieve product market fit, then you don’t have a business and your company runs out of money and dies. And it’s hard to build great software with a dead company. So while good engineering and infrastructure is important, if you spend too much time on that, but don’t achieve product market fit, then all that exquisite infrastructure goes to waste.

At the same time, if you wait too long to address your infrastructure needs, your product may fail under the weight of all that juicy product market fit. It’s definitely a delicate balancing act and one that you have to feel out for yourself. I hope that sharing some of our failures can inpspire some ideas on how to strike that balance for your own product and company. That balance is going to be different for every product and company.

Lesson: All Services Are Leaky

Around the time dinosaurs roamed the world hosting their own server racks, I was a fresh-faced college graduate starting my first job at a custom development shop. We had a full server rack in the closet where we hosted all our clients’ web sites. This put us in control of our own hardware, software, and destiny. Which as it turns out, isn’t always a good thing. I remember the time my boss wanted to demonstrate how our new hard-drive array was hot-swappable by pulling out a drive. He pulled out the drive and everything continued to work flawlessly. Just kidding. It all came crashing down like a soccer player who feels a gentle tug on the shirt in the penalty box (if the sport metaphor doesn’t work for you, just trust me on this one).

At the time, this was the way you built web software. You hosted everything.

Fast forward a bunch of years, and the pendulum swung to the other side. I didn’t want to host a damn thing. And with tools like Heroku, Azure Web Sites, AWS, Google Cloud, etc. I really didn’t need to. Much of my later career at Microsoft and GitHub was spent building developer tools and client applications. Occasionally, I’d build a website on the side for fun. I’d just deploy it to a cloud provider, take advantage of all their services, and not worry about it too much.

And this approach worked well! It worked so well, when I started a company with my colleague, Paul, we were able to get a site up and running in no time. And this all worked great, everyone was happy, and it all just worked out…Until we needed to pivot.

Driver telling a police office he should have turned left at Albuquerque

You may have heard that all abstractions are leaky. In a similar manner, all services are leaky. Whether it be Software as a Service (SAAS), Platform as a Service (SAAS), Infrastructure as a Service (IAAS), or whatever the next thing is.

The first “abstraction” to break was relying on Azure Bot Service for our bot. The service provides a single API to make it possible to write a bot once for multiple chat services. Where have we heard that promise before, right?

As you might expect, it meant our bot had access to the lowest common denominator of what chat platforms have to offer. This was fine for our initial product idea, ChatOps as a service. With ChatOps, the interface is primarily textual, so we didn’t need all the bells and whistles. But as we pivoted to a Customer Success product, it became imperative that we supported all the rich features that Slack has to offer.

This meant bypassing the bot service and writing our code to directly interact with the Slack API. I don’t regret that we started with the bot service as it got us far fast, but I do regret when we configured our Slack Events Endpoints (the URLs that Slack sends its events to), with the bot service URLs. Something like https://slack.botframework.com/api/messages/events (or whatever it is). The reason this was a problem is that we submitted our Slack App to the Slack App Directory. So every change we make to the app’s configuration can take up to six weeks to be approved by Slack. This meant that even though we were ready to go with our new approach, we had to wait for the Slack approval process to start serving Slack requests directly.

Lesson: Own Your Traffic With A Level of Indirection built in

A little sprinkling of indirection would have helped a lot here. We should have set up a DNS entry under our control, pointed it to Azure Bot Service, and configured Slack with that URL. It would have allowed us to point Slack to our own web server when we needed to switch. It just wasn’t a consideration in the beginning. At the time, we felt we wouldn’t need it. But it’s cheap to set up a DNS entry to provide a bit of indirection just in case.

As a corollary to this, I recommend managing DNS as code. We have several DNS providers and managing DNS across them can be a pain. But we now use OctoDNS to manage all our DNS in some YAML files that are versioned within a GitHub repository.

Alright, back to the story. So what do you think happened once Slack approved our change to direct Slack traffic to our own server at https://ab.bot? We found a bug that broke everything.

Now a minute ago I was talking about all the benefits of indirection that using our own Domain Name afforded us. Well, I made another mistake here. I pointed Slack directly to https://ab.bot/, which the rest of our site also ran on. So we couldn’t just point this DNS entry back to Bot Service. And to revert the change might take another six weeks to go through Slack’s approval process. So we just knuckled down to fix it.

Today, we have a separation where https://ab.bot/ points to our marketing site and login page, but the app runs on https://app.ab.bot/. And for each service that needs to be publicly exposed, we use a unique host name in case we need to redirect traffic.

Lesson: Balance Convenience With The Right Tools

Having been a Microsoft employee in the past, most of my experience is with Azure. When in doubt, I tend to choose Azure tools because they’re familiar to me and it’s convenient to have everything in one place with the Azure Portal. However, this sometimes means I end up choosing tools that aren’t up to snuff. For example, we looked at Azure Front Door and Azure Application Gateway to provide a proxy that would let us better control how traffic reaches our site. Together, they supported the features we needed, but each one was missing something. And using them together seemed complex and overkill. So we ended up using Cloudflare which did everything we need.

Lesson: Observability and Monitoring With Alerts is Essential

As we started to build out our new product offering, we started to notice connection timeouts. Our database was getting hammered periodically and we had no understanding of why. Fortunately, we were able to figure it out by adding better instrumentation.

See, we had a lot of logging, but not enough. Even worse, we didn’t have enough alerts set up early on. So some errors would occur and we wouldn’t notice them. This wasn’t really a problem at first, but as our pivot started getting traction with real customers, being able to diagnose problems quickly rose up in priority.

Lesson: Code Your Infrastructure

We ended up figuring out that some problematic code was the cause of some of our error spikes. But we were also on a pretty low-tier plan for the database and web server. As we got closer and closer to shipping our 1.0, we realized we needed to scale up. Now this is where the cloud shines, right?

Well no, we happened to choose a plan that didn’t allow us to automatically scale up. We had to migrate to a new plan. This meant a lot of manual work and scripting to migrate our web servers and data to new servers and databases in the cloud.

And that helped a lot! So now we’re on a plan that will allow us to automatically scale up our infrastructure! Except we happened to choose a region that’s at capacity due to recent supply chain issues. So in order to scale up our hardware even more, we need to do yet another migration.

It wouldn’t be so bad if all our infrastructure was scripted using something like Terraform or Pulumi, but we’re not quite there yet. We’ve made a lot of progress with automating our infrastructure lately, but we’re still not at the point where we can just migrate to a new data center with a few commands.

I used to believe that being Cloud Provider agnostic was a waste of engineering effort, but as we build out our product, we can see that even if you stick with a single cloud provider, it has benefits.

Lesson: Hire great people

One of our saving graces is we’ve been very fortunate in our early hiring. In the areas where I’m weak, we have folks who are superstars. At this stage of our company, every person we hire has a huge impact on the company. If we hadn’t brought in these amazing people, I think we’d have failed already.

If you are setting out to build your own startup, I hope there’s at least something in this post that resonates with you. And if you’re giving Abbot a try, I hope it give you some insight into the sweat, tears, and love we’ve put in to build it. Take care!

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134 days ago
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SPAs: theory versus practice

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kvarley
163 days ago
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David Cross gives hilarious speech at Bob Odenkirk's Hollywood Walk of Fame Ceremony

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A couple of weeks ago, Bob Odenkirk was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As part of the unveiling ceremony, David Cross, Bob's co-star on Mr. Show delivered this wonderful speech.

Image: Screengrab

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212 days ago
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