Skip to main content

Trying to build technology in service of a more equal world.

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben.werdmuller

ben.werdmuller.blog

ben@benwerd.com

werd.cloud

 

Explaining American guns to an outsider

A British friend asked me what the deal with the American attitude towards guns was. To an outside eye, and to many inside eyes, it’s ludicrous. A lot of people, quite reasonably, can’t understand why Americans won’t come together and pass gun control legislation - particularly now that guns are the largest cause of death for children.

This was my answer. I’d love to read yours:

It's a great question, and one I struggle with too, even after living here for 11 years. Here's my take. Sorry for Bensplaining, but this is also helping me sort out my own thoughts.

The first thing to understand about America is that it's best thought of as 50 countries federated together into a union of rough consensus, rather than one coherent nation. If they were independent, gun control would be relatively easy in 60-70% of them. New York and California: fine. Texas: not so much.

But that's not how it was set up. And in particular, the constitution of the union had a badly-worded amendment (15 years after the original document) that can be construed to codify gun ownership. Not only that, but because America had a kind of colonizer attitude from the beginning, taking land both from indigenous people and from other colonies, as well as hunting for food in newly-established settlements, guns became a core part of American culture. Movies and advertising helped cement the idea that you need a gun for self-defense.

(Defense against whom in the 20th century, one might ask? There's a racist component here for sure. Even now, when violence is brought up, people talk about places like the south side of Chicago. Hey, who lives there?)

More recently, since Reagan or so, gun control has become a part of the Republican platform, alongside issues like abortion, because they've found it's a way to rile up the base. Even though, like abortion, a majority of Americans go the other way on it, there's enough legislative friction to make it an issue - and enough Americans who feel strongly about it, mostly in rural-dominated states, to drive more electoral support. Unlike abortion, that second amendment means it's almost impossible to enact real legislation.

I don't think we can repeal the second amendment in my lifetime. I do think we can re-enact an assault weapons ban and create stronger controls akin to having a driving license. I think that will help. But changing the culture completely is a generational effort.

 

The startup slump may be a blessing in disguise

Startupland is about to experience its first downturn since the 2008 recession. I realized today that many founders and startup employees were literal children when they last had to live through a bear market: for thirteen straight years, tech companies have been growing and growing. They’ve never seen or had to prepare for a slump.

It was a startling realization: to me, that feels like yesterday. (I’m older than I think I am.) I was at the tail end of my first startup at the time. We’d taken investment but had been cashflow positive for years first; because we were insulated from the worst of it, I had a panic-free front row seat. For a little while, funding dried up. Services consolidated or went away entirely. And in the meantime, free and open source projects - WordPress in particular - thrived.

The introduction of the iPhone catalyzed the consumer tech industry out of its trough. Rather than carrying on with business as usual, the companies that did well in 2009 were the ones who took advantage of the new always-on internet to create new kinds of services. They were differentiated from the failed dotcoms that came before: services like Flickr gave way to apps like Instagram. It was a genuinely new way of thinking. For a little while, even Facebook struggled to get to grips with the new web.

This week, Y Combinator sent a strongly-worded note to its portfolio of startups:

Regardless of your ability to fundraise, it’s your responsibility to ensure your company will survive if you cannot raise money for the next 24 months.

For a generation of startups used to spending money with wild abandon, partially because investors have implicitly encouraged the strategy of using capital as a moat, pivoting to business fundamentals may be too difficult. Even if founders can pivot their strategies, many of their employees were lured by lifestyle perks and the prestige of working for a growing company with name recognition in the community. If the startup hasn’t worked on a deeply-held reason to work there - something that makes the work meaningful; a nurturing community of people that values them as people - founders may find that retention is harder than they would like.

Still, I don’t think there’s any other way out. While the 2008 slump happened to coincide with the iPhone, I don’t see a similar paradigm shift coming for tech this time round. Crypto has already crashed, and although it will probably rebound, investment there has slowed. The metaverse is vaporware at best. The promise of an ambient web powered by augmented reality devices is years away.

So the biggest paradigm shift may simply be a return to reality: a vibe shift to profit. Valuations will be calculated based on revenue rather than hype. Some companies will make it; many more won’t.

In a world driven by revenue, the way to survive is to provide a service that people find valuable enough to pay for, aligned with their needs and interests.

Almost by definition, many of the companies that won’t make it through leaner times are the greediest: the startups created to feed their founders’ desire to make money rather than to deeply serve their customers or overhaul a predatory industry. Their coin-operated philosophies often extend to treating their employees like fungible resources who should be grateful to work there. I don’t think I’ll spend much time crying over them.

On the other hand, I’m excited for the companies who can double down on their customers and on their employees. The founders who can create real value for the people they’re trying to serve, and curate an empathetic community of thoughtful builders to do so, are the ones who are most likely to win. That’s what the tech industry is at its best, and that’s what will survive.

 

Tesla is toxic

When my mother was still alive, she was very concerned about her impact on the planet. She very badly wanted an electric car, and was interested in getting a Tesla. For lots of reasons, my parents weren’t able to buy one. So I put myself on the list for a Model 3: specifically so she would be able to get to and from her dialysis appointments in one.

It was delivered a month after she died. I could have canceled my appointment, but I decided to keep driving it. Honestly, although the self-driving capability is nonsense and the software is low quality, it’s a very nice ride. I really enjoy driving it.

The company’s CEO is making it less and less tenable to keep doing so. From Elon Musk’s will-he-won’t-he Twitter acquisition to comments about politics, social justice, and the media, he’s not an easy man to like. And now revelations that he offered to buy a SpaceX flight attendant a horse if she would perform sex acts on him make it even harder.

Teslas have great range and an excellent charging network. They’re not much more expensive than a Honda Civic and help wean drivers away from gasoline. But they also come with a kind of social baggage that is hard to look past. By association, I now appear to be okay with Musk’s actions. I am not.

When someone tells you who they are, the adage goes, believe them. The on-board software includes a boom box mode and a fart machine: stuff more at home in an adolescent’s fantasy arsenal than in a car driven by adults. As it turns out, this immaturity runs dangerously deep.

So what now? Surely the board at Tesla has to be considering having Musk removed. It would be the right thing to do. Otherwise, I’m going to get rid of the car (perhaps in favor of an ID. Buzz) and I’ll encourage other Tesla drivers to do the same.

 

A quiet morning in America

I pour myself another cup of coffee: two scoops into the Aeropress, a gentle pour of boiling water, a quick stir. I leave the plastic stirrer in the tube like a tombstone while the water percolates through the grounds.

Quiet mornings are hard to come by.

I had a conversation with someone recently whose entire family had contracted Covid. I found out like this: sorry if my voice goes, he said. I have Covid. I was helping him out with his work by answering some questions, but I quickly told him that he needed to rest. Give yourself the space to recover, I told him. I guess my Dad told me the wrong thing, he said.

I’ve been living in California for eleven years, and I’ve been an American citizen since I was born. There are still moments that make me wonder about the place I moved to. Some of the things that leave me wondering whether I’ll ever feel really at home here are relatively small - someone working through sickness instead of taking care of themselves, for example. And some are big.

While I was watching Ukraine win Eurovision, an 18 year old opened fire at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, murdering ten people. He live-streamed his attack on Twitch after publishing an 180-page manifesto in which he described himself as a white supremacist and an anti-Semite. He discussed replacement theory, and chose the location of his attack by researching the area with the highest percentage of Black people within driving distance. It’s a hate crime, fueled by hate speech. It was also the country’s one hundred and ninety-eighth mass shooting in 2022, on the one hundred and thirty-third day of the year.

I put on some toast and consider whether I’ll go for a walk or read my book. I just started The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel as part of a book group, and I’m also rereading Radical Candor. Outside, trees slowly sway against an unbroken blue sky.

Last week, CO2 levels exceeded 420ppm for the first time in recorded human history. I’m still thinking about a conversation where someone complained to me about having to take the bus. I routinely speak to people who believe public transport is outdated compared to road or air travel. The Cato institute says wanting to move people onto high-speed rail is “like wanting to be the world leader in electric typewriters, rotary telephones, or steam locomotives—all technologies that once seemed revolutionary but are functionally obsolete today.” It’s estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will live under water scarcity by 2025.

I shop for wall sconces for the new house in Philly: something modern that will create enough light in the living room to offset the darkness of the walls. The walls themselves will have to be repainted white at some point, of course. But for now, there has to be something to brighten up the room.

We have too many 9-to-5-ers, someone told me about their startup a few months ago. You’ve got to hustle. I want to see people working evenings and weekends. Strangely, he was having trouble with getting people to stay motivated and complete their work.

The banality of the unkindness gets under your skin after a while. The first year, commuters stepping over homeless people seemed jarring and horrifying. By year five, it was inevitably part of life: there but not there. Someone once told me I was wrong to buy a Street Sheet from a vendor because it was begging. I make a point of carrying money to give to people who ask for it, but sometimes I forget to top it up.

A culture that is busy maintaining the base level of its hierarchy of needs has little time to spend worrying about other people. The through line between the mass shootings and the psychotic work culture and the disregard for climate and the disdain for the impoverished is a lack of regard for community. In America, we’re not all in this together, we’re all in this as individuals. Everyone is out for themselves. It’s not even about social safety nets or other legislation: those things are symptoms of a deeper distrust that seeps between people. It’s a society that has not been set up to be happy together: it is designed to leave you wanting to be rich alone.

I order some middle eastern food on DoorDash. The driver, on average, will make $15.74 per hour, which is far below the poverty line in the San Francisco Bay Area. DoorDash will take between 10-25% of my order from the independently-run restaurant, whose profit margin is often less than that. The order will likely come in plastic.

I take a sip from my coffee and wait.

 

Update: while I was writing this, there was another mass shooting at the Laguna Woods retirement community in Southern California. It does not and will not stop.

 

Mother's Day

It’s American mother’s day.

They say nothing prepares you for losing a parent. Theoretically, I should have been prepared: ten years of pulmonary fibrosis, a double lung transplant, a rollercoaster of ups and downs that took me away from my life in Scotland and made me a part-time carer. From 2011 to 2021, her journey was my journey. Still, her loss ripped a hole from me. I’ve wondered if it was so profound because of that extra time; I’ll never know. Thankfully, I have nothing to compare it to.

I’m pretty good at putting on the appearance of holding it together. At best, it’s a sort of mask, but a magical one that only I know I’m wearing. I’m still not sure I know what grief is, exactly, and maybe it’s different for everyone: my flavor is a feeling of being untethered, like I’ve found myself in a parallel universe where everything is wrong. There’s no way back; no leap home. The only way through is forwards, and I resent it.

By far the worst part is the expectation of coping. Because I’m wearing that magical mask, I look more or less like an adult human being who is getting through his day. But because I’m untethered, because I feel this new distance between me and the world, I’ve been operating without a rudder. I’ve been alternately numb and in pain, and looking for things to make me feel anything else. I’ve been deeply unhappy with my life - all of it - but it’s hard to figure out what to change, or how, when a bomb won’t stop going off. I’d hoped to have time and space to breathe this year, a way to regroup, but there’s less than I’d hoped.

People expect men to cope; to be stoic; to just get on with it. And I am. But I want to disappear. I had this giant loss, and the world has carried on regardless, and I’m expected to carry on with it. I resent that. It’s driven a wedge between me and everything. Above all, it feels incredibly lonely.

I know my father and my sister feel their own versions of this, too, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with them. Family is powerful at a time like this. We understand each other.

Ma saw good in everyone and was able to cut through bullshit with a word. I can hear her say “oh for goodness sake” and tell me what I just need to go and do to give myself that space. I’m even doing some of them - I’ll write more about work in particular before too long - but there’s so much that feels askew.

My parents taught me to have wide horizons and not to be bound by the norms of the mainstream. It was an important lesson, but also one that ruined me for a “normal” life: I haven’t had a normal career, and I wouldn’t feel satisfied living in the same place forever. There are so many adventures to be had out in the world, both figurative and literal. We only get to live once, and life is fleeting. You’ve just got to go for it. Live big. Nothing is really that scary.

And maybe that’s the lesson. If everything feels wrong, if everything is askew, I need to spend the time to figure it out and forge a life that works for me. My worst tendency is to erode my own boundaries to make other people happy: self-destruction in kindness’s clothing. She was always worried about that, and I should have paid more attention.

I miss her. The usual platitude is that she’s right here, in me. But that’s only true if I live up to her; if I live up to myself. I’ve got to be my own tether and find my own happiness; build a life where there is no mask.

If your mother is still with you, I hope you can find a way to hug her and hold her close. If not today, then soon.

She was never really into Mother’s Day. It was a Hallmark holiday to her. But it feels like a good time to say that I miss her, and I miss everything she meant to me. And I’m still figuring out what happens next.

 

Along for the Ride

I got to see Along for the Ride, the Netflix film based on Sarah Dessen’s novel of the same name. It was written and directed by Sofia Alvarez, who previously wrote the adaptation of To All the Boys I’ve Loved before. I’m not the target audience, but I loved it: breezy, fun, and awash with a kind of teenage nostalgia I’m here for all day.

But I also have to disclose this: Sarah is my cousin. She babysat me, and I got to see her career bloom. She’s inspiring to me as a human being first, and a writer second.

Writing, as I’ve mentioned here from time to time, is my first love. If I could figure out how to do that as a living, I would; I got into technology as a way to tell stories, not because I’m particularly excited by the discrete logic and how the components fit together. Programming is a means to an end. Every project I’ve started has been about storytelling of some kind.

Sarah’s been kind enough to share some writing tips along the way. The biggest one is something I’ve been bad at: just write. I’ve entered writing competitions and have published stories, but it’s always taken a surprising amount of effort for me to give myself permission to take it seriously. I think that’s because it’s something I want to do for myself, rather than something other people want me to do. Given the choice between nurturing my own needs and making someone else happy, I’ll usually pick the latter. In other words, I don’t take it seriously because I don’t take myself seriously.

So I’m in awe of people like Sarah who have the drive to make it happen. She’s a very talented writer who has built up a dedicated audience of people who love her work. Creating that work is hard: a novel is not a small undertaking, and building a story with emotional resonance that keeps the reader turning the page is a rare skill.

There’s a whole generation of predominantly women who have grown up with her books now. People have tattoos. That’s amazing.

At around the sixteen minute mark in the movie, Sarah leaves the Clementine’s boutique: a tiny cameo that I know she was nervous about. The girls say, “thank you, Sarah”. It’s a sweet moment if you know to look for it.

Every so often, Sarah will ask me how my writing is coming along. I don’t claim to have anything approaching her takent or dedication, but before too long, I hope to give her an answer that makes me proud. Thank you, Sarah.

 

Roe and work

We’re living through a notable period of history. This week’s Supreme Court leak is a lot: an early opinion by a noted constitutional originalist on the court which indicates that Roe v Wade will be overturned.

For people with a uterus in particular, this decision carries much emotional weight. It’s an emotive topic that speaks directly to their agency over their own bodies, after two long years of a global pandemic that disproportionately affected women and people of color, set against a backdrop of rising nationalism and discrimination. Injustice against tragedy against injustice.

It’s been a lot, yet many businesses want those same people to leave politics at the door, seeing these discussions as an inconvenient distraction that could divide offices and undermine performance. It’s a lot to ask for, and belies a position rooted in privilege: an obliviousness to how heavy this issue is, and how much of an effect the discussion necessarily has. If you feel like you’re being subjugated, the ask to ignore that subjugation for eight hours a day in support of someone else’s profits is offensive. Doubly so when those who profit are not subject to the same restrictions.

Those situations are discriminatory to people from vulnerable communities and harmful to almost everyone. If injustice must be compartmentalized away, the only possible outcome is a reinforcement of the status quo.

It’s important to make space for team members who need to take care of themselves; to reflect; to care. It’s important to feel like you can bring your whole self to work, and to feel like work is a safe place to be. It’s important to have the time and space to process in order to progress. A workplace that doesn’t make these allowances will always create psychological friction. In a world where every knowledge worker is working from their own space, letting their workplace into their homes, that’s even more important.

While the leak has been confirmed as real, it’s not necessarily a reflection of the final Supreme Court decision. As of writing this today, abortion is still legal. But that’s not the point: it’s the simple fact of the conversation that, for many, is an assault. And enforcing a denial of that fact is an assault again.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: April, 2022

This is my monthly roundup of the books, articles, and streaming media I found interesting. Here's my list for April, 2022.

Books

Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World, by Tom Burgis. Fascinating but also narrow: in this true life tale of global kleptocracy, all the players in the west are amoral at worst, while the real thieves are in the former Soviet Union. Still, there’s a lot to learn from the author’s research, and enough here to embarrass the banks and moneymen who made it all possible.

Notable Articles

Business

Rise of women in tech leadership. “Women in tech are gaining ground as the technology industry—or at least its largest players—makes slow but steady progress in shrinking its gender gap, and women in tech leadership are making the fastest advances.” Lots of work still to do, but good!

LinkedIn’s ‘career break’ feature can help normalize resume gaps. “LinkedIn users can classify their time away from paid work as one of 13 “types” of career breaks — including bereavement, career transition, caregiving, full-time parenting and health and well-being — and add details about what led to the career break and what they’ve done during the break.” I think this is good?

The Things We Did Not Do While Reaching $2M ARR. “A list of things tech startups usually go through that we did not.”

The Rise of the Triple Peak Day. “Findings from Microsoft and its researchers suggest that the 9-to-5 workday is fading in an age of remote and hybrid work and more flexible hours. That pattern was first spotted early in the pandemic, when Microsoft Teams chats outside the typical workday increased more than in any other time segment, particularly between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.” This is not okay.

Returning To The Office Is Creating The Great Reckoning. “Despite the endless pablum about “leadership” in business, those who lead - bosses, managers, and so on - by and large are not the ones doing the work, to the point that many of them have only the most tangential understanding of the tasks they’re demanding other people complete.”

Amazon Workers on Staten Island Vote to Unionize. “The win on Staten Island could herald a new era for labor unions in the United States, which saw the portion of workers in unions drop last year to 10.3 percent, the lowest rate in decades, despite widespread labor shortages and pockets of successful labor activity.”

Covid

75% of US children have now had COVID, up from 44% due to omicron. “About a third of all children in the country were newly infected during the omicron wave. Together, the data showcase just how poorly the country has done at shielding children—including those not yet eligible for vaccination—from the pandemic virus.”

Crypto

On anti-crypto toxicity. “If you feel the urge to “cyberbully” someone in crypto, direct it at the powerful players behind crypto projects that are actively taking advantage of the vulnerable. Or, just as reasonably, direct it at the powerful tech executives, venture capitalists, elected representatives, and lobbyists who have contributed to the untenable situation we find ourselves in.”

Gwyneth Paltrow, Mila Kunis are pushing women to invest in NFTs. “But they’re also buying into an unpredictable market that some theorize has already peaked. Most NFTs don’t sell and only a small group of people are responsible for the vast quantity of NFT trading, said Mason Nystrom, an analyst for Messari Capital.”

Culture

Donald Glover Interviews Donald Glover. “I mean farming everything. Talent, ideas, moments. You ever heard of Bauhaus?”

the html review. “The html review is an annual journal of literature made to exist on the web.”

Star Trek: Picard to Reunite Next Generation Cast for Season 3. Let’s be real: I will watch the hell out of this.

Return to Monkey Island. A new sequel from Ron Gilbert, following canonically from Monkey Island 2? Sign. Me. Up.

I would like to be paid like a plumber. “I explained this to Kurt but I thought I’d better reiterate it here. I do not want and will not take a royalty on any record I record. No points. Period. I think paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. The band write the songs. The band play the music. It’s the band’s fans who buy the records. The band is responsible for whether it’s a great record or a horrible record. Royalties belong to the band.” Steve Albini makes his pitch to Nirvana to help make In Utero.

Media

The L.A. Riots Were 30 Years Ago. I’m Still Trying to Understand Them. “But my editor, who was white, removed all references to King’s race from the story’s opening paragraphs.”

From the Arab Spring to Russian censorship: a decade of internet blackouts and repression. “Over the last six months, Rest of World spoke to more than 70 technologists, telecomms experts, activists, and journalists from around the world to track how governments’ control over the internet has grown and evolved during the past decade. Their testimony shows that the free, open, global internet is under severe threat.”

Let’s make journalism work for those not born into an elite class. ““Most news coverage isn’t created with people experiencing poverty in mind,” Heather Bryant, a journalist and founder of Project Facet, has said. That is frequently made clear when outlets want to run sensitive and authentic stories concerning class.”

White newspaper, Black city. “After years of sluggish progress, there’s something to be said about how journalists are growing more willing to publicly air the dirty laundry of their own publications in the name of making them better. While new journalism organizations are radically redefining what it means to reflect the communities they serve, it’s unclear if older institutions can truly reckon with their failures.”

How Silicon Valley is helping Putin and other tyrants win the information war. ““The power that Facebook has is scary. The way it is using it is even scarier,” a Russian journalist, who did not want to be named due to security concerns, told me. Her account was suspended after she was reported to Facebook by numerous accounts accusing her of violating community standards.”

Bitch Comes to a Close. Just a complete bummer.

BBC Staff Exodus: Women of Color Exhausted from Fighting Broken System. “At least 15 women of color have left the BBC in the last year saying they are “exhausted” from fighting a system that “is not systemically built to support anyone who is different,” a Variety investigation has uncovered.”

Politics

Supreme Court Denies Equal Rights To Puerto Ricans — Again. ““Equal treatment of citizens should not be left to the vagaries of the political process,” Sotomayor wrote. “Because residents of Puerto Rico do not have voting representation in Congress, they cannot rely on their elected representatives to remedy the punishing disparities suffered by citizen residents of Puerto Rico under Congress’ unequal treatment.””

Older women voters will likely play a big role in the midterm elections. ““Women over 50+ may not only be the decision makers in their households, they may also be the decision makers of the midterm elections,” Margie Omero, principal at GBAO, a public opinion research firm, said in a statement accompanying the poll results.”

Science

Alzheimer’s May Be Caused by Cell Phones, Scientists Say. “According to a press release on the research, most scientists agree that Alzheimer’s is caused by excess calcium buildup in the brain. And pulsed electronically generated electromagnetic fields (EMFs) emitted from cell phones, the study says, may be causing or worsening that calcium buildup.”

Reversing hearing loss with regenerative therapy. “In Frequency’s first clinical study, the company saw statistically significant improvements in speech perception in some participants after a single injection, with some responses lasting nearly two years.”

Society

Brooklyn Public Library Launches Campaign Against State Book Bans. “The Books UnBanned campaign provides youth ages 13 to 21 with online access to banned books.” Just superb.

Black principals receive leadership training, support through new initiatives. “Studies link Black principals, especially women, to better academic performance. New initiatives aim to train and support them.”

Stop matching lone female Ukraine refugees with single men, UK told. “The UN refugee agency has called on the UK government to intervene to stop single British men from being matched up with lone Ukrainian women seeking refuge from war because of fears of sexual exploitation.” Gross.

Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmed: How she will change the Supreme Court. “The Senate on Thursday voted 53-47 to confirm Jackson’s historic nomination to the nation’s highest court. Though Jackson will not change the court’s conservative majority, she will change the court. Her presence is set to create the first all-women liberal wing of the court, whose dissenting opinions are expected to outline their vision for a more just country and possibly influence future Supreme Court rulings.”

Oklahoma’s legislature approves total abortion ban. “This June, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that examines the constitutionality of a 15-week abortion ban. Many observers believe the court, which has a large conservative majority, will use that case to overturn Roe v. Wade, allowing states to restrict access to the procedure as much as they wish.”

Technology

As Western social media apps leave Russia, Snap’s Zenly hangs on. “If you’re a restaurant chain, you’re either selling Subway sandwiches in Russia or not. You’re either selling a Rolls-Royce or not. It’s not as straightforward for the tech platforms.”

Applied for Student Aid Online? Facebook Saw You. “For millions of prospective college students, applying online for federal financial aid has also meant sharing personal data with Facebook, unbeknownst to them or their parents, The Markup has learned. This information has included first and last names, email addresses, and zip codes.”

Some Thoughts On Twitter. “I continue to believe that a single person owning one of the most important communications protocols of the internet is a bad idea, but maybe it can be a bridge to something better.”

Web scraping is legal, US appeals court reaffirms. “In its ruling, the Supreme Court narrowed what constitutes a violation of the CFAA as those who gain unauthorized access to a computer system — rather than a broader interpretation of exceeding existing authorization, which the court argued could have attached criminal penalties to “a breathtaking amount of commonplace computer activity.””

Jeff Bezos is worth $160bn – yet Congress might bail out his space company. “Who will, overall, be benefiting from space exploration? Will it be a handful of billionaires or will it be the people of our country and all of humanity?”

Lyft asked if this driver needed help. He was already dying. “Lyft says it’s worked hard to develop security features to keep drivers safe. In addition to the texts the company sends, Lyft also has 24/7 safety teams and partners with ADT, so drivers can use the Lyft app to contact the security company and get emergency services sent to their location. But Philpotts’ story is a case study not only in how those safety features fail in real life-and-death situations, but also in how Lyft itself fails the families of drivers who are hurt or killed on the job.”

Planting Undetectable Backdoors in Machine Learning Models. “Given the computational cost and technical expertise required to train machine learning models, users may delegate the task of learning to a service provider. We show how a malicious learner can plant an undetectable backdoor into a classifier. On the surface, such a backdoored classifier behaves normally, but in reality, the learner maintains a mechanism for changing the classification of any input, with only a slight perturbation.”

Ukraine using ClearviewAI facial recognition to identify Russian war dead. “In another conversation, a stranger sent a message to a Russian mother saying her son was dead, alongside a photo showing a man’s body in the dirt — face grimacing and mouth agape. The recipient responded with disbelief, saying it wasn’t him, before the sender passed along another photo showing a gloved hand holding the man’s military documents.” Grim.

A Web Renaissance. “So if we have the tech, then why hasn’t it happened already? The biggest thing that may be missing is just awareness of the modern web’s potential. Unlike the Facebooks and Googles of the world, the open, creative web doesn’t have a billion-dollar budget for promoting itself. Years of control from the tech titans has resulted in the conventional wisdom that somehow the web isn’t “enough”, that you have to tie yourself to proprietary platforms if you want to build a big brand or a big business.”

Pipedream Malware: Feds Uncover 'Swiss Army Knife' for Industrial System Hacking. “On Wednesday, the Department of Energy, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the NSA, and the FBI jointly released an advisory about a new hacker toolset potentially capable of meddling with a wide range of industrial control system equipment.”

Police Records Show Women Are Being Stalked With Apple AirTags Across the Country. “Of the 150 total police reports mentioning AirTags, in 50 cases women called the police because they started getting notifications that their whereabouts were being tracked by an AirTag they didn’t own. Of those, 25 could identify a man in their lives—ex-partners, husbands, bosses—who they strongly suspected planted the AirTags on their cars in order to follow and harass them. Those women reported that current and former intimate partners—the most likely people to harm women overall—are using AirTags to stalk and harass them.”

 

My first gig

Hunter Walk asked people about their first concert.

My first was Tears For Fears, for a friend’s 13th birthday. It was just me and him. I wasn’t that into the band, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I loved it.

Perhaps more notably, the support band was a local group who had just changed its name to Radiohead. I remember that the singer, Thom Yorke, was very deadpan and reserved. Later, I’d see him around town a lot, always looking incredibly dour behind a pair of sunglasses while he went shopping or had a picnic with his family.

I love live music, but I haven’t felt safe to go during the pandemic. Even more recently, I’ve given up tickets to see Wet Leg and Dadi Freyr because I just didn’t want to risk it, despite being excited to see them live.

A couple of gigs that stand out to me:

I was glad I got to see Johnny Clegg on his final tour. Clegg formed the first interracial rock band in South Africa, which was illegal under the country’s apartheid rules, and told stories of their run-ins with the law as well as about the activists of the time.

I’ve seen Ani DiFranco fifteen times or so. I love the kinetic energy she brings live, and her politics - both about the world and about gender and identity - speak loudly to me.

I got to see Seasick Steve at the smallest stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in Golden Gate Park. He didn’t have a following in the US, so it was just a handful of us on the grass; intimate in the way great shows can be. And then he brought out John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin to play guitar with him.

And it was a treat to hear my sister’s band, Django Moves to Portland, for the first time after decades of hearing her play her songs acoustically. Her songs have always stood on their own, but the full band transformed them into something else.

How about you? What was your first concert? Which gigs have been notable for you?

 

Mastodon and the future of Twitter

Amidst all this talk about the future of Twitter pending a still-theoretical Elon Musk acquisition, some people have been asking whether there’s a viable alternative they could move to immediately.

Inevitably, some of the obvious decentralized projects have been suggested. The most notable is Mastodon, a federated social network that might as well be a full Twitter clone, albeit based on the ActivityPub standard.

I have nothing against Mastodon. I’ve been using it for years, alongside my other social networks. The community there is a little nerdier, and certainly quieter. Twitter is where the action is; Mastodon has so far been for the handful of enthusiasts who want to experiment with federation. Even among them, a hefty percentage simply syndicate content from their Twitter accounts.

Since the Elon Musk news broke, Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko reports that the network has grown by 84,579 users. That’s great, but hardly a drop in the bucket when you consider Twitter’s 330 million monthly active users. It’s possible we’re at the beginning of a larger move, but it’s more likely that these users represent a spike in new sign-ups that will settle down to something closer to their usual level.

Although it’s a decentralized network with no corporate owner, Mastodon is fundamentally no better than Twitter from an end user perspective. In some ways, it’s a little bit worse: the username scheme is necessarily more complicated and harder to understand, there aren’t any anti-harassment protections for vulnerable communities, and the news feed is less likely to immediately show you content you’re interested in. That’s if you even get that far: you’ve got to pick a home server and one of multiple client apps.

Again: I’m not knocking Mastodon (or any decentralized project). It’s an important step towards a web that is not under the corporate control of a handful of companies.

What I am knocking is the design approach of emulating Twitter. While Twitter has tweets, Mastodon has toots; while Twitter has a 280 character limit, Mastodon has 500. The two networks have fundamentally the same content and interaction models, with what amount to slightly different settings. I say tweet, you say toot: let’s call the whole thing off.

“Twitter, but decentralized” is an example of a solution to a problem that has been defined in technical or ideological terms, but doesn’t come from a direct user need. As ideological proponents of decentralization, we might want the user to need federated Twitter, we might think they need it, but without a deep understanding of the users, all we’re doing is projecting our hopes and dreams onto them. Is their need decentralized Twitter, is it a network where they can connect to breaking news but also feel safe from abuse, or is it something else entirely?

The only true approach is to go back to a well-defined, core group of users, and learn from them holistically. Instead of making a problem to solve from whole cloth, we should start with the real-life points of view of a number of real people. (Not market segments; not invented personas; real-life humans who are representative of who you want the users to be.)

[Name], a [description], needs a way to [verb] in order to [surprising insight].

These POVs can only be arrived at through getting to know those people - and are the first step in a long human-centered design process that must encompass not just the product being made, but the structure of the organization that makes it. You can make a decentralized tool, but if the underlying organization is a C-Corp that could be bought by a billionaire, the effectiveness of your solution to a problem created by another C-Corp that was bought by a billionaire is limited. And if you want to build a platform where diverse, vulnerable communities feel safe, you’d better give them a say in running it.

We are never absolved from doing the hard work of deeply working with real people in order to serve them. A technology-first approach never wins. When 86% of Americans get their news via the internet, and when the platforms providing that news are owned by a very small handful of commercial companies and an even smaller gaggle of rich men, this isn’t a problem we get to half-ass.

Whether he ultimately does or not, the idea of Musk owning Twitter is a problem. The solution is not “Twitter but decentralized”, or a protocol, or an open standard, although it might potentially incorporate any of those things. The solution is something new that more deeply serves its target users better than they have been served before. The technology is secondary to the need, always.

Discover more IndieWeb sites
Discover more blogs on Blogroll