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Amanda Zamora is stepping down as publisher at The 19th

Amanda is absolutely fearless and I was privileged to work with her. As co-founder of The 19th, she was an absolutely core part of what it became: both a strategist and culture instigator. What she does next will certainly change media; I'll be cheerleading.

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Meta in Myanmar, Part I: The Setup

"By that point, Meta had been receiving detailed and increasingly desperate warnings about Facebook’s role as an accelerant of genocidal propaganda in Myanmar for six years." We need more discussion of this - I'm grateful for this four-part series.

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US surgeons are killing themselves at an alarming rate. One decided to speak out

"Somewhere between 300 to 400 physicians a year in the US take their own lives, the equivalent of one medical school graduating class annually."

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Oxford University is the world’s top university for a record eighth year

This presumably means that the Turf Tavern is the best student pub in the world.

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How the “Surveillance AI Pipeline” Literally Objectifies Human Beings

"The vast majority of computer vision research leads to technology that surveils human beings, a new preprint study that analyzed more than 20,000 computer vision papers and 11,000 patents spanning three decades has found.”

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Every company is a community

Silhouettes of people gathering at sunset

There’s a piece in the latest Harvard Business Review which starts with a premise I’d like to challenge:

It’s well-known that firms where strategy and culture align outperform firms where they do not. It follows, then, that if the two aren’t aligned, you most likely need to change your culture.

The rest of the article goes on to describe how storytelling is an integral part of establishing a strong culture in a company — and it absolutely is. A cohesive, supporting culture and the ability to tell strong stories are things every organization needs if it wants to succeed.

What I want to challenge is this idea that if strategy and culture don’t align, it’s the culture that needs changing. To be sure, quite often it does: particularly in situations where not enough time has been spent building a supportive culture to begin with. But culture is made of people, relationships, norms, and stories. The premise above hinges on the idea that if the people in your organization aren’t aligned with an organization’s strategy, you need to change the people. The strategy is paramount. But what if that’s not true? What if the strategy really is at fault, and organizations need to put more trust in their people?

I believe that the strongest organizational cultures are the most equitable ones. Whether you agree with my belief or not, research backs me up: the most productive work cultures are the ones where everyone feels empowered to speak up and be heard, where management genuinely listens to and acts on both the needs and ideas of their workforce. There’s a necessary underlying respect that you can’t simply storytell your way around.

In turn, that respect is built by distributing equity: giving people real ownership, both figurative and literal, in their workplace. There’s a reason burnout is driven by people not feeling like they can affect the choices that impact their work; people want to have control, and to make real progress on meaningful work.

If you don’t have those things, then, sure, your culture needs to be changed. But if you find yourself wishing that everyone would just go along with what you’re telling them to do, perhaps the first change needs to be a little more personal.

Building this level of interpersonal respect necessitates approaching building your workforce like a community. In turn, this means prioritizing strong interpersonal relationships. Can people talk with each other openly? Are they able to bring their whole selves to work? Does management listen and act? Are there rules and norms that foster emotional safety, particularly among people who may feel underrepresented and therefore alone in the organization? Does the organization treat the people who work inside it as fully-realized, three dimensional human beings, or are they fungible line items on a spreadsheet?

Is your company a diverse, happy, healthy community of trusted experts?

Was your strategy co-developed with your community?

Are your community’s needs and ideas represented in your decisions?

Will your community directly experience any upside that is an outcome of their work?

From here, other, related ideas become more obvious. If your community is co-developing your strategy, your want as many diverse ideas as possible. Hiring people from different contexts and backgrounds becomes an integral part of setting strategy. It becomes important to ask, when considering any new hire, whether they’ll bring a new perspective to your community. A homogenous workforce becomes a liability, because you’ll have a narrower set of ideas to work with.

Obviously, this mindset of collaborative inclusion is not commonly employed among business leaders. If it were, we’d see more diverse organizations with happy workforces, rather than the stark monocultures that engage in union-busting we see in tech (and everywhere) today. It runs completely counter to Elon Musk’s “extremely hardcore” work culture and wild firing rampages, for example. Not to mention the screaming fits associated with software leaders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

Often, managers want to be mavericks: the smartest people in the room, who bend reality with their singular vision and bring everyone along from the ride. The truth is, it’s kind of bullshit: a story egotists tell themselves to justify being antisocial. You can’t hypnotize people into working for you through sheer charisma. The only way to scale an organization is to set a really strong internal culture first, and then empower everyone you add to your community to help you build it.

If you’ve hired great people and built a strong community, and those people are telling you that your strategy is off, you should believe them. And then you should shut up and listen to them, work together, and build something better together.

If you haven’t hired great people, and you haven’t built a great community, you’ve failed at business-building 101 and need to go back to the drawing board.

Every industry, including tech, comes down to people. Every company is a community. And every community is built on trust, respect, and equity.

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How I approach crafting a blog post

"I don’t think I’ve seen someone walk through their process for writing a blog post, though." I love this breakdown! Tracy's structured process shows up in the quality of her posts. I love the thoughtfulness here.

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Privacy Party

This is really good: a browser extension (for Chrome-based browsers) that goes through your social networks and helps you update your settings to optimize for privacy and security. Really well-executed.

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Unions work

Hands joining together in solidarity

The Writer’s Guild of America seems to have received everything it asked for:

Delivering on issues that many scribes saw as core to their profession, the deal contains big leaps in AI guardrails, residuals and data transparency for writers — leaps that could be transplanted into the upcoming negotiations between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA, which could start in the next week.

This is a great example of how unions can really work for their members. Hollywood is a broadly-unionized industry, as we’ve seen for the last five months, and the result has been real gains in writer equity and compensation in the face of technology changes like streaming and AI.

Of course, at least in America, most industries are not highly-unionized. 10.1% of wage and salary workers were unionized in 2022, down from a peak of about a third, which coincided with income inequality’s lowest point. Generally, unionized workers make 18% more (20% for African Americans, 23% for women, and 34% for Hispanic workers).

Tech is often the home of a particular kind of libertarian thinking that is often anti-union. But that, thankfully, is changing. In 2004, a third of tech workers were in favor of unionization; twelve years later, it was 59%. These days, prominently recognized tech unions include the Alphabet Workers Union, but firms have engaged in nakedly union-busting activity, from big tech companies like Apple, later-stage startups like Instacart, and supposedly public interest organizations like Code for America. (It’ll be no surprise that Elon Musk’s Tesla was found guilty of illegal union-busting tactics).

Regardless, the industry would gain immensely from unionization — and more and more tech workers agree. It’s not so much about wages as recognition and a say in how these companies are run. Last year, Jane Lytvynenko, senior research fellow on the Tech and Social Change Project at the Shorenstein Center wrote in MIT Technology Review:

[…] Silicon Valley companies don’t see more protests about wages from their white-collar employees—those workers get stock options, good salaries, and free lunch. But such perks do little to address structural discrimination.

My hope is that examples like the WGA’s win will help spread this idea that there should be a counterbalance to corporate power, and that the people who do the work should have influence over how it is organized. If you’ll pardon the pun, tech workers should own the means to push to production. Allworkers should have a say in how their companies function. And I believe — still crossing my fingers, because there’s a lot of work to do and a lot of gains still to be made — that this future is coming.

In the meantime, congratulations to the WGA! Nice work. Solidarity.

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Britain’s attitude to refugees shows, once again, that it’s a colonial nation

"Hostile immigration policy stokes racism but the foundation it builds upon itself is racist and maintains a 'colonial present'. Through dealing with migrants like pests, who deserve to be locked away in a prison barge, the British government continues to ignore the fact that, “Borders maintain hoarded concentrations of wealth accrued from colonial domination.""

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In defense of aggressive small-town newspapers

This: "The prevalence of “news deserts” has apparently led some to think it’s normal for neighborhood news outlets to function as lapdogs rather than watchdogs." The purpose of journalism is to investigate in the public interest.

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Optimizing for Taste

A solid argument against A/B testing. A lot of it comes down to this: "It fosters a culture of decision making without having an opinion, without having to put a stake in the ground. It fosters a culture where making a quick buck trumps a great product experience." I agree.

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Failing Without Knowing Why: The Tragedy Of Performative Content

Thought-provoking for me: particularly as someone who thinks through ideas through writing. But perhaps that writing doesn't need to be in public, in front of an audience.

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FTC Sues Amazon for Illegally Maintaining Monopoly Power

"Amazon’s ongoing pattern of illegal conduct blocks competition, allowing it to wield monopoly power to inflate prices, degrade quality, and stifle innovation for consumers and businesses." Whatever happens here, it will be meaningful. It's also nice to see the FTC actually wielding its antitrust powers.

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In the AI Age, The New York Times Wants Reporters to Tell Readers Who They Are

I think this is the right impulse: people tend to follow and trust individual journalists, not publications. Building out profiles and establishing more personal relationships helps build that trust.

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Counting Ghosts

"Web analytics sits in the awkward space between empirical analysis and relationship building, failing at both, distracting from the real job to be done: making connections, in whatever form that means for our project."

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Meredith Whittaker reaffirms that Signal would leave UK if forced by privacy bill

Signal on UK privacy law: "We would leave the U.K. or any jurisdiction if it came down to the choice between backdooring our encryption and betraying the people who count on us for privacy, or leaving." Good.

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Publisher wants $2,500 to allow academics to post their own manuscript to their own repository – Walled Culture

The open access movement is an important way academics can fight back against predatory publishers for the good of human knowledge everywhere - but the publishers are still out there, grifting.

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U.S. Counterintel Buys Access to the Backbone of the Internet to Hunt Foreign Hackers

"The news is yet another example of a government agency turning to the private sector for novel datasets that the public is likely unaware are being collected and then sold."

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Parenting in the age of the internet

A toddler using an iPhone on the floor

I learned to read and write on computers.

Our first home computer, the Sinclair ZX81, had BASIC shortcuts built into the keyboards: you could hit a key combination and words like RUN, THEN, and ELSE would spit out onto the screen. I wrote a lot of early stories using those building blocks.

Our second, the Atari 130XE, had similar BASIC instructions, but also had a much stronger software ecosystem. In one, you would type a rudimentary story, and 8-bit stick figure characters would act it out on screen. “The man walks to the woman”; “The wumpus eats the man.”

We never had a games console in the house, much to my chagrin, although the Atari could take games cartridges, and I once got so far in Joust that the score wrapped back around to 0. But mostly, I used our computers to write stories and play around a little bit with simple computer programming (my mother taught me a little BASIC when I was five).

We walk our son to daycare via the local elementary school. This morning, as we wheeled his empty stroller back past the building, a school bus pulled up outside and a stream of eight-year-olds came tumbling out in front of us. As we stood there and watched them walk one by one into the building, I saw iPhone after iPhone after iPhone clutched in chubby little hands. Instagram; YouTube; texting.

It’s obvious that he’ll get into computers early: he’s the son of someone who learned to write code at the same time as writing English and a cognitive scientist who does research for a big FAANG company. Give him half a chance and he’ll already grab someone’s phone or laptop and find modes none of us knew existed — and he’s barely a year old. The only question is how he’ll get into computers.

I’m adamant with him, as my parents were with me, that he should see a computer as a creation, not a consumption device. At their best, computers are tools that allow children to create things themselves, and learn about the world in the process. At their worst, they’re little more than televisions, albeit with a near-infinite number of channels, that needlessly limit your horizons. For many kids, social media is such a huge part of of their life that being an influencer is their most hoped-for job. No thank you: not for my kid.

But, of course, if we can steer away from streaming media and Instagram’s hollow expectations, there’s a ton of fun to be had. This is one area where I think generative AI could be genuinely joyful: the fun that I had writing stories for those 8-bit stick figures, transposed to a whole universe of visual possibilities. That is, of course, unless using those tools prevents him from learning to draw himself.

He’s entering a very different cultural landscape where computers occupy a very different space. Those early 8-bit machines were, by necessity, all about creation: you often had to type in a BASIC script before you could use any software at all. In contrast, today’s devices are optimized to keep you consuming, and to capture your engagement at all costs. Those iPhones those kids were holding are designed to be addiction machines.

Correspondingly, our role as parents is to teach responsible use. If we are to be good teachers, that also means we have to demonstrate responsible use: something I am notoriously bad at with my own phone. I’ve got every social network installed. I sometimes lose time to TikTok. I’m a slave to my tiny hand-computer in every way I possibly can be. I tell myself that I need to know how it all works because of what I do for a living, but the real truth is, I love it. I don’t need to be on social media; I don’t need to be a part of the iPhone Upgrade Program. I just am.

I think responsible use means dialing up the ratio of creation to consumption for me, too. If I’m to convey that it’s better to be an active part of shaping the world than just being a passive consumer of it, that’s what I have to do. This is true in all things — a core, important lesson is that there isn’t one way to do things, and life is richer if you don’t follow the life templates that are set out for us — but in some ways I feel it most acutely in our relationship to technology.

There will certainly be peer pressure. His friends will have iPhones. I don’t think withholding technology is the right thing to do: consider those kids whose parents never let them have junk food, who then go out and have as much junk food as possible as soon as they can. Instead, if he has an iPhone, he will learn how to make simple iPhone apps. You’d better believe that he’ll learn how to make websites early on (what kind of indieweb advocate would I be otherwise?). He will be writing stories and editing videos and making music. And, sure, he’ll be consuming as part of that — but, in part, as a way to get inspired about making his own things.

These days, creating also means participating in online conversations. As he gets older, we’ll need to have careful discussions about the ideas he encounters. I’m already imagining that first conversation about why Black Lives Matter is an important movement and how to think about right-wing content that seeks to minimize other people. I don’t want our kid to be a lurker who thinks people should be happy with what they get; I want him to feel like the world is his oyster, and that he can help change it for the better. Our devices can be a gateway to bigger ideas, or they can be a path to a constrained walled garden of parochial thought. It all requires guidance and trust.

The computer revolution happened between my birth and his. Realizing so makes me feel as old as dust, but more importantly, it opens up a new set of parental responsibilities. I want to help him be someone who creates and affects the world, not someone who lets the world happen to him. And there’s so much world to see.

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Trying out Kagi

As an experiment, I’m trying out Kagi as my default search engine, switching from Google (no link required; they’re probably behind you right now).

I like the idea of an ad-free experience: a paid-for engine puts the incentives in the right place. But it’s got to be about more than ideology. Because search is such an important part of my working life (and most knowledge workers’ working lives) it’s important that the results are actually better than Google’s.

For a while, I tried to use DuckDuckGo, which uses Bing’s search engine behind the scenes. It was just fine for most things and markedly worse for a few, so I had to switch back, even though I love its privacy focus.

Kagi uses a mix of third-party engines and its own to provide its results. So far, they seem pretty good, but the proof will be in intensive use.

What I already know I love: they have a StumbleUpon-like site for discovering small websites, and surface blogs in some search results when they’re relevant. That’s something I want from every search engine.

We will see! I’ll give it a month and then report back.

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Digital Disruption: Measuring the Social and Economic Costs of Internet Shutdowns & Throttling of Access to Twitter

This report found that removing access to Twitter created significant economic and social impacts. Question: are some of these now replicated with the switch to X?

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Subscribing to the blogs of people I follow on Mastodon

It’s no surprise to anyone that I prefer reading peoples’ long-form thoughts to tweets or pithy social media posts. Microblogging is interesting for quick, in-the-now status updates, but I find myself craving more nuance and depth.

Luckily, Blogging is enjoying a resurgence off the back of movements like the Indieweb (at one end of the spectrum) and platforms like Substack (at the other), and far more people are writing in public on their own sites than they were ten years ago. Hooray! This is great for me, but how do I find all those sites to read?

I figured that the people I’m connected to on Mastodon would probably be the most likely to be writing on their own sites, so I wondered if it was possible to subscribe to all the blogs of the people I followed.

I had a few criteria:

  1. I only wanted to subscribe to blogs. (No feeds of updates from GitHub, for example, or posts in forums.)
  2. I didn’t want to have to authenticate with the Mastodon API to get this done. This felt like a job for a scraper — and Mastodon’s API is designed in such a way that you need to make several API calls to figure out each user’s profile links, which I didn’t want to do.
  3. I wanted to write it in an hour or two on Sunday morning. This wasn’t going to be a sophisticated project. I was going to take my son to the children’s museum in the afternoon, which was a far more important task.

On Mastodon, people can list a small number of external links as part of their profile, with any label they choose. Some people are kind enough to use the label blog, which is fairly determinative, but lots don’t. So I decided that I wanted to take a look at every link people I follow on Mastodon added to their profiles, figure out if it’s a blog I can subscribe to or not, and then add the reasonably-bloggy sites to an OPML file that I could then add to an RSS reader.

Here’s the very quick-and-dirty command line tool I wrote yesterday.

Mastodon helpfully produces a CSV file that lists all the accounts you follow. I decided to use that as an index rather than crawling my instance.

Then it converts those account usernames to URLs and downloads the HTML for each profile. While Mastodon has latterly started using JavaScript to render its UI — which means the actual profile links aren’t there in the HTML to parse — it turns out that it includes profile links as rel=“me” metatags in the page header, so my script finds end extracts those using the indieweb link-rel parser to create the list of websites to crawl.

Once it has the list of websites, it excludes any that don’t look like they’re probably blogs, using some imperfect-but-probably-good-enough heuristics that include:

  1. Known silo URLs (Facebook, Soundcloud, etc) are excluded.
  2. If the URL contains /article, /product, and so on, it’s probably a link to an individual page rather than a blog.
  3. Long links are probably articles or resources, not blogs.
  4. Pages with long URL query strings are probably search results, not blogs.
  5. Links to other Mastodon profiles (or Pixelfed, Firefish, and so on) disappear.

The script goes through the remaining list and attempts to find the feed for each page. If it doesn’t find a feed I can subscribe to, it just moves on. Any feeds that look like feeds of comments are discarded. Then, because the first feed listed is usually the best one, the script chooses the first remaining feed in the list for the page.

Once it’s gone through every website, it spits out a CSV and an OPML file.

After a few runs, I pushed the OPML file into Newsblur, my feed reader of choice. It was able to subscribe to a little over a thousand new feeds. Given that I’d written the script in a little over an hour and that it was using some questionable tactics, I wasn’t sure how high-quality the sites would be, so I organized them all into a new “Mastodon follows” folder that I could unsubscribe to quickly if I needed to.

But actually, it was pretty great! A few erroneous feeds did make it through: a few regional newspapers (I follow a lot of journalists), some updates to self-hosted Git repositories, and some Lemmy feeds. I learned quickly that I don’t care for most Tumblr content — which is usually reposted images — and I found myself wishing I’d excluded it. Finally, I removed some non-English feeds that I simply couldn’t read (although I wish my feed reader had an auto-translate function so that I could).

The upshot is that I’ve got a lot more blogs to read from people I’ve already expressed interest in. Is the script anything close to perfect? Absolutely not. It it shippable? Not really. But it did what I needed it to, and I’m perfectly happy.

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EVs are a climate solution with a pollution problem: Tire particles

Another reason why the really sustainable solution to pollution from cars is better mass transit.

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Intuit Pushing Claim That Free Tax-Filing Program Would Harm Black Taxpayers

Intuit has a stranglehold on how taxes are filed in America. For what? Many other countries just have an easy to use tax portal of their own. This is a business that shouldn't even need to exist.

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