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Engineer, startup founder, investor, and writer

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben@benwerd.com

werd.eth

 

Fairness Friday: helping migrants at the border in Del Rio, TX

I’m posting Fairness Fridays: a new community social justice organization each week. I donate to each featured organization. If you feel so inclined, please join me.

Like many people, I was appalled by the pictures of horse-bound border patrol agents corralling Haitian immigrants in Del Rio, Texas. Although the horse patrols have been suspended, that's far from the point: we don't treat people who are seeking a new life in America like they're people at all.

This week I'm donating to organizations that provide help and advocate for their rights.

The Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition is "a group of local citizens and agencies that have united to develop an efficient way to transition refugees to their destinations upon release of federal custody through a unified and coordinated effort."

Because refugees often just arrive with little more than the clothes on their back, the coalition feeds them, provides clothing, medical care, and transportation. And recently, they've been doing it in huge numbers.

You can join me in donating here.

The South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project "empowers immigrants through high-quality legal education, representation, and connections to services. ProBAR serves immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley border region with a particular focus on the legal needs of adults and unaccompanied children in federal custody."

"Founded in 1989 in response to the overwhelming need for pro bono legal representation of Central American asylum-seekers detained in South Texas, ProBAR has a long history of providing critical legal services to people at risk of deportation."

You can join me in donating here.

RAICES Texas is "a nonprofit agency that promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees. With legal services, social programs, bond assistance, and an advocacy team focused on changing the narrative around immigration in this country, RAICES is operating on the national frontlines of the fight for immigration rights. [It defends] the rights of immigrants and refugees, empower individuals, families, and communities, and advocate for liberty and justice."

Most recently, it joined forces with the ACLU, Oxfam, and other justice organizations to challenge Title 42 expulsions in federal court. It won a preliminary injunction, but the Biden administration has committed to ongoing expulsions. These must be stopped.

You can join me in donating here.

 

 

Drops

I’m kind of into MSCHF’s drops: a new project every fourth Monday. I’ve bought a few - my favorite is Spotting Plutes, a field guide for spotting plutocrats.

More than anything, it’s just a lot of fun. I’ve noticed that a few other groups have been inspired by MSCHF’s example: Party Round, the still-in-beta fundraising tool, has launched a series of numbered drops that includes a grant program offering $50K for big tech workers to quit their jobs.

While that feels more like a commercial endeavor, Danielle Baskin’s projects - like opening a Spirit Halloween at an empty Google office and the Oracle Open World conference for divination experts, psychics, and wizards - have even more of a sense of fun with more of a guerrilla sensibility. I don't think she was inspired by MSCHF, but the cadence and sense of humor of some of her work could be seen to fit in the same category - while at the same time often being much more authentic and interesting. (I want to be like her when I grow up.)

This kind of episodic, satirical art is really appealing to me. Poking fun at an industry that has a tendency to take itself a little too seriously is obviously appealing to me. As a consumer of these things, I enjoy being surprised and amused. But I’m also really into the idea of making this kind of work: a new project every month or so. Each one could end there, or it could turn into a fully-fledged project like Dialup.

I’m enthralled by the possibilities of this technology-enabled art studio model, and I’m curious: who else is releasing work like this? What have you enjoyed?

 

Hiring senior Ruby on Rails engineers anywhere in the US

I'm looking for a senior Ruby on Rails engineer to join me at ForUsAll.

ForUsAll was established to help more Americans reach financial safety in retirement. If you're employed by a Fortune 500 company or a well-funded startup, you probably have lots of retirement options; ForUsAll is for everybody else.

The small businesses who employ most Americans have some major barriers to providing retirement plans to their employees. For one thing, they're expensive; for another, they require a lot of time-consuming manual administration. Finally, if that administration is done poorly, there's a risk that the business will be audited and fined. Even if the plan is in good order, many 401(k) plans look like they were built in 1998 in Microsoft FrontPage: they're daunting to use and don't provide much help, meaning some users never set up their savings.

ForUsAll fixes this problem in several ways. We automate the manual work and validate the plan information every payroll, taking away the cognitive load and the risk of being fined. (We literally take on that legal risk.) Because we automate the plans, we can bring the cost down. Collectively, we take away the major reasons small employers don't provide retirement savings.

On the employee side, we provide simple, easy-to-use, modern interfaces. We also reduce the cognitive load by sending simple nudges. For example, if we think you can afford to save a little more, we'll send a nudge that says, "we think you can increase your savings rate by 1%. If you click this button, you can take it for a test drive." Users find these nudges easier, and the result is that when retirement plans use ForUsAll, more people save.

So: we help more companies provide retirement savings, and then help more employees to save with them.

Finally, we're providing more options to divest from fossil fuels in your retirement savings. We're also providing access to different kinds of investment assets, tools, and advice that are ordinarily the preserve of the wealthy. The first of these is the ability to invest a small portion of your savings into individual cryptocurrencies.

The stack is built in Ruby on Rails with an increasing amount of Node, with React on the front-end. It's a remote-first team. If this sounds like a mission you're up for, click here to apply. The first step is a phone call with me, and I'm excited to meet you.

 

Changing my policy on affiliate links

Going forward, I may include affiliate links in my posts when I'm linking out to products I recommend, including in my end-of-month link roundups.

You can be assured of several things: I won't link to products I wouldn't have recommended anyway, and I'll never link to a store I believe isn't ethical. (For example, you'll never see an Amazon link in my posts.) Book links in particular will continue to be via Bookshop, but will all (including this link) include an affiliate tag, giving me a small percentage of any sales that result.

If you've got any worries about this, reach out and I'll be happy to discuss or cover my reasoning in a future post.

 

Thoughts and actions for the week of September 20, 2021

I’m going to start kicking off my week with a list of thoughts and actions. Join me!

Thoughts

  1. There was a time when the web was really fun: a new medium that people approached with a sense of play. Even TechCrunch, back when it was a blog run by Mike Arrington, seemed like a collection of small experiments. Now it’s like reading a list of private equity updates. That’s what happens when an industry grows up, I guess, but I miss the sense of discovery and wonder. Remember the first social network, or marveling at what Flickr was able to do with a web interface? Or being excited by what one person in their bedroom could put together?
  2. The closest we have to this kind of new platform is smart contract blockchains (Ethereum, Algorand, and so on). Aspects of them are pretty cool, but the fact that money is involved creates a de facto barrier to entry. I could get into the web because it was free and because it had relatively low computing requirements. We didn’t have a lot of money. Which kids are getting into Ethereum when just the gas on a transaction is often tickling $100? $1 would have been too high a barrier for me.
  3. I’m therefore really interested in the decentralization without the monetization. What does a totally free blockchain look like? Is it even possible, given the incentives in the network? Are other, non-monetary incentives possible? Does decentralization really have to bake in capitalism? Why?
  4. What else is it baking in? Software carries with it all kinds of implicit cultural biases based on the predilections of the developers who build it. What would a barter-based decentralized protocol look like? Or one designed around paying forward? Or one designed to penalize wealth hoarding?
  5. I’m not an economist, but lately I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time hanging out with a former expert in east-west trade with an Oxford PhD in the subject, in addition to advanced law degrees with a specialization in contracts. He’s my dad, I should declare, but our conversations on the topic have been fascinating. I’ve tried and failed to get him to blog, but maybe one day I’ll write up one of our conversations here.

Actions

  1. Last week my car was smashed into and all my devices were stolen. Replacing them was pretty quick, but replacing my backpack (a Peak Design Everyday) and getting the glass repaired on my car has been less easy. This week, both those things need to happen.
  2. I spent some time today laying out some architectural diagrams for my job. I need to get some internal feedback and then put them into practice.
  3. Last week, I joined the Zebras Unite co-op as an individual member. I’ve been following the zebras since literally day one, and I’m excited to help them more deeply. I need to learn how I can be most useful to the community and put myself out there. Helping people who are genuinely out to distribute equity and make the world a more equal place is a life-affirming thing to do.
  4. I get to catch up with some friends (outside) this week, and hopefully see some live music. I’m looking forward to it.
  5. I think I’ve got an ear infection, and not for the first time this year. I actually first noticed it months ago, but it was the day my mother died, and I’ve had other priorities since then. No more putting it off: I’ve made an appointment with an ENT doctor and hopefully we can figure it out.

Have a good week!

 

Looking for a writer’s group

I’m looking for a writer’s group that meets some or all of the following characteristics:

It’s completely private. Everyone agrees that nothing leaves the group.

It’s almost all asynchronous. No Zoom write-ins, etc. Every month there’s a check-in where you can read aloud if you want to, but contributors are from all around the world and therefore lots of different timezones, so the synchronous part isn’t required.

Everyone is working on either one long-form fiction work, or a series of short stories. There’s no non-fiction.

Everyone must submit at least 1000 more words of their work every week for everyone else to read. People can leave comments but don’t need to crit.

If you don’t submit work, you’re out of the group. (Maybe there’s a three strikes rule.)

It works seasonally - so you commit to a season, but if you fall out you can start again for the next season.

I haven’t seen anything like this. Have you?

 

Fairness Friday: People’s Programs

I’m posting Fairness Fridays: a new community social justice organization each week. I donate to each featured organization. If you feel so inclined, please join me.

This week I’m donating to People’s Programs. Based in Oakland, People's Programs is a grassroots community organization that serves the people of Oakland and is dedicated to “the unification and liberation of Afrikans across the diaspora”.

Its programs include People’s Breakfast, a free breakfast program for Oakland’s houseless community, a health clinic, bail and legal support, a grocery program, and more. Modern inequality and generational injustices mean that organizations like People’s Programs are crucial lifelines for many people.

I donated. If you have the means, I encourage you to join me here. I also donated a tent from their tent drive wishlist.

 

Restore point

Not too long after I wrote my blog post about cars, my car was broken into. Unfortunately, I'd made the unwise decision to leave my backpack in the boot, with all of my devices save my phone. They were swiped unceremoniously.

I feel pretty stupid about it: never leave your valuables in your car in a public place. Particularly not valuables you use for work.

But beyond that, I have a few observations about the cloud. Because less than 24 hours later, I'm completely back up and running again on new devices that have all the data, configurations, and feel of my old ones.

First of all, here's what Find My says about the ones that were stolen:

The headphones and the iPad pinged first, and then my laptop pinged about a minute later. You can see the thief progress north. Find My is pretty good at pinging through any available connection - that's why AirTags work - but the trail runs cold from there. Out of an abundance of caution, I marked the iPad and laptop as locked and left a message in case anyone tries to turn them on. (Unfortunately you can't lock the AirPods.)

This morning I set up a new laptop, and within an hour I had all my apps and files back. It's the same model as the old one, so it's in effect identical, except without all the cool stickers. I'm hopeful that my property insurance will help me pay for the replacement.

I've been backing up on iCloud for a while, and although I have some real worries about some of the direction that Apple's going in (the shelved plan to scan devices is, despite the obviously good intentions, deeply problematic), I'm relatively comfortable with the safety - and certainly the convenience.

For a moment I worried that I'd lost the video of my mother's memorial, which would have deepened this event from an inconvenience into a tragedy. But no, iCloud had managed to back up the video, and I was able to check it this morning.

For all their power, the value of our computers is in the information we store: and by information, I really mean stories, memories, creative work, and the things we make. When I upgrade my laptop or my phone, I get the ability to take photos in a higher fidelity, or create new kinds of things. But that underlying human footprint - the trail of how I got to here, and most importantly, the people I knew and loved - transcends. I'm grateful that I don't need to worry about losing it. It's all just magically there, waiting for me.

Clearing the broken glass out of my car, on the other hand, was a real pain in the ass.

 

Tesla vs Toyota

I took delivery of a Tesla Model 3 a few months ago. My original intention was to take my mother to dialysis in it (she really wanted an electric car), but when that didn’t work out, I decided to keep it. For one thing, I’ve always resented having to own a car in the US, and I was worried about my environmental impact.

I was wowed: it’s a performant, beautiful car that feels safe. Features like auto-steer and an in-car personal assistant feel like driving in the future. It even connects to my phone and unlocks as I approach and locks as I walk away. It’s seamless: what an amazing thing.

And then I drove across the country in a 2021 Toyota Sienna.

The Toyota Sienna is not famously a beautiful car. It’s kind of got this soccer mom reputation, which shouldn’t malign it (what’s wrong with parents who take their kids to sports practice?), but at the same time it doesn’t give it a reputation for performance or elegance. It’s got a lot of room for suitcases and has a hybrid drive train that allows it to go 500-600 miles on a tank of gas, which made it a perfect vehicle for a long road trip. And it’s pretty comfortable in the back.

It turns out to be a performant, beautiful car that feels safe. It has auto-steer and (through Apple CarPlay) in-car Siri. It even connects to my phone and unlocks as I approach and locks as I walk away. It’s seamless: what an amazing thing.

Furthermore, CarPlay is an order of magnitude better as an operating system than Tesla’s software. The Tesla assistant sucks in comparison - and it’s not like Siri is known for its perfection. There are fewer apps available. And then on the phone side, both the Toyota and Tesla mobile apps leave a lot to be desired, but they also fundamentally do the same stuff.

The big advantage of the Tesla is that it doesn’t need any gas at all and doesn’t make exhaust fumes. I’m very happy with it and I’m not going to trade it in. But it turns out that some of the stuff that wowed me about it is just part of buying a modern car. They’re safer and smarter than they ever were, and the gap between a Tesla and a Toyota is much smaller than I thought.

One caveat: I didn’t spend the extra money to get full self-driving. In part, that’s because full self-driving seems to not quite be ready for primetime, although I’m tempted to try it for a few months for the automatic parallel parking. Automatic parallel parking, by the way, is something a Prius can also do.

That leads me to some interesting questions about what happens when fully-electric vehicles reach real ubiquity. My Tesla has a much higher range than electric vehicles produced by traditional auto makers, but I have to assume that won’t always be the case. What’s Tesla’s edge then? How do they stay in front? It’s not obvious to me.

I’m really happy to be driving an electric car, and I can’t wait until all cars are electric. But in terms of features, I’m not sure there will be a clear winner.

 

MailChimp: an inequitous acquisition

MailChimp is selling to Intuit for $12 billion. Importantly, seemingly because it’s a privately-held, bootstrapped company, it never gave stock options to its employees - so not a single one will see a penny from the deal.

If I was a MailChimp employee, I’d be pretty upset. Venture capital isn’t required to give employees stock compensation; they should have been given some ownership of the company.

To be fair, it offered profit-sharing instead: based on company performance, up to 19% of an employee’s salary was placed in their 401k at the end of every year. That’s not a bad deal as such, although it doesn’t lead to any extra cash in hand in the shorter term. But it was a better deal when it looked like the company was going to stay independent forever: its success is undoubtedly down to its employees, who should really see some upside. There’s a gross inequality here.

But gross inequality is par for the course. This compounds when you remember the allegations of sexism and racism at the startup. As The Verge reported back in February:

Employees say the company’s position as one of the premier startups in Atlanta allows it to view workers as disposable, as there are fewer tech jobs to choose from than if the company were located in San Francisco or New York City. They also say that because the organization is private and has never taken on outside investment, executives can operate without the specter of more public accountability.

It’ll be interesting to see how this changes once MailChimp joins Intuit. Granted, the new parent company recently faced a giant class action settlement from low-income workers who were duped into paying for its tax preparation software, so it’s not like MailChimp is being absorbed into the epitome of sweetness and equality. Nonetheless, as part of a publicly-traded company, it will face greater scrutiny than a privately bootstrapped tech startup.

Regardless, none of this will help its current employees during the acquisition. They’re doing fine - they’re relatively highly-paid tech workers, after all - but they may still be miffed that they missed out on capitalizing on a valuation that was based on their hard work.