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benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

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The alternative retirement plan

While I’ve been away from work, we’ve made some big announcements about something I’ve been helping to work on for a while as Head of Engineering.

Over in Fortune:

The platform, called Alt 401(k), will allow workers in participating companies to transfer up to 5% of their [401(k)] account balances into a Coinbase-traded cryptocurrency window. They will have over 50 cryptocurrencies to choose from as investment vehicles. ForUsAll says it also plans to monitor allocations, alerting employees when their overall cryptocurrency allocation exceeds 5% of their portfolio.

In the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Ramirez said participants who invest in cryptocurrency must acknowledge having read disclosures explaining it is a volatile asset. “Our guidance is not to be day trading anything, whether a stock or crypto,” he added.

‌[...] ForUsAll said it plans to eventually add small allocations to other alternative investments, including private equity, venture capital, and real estate.

In Barron’s:

Crypto may provide an incentive for people to put more money into their retirement plans, says Paul Selker, president of Spark Street Digital, a webcast production company.

“If the opportunity to put this tiny little slice of crypto into the portfolio makes them increase their contribution overall, they win. It almost doesn’t matter what happens to crypto,” said Selker. ForUsAll is the 401(k) plan provider for Spark Street’s 14 employees.

In The Motley Fool:

Now it is worth reiterating that ForUsAll only plans to let plan participants put up to 5% of their money into cryptocurrency. And that alone speaks to its speculative nature. It's also a responsible way to introduce cryptocurrency investing to people who may be excited to dabble in it, but don't really know much about it other than it's in the news a lot.

In USA Today:

Crypto investing is virtually nowhere to be found in 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts at the moment. But while financial advisers remain cautious about cryptocurrencies, they may be ready to embrace them due to client demand, according to the 2021 Trends in Investing Survey, conducted by the Journal of Financial Planning and the Financial Planning Association.

In the delightfully-named Benzinga:

“For too long, too many Americans haven’t had the same access to alternative investments that wealthy and professional investors have had. Our mission is to provide every American with the tools necessary to build a brighter financial future, and making these alternatives more readily available is a key step towards that,” said Jeff Schulte, CEO of ForUsAll.

Brett Tejpaul, Head of Institutional Coverage at Coinbase, added to this, “When we created our institutional platform, our initial focus was making cryptocurrency accessible to institutional investors and high-net-worth individuals.”

“The next evolution is to broaden our reach and we are thrilled to be working with ForUsAll, the leading 401k technology platform, to expand access to cryptocurrency through 401ks,” Tejpaul added.

To learn more, head over to the ForUsAll site.

 

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

 

Grief

Gravity doesn’t work the way it used to. Some things are too heavy, and some too light. There’s a great weight, but it’s like a dark cloud; sometimes dense, sometimes not. It’s like someone took the laws of physics and put them in a blender. I’m beginning to get used to it, in the same way a new sailor gets used to walking on a ship, but the world is wrong.

Thank you to everyone who’s reached out this week. It means a lot, and I probably haven’t replied. I’m overwhelmed by everything, which means I’m not good at emails, or texts, or phone calls. I do things, but I keep having to go back to bed. The same is true of my dad and my sister: we go through the motions of coping, but underneath the surface it’s just turmoil.

I hate feeling this way, and I hate seeing the people I love most in the world feel this way, and I hate that I just want to reach out and give my mother a hug and I can’t.

If you regularly read this space, you might be wondering when I’ll get back to ethical technology. Why doesn’t he write about open source, for crying out loud?! The answer is: eventually. There are good moments, and there are bad moments, but it doesn’t feel right to get back to business. Now, above all, is a time to breathe.

 

Ma

We lost my mother, Deborah Monas, on Sunday evening. I was giving her a head rub; my sister Hannah held her hands; my dad Oscar and her brother Steve were at her feet.

How is this possible? The world doesn’t feel real.

When I was a small child, we used to pull out the sofabed in our postgraduate student flat and watch Doctor Who together under a blanket. What I would give for a TARDIS now: a way to correct the fabric of time and space. Clearly something is badly wrong with it.

I want to have something perfect to say, some beautiful encapsulation of who she was, but the truth is that nothing could be perfect enough. There’s no way to write a biography that isn’t an imperfect model. Nothing can adequately describe my beautiful mother: her overwhelming kindness, her sense of justice, her irreverence for tradition and institutions, the love that our house was always, always filled with.

I’ve written a lot about her health in this space. She had dyskeratosis congenita, which first expressed itself as pulmonary fibrosis. She fought it hard. When she began to use supplementary oxygen, my sister and I moved to California to be closer. The double lung transplant she received at UCSF gave us almost an extra decade of time with her, and it was a privilege to be by her side, with my dad and my sister, on this journey.

She loved reading, and both Hannah and I got to share those experiences with her. Hannah read to Ma for years: books by authors like Wade Davis, Octavia Butler, and Tommy Orange. Ma and I shared book recommendations; this year we read Caste and The Nickel Boys, among others. Even as it became harder to read in print, she picked up audiobooks, and kept going, recording what she’d read in a notebook she kept by her bed.

Years ago, we were gifted a Sunfish sailing boat by our family friend Pammy Biscoe. The two of them had sailed on it when they were much younger. Now it became her and my thing: she was happiest out on Waquoit Bay, our striped sails catching the wind just right. She called it a Whoosh. I’ll remember her in an infinity of ways, in an infinity of moments, but being out on the water with her, watching her smile as we picked up speed, is one I’ll treasure the most.

When my parents met, in Berkeley in the 1970s, she worked to fight for affirmative action and tenants’ rights. Her belief and support for progressive causes was an anchor throughout her life. We discovered this week that she had quietly made over 178 progressive donations last year alone, without any of us really knowing. A list of some of the causes she consistently supported follows at the end of this post; in lieu of flowers, we’re asking people to contribute if they have the means.

I want to honor her by furthering what she put into the world. The loving, non-conformist, irreverent, equity-minded spirit that she embodied.

As she lay in her hospital bed, we read Ma messages from people who loved her throughout her life. One, from Hannah’s friend Anita Hurrell, particularly sums up our collective childhood, and the sensibility I want to take forward in my own life, inspired by my mother. I’ll end by sharing it here, with kind permission.

 

Dearest Deb,

One time you drove us in the van to the seaside and we ate sandwiches with cucumber in them and I thought they tasted delicious and I felt this strong sense of deep content sitting with Hannah in the back listening to her singing and humming for the whole journey. I have no idea where we went, and in my head it was nowhere in England, but rather part of the big-hearted, loving, funny, relaxed, non-conformist world of your family in my childhood - full of your laughter and your enormous kindness. Sitting on the bench in your house in Marston I recall a moment of feeling complete certainty that your pirozhki were the yummiest food that had ever been made. Staying in Wheatley when my mum and dad had gone away we ate popcorn and I felt safe even though at the time I had lost Blue Bear. I remember calling you my second mummy. I'm not sure I was always a very nice kid and was probably very ungrateful then, but now I wish I could convey how I revere you, Oscar, Ben and Hannah in my thoughts and how lucky I feel to keep your example with me. I look back and see how talented Hannah already was then when we were so little and she could just sing and sing and draw in a magic way, how cool she was (her doll Manuela had beautiful black wild curly hair while I chose Charlotte with twee clothes and ridiculous ringlets), what a true feminist you were, how much of parenting you seemed to do much better than we do these days, how generous and homemade and fun and kind the world you and Oscar made was.

You are an asset to the universe. I will always love you very much.

Anita

 

Causes Ma consistently supported:

ACLU - donate

Planned Parenthood - donate

Oxfam - donate

Doctors Without Borders - donate

Progressive Turnout Project - donate

NARAL Pro-Choice America - donate

314 Action Fund - donate

Stop Republicans - donate

National Democratic Training Committee - donate

End Citizens United - donate

KQED Public Media - donate

The Squad Victory Fund - donate

BOLD Democrats PAC - donate

National Bail Out - donate

Phil Arballo for Congress (CA-22) - donate

Scott Sifton for Senate (MO) - donate

 

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: May 2021

This is my monthly roundup of the tech and media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for May, 2021.

Books

Wintering, by Katherine May. Unmistakably written from a position of privilege, I nonetheless found this book to be a kind of warm hug; the written equivalent of a cup of hot chocolate on an icy day. I did find myself occasionally irritated by how carefree this supposedly troublesome life actually was, but mostly I found myself yearning to live in the Love, Actually world she seems to inhabit.

PET, by Akwaeke Emezi. Slight but heavy: a fantasy story with strong themes about ethics, family, history, and the line between good and evil - all drawn together with strong characters and beautiful prose. For me, the epilogue let the story down a little bit with emotion that didn't quite ring true. Nonetheless, I'm quickly learning that I'll follow Akwaeke Emezi anywhere.

While Justice Sleeps, by Stacey Abrams. This was closer to a Dan Brown or John Grisham novel than I’d anticipated: a taut thriller that occasionally stretches plausibility but is a lot of fun from beginning to end. It turns out Stacey Abrams can do it all. I hope there’s a movie.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers: A Memoir, by Jenn Shapland. Infused with longing and written with an eye for poetry, this is a personal exploration of the boundary between love and possession: between lovers, between queer people and communities not ready to accept them, between a long-dead author and her biographer. I found it thought-provoking, sad, and in some ways, triumphant: a suppressed love story finally taking flight. May we all have the courage and the freedom to be and love as ourselves.

The Coming Insurrection, by Comité Invisible. “Power is no longer concentrated in one point in the world; it is the world itself, its flows and its avenues, its people and its norms, its codes and its technologies. Power is the organization of the metropolis itself.” I don’t agree with all of the conclusions about what to do next, but the descriptions of the problems that must be overcome here ring true. Perhaps oddly, I made connections with Emergent Strategy; the two arrive at very similar ideas about decentralization and the power of hierarchy-less organizing through very different lenses.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson. Super-fun, and refreshing in lots of ways. There are some broad characterizations here, but hey, it’s a comic book. I loved it, and hope the TV show is even half as charming.

Streaming

His House. Superficially a horror movie, His House serves as a layered metaphor for the immigrant experience. It's expertly built on every level - both the real-life horror and the supernatural scares had me watching from behind a cushion - but comes into its own in its final act.

Notable Articles

Business

How Basecamp blew up. "This account is based on interviews with six Basecamp employees who were present at the meeting, along with a partial transcript created by employees. Collectively, they describe a company whose attempt to tamp down on difficult conversations blew up in its face as employees rejected the notion that discussions of power and justice should remain off limits in the workplace. And they suggest that efforts to eliminate disruptions in the workplace by regulating internal speech may cause even more turmoil for a company in the long run."

Looking for (more of) a new kind of startup…. "There’s a new and important kind of startup that’s become wildly successful the last few years. These startups, for which we still lack a good name, look to their customers like a direct replacement to some large, familiar incumbent, but uses technology to provide a strictly superior offering."

Forced Entrepreneurs. "Conventional wisdom suggests labor market distress drives workers into temporary self-employment, lowering entrepreneurial quality. Analyzing employment histories for 640,000 U.S. workers, we document graduating college during a period of high unemployment does increase entry to entrepreneurship. However, compared to voluntary entrepreneurs, firms founded by forced entrepreneurs are more likely to survive, innovate, and receive venture-backing. Explaining these results, we confirm labor shocks disproportionately impact high-earners and these same workers start more successful firms. Overall, we document untapped entrepreneurial potential across the top of the income distribution and demonstrate the role of recessions in reversing this missing entrepreneurship."

Poor in Tech. “I knew I was the only poor person at my tech startup because I made more there than I’d ever made before; a daring amount I had been afraid to ask for during the offer process. I discovered through misadventure that I still made less than any of the executive assistants, or the receptionist. I was, in fact, the lowest-paid person in the building including the interns. I hadn’t known what was possible, so I couldn’t even think to ask for what I was worth to them.” This resonated for me hard.

You Probably Shouldn’t Work at a Startup. My experience is different to this - but it's definitely an interesting read. What this piece doesn't really discuss is meaningful work, and getting to work cross-functionally, which is something that's much easier in an early-stage startup than another company. I like to use my whole self: go broad rather than narrow and deep. Big companies typically want you to do the latter.

'FIND THIS FUCK:' Inside Citizen’s Dangerous Effort to Cash In On Vigilantism. "Frame and the entirety of the Citizen apparatus had spent a whole night putting a bounty on the head of an innocent man." This company - and this CEO in particular - sounds absolutely deranged.

A Worker-Owned Cooperative Tries to Compete With Uber and Lyft. "The Drivers Cooperative, which opened for business in New York this week, is the most recent attempt. The group, founded by a former Uber employee, a labor organizer and a black-car driver, began issuing ownership shares to drivers in early May and will start offering rides through its app on Sunday." Hell yes.

The Abusive Corporation's New Tool: Wellness and Mental Health. "If a job is making you commute an hour each way and having you work ridiculous hours with no extra compensation for it, but also giving you free counseling, they’re not really that concerned with your mental health. They’re just concerned with you finding a way to cope with the oftentimes unfair conditions they’re putting you under, and doing so in a way that’s significantly more affordable than making your life better and paying you more money."

Crypto

The Tether Ponzi Scheme. “Tether is a fraud on the scale of Madoff or Enron and we’re in the middle of a bubble for the history books.”

Bitcoin’s most recent adopters are working-class migrants. "Salgado is now part of a growing number of Latin Americans using cryptocurrency to transfer money from the United States south of the Rio Grande. They represent a new wave of crypto users who are not tech enthusiasts or white-collar financiers but rather working-class people whose livelihoods depend on a technology that is often seen as experimental."

Teens Controlling Multi-Million-Dollar DeFi Protocols Are Not Playing Around. "Jai Bhavnani, 19, David Lucid, 20, and Jack Lipstone, who just turned 20, founded Rari Capital in April 2020, less than a month after the founders’ home state of California went into COVID lockdown. That was also shortly after Bhavnani graduated from the college preparatory school which ties together six of the seven members of the Rari team."

A country's worth of power, no more!. I'm excited to see Ethereum move to proof of stake. Its smart contract platform has a lot of potential - but not if it is environmentally disastrous. It's nice to hear that the change is so close.

How Iran Uses Bitcoin Mining to Evade Sanctions and “Export” Millions of Barrels of Oil. "Exact figures are very challenging to determine, but Elliptic estimates that Iran-based miners account for approximately 4.5% of all Bitcoin mining." Interesting detail: Mosques get free electricity in Iran, so it turns out some of them have been illicitly mining coin.

UK police raided a shady Bitcoin mining facility they thought was a weed farm. "Naturally, officers were convinced they were looking at the "telltale" signs of a cannabis factory. But, when they busted in to the site on May 18th, they found a bank of 100 specialized bitcoin miners instead."

Culture

Stacey Abrams Contains Multitudes. "Abrams went on to write seven more Selena Montgomery books (one of which, “Never Tell,” is in development with CBS), as well as two nonfiction works under her own name, while pursuing her day jobs as a tax lawyer, business owner, state lawmaker, candidate for governor and voting-rights advocate, to name a few."

1988: P.R.E.S.T.A.V.B.A.. Text adventures as a medium for protest in Soviet Czechoslovakia: "Soon the shared games “became a fully-fledged means of communication within a subculture of young geeks, like 8-bit chain letters or, perhaps, social media of the early digital era”: an internet that existed mostly on magnetic tapes shoved into school backpacks and zipping around the country on buses and bicycles. While literature and music was heavily censored by the government and could not be legally distributed by amateurs, software was not on the radar of the Party or its secret police at all. The authorities had not yet realized that the computer could be a medium for expression."

The one where writing books is not really a good idea. An interesting exploration into making money through serial fiction - which is something I plan to try in the future.

Gross Viral Food Videos Like Spaghetti-Os Pie Are Connected to This Guy. I'd been wondering.

Sinead O’Connor Remembers Things Differently. "O’Connor saw herself as a protest-singing punk. When she ascended to the top of the pop charts, she was trapped. “The media was making me out to be crazy because I wasn’t acting like a pop star was supposed to act,” she told me. “It seems to me that being a pop star is almost like being in a type of prison. You have to be a good girl.” And that’s just not Sinead O’Connor."

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: An Explainer. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the grandest, most delightful, most ambitious MGM technicolor musical that was ever based on the story of a mass rape.”

The Linda Lindas on their viral song Racist, Sexist Boy: ‘It’s good to let the anger out and scream’. "The video of Mila and her three teenage bandmates that make up the Linda Lindas screaming “You are a racist, sexist BOYYYY!” is taken from a rage-filled live performance inside the LA public library for AAPI Heritage Month. Overnight, the clip became one of the most cathartic and energizing songs to come out of the pandemic." The Linda Lindas are so great.

How to Write Creative Fiction: Umberto Eco's Four Rules. “Fictional characters live in an incomplete—or, to be ruder and politically incorrect—handicapped world. But when we truly understand their fate, we begin to suspect that we too, as citizens of the here and now, frequently encounter our destiny simply because we think of our world in the same way that fictional characters think of theirs. Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of the actual world is as imperfect as the view that fictional characters have of their world.”

Media

Scroll is joining Twitter!. Absolutely huge news in medialand. And Tony told me that Scroll still has a commitment to the open web.

Just 12 People Are Behind Most Vaccine Hoaxes On Social Media, Research Shows. “"The 'Disinformation Dozen' produce 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms," said Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which identified the accounts.”

Lovely eulogies to Fleet Street’s John Kay, but they overlook one important fact. "In this more sensitive era, there are presumably good reasons why anyone new to Kay will have finished the prominent Sun and Evening Standard pieces unaware of the existence of Kay’s first wife, Harue, whom he killed in 1977."

'On The Media' Co-Host Bob Garfield Fired Over Bullying Complaints. "Garfield’s termination follows two investigations into his conduct. The first, an internal investigation conducted last year, “resulted in disciplinary action, a warning about the potential consequences if the behavior continued, and a meaningful opportunity to correct it,” New York Public Radio said in a statement. The organization said a second, more recent outside probe found Garfield had again violated the anti-bullying policy."

Stunned: UNC Hussman Faculty Statement on Nikole Hannah-Jones by Hussman Faculty. "Failure to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones in her role as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is a concerning departure from UNC’s traditional process and breaks precedent with previous tenured full professor appointments of Knight chairs in our school. This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman Dean, Hussman faculty, and university. Hannah-Jones’s distinguished record of more than 20 years in journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism."

John Oliver places fake sponsored content on to local news: ‘Far too easy’. "The “Venus Veil” also got airtime on KVUE Austin’s sponsored show airing immediately after Thursday evening news, and an in-person showing on Denver’s Mile High Living. “None of this was nearly difficult enough to get on to TV, and it wasn’t even that expensive,” Oliver mused; the Denver Mile High in-person segment cost $2,800, KVUE Austin cost $2,650 and ABC 4 Utah cost $1,750. “It was all shockingly affordable and sadly, on some stations, didn’t even look that out of place,” he said." That is affordable. Can I place segments on how great single-payer healthcare is?

Politics

Pentagon Surveilling Americans Without a Warrant, Senator Reveals. "The Pentagon is carrying out warrantless surveillance of Americans, according to a new letter written by Senator Ron Wyden and obtained by Motherboard."

Rise of a megadonor: Thiel makes a play for the Senate. “The largesse has transformed Thiel, an early Facebook investor and PayPal co-founder, into an outsize figure in the fight for control of the 50-50 Senate, providing fuel to two longtime associates who embrace his populist-conservative views. Top Republicans have expressed astonishment at the size of the donations and say they’ve turned Vance and Masters — who’ve never before run for elected office and will have to overcome primary rivals with far longer political resumes — into formidable contenders in the blink of an eye.”

Risk of Nuclear War Over Taiwan in 1958 Said to Be Greater Than Publicly Known. "When Communist Chinese forces began shelling islands controlled by Taiwan in 1958, the United States rushed to back up its ally with military force — including drawing up plans to carry out nuclear strikes on mainland China, according to an apparently still-classified document that sheds new light on how dangerous that crisis was. [...] Mr. Ellsberg said he also had another reason for highlighting his exposure of that material. Now 90, he said he wanted to take on the risk of becoming a defendant in a test case challenging the Justice Department’s growing practice of using the Espionage Act to prosecute officials who leak information." Daniel Ellsberg is one of my heroes.

Stop glorifying ‘centrism’. It is an insidious bias favoring an unjust status quo. Amen. “Centrists in the antebellum era were apathetic or outright resistant to ending slavery in the US and then in the decades before 1920 to giving women the vote. The civil rights movement was not nearly as popular in its time as moderates who like the more polite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr think it was.” It is not a moral stance.

Science

The Pastry A.I. That Learned to Fight Cancer. "In Japan, a system designed to distinguish croissants from bear claws has turned out to be capable of a whole lot more."

Mammals can breathe through anus in emergencies. "Although the side effects and safety need to be thoroughly evaluated in humans, our approach may offer a new paradigm to support critically ill patients with respiratory failure."

Researchers force two mice to hang out and induce FOMO in a third. "So the researchers generated “synchronized interbrain activity” by stimulating two mice with 5-Hz tonic (continuous) stimulation for five minutes and desynchronized activity by stimulating other pairs of mice with 25-Hz bursting stimulation for five minutes. About twice as many of the synchronized mice chose to socialize with each other—grooming, sniffing, etc.—as the desynchronized mice did. When two mice were synchronized into a 5-Hz pair and a third mouse got the 25-Hz burst, the pair shunned the desynchronized third. The researchers conclude that “imposed interbrain synchrony shapes social interaction and social preference in mice.”"

Neural implant lets paralyzed person type by imagining writing. "This week, the academic community provided a rather impressive example of the promise of neural implants. Using an implant, a paralyzed individual managed to type out roughly 90 characters per minute simply by imagining that he was writing those characters out by hand."

Society

New Study Estimates More Than 900,000 People Have Died Of COVID-19 In U.S.. "The analysis comes from researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, who looked at excess mortality from March 2020 through May 3, 2021, compared it with what would be expected in a typical nonpandemic year, then adjusted those figures to account for a handful of other pandemic-related factors."

Take profit out of jail calls. Make it free to talk to loved ones behind bars. “I spend more than $100 every month to hear my son’s voice for just 15 minutes a day, time I split with his children. And I spend hundreds more to get him everything he needs inside: real food, basic toiletries, fresh linens and clean socks. I often have to choose between utility bills and supporting him, a choice no mother should ever have to make.”

Seeing the Real Faces of Silicon Valley. “For many midlevel engineers and food truck workers and longtime residents, a region filled with extremes has become increasingly inhospitable.”

Long working hours killing 745,000 people a year, study finds. “The research found that working 55 hours or more a week was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared with a working week of 35 to 40 hours.”

White People Never Supported Racial Equality; They Just Said They Did. “It was a fad. White people love Black people like they love TikTok dances and acid-washed jeans and liberty and justice for all. Have you never seen a white woman cry on cue or a Democrat campaigning in a Black barbershop? You really believed that shit? Even after the most white people in the history of America voted for a white nationalist authoritarian?”

We Need To Get Real About How the Pandemic Will End . "We seem to be holding onto the comforting fiction that we will eventually get around to vaccinating people in countries that have so far either had success keeping out the pandemic completely, or have had small outbreaks before, while they just keep up mitigating a little longer. I do not believe that the story we tell ourselves is realistic."

Remains of 215 children found at former indigenous school site in Canada. “The remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were found at the site of a former residential school for indigenous children, a discovery Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described as heartbreaking on Friday.” The absolute horror - and this isn’t an isolated case.

Technology

What's Salesforce?. This is a pretty good overview for engineers! I've lost count of the times I've needed to answer the exact same question.

Berkshire Hathaway’s Stock Price Is Too Much for Computers. When stock prices get larger than 32-bit integers.

Some experiences with neutral technology. "Sometimes I look at my phone and think: I’m looking through a portal to California. My phone will never feel quite as part of the world as it does under Californian skies lit by the Californian sun. Here in London, or anywhere else really, my phone will always very slightly shimmer with an otherworldly light."

Facebook is still censoring groups fighting the military coup in Myanmar. “Following the February 1 coup d’état in Myanmar, activists, pro-democracy campaigners, and even supporters of the remnants of the NLD government, are asking for that ban to be rescinded. After a dramatic reshuffling of the political landscape, the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) are no longer opponents of the democratically-elected government, but core members of the resistance to the new government. They say that Facebook’s moderation is now penalizing the broader anti-coup movement because of its loose association with groups proscribed by the last government, which in turn is limiting their ability to organize and communicate.”

Local-first software: You own your data, in spite of the cloud. "In this article we propose “local-first software”: a set of principles for software that enables both collaboration and ownership for users. Local-first ideals include the ability to work offline and collaborate across multiple devices, while also improving the security, privacy, long-term preservation, and user control of data."

Google Chrome testing RSS-powered 'Follow' button, feed. Yes please.

How the cookie poisoned the Web. "Today our poisoned minds can hardly imagine having native capacities of our own that can operate at scale across all the world’s websites and services. To have that ability would also be at odds with the methods and imperatives of personally targeted advertising, which requires cookies and other tracking methods. One of those imperatives is making money: $Trillions of it."

Twitter's revved-up product focus piques publisher, advertiser interest. "After years of criticism for being slow-footed and indecisive, Twitter has finally started to spread its wings, shipping a torrent of product changes this year." I'm really bullish on Twitter - and I like it considerably more than Facebook.

US Soldiers Expose Nuclear Weapons Secrets Via Flashcard Apps. This isn't in any way the fault of the flashcard apps, which are clearly being used for effective learning. But someone needs to teach soldiers better infosec practices.

Secret Chats Show How Cybergang Became a Ransomware Powerhouse. ““Any doofus can be a cybercriminal now,” said Sergei A. Pavlovich, a former hacker who served 10 years in prison in his native Belarus for cybercrimes. “The intellectual barrier to entry has gotten extremely low.””

 

Priorities

Being laser-focused is a privilege reserved for people who have no real distractions in their life - or those that do, and have sociopathically chosen to ignore them.

“You could be a millionaire by the time you’re thirty,” my co-founder told me, fifteen or so years ago, as we walked out of a meeting with one of the world’s largest banks. I’d built a prototype of a kind of real-time chat system that could integrate with other software systems drawn from across an enterprise. Updates from software and humans would all flow into real-time channels that we imagined could be accessed from any remote office and any trading floor. It was a good idea (and I’m sure Slack would agree). By the next year, I was a paper millionaire: the equity I owned in the business I’d co-founded was, technically at least, worth more money than I’d ever seen in my life.

It’s all bullshit.

Up to a point, acquiring more money is a necessary evil. We all need a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. But past that, money is an empty goal that can only be at the center of a meaningless life. I’m no longer a paper millionaire, and I have no real desire to be a real one: the kind whose millions of dollars are actual, liquid cash that can be spent on things. I’ve met enough tired-looking rich people searching for something - anything - that will fill the ill-defined hole deep within themselves to know that’s not the answer.

The quest for more is a kind of prison that we make for ourselves. The idea that if we work ourselves to the bone now we can live a better life later is a convenient lie that we’ve been conditioned to tell ourselves.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to work, and to build.

As I write this, my mother is lying in a hospital bed. A build-up of fluid in her abdomen is making it increasingly hard to breathe. Later, or perhaps tomorrow, they’ll try and syphon some of it off, and run lab tests on what they’ve managed to extract in order to better determine the cause. It’s the latest event in a decade-plus journey that started with a persistent cough.

I’m trying to imagine what her life would have looked like if she (or either of my parents) had been dedicated to the amassing of wealth. Maybe we would have had a nicer car; probably we wouldn’t have lived in the tiny house down the street from a gas station when I was a teenager. But she wouldn’t have fought for tenants’ rights or affirmative action. She wouldn’t have moved thousands of miles to look after the grandmother who safely shepherded my dad through a concentration camp. She wouldn’t have changed careers mid-life to become a middle school science teacher in one of California’s poorest areas. More of my life might have been colored by, and devoted to, the acquisition of wealth. I certainly would have seen her a lot less.

My mother - like my father - made a conscious decision to live outside the mainstream template that was set out for her. Without their example, I think my life would have been correspondingly normie: a career in tech, probably, but without the mission or the meaning. Instead, I’m certain that I want to build platforms and support people with the potential of making the world more equal and equitable. And I’m certain that I want to do it within the context of a balanced life. Life is fleeting; everything can change in a moment, so it’s better to enjoy it while you can.

The lens I’ve been gifted has made me opinionated. I see decentralization as a way to lead to a more equitable society through disassembling existing hierarchies, for example, but I see straight through the people who see these ideas as a way to build a new hierarchy for their own benefit. We used to talk about abolishing gatekeepers in the early days of the web, too, until it became clear that many people just wanted to become a new kind of gatekeeper themselves.

I wrote recently about my disrespect for hustle culture. It’s not just that hustling leads to shallow products, but the whole enterprise feels like a reincarnation of Wall Street in the software realm: an endless supply of performatively masculine wantrapreneurs (the people I’m talking about do seem to virtually all be men) who are interested in software for its ability to make them a fortune rather than its ability to connect, empower, and inform. The incentives this mindset creates are unhealthy at best and, at worst, harmful to their surrounding ecosystems and communities. They extract value from communities rather than providing it.

And why? Past the point of financial safety, there’s little to be gained. Perhaps you glean some fleeting respect from the other rat racers, and from people whose own self-regard is threatened by seeing peoples’ lives deviate from the sanctioned templates, but it’s ultimately empty. It’s a way to perpetuate existing ills and inequalities when being part of a meaningful solution is within your grasp. It’s an entirely inward way to live.

Very little provides more focus than the hospital bed. When you’ve found yourself at the end of your life, how would you like to be remembered? How would you like to look back and think about what you did? Does it involve imaginary numbers on a bank account and the accumulation of status symbols and acceptance from people trapped on the same treadmill, or is there a way to live with more happiness, more pride, and more to be grateful for? Will you wish you spent more time in the office, or more time living? More time doing meaningful, lasting work, or more time making bucks?

Better is not more. It seems to me that this is a common mistake.

 

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

 

Vaccinated

I’m fully-vaccinated today: I got my second Pfizer jab two weeks ago. According to new guidance from the CDC, I can go without a mask in most situations. The official CDC page is really clear, and reporting has been generally good. I feel safe - but like many people, I will still choose to wear one, even in situations where I am not required to, for a while.

A lot of people aren’t so lucky. In India, where I have friends and coworkers, everyone I speak to seems to have lost a friend or relative. The official numbers woefully undercount the dead: conservative estimates put it at twice the official number, and I’ve heard as high as ten times.

Broken medical supply chains have left families to source oxygen for themselves; even empty oxygen canisters, which can be refilled, are in short supply. My friend Padmini Ray Murray has set up a COVID-19 and oxygen supply resource page for Bangalore, and is helping to crowdsource oxygen availability in the region.

Meanwhile, the United States has been hoarding vaccines, while countries like India may not get vaccinated until 2023. COVAX, a global vaccine initiative, has been underfunded, and rich countries didn’t arm it with the vaccine supplies it needed. Manufacturing capacity is bottlenecked. And even though some countries (including, to its credit, the US) have agreed to waive vaccine patent rights, the tests and technology transfers involved are also bottlenecked. More help is needed, and quickly; without meaningful assistance, vaccine waivers and COVAX pledges start to look more like PR for rich countries than an actual effort to vaccinate the world.

Some have argued that vaccine patent waivers should not be issued, because of the effect on innovation. I, and others, think this falls squarely into the bucket of solvable problems: information sharing mechanisms and economic incentives can be provided in other ways. The focus right now must be on saving lives, not saving capitalism.

It’s also common in a global crisis for the burden to be placed on individuals: in this case, there are plenty of community fundraisers for COVAX. I’ve donated and, if you have the means, I recommend that you do too: buying a single dose for someone in need costs $7. But the focus should be on governments and large corporations to donate and help as much as they can; our focus should be at least as much on pressuring them to do the right thing as convincing our friends and neighbors to put some money in.

I have both friends and family who still don’t believe that COVID-19 is a real threat; who don’t trust the vaccine; who don’t believe in the science or the reporting. In the midst of a genuinely global crisis, not having the real-world effect of watching your friends and family succumbing to the disease is a kind of privilege. Elsewhere, they would not have the luxury of being so ignorant.

And I wouldn’t have the luxury of feeling the freedom I do today. I’m excited to be able to see my friends again; to travel; to eat at a restaurant; to gather and share and be social. I hope the whole world is able to share in this freedom. We are no more deserving than they are.

 

Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

 

Disrespect for the hustle

My favorite working environments have all been like liberal arts colleges: spaces where people were trying to do their best work, often quietly, with a great deal of introspection. Here, people asked questions about how they could do meaningful work that uplifted and empowered communities.

The worst - multiple startups - have been aggressively confrontational, where the emphasis was on hustling to get people in the door by any means necessary.

My friend Roxann Stafford introduced me to this great quote from the labor organizer General Baker:

You keep asking how do we get the people here? I say, what will we do when they get here?

While it’s true that the Field of Dreams user acquisition strategy doesn’t work - even if you build it, they won’t necessarily come, so you’d better figure out how to reach out to the right people - it can only be a fragment of the product strategy. If you let hustle culture take over the entire business, you run the risk of spending all your time on how to get people there, and comparatively little on what you’ll do when they arrive. At best, you’ll end up with a superficial product; at worst, a disingenuous one. You might find yourself accidentally creating a culture where it’s okay to say just about anything to get people in the door.

The thing is, when you’re running out of money, or when you don’t have any to begin with, getting more is an imperative. As much as money is a pain in the ass, it’s necessary to keep the lights on, and to grow.

Newsrooms used to have a way to deal with this: a firewall between editorial and advertising departments. Because the value of a news publication is in the information it provides, regardless of financial influence, the need to make money has been kept siloed away. When, latterly, some newsrooms began to remove this firewall and allow financial considerations to affect the content of their coverage, the quality of their reporting (and public trust thereof) noticeably declined.

The same is true in software. When hustle culture becomes the product, the incentive to provide real, deep value to your community of users is undermined. You’ll deliver worse products. That isn’t to say that sales and marketing are not valuable: they’re absolutely vital. But a startup (or a project, or a traditional business) can’t let sales and marketing drive the ship. It’s the product team’s job to build something that deeply serves a need, including by identifying the first community of people to understand, co-design with, and serve.

Marketing, in the traditional sense, is the act of understanding that market and positioning a product to reach it (although it’s often reductively conflated with advertising). The sales folks - the hustlers - close the deals. These things are important parts of a complete, delicious breakfast, but they can’t be the whole breakfast.

Nothing absolves you from building a meaningful product, obsessing over every detail, and taking care in its craft and design. It’s hard to do that if your whole focus is on leads. Why do you exist? Who are you helping? How? These questions can’t just be a story you tell - they have to be your deeply-held reason for existing.

You keep asking how do we get the people here? I say, what will we do when they get here?

That’s the question that matters.

 

Photo by Garrhet Sampson on Unsplash

 

Press Freedom Day

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day. I’d planned to publish this post then, but my mother was in the in ER. (She's out now; the rollercoaster continues.)

A functional, free press is a vital part of the foundation of democracy, right alongside free and open elections. It's impossible to have an educated voting populace without it - and you can't have a democracy without educated voters. It's incredibly important to have people out there dedicated to uncovering the truth and speaking truth to power.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the US ranks 44th in the world for press freedom. During Trump's last year in office, nearly 400 journalists were assaulted on the job, and over 130 were detained. Only 40% of Americans trust the media; among conservatives, the figure is considerably worse.

To control a populace, authoritarians first seek to undermine the press. The Nazi-era term for this was Lügenpresse, which literally translates to lying press. The Trump-era term was lifted almost verbatim: fake news. It continues to do harm.

As well as in the broader societal sphere, this discourse extends to industry: in tech, we’ve had our own anti-press movements that seek to undermine free and fair reporting. It’s always abhorrent.

Which isn’t to say that the press shouldn’t be criticized: oversight of journalism is also journalism, and conversations about the nature of reporting are important. No institution can be unassailable, and no journalist can be above reproach. I particularly welcome conversations about diversity and equity in newsrooms and how the demographics of reporting staff affect the stories they produce. Journalists are imperfect, because everyone is imperfect; regardless, they should have unfettered access to information and receive protection under the law. The work they do makes freedom and democracy possible.

Similarly, whistleblowers. We depend on people who are willing to call out wrongdoing. Daniel Ellsberg revealing the Pentagon Papers allowed Americans to understand the full scope of the Vietnam War for the first time. Edward Snowden allowed Americans to understand that they were the subjects of illegal mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning allowed Americans to understand war crimes that were committed in their names. Each of them faced severe repercussions; each of them allowed American voters to better understand the actions of their government.

In the midst of the “fake news” culture war, there’s been a lot of talk about how to battle misinformation. One of those tactics has sometimes been to promote certain, trusted publications. The intention is noble: there’s no doubt in my mind that the New York Times is more trustworthy than InfoWars, for example. But the unintended effect is to shut out new publications that haven’t managed to build a reputation yet - and in particular, new publications that might be run by people of color, who are underrepresented in establishment media. It also has the effect of potentially discrediting whistleblower accounts that can’t find purchase in mainstream publications, creating an “approved news” that can unintentionally obscure important facts.

Instead, I’m more excited - albeit with some reservations - by software projects that add context on a story by showing how other outlets have reported it. I’m committed to an open web that allows anyone to publish, even if that means tolerating the InfoWars and Epoch Times dumpster fires alongside more legitimate sources. Context and critical reasoning are key.

The press isn’t glamorous; it’s not always convenient or comfortable. But it’s absolutely crucial for a functional democracy and a free society. Because power is at stake, there will always be people who want to undermine or control journalism - and our job as democratic citizens is to refuse to allow them.

I’m grateful for the press. I’m grateful for democracy. Let’s be vigilant.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: April, 2021

This is my monthly roundup of the media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for April, 2021.

Books

Captain America Vol. 1: Winter In America, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. To be honest, I was expecting more. Ta-Nehisi Coates is such a brilliant writer, but this volume felt minimalist to the point of being abstracted away from the drama. It does set up the story for a little more, but not enough more. Still, it felt good to read a comic book again - it’s been quite a while.

Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. I read it in one sitting, mesmerized by the writing and the articulation of a recognizable kind of sadness. This is the kind of book I would write if I was brave enough: almost certainly not as skillfully, but with an intention to gather the dark corners of solitude and weaving it into poetry. The translation is superb; I wish I could read it in its original French.

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart. Immersive and real. I could smell Glasgow in every page. The desperation of these well-rounded characters trying to survive through post-industrial poverty, and the moments of human beauty despite it all, ring true. The writing is excellent; the heart at the center of it all beats strong.

Streaming

Nomadland. Naturalistic to the point that fiction and reality are blurred. Frances McDormand gives an impressive performance as always, but what really stands out are the real-life characters drawn into the story. Their lives are written across their faces; tragic but defiant.

The Father. Anchored by kaleidoscopic writing and nuanced performances, we see one man’s dementia play out from all sides. The set is a character in itself, reflecting slips of memory and a rapidly unraveling relationship with time. Watching it from the context of my own parents’ - albeit very different - failing health was tough. One of those films where quiet recognition leaves you cathartically weeping alone in the dark.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines. I guffawed. A lot. Packed full of in-jokes, this has everything you’d expect from the people who made Into the Spider-Verse and The LEGO Movie. A+, five stars.

Notable Articles

Business

The Mysterious Case of the F*cking Good Pizza. “Suddenly, I was seized by a need to get to the bottom of a matter that felt like a glitch in the fabric of my humdrum pandemic existence: Where did these clickbait restaurant brands come from, even if they didn’t seem to technically exist? And why did delivery marketplaces across the U.S., and countries around the world, suddenly seem to be flooded with them?”

The Wrong Kind of Splash. Om on Unsplash: “I was a fan up until last evening when I got an email announcing that the company was being acquired by none other than Getty Images. Hearing this was like a red hot spike through the eyes. A startup whose raison d’être was to upend draconian and amoral companies like Getty Images was going to now be part of Getty. Even after I have had time to process it, the news isn’t sitting well with me.”

Let Your Employees Ask Questions. “But you also have to recognize that as a founder, you’re empowered to fuck things up. If you spend three months chasing a market that turns outs to be a dead end, nobody is going to fire you. You own the place. If someone does that at a large company, they’re maybe getting fired. And your employees will bring that reticence to your startup. So, early on, plan on providing feedback and answering a lot of questions about how you want things to get done.”

Investing in Firefly Health. This announcement caught my attention for this: “Health insurance is undergoing a rapid cycle of unbundling and repackaging. Vertically-integrated “payviders” (groups that both pay for services, like an insurer would, and administer those services, like a provider would) are emerging as a new standard, and provider networks are being recontoured as virtual-first care models take root.” I have some thoughts on what the ultimate “payvider” would be - but I wonder if these sorts of services will help get America more comfortable with the idea of a real healthcare system.

How Index Funds May Hurt the Economy. "In recent decades, the whole economy has gone on autopilot. Index-fund investment is hyperconcentrated. So is online retail. So are pharmaceuticals. So is broadband. Name an industry, and it is likely dominated by a handful of giant players. That has led to all sorts of deleterious downstream effects: suppressing workers’ wages, raising consumer prices, stifling innovation, stoking inequality, and suffocating business creation. The problem is not just the indexers. It is the public markets they reflect, where more chaos, more speculation, more risk, more innovation, and more competition are desperately needed."

If You Love Us, Pay Us: A letter from Sean Combs to Corporate America. "Corporations like General Motors have exploited our culture, undermined our power, and excluded Black entrepreneurs from participating in the value created by Black consumers. In 2019, brands spent $239 billion on advertising. Less than 1% of that was invested in Black-owned media companies. Out of the roughly $3 billion General Motors spent on advertising, we estimate only $10 million was invested in Black-owned media. Only $10 million out of $3 billion! Like the rest of Corporate America, General Motors is telling us to sit down, shut up and be happy with what we get."

Amazon Workers Defeat Union Effort in Alabama. "The company’s decisive victory deals a crushing blow to organized labor, which had hoped the time was ripe to start making inroads." Pretty disappointing.

Why Can’t American Workers Just Relax?. “Alarmed by the toll of increasingly nonexistent boundaries between work and home during the pandemic, a growing number of nations want to help their citizens unplug when they’re done with work. In the last few months, several governments, including Canada, the E.U., Ireland, and even Japan—which invented the word karoshi, for death by overwork—announced they’re considering “right to disconnect” laws. Similar laws are already on the books in Argentina, Belgium, Chile, France, Ireland, Italy, the Philippines, and Spain.” Some great links to movements for better working conditions here.

Personal Reflection: Empathy In The Workplace. "The best empathetic leaders are frequently grounded in authentic emotional connectivity with those on their team and beyond. Empathy in this context conveys sincere optimism about how “we can make it through life’s challenges together” and gives others the sense of “team” at a time when they feel most vulnerable and alone. Positive corporate culture creates this emotional support in the organization that goes well beyond tackling corporate objectives."

Six fun remote team building activities. Range is leading the way on organizational culture. This is so great. I bought a SnackMagic box for my team.

Changes at Basecamp. This is a shockingly regressive move from Basecamp, a company that literally wrote the book on building team culture. While "paternalistic benefits" like gym memberships are arguable, not being able to discuss societal context or give feedback to your peers in a structured way paves the way for a monoculture that excludes entire demographics of people. Basecamp's workers should unionize. This is the exact opposite of what an inclusive, empathetic company should be doing.

An Open Letter to Jason and David. "Anyways, it appears your reaction to the pleas and asks to recognize that Basecamp already represents a diversity of experiences and that we want the company’s software and policies to do the same has once again been lacking and disproportionate. But what’s particularly disappointing is the direction of your reaction. The oppressive direction. The silencing direction."

Culture

1984: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A wonderful look back on one of the best games ever made, co-authored by Douglas Adams himself.

Non-Fungible Taylor Swift. “To put it another way, while we used to pay for plastic discs and thought we were paying for songs (or newspapers/writing or cable/TV stars), empowering distribution over creators, today we pay with both money and attention according to the direction of creators, giving them power over everyone. If the creator decides that their NFTs are important, they will have value; if they decide their show is worthless, it will not.”

Media

Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack. “Danny Lavery had just agreed to a two-year, $430,000 contract with the newsletter platform Substack when I met him for coffee last week in Brooklyn, and he was deciding what to do with the money.” Some notable details here about Substack’s behind the scenes deals.

NPR will roll out paid subscriptions to its podcasts. Worth saying that PRX's founder Jake Shapiro now works at Apple on podcasts. This is a good partnership, and I trust Jake to maintain an open ecosystem.

SiriusXM Is Buying ‘99% Invisible,’ and Street Cred in Podcasting. "Under the new arrangement, “99% Invisible” will remain available at no cost on all platforms supported by ads. But the parties may explore exclusive partnerships for some products down the line. In addition to a large catalog of free podcasts that are available on all platforms, Stitcher sells a premium service offering special features from podcasts it has a relationship with — including ad-free listening, early access and bonus content — for $4.99 per month."

Politics

Justice Dept. Inquiry Into Matt Gaetz Said to Be Focused on Cash Paid to Women. “A Justice Department investigation into Representative Matt Gaetz and an indicted Florida politician is focusing on their involvement with multiple women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments, according to people close to the investigation and text messages and payment receipts reviewed by The New York Times.”

Yellen calls for a global minimum corporate tax rate. I think I'm in favor of this? But it seems difficult to implement in practice.

What Georgia’s Voting Law Really Does. “The New York Times analyzed the state’s new 98-page voting law and identified 16 key provisions that will limit ballot access, potentially confuse voters and give more power to Republican lawmakers.”

Big Tech Is Pushing States to Pass Privacy Laws, and Yes, You Should Be Suspicious. “The Markup reviewed existing and proposed legislation, committee testimony, and lobbying records in more than 20 states and identified 14 states with privacy bills built upon the same industry-backed framework as Virginia’s, or with weaker models. The bills are backed by a who’s who of Big Tech–funded interest groups and are being shepherded through statehouses by waves of company lobbyists.”

Science

COVID was bad for the climate. “To keep global warming under 2°C, we’d need sustained emissions reductions in this range every year for the next 20-30 years. The pandemic has been hugely disruptive, but it’s still temporary, and all signs point to a strong recovery. The drop in emissions was largely caused by lockdown, not persistent structural changes that will persist for decades to come.”

Finding From Particle Research Could Break Known Laws of Physics. “Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle called a muon is disobeying the laws of physics as we thought we knew them, scientists announced on Wednesday.” So exciting!

A Surprising Number Of Sea Monster Sightings Can Be Explained By Whale Erections. Today I learned.

American Honey Is Radioactive From Decades of Nuclear Bomb Testing. "The world’s nuclear powers have detonated more than 500 nukes in the atmosphere. These explosions were tests, shows of force to rival nations, and proof that countries such as Russia, France, and the U.S. had mastered the science of the bomb. The world’s honey has suffered for it. According to a new study published in Nature Communications, honey in the United States is full of fallout lingering from those atmospheric nuclear tests."

Flu Has Disappeared Worldwide during the COVID Pandemic. ““There’s just no flu circulating,” says Greg Poland, who has studied the disease at the Mayo Clinic for decades. The U.S. saw about 600 deaths from influenza during the 2020-2021 flu season. In comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated there were roughly 22,000 deaths in the prior season and 34,000 two seasons ago.”

Society

Estimates and Projections of COVID-19 and Parental Death in the US. "The number of children experiencing a parent dying of COVID-19 is staggering, with an estimated 37,300 to 43,000 already affected. For comparison, the attacks on September 11, 2001, left 3000 children without a parent."

Clearview AI Offered Thousands Of Cops Free Trials. “A controversial facial recognition tool designed for policing has been quietly deployed across the country with little to no public oversight. According to reporting and data reviewed by BuzzFeed News, more than 7,000 individuals from nearly 2,000 public agencies nationwide have used Clearview AI to search through millions of Americans’ faces, looking for people, including Black Lives Matter protesters, Capitol insurrectionists, petty criminals, and their own friends and family members.”

What an analysis of 377 Americans arrested or charged in the Capitol insurrection tells us . "Nor were these insurrectionists typically from deep-red counties. Some 52 percent are from blue counties that Biden comfortably won. But by far the most interesting characteristic common to the insurrectionists’ backgrounds has to do with changes in their local demographics: Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic White population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges."

Reflexive McLuhanism. "To paraphrase Churchill: First we shape X, then X shapes us. If a defining characteristic of humanity is making and using tools, then a defining characteristic of society is being shaped by those same tools."

‘My full name is Tanyaradzwa’: the stars reclaiming their names. "Names are important and they have meaning, said the cultural historian and campaigner Patrick Vernon, whether that is familial significance or the time or day someone was born, for example. “The fact that people still feel they have to change or anglicise their names, and water down their heritage to fit in or succeed within the dominant culture, says we’ve still got a long way to go.”"

My Son, the Organ Donor. "My son’s vital organs saved four lives. His skin and other tissue donations will go on to help countless others. His strong heart now vigorously thumps inside the chest of a teenage boy." Please consider signing up to be a donor.

How to Name Your Black Son in a Racist Country. "And then warn him. Inform your son that he will likely be the only Tyrone in the cohort of 100 Americans and that there will be white people in his cohort who think gentrification is a good thing and who do not read. Let him know that those white people are not worth his time and that he should make a group chat with the six other Black folks in his cohort because he will regret not doing so later."

Get Ready for Blob Girl Summer. "So many people have died this year, millions, and I have survived to take into my body a miraculous shot that is the very flower of medical science, a code written in my genome to lock out the great threat. And I, imbibing this, have the temerity to not even be sexy. If Vaxxed Girl Summer is meant to be a kind of pan-cultural Rumspringa I ought to be someone that transcends schlubhood under its thrilling aegis. And yet."

Technology

NFT Canon. “The a16z NFT Canon is a curated list of readings and resources on all things NFTs, organized from the big picture, what NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are and why they matter... to how to mint, collect, and do more with them -- including how they play into various applications such as art, music, gaming, social tokens, more.”

Asian Americans in tech say they face ‘a unique flavor of oppression’. “Diversity training was "half-assed, whitewashed," she said. No one said the words "white supremacy" or "institutionalized racism."”

Social Attention: a modest prototype in shared presence. “My take is that the web could feel warmer and more lively than it is. Visiting a webpage could feel a little more like visiting a park and watching the world go by. Visiting my homepage could feel just a tiny bit like stopping by my home.” Nice proof of concept.

Google wins copyright clash with Oracle over computer code. “In siding with Google, Breyer wrote that, assuming for the sake of argument that the lines of code can be copyrighted, Google’s copying is nonetheless fair use. The fair-use doctrine permits unauthorized use of copyrighted material in some circumstances, including when the copying “transforms” the original material to create something new.” An important win in for Google at the Supreme Court.

Target CIO Mike McNamara makes a cloud declaration of independence. It makes sense that Target would want to move away from AWS, and their approach avoids lock-in to any cloud provider. All of this is made possible by free and open source software tools.

At Dynamicland, The Building Is The Computer. "Instead of simulating things like paper and pencils inside a computer, Realtalk grants computational value to everyday objects in the world. The building is the computer. Space is a first-class entity — a building block of computation. Digital projectors, cameras, and computers are inconspicuously attached to the ceiling rafters, creating space on tables and walls for projects and collaboration. Most of the software is printed on paper and runs on paper. But the deeper idea is that when the system recognizes any physical object, it becomes a computational object." Magical.

Signal adopts MobileCoin, a crypto project linked to its own creator Moxie Marlinspike. "Security expert Bruce Schneier thinks it’s an incredibly bad idea that “muddies the morality of the product, and invites all sorts of government investigative and regulatory meddling: by the IRS, the SEC, FinCEN, and probably the FBI.” He thinks the two apps—crypto and secure communications—should remain separate. In his mind, this is going to ruin Signal for everyone."

After Working at Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again. "After I quit, I promised myself to never love a job again. Not in the way I loved Google. Not with the devotion businesses wish to inspire when they provide for employees’ most basic needs like food and health care and belonging. No publicly traded company is a family. I fell for the fantasy that it could be."

Revealed: the Facebook loophole that lets world leaders deceive and harass their citizens. “The investigation shows how Facebook has allowed major abuses of its platform in poor, small and non-western countries in order to prioritize addressing abuses that attract media attention or affect the US and other wealthy countries. The company acted quickly to address political manipulation affecting countries such as the US, Taiwan, South Korea and Poland, while moving slowly or not at all on cases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mongolia, Mexico, and much of Latin America.”

DoJ used court order to thwart hundreds of Microsoft Exchange web shells. “In an unprecedented move, the Department of Justice used a court order to dismantle ‘hundreds’ of web shells installed using Exchange Server vulnerabilities patched by Microsoft six weeks ago.” A court order that allowed the FBI to go in and pre-emptively patch compromised systems. Fascinating.

Australian firm Azimuth unlocked the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone for the FBI. “Azimuth specialized in finding significant vulnerabilities. Dowd, a former IBM X-Force researcher whom one peer called “the Mozart of exploit design,” had found one in open-source code from Mozilla that Apple used to permit accessories to be plugged into an iPhone’s lightning port, according to the person.”

Exploiting vulnerabilities in Cellebrite UFED and Physical Analyzer from an app's perspective. "Cellebrite makes software to automate physically extracting and indexing data from mobile devices. They exist within the grey – where enterprise branding joins together with the larcenous to be called “digital intelligence.” Their customer list has included authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Russia, Venezuela, and China; death squads in Bangladesh; military juntas in Myanmar; and those seeking to abuse and oppress in Turkey, UAE, and elsewhere. A few months ago, they announced that they added Signal support to their software." This is a genuinely incredible blog post.

Why not faster computation via evolution and diffracted light. "What is the ultimate limit of computational operations per gram of the cosmos, and why don’t we have compilers that are targeting that as a substrate? I would like to know that multiple." Inspiring and mind-bending in that way that many genuinely new ideas are: connecting multiple existing ideas to create something fresh. A really great blog post.

University duo thought it would be cool to sneak bad code into Linux as an experiment. Of course, it absolutely backfired. "Computer scientists at the University of Minnesota theorized they could sneak vulnerabilities into open-source software – but when they tried subverting the Linux kernel, it backfired spectacularly."

Read Facebook's Internal Report About Its Role In The Capitol Insurrection. "From the earliest Groups, we saw high levels of Hate, VNI, and delegitimization, combined with meteoric growth rates — almost all of the fastest growing FB Groups were Stop the Steal during their peak growth. Because we were looking at each entity individually, rather than as a cohesive movement, we were only able to take down individual Groups and Pages once they exceeded a violation threshold. We were not able to act on simple objects like posts and comments because they individually tended not to violate, even if they were surrounded by hate, violence, and misinformation. After the Capitol Insurrection and a wave of Storm the Capitol events across the country, we realized that the individual delegitimizing Groups, Pages, and slogans did constitute a cohesive movement."

 

The DEI rollback

Yesterday, Jason Fried, Basecamp’s CEO, shared an internal memo he’d written about changes at the company. In it, he details how political discussions are no longer acceptable at work, and how benefits he considers to be “paternalistic” - like gym memberships and farmer’s market shares - are being removed.

It’s weird to me that this is coming from a company that literally wrote the book on culture. I’ve always thought of Basecamp (and its predecessor, 37 Signals) as being the yardstick for how to run a great company. This blog post completely blew that out of the water.

Conor Muirhead, a designer at Basecamp, later noted that political discussion was limited to two opt-in spaces: a space called “Civil Solace”, and a recently-formed DEI council. He notes that it was rare for these discussions to spill out of those spaces, although they did when, for example, “folks shared thoughts on how mocking people’s non-anglo names is a stepping stone towards racism”.

As Annalee Flower Horne rightly pointed out, “here's a thing about banning political discussions from a space because they're divisive: that does not resolve the division. It just says if you feel marginalized or unsafe here, keep it to yourself, we don't want to hear it.” Indeed, the predominantly white, male discourse - the one that is still dominant - is not usually considered to be “political”, while equity for marginalized people usually is. The effect is to further marginalize people of color in particular.

Regarding “paternalistic benefits”, Fred Wilson points out that “If you care about the mental and physical well-being of your team, I believe it makes sense to support them by investing in that. Companies can do that tax efficiently and employees cannot. Paying employees more so that they can then make these investments personally sounds rational but I don’t believe it will be as effective as company-funded programs that employees can opt into or not.” Because these benefits enjoy a special tax status, removing them disproportionately affects lower paid workers.

Something must have happened behind the scenes at Basecamp to force this change. The smart money’s on management becoming uncomfortable with changes requested, and power gathered, by the DEI council. But if you don’t want to make those changes, why have the council to begin with, except as a superficial gesture?

Basecamp was emboldened by Coinbase, which previously enacted a similar policy. It’s a regressive trend that more tech companies, led by men who are already predisposed to this narrower worldview, are likely to follow. This is particularly true in the post-Trump era, when the stakes (from a privileged perspective) seem lower.

For many of them, it’s an intentional roll back of the clock. Code2040 CEO Emeritus Karla Monterroso shared that “I will never forget a Latinx VP at a big tech company telling me that one of their VC’s (big name) told him at a board meeting that they had become an inhospitable place for white men and they needed to fix that.”

The solution, for now, is to call it out, and for those of us with privilege to pledge never to work for (or start) an organization with these policies. Diversity and inclusion is more important than ever. And leaders who care about the culture of their companies should once again take note of the Basecamp team: this time as a lesson in what not to do.