Skip to main content

Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.
He / him.

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben@benwerd.com

 

The door

Daniel found the door to another world the day his father died.

It sat behind the ugly painting of a hillside in France that his dad bought at a second hand shop a few years ago; he hung it proudly in his bedroom, despite Daniel’s mother’s protests. It was hanging at an angle when Daniel came to check on the house. When he straightened it, he caught a glimpse of shiny, red wood: a small square door sealed with a brass latch.

He pulled the latch and found it opened easily. Golden sunlight illuminated the dusty room; through the frame, he saw a cloudless, shimmering blue sky. Spirals of brightly-colored birds he had never seen before flew between trees. A warm breeze ran through his hair.

He shut the door with a start.

Surely he was imagining things?

Gently, he opened it again; just a crack. Again, he felt the breeze against his skin and heard the call of unfamiliar birds. It was the dead of winter, but the room was again lit in summery gold.

His heart pounded in his ears. He backed away slowly, and he kept backing away until he was locking the door, then mounting his bicycle, and finally racing home as fast as he could.

He had no idea how to process what he’d seen.

He wished there was someone he could ask about it. But his father was gone.

*

“Did you go over?” Daisy asked, wrapping her husband in a hug as soon as he walked in through the kitchen door. She had a spaghetti bolognese going on the stovetop; half-grated cheese sat on a wooden chopping board on the countertop. Simple comfort food for the end of a terrible day.

Daniel nodded wordlessly.

“How are you holding up?”

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet, to be honest,” Daniel said, after a moment. “I feel numb. He was a miserable man in some ways, and we never had a very warm relationship, but he was my Dad. Now he’s gone, there are so many things I want to ask him, and I can’t.”

Daisy kissed his forehead. Her blonde hair brushed against his face. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“I should tell Mum,” he said.

Daisy looked at him with concern. “Do you think she needs to know tonight? Will it make a difference to her?”

“No,” Daniel said, “but it’ll make a difference to me. I don’t want it hanging over everything. I need to tell her.”

Daisy pulled him in tighter. “She won’t know what you’re saying,” she said, quietly, as kindly as she could. “She’ll forget it as soon as you walk out through the door.” It felt blunt; cruel, even. But Daniel had been through enough for one day. He needed to rest.

“I’ll go tomorrow,” he told her, finally.

“I love you,” she said.

He loved her too, and told her so. He didn’t mention the door.

*

Daniel’s mother lived in a a memory care facility next to the John Radcliffe hospital, just off the ring road in east Oxford. In contrast to the hospital’s modern steel and glass, the facility’s pebble-dash walls were painted over with thick beige paint that came off in chunks at the corners. The morning sky cast the street in a dim grey, and as he walked up to the building, he shivered underneath his coat.

“I’m so sorry to hear about your Da,” Amy said after he’d signed in at the front desk. She had been the head nurse since his mother was first checked in. In some ways she was like family now: not Nurse Walsh, but Amy, the woman who had been by Daniel’s side when he first signed the forms, and when his mother’s memory had gone so far that she barely remembered who he was. His Dad hated it there, and had barely ever set foot in the building.

“Thank you,” Daniel said.

His mother sat in a big, institutional armchair upholstered in brown, wipe-clean vinyl. She was watching some daytime TV show about house-hunting in Europe on the communal flat-screen. Over the institutional smell of cleaning fluid, he could smell roses. Her perfume. Even now, with her memory mostly gone and the fabric of who she used to be torn apart by disease, she insisted on wearing it.

“Hi Mum,” he said, gently, taking care not to startle her.

She looked at him blankly.

“It’s your son,” he said. “Daniel.”

His mother smiled, but it was hard to tell if it was out of recognition.

“It’s nice to see you,” he said, smiling. She didn’t respond, and turned back to the television.

“How have you been, Mum?” He asked, sitting on a vinyl ottoman in front of her.

“I’ve been buying a house in Spain,” she said, turning back to him. Her voice carried a touch of a Russian accent; a fragment of the community of Jewish immigrants she’d grown up with in London. “It’s beautiful.”

“That’s lovely,” Daniel said.

“Yes, it makes a very nice change. I will go there with Peter in the summer.”

“That sounds nice,” Daniel said. He swallowed hard. “Mum, that’s why I’m here. I need to talk to you about Dad. About Peter.”

“My husband,” she said, smiling.

“Yes,” Daniel said, reaching out to touch her hand. “He died, Mum.”

“That cannot be. I spoke to him this morning.”

Daniel wondered if she’d really seen him in years. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “but Dad’s gone.”

She looked at him, but said nothing. He thought he could see her eyes grow wider, just slightly, but he couldn’t say for sure.

“He had a heart attack,” he said. “They couldn’t save him. They tried everything.”

She remained motionless, and the two of them sat there in complete silence. After a minute or two had passed, she said, abruptly: “I think you should go.”

“Okay, Mum,” Daniel said. There was no sense in arguing. “I love you.”

She turned back to the television, soaking herself in the sunny images of southern Spain. As she watched and the conversation with her son faded into the background, a smile began to curl back onto her face.

Daniel picked himself up off the ottoman. He took a long look at his mother, took in the smell of her perfume, and noticed the way her happiness didn’t quite seem to reach her eyes.

He turned towards the exit and waved a half-hearted thank you to Amy. She nodded and gave him a sympathetic smile.

He was just about to push the door open out into the reception when his mother turned back to him and asked: “Have you found the door yet?”

*

Daniel’s father had been an academic at the university, although he had given up most of his teaching duties long ago. He sat in a small office lined with Russian literature, peering into his computer screen and slowly hunting and pecking articles for research journals. The university let him stay partially out of kindness, and partially because he had become a relatively well-known name in the field. His translation of The Brothers Karamazov had long since fallen out of fashion, but in the seventies you could buy it in any bookstore.

Now that he was dead, the university made it clear that his office needed to be cleared out within the week.

Daniel and Daisy piled his books into open boxes. When one was full, they sealed it with brown packing tape and wrote a short description across the top. Dad’s books: a completely inadequate label for a life’s work. But there was nothing else they could write; neither one of them knew much about Russian literature. The stories and traditions that he had spent his life immersed in were an unknown.

The room smelled of dusty pages, and of him.

“So what did she say?” Daisy asked, packing a heavy-looking book bound in a burgundy dust jacket.

“She told me to leave,” Daniel said.

“So she knows what happened. She understands.”

Daniel sealed up a box and piled it on top of the others. There were seven of them now, towering in one corner. “I think so,” he said, “but these days it’s hard to tell for sure.”

“Did she say anything else?”

Daniel folded together a new, empty box, and sealed up the bottom with tape. “She turned back to the television. She literally wouldn’t talk to me anymore. And that was that.”

They turned their attention back to their work, boxing up the books and the hopelessly out-of-date computer that sat on his desk. In his desk drawers, they found a handful of Rubles - bright green notes with the remains of columns illustrated across them - and a cheap, plastic compass with a loop for tying to your wrist. Beside them was a quote, scrawled in his father’s handwriting on a white notecard: “For some a prologue, for some an epilogue”.

Before long, the room was empty. Daniel knew it would be scrubbed down soon, ready for the next academic to fill it with their work, wiped clear of the memory and the smell and the spirit of his father.

It was only when they had driven away that Daniel told her what he’d seen.

*

The two of them held hands in his father’s bedroom, facing the door in the wall. A moment ago, he had opened it for her, and she had seen a beautiful blue sky. It seemed impossible - like a magic trick - but then he did it again, and again. Once he had opened and closed the door for a fourth time, both of them acknowledged that it was real.

“But what is it?” Daisy asked.

“It’s a door,” Daniel said. “To somewhere.”

“But what is it?”

“I have no idea.”

*

They sat around the small dinner table his father had kept in the kitchen, eating slices of frozen pizza and sipping at glasses of the cheap red wine they had found in the

“Well, we can’t sell the house,” Daisy said. “Not with ... that.”

“No, I suppose not,” Daniel said. “But we can’t just keep the house here, sitting empty. It’s not right.”

“I agree. I just don’t know what to do about it. What if someone breaks in and finds it?”

“We don’t know where it goes; where that place is. What if it’s dangerous? What if, when you climb through, you can’t come back? We don’t know anything.”

“Do you think we can move it?” Daisy asked.

“It’s a doorway. How can you move a doorway?”

They finished their wine in silence as the sunlight left them and the room dimmed.

After they had sat in darkness for a while, Daisy said: “we should go through it.”

*

Daniel insisted that he would be the first to climb through. The plan was that he would climb back all the way, and then go through again, to make sure it was possible and that Daisy wouldn’t be trapped there. Then, and only then, she would climb through to follow him. They would leave the door open, with a broom propped against it so that it couldn’t swing shut.

It was small and square and two thirds the way up the wall, so he found that he needed to stand on a chair to have any hope of pulling himself through. Even then, it took more arm strength than he was comfortable exerting. But he found he could grip the sides of the doorframe, and Daisy gave him a small push, which helped. Before long, he felt the sun on his back and found that his feet were planted in the greenest grass he’d ever seen.

On this side, the doorframe floated in mid-air: just a square hanging in space with Daisy inside, and behind her, the gloom of the bedroom.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Daniel said. “It’s actually lovely in here. Out here. Wherever here is.”

“Come back out,” Daisy beckoned.

He pulled himself back through the doorway, awkwardly landing backwards on the chair. “That was pretty good, actually.”

“Okay,” Daisy said, “now back you go, and then I’ll follow you.”

Daniel once again pulled himself through the doorframe, and then gave Daisy a hand and helped her through behind him. Her sneakers landed in the grass.

“Oh,” Daisy said, turning her head towards the sky, “this is magnificent.”

They could see now that they were on a grassy hillside on the edge of a forest. On one side, they could see the birds and the trees. On the other, if they looked back beyond the doorframe, they could see a valley stretch out below them, and beyond it, more rolling hills dotted with trees and shrubs. Flowers sprung up among the grass. There were no signs of civilization anywhere; not so much as a hedgerow. It was wild and beautiful.

“How could your father keep this a secret?” Daisy asked, smiling. She turned to Daniel, but found that he was suddenly still, his face turned ashen.

Then she heard it.

From through the doorframe, somewhere back in the house, she could hear the sound of floorboards creaking under footsteps. As she listened, she realized that each step was getting louder; the person in the house was getting closer.

“Who is it?” Daisy whispered.

“Someone must have broken in,” Daniel whispered back.

“What if they see the door?”

“I don’t think we can avoid it now.”

They crouched below the frame and looked up, hoping to see who had broken into the house without being seen themselves.

“Is he here?” an unfamiliar woman’s voice said, somewhere in the house.

“I don’t see him,” a man’s voice said.

“Fine,” the first voice said. “Find the doorway and let’s sit in wait before he comes to look at the house.”

“Right you are,” the second voice said, noticeably louder. They were getting closer still; coming up the stairs now.

“If you see him, we must use force,” the first voice said. “We know the evil that lurks in his heart. It must be stamped out.”

Daisy clasped her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide in horror. Daniel was so still that she wasn’t sure if he was still breathing.

“Who is that?” Daisy whispered.

“I don’t know,” Daniel whispered.

“I found it! Ya ponyal!” shouted a voice from somewhere behind the doorway, and they heard the sounds of running footsteps.

Suddenly, Daniel stood up, reached through the square frame back into the bedroom, and closed the door behind them. The square of red wood hung in mid-air, impossibly. Behind it, he could hear the knocking and scratching of men, desperate to break through, but for reasons he couldn’t understand, they were barred.

*

The ground was soft but dry underfoot. As they walked down into the valley, they encountered the odd mouse amidst the grass or a bird pecking at something in the ground. The sun was warm, but the air wasn’t too hot or dry. It was the perfect summer’s day, and they were trapped in it.

Daniel had tried to move the doorframe so they could take it with them, but it stayed firm, as if it was cemented in something other than thin air. In the end they decided to leave it and see if they could find civilization. In the best case, there might be another door that could take them somewhere else, back into the real world.

It wasn’t that this place wasn’t the real world - it was just, they didn’t know what it was, or where. Or even when, if they stopped to think about it.

They had been walking for hours when they came across three strange, small cottages. Each of them was built with a wooden frame, with sticks and leaves packed in with clay and covered in a mixture of lime and sand. The roofs leaned up at sheer angles and were covered in bundles of straw. At one end, a small clay chimney jutted out, with a triangular, slate chimney cap.

“Do you think they’ll have water?” Daisy asked. It had been a long, hot walk.

“I think we have to try,” Daniel said. “I hope they’re friendly.”

Nervously, Daniel walked up to the door of the closest cottage and gave it a small, polite knock. There was no answer. After a few moments, he knocked again; when nobody came to the door, he turned back to Daisy and shrugged.

“Let’s try the next one,” she said. She walked to the next-closest cottage and knocked on the door. Again, there was no answer; she waited and tried again, but once more nobody came to the door.

They were about to walk up to the door of the third cottage when it opened with a bang. A small, old woman wearing a red handkerchief around her head walked out and looked at them with fierce eyes.

Chy mozhu ya vam dopomohty?” the woman asked, sternly, in what sounded like a Russian accent.

Daniel raised his hand in a friendly wave. “Hello,” he said.

*

The three of them sat in the old woman’s one-room cottage, drinking cups of strong, black tea. They didn’t share a common language, but Daisy seemed to have a knack for getting her intentions across through gestures and intonation. The woman’s name was Olena, and she had plenty of tea to share.

The sun outside had begun to dim, and Olena lit a small fire, which crackled in the fireplace and cast shadows that danced across the walls. She told her story as best she could, given the lack of words between them. Her husband, Ananiy, had gone to find a better home, taking her son, Andriy, with him. There was an army, or a mob of some kind - it was hard to tell through the language barrier - that was rampaging over the land and stealing peoples’ homes. Villages were burned to the ground. Entire families were obliterated.

As she spoke, Daniel recognized one word: “pogrom”.

Olena stood up to go outside; she gestured towards the fireplace and made a chopping motion. Firewood. Daniel and Daisy raised their hands and pointed to themselves instead; we’ll gather it for you. She smiled in acceptance, and the two of them left the cottage to find wood to burn.

“Did you hear her?” Daniel asked in a hushed whisper. As they walked around the cottage, they found a small pile of dry wood in a clay hut. “Pogroms. She was talking about pogroms.”

“I think she’s speaking Russian,” Daisy said.

“Is this —?”

Daisy nodded. “It seems insane, but I think we’re in the past. Like, over a hundred years ago in the past. It’s crazy, but at the same time, it must be. The pogroms in Russia were during the revolution. The White Army murdered Jews and spread propaganda that they were communists.”

“I think you’re right, but it’s more than that,” Daniel said.

“More than that?”

“It’s a lot, but yeah,” Daniel said, “more than that. I think Ananiy was my great grandfather. Ananiy and Olena were my great grandparents.”

Daisy gave him a quick hug; then, they gathered as much firewood as each of them could carry under each arm, and went back inside.

Olena laid out some woolen blankets on the floor for them to sleep under (“spaty,” she said, while gesturing emphatically towards them). She slept on a small, wooden bed in the corner under another set of blankets. The fire slowed and turned to embers, and before long they could hear the old woman’s gentle snoring.

*

In the darkness, Daisy turned to face Daniel. “How do we get back?” she whispered.

“I think we have to find our way back to the door,” Daniel said. “It seems like there’s only one way back.”

“What about Olena? What if the White Army comes to find her?”

“If she really is my great grandmother, they won’t. My great grandmother survived the pogroms and fled to join Ananiy and Andriy in London. She’ll be okay.”

“And if she isn’t?”

“I don’t know,” Daniel admitted. “I don’t think we can risk bringing her home. Into the future, I mean.”

Daisy nodded and thought for a minute. “This is all so surreal. I don’t know how we got here or how this even exists. But there’s one more thing I’ve been thinking. It’s going to sound strange, but I don’t think it can be stranger than anything else that’s happened today.”

“I think I know who the people in the house were,” Daisy whispered. “I think, somehow, it was the White Army. Or, perhaps, the ghosts of the White Army, or their descendants. The way they were talking - we know the evil that lurks in his heart. It’s such a strange thing to say. And they were speaking in Russian when they found the door. It seems so strange, but I’m scared that what I’m saying might actually be true, and they might be waiting for us whenever we go back.”

“How much time do you think has passed?” Daniel asked.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s night-time now, right? Here? And it was evening when we climbed through the door back home. If time moves at the same speed here as there - which it must do, because we heard people through the doorway - then it’s got to be early morning there by now.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying it’s time to go.”

*

“The door?” Daniel sat himself back down on the vinyl ottoman in front of his mother. “What do you know about that?”

She smiled at him like she used to, back before her illness dragged her away from the world; a smile of recognition and love. “I know all about it,” she said. “It followed him. It followed us. From where we came from, where our parents came from, and their parents, too, all the way up to us sitting here now. And it will follow you, and your children, and their children.”

“It seems so impossible,” Daniel said.

“When something bad happens, it ripples outwards. When someone is hurt, their children are hurt too, and so, too, their children. We all carry the past with us. That is what the door is. The things that hurt us follow us forever.”

“That sounds like a curse.”

“It is,” his mother said. “And it is a curse that is ten times worse if you pretend it’s not there. You will feel tired and not know why you are tired. It will pull at you and make you crazy with a thousand tiny hooks, and you will blame yourself. Trauma you inherit has no cause other than what comes through your family; you are confronted by ghosts that aren’t yours. The only way to stop the cycle - the waves of hurt that flow from generation to generation - is to face it. And that’s what the door is.”

“So I have to go through it?”

“Yes,” she said. “That won’t stop the hurt its tracks. But it will give you the power to fight it, as knowledge always does. It will give it a name, and a form.”

“I don’t understand what this means.”

“You will. I can tell you no more.”

Daniel got up and hugged his mother. “I love you, Mum,” he said.

“I love you too,” she said, turning back to the television. “Now leave me with my home in Spain.”

*

They stood, once again, in front of the door, which hung against nothingness in the dead of the night. They had folded the blankets as neatly as they could, left Olena sleeping in her bed, and made the long journey up out of the valley.

“I don’t know what’s behind this door,” Daniel said. “They might still be there. It might be dangerous. You didn’t ask for this; this isn’t a part of your family history. I’m sorry.”

“It isn’t, and it is,” Daisy said. “It’s part of my family history now because you’re my family. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t come to me from my parents; it comes to me from love. I accept it because I accept you. It’s not my family history; it’s my family future. And knowing it helps me know you a little better.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am.”

They embraced each other, then, in the night.

“Let’s do this,” Daisy said.

Daniel pushed the door open and it swung out into his father’s bedroom. His face glowed as the morning light shone through the frame. He turned to face Daisy and smiled; then, with one swift movement, he swung himself through the square and out into the room.

A moment later, she followed him. Her feet dropped back onto the beige carpet with a thud.

They were back in the present day. Dust floated in rays of sunlight. The ugly painting sat on the floor, balanced against the wall.

The house was silent and empty, but it sang with the life of Daniel’s parents: their history; the history they brought with them; the stories they left behind.

“What now?” Daisy asked.

Wordlessly, Daniel moved forward.

 

 

I just want a computer that works, man

I have a persistent, infuriating problem with typing.

The only laptop I own with a functional keyboard is my iPad Pro - the one device in this form factor that doesn’t actually ship with a keyboard. Even my work laptop suffers from the notorious broken butterfly keyboard problem.

Keys stick. They misfire. They double-type. Hitting the space bar once results in two spaces, which my computer turns into a period. Other keys have lost sensitivity. It's inconsistent.

The thing is, it creeps up on you. When your keyboard is iffy, you’re less likely to open your laptop to hack on something, or to use it to write. When you’re writing anything - blog posts, fiction, source code, documentation, even emails and Slack messages - keys that double-press or don’t fire at all can be catastrophic. It’s led to me writing less, coding less, and getting far less use out of my computers. Which, given what I do for a living, is not great. And considering what I paid for my Macs, it’s outrageous.

My laptop needs to feel like an extension of me. My outboard brain; my reliable toolkit. It can’t fail.

My personal laptop is five years old, which is beyond my usual threshold for upgrading, so I don’t feel horrible about replacing it with a newer model. But as much as I’d love to acquire a new M1 device, I’m not certain I want to give that money to Apple. I like Macs, but I feel burned.

So what might it look like to jump ship and find something else?

I want: a keyboard that works; excellent battery life; speed; a relatively lightweight form factor; privacy.

I’d also like: a low environmental footprint; repairable hardware; openness; a chassis that will last me at least 4-5 years; a default operating system that isn’t Windows.

Is that even a product that’s on the market?

My living depends on computers, so I’m willing to pay a premium for something that checks all the boxes. But in a world / industry where the default is Mac, I don’t even know where to begin.

What’s worked for you? Does this exist? Or should I just sit tight and wait for the new M1 Macs and be done with it?

 

On the eve of immunity, 10 reflections

1: I get my first vaccine jab tomorrow. Pfizer. I’m excited: by my reckoning that makes me about five weeks out from being immune. I’m privileged in that the pandemic has been inconvenient at most, but I miss hanging out with my friends and extended family. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It feels good.

2: The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are the first production uses of mRNA techniques for vaccination. Although they received emergency authorization from the FDA, the research began 30 years ago; already it looks like an HIV vaccine based on similar technology looks promising. The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines in particular were based on techniques originally developed to treat HIV. Money is now flowing into mRNA research.

3: I have complicated feelings about vaccine passports. Dr. Fauci says the US federal government won’t introduce them.

On one hand, I think this is right. An internal COVID passport system is effectively akin to an ID card, which can have real knock-on effects on civil liberties. Here’s a thought experiment: what happens when it becomes easier to get a vaccine passport in one location than another? What do we know about provision of services in predominantly white neighborhoods vs in predominantly black neighborhoods?

I see a vaccine passport to travel between countries as less problematic; those already exist. But internal checkpoints to travel or use services are not great and can open the door to other forms of required ID that can perpetuate inequities.

On the other, it seems reasonable that private businesses will start requiring proof of vaccination to enter. You’ll need to show you’ve been vaccinated to go to bars, sports games, schools, and so on. Given the inevitability this private ecosystem, these proofs of vaccination will need to be regulated. So should we get ahead of them? How can we solve those issues of inequity and avoid mass surveillance while also keeping everyone safe?

Is it worse than a driving license? Does the analogy fit? It’s complicated.

4: At least 40,000 children in the US alone have lost a parent to COVID-19. The loss seems unfathomable.

5: It’s been weird watching people I grew up with turn into anti-mask COVID-deniers. I’m not sure what happened, but it’s surreal to find people I consider friends sharing FUD posts from the executive editor of Breitbart UK (also a climate denier!) while opining, “why is nobody thinking critically about this?”

Some of these same friends were also “jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams” people, and in that light, I suppose the signs were always there. But I find it confronting to say the least to see this happen to people I trusted. I don’t know what happens to those friendships - and I’m fully aware that this post can’t exactly help - but it feels like disinformation that should have been squarely in the realm of the “out there” has become invasive.

It’s a smaller loss than many have endured, but I feel it, and I’m mystified by it.

6: All my immediate loved ones will have been vaccinated by Wednesday. This gives me a lot of peace.

7: My mother continues to decline, completely independently to the pandemic. It’s been a silver lining of this whole situation that I’ve been able to spend time with my parents and support them while this has been happening. She’s nine years out from her double lung transplant and continues to fight hard; an inspiration to all of us in both spirit and action. She resents her decline and dearly wants to be healthy. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it so.

Pulmonary fibrosis treatment techniques may improve outcomes in patients with long covid damage to their lungs. It’s possible that mRNA techniques may also improve outcomes in patients with dyskeratosis congenita by correcting telomerase production. It’s all connected, but it’s going to be too late for my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, and my cousin.

8: Poorer countries may not be vaccinated until 2024. As a direct result, the pandemic could last for half a decade. One of the reasons Oxford University chose to work with AstraZeneca instead of Merck because of fears that working with a US company would prevent the vaccine from being equitably distributed.

How can we help with this?

I don’t have a satisfying answer, but I appreciate Janet Yellen’s calls for increased aid. I feel like the US should contribute more directly, not least because of its vaccine hoarding. We can and should do better. (That doesn’t mean we will.)

9: Locking down was important. According to the LSE, the stronger government interventions at an early stage were, the more effective they proved to be in slowing down or reversing the growth rate of deaths. We were repeatedly told by skeptics that we’d lose lives to suicide due to isolation; as it turns out, loss of life to suicide in 2020 was lower than the preceding three years. Lockdown was a public good that saved lives.

I note that conservatives who oppose lockdown are less vocal about blanket infringements on the right to protest. I’m much more concerned about these: in particular, 2020 saw important protests for racial equality that should not be impeded. Black Lives Matter, and the pandemic should not be used as an excuse to squash this movement.

10: I’ve said this before, but I hope we don’t “go back to normal” after pandemic. We need to move forward. So much change has been shown to be possible, from workplaces to societal inclusion to scientific endeavor. We’ve shown that we can come together as communities rather than isolated individuals. As the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter, I see so many possibilities for growth. Let’s embrace them.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: March, 2021

This is my monthly roundup of the media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for March, 2021: a month where, at least in the United States, mass vaccination started to present the light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic.

Books

The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi. Beautiful and sad; a tale of someone trying to be themselves in a context that won’t allow it, and of love and allyship becoming their own kinds of oppression. Despite the tragedy at the heart of the novel, it resonates with triumphant humanism, too. Emotional and sonorous and just about perfect.

Something That May Shock and Discredit You, by Daniel M. Lavery . A very personal book; powerful in a way that sneaks up on you with seemingly-banal interludes that add up to a meaningful whole. I’ve been a fan of his ever since The Toast, but this is something else entirely.

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson. It starts with a catastrophe - an extrapolation of climate change and the very dark places it might lead us - but then takes us on an exploration of how we might deal with it. It’s an informed celebration of invention, resolve, and the human spirit. If I have a criticism, it’s that it sometimes is far too utopian and engages in technological determinism, but what a change that makes. I’ve even forgiven its extensive passages on decentralized social networking (something I know a thing or two about) and blockchain, the wrongness of which casts doubt on the technical robustness of other climate solutions presented. This is hard economic science fiction, and yet, a very human book.

The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett. A near-perfect novel about identity and how the stories we tell about ourselves both define and disguise us. Modern, nuanced, and rich in a way that lingers long afterwards.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong. A challenging, complicated book that provides a much-needed perspective via the author’s Asian American experience. I was drawn in by the first half, and again by the deservedly angry final essay. The rest of the second half is dedicated to her experiences as an artist, which are not always likable. But why should they be? She doesn’t owe anybody anything, and her honesty is a gift that deserves attention.

Notable Articles

Business

Imagine Your Flexible Office Work Future. "The C-Suite has had “flexibility” for years. If companies don’t expand it to other workers, they’ll find jobs elsewhere."

The End of Indie. "Unfortunately, as we’ve sought to lean more aggressively into scaling our investments and ideas behind an “Indie Economy” we’ve not found that same level of enthusiasm from the institutional LP market."

Four-Day Work Week Gains Popularity Around the World. "So last spring the company told everyone to sign off around lunchtime every Friday to ease into the weekend. The experiment was so successful—sales, employee engagement, and client satisfaction all rose—that in January, Awin decided to go a step further, rolling out a four-day week for the entire company with no cuts in salaries or benefits. “We firmly believe that happy, engaged, and well-balanced employees produce much better work,” says Chief Executive Officer Adam Ross. They “find ways to work smarter, and they’re just as productive.”" Honestly, what's the downside?

An alternative to competition. “And all we have to do is get enough customers to make our business work. That's it. That's how we stay alive. Not by taking marketshare away from anyone, not by siphoning off users, not by spending gobs of cash to convince people to switch. We simply have our own economics to worry about, and if we get that right, we're golden.” I like this way of thinking.

What Ended Indie. The discussion of GAAP accounting here - and in particular its shortcomings - is very familiar to me.

For Creators, Everything Is for Sale. “A rash of new start-ups are making it easier for digital creators to monetize every aspect of their life — down to what they eat, who they hang out with and who they respond to on TikTok.” It’s like an episode of Black Mirror.

In a First, Uber Agrees to Classify British Drivers as ‘Workers’. “Uber said it would reclassify more than 70,000 drivers in Britain as workers who will receive a minimum wage, vacation pay and access to a pension plan.” Everywhere, please.

The Personal Finance and Investment Advice Fallacy. “The personal finance circuit and the hustle economy are some of the most public acts of cruelty in capitalism. It exists to kick people when they’re down - telling those who are suffering because inherent unfairness of capitalism (where so much is based on where you are born, when you were born and whom you are born to) that it’s their fault, and that the reason they’re doing badly is because they haven’t taken the right advice or done the right thing.”

ESGs, sustainable investing are not as green as touted, investor says. “The financial services industry is duping the American public with its pro-environment, sustainable investing practices. This multitrillion dollar arena of socially conscious investing is being presented as something it's not. In essence, Wall Street is greenwashing the economic system and, in the process, creating a deadly distraction. I should know; I was at the heart of it.”

Green investing is a fraud. “Take "Environmental, Social, and Governance" (ESG) funds, pitched as a way to save for retirement without annihilating the planet you're planning to retire on. These were once so promising that they panicked the finance sector, so much so that the world's carbon barons convinced Trump to propose a law making it illegal to direct your investment dollars into an ESG.” Instead, ESG funds were gutted of their impact and are now largely marketing concerns.

Culture

Beeple sold an NFT for $69 million. Just, ugh.

The internet didn’t kill counterculture—you just won’t find it on Instagram. "Taken from the title of Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin’s 2008 book, “the dark forest” region of the web is becoming increasingly important as a space of online communication for users of all ages and political persuasions. In part, this is because it is less sociologically stressful than the clearnet zone, where one is subject to peer, employer, and state exposure. It also now includes Discord servers, paid newsletters (e.g., Substack), encrypted group messaging (via Telegram, etc.), gaming communities, podcasts, and other off-clearnet message board forums and social media."

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary. “A book where you can enter “sport” and end up with “a diversion of the field” — this is in fact the opposite of what I’d known a dictionary to be. This is a book that transmutes plain words into language that’s finer and more vivid and sometimes more rare. No wonder McPhee wrote with it by his side. No wonder he looked up words he knew, versus words he didn’t, in a ratio of “at least ninety-nine to one.””

Media

Journalism is a public service. So why doesn’t it represent the public?. "All of this is to say, getting into a four-year university depends largely on generational wealth, which a myriad of immigrant households and historically marginalized racial minorities are still struggling to build. Those on the unlucky side of the gap see disadvantages compound from the start. I come from a family that lived below the poverty line, and that likely helped me earn a full scholarship to Boston University. This stroke of luck has changed my life, but it’s important to acknowledge that the hurdles don’t end there."

America is learning to rebalance its news diet post-Trump. "Nearly halfway through President Biden's first 100 days, data shows that Americans are learning to wean themselves off of news — and especially politics."

Nearly Half of Digital Subscribers Are ‘Zombies,’ Medill Analysis Finds. “Spiegel found that 49% of digital subscribers didn’t go to the websites they had paid for even once a month, putting them in a category known in news-industry slang as “zombies.” Concern is growing about this problem because even though the living dead may still pay for local news, they seem like a weak foundation to build a future on.” It makes me wonder why they subscribe; I suspect it’s closer to why people donate to charity than because they want to be constantly engaged with the content.

Here's why Substack's scam worked so well. “For all we know, every single one of Substack’s top newsletters is supported by money from Substack. Until Substack reveals who exactly is on its payroll, its promises that anyone can make money on a newsletter are tainted.”

AAJA Guidance on Atlanta Shootings. “We urge newsrooms to cover the shootings in the context of the current rise in attacks on Asian Americans. These shootings have come during a time of increasing attacks on the AAPI community, and heightened fear among AAPI communities across the country.”

Politics

Women in Congress on the Capitol riot: 23 lawmakers on what happened to them during the insurrection. "As the events of the deadly riot are examined in the impeachment trial, here is what almost two dozen lawmakers told The 19th about January 6, in their own words." Really harrowing.

Science

A Cephalopod Has Passed a Cognitive Test Designed For Human Children. Cuttlefish can pass the marshmallow test. Can you?

Facial recognition technology can expose political orientation from naturalistic facial images. "Accuracy remained high (69%) even when controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity. Given the widespread use of facial recognition, our findings have critical implications for the protection of privacy and civil liberties." Kind of terrifying.

Study: Preservative Used in Pop-Tarts and Hundreds of Popular Foods May Harm the Immune System. "A food preservative used to prolong the shelf life of Pop-Tarts, Rice Krispies Treats, Cheez-Its and almost 1,250 other popular processed foods may harm the immune system, according to a new peer-reviewed study by Environmental Working Group." And: "Recently published research has also found a link between high levels of PFAS in the blood and the severity of Covid-19."

How mRNA Technology Could Change the World. "For decades, researchers have struggled to design a workable vaccine for HIV, and many observers considered this field a dead end. But a new paper argues that these repeated failures forced HIV-vaccine researchers to spend a lot of time and money on strange and unproven vaccine techniques—such as synthetic mRNA and the viral-vector technology that powers the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Nearly 90 percent of COVID-19 vaccines that made it to clinical trials used technology that “could be traced back to prototypes tested in HIV vaccine trials,” Jeffrey E. Harris, the economist at MIT who authored the paper, wrote."

Stanford Scientists Reverse Engineer Moderna Vaccine, Post Code on Github. “We didn't reverse engineer the vaccine. We posted the putative sequence of two synthetic RNA molecules that have become sufficiently prevalent in the general environment of medicine and human biology in 2021.”

Society

How to have better arguments online. Not just online: “When we’re in an argument with someone, we should be thinking about how they can change their mind and look good – maintain or even enhance their face – at the same time. Often this is very hard to do in the moment of the dispute itself, when opinion and face are bound even more tightly together than they are before or after (the writer Rachel Cusk defines an argument as “an emergency of self-definition”). However, by showing that we have listened to and respected our interlocutor’s point of view, we make it more likely that they will come around at some later point. If and when they do, we should avoid scolding them for not agreeing with us all along.”

New study finds not knowing how to flirt is the main reason behind "involuntary singlehood". "Among the participants who indicated that they were involuntarily single, the most important factor by far was their lack of flirting skills. Following this factor, in decreasing order, were skills in perceiving signals of interest, “mating effort,” and choosiness. These last three factors were all relatively similar in their degree of impact."

Harry and Meghan: The union of two great houses, the Windsors and the Celebrities, is complete. “Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.”

Private Schools Are Indefensible. I agree with the headline. They simply shouldn’t exist. This is an excellent piece that dives into some reasons why.

What the Pandemic Is Doing to Our Brains. “The pandemic is still too young to have yielded rigorous, peer-reviewed studies about its effects on cognitive function. But the brain scientists I spoke with told me they can extrapolate based on earlier work about trauma, boredom, stress, and inactivity, all of which do a host of very bad things to a mammal’s brain.”

Hospitals Hide Pricing Data From Search Results. Hospitals have to list pricing by law - but they explicitly add noindex, nofollow tags to pricing pages so they can't be searched and discovered. Seems like an opportunity for someone to build an open dataset.

Evanston, Illinois, becomes first U.S. city to pay reparations to Black residents. "The Chicago suburb’s City Council voted 8-1 to distribute $400,000 to eligible black households. Each qualifying household would receive $25,000 for home repairs or down payments on property."

Technology

Clubhouse Harassment, and Tech's Move from Enthusiast to Industrial Press. “I believe that a lot of the people in tech who are having this vacuous, oafish discussion of the media has as “haters” are actually just mad that they can’t say or do what they want and that every action they have isn’t the most important thing in the world.”

Google will end behavioral targeting, profile-building in its ad products. "Google helped create and grow the digital ad ecosystem that relied on tracking and targeting ads to people across the web. Now, up against pressure from regulators around data privacy and antitrust, Google will stop enabling cross-site tracking and targeting of individuals outside its own properties such as in inventory it sells through its Google AdX display and video ad exchange." Big changes are coming.

The SOC2 Starting Seven. "Here’s how we’ll try to help: with Seven Things you can do now that will simplify SOC2 for you down the road while making your life, or at least your security posture, materially better in the immediacy." File under "things I wish I'd read a year ago".

Lying to the ghost in the machine. “The point I'd like to make is that ready-trained NNs like GPT-3 or CLIP are often tailored as the basis of specific recognizer applications and then may end up deployed in public situations, much as shitty internet-of-things gizmos usually run on an elderly, unpatched ARM linux kernel with an old version of OpenSSH and busybox installed, and hard-wired root login credentials. This is the future of security holes in our internet-connected appliances: metaphorically, cameras that you can fool by slapping a sticker labelled "THIS IS NOT THE DROID YOU ARE LOOKING FOR" on the front of the droid the camera is in fact looking for.”

T-Mobile to Step Up Ad Targeting of Cellphone Customers. 'Wireless carrier tells subscribers it could share their masked browsing, app data and online activity with advertisers unless they opt out." As a previously-happy T-Mobile customer, I'm outraged by this.

He got Facebook hooked on AI. Now he can't fix its misinformation addiction. “I began video-calling Quiñonero regularly. I also spoke to Facebook executives, current and former employees, industry peers, and external experts. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because they’d signed nondisclosure agreements or feared retaliation. I wanted to know: What was Quiñonero’s team doing to rein in the hate and lies on its platform?” Surprise, surprise: that’s not what Facebook wanted to talk about.

The Mobile Performance Inequality Gap, 2021. “Whatever progress runtimes and networks have made in the past half-decade, browsers are stubbornly situated in the devices carried by real-world users, and the single most important thing to understand about the landscape of devices your sites will run on is that they are not new phones.”

One Year in the IndieWeb. I'm pretty much an indieweb zealot. These experiences are fair and representative of the community, it seems to me.

The Dao of DAOs. “After a contentious debate, the Ethereum core team, led by Vitalik Buterin, released a hard fork of the Ethereum blockchain. It was essentially a new version in which everything was the same, except in the forked version, the heist never happened.” A very telling paragraph. How decentralized is it, really, if the core team can vanish away transactions, regardless of the reason? (Hint: every blockchain can do this.)

In 2020, Two Thirds of Google Searches Ended Without a Click. Fuel for Google being more of a publisher than a referrer these days.

The End of AMP. “If you’re currently using AMP, you’ll be able to get rid of that monstrosity in May, and if you aren’t, you’ll now be competing for search positions previously unavailable to you. For publishers, it is a win-win.” FINALLY.

 

Equitable community software

Today Richard Stallman announced that he has been reinstated as a board member of the Free Software Foundation with the antagonistic comment:

“Some of you will be happy about this and some of you will be disappointed. … In any case, that's how it is and I'm not planning to resign a second time.”

RMS originally stepped down after defending the late Marvin Minsky, an AI pioneer accused of assaulting an underage girl trafficked by Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein’s victims, RMS alleged, were likely “entirely willing”, and sex with a minor should not be considered rape. In the most generous possible interpretation, he was utterly clueless in a way that caused harm to women both inside and outside the movement, and to the free software movement itself.

His reinstatement was not announced on official Free Software Foundation channels, but rather informally in a talk given by RMS himself. He has since reappeared on the board page of the FSF website.

It’s a colossal own goal for the figurehead organization of the free software movement - and more so, for the movement itself, which in many corners still holds the Foundation and its work in high regard. It’s a clear example of how considering software as if it sits in a vacuum - outside of the social context in which it is run and built - can perpetuate harms, regardless of the intentions of its participants. It’s also yet another reason for women to walk away from the movement.

Software development communities often talk about running through rough consensus and running code. But who is consensus achieved between, and who is the code run for the benefit of? Traditional free and open source software models don’t consider this. The result is infamously hard to use interfaces and opaque documentation, as well as hostile, monocultural communities.

We need to move from a source-code-centric model for free software, to a community-centric model that shares ownership of both the software and the process used to build the software with everyone involved, from (yes) the coders and designers, to the people the software is being built for, to research subjects and the communities touched by it.

A world where software is enshrined to, and co-owned by, its community is not one where socially-oblivious developers making apologies for child rape could be venerated. It’s also one where design, documentation, and community care become equally important to the software itself, overcoming one of free software’s most longstanding issues. The benefits are real, and only extend the principles of openness inherent to the movement. After all, a software community that does not welcome anyone other than affluent, white men cannot be genuinely considered “free”.

This commitment to distributed equity requires both an extension of contributor covenants and free software licenses. Together, these legal frameworks need to provide co-operative-inspired processes for sharing ownership - a sort of “partner with community” to sit alongside the emerging exit to community idea. It goes beyond the mechanics of how source code is contributed and shared to define how the product and community are defined, designed, and governed. It’s a promise to distribute equity as widely as possible throughout the whole community.

You can’t separate the software from the community that built it. Therefore, true openness must dictate how that community is formed and run. We are what we choose to tolerate; in the same way that free software communities do not tolerate proprietary lock-in, they should not tolerate exclusionary social practices that lock people out.

RMS shouldn’t have been reinstated. It’s a disappointment, to put it mildly. But it’s also a line in the sand for the entire movement, and an opportunity - finally - to build something really new.

 

Optimism and invention

It’s far easier to think of problems than solutions.

When I was founding my first startup - accidentally - in Scotland almost twenty years ago, the reaction I got more than anything else was “it’ll never work”. So many people told me to go get a real job that I left Scotland to get away from them. Even when I moved to the US a decade later and was working on the second startup I co-founded, people often told me that I should go do something more useful. “That’s the worst fucking idea I’ve ever heard,” one person - an entrepreneur, even! - once said to me.

While criticism is easy, optimism and invention are hard.

I think cultivating a bias towards forward motion - one that sees problems with clear eyes but nonetheless also sees the possibilities - is a vital skill not just for entrepreneurship, but for life. If you’re constantly concerned about what might go wrong, there’s very little you can effectively do. If you constantly worry that you’re not capable of achieving something, you never will.

Of course, the lists of things that might go wrong are different for different people, and a reasonable definition of privilege is that the list of things that could go wrong for you is shorter. Shortening everyone’s list should be a priority for us as a society. It’s also not a great idea to jump into something blind, because stuff could go wrong. That’s where testing comes in: speaking to experts and trying things out before you commit. The difference is between just refusing to contemplate something, and seeing problems as obstacles to overcome. A fixed mindset vs a growth mindset.

Take the web itself. Back in the early days, it was a handful of unstyled hyperlinks that could barely support images at all. Most users had, at most, a 56K modem that would take the best part of 10 minutes to download a 3 megabyte MP3. At the same time, CD-ROMs were booming, and were comparatively rich experiences. People could also make money from CD-ROMs - they were literally sold in shrink-wrapped boxes in stores - while the web was an unknown. It was easy to dismiss.

Of course, today, most computers don’t have a disc drive, and everyone’s using the web to do just about everything. The possibility was always there, but you had to use your imagination, and it required a lot of hard work from people who ignored the nay-sayers to get us there.

Again: it’s not about ignoring problems. We should absolutely be talking about the inclusion issues inherent to startups, for example, or the environmental issues associated with the blockchain. But that doesn’t mean those things are dead ends; instead, we should find new, more inclusive models for startups, and environmentally friendly algorithms for decentralization. And we should test and verify the assumptions we might have.

Which brings me back to those nay-sayers in Scotland. I hear it’s a better environment for entrepreneurship than it used to be, but it really was soul-destroying at the time. That I felt comfortable starting a company was somehow threatening to their worldview. I didn’t come from wealth; I wasn’t exploiting anyone; it was just an open source educational platform. But a lot of people wanted to tear me down simply for trying something different; for daring to be optimistic. It turned me off ever founding anything in Scotland again.

I’ve learned to seek out the people who “yes and” your ideas, and try to help you make them more robust, rather than trying to knock them down. Collaborators rather than detractors; co-inventors rather than critics. People who want to support you in manifesting a possible future rather than sniping.

I hope to be that co-creator, although I haven’t always been. I hope to find them. Even though it’s harder to invent a positive possible future than criticize the present, the possible outcomes are so much more profoundly good, and it’s so much more fun to get there.

 

Tech after Covid

Incredibly, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here in the US, everyone will be eligible for a vaccine from May, and projections suggest that a large portion of the population will be immune by the autumn. This is obviously great news for all of us.

Clearly, we can expect the world to change. In some ways it’ll change back to how it was before: we’ll gather in groups, go to bars and restaurants, see our friends and family. Most of us will probably go back to commuting to our workplaces, although some knowledge workers will be permanently remote or on flexible schedules. Even business travel will return to normal, albeit at two thirds its previous rate.

In other words, after a year of living virtually, reality is going to bounce back hard, with a minority of people sticking to their internet-bound habits. Real, physical items and experiences will trump virtual ones.

For many internet businesses, this will be a shock to the system. We won’t videoconference anywhere near as much, for example, and it’s telling that most of us are looking forward to that. We probably won’t spend quite as much time streaming video, hanging out on social media, or consuming content overall. We’ll go to stores again in much larger numbers rather than buying everything online. We’ll buy physical art from artists instead of collecting virtual NFTs. It’s even possible that the paid newsletter trend will be hit a little, as people find more immediate, in-person places to spend their money.

I think the implications are larger than many people imagine. I’m bullish on platforms that allow people to gather and meet people face-to-face: while gathering is a terrible idea right now, people are starved for human interaction. New kinds of in-person experiences demand ways to discover and share them. There will be a lot of parties; a lot of conferences and conventions; a lot of Secret Cinema-like immersive gatherings that experiment and push the envelope of what all of those things mean; a lot less Clubhouse. Conversely, social media will recede from being the main way we communicate with our friends to once again just being the backchannel to life in meatspace.

Here’s what I’m less sure about, but I’m hoping will happen. So many of our IRL behaviors were inherited; we often did things simply because those were the way they were done. After a break of over a year, I hope we can re-evaluate those patterns and see them with fresh eyes. Does rush hour have to exist, for example? Can we please rethink open plan offices? Are endless panels at conferences really necessary? What does it actually mean to share a real-world experience online? When someone sticks their phone in the air at a concert and records it, what is their underlying desire, and can we help them do it in a way that doesn’t obstruct everyone else’s view?

Some of this relates to social infrastructure and our political system: for example, I really hope it becomes socially unwelcome for sick people to come into work, but that heavily depends on time off finally becoming mandated. On the other hand, much of it is cultural. We have the opportunity to reinvent how we inhabit, gather, and share in the real world. That has the potential to be lovely.

In the meantime, as innovators and technologists, we have to see beyond the current moment. We’re not all going to be stuck in our houses in six months time. Inventing the future doesn’t mean inventing for a perpetual pandemic; investing in the future means seeing that trend head on. Let’s be ready for going outside again.

 

What matters

You probably know this David Foster Wallace joke:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

When you're in the depths of your context, whatever that happens to be, it can be hard to even see the rules you’re unconsciously abiding by. I think it’s worth stopping, every so often, and particularly after a year like the one we’ve collectively had, to ask: what matters?

I think there are two traps in life. (There are certainly more, but let’s go with two for the purposes of this piece. Two traps is already a lot of traps.) The first is that you find yourself on a metaphorical treadmill, working really hard but not for any really good reason that gets you to anywhere in particular. The second is that you have a fixed goal in mind and are so fixated on getting there that you miss out on all the beauty and possibilities inherent to the journey. In other words: blinkered-ness and inflexibility.

Naming the decisions we make and understanding why we make them allows us to make better ones. For example, taking care of my parents is a choice - I could up and move to Singapore, say - but it’s only one on a technicality. I may have autonomy, but not in a way that I’d feel good about. Leaving the Bay Area and not being there for my family feels like the wrong thing to do. As much as I’d love to travel more and live somewhere else (which, in a vacuum, I really would), if I consciously weigh the two things against each other, staying here wins.

If I’m naming things and making conscious choices, understanding how much of myself I give to other people - and how much of my life is truly proactively under my control, vs. a reaction to external demands or desires - is an important exercise. I want to have a job, and I want to both spend time with and take care of people I love. But I also want to be my own, autonomous person, and give myself enough breathing space to live and grow.

Those conscious choices just scratch the surface. We all unconsciously give a lot of ourselves in response to external pressures. Consumer culture - the advertising, media, and word-of-mouth values we’re all exposed to hundreds of times a day - also has designs on us. It wants us to fit into a pigeonhole, follow a fashion, modify our bodies, get rich, become something we’re not. The message is that fitting ourselves into these templates will improve us somehow. For advertising, it’s a reflection of someone’s desire to convince you to buy their product; for media, it’s their desire to capture your attention; for everyone else, it’s their desire to feel better about themselves. People who are brave enough to truly be themselves are a threat to people who are not.

In the tech industry, a lot of people feel like they’ve constantly got to be in hustle mode: a particular kind of working all the time that is imposed through a mix of entrepreneurship porn and peer pressure. I’ve long since washed my hands of this side of tech culture, but it’s something I definitely was part of for a little while, and I continue to see it in others. I made choices that were detrimental to me in the name of the work I was doing (without realizing that, by harming me, these choices were also detrimental to that work). I meet and talk to a lot of people who still want to hustle hard because they’re under the impression they will somehow going to get rich quick. For a lot of people, there really isn’t a tangible goal: they hustle to the point of exhaustion and contort their personas into accepted forms simply because they think they’re expected to.

That same impulse is why immigrants are pressured to assimilate, or why people self-asserting their own gender identity is a threat to so many people. Assimilation takes the fear out of accepting someone from a culture a person doesn’t understand. Traditional gender identity and roles are well-understood; not just culturally accepted but culturally indoctrinated, prescribed, and sold to. It’s in a lot of peoples’ interests for us to conform to them, so there’s pressure to do that. But assimilation requires letting go of a key piece of who we are; adopting a traditional gender rather than expressing our true selves requires denying who we are. In some cases, the unfair expectations placed on us differ wildly: Black women are held to a different, more stringent standard to white women, who are held to a different standard again to white men.

Let’s ask again: what matters?

Everyone deserves to be accepted for the completeness of who they are. Acceptance matters; trust matters; respect matters; equity matters. A professional relationship is in peril if the parties involved don’t accept each other as people, or if they don’t accept the relationship itself. A romantic relationship is in peril if the same things are true. If we’re constantly judging each other, or holding each other to unfair or inconsistent standards, our respect for and acceptance of each other is drastically undermined.

It’s a universal but largely unspoken need: I want to be my full, weird, unbridled self, and I want to be accepted and loved for it. I want the people around me to be accepted and loved for who they are. I want the injustices of the past - the intentional and unconscious choices communities have made for centuries - to be named and redressed, so that everyone can be themselves.

The inclusive, nonconformist future is here, but isn’t evenly distributed yet. I don’t want to live in a place with a homogenous culture; I don’t want my community to be assimilated and sanitized to some out-of-date standard. I want everyone to be themselves. Life is so much richer when you can build community with people from a galaxy of contexts, ethnicities, and cultures; a spectrum of sexualities and genders; a rainbow of people who can all create and share and love and collaborate and grow with each other without losing their sense of self or the pressure to give up pieces of their identities. A culture that, above all, gives people the metaphorical and literal space to live.

To me, that’s what matters. Being accepted and loved for who I am, warts and all; accepting and loving the people I’m connected to for who they are, warts and all. Allowing people to really be themselves and rejecting conformity. And it leads to conscious choices: where to live, where to work, who to be connected to, and what to do next. Rejecting the cultural pressure to conform to traditional values and embracing the new and radical means finding the places, organizations, and people who do the same.

That’s what I think a good life looks like. I think it’s important to consciously know, and to name it. It’s what I want.

 

Funding independence

When IndieVC arrived six years ago, it represented an exciting alternative to traditional venture investments. While revenue-based investing wasn't new, Indie made it mainstream, and started an important conversation: VC isn't appropriate for every business, so what's available for revenue-first, independent businesses that want to shoot for profitability instead of unicorn growth?

I was gutted today to read about its demise:

We’ve not been shy in sharing the challenges of departing from the well-known narratives of startups and VCs. 4 years ago, it cost us 80% of our LP base. Unfortunately, as we’ve sought to lean more aggressively into scaling our investments and ideas behind an “Indie Economy” we’ve not found that same level of enthusiasm from the institutional LP market.

Fundamentally, this shines an important light on a discrepancy in venture capital. Every VC fund depends on Limited Partners: typically institutional funds and the family offices of high net worth individuals that dedicate a portion of their investments to riskier, potentially high-yield businesses. While VC funds themselves claim to want to invest in the future, the investment managers in charge of LP money tend as a rule to be more risk averse. At the very least, in the same way that money from wealthy philanthropists is more opinionated than public funds, it is deployed according to the values of fund owners. Alternative models are met with reticence.

Radical changes in venture capital depend on radical changes in limited partner attitudes. So what does funding these kinds of sustainability-oriented businesses look like in light of this?

I suspect it looks like this: no funding. Instead, I wonder if we need to be building ecosystems like IndieHackers, which operates as a community of solo entrepreneurs focused on making their side projects profitable. Instead of funding, members promote each other and offer skill shares and examples from their own experiences. Product Hunt has evolved into a similar kind of space: one where individuals and funded companies alike share new things they've released, get feedback, and build community.

The idea of no funding is problematic, because only a certain kind of person can get something off the ground with only their own resources. Those people are usually wealthier, and wealthier people tend to come from a very narrow demographic. On the other hand, venture capital disproportionately (and problematically) already goes to people from that narrow demographic. So, screw it. Maybe the counterculture has better answers.

I link a lot to the Zebra movement; its upcoming co-op and crowdfunding partnerships make a lot of sense to me. I'm warming up more and more to the idea of exit to community as an exit strategy, which allows companies to shift ownership to their ecosystems and maximize their distribution of equity. But these approaches are most effective when a business has been established (although co-operatives and community collaboration can certainly help). I think there needs to be more support for the first step: getting a business zygote off the ground.

VC funding has the effect of allowing founders to focus on product for an artificially long time. In contrast, aiming from profitability from the get-go forces you to build a business from day one. (A third option, building a product and running it for the love of it outside of a business context, is a radically different thing, and not really interchangeable with the first two.) The result is two radically different kinds of ventures with different roadmaps, mindsets, and approaches. One is shorter on profitability; the second is shorter on product innovation.

Venture investors, at their best, are like co-founders; being a part of a portfolio creates a kind of network effect that maximizes value. You get introductions and advice you might not receive otherwise. This could potentially be substituted with small communities of practice. But another way VC founders win is by sharing equity: it's common for early-stage founders to swap a little ownership with each other to spread the risk. If one startup succeeds, all the founders in the network see some upside. I can imagine a world where indie founders do something similar, in a revenue-bound way: an equity spread that is paid down as a percentage of profits. If one company becomes wildly popular, every founder who's struggling to do the same gets a boost.

The bottom line is this: we need an established, alternative route for starting businesses on the internet. For some companies, VC is the right thing - but it's not the right thing for every company. For the others, rather than hoping for positive iterations of VC, the best bet may simply be to create community with each other, co-operate where possible, and make money on their own terms. To aim to be the million they never made. It's not about riches; it's about sustainability.

I'm sad to see Indie VC go. But I do have hope for the future.

 

A beautiful day on Colony 12

I can see twelve sailing dinghies out on the bay, tacking and jibing while the twin, hot suns reflect sparkles in the water. For a moment, I have to squint through the glare to see them from the bluff, but my lens corrects for the ambient light quickly. I save a vignette to my vault for posterity. Something to remember this view by.

“Sam!” I hear my mother call to me as if she was right here, but my lens lets me know she’s out on the water. The Aurora, her little blue sailboat, is in the middle of the group, and I can just about make out the shape of her waving to me from the stern. My lens catches me straining and shows me a picture-in-picture zoom of her face. “It’s such a beautiful day!”

At least I won’t have to waste any time looking for her.

“Mom, you need to come back to shore,” I say through our lens channel.

“Why? We’re having a competition out here,” she says. “I’m not winning yet, but I’m getting close!” She dips one hand in the water as her boat tilts with the wind. As spots of seawater spray onto her face, she grins broadly.

We can’t stay. While I stand on the bluff, my shoes dirtied by the marsh, escape pods are being readied.

I was three years old when we came to Colony 12. I dimly remember leaving the dark of the transport out to the sunny patch of dirt where terraforming was already underway. I grew up in the wooden home my parents built on the newly created bay. It’s where I learned to read; where my mother taught me to sail; where my father died from the lingering side effects of faster than light travel. It’s where I took care of my mother once it was just the two of us.

Colony 12’s twin planet follows in a Lagrange point sixty degrees behind its orbit. It was sunrise when it was struck by an asteroid; I was barely into my first cup of coffee. There was no flash. No roar or perceptible change. Just an unobtrusive notification from my lens telling me that the planets would collide within hours.

In less than that, the escape pods will leave. Not to the homeworld – that’s just a memory now – but to the constellation of motherships out beyond orbit. From there, perhaps we’ll join another colony, or find a new planet to inhabit.

It won’t be home.

I stand for a moment, taking in the smell of marsh and salt water I’ve known virtually for my whole life, and watch my mother’s smile. Just her and the wind.

But I have to tell her. I flick a news story about the collision to her lens.

“I’ll read that later, honey,” she says, her smile faltering a little. “I just want to sail right now.”

“We need to leave, Mom,” I tell her. “Right now. It’s dangerous to stay.”

“Nonsense,” Mom says. “It’s such a beautiful day. We’re having such a nice race. I wish you were out here with me, Sam.” In a way, I wish that too.

The Aurora is gaining on another, red sailing dinghy. Its wake cuts through the shimmering waves, returning my mother’s grin to full intensity.

I ask my lens to make sure there’s room reserved on the closest escape pod for both of us. Our places should have been allocated automatically, but I want to confirm. Everything is always taken care of – the lenses react to our conscious and subconscious intentions – but I can check if I want to. In the midst of all this subliminal technology, our waking lives on terraformed colonies aided by intelligent lenses plugged into to our central nervous systems, we’re still human beings.

One space is reserved.

I realize I recognize the pilot of the red dinghy: an old teacher of mine. His hair is lighter and the lines on his skin are more pronounced, but his face is unmistakable.

Glancing at the other sailors, I realize I recognize them all. In a single, terrible instant, I know why my mother won’t come in.

They’re all my mother’s age; all pioneer colonists. Early faster than light travel killed some of its test pilots outright. The others experienced symptoms that medical AI couldn’t diagnose. They all knew there was a risk, but they did it anyway. Our planet was dying. They needed to find a home for their children.

“I love you, Sammy,” my mother says, over the lens. She looks straight at me, eye to eye, over the link. I wish I could hold her hand one last time.

“I love you too, Mom,” I say.

“I’m proud of you,” she says.

“You’re everything I have,” I tell her. “I can’t leave without you.”

“I’ll be with you,” my mother tells me. “But you have to leave now.”

A new lens notification flashes into my peripheral vision. The twin is accelerating towards us. It’ll start interfering with our gravity within moments. We have under an hour left.

Something starts to pull at the treetops like an invisible hand.

“You need to go,” she says. “You don’t need me. Just picture me right now, out on the bay, with the wind in my sails. I'll be here.”

“Please,” I tell her.

“It’s a beautiful day,” my mother says, and the video link is cut.

I stand on the bluff, alone for the first time, watching the distant specks of boats float across the bay. This beautiful landscape, the smells, the mud on the bluff – it’s all her work. All for me.

I turn to leave. As I look back one last time, I think I can see the boats start to rise up from the water as the trees pull upwards. My mother’s face is turned with them, pointed at the sky.