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

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Escape from Google

For this month's Linux Format magazine, I was asked to comment for a piece about how Google isn't living up to its "don't be evil" motto. This phrase was removed from Google's code of conduct in 2018, but it's still thought of as being part of the company's DNA.

My opinion is that Google itself shouldn't be singled out in itself - in many ways it is a more ethical big tech company, but it operates as part of a troubled ecosystem. Linux Format's Mayank Sharma asked me a few questions for a quote, but decided to run the conversation almost in its entirety. The magazine made the legal decision to edit out a comment I made about Facebook's role in genocide, so here's the original version from my emails with Mayank. This interview took place after my role with Unlock came to an end, and before my role with ForUsAll began. I speak for myself alone.

You should buy the latest edition of Linux Format on your local newsstand, or from its website.

 

Q. I am personally not a fan of Google’s business model that’s been the basis of what’s now known as “surveillance capitalism”. What, in your opinion, is Google doing wrong? Is there more to Google's evil than just privacy intrusion?

Let's be clear: Google is participating in the prevailing business model for internet businesses in Silicon Valley. So in that sense, they're not more evil than any other business that seeks to make money through personal data. You could also make the argument that they're not as directly harmful as a company like Facebook, whose data practices have been shown to have undermined democracy in countries like the United States and Britain, and even to have supported genocides in countries like Myanmar.

However, the impact of Google's business is exponentially greater because of its size. From widespread location collection in Google Maps, to the fact that the majority of sites on the internet host Google tracking code, it's very hard to not be tracked and profiled by them in some way. That information has the potential to be cross-referenced, together with offline information like credit card purchases, which it adds together to create a highly targeted profile.

The irony is that targeted advertising - where advertising is highly tuned to the profile that has been created for you through invasive tracking - is not really more effective or lucrative than simple contextual advertising! So Google's real harm may have been to incentivize the creation of a sophisticated worldwide surveillance network, for the sake of surveillance itself. Surveillance has chilling effects on free speech: people who know they're being watched behave and express themselves differently. And that has a real effect on democracy. Not to mention the potential for harm should a government with ill intent seek to harness that surveillance network for its own ends. Should tech companies have built systems that allow the current US administration to track immigrants and deport them? I think the answer is a clear "no" - and the only way to prevent this is for the surveillance apparatus to not exist in the first place.

Q. How do you escape from the clutches of Google? Is self-hosting the only real option?

Privacy is a group inoculation. Even if you self-host, there's nothing to prevent your information from being inadvertently gathered by your friend who hasn't taken the same steps. Not to mention that self-hosting is really hard! At its simplest, you need to know how to use command line tools (or, if you're using shared hosting, be comfortable with FTP). At its hardest, you need to have some server administration skills. For those reasons, I don't think self-hosting is a real solution to the problem in itself. There are lots of other great reasons to self-host: having full control of your web presence and data, if you have the means and the skills, allows you to better represent yourself online.

You can also make ethical technology choices. Use a web browser, like Firefox, that protects you. Choose an email provider, like ProtonMail, that has built-in privacy protections. If you're building a website - or particularly, running a web business - make careful choices about which data you really need to gather, and through which provider. Consider using an open solution like Matomo for your website stats instead of Google Analytics. Support small businesses that are transparently making ethical choices over giant companies that may not be.

But because it's a group inoculation, we need a better vaccine for all of us. More on that in a moment.

Q. Do you think going “back to formula” and adopting open web standards is the way forward?

Google is pretty good at using open web standards! While we should definitely be using open web standards and continuing to build a robust, open, decentralized web, I think the way forward is a human problem more than a technical problem.

First, there needs to be a clear alternative to the Silicon Valley venture capital funding model. People who build software need to be able to put food on the table; it's not a question of not being able to make a profit. But venture capital incentivizes companies to grow exponentially. Actually stopping to take money from consumers is a limit on that growth, so those companies tend to use advertising and data brokerage as revenue models instead. Movements like Zebras Unite see the harm in this and are trying to establish alternative funding models. Teams, including open source projects, need to take concrete steps to become more diverse; because the negative effects of surveillance are disproportionately felt by vulnerable groups, affluent, white, male teams often didn't understand the issues.

We also need to do much more work to make sure open source developers can make a real living from their work, and move away from the "free as in beer" perception of open software. People should choose free and open source software because of the freedoms and reassurances inherent in open development processes and licenses. If they just see it as a cheaper alternative, fewer startups will choose open models, because they can't make money that way, and the traditional VC model will continue. We're seeing more successful open source infrastructure companies, but I'd like to see more end user open source software find its way to real profitability too. For that to happen, we need much stronger support for those companies. I'd love to see more funding opportunities, as well as open source accelerators and advisory programs.

Finally, there has to be regulatory reform in two main areas. 1: We need to reform antitrust rules and prevent these data monopolies from existing in the first place: no company should ever be big enough to establish a global surveillance network. It's absurd. Technology monopolies are harmful, and in a world where software is a part of every part of our lives, we can't afford to hide behind techno-libertarian ideologies where government is always bad. Government can help us establish sensible rules that protect citizens; it's what it exists to do. 2: We need strong privacy legislation. The industry clearly cannot self-police on this front. GDPR is flawed but has had positive effects - particularly in the ways that organizations have changed how they think about privacy. California has new privacy legislation that will take effect in 2020. Every jurisdiction should enact sensible protections that encourage good behavior and punish violations.

Nonetheless, innovation has a strong part to play. I helped to build the Unlock Protocol, which is a decentralized way for creators to independently make money for their work. This stands in contrast to advertising models: here, selling paid memberships becomes a decentralized layer of the web, just like HTML, CSS, or JavaScript. You don't need to go through a middleman, and Unlock doesn't levy any fees. Other providers, open source and otherwise, can roll it into their products. The hope is that using direct revenue - and experimenting around revenue-based business models - will become easier and more lucrative than surveillance-based models. The VC / ad model is by far the easiest for product owners right now, but we can change the ecosystem by lowering barriers to entry to other business models. That way people who are starting new startups and products can find a business model that works best for their users, rather than letting venture capital dictate how they make money.

 

Again - you can buy the latest edition of Linux Format on your local newsstand, or from its website.

 

The best way to blog in 2020

I've been blogging - albeit not consistently on the same site - since 1998. That's a long time in internet years, and in human years, and over time I've conditioned out any self-editing impulse I might have. I write, hit publish, and share. Done.

Because I'm fairly prolific, friends and colleagues often ask me what the best way to start is, in two ways:

1. Their writing ethic: how to actually write and feel OK about putting it out there in the world.

2. Their platform: how to sustainably host a website that looks good and reflect on them well.

I'll take those questions in reverse order. But first, let's address something important:

What is blogging?

The short answer is: it's personal and different for everybody.

Here's what it's not: professional article writing. If you want to go through multiple rounds of editing, please do. If you want to write two thousand word epics about your topic of choice, please do. But it's also okay to write up a hundred quick words and post them without thinking twice about it.

When you blog, you're building up a body of work that represents you online. It's a gateway into your thought process more than anything else. So do what moves you - whether that's short thoughts, bookmarks you like, essays, fiction, poetry, photo albums, and so on. You do you. The only thing that's really important is that you keep doing it.

I can tie every single major advance in my career to blogging. It's been hugely important in my personal life, too. I couldn't recommend it more.

Which platform should I choose?

Let's get this out of the way: if you're looking for a platform to blog regularly, it's not Medium.

That's not a knock on Medium. I used to work there, and I still adore the platform. But you should think of it as a huge online magazine that anyone can write articles for. Shorter updates aren't really appropriate there, and pieces stand alone. It's also most effective if you put your work behind the paywall, these days, which might not gel with your blogging goals. You shouldn't feel bad about writing on Medium - but you should have your own site, too.

Don't use something that isn't designed for purpose: you could use Notion, Evernote, etc etc, but you'll run into problems later on, and you'll make life harder for your audience.

Obviously, I write on Known. I wrote it, so I enjoy it, and I can tinker with it if something doesn't make me happy. But unless you really want to configure self-hosting space and tinker with code too, for the moment I don't recommend that you use Known to blog. (Maybe I will again. Watch this space.)

Instead, my recommendation is WordPress. It just is. No, the interface is not perfectly modern. But the ecosystem is giant, there are a lot of options for customizability, and most importantly, there are apps out there that will help you manage your writing and post effectively. If you feel like spending the time and you have the ability, you can self-host. If you don't, you can use their hosted service. You'll know that a lot of the important stuff - feeds, archives, SEO - is taken care of for you.

A close second, for informal, personal sites, is Micro Blog. As they describe it, it's "the blog you will actually use": a simple service that allows you to write updates of any length via the web and native apps. It supports IndieWeb technologies out of the box (like Known does), and is compatible with the ecosystem of apps. And the people behind it are great.

Finally, if you really want something Medium-like, Ghost is a great choice. Like WordPress, you can self-host, or you can pay them to manage it for you.

Whatever you choose, buy your own domain name if you have the means: that way you can repoint your address to a different provider in the future. So if, for example, Ghost goes out of business, you can shrug your shoulders and move to WordPress without having to tell anyone about your new address.

How can I get myself to write?

Like so many things, practice makes perfect.

My recommendation is this: choose a cadence of no less than once a week, and stick to it for two months. Then see how you feel. Don't limit yourself to any particular length, and don't let yourself spend more than an hour on a post. After that hour, you're hitting publish, no matter what.

You quickly learn that, although your posts will be live on the web forever, they're also ephemeral. People move onto the next thing quickly. And - unless you're actually a terrible person - nobody is going to react badly to anything you write. If it's not a post that captures the imagination, folks will move on very quickly. If it is, it's because it's a great post. And you're almost certainly not a terrible person, so you have nothing to lose.

Here's the other thing you should do: comment on or about other people's posts at the same cadence. The internet is a conversation, not a broadcast. Weblogs are social media; you need to interact with what other people are writing.

One last thing: don't blog about your own blogging. No "I just started a blog!" or "it's been a long time since I blogged". Those are apologies of different kinds, and you have nothing to apologize about. Be bold. Put your thoughts down in writing. I believe in you.

It's a mental leap - I know it is - and an act of bravery to put your thoughts in writing. But there's nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

And ... that's it

Over time, your body of work will build, and you'll find that people are interested in surprising topics. This post on equality of outcome vs opportunity has been the most popular thing on my site for a while now, which I never could have planned or anticipated. The power is in being consistent, and keeping your site online for the long term. (I wish I could have told my 1998 self that.)

People email me about things I've written all the time. My posts have led to newspaper and magazine features. They've led to jobs. And most importantly for me, they've led to friends.

If you're starting a blog - and if you don't have one, you should start now! - I want to hear about it. Get started and email me its address. The time to start is now.

 

Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

 

Rethinking founding a startup in Edinburgh

The other day, I had a check in with a friend who's raising money in Edinburgh, Scotland. I lived there for about a decade, and I miss the friends I made there, as well as its anarchic, artistic spirit. Also, sometimes I torture myself by looking at the cost of rent there, which is sometimes an eighth to a fifth of the equivalent cost in San Francisco.

I strongly suspect that one day I'll make it back there, for its quality of life, for the friends I already have there, and because it's probably the most progressive place I've ever lived.

A senior engineer's salary there is often the equivalent of $60,000-80,000. For that, they can live a great life. It's also at least $100,000 less than a senior engineer's salary in San Francisco, who will have a roughly equivalent quality of life. For a startup, those costs add up quickly: if you're raising money to give yourself 18 months of runway, you need to ask for a significantly lower amount. The irony is that this lower amount might not fit into the financial plan of an institutional investor, which has made assumptions about check size and value growth that are rooted in the Bay Area. But angel investors have different assumptions and can be more agile.

This lower cost environment, together with fewer preconceptions for what the tech industry should look like, also allows for different business models. I keep seeing articles about "how to make money from open source", and my reaction is always the same: there is no way this will make enough money to live in Silicon Valley. And I do believe that to make it work here, you have to be independently wealthy or raise venture capital dollars. But, of course, there are many other places in the world, and it's getting easier all the time to build something elsewhere.

The trick is to avoid the consultant-thinkers: the people with PowerPoints filled with bullet points who have learned everything they know from business books. (Which is to say: they have very little real-world experience and are cargo culting innovation.) The further I get from Silicon Valley, the more of them I seem to encounter. Similarly, you need to avoid the cynics who tell you that you should give up and just get a real job - something I had a hard time with when I founded a statup in Edinburgh in 2004.

But that attitude has changed, and more resources are available to global founders. It's still true that San Francisco has the greatest concentration of people who know what they're doing in this space - but that's a blessing and a curse. Being more decoupled to VC peer pressure and narrowing ideas of "best practices" might be a good thing. If you can think scrappily, build the culture and business model that works for you from first principles using a human-centered approach, and don't mind the driving, horizontal rain, I'm beginning to think that places like Scotland are now a great place to start. There's no need to spend outrageous sums to found a company - and there are places where your runway can be significantly longer for the same amount of money and you can live a better life on a lower income.

 

Climate crisis stories must be human centered

The climate crisis is the single biggest challenge we need to face as a civilization. It's also one of the first that we need to face holistically: the entire world coming together to save our collective selves. So far, we're doing horribly.

There's been some criticism that the stories we've heard from scientists and the media so far have been too alarmist. On the contrary, I don't think they're anywhere near alarming enough. And a lot of that comes down to how these stories are framed.

I've spent a lot of my time advising founders about how to get their message across. They live in their industries every day, and they know every nuance and every implication. So when they start to tell stories about the products they've built with their blood, sweat, and tears, it's often not real or concrete enough. They make the assumption that because they understand the implications and see the problem, everyone will. A lot of pitch coaching comes down to helping them tell the story in a way that will allow others to feel the problem.

Similarly, I'm not sure climate scientists - and more importantly, the media - are telling the story in a way that will make people feel the problem enough. It's why activists like Greta Thunberg and Extiction Rebellion are so needed and so effective: these people and groups make it clear that the problem is immense, and that it will affect real people all over the world.

For example, I read a story today that reported that a one-meter sea level rise by 2300 is now inevitable. That's actually really terrible news, but it's impossible to get a handle on it from the story. What does a one-meter sea level rise really mean? And isn't 2300 literally after the entire timeline from Star Trek? (TOS, not TNG, you pedants.) It seems so far away and like something we could deal with maybe two or three generations from now.

But people will die. It might seem ghoulish to make that into drama, but honestly, that's how the message will get across. These stories sound hyperbolic exactly because the human cost is going to be unfathomably high. Their incomprehensible scale doesn't mean they're wrong. 30 years from now, 300 million people's homes will be washed away. 80 years from now, it's half a billion. And these are median estimates that only consider how many homes will be flooded. It doesn't even begin to consider thee number of people who will deal with lethal heat, or the effect on the food chain. When you put these things together, there are some credible predictions of the end of human civilization within three decades.

It's fine to report the scientific detail. We need facts and data. But let's put it in context, and assume that most people haven't been paying attention. We need to show that the threat is real and credible; that it will directly impact them; and that it will lead to war and famine that will likely exist very soon indeed.

We live in a consumerist society where everything is presented in terms of products. So, let's talk products. Tim Burton's Batman was released 30 years ago. So was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. And, yes, Star Trek: The Next Generation is thirty-two years old. In less time than that, it could all be over.

 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

 

The daily creativity prompts that help me spend time on myself

Last month, I drew a new picture every day as part of Inktober, responding to daily word prompts.

In response to the word Ash, I drew a response to Brexit:

In response to the word Mindless, I drew a self-portait of sorts:

And in response to Frozen, I drew a heart.

I'm not an artist by any means, and each of these sketches took no more than 40 minutes, but I'm proud of my work - even if, on reflection, it's a little dark. It's not what anyone on the internet really expects from me, I don't think, but there's a side of me that is delighted to have spent the time every day to do this work. Specifically, the side of me that used to wake up early to draw comics every day before school. That version of Ben has been starved of oxygen in favor of the productivity bias of modern life. Spending a little time on definitively unproductive, expressionate work was like giving my creative side CPR.

Inktober is over now, because, well, it's not October. So I've shifted to NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month, wherein you try to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. You can keep track of how I'm doing on my NaNoWriMo profile.

Spoiler alert: this isn't my first NaNoWriMo. But I haven't actually succeeded to write a 50,000 word story since 2012. That time round, I actually built my own web-based system to let me write on any machine, that also shared it publicly as soon as I hit "save". Ever since then, I've been using some combination of Word, Google Docs, or even flat text files in a git repository (hey, I'm still a developer).

This time round I've been using Novlr, and I love it. I've mostly been writing on my home laptop, but it's exactly the right level of distraction-free writing environment + organization + statistics. It backs up to both Google Drive and Dropbox, although I was pretty disappointed to discover that those backups are in PDF format, making it unnecessarily hard to do anything with my exported novel. Still, it exports in ODT and DOCX formats, even if it's a mystery to me why the backups don't default to those. And the environment is so well-designed that I'm feeling on top of my work.

Should I share my novel publicly as I go? I'm not sure. But the hour to ninety minutes I spend working on it every day feels gloriously like the kind of me time I haven't always been able to pull together this year.

My only question is, what will be my creative project next month? Any ideas?

 

Here's what I read in October

Books

Save More Tomorrow, by Shlomo Benartzi. A behavioral finance approach to helping people save more. The book fails to deal with what I think are some glaring income inequality and societal context issues, but I found it interesting as a human-centered approach to finance.

Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore. My first re-read this year. So much of this comes down to getting over yourself and meeting people where they're at. What I've learned: don't try to cross the chasm before you get to the chasm.

Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan. Summary: be clear, be human, and find common ground through empathy and radical clarity. I'm on board.

I am seriously ready to read some non-business books again.

Notable Articles

The awkward questions about slavery from tourists in US South. It's shocking but not surprising to me that the culture of slavery is still woven so deeply into the fabric of the American south. ""Slavery was not that bad - it's probably the number one thing we hear," says plantation tour guide Olivia Williams." Nothing less than glossing over crimes against humanity.

How to Succeed When You’re Marginalized or Discriminated Against at Work. "Some of the best methods to manage our workloads and our careers can be locked off to marginalized people, mostly because of the way we’re perceived by other people." Tools to hack your workplace only work for the privileged.

Why It’s So Hard for Startups to Create Wealth in Europe. There's a subtext here: they're trying to operate like US startups. Europe requires a different approach - and undoubtedly has both a higher floor and a lower ceiling.

Why We Need a Working-Class Media. A dirty secret is that so many people who work in media come from upper middle class backgrounds, and their lenses are calibrated accordingly. What would the media look like if it was set up to benefit the working class?

Afghan Town’s First Female Mayor Awaits Her Assassination. "Zarifa Ghafari, who at 26 became one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors, has said that she fully expects to be assassinated." The bravery of this woman is incredible.

Revealed: Google made large contributions to climate change deniers. Because the people who don't mind killing the planet also want tech to stay deregulated.

The female price of male pleasure. "The world is disturbingly comfortable with the fact that women sometimes leave a sexual encounter in tears. [...] Research shows that 30 percent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 percent report pain during anal sex, and "large proportions" don't tell their partners when sex hurts."

Five Years of Tech Diversity Reports - and Little Progress. "It’s been five years since Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft first released diversity reports, revealing the companies’ workforces were overwhelmingly white or Asian men. Five years since Facebook first acknowledged it had “more work to do—a lot more,” and CEO Tim Cook wrote Apple employees a letter promising the company would be “as innovative in advancing diversity as we are in developing products.”" And very little progress has been made.

“It’s a Gold Rush Town”: How Artists Survive in San Francisco. Interviews with people who are still here and still surviving. I'm grateful to know artists in this area, and I'm ashamed of how hard my industry has made it for them.

Booker Prize 2019: What Happened? It turns out - this will shock you - that literary prizes may not be entirely merit based.

Death is a good way to gauge who we think deserves to live. "People die violent deaths in both the US and Nigeria – why do I fear it there and not here? Where people have little power, they become more vulnerable. [...] As I have seen it defined, structural power – or the lack thereof – is most easily measured by the probability of a person dying in unnatural circumstances, such as the shocking, yet not unforeseeable deaths of Joshua Brown, Botham Jean, and countless others."

Media amnesia and the Facebook News Tab. The media industry needs to stop believing Facebook! It is not their friends. It is not anybody's friend.

What’s Left of Condé Nast. "Condé Nast’s future is now being charted by [Anna] Wintour’s new boss, Roger Lynch, the former CEO of Pandora, the music-streaming service he ran until it was sold to SiriusXM in February."

50 years ago today, the internet was born in Room 3420. It's crazy to think of the internet as being fifty years old. And of course, it's gone through many transformations since its inception, not least in the early nineties when commercial access became available.

Slave markets found on Instagram and other apps. And the companies behind them are doing the bare minimum to fix it.

Previously

Here's what I read in September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, and January.

 

I'm looking for mission-driven engineers

I'm into my eighth week as Head of Engineering at ForUsAll. The dust is still settling around me, but I thought I'd take a moment to explain why I decided to make this move and why it fits in with the personal mission that's guided my work so far.

If you visit the ForUsAll website, it'll tell you about affordable 401k retirement plans. There's a deeper story here: ForUsAll is a financial wellness startup, which hopes to help everyone build a stronger financial base. In a world where there's an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, and where almost nobody has enough money to have a safe retirement or to buy a house, that's important. Most financial products are aimed at people on higher incomes, or who work for Fortune 500 companies. Just about everyone else is underserved. And just setting aside the money for more than hand to mouth expenses can be really hard.

ForUsAll is a Series B company that is still evolving. Right now, providing easier retirement savings is a good place to start. By making it more affordable for small businesses to provide retirement benefits, we make those benefits more accessible to a wider set of people. Because those benefits often include matching contributions from employers, we help people to save a little bit more. And with every paycheck we sent a "you got paid" email that helps people to manage their finances with clarity - and helps more people participate in their retirement savings plan.

It's my first fintech company, but behind the scenes the principles are similar to best-practice engineering work I did at companies like Medium. It's all about building something that scales, is easily maintainable, has an excellent CI/CD pipeline, and treats personal data with an abundance of care, caution, and hardened information security. (The piece that goes a little bit above and beyond is that then we get externally audited to make sure we're doing the right things.)

It's also the most diverse engineering team I've ever had the pleasure of working on. I feel privileged to be serving these incredible individuals, and to be helping to grow an empathetic, inclusive culture.

You should join us.

I'm still looking for a few people to join me at our office in downtown San Francisco. The downside is you'll need to work in close proximity to me; the upsides are a healthy set of startup perks and the satisfaction of doing work that really matters. In particular, I'm looking for:

A DevOps Engineer

A Front-End (React, Redux) Engineer

A Back-End (Ruby on Rails) Engineer

If that's you, you should apply - and/or send me an email. I'd love to chat about the roles, or about any aspect of this work.

 

Here's what I read in September

Books

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers. An analysis of bestselling narratives using NLP, sentiment analysis, and machine learning - but really a discussion of the art of narrative, backed by data. Fascinating.

Lanny, by Max Porter. A tense mystery woven from an impressionist tapestry of exceptionally well-observed rural British life; experimental and spiritual, while also pulse-poundingly real. I couldn’t put it down.

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, by Greta Thunberg. A collection of her compelling, frank, calls to action that makes clear how powerful she is. We need her uncompromising voice.

gods with a little g, by Tupelo Hassman. Its irreverence hooked me; then it reeled me in and took me, my laughter and sobbing facets of its revealed truth. I wish I could write like this. I wish I could read like this forever. Beautiful.

Notable Articles

Can You Write a Novel as a Group? An interesting exploration of writing groups - which, like startups and just about any other group of people I can think of, often fall apart because of preventable human dynamics.

Another Network is Possible. I agree that Indymedia could and should have shown the way. There's still time.

Young people may download news apps, but they spend very little time with them. "No news app (with the exception of Reddit) was within the top 25 apps used by respondents."

I Broke The Official Jeremy Renner App By Posting The Word "Porno" On It. "The second thing you will find upon installing the app—if you have not already installed the official Jeremy Renner app, please feel free to take this parenthetical as an opportunity to do so—is that every push notification you receive through the app looks as though it is coming directly from Mr. Renner himself." What happened next is both terrible and delicious.

MIT Media Lab founder: Taking Jeffrey Epstein’s money was justified. Nicholas Negroponte could not have been more wrong here. And it's a sad indictment of him, the institution he founded, and prevalent attitudes at every institution and ... just about everywhere else. There's so much work to do.

A Shocking Number of Americans Want to 'Just Let Them All Burn'. "The impulse to share hateful rumors "are associated with 'chaotic' motivations to 'burn down' the entire established democratic 'cosmos'... This extreme discontent is associated with motivations to share hostile political rumors, not because such rumors are viewed to be true but because they are believed to mobilize the audience against disliked elites.""

That Assault Weapon Ban? It Really Did Work. Let's stop beating around the bush and reinstate an effective ban.

The Space Crone. Ursula K LeGuin's full, beautiful essay about ageing, the menopause, and facing the unknown.

‘You understand that you might have to shoot a student?’ The realities of arming teachers.

How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. The story has moved on, but let's not let this drop.

How to prepare yourself for a good end of life. "In the past three years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have witnessed good deaths and hard ones, and I consulted top experts in end-of-life medicine. This is what I learned about how to get the best from our imperfect health care system and how to prepare for a good end of life." Unfortunately very relevant to my interests right now.

Report reveals play-by-play of first U.S. grid cyberattack. "A first-of-its-kind cyberattack on the U.S. grid created blind spots at a grid control center and several small power generation sites in the western United States, according to a document posted yesterday from the North American Electric Reliability Corp."

Running Restaurants in San Francisco Made Me Rethink Everything I Thought I Knew About Success. "Looking back to when I first started out in the restaurant industry, I had defined success as becoming established, having your restaurants, and being a pillar in your community. Now, success merely means surviving."

‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence. "More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article, opening up—for the first time at an institution so intimately associated with the Falwell family—about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement." I don't think it's meaningful different to the rest of the Christian conservative movement, though, to be honest.

I Was Caroline Calloway. An inside story about exploitation and influencer culture.

The rise of anti-trans “radical” feminists, explained. "The key to understanding why a self-proclaimed radical feminist group would side with conservatives arguing for the right to force cisgender women into skirts at work is to understand who TERFs are and what they’ve been up to for the past 50 years. Because now, under the Trump administration and a conservative-majority Supreme Court, their alliance with these far-right groups could have lasting, widespread consequences for trans civil rights — and for the rights of women in general." I've got nothing nice to say about TERFs.

Jennifer Gunter: ‘Women are being told lies about their bodies’. "When one of Goop’s “medical experts” wrote that Gunter was “strangely confident” in her thoughts on jade eggs, she replied: “I am not strangely confident about vaginal health; I am appropriately confident because I am the expert.” Many of her statements end with similar mic drops. It is a rare moment when a gynaecologist becomes an international celebrity, and it comes on a wave of misinformation, fear and continued attacks on the bodily autonomy of women. One Goop fan called Gunter the “vaginal Antichrist”."

How Paris got a taste for second-hand style from Africa. "Unloved cast-offs sent to Togo's markets by charity shops in Europe are given a second life by a canny vintage dealer in Paris."

How To Lose A Third Of A Million Dollars Without Really Trying. A cautionary tale from the publishing industry, which is likely similar to the music industry, and elsewhere in the arts.

Revealed: catastrophic effects of working as a Facebook moderator. "A group of current and former contractors who worked for years at the social network’s Berlin-based moderation centres has reported witnessing colleagues become “addicted” to graphic content and hoarding ever more extreme examples for a personal collection. They also said others were pushed towards the far right by the amount of hate speech and fake news they read every day."

I have a dream that the powerful take the climate crisis seriously. The time for their fairytales is over. Greta Thunberg is a superhero.

How Slack Got Ahead in Diversity. "For one thing, the company has, since 2015, proactively sought out candidates from outside traditional programmer pipelines like Stanford and MIT, recruiting through all-women’s coding camps like Hackbright, as well as programs that focus on training black and Latino programmers such as Code2040." And in doing so, is outperforming other tech companies. I'm watching this closely. These are things we should all be doing.

Trump: My Crimes Can’t Be Investigated While I’m President. Let's see about that.

Silicon Valley Goes to Therapy. "Silicon Valley is approaching its anxiety the way it knows best. So now there is on-demand therapy. Therapy metrics. Therapy R.O.I. Matching therapists with clients using the tools of online dating." Confession: I used a therapy startup to find the therapist I've been seeing for the last year, and it's been a very positive experience for me.

‘Racist’ Home Office passport system couldn’t recognise black man’s lips. "The Race Equality Foundation said it believes the system was not tested properly to see if it would work for black or ethnic minority people, calling it ‘technological or digital racism’." It's worth considering how many other systems have not been tested in this way, and what the impact of false positives could be on a person's life.

Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns. "What if the banking, asset-management, and insurance industries moved away from fossil fuels?"

This is your phone on feminism. "Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true."

Maria Ressa: “Facebook Broke Democracy in Many Countries around the World, Including in Mine”. "More than at any other time, political leaders have to define the values they stand for. And they have to come together and let go of the rivalries and the bitterness and the alliances of the past. I think that our opposition politicians [in the Philippines] could’ve done a better job if they understood both the role of democracy and if they stopped looking at it as a game of politics. I see the same with the Democratic Party of the United States; they’re going to self-implode before they even get to elections."

NY Fed: Minimum wage hikes didn't kill jobs. Increasing the minimum wage actually improved job numbers for lower-paid workers. An important finding to counter a common conservative talking point.

Looking back at the Snowden revelations. From a cryptographic perspective. "It might very well be that the NSA has lost a significant portion of its capability since Snowden."

A New Theory of Obesity. "“Ultraprocessed” foods seem to trigger neural signals that make us want more and more calories, unlike other foods in the Western diet."

Building a Mystery: An Oral History of Lilith Fair. "In the mid-1990s, female musicians topped the charts and sold out shows, but were told over and over again that no one would pay to see more than one woman onstage. Sarah McLachlan set out to prove them wrong."

You can’t be ‘impartial’ about racism – an open letter to the BBC on the Naga Munchetty ruling. "The BBC has upheld a complaint against its Breakfast presenter. As British broadcasters and journalists of colour, we demand it reconsiders."

Previously

Here's what I read in August, July, June, May, April, March, February, and January.

 

 

Some personal news

1. I've joined ForUsAll as Head of Engineering. It's a financial wellness company whose mission is to build a better financial future for everyone. That's important - particularly in a country with no real safety net, no real pension system, and a terrifying gap between the rich and poor. We're starting with retirement savings, and I'm particularly motivated to help people on lower incomes build a stronger future.

2. I'm immediately hiring for two roles. The first is a Front End Engineer who codes in React with Redux and also has a strong understanding and respect for web standards. The second is a DevOps Engineer who can help build and orchestrate our infrastructure, as well as help us with both Continuous Integration and Deployment. Both roles are based on-premise in downtown San Francisco, and come with the major downside that you'll need to work side by side with me every day.

Right now the engineering team is about 50% women, and I want to continue to build an intersectionally diverse group of people who genuinely care about the work they're doing. If that's you, or you know someone, reach out!

 

What’s next?

I think of the internet industry in generations. First, we had the early days of the commercial internet, when Gopher was still a thing and Windows users launched Trumpet Winsock and waited for their modem screech before they connected with the world. Then, the Netscape era; a world dominated by Yahoo and the early days of the social web. There were the corporate years between the dotcom crash and the Great Recession, powered by banner ads. And then, the iPhone and everything that came next.

We have some contenders for the next great wave - blockchain, intelligent assistants - but no definites, yet. Blockchain is still lost in its own consensus and the myth that technology built before a specific human need can still change the world. (Thank you, Unlock, for keeping real humans in mind.) Intelligent assistants have been caught by the business models of their corporate parents and are simultaneously too closed and too freaky to become real platforms. So instead, this has been the era when startups retreated into the enterprise world and made money through bringing data insights - and data-driven influence - to business interests.

When I say data, let me be clear: I mean our data. Some businesses call it Personally Identifiable Information, or PII. But it's the intimate details of our lives, taken in aggregate. Our beliefs, predictions about our intentions, and a granular record of our past actions are stored in schemas that people who have never met us believe can build a psychometric profile which will accurately foretell our future actions.

It's an inherently asymmetric state of affairs: while these companies aggregate millions or billions of profiles that predict how we'll act, we don't have a hope of profiling them. Profiling requires near-constant surveillance and combining thousands of different data sources in sophisticated ways, which can then be abused by governments or political parties that want to influence our political decisions. We don't have a hope of surveilling them.

Corporate power has traditionally been counterbalanced by a few different measures. The first is government, which is supposed to look out for the well-being of its citizens. Let's set that one to the side and hopefully come back to it sometime in the future. Another is unions: when employers had outsized influence over the lives of their employees, the labor movement organized itself in order to create better routes for advocacy. The result of the original labor movements was that we were introduced to innovations like the weekend and the eight hour day. In the modern era, they continue to advocate for stronger benefits and better pay. Not every union is great, but the idea of unions is important and generally good.

I believe the next great wave on the internet is agency. Or to put it differently: I believe the tech industry is finally finding a soul.

As individuals, our privacy has been violated, our data has been aggregated, and we've been reduced to faceless consumers at best, chum for the enterprise data machine at worst. Social media makes us unhappy and destabilizes the communities we live in. Freedom of speech - which is essential for democracy to function - is being undermined by the chilling effect of constant surveillance. (To be clear, this is different to "freedom of speech" in the Gab and Breitbart sense, which is the modern equivalent of armchair racists complaining that they can't use the N-word anymore.) Crucially, the startups that have been growing as fast as possible without regard for human well-being are beginning to fail, and fail hard. Meanwhile, the influence of high net worth negative influences like the Kochs, the Mercers, and pervasive creeps like Jeffrey Epstein are beginning to fade.

The top down trends (the influence of hateful money, the financial fortunes of some of the fastest growing startups) are combining with the bottom up trends (our own dissatisfaction with technology, a growing unease with giant tech companies) to create the conditions for more ethical startups to emerge and thrive. We're worried about the climate crisis; we're worried about our own health; we're worried about what the hell has happened to our politics; we're worried about our futures and the futures of our families and friends.

These are trends that companies like Apple have already identified and capitalized on, but we're still only at the beginning stages. The ventures that emerge will be more ethical, will protect our health, will give us agency over our data, and will once again empower us by counterbalancing corporate aggregation. This isn't a technical development - it's a social one. But I'm convinced these innovations will change the world.

 

TV subscription fatigue

During its announcement event yesterday, Apple announced that its TV+ subscription service is going to cost $4.99 a month, which is lower than I expected. A year-long free trial will come with new devices, which is something only Apple can really do; it will be interesting to see what conversions look like once the trial period is over.

That price is fascinating to me. We're being saturated with streaming video services. Between Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, CBS All Access and BritBox, I'm paying close to $50 a month for streaming video - before any extra money I spend on iTunes movies. I've also got a Spotify family plan for music. If I cared about sports, I might be paying for YouTube TV, and very quickly it's all added up to close to a hundred dollars a month on top of my broadband internet subscription (which are in themselves incredibly expensive in the US).

That's all well and good on a tech company salary, if still a bit eye-watering, but the average US monthly after-tax take-home pay is around $3,000. After more important expenses, there's no way these are acceptable costs for most Americans.

I think the first obvious thing that'll happen is account sharing: families or communities are likely to go in together and share account credentials between groups. The second is bundling. Mobile networks like T-Mobile already provide Netflix for free. While home broadband in the US is controlled by effective monopolies - it's very difficult in practice to find an alternative provider in any geographic area - the mobile market isn't subject to these restrictions. So I can easily imagine them competing with each other by bundling more and more content subscriptions as a differentiator. (As mobile bandwidth improves, I can also see mobile providers killing off wired broadband for most customers, which honestly isn't terrible news. Sorry / not sorry, Comcast.)

This isn't much different to the cable TV market of old, either in price or substance. There is a difference in content: American live TV is excrutiating to watch, and we seem to have killed the 30-second commercial in the process, which is joyful news. But ultimately, consumers will be paying huge monthly sums and subject to the bundling deals of whichever network they choose to be connected by, albeit with the ability to pay a la carte for additional subscriptions on top of our bundles. We'll swap one set of gatekeepers with another set of gatekeepers.

All of which makes me nostalgic for Freeview, the UK's free-to-air digital television service, which allows people with compatible devices to pick up on 70 TV channels and 30 radio stations for nothing. Yes, it's live, commercial-supported television, but the ultimate cost for consumers is very little (beyond the device and the UK's mandatory annual $190 license fee). That's not a situation we seem to be anywhere near to approaching in the US.

 

To nationalize or not to nationalize

In the wake of CNN's climate town halls - which, by the way, I found harder than it should have been to find and watch on my TV, but that's something for a different post - I found myself finally examining one of the real policy differences between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and trying to decide how I feel about it.

It comes down to this: Sanders wants to nationalize the US energy sector, and Warren doesn't. On Democracy Now, the journalist Kate Aronoff took issue with Warren's stance as follows:

I think the problem, which I would argue with what she said, is that it’s not just that these companies are doing harm because they’re allowed to create externalities in the world that aren’t being taxed properly or that there aren’t the right rules and regulations in place; it’s that they have a business model that actually is incompatible with solving this crisis.

It's hard to disagree with this. Yes, as Warren said in the town hall, these companies create externalities that effectively force society to pay for and clean up the impacts of their businesses. But it's also true that the core business models of the energy sector are tied very deeply into the exact forces that are destroying the planet. Those companies aren't just continuing to pollute and further global warming; they're spending vast sums to smear and undermine organizations that seek to move us away from fossil fuels.

So in that sense, I can see a strong argument for nationalization. And I'm not afraid of it: American conservatives like to bring up Venezuela as a scary story to tell about socialism, but it's a pretty disingenuous tale. Most of Europe, which offers a higher quality of life to its citizens than the United States, tells a very different story. (The story I like to tell is that I owe my career in large part to going to university for free and subsequently enjoying socialized healthcare while I founded my first startup.)

But of course, Europe doesn't actually have a fully nationalized energy sector, and is progressing on some fairly aggressive (albeit potentially not aggressive enough) energy targets. It does have some significant nationalization, in the form of government investments into infrastructure, and there are fully-owned companies like France's Électricité de France, which was the world's largest producer of electricity not too long ago. Beyond electricity, nobody could argue that the Swiss or German railways are anything but efficient and well-maintained - and state ownership ensures that their prices and schedules benefit the whole economy, rather than their own bottom lines.

On the other hand, in my time in the US, I've begun to share the general population's distrust of government. This is less to do with the general concept of government, and much more to do with the fact that American politicians are terrifying, with a prevalent membership of death cults and a surprising prediliction for voting against the interests of their citizens in favor of sociopathic corporate interests. Hopefully this is changing - politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren give me hope - but I've got to admit that giving people like Mitch McConnell more than minimal power over anything at all makes me break out in a sweat (not to mention the unlikely bolus of nerve endings currently occupying the Presidency).

So I genuinely don't know. I'm not afraid of nationalization, and I'm not a subscriber to the religion of the free market (or the increasingly dubious claim that the US has one to begin with). But I also think that Warren's point that it doesn't necessarily get us to where we need to be has merit; strict regulations and targets, without worrying about taking direct control, may be more effective. It's certainly true that their business models are harmful to their core, but perhaps we can encourage them to disappear into the night by promoting forward-facing energy sources and sanctioning pollutants.

I do certainly think that pure capitalist competition will not get us anywhere near where we need to be, and that action needs to be taken quickly. Albert Wenger's alien invasion analogy is useful, and the global warming of oceans represents energy addition to a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb every single second (that's 86,400 atomic bombs a day, or 31.5 million Hiroshimas in a typical year). Having a bias towards action must be our attitude: arguing about how exactly to achieve this to infinity will see us killed. And preservation of life and civilization, rather than our addiction to profit and markets, must be our central principle.

 

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

 

My setup, September 2019

I thought it would be interesting to detail some of my day-to-day setup, Uses This style. This week I'm completely independent, so I'm only using my own hardware and software, which feels like a good time to take stock. This is my stack - I'd love to read yours!

Hardware:

My main machine is a 2016 13" MacBook Pro. Yes, I've had problems with the keyboard, and I have both an external keyboard and trackpad - but the dust has shaken itself out over time, so at this point I rarely use them. I aim to replace my laptops every four years or so, so next year it'll be time to think about a new one (if I decide that this one, or the iPad, isn't serving my needs anymore). For the moment, it works. I prefer the smaller size: a 15" laptop is just that much heavier and bulkier to lug around.

My phone is an iPhone XS Max. I'm on the upgrade program, which I realize makes next to no financial sense, but I kind of enjoy getting to use a new device every year. I like to kid myself that I need to understand the new capabilities for work, but honestly, it's just kind of fun. I'm on T-Mobile One Plus, which gives me really decent tethering and passable mobile bandwidth worldwide for no extra cost. Lots of people complain about T-Mobile on lower tiers, but it's been great for me on this one.

My iPhone has become my go-to camera, but I'm thinking about getting another DSLR. I've got a now-ancient 2007 Nikon D40 and accompanying telephoto lens, which still works, but even twelve years ago it was kind of entry-level. I love taking photographs, and I'd love to experiment with some more professional kit.

This year, I also bought myself an 11" iPad Pro with a new Pencil and Smart Keyboard. I was using my personal laptop for work, and I wanted to own a machine that was just for personal creative stuff. I've enjoyed drawing and writing on it even more than I thought I would, but with some regret I've also realized that it's the best email machine I own. C'est la vie.

And finally, I love my AirPods. These are my second pair (the latest generation with more battery life made a real difference), but I'm aware of the environmental impact and probably won't buy any more.

Although I may seem pretty bought in, I'm seriously considering moving away from the Mac ecosystem - I don't enjoy being locked in, and I don't think either the build or software quality are what they used to be. I was a Windows user pre-2011, and I think I could do well with a Linux machine these days. On the other hand, I do like how all the Apple devices work together, and clipboard sharing in particular genuinely feels like magic. And I don't even slightly trust Android, despite it being open source. So we'll see.

Software:

My main browser is Firefox, always and forever. The only plugin I really use is Pocket: rather than a to-read list, it's a way for me to bookmark articles I found particularly interesting. (That's what drives my month in review posts.)

The first two things I install on any new computer are Alfred and 1Password. I also use Authy for 2-factor authentication after a nasty experience with Google Authenticator. (If I can avoid it, I never use SMS-based 2fa, which is wildly insecure.)

I've got monthly subscriptions to both the Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud ecosystems. I'd love to use open source equivalents, but iteroperability - particularly with Word's track changes and Acrobat's signing for legal documents - has been a hard requirement for me. It's nice to have video and audio editing ready to go if I need them, but I've basically stopped using Photoshop entirely.

I've tried a bunch of code editors and IDEs that other people love, like Sublime Text and Visual Studio Code, and I prefer Webstorm (in fact, I use PhpStorm, which is WebStorm + a PHP interpreter). It thinks how I think, and in particular, I find its autocompletion, branch comparison, and deep code navigation to be incredibly intuitive. I use iTerm 2 as my terminal, and obviously I'm all over git and hub. No surprise that I'm a heavy Homebrew user.

I've got a local development environment set up with Apache and virtual hosts, which I mostly use for PHP projects. I've also got Node installed, and have been building some personal projects with that and React (with Next, after using it at Unlock).

I write fiction with iA Writer, which I love for its distraction-free environment (and have used Scrivener to pull work together in the past - I hate its editor but its organizational tools are lovely). I draw with Procreate, which I couldn't recommend more highly.

Etc:

I just switched over to a Peak Design Everyday Backpack at Jonathan LaCour's recommendation, and it's stunning. Super-useful, and for an essentially disorganized person like me, its filing system has already been a godsend. I use the top compartment for whichever books I'm reading at the moment, and then chargers etc are stored further down. I even permanently keep a small GorillaPod handy.

Finally, although it's kind of off-topic here, I was very pleasantly surprised by Atoms. I walk a lot, and wear through shoes very quickly; the Allbirds I bought last year are a mess, and I managed to wear a hole straight through my beloved Merrells. I wear size 14, so buying off the shelf often isn't possible. But for mail order shoes, these seem like a really great solution. I love them so far.

 

California's privacy protections are important. Let's keep them.

Last year, California adopted the California Consumer Privacy Act, which restricts how data gathered about a person may be sold, and requires tech companies to keep it safe. Unsurprisingly, many big tech companies (and particularly the Internet Association, a lobbyist group run by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter) would like to see it neutered:

The Internet Association, for example, has continued to push legislators to make what it’s called an “ads fix.” [...] The change would exempt much of the ad industry’s pervasive online tracking from California’s rules requiring companies to obtain consumers’ permission when their data is sold, according to privacy advocates who oppose such an exemption.

Such a "fix" would undermine one of the main protections in the law. Targeted advertising, beyond being the original sin of the internet, encourages widespread surveillance across the internet and beyond, providing a financial incentive to build ever more detailed profiles about users in order to sell more highly-targeted ads that don't even offer a significant benefit to publishers. They also put service providers in opposition to their users: rather than providing direct user value, services are incentivized to make their products addictive so that their users will see as many ads as possible. Meanwhile, more and more users are adopting privacy and ad blockers.

There's a general reluctance in Silicon Valley to accept legislative restrictions. Some of this is ideological: much of the web was built on a kind of techno-libertarianism that is still prevalent today. Some of it, at this point, is simply big business lobbying. In a world busily being eaten by software, we have to accept that hackers aren't cultural underdogs any longer. Tech is part of the prevailing culture, and the effects of its products and business models can be felt everywhere. The industry has proven itself to be poor at reigning in its worst impulses: from Cambridge Analytica to Palantir's direct involvement in deportations to Amazon fighting an investor resolution to prevent its facial recognition technology from being used in human rights violations, to the surprisingly widespread opinion that tech monopolies are good, actually, it has become painfully clear that some external guidance is badly needed.

It's true that lawmakers have also proven themselves to be poor at understanding technology. That doesn't mean they shouldn't seek to legislate around it: it just means they need to get smarter. They should seek out subject matter experts and advisors. In the case of the CCPA, that's what happened: it was the result of years of research and consultation. Yes, it has the potential to harm the businesses of companies like Uber and Google. That's not what it should be concerned with: it is a fundamental privacy protection for consumers. If businesses are harmed by privacy rules, that's a strong sign that they are profiting from our personal information. It's okay to say that this shouldn't be allowed.

Hopefully, the CCPA will inspire other, similar bills in other states, and eventually a set of nationwide rules. What happens in the California legislature will have a profound impact on surveillance throughout the world. It's not fair to say that all of Silicon Valley is against it; it's also not fair to allow Silicon Valley to dictate the human rights of millions of California citizens, and billions of internet users around the world.

As the Washington Post reports:

McAlister, the group’s top lobbyist in California, said tech giants, online publications, Web retailers and others rely on the exchange of this information to make ads work, which they don’t see as a sale. “We have pushed from last year to this year,” he said, and “we’re going to continue to seek clarification.”

I cannot imagine a more disingenuous argument. And I hope that California legislators remain firm. We need these protections - and more.

 

Here's what I read in August

Books

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell. A profoundly intelligent, intersectional analysis of addictive surveillance capitalism; ultimately a call for radical noticing and the intentional dismantling of harmful structures. Far meatier and more rewarding than the title might imply. It's becoming clear that the books which have really spoken to me this year are ones that discuss moving beyond the templates and enforced demographics of modern capitalism and finding happiness on our own terms. This book certainly joins them.

Air: Flying Machine, by G Willow Wilson and MK Perker. A riveting adventure story wrapped around a deepening exploration of how the symbols we use affect our culture and the way we experience reality. I couldn't wait to read volume 3.

Air: Pureland, by G Willow Wilson and MK Perker. Literally and figuratively beautiful, this volume disappeared into the symbology of our own past and the stories we tell about ourselves, and of religion itself. And was also ludicrously fun - exactly what I needed during a stressful time.

Once again, I hit a stressful month: my mother was admitted into hospital several times, and I also found myself looking for a new job. I find it hard to focus during these periods, so I didn't quite hit my reading goals - but I'm very glad for having at least read these.

Notable Articles

Meet ‘Bob Smith,’ The Fake Facebook Profile Memphis Police Allegedly Used To Spy On Black Activists. This is disappointing but not surprising: police spying on progressive activists is nothing new, and famously the Nixon administration's war on drugs was motivated by a fear of black and anti-war activists. This story is confirmation, alongside others like it, that this kind of targeting continues to this day.

Why Stripping U.S. Citizens of Their Passports Is a Precursor to Genocide. "Denying people their citizenship is a clear way to indicate that they should no longer expect to receive the rights of citizens. The right to a fair trial? They shouldn’t expect that. Not being investigated without just cause? Forget about it." This administration's cruelty continues at a rapid pace. I don't see this as "Trump Derangement Syndrome": it's real concern about policies with harmful effects that will be felt for generations.

Gigantic, mysterious radiation leak traced to facility in Russia. The timing was weird: it's almost like an HBO Chernobyl tie-in. But nuclear experiments are continuing, and the effects continue to be covered up. Here in the US, my father was forced to watch nuclear explosions while in the army; it wouldn't surprise me if we were still performing these kinds of experiments, too.

Three mass shootings this year began with a hateful screed on 8chan. Its founder calls it a terrorist refuge in plain sight. "Joan Donovan, the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, said posting to 8chan before a mass shooting has become a “tactical” way for attackers to gain attention and amplify their message." And Jim Watkins, a pig farmer who currently owns the site, is unrepentant.

Staring at Giant Pieces of Sulphur. The oral history of Look Around You, one of the greatest comedies ever made. Thanks, ants. Thants.

Being basic as a virtue. "Being basic is part of the same family as being mediocre or degenerate, but I think the latter two still require some degree of self-awareness. Mediocrity is about making an active choice to say “screw it, good enough”: the decision to keep moving forward instead of trying to get that last 10%. Degeneracy carries a flavor of bird-flipping showmanship: you know what other people would think, and that’s exactly why it’s fun."

No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear. The late Toni Morrison on finding beauty and meaning in the face of chaos. "No! This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal." Amen.

Portland’s Antifascists Punch White Supremacists. Are They Also Helping Trump? I take issue with the headline, but this is an important portrait of a half dozen antifa activists, which dives into why they do what they do. It's worth saying that since this piece, Andy Ngo, the "journalist" who is referenced in it, has been revealed to be a collaborator with Patriot Prayer, a far right group.

Elizabeth Warren’s Classroom Strategy. A deep dive into my favorite Presidential candidate's pedagogy - she was an award-winning teacher - and how it ties into her life and her rhetoric on the road.

Schoolchildren in China work overnight to produce Amazon Alexa devices. Are we really building the future if we're letting children build our devices? The tech industry must contend with this kind of rampant exploitation - and put an end to it.

The Long and Surprising History of Roller Derby. A lot of my friends play roller derby; it's frenetic and fun to watch. But it has a long history even before its (awesome) feminist resurrection in Austin that I was completely unaware of.

When Open Source Software Comes With a Few Catches. "Smaller open source developers are fighting back against tech giants like Amazon using their code in commercial services." About time. While this goes against the principles of free software as we know them, I love the idea of building social contracts into open software licensing. It feels like an idea whose time has come.

How YouTube Radicalized Brazil. "Members of the nation’s newly empowered far right — from grass-roots organizers to federal lawmakers — say their movement would not have risen so far, so fast, without YouTube’s recommendation engine." The code we write - particularly for giant, global services like YouTube - can have profound implications for the entire world. It's not just about algorithms anymore. Maybe our teams should reflect this?

How a 'NULL' License Plate Landed One Hacker in Ticket Hell. Little Bobby Tables strikes again.

The end times are here, and I am at Target. "We’re just trying to get through the next day or week as we suffer through the early throes of our collective demise, hoping that we might be wrong about the whole thing." Nothing less than the American experience in 2019.

As summer camps turn on facial recognition, parents demand: More smiles, please. Call it surveillance parenting?

Venture capital funds led by people of color face more bias the better they perform, Stanford researchers find. "When a black-led venture capital firm has an impressive track record, it encounters more bias from professional investors, according to new research by Stanford scholars." The piece also notes that "fewer than 1.3 percent of the $69.1 trillion in global assets under the four major asset classes – mutual funds, hedge funds, real estate and private equity – are managed by women and people of color".

Actually, Gender-Neutral Pronouns Can Change a Culture. A hopeful story: Sweden's introduction of hen, a nongendered pronoun, has made a real impact on the country's culture. While it turns out that the singular they is widely assumed to be masculine in English, maybe we can do the same?

WeWork IPO Shows It’s the Most Magical Unicorn. WeWork's IPO filing reads like a work of satire. And it's complicated: "This is a company whose intricate relationships with its chief executive requires 10 pages of disclosures." Yikes.

Art Spiegelman: golden age superheroes were shaped by the rise of fascism. The Maus author's essay was removed from a Marvel Comics collection after its publisher, Ike Perlmutter, a friend of Trump, tried to remove a reference to the "Orange Skull": "when asked to kill a relatively anodyne reference to an Orange Skull I realised that perhaps it had been irresponsible to be playful about the dire existential threat we now live with, and I withdrew my introduction."

The Moochers of Middle America. "So if you really believe that Americans with higher incomes shouldn’t pay for benefits provided to those with lower incomes, you should be calling on “donor” states like New Jersey and New York to cut off places like Kentucky and let their economies collapse. And if that’s what you mean, you should let Mitch McConnell’s constituents know about it."

Beyond First Amendment Lochnerism: A Political Process Approach. "Today, however, the First Amendment’s role in the American political process has changed decisively. It can longer be described as a law that protects unpopular speakers or other politically weak actors in the Carolene Products sense. If the First Amendment could once be described as a remedy for defects in the political process, it has now as often become the cause of such defects. For today’s First Amendment is regularly deployed not to promote or facilitate political debate but to end it."

To Learn About the Far Right, Start With the ‘Manosphere’. "The idea that feminism is decadent, and is destroying Western civilization; the idea that women’s natural role is to have children, and to be subservient to men; the idea that strong men are needed to save the world through violence—all of these arguments are found across extremist websites, and in the words of shooters themselves. Anti-feminist rhetoric is a powerful gateway to violent white nationalism, and it is calculated to appeal to the demographic overwhelmingly responsible for mass shootings: young white men."

The New American Homeless. Housing insecurity is a crisis, and official statistics far underreport the extent. "Outrageous rents would be less alarming if wages were increasing at a comparable rate. But the opposite is true. Nationwide, the hourly earnings of high-wage workers rose 41 percent between 1979 and 2013; those of middle-wage workers grew only 6 percent. The pay for low-wage workers, meanwhile, decreased by 5 percent. Contrast these figures to the 138 percent annual wage growth among the top 1 percent of earners." And a disproportionate 40% of the resulting homeless are African Americans.

A new poll shows what really interests 'pro-lifers': controlling women. Are you shocked?

Jeffrey Epstein, My Very, Very Sick Pal. Probably the strangest interview you'll read this year. "I know it’s very interesting, but I’m just realizing something. I have just gotten myself into terrible trouble and everyone who knows is going to be mad at me—why the hell did I pick up the phone?"

Megan Greenwell, Like The Oakland A's Every Year, Makes An Early Exit. The editor of G/O Media's Deadspin sports blog abruptly left; this is a series of goodbyes from her current and former colleagues. Together, they paint a strong picture of a scrappy newsroom, and of the private equity firm that purchased it.

NASA Astronaut Anne McClain Accused by Spouse of Crime in Space. Potentially the first crime to have been committed in space! And weirdly, it's identity theft.

Let’s Meet Again in Five Years. "They thought college was too soon for lifelong love, so they scheduled their next date for a little later — 60 months." Beautiful, and more than a little bit Before Sunrise.

The solitary life and death of a homeless man and his dog near the 520 bridge. He lived with his dog in a tarped rowboat under a bridge. It took eight months before they found his body.

New Protest Tactics in Hong Kong. How protesters are using technology to evade the authorities and organize. Movements closer to home could learn a lot from them - and it's interesting to see them gathered in one place.

My Time at Google and After. "David was (and is) a powerful executive. His “personal life” (which apparently didn’t include his son) was off limits and since I was no longer his “personal life” it was time for me to shut up, fall in line and stop bothering him with the nuisances or demands of raising a child." David Drummond was Google's general counsel at the time, which explains a lot about its apparent attitudes towards the treatment of women.

The Misogyny of Climate Deniers. "In 2014, Jonas Anshelm and Martin Hultman of Chalmers published a paper analyzing the language of a focus group of climate skeptics. The common themes in the group, they said, were striking: “for climate skeptics … it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.”" As a man, I want to make clear that I want nothing to do with this form of masculinity, and that women like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are the future.

'Where do I go?' EU citizens face legal limbo after decades in Britain. This would have been me, had I stayed. The idea that I can't easily ever move back still smarts.

The Plan to Use Fitbit Data to Stop Mass Shootings Is One of the Scariest Proposals Yet. To say that surveillance and Minority Report style machine learning predications are not the answer is an understatement. It's appalling enough coming from the Republicans; it's shocking to see it coming from the mouths of some Democrats.

A Week With No Tear Gas. "I can’t bear to stay and watch the fight. We came so close to a conflict-free weekend, but now it looks like it will end in violence, and be exploited by the authorities as proof that the protesters are out of control. People on Twitter have been counting down to midnight, incredulous at the idea of a weekend with no tear gas, the first since the protests started." A first-hand account of the protests in Hong Kong.

Previously

Here's what I read in July, June, May, April, March, February, and January.

 

Brexit, climate change, and the rise of the far right

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (four words that demonstrate just how far we've descended) announced an undemocratic five-week shutdown of Parliament today in order to force through a no-deal Brexit. It's a coup.

A no-deal Brexit drops the UK out of the single market and customs union without any arrangements. It also removes the Irish "backstop" - an arrangement designed to avoid a border division between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is important because a border would likely ignite violence between unionists and nationalists. It's hard to remember, but the UK, and particularly Northern Ireland, were subject to frequent, bloody acts of terrorism and atrocities by the British armed forces alike. Nobody should want to return to those times.

Just as there's been some talk of a "virtual wall" in the US, there's been talk of a technology-based solution in Northern Ireland. In both cases, technology would be used to track peoples' movements and allow people who had outstayed their welcome to be pinpointed. What that would necessitate, of course, is near-ubiquitous surveillance. And this still doesn't overcome the need for physical inspections of goods.

For me, Brexit is still personal. Although I have a British accent, I'm not a British citizen; I grew up there but lived on a European passport. The effect of Brexit is that I would be legally barred from returning to live in the country I grew up in. While there are many immigrants whose experience is far worse, with the potential for families to be split up, and the economic impact even for British citizens will be serious, I nonetheless feel a surreal kind of disenfranchisement. I'll forever be a tourist in the place that feels most like home.

I harbor a conspiracy theory about the rise of far-right nationalism across the world, of which Brexit is undoubtedly a part. And it's this: it's all about climate change. There's some backlash against inclusivity and "globalism", to be sure, and racist groups certainly have been emboldened. But these are all useful idiots in service to the real goal, which is to walk back environmental regulations that are creating unprecedented financial risk for certain kinds of global industry.

Take Bolsonaro in Brazil, who we now know sought to actively sabotage conservation efforts in the Amazon. (His first act upon achieving power was to pave the way for increased logging.) Or you could look at our very own President Trump, who has rolled back over 80 environmental regulations since lurching into the Oval Office.

A no-deal Brexit would also shut down any environmental pacts Britain had with Europe. It's already dropping its carbon price. And we're hearing a lot about a quick US trade deal, which may not mitigate the economic impact on the country, but is likely to have provisions that also carry an environmental impact.

To reiterate, this is mostly a conspiracy theory. But it makes sense that in a world with rapidly-diminishing resources (we're only at the foothills of this trend, but the effects are already serious), wealthy supranational groups that depend on those resources will want to make land grabs. Authoritarian, less-liberal regimes would allow those groups to maintain stronger control. Of course, climate change will also create more refugees, and there's a lot to gain by keeping the direct human impact of their industrial activities at arm's length.

If there's even a hint of truth in this, then the battle over Brexit - alongside Trump, Bolsonaro, and the rise of the far-right globally - is more important than immigration and the future of liberal democracy, which was already a life and death for many people. It's about who gets to survive.

We need to be on the streets. We need to divest from environmentally disastrous corporations. We need to vote in progressive, inclusive politicians who will put stronger controls on corporations who would sacrifice the environment for their bottom lines. And we need to make it clear that we will not accept this hyper-capitalist coup against democracy.

 

Silos

I’ve never been to Burning Man, and I’m definitely Burning Man curious, but I’m also more than uneasy with the ostentatious displays of wealth. It’s not just the entry fee; the time and money required to build giant works of art seem like something that only privileged people would have access to (and I sincerely do not want to spend a week surrounded by tech people of privilege). I could be completely wrong. People say it’s transformative. I should really go one year, to see it for myself.

I’ve been thinking about a year-long film festival. Every month, there would be at least one double-bill screening: one film with incredible reviews that received a very limited release, from anywhere in the world. And another that was thematically related, whether by cast and crew, or by the story or location itself. Sometimes there would be talks and interviews. Every screening would end with a mixer and live music - ideally from a group that was also related. In one version, there would be a low monthly subscription fee; in another, there would be sponsorship or arts funding that would make the festival available to everyone. I don’t know if the latter is possible, but it would be better. Exclusivity sucks.

My sister participates in the Bushwick Book Club. Every season, a collection of musicians read the same book and write a song about it. Ideally, the audience reads the book too. Then there’s a show where everyone performs their song. The diversity of artistic reactions is fascinating, and each song is beautiful in itself. Her friend Dibbs helped to organize the original, in Bushwick itself, and apparently was part of the NYC anti-folk scene (the one that produced, among others, the Moldy Peaches and Regina Spektor). I’m awestruck, frankly.

My friend Taylor runs the Bay Area Arts Mixer, which takes place at the East Bay Community Space in Oakland every few months. Local bands take the stage; on the sides, local artists make new art in their chosen media, and share work they’ve previously produced. One month, I was the writer in residence, which was incredibly flattering. I sat above the stage and wrote on an old typewriter, poems and stories inspired by the pace of the music below.

My friend Dani has a band, Sapphire Lung, which plays “chamber slime”. It’s music from the soul, untemplated and mesmerizing. It’s hard to describe, but it’s beautiful. I’m impressed by their artistry, and I’m impressed by their bravery, and I’m impressed by the way listening to their hypnotic work makes me feel.

So much of life is templated, and so few of those templates are created for our benefit. We’re sliced into demographic groups for marketing purposes, siloed into pigeonholes for our careers, and we’re told strong stories about what life should look like; moved into metaphorical and literal three bedroom houses in the suburbs, with a car parked just outside. But there’s so much beyond this; so much constrained humanity just waiting to spill out. We can find the signposts in art, until the art itself is pigeonholed and demographied and siloed. We owe it to ourselves to break down the silos where we find them and let humanity exist in all its creative, imperfect, beautiful diversity.

 

I need more blogs

I’m back in the habit of reading my feed subscriptions at the beginning of every day. I love blogs: posts are typically more longform and thoughtful, and less led by trending topics on social media sites. It’s usually “here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately,” which is lovely. As Kevin Marks says, I can read your thoughts, if you write them down first.

I use NewsBlur with the Reeder app. NewsBlur is a really solid subscriptions engine, with nice features like the ability to import mailing lists. I find it useful to automatically forward mailing lists to NewsBlur and archive them out of my inbox. This is particularly great for Substack mailing lists - I pay to subscribe to a few, but the place where I send people messages is not the place where I want to be reading articles. And then Reeder is a beautiful interface that syncs my subscriptions across devices (I flip between an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro) and automatically grabs articles for offline reading.

The only trouble is, there isn’t enough. Whereas Twitter and Facebook are unstoppable firehoses that constantly have new content, I can get through my feeds for the day in twenty minutes in the morning.

So I have two requests:

You should start a blog, if you don’t have one already. There’s nothing better for organizing your thoughts and socializing ideas. You don’t have to labor for days over a post; blogs are often better when they’re off the cuff. Writing in an interface away from the hustle of social media often allows you to express yourself more calmly (I certainly find this to be the case). And I would love to read your thoughts.

And: if you already have a blog, or you really love someone else’s, I’d really like to know about it. I want to subscribe. In another, parallel universe it would have been as easy to share OPML subscription lists as it is to share Twitter lists, but that’s not the one we live in. So email me, or send me a webmention, and let me know who I should be reading.

I really appreciate it!

 

Moving on to my next adventure

I’ve always believed in the power of an open web. It’s hard to remember now, but we came from a world where only a small number of people could publish and be heard. Those people were chosen by an even smaller set of gatekeepers: predominantly white men who got to decide whose voice mattered. The promise of the web - something we have to work and fight for - is that anyone’s voice can find an audience, without gatekeepers or middlemen.

My work has always been mission-driven. I started by co-founding a white-label social networking platform that was used to teach, to train aid workers at non-profits like Oxfam, and for knowledge sharing inside governments. I was CTO of a startup that allowed video footage to be quickly sent back to newsrooms from some of the most connectivity-challenged environments on Earth, empowering reporting from Syria and the top of Everest. I built a way for anyone to own their own social profile. And I was privileged, as the west coast Director of Investments at Matter Ventures, to support diverse entrepreneurs at 73 startups with the potential to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society.



I started as an engineer, then became a product lead, a startup founder, a human-centered designer, a strategic advisor, and an investor.

It was this work that led me to Unlock: a protocol and platform that allows anyone to make money from their work on the web, independently, without having to ask for permission. Its CEO, Julien Genestoux, believes in the same principles of the open web that I do, and the New York based team we built is one of the best I’ve ever worked with.



My mother is terminally ill, and I need to be in the San Francisco Bay Area to support my parents. While he had originally wanted to build an entirely in-person NYC team, Julien was open to my working remotely. Unfortunately, we’ve come to the conclusion that the team really does need to be all in one place, and that it’s time for me to move on. I continue to be a strong believer in Unlock’s mission, and in particular in Julien and the rest of the team. I’m hopeful that I’ll continue to be able to help wherever I can.

So I’m open. I’m looking for a new role, either in San Francisco or remotely, with a team that shares my ambition to use technology in a way that positively impacts society. But I’ll be honest: I’m not sure what that looks like yet, and I’m not willing to rule anything out. Maybe I’ll wind up founding a new venture; maybe I’ll join an existing team that is doing amazing things; maybe I’ll help a company in another industry, like news or education, with their innovation needs; maybe I’ll cross back over the table and join another investment firm. What I do know is that it’s all about the values and mission of the people I’ll be working with, and about making a positive impact in the world.

If you’d like to chat with me, shoot me an email: I’m at ben@benwerd.com. You can also text or Signal me at +1 (510) 283-3321.

 

On vendor lock-in and golden handcuffs

Doug Belshaw wrote a post the other day about the effects of vendor lock-in on wages and retention:

But going one step further, if you’re making more profit through vendor lock-in, you can pay higher wages to your staff. In fact, you might have to do this, because your product isn’t well-liked by end users. People end up mainly joining your company because of the salary and perks.

I think there are some common assumptions here that need to be challenged.

Fundamentally, I don't agree with the idea that ethical ventures are inherently less profitable, or that people who work on them should expect to be paid less. In fact, I think it's important to show that ventures that operate on ethical principles can be every bit as profitable, and that people who work on them can expect to make a good living.

First, I think it's important to call out that people who do ethical jobs do tend to be paid less across society. For example, teachers and nurses don't make salaries that are in any way proportional to the importance of the work they do. It's not by accident that these jobs were historically were often considered to be womens' work. The effects of sexism are endemic and generational, and feminism is an important force for good that benefits everybody. And it's certainly not right or fair that people within the tech industry get paid more (ditto bankers, etc). This could be the subject of another post, or a book, or a lifetime's body of work.

If we zoom in and consider just the tech industry as an ecosystem in and of itself, we can consider some ventures to be more ethical than others. Doug highlights vendor lock-in: the idea that once you purchase a company's service, it is very hard to move away. The service is designed like a trap that lures you in easily, but then keeps you subscribing not because the service itself provides immense value, but because you would lose something important of yours if you left. For example, you might lose data.

I would add (and I suspect Doug would agree) a commitment to privacy, concrete steps to ensure inclusion, opposition to tracking, and a resistance to fake markets. For example, Uber can't be an ethical company because it allows employees to see your data, its treatment of women has been appalling, it has undermined employment rights for the people who drive for it, and it's engaged in predatory pricing.

It's incredibly valid that we should be looking for the services we use and work for to do better. But I would argue that services that don't do those things should not be expected to be less profitable, or to pay their employees less well. In fact, I think it's really important to build ethical businesses that are every bit as profitable as an Uber.

Okay, bad example. Every bit as profitable as a WeWork?

Hmm. As a ... a Docusign?

No? Wow. Okay.

Look, the point is, ethical businesses should be good investments. In fact, because so many unethical businesses have engaged in predatory strategies that depend on being buoyed by investment dollars that aren't guaranteed to continue, they should be better investments. As the economy changes and we begin to see more regulation around privacy and anti-trust, we should see that ethical businesses that earn profit "fairly" are actually more robust investments, in the same way that investing in fossil fuels will be a losing endeavor over time.

We can't expect these businesses to pay their employees less.

People aren't really motivated by money, past a certain threshold; instead, it's about making good progress on meaningful work. But in an employment market like San Francisco, it's also about the salary and benefits you can offer. Potential employees aren't looking for one or the other - they're looking for both. If a company makes a product that really sucks, morale will be through the floor and people will leave in droves, even if they're paying above-market rates. If a company makes an amazing product but the people who work on it can't afford to make rent, they'll leave too.

It's also an inclusion issue. Who can afford to take below-market rates to work on ethical problems? Mostly people who otherwise have strong safety nets and come from wealthier backgrounds - who, it turns out, are disproportionately white. If we care about diversity of our teams, we need to make sure that people who build software get paid well for it.

I'm not necessarily capitalism's greatest cheerleader, but in our current reality, money matters. If we care about an ethical industry that treats people well, we've got to build ethical companies that do well while doing good - and allow their employees to do the same.