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15 books that made an impact

A lot of books, piled up in the best kind of bookstore

I really like Lou Plummer’s list of 15 books which made the most impact on him, which I discovered via Tracy Durnell’s own list:

I think you can figure out a lot about a person if you know what books have had the most impact on them. At one point or another, each of these books was my current favorite. They all had a lasting impact on me. I'd love to see your list.

Tracy has smartly split hers up into categories. I’ll do the same here. And just as Lou said, I’d love to see your list!

Formative Books

These books disproportionately influenced me when I was a much younger adult, and helped contribute to the way I saw the world in a hundred ways, from my sense of what was possible to my sense of humor.

  1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams — I don’t quote it, but the clever irreverence still sweeps me off my feet. A large part of me wishes I was Douglas Adams and always will.
  2. Constellations: Stories of the Future — a mind-blowing collection of science fiction short stories, some of which became episodes of The Twilight Zone and so on. Jerome Bixby’s It’s a Good Lifeand Fritz Leiber’s A Pail of Air are standouts for me.
  3. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury — There’s a warm, beating heart at the center of this story, and that’s what draws me in every time (and I’ve reread it countless times). There are better Bradbury books which have probably aged better — you’re probably thinking of them right now — but at the time, it resonated.
  4. Maus, by Art Spiegelman — It was much later until I really understood how my own family was affected by WWII, but I connected to this hard. It was also the first graphic novel that made me really think about the possibilities of the form: something that was clearly far beyond superheroes and fantasy.
  5. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood — Practically a documentary at this point, but it’s always been a riveting work of speculative fiction that does what that genre does best: help us grasp with elements of our present. To most of us, it’s a warning. To the Heritage Foundation, I guess it’s a manual.
  6. 1984, by George Orwell — It’s hard to imagine a more culturally influential science fiction novel. I love it: although it has a lot to say, I find it to be a page-turner. If you haven’t read Sandra Newman’s follow-up, Julia, run to get it: it’s an impressive work of fiction in its own right that reframes the story in brilliant ways.
  7. Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland — Coupland sometimes reads like a funnier Bret Easton Ellis (which is to say zeitgeisty but hollow — Shampoo Planet and The Rules of Attraction are cousins), but at his best he captures something real. Microserfs gave me that first taste of the community and camaraderie around building software together: it’s set in an earlier version of the industry than I got to be a part of, but its depiction of those early years is recognizable. Even the outlandish characters don’t feel out of place. I don’t think it’s probably aged at all well, but it resonated with me hard in my early twenties.

Motivating External Change

These books helped me think about how we need to change, and what we might do.

  1. The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World, by Vincent Bevins — I’m convinced that every American citizen should read this, in order to better understand how we show up in the world. (Spoiler alert: we don’t show up well.)
  2. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond — Visceral, accessible, memorable reporting on poverty and housing. Again, it should probably be required reading for American citizens.
  3. The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson — There’s a very silly passage in this book about the role of blockchain in solving climate change (come on), as well as quite a bit in favor of climate engineering, which I think is highly dubious bordering on terrifying. But at the same time, the novel succeeds at painting a visceral picture of what the effects of the climate crisis could be.
  4. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson — A key to understanding America. There’s a lot spelled out here that I simply didn’t know, running the gamut from the details of peoples’ everyday lived experiences to the chilling fact that Hitler based his Nazi caste system on Jim Crow.

Books That Changed Me

These books either left me a different person somehow or touched something in me I didn’t know existed.

  1. Kindred, by Octavia Butler — I wish I’d discovered Butler earlier. Her work is immediate and deeply human, and while it shouldn’t have had to change a whole genre, it absolutely did. Parable of the Sower is seismic, of course, and rightly famous. (It’s also getting to be a harder and harder read in the current climate.) But it was Kindred that opened the doors to a different kind of science fiction to me, and through it, all kinds of possibilities.
  2. How High We Go in the Dark, by Sequoia Nagamatsu — I have never read a more effective metaphor for grief and change. I read it when I was in the depths of grief myself, and the way this book captures the nuance, the brutality, and the beauty is poetry. I still think about one chapter almost daily. (It’s the rollercoaster. If you know, you know.)
  3. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker — A breathtaking example of a modern novel: a masterclass in form as well as content. Not a word is wasted in bringing the lived experiences of her characters to life (and through them, so many more). I’ve read this many times, and I’ve never made it through without absolutely weeping.
  4. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott — So often recommended to writers for really good reasons, Bird by Bird is not just the best book I’ve ever read about writing but also about embarking upon any large project. It’s hopeful, nourishing, actionable, and lovely. Its lessons still motivate me.

Do you have a list of your own that you would like to share? Let me know!

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Introducing Plausible Community Edition

[Plausible Analytics]

"We’re real people who have rent to pay and mouths to feed. We make $300 per month from donations from our self-hosted users. It would take us more than ten years of donations to pay one month of salary for our small team. If we cannot capture the economic value of our work, the project will become unsustainable and die."

It's more than a little painful to see new open source businesses re-learn what I and other open source founders have learned over time.

I'm fully in support of Plausible moving to AGPL and introducing a Contributor License Agreement, but I don't believe this will be enough. Indeed, Plausible is moving to "open core" and privatizing some of the more lucrative features:

"We’re also keeping some of the newly released business and enterprise features (funnels and ecommerce revenue metrics at the time of being) exclusive to the business plan subscribers on our Plausible Analytics managed hosting."

What's particularly interesting to me is that they're maintaining source availability for these features - it's just that they're not going to be released under an open source license.

Open source purists might complain, but I believe it's better for the project to exist at all and use licensing that allows for sustainability rather than to maintain open source purity and find that the developers can't sustain themselves. I'd love for these things to be compatible, but so far, I don't believe that they are.


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‘It’s about survival’: Athens mayor focuses on getting capital through extreme heat

[Helene Smith at The Guardian]

"Barely six months into the job, the mayor of Athens’s top priority is simple: ensuring that the people of Greece’s capital – mainland Europe’s hottest metropolis – survive the summer. After a June that was the hottest on record, the city has already witnessed record-breaking temperatures and wildfires."

We're deeply into the climate crisis at this point; a major city having to make major changes in order to "survive the summer" is just another example.

When you get into the detail, it's terrifying - particularly considering that we're still only at the foothills of where the crisis will lead us:

“It’s not a matter of lifestyle, or improving the quality of life; it’s about survival when 23% of the green lung around Athens has in recent years been destroyed by fires. It’s vital we have more trees, more air-conditioned community centres and more water stations on our streets and squares.”

Over time, we're going to see mass migrations and real, sustained changes to the way people live. We're also going to see a great deal of suffering. These are things we've been warned about for many decades, but the stories are transitioning from projections from climate experts to being the news headlines.

The onus is on the international community to respond to the crisis with robust energy, but we've been waiting for decades for this to really happen. Instead we get carbon trading schemes and economic deals that don't cut to the core of the problem.

There's an individual responsibility, too. These days that responsibility goes beyond making sensible choices about our own energy use (although most of us don't) and extends to voting, taking to the streets, and making it clear to our leaders that continued inaction is not acceptable.

If there isn't change, wars will be fought over this. In a certain light, they already are.


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Substack rival Ghost federates its first newsletter

[Sarah Perez at TechCrunch]

"Newsletter platform and Substack rival Ghost announced earlier this year that it would join the fediverse, the open social network of interconnected servers that includes apps like Mastodon, Pixelfed, PeerTube, Flipboard and, more recently, Instagram Threads, among others. Now, it has made good on that promise — with its own newsletter as a start."

I'm certain that this is a large part of the future of how information will be disseminated on the internet - and how publishers will run subscription programs. Subscribers who use the fediverse see the benefit of rich content that they can reshare and comment on; publishers get to understand a lot more about their subscribers than they would from the web or email newsletters.

Ghost's reader will certainly be augmented by other, standalone readers that work a bit like Apple News. Its fediverse publishing capabilities will be followed by other content management systems. Notably, Automattic has been working on fediverse integration, for example, and Flipboard has been doing amazing work in this area.

I'm also convinced there's room for another fediverse-compatible social network that handles both long and short-form content in a similar way to Substack's articles and Notes. If someone else doesn't build that, I will.


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Rural Republicans Pushing Back Against School Voucher Expansions

[Alec MacGillis at ProPublica]

"Voucher advocates, backed by a handful of billionaire funders, are on the march to bring more red and purple states into the fold for “school choice,” their preferred terminology for vouchers. And again and again, they are running up against rural Republicans like Warner, who are joining forces with Democratic lawmakers in a rare bipartisan alliance. That is, it’s the reddest regions of these red and purple states that are putting up some of the strongest resistance to the conservative assault on public schools."

This is heartening to see: a bipartisan push against the school voucher system. Public schools are important social infrastructure that deserve significantly more investment rather than having funds siphoned away to support exclusive institutions. A free market for schools is not the way - and clearly, the communities who would be most affected by a voucher system see this too.

This also feels like one of those rare moments where some Republicans are actively practicing old-school conservatism: the kind that isn't drawn from The Handmaid's Tale. That's nice to see, and I'd love to see more of it.

"[Republican Representative] Greene believes vouchers will harm his district. It has a couple of small private schools in it or just outside it — with student bodies that are starkly more white than the district’s public schools — but the majority of his constituents rely on the public schools, and he worries that vouchers will leave less money for them."

Exactly. Not to mention a worse education.


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My technology coaching and consulting in 2024

My availability has opened up for a handful of consulting engagements in addition to my regular work as Senior Director of Technology at ProPublica.

I’ve founded two startups (both based on open-source technology communities that I also founded). I’ve been a CTO, led product, and invested in early-stage startup ventures. I’ve also taught venture and product design to teams that include startups, top-tier educational institutions, and local newsrooms. My products have been used by social movements and Fortune 500 companies. I would love to help you to move faster and make stronger technology decisions.

Here are some ways I might be helpful to you:

A Sounding Board

I can be your technology and product sounding board for your products and how your product or engineering team is run. I offer regular check-ins, or I can be available on an ad hoc, as-needed basis.

I’ll help you solve problems and coach you through getting to enduring solutions and productive work cultures. In the process, you’ll avoid common pitfalls, take advantage of a new but experienced set of eyes on your problems, and have someone in your corner when you need.

Accelerated Technology Product Sprints

Do you need to quickly evaluate a product idea or a way to solve problems for a customer you’ve identified? Do you need to identify that customer or market?

I can lead you through a short design sprint, either remotely or in person. At the end of it, you’ll have a stronger idea of your user and customer, learned tools for quickly running experiments and making progress, and identified and evaluated the core hypotheses that your product rests upon.

You’ll iterate and get to market faster, increase your product’s chance of success, and build practices in your team to help you move faster long after we’ve finished working together.

Technical Evaluation and Advice

Are you wondering how a technology (perhaps AI or the fediverse) might be used in your business? Do you have an idea in mind that needs to be feasibility-tested?

I’ll learn about your product and business and report on how you can leverage available technology with the time, team, and resources you have.

You’ll more quickly understand what you can build, what’s technically possible, and where the technology opportunities are for your existing business.

Deck Review

Are you presenting a strategy to your board or managers? Are you a startup going out to raise money?

I can give you actionable feedback to help you build your deck and tell a more robust story that has a better chance of getting you to the outcome you’re looking for.

You’ll tell a stronger story, make a deeper emotional impact on your audience, and learn how to tell compelling stories in the future.


Any of the above can be provided as workshops for your larger course. They are available both in-person and remotely.

Get in Touch

If you’re interested in these — or if you think you could make use of my other skills and experiences — please email me directly at to arrange an initial meeting. I’m excited to talk to you!

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What matters

1 min read

The only goal that really matters is building a stable, informed, democratic, inclusive, equitable, peaceful society where everyone has the opportunity to live a good life. One where we care for our environment, where we champion democracy, science, education, and art, where equality for all is seen as a virtue, where truth is spoken to power, and where nobody can fall through the cracks.

Let's get there together.

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📖 A Psalm for the Wild-Built

[Becky Chambers]

“You’re an animal, Sibling Dex. You are not separate or other. You’re an animal. And animals have no purpose. Nothing has a purpose. The world simply is. If you want to do things that are meaningful to others, fine! Good! So do I! But if I wanted to crawl into a cave and watch stalagmites with Frostfrog for the remainder of my days, that would also be both fine and good. You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live. That is all most animals do.”

I tend to read whatever the opposite of cozy science fiction is: angry and worried about the world, building tension from speculative extrapolations of what could go wrong. This, on the other hand, is science fiction that encourages you to just chill for a minute.

I don’t know if I could read a lot of this, because I am angry and worried about the world, and reading other peoples’ words along the same lines is cathartic. But the message here — that you don’t need to justify yourself, that you can just be — is soothing, and was necessary for me. And it’s all done with wit and care. What a delightful novella.


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The America I love

Hey, look, it’s an American flag

I’m a natural-born American citizen but never lived here until my early thirties. I have a complicated relationship with the country: I never thought I’d live here until I suddenly did. As it happened, my parents moved back to look after my grandmother, and ten years later, I came here to look after my mother. I was 21 when Bush became President, having been the state governor who had executed the most people; I marched against the Iraq War from Scotland. There was never a moment where I thought, “America is a place I want to live.” But I wound up here anywhere.

The America I had no intention of being a part of is still very much here. It’s the America where people love guns and the right own semi-automatic weapons is more important than the idea that we need to stop children from being slaughtered in their schools. It’s the America where the state murders prisoners by electrocuting them or injecting them with poison or by gassing them, and where the police can gun down a person of color and walk away. It’s the America that organizes coups in other countries to further its own interests and nobody sees anything wrong with it because it keeps gas prices down. It’s the America that won’t take the bus because that’s what poor people do (and the word “poor” is doing a lot of work here). It’s rugged individualism and wealth-hoarding over community inclusion and equity. It’s racial stereotypes and old-fashioned values. It’s flag-waving. It’s Bill O’Reilly and Pat Buchanan and George W Bush and Donald Trump.

I’m sorry, but I can’t bring myself to love that America. It’s a bad place to live. Objectively, even.

But that isn’t the only America. It turns out there are lots of them: not just in the sense that each state is its own mini-nation, although that’s true too, but also in terms of layers that spread from coast to coast.

There’s an America I’m delighted to be a part of; one that I’ve come to truly love. It’s the America that understands the impact it’s had and has, both on its own communities and on the world, and genuinely wants to do much better. It’s an America that is anti-drone, anti-war, and against the military-industrial complex. It’s the America that wants to spread equity and uplift communities instead of individuals. It’s the one where nobody would ever think of banning a book or a news source, where public libraries are for everyone, where it’s commonly understood that education should be free and for all. It’s the one that loves art and literature, that provides platforms for diverse lived experiences, that believes in reparations. It loves people of all religions, and no religion, equally, and knows that the separation of church and state is a vital tenet for an inclusive democracy. It believes in democracy, come to that, and science, and data and experimentation. It believes in the common public good and in social contracts. It preserves nature and protects vulnerable communities and makes sure nobody falls through the cracks. It fights fascism of all kinds, from the loud politicians who seeks to turn the country into a theocracy to the small voices who shun difference in their local communities. It believes that immigration makes the country great, and it invites people to join as is without needing to assimilate or dissolve into a melting pot. It believes that everyone should have the right to marry whoever they choose, have the right to do what they will with their own bodies, and assert their identities however they need to. It doesn’t care how much money you make, where you come from, or what you believe: it asserts that you deserve to live well. It is inclusive, and welcoming, and beautiful. It’s Noam Chomsky and bell hooks and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning. It takes the damn bus.

I assure you that it exists, and it’s everywhere. I’ve traveled across this country many times now, and there are pockets of this America in the places you’d least expect, alongside the places where you would expect it. There are people trying to make a better country, a more progressive and inclusive country, everywhere you go.

It’s not the only America, and it’s not the loudest America. But it’s the best one, by far. I think it’s worth saying that I do love it; I want to support it; I want it to be the defining experience of being in and from this country. I don’t think that’s inevitable, but I think, if we all work at it, that it as every chance of happening. I would love that to be the case.

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📖 Mobility

[Lydia Kiesling]

It took me a long time to get through the first third of this novel. The protagonist is so vapid, her point of view so incurious and at the same time so familiarly American, against a backdrop of obvious imperialism and climate obliviousness, that it was hard to find the motivation to continue.

But I’m glad I did. This is an indictment of one character, but through her, all of America, and every country and every person that touches the interconnected hyperobject of energy, climate, and western prosperity. It’s savage, witty, and remarkably pointed: the kind of book that’s soothing to read in the modern age because no, you’re not alone, someone else is feeling this too, and their rage has manifested into something far better articulated than you could hope to muster.

Is this shared awareness enough to halt the catastrophe that we’re careening towards? Probably not. But holy shit, there’s something here, and if there’s even a chance we can pull off the total culture change that averting this crisis requires, we need to try.

The remaining two thirds sharpen to a point, an ending that will cut you without mercy. And I’m grateful for it.

Mobility, by Lydia Kiesling


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1 min read

Sunset in Florence

I’ve spent the week in Florence, Oregon, a lovely little town on the coast. It’s a bit windy and a little cold, but as I’m fond of saying, I lived in Scotland for a decade. I can take it.

Frank Herbert came to the town in 1957 to write about the dunes overtaking it. The piece was never published, but it gave him an idea for a novel.

In 1970, a whale washed ashore here, and the Oregon State Highway Division decided to use dynamite to dislodge it. The ensuing events were not quite as planned. If you’ve never seen it, the video is legendary.

Did you know that Dune and the exploding whale beach were the same place? Well, now you do.

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Declare your AIndependence: block AI bots, scrapers and crawlers with a single click


"To help preserve a safe Internet for content creators, we’ve just launched a brand new “easy button” to block all AI bots. It’s available for all customers, including those on our free tier."

This is really neat! Whatever you land on AI scraping, giving site owners the one-click ability to make a choice is great. Some will choose not to use this; others will hit the button. Making it this easy means it's a choice about the principles, not any kind of technical considerations. Which is what it should be.

Not every site is on Cloudflare (and some also choose not to use it because of how it's historically dealt with white supremacist / Nazi content). But many are, and this makes it easy for them. Other, similar providers will likely follow quickly.


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An Open Letter to the United Nations

[Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf, Hadley Beeman, Daniel Appelquist, Robin Berjon, et al]

"Government engagement in digital and Internet governance is needed to deal with many abuses of this global system but it is our common responsibility to uphold the bottom-up, collaborative and inclusive model of Internet governance that has served the world for the past half century."

A tremendously important open letter to the United Nations in light of the opaque, hierarchical process the Global Digital Compact is being developed with, and the centralized governance many of its proposals can be read to call for.

It's worth clicking through to read the list of signatories: these are people we can thank for the existence of the internet and the web at all. That they believe this is important enough to create this open letter is worth paying attention to.


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Sotomayor says immunity ruling makes a president ‘king above the law’

[Rachel Leingang at The Guardian]

"The President of the United States is the most powerful person in the country, and possibly the world. When he uses his official powers in any way, he now will be insulated from criminal prosecution. Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune."

I've been worried about the world my son will grow up into since before he was born. Over time, my worry has been upgraded to a fear that is becoming ever more visceral and searing. Today the volume of my fear turned up still further.

The thing is, this isn't the only thing allowing for misconduct. The President has effectively been able to commit crimes internationally with very little accountability since forever. Coups, backroom exchanges, and assassinations are all things the US has done to other countries for generations.

My hope is that (1) we come out of this more or less intact, (2) we eventually use this as an opportunity to create stronger ethical and legal rules for our leadership, wherever they act.

Whatever happens, these are truly scary times.


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Calm Down—Your Phone Isn’t Listening to Your Conversations. It’s Just Tracking Everything You Type, Every App You Use, Every Website You Visit, and Everywhere You Go in the Physical World

[Jonathan Zeller at McSweeney's]

"We do not live in some tech dystopia in which our smartphones clandestinely use their mics to pick up every word we say and then feed us commercial messages based on them. The truth is simpler and not at all alarming: your phone only seems to be listening to you because it’s collecting data about every word you type, every website you visit, and, through GPS tracking, everywhere you go in the physical world."

No notes: this is pretty good.


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An apology for my comments about the British election

1 min read

I want to apologize for yesterday’s rant about British politics. That kind of rhetoric isn’t big or clever, and it runs against the tone I usually try for*. Over time, this space has shifted from more personal thoughts towards more directed opinions at the intersection of tech and society, so newer readers may have been a bit confused.

I am angry, and I did take Brexit exceptionally personally. But it might have been more productive to discuss the details of why. For that, I encourage you to check out Richard Murphy’s Funding the Future, a blog about developing a fairer and sustainable economy, which has a UK focus.


* Aside from my comments about David Cameron. The guy deserves it. It's hard to aporcine blame.

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Peter Capaldi says posh actors are smooth, confident and tedious

[Vanessa Thorpe in The Guardian]

“Art is about reaching out. So I think it’s wrong to allow one strata of society to have the most access.”

This is an older article, but it resonated with me so much that I wanted to share it immediately.

This is so important, and a sign of what we've lost:

“I went [to art school] because the government of the day paid for me to go and I didn’t have to pay them back. There was a thrusting society then, a society that tried to improve itself. Yes, of course, it cost money. But so what? It allowed people from any kind of background to learn about Shakespeare, or Vermeer.”

A culture where only the rich are afforded the space, training, and platform to make art is missing the voices that make it special.

The same goes for other spaces: newsrooms where only the wealthy can serve as journalists cannot accurately represent the people who depend on it. Technology without class diversity is myopic. Above all else, a culture of rich people is boring as hell.

Art school - like all school - should be free and available to everyone. It's tragic that it's not. We all lose out, regardless of our background.


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Fighting bots is fighting humans

[Molly White]

"I fear that media outlets and other websites, in attempting to "protect" their material from AI scrapers, will go too far in the anti-human direction."

I've been struggling with this.

I'm not in favor of the 404 Media approach, which is to stick an auth wall in front of your content, forcing everyone to register before they can load your article. That isn't a great experience for anyone, and I don't think it's sustainable for a publisher in the long run.

At the same time, I think it's fair to try and prevent some bot access at the moment. Adding AI agents to your robots.txt - although, as recent news has shown, perhaps not as effective a move as it might be - seems like the right call to me.

Clearly an AI agent isn't a human. For ad hoc queries - where an agent is retrieving content from a website in direct response to a user query - it clearly is acting on behalf of a human. Is it a browser, then? Maybe? If it is, we should just let it through.

It's accessing articles as training data that I really take issue with (as well as the subterfuge of not always advertising what it is when it accesses a site). In these cases, content is copied into a corpus in a manner that's outside of its licensing, without the author's knowledge. That sucks - not because I'm in favor of DRM, but because often the people whose work is being taken are living on a shoestring, and the software is run by very large corporations who will make a fortune.

But yes: I don't think auth walls, CAPTCHAs, paywalls, or any added friction between content and audience are a good idea. These things make the web worse for everybody.

Molly's post is in response to an original by Manu Moreale, which is also worth reading.


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AP to launch sister organization to fundraise for state, local news

"Governed by an independent board of directors, the 501(c)3 charitable organization will help AP sustain, augment and grow journalism and services for the industry, as well as help fund other entities that share a commitment to state and local news."

Fascinating! And much needed.

I'm curious to learn how this fits into other fundraising efforts, like the $500M Press Forward initiative for local news that was announced last year.

I do also have a question about whether all this centralized philanthropy is sustainable. What happens to these newsrooms if the foundation dollars go away? Are they incentivized to find their own business and fundraising models, or does this create a kind of dependence that might be harmful in the long run?

My hope, of course, is that these efforts are the shot in the arm that journalism needs, and that the newsrooms which receive this funding will be sustainable and enduring. It's certainly lovely to see the support.


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Some polite words regarding the British General Election on July 4

Bring out the champagne.

4 min read

Apropos of nothing, here's some lettuce

On July 4th I’ll be on the beautiful Oregon coast, and I plan to have a bottle of champagne handy. Not so much because of the American Independence Day — although there’s nothing wrong with celebrating that, and I’m sure I will — but because of the British election happening on the same day.

It’s been a long fourteen years of the worst government imaginable: a Conservative Party that brought about the formidable economic and social own-goal of Brexit, an intellectual blunderbuss to the foot followed by several subsequent very practical blunderbusses to the crotch, followed by a succession of the most ineffectual, rotten-souled Prime Ministers in British history, one of whom famously had less staying power than a literal salad. It was brought into being by a coalition aided by Nick Clegg (who has since made a career of putting a shiny face on terrible things), and then pitifully trumped along in a meandering path fueled by middling opposition, middle-England small-island nationalism, and the distant, smarmy memory of Tony Blair and the Iraq War. (Here I mean lowercase T trump, which means fart, rather than uppercase T Trump, which means Trump.)

I’m not particularly excited about Keir Starmer’s Labour. It seems to be a sort of 21st century riff on John Major’s Conservative Party of the mid-nineties, presumably in an effort to reach old-school Conservative voters who are sick of the Asda own-brand lunacy of the modern incarnation of their party, knowing that actual left-wing voters have nowhere else to turn. So this isn’t me hoping for major change from him; I expect very little to actually happen. But I am absolutely psyched for the Tories to have their well-heeled posteriors handed to them and their nannies with a fork and knife, finally. It’s been a long time coming.

If it sounds like it’s personal: yes, it’s personal. I’m a European citizen who grew up in the UK and left for the US to look after a parent, assuming I’d just go back afterwards. It didn’t even occur to me that David Cameron would hold a ham-fisted referendum on European membership, and it didn’t seem to occur to him that he’d lose it and the country would vote to leave. (Ham-fisted, of course, is the way he likes it.) I took it very personally; I still take it very personally; if this post feels like I’m being unusually effluviant, please know that I am holding myself back.

I’m under no illusions of any major change, even outside of Keir Starmer’s Primark blandness. All these runts will get cushy jobs as chairmen of boards and minty after-dinner speakers. Britain is effed to infinity, and there’s only so much play you can even have within that framework, particularly considering that nobody seems to want to shift the Overton window even slightly leftwards. Heaven forbid you protect the poor and vulnerable and strive to build an inclusive society within a lasting peace. Still, the catharsis of seeing those cordyceps zombie-suits roundly voted away from the nominal seat of power, even if their ilk will continue to be the effective ruling class for evermore, will give me some superficial glee. So, champagne.

Oh, and I’m excited to see Nigel Farage get his, too.

Now, back to technology and stuff.

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Law enforcement is spying on thousands of Americans’ mail, records show

[Drew Harwell at the Washington Post]

"Postal inspectors say they fulfill [requests from law enforcement to share information from letters and packages] only when mail monitoring can help find a fugitive or investigate a crime. But a decade’s worth of records, provided exclusively to The Washington Post in response to a congressional probe, show Postal Service officials have received more than 60,000 requests from federal agents and police officers since 2015, and that they rarely say no."

I wish this was surprising. Something similar seems to have gone on in every trusted facet of American life: from cell phone providers to online library platforms to license plate readers on the roads. It's all part of an Overton window shift into pervasive surveillance that has been ongoing for decades.

Senator Ron Wyden is right to be blunt:

“These new statistics show that thousands of Americans are subjected to warrantless surveillance each year, and that the Postal Inspection Service rubber stamps practically all of the requests they receive.”

We shouldn't accept it. And yet, by and large, we do.


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The Future of Fashion Commerce Is a Designer's AI Bot Saying You Look Great and Your Personal AI Bot Sifting Through the Bullshit

[Hunter Walk]

"The best commerce platforms will be constantly grooming you, priming you, shaping you to buy. The combination of short-term and long-term value that leads to the optimal financial outcome for the business."

I think this is inevitably correct: the web will devolve into a battle between different entities who are all trying to persuade you to take different actions. That's already been true for decades, but it's been ambient until now; generative AI gives it the ability to literally argue with us. Which means we're going to need our own bots to argue back.

Hunter's analogy of a bot that's supposedly in your corner calling bullshit on all the bots trying to sell things to you is a good one. Except, who will build the bot that's in your corner? Why will it definitely be so? Who will profit from it?

What a spiral this will be.


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Why does moral progress feel preachy and annoying?

[Daniel Kelly and Evan Westra in Aeon]

"Many genuinely good arguments for moral change will be initially experienced as annoying. Moreover, the emotional responses that people feel in these situations are not typically produced by psychological processes that are closely tracking argument structure or responding directly to moral reasons."

This is a useful breakdown of why arguments for social progress encounter so much friction, and why the first emotional response may be to roll our eyes. It's all about our norm psychologies - and some people have stronger reactions than others.

As the authors make clear here, people who are already outside of the mainstream culture for one reason or another (immigration, belonging to a minority or vulnerable group, and so on) already feel friction from the prevailing norms being misaligned with their own psychology. If that isn't the case, change is that much harder.

But naming it is at least part of the battle:

"Knowing this fact about yourself should lead you to pause the next time you reflexively roll your eyes upon encountering some new, annoying norm and the changes its advocates are asking you to make. That irritation is not your bullshit detector going off."

Talking about these effects, and understanding their origins, helps everyone better understand their reactions and get to better outcomes. Social change is both necessary and likely to happen regardless of our reactions. It's always better to be a person who celebrates progressive change rather than someone who creates friction in the face of it.


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Systems: What does a board of directors do?

[Anil Dash]

"I realize that most people who've never been in the boardroom have a lot of questions (and often, anxieties) about what happens on a board, so I wanted to share a very subjective view of what I've seen and learned over the years."

This is great, and jibes with my experiences both being on boards and supporting them as a part of various organizations.

The most functional boards I've seen do what Anil describes here: they're pre-briefed and are ready to have a substantive discussion in a way that pushes the organization forward. Board meetings have a heavy reporting component, for sure, but the discussion and working sessions are always the most meaningful component.

This is also often true, and a challenge:

"I believe in the structure of a board (usually along with some separate advisors) to help an organization reach its fullest potential, in much the same way as I believe in governments having separate branches with separate forms of accountability and appointment. In practice, having nearly all-powerful executives select the membership of the organization that's meant to hold them accountable tends to fail just as badly in business or non-profits as it does in governments."

The board meetings I've attended that are the most robust and open to discussion and genuine debate have also been the ones attached to the most successful companies. I don't think it's quite causation, but rather two things that come from a particularly pragmatic attitude towards running a business: one where outside perspectives and differences of opinion are a strength, not a threat.


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Don't let them tell you what to think

A protest

Last year I wrote a little about how I hope AI will be used, using the GPS navigation in my car as an analogy:

I like my GPS. I use it pretty much every time I drive. But it’s not going to make the final decision about which way I go.

Perhaps it seems obvious, but I’d like to extend that analogy to news, media, and influencers.

We all need journalism — and particularly investigative journalism — to inform us and help us make better decisions. We need to take in sources, form opinions based on them, and vote accordingly as a baseline. But democratic participation doesn’t start and end with voting: we also need to know how to use our voices, spend our money, organize our communities, and, in areas we feel particularly strongly about, protest.

I do think we all need to use our voices. I’m wary when people are silent: whether this is their intention or not, silence is acquiescence to the status quo. If our government is doing something harmful on our behalf and we don’t speak out about it, or an atrocity is taking place somewhere and we choose not to speak up, our lack of action is an endorsement. Change only happens when people speak up.

But this only makes sense when we make up our own mind. If our opinions that copy what’s popular, or what a particular news outlet has to say, then we’re not exercising our democratic rights at all. We’re handing over that power to someone else. When we let someone make our mind up for us, using our voice is just amplifying their voice.

When people complain that we’re not all watching the same newscasts anymore, that’s the world they want to create: one where we’re all getting the same narrow band of information and forming opinions in the same way. That’s not democracy; that’s homogeny. It’s worth considering whose voices could be heard in that world. How diverse was it? Who was really represented?

Similarly, while there is certainly disinformation put out in the world that’s designed to coerce people to exercise their democratic rights in a particular direction (often towards fascism), some people have also used the words “misinformation” and “disinformation” (or “fake news”) to describe reporting that they simply don’t like.

This is the playbook of Trumpworld. When all of journalism is painted as biased and “fake news” — as Trump has taken pains to do — supporters are left with the officially-endorsed channels like Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax. They receive a narrow band of information that becomes the basis of their opinion-making. For example, during Trump’s presidency and beyond, these channels frequently pushed narratives that undermined trust in mainstream media, labeled critical reports as conspiracies, and even presented alternative facts about significant events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election results. This systematic discrediting of journalism fosters an echo chamber that isolates its audience from opposing viewpoints and critical analysis.

But there’s a streak of this in Democrat-land, too: a subset of the community that’s sometimes been described as “blue MAGA” for its use of similar rhetoric. Here, any voice that criticizes Biden is also described as fake news, or even a Putin plot. For instance, when progressive commentators or journalists critique Biden’s policies on immigration or healthcare, they are sometimes met with accusations of undermining the Democratic agenda or aiding Republican narratives. This phenomenon isn't as pervasive as Trumpworld’s approach, but it highlights a discomfort with internal criticism within certain Democratic circles. While I’d clearly prefer a Democratic America to one run by Trump, this dismissal of uncomfortable sources as being fake because we don’t like them is no less undemocratic.

And, of course, the same goes for people who learn how to vote and what to think from their places of worship. In some religious communities, congregants are encouraged to vote in line with specific doctrinal beliefs, which can limit their exposure to broader societal issues and alternative viewpoints. It’s a hell of a waste of a free mind and a democratic bill of rights.

We need to consume information from a variety of sources, be critically aware of the biases and origins of those sources so that we can properly evaluate and contextualize them, and then make up our own minds, regardless of whether our conclusions are popular or not.

Making up our own minds has gotten a bad name lately through people who “do their own research” and end up promoting ivermectin for covid, believing that vaccines cause autism, or that climate change isn’t real. I’m not arguing for abandoning critical reasoning or scientific fact here; quite the opposite. The antidote to this kind of quackery is stronger critical thinking and source evaluation, not — as some have argued — restricting our information diet to a few approved sources.

New voices and sources matter. The world changes. Lots of things that were wildly unpopular and sneered at in the past are now part of ordinary life. For example:

  • Abolition
  • Women’s suffrage
  • Access to birth control
  • Interracial marriage
  • Marriage equality
  • The 40 hour work-week

Each of these things were hard-won by people who were very much outside the mainstream until they weren’t. Consider what it would have meant to be silent while each of those struggles for basic rights were underway, or what it might say about a person if they stayed silent because doing otherwise would affect their job prospects or earnings potential. These ideas weren’t popular to begin with, but they were right.

Even the internet was dismissed as a weird fad in the nineties. The mainstream press didn’t think it would catch on; people inside newsrooms had to fight to establish the first news websites. Memorably, one British magazine called it “the new name for ham radio” — just a few years before it took over the world.

What matters is not adherence to the values of a tribe. We aren’t better people if we demonstrate that our values are the same as an accepted set. The world isn’t like supporting a sports team, where you put on a red or a blue jersey and sing the same songs in the stands. It’s nuanced, and each of us can and should have our own nuanced perspectives that are informed by our lived experiences and those of the people around us, and a set of diverse, freely-reported information sources.

For the avoidance of doubt, my values are vehemently anti-war, pro-immigration, and fiercely on the side of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I believe in the right to choose. I believe that trans women are women and trans men are men. I believe that too-small government leads to big corporate power, and too-big government leads to authoritarianism, so a continual balance must be found. I believe that universal healthcare is a fundamental human right. I believe guns must be controlled. I roll my eyes when people complain about socialism in America, because usually what they mean when they use that word is what I’d consider to be basic infrastructure. I think there needs to be a ceasefire in Gaza and in Ukraine. I dislike patriotism because I think it encourages people to care more about people who are geographically close to them. I believe Ayn Rand’s “morality of self-interest” is an excuse to act without compassion. I like startups and believe in the right to start and run a business — and that they can be the vehicle for great change. I think climate change is not just real and behind many of the geopolitical decisions we’re seeing playing out today. I believe that the civil rights marches and movements of the 2020s are the signs of really exciting progressive change. I believe Trump must not become President. I believe a progressive world is a better world.

And I believe in talking about those things and why I believe them. Loudly. Even when it’s uncomfortable. There is no media outlet I’m aware of that publishes based on that exact set of values. You might nod your head in agreement with some of them and be angered by others.

The news I read and the information I gather is my GPS. I appreciate the signal, and it will certainly inform my actions and beliefs. I’m still going to find my own way.

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