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Engineer, startup founder, investor, and writer

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben@benwerd.com

werd.eth

 

Thoughts and actions for the week of September 27, 2021

Thoughts

  1. The web is no longer the platform. If anything, it’s become a sort of connective middleware: a place to be shared through. The actual work is happening in apps, devices, and other levels of the stack, and I think, to some extent at least, that’s where a lot of the innovation will take place.
  2. Last week I talked a lot about blockchain, but I think personal hardware is also fascinating. Why couldn’t a social network be built with Arduinos and Raspberry Pis or their equivalents? Why couldn’t the protocols and mechanisms be built with Bluetooth and peer to peer mesh networks instead of HTTP?
  3. Over time, the frameworks that have overwhelmingly been used for web development become less and less applicable. Rails and its downstream descendants (Laravel and so on) were super-interesting for building websites a decade ago, but is that what the internet is today? Yes and no.
  4. Which isn’t to say that the underlying principles don’t matter. The web’s openness, interconnectedness, and ease of execution are key values for any new platform. Maybe it’s better and more accurate to say that the web itself could extend to other types of devices and other protocols. It doesn’t need to be limited to HTML and HTTP, or links that you click in a browser. Nor does it mean that those links aren’t valuable. Of course they are! It’s just, there’s more.
  5. What might it mean to build something completely new to connect people?

Actions

  1. I need to find a really great, foundational Ruby on Rails course I can use as a refresher for existing coders. Ideally with a site license. I’m curious if anyone can recommend anything like that.
  2. I also need to re-set up my development environments on my own laptops, unfortunately (post-theft). I’ve been dragging my feet but it’s becoming crucial at work, and for my personal stuff, including Known.
  3. I’m flying to Boston on a red eye on Tuesday night. I’m heading back to Cape Cod and need to make sure I’ve got everything I need for the next few weeks.
  4. As it turns out, what I thought was an ear infection is just stress. I need to find new ways to chill out! And possibly get a mouthguard to prevent any tooth-grinding at night.
  5. One of the things that might be causing stress is my heavy social media use. I think I might take October off - or even the rest of the year. I have a few days to think about that one. I would continue to blog and use feeds. It’s safe to say that every time I’ve done a social media fast I’ve felt better as a result.
 

The status is not quo

“I’m sorry to bother you,” the person on the end of the landline call - obviously a scammer - said to me in a clipped Indian accent. “I’m calling from Medicare health insurance. I’m hoping to speak with Deborah?”

“I’m afraid she’s passed away,” I told him.

“For real?” he said. I heard a click on the line as he hung up.

I’m not the same person I was. They tell me I never will be again.

The other night, I lay awake in bed at three in the morning as my mind raced through an involuntary clips show of audio and emotions from the last year. When I closed my eyes - every time, not just once or twice - I heard the beep of an ECG monitor, so loudly and clearly that I had to open them again to make sure it wasn’t real.

Maybe this is normal after this kind of trauma. I don’t know what normal is in this situation. It sometimes feels like I’m barely holding on.

I can’t dream about her. A few nights before, I lay awake thinking about this. I had a dream where an old friend told me everything that was wrong about myself. I had a dream where I was the Doctor’s companion and we were evading some new iteration of the Cybermen. I had a dream where I was moving to London. But not once in the three and a half months since my mother’s death has she shown up. I miss her; why can’t I see her?

It dawned on me that I felt like she was angry with me. She didn’t want to die in a hospital; she had told me that a hundred times. When she was still semi-coherent in that final week, she said clearly, “this is not okay”. (She had also, months earlier, told me that if it wasn’t possible to move her from the hospital, that would also be okay.) But the amount of oxygen she needed meant we were unable to move her. Palliative care was the nightmare she had perhaps anticipated; it’s still not something I want to write directly about. Her death was hard and not what she had wanted. And she wasn’t showing up to say hello because I’d done her wrong.

When I realized that this is what I’d been thinking, a place I’d subconsciously been in for months, I spent the rest of the night unable to hold myself together. She’s not gone because she’s mad at me. She’s gone because she’s gone.

I haven’t really been okay.

“It’s not your fault your parents moved to California. I would have said, ‘sorry, Mum’,” a friend told me years earlier, in a pub in Edinburgh after the local TechMeetup. “Why should you have to move for them?” I suppose it’s hard to understand for some people, who are perhaps more tethered to geography and familiarity than family, but that’s exactly what I did.

My parents moved back to California to look after my Oma; my paternal grandmother. That’s enough of a reason, but Oma shepherded her children through a Japanese concentration camp in Indonesia. Through her ingenuity and perseverance, my dad, who was a toddler at the time, survived. (She also helped save another, unrelated child, who I would love to find.) So when she needed help, my parents flew back and bought a house in the San Joaquin Valley so she could move in with them.

Turlock is a small town outside of Modesto. Lately it’s been the epicenter of some particularly regressive anti-mask groups; when my parents moved there, every radio station played country music and there wasn’t a single bookstore in town. When I first visited, the roads were littered with the remains of tiny American flags. But they didn’t have a lot of money and it was what they could afford. It was easy driving distance to the Bay Area, where they had met and where a lot of my extended family still lived. When my Oma passed away a few years later, they stayed; my mother had become a teacher nearby and it changed her life.

When UCSF diagnosed her with pulmonary fibrosis, the same condition that had taken her mother twenty-five years before, her life changed again. I remember the day my Grandma died like it was yesterday; my mother cried out in the living room and I, all of six years old, didn’t know what was happening. It seemed to me that one day Grandma was here, and the next she wasn’t.

One Christmas, as my then-girlfriend and I were preparing for our trip to head over there, I had a startling conversation with Ma. “I don’t want you to be alarmed,” she said, “but I’ve started to use oxygen.” Within a month I’d made plans to be in California. I remembered my Grandma, and I was scared of losing my mother. That’s why I moved; I couldn’t not. It wasn’t anything close to a choice.

Every moment became the potential last time I’d see her. Thanksgiving became maybe the last Thanksgiving. Christmas could be the last Christmas. Her oxygen tanks got bigger and bigger until she couldn’t work anymore. We ran two fridge-sized oxygen concentrators in parallel to make sure she had enough airflow; the long, plastic tubes trailed across the floor as a path to find her.

It was because I had moved to California that I was with my parents the night she was called in for her lung transplant. She sat bolt upright, her eyes blazing with some mixture of fear and excitement. My parents drove into the hospital in their car; I drove to pick up my sister in mine. I couldn’t get my girlfriend on the phone, and I remember the absolute silence as the moon lit the hills on the edge of the Altamont Pass. I felt completely alone. When Ma sat on the gurney on the outside of the double doors leading to surgery and told me to take care of my father, to be patient with him, I felt alone again.

We got another eight years with her. I feel grateful for that.

They weren’t easy years, though. She was in and out of hospital, and in 2019 she spent more than eleven straight weeks lying in a bed looking over Golden Gate Park. More than once, she nearly died, but she fought hard. “I’m not ready to say goodbye,” she would say. Even in her last week, she said, “I still have life-force in me.”

More than once, when I flew to New York for a work trip or Oregon for fun, I needed to take an emergency flight back. Behind every plan was the question: what if something bad happens to Ma?

For me, a silver lining of the pandemic was being able to easily spend time with her. By then, they’d moved to Santa Rosa for the cleaner air (it was years before the house would be threatened by raging fires that ultimately came to a stop within a block of it). I worked from a bedroom, which I rearranged so I could sit on Zoom calls with a bookshelf behind me, like I’d seen journalists do on the News Hour. I’d do a meeting, then go check on Ma, then do another meeting. Sometimes, if she was feeling up to it, I’d take her outside and we’d go for a walk. Every night, I’d help her up the stairs and tuck her into bed. Sometimes I’d help her brush her teeth from there, if she wasn’t feeling strong enough to stand in the bathroom. She stopped being able to eat hard food and I’d help set up her feeding bag and connect it to the tube the doctors inserted in her belly.

Sometimes - not enough, which I regret dearly - I would lie on the bed next to her and we’d talk. We’d discuss which books we’d both been reading (or, as her eyesight failed, listened to). We’d talk about what was going on in my life, and her worries about hers. We’d talk about trips we’d like to take and how she thought about life. She would give me advice and perspective, and I tried to do the same.

My sister was often there. At the end of the night, when all the talking was over, she would sit at the end of Ma’s bed with a guitar and sing lullabies. She read to her, sometimes over FaceTime while Ma was at dialysis.

Over the last few years, my sister started to suffer from chronic pain. I’m not remotely qualified to diagnose this or verify if it’s true, but I have to assume that it’s at least in part caused by the stress of it all; the sadness of watching our mother fade against her will.

My dad was a saint. He devoted his life to looking after her. He did everything he could to find cures and solutions to whatever the current problem was, and drove Ma everywhere she needed to go. He slept next to her at the hospital and sat with her at her appointments. His entire life was spent being a carer. Even when his own health began to falter, and his knees gave in, he was devoted to her.

She was the center of our lives, and she’s gone.

I’m lucky, in comparison, to still have my physical health. I’m a lot heavier than I was when we started this journey, but I can walk and run. Emotionally, though, I feel like I’m running an emulation layer: I look like I’m more or less okay, so I feel like people expect me to be more or less okay. I’m barely holding it together, somehow getting through each day, but it’s not something that people can see and hear and touch. It’s buried deep, my brokenness, but it’s there, waiting to erupt.

I want to be clear that I don’t resent it. On the contrary, I feel lucky: I had the ability to move to be closer to my parents and support them through this seismic event. I got to spend more time with, and be closer to, my family than most people ever get to. That’s been an incredible gift.

I also wish none of this had ever happened. I wish my mother had been healthy, and nobody else in my family had succumbed to this awful condition, and life remained uninterrupted. I couldn’t tell you what that would even look like, but I can say that it wouldn’t look anything like what the last decade has been.

And I want a hug. I want this pain, the hole that’s been ripped by the outrageous theft of my mother by this awful genetic condition, to be acknowledged. I want to be taken care of like I’m sick, because I feel sick, even if my body is to all intents and purposes intact. I want to lie under a blanket for a while and breathe. I want to tear apart the fabric of the universe and glue it back together in a shape that doesn’t feel quite so wrong. I want to sleep through the night. I want to let go of this guilt that won’t stop eating at me. I want to feel closeness and love and comfort.

I want to take this disease, which we now know is called dyskeratosis congenita, and I want to burn it to the ground. I want to avenge my grandmother Carol, and my mother Deborah, and my aunt Erica, and my cousin Michael, and anyone else it dares to take from me. From us. I want justice for our theft.

And I want, somehow, to be okay.

For the time being, my attention and focus are gone. I’m not the same person. Very little seems important, because very little is important. There isn’t much to do for now except let it all wash over and accept that it’s a forever part of me. Her loss has been a decade of love, and care, and trauma. It’s not going away; slowly, maybe, it’ll fade.

After that, when it finally does, who knows.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can join me in donating here.

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

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

You can join me in donating here.

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

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

You can join me in donating here.

 

 

Drops

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hiring senior Ruby on Rails engineers anywhere in the US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Changing my policy on affiliate links

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

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

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

 

Thoughts and actions for the week of September 20, 2021

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

Thoughts

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

Actions

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

Have a good week!

 

Looking for a writer’s group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fairness Friday: People’s Programs

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

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

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

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

 

Restore point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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