Skip to main content

Engineer, startup founder, investor, and writer

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben@benwerd.com

werd.eth

 

Thoughts and actions for the week of November 29, 2021

Thoughts

  1. Jack Dorsey is stepping down as CEO of Twitter. Wow. Whichever origin story you’ve heard, he had a huge part of its beginnings, as well as (obviously) its current direction.
  2. Under Jack, Twitter has consistently added crypto functionality and strategies, from Bitcoin tipping to Project Bluesky, and a new team led by Tess Rinearson. I wonder if that will persist, or if his interest in the space will be limited to Square (where he’s still CEO).
  3. I hold a modest amount of Twitter stock - purchased in the open market - and the news made the value jump. I wonder how that feels for Jack as a person.
  4. I think decentralization (but not cryptocurrencies) holds the future for Twitter. If it can be the place both facilitating and surfacing conversations on the web, that’s Google-level powerful. I’m not sure being a social network in itself is quite as valuable, both in the social and financial senses.
  5. I continue to appreciate how the discourse around decentralization has changed as a result of the rise of crypto. It’s important to understand that they’re not the same thing: crypto is a subset of decentralization. (Also, not all cryptocurrencies are truly decentralized.) Conflating the two is a problem. Whatever you think about crypto, it’s a technical and organizational approach, not a catch-all tool that can fix everything.
  6. Regardless of what happens to it next, Twitter is my favorite social network. I have interesting conversations there; I’ve met new people at a scale I haven’t met elsewhere; I have a lot of exposure to new ideas. There’s a lot of vitriol, too, but I’ve found it easier to filter out over time.
  7. That doesn’t mean that controlling the vitriol on the platform generally isn’t important - and it could even be the most important thing for the future of the company, given the effect community health has had on growth.
  8. How does controlling for community health work in a decentralized environment? It’s a much harder problem, but still one that affects Twitter’s bottom line, regardless of its underlying architecture. Legally it may have different requirements depending on that architecture, but the user experience requirements are always a vital part of the growth of any ecosystem.
  9. If Twitter is doubling down on decentralization, this makes providing community health tools in the decentralization space one of the most valuable problems to solve right now.
  10. If Twitter isn’t going to continue moving in this direction, I'm not sure where it’s going to go.

Actions

  1. After some travel and some extended time on the east coast, I’m hunkering down and thinking about the future. There’s a lot on the table. Somehow it’s now only a few weeks to Christmas (and zero days to Hanukkah), which makes planning for 2022 imperative.
  2. I’ve really got to get back on the health train. My loss this summer is no longer an excuse, and my mother would not want me to be unhealthy on her account.
 

Over 40

Every so often I see a thread from an engineer worried about their career prospects now that they’re over 40. It’s always confronting to me: it forces me to remember that I’m over 40, for one thing. But I also don’t feel old; objectively speaking, I don’t think it is particularly old. It’s all a matter of perspective.

In January, I’ll be 43. It’s been a particularly strange decade: ten years ago I moved to California, not to work on a fancy startup or engage in the tech industry, but to be with my mother because I thought she was going to die. In the end, she had a double lung transplant, and we had many bonus years with her. As tumultuous as they were, I’m very grateful for that time.

We also figured out a lot more about her disease during that time, and I was able to take a DNA test to determine that I didn’t have the same genetic variant. The science isn’t completely settled, and I plan to take regular telomere length tests to make sure I’m as healthy as I hope I am. (I haven’t because, honestly, I’m a bit scared to, but I’ve decided that’s not a good enough reason.)

At the same time, I was the cofounder of an open source startup, worked at a heavily-funded VC-backed company, was a mission-driven investor, and worked in crypto. I went to the pub with Chelsea Manning and got to teach journalists from all over the world. I’ve met so many people who I feel lucky are part of my life.

But the decade was always about the health of my immediate family more than it was about any of those things, as grateful as I am for them. Perhaps that’s why I feel so confronted by these over-40 threads: the last time I really felt in control of my time and my destiny, I was 30. And I still feel like I have a huge amount of my life ahead of me. Hopefully, I do. Hopefully, so does everyone who posts those kinds of thoughts.

The biggest thing to have changed for me is that I’m much more comfortable with my position in my working life. I don’t feel the need to make millions of dollars; I don’t feel the need to prove my worth to anyone. I created a bunch of value and discovered it didn’t really matter. I built platforms used by formidable organizations and discovered it didn’t really matter. I’m lucky to be comfortable.

These days, I just want to do meaningful, ethical work and enjoy the journey as I building a good life. That’s it. That’s all there needs to be. And that’s great.

May everyone worrying about their age with so much ahead of them find the same peace.

 

Fairness Friday: Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance

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 the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. Based in Scandia, MN, NAFSA supports Native communities nationally with advocacy, education, and networking as they revitalize their indigenous food systems.

It describes its mission as follows:

Through our efforts and programs, we bring stakeholders and communities together to advocate and support best practices and policies that enhance dynamic Native food systems, sustainable economic development, education, trade routes, stewardship, and multi-generational empowerment.

We work to put the farmers, wild-crafters, fishers, hunters, ranchers, and eaters at the center of decision-making on policies, strategies and natural resource management.

Its work includes collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants (vital work when many seeds are protected by intellectual property legislation that favors corporations) and culinary mentorship.

I donated. If you have the means, please join me here.

 

Thanksgiving 2021

As an adult in the UK whose immediate family lived thousands of miles away in California, I sometimes threw Thanksgiving dinner parties. I think my friends were confused about why I did this on a Thursday night, but whatever; we had fun.

When I joined my parents in California, we had a traditional meal: turkey and its vegetarian equivalent, the various sides, and most importantly, us being together. Like many families, we went around the table, taking turns to explain what we were thankful for. My mother, who depending on the year was in various states of supplementary oxygen use, post-transplant care, tube-feeding, and overall discomfort, would always tear up and say she was thankful for us. We’d all come together - my sister and I both uprooting and moving to California - because she was sick, and we were a unit, getting through this together.

This is the first year we’re doing it without her. Today is the first major holiday without her. Next week will mark six months without her.

Like most holidays, Thanksgiving is complicated. The traditional story, of course, is based on a harmful lie. Even the post-Lincoln history of its celebration in the US is complicated, although a story I can get much more behind. But I choose to think of it as a time to reflect and be thankful, and hopefully be in the company of people I’m thankful for.

This has been the worst year of my life, bar none. I’m grieving; I still have regular nightmares about that last week in the hospital; the pandemic still rages; even outside of the black hole at the center of my life, it was hard in other ways that in any other year would have been challenging by themselves. And all of this makes gratitude that much more important.

I’m thankful for my family: immediate, extended, and found. I get to have so many incredible people in my life. Community and connectedness are what make life meaningful, and I couldn’t have made it through this year without any of them. So many people have gone out of their way to help us.

This has been an exceptionally tough year for my immediate family, and I’m particularly thankful for them. My mother: everything she was, everything she taught us, everything she still is through us. My sister: the smartest, funniest, best person I know. My father: who gave so much of himself, and gives so much of himself, and cares so deeply about fairness.

This year I’ve also driven across the full breadth of the United States - twice. I visited 38 states. I saw how racist monuments were still enshrined. I saw the proprietors of a Black-owned restaurant in New Orleans (we deliberately only ate at Black-owned establishments in the South) be racially abused by a visitor. I paid my respects at the Greenwood District in Tulsa, the site of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and learned about the difficulties the community still endured. I paid my respects at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis. I saw entire neighborhoods condemned by racist city planning.

There’s a lot of work to do, and across the country, the hardest work of building a future that supports all of us seems to be mostly done by the most oppressed. I’m thankful for these communities, activists, neighborhood groups, and families who, despite it all, and often despite the rest of us, are doing the most to overcome this country’s violent nature and brutal past. They are who will make America great, and the world great. Building a world with systems that support inclusion, equality, and a better life for everyone is the work of building the future.

Finally, we’re still in this pandemic. Like many of us, I’ve known people who died, and I’ve known people who came close to it. I’ve also had cause to know people who refused vaccinations, fought against the simple, kind act of wearing a mask in public, and mocked the idea of coming together collectively for the better good. While traveling around the country, I saw many signs imploring store visitors to not assault people who asked them to wear a mask or social distance. I’m thankful for all the people who did the right thing, and who were decent in the face of a global catastrophe.

I hope you’re safe and well. I’m grateful that I am. Today will be hard, but I’m glad to be with my family. On we go.

 

Fairness Friday: Justice for Greenwood

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 Justice for Greenwood. Based in Tulsa, OK, Justice for Greenwood “aims to revitalize the Greenwood Community and Diaspora through education, advocacy and direct services to lift the community out of poverty and to address the major areas of inequality and injustice directly caused by the Massacre such as: Health, Education, Real Estate, and Generational Wealth.”

I had the privilege of visiting the Greenwood District in Tulsa yesterday, including its historical center, Greenwood Rising. It was a profoundly affecting experience. The Tulsa Race Massacre was an act of violence against the Black community and Black success in 1921, but the violence continues today. The community rebounded after the massacre, but the city actively sought to destroy it through deliberate planning and eminent domain. Even today, the Black businesses present in the neighborhood are forced to rent from the city.

Justice for Greenwood’s work includes direct legal advocacy and support for descendants of the massacre, as well as the important work of capturing the oral history and genealogy. Mass graves have been uncovered around the city, and the known death toll keeps rising. Documenting this history is important, and the city resisted any effort here for decades. It wouldn’t have happened without strong advocacy.

I donated. If you have the means, please join me here.

I also donated to Greenwood Rising. It's an incredibly well-executed exercise in telling an important story that ends with a powerful call to action. You should visit if you can.

 

Thoughts and actions for the week of November 8, 2021

Thoughts

  1. There is no reason for a startup to be in the San Francisco Bay Area anymore, and lots of reasons to not.
  2. That’s not to say that the Bay Area isn’t great. For me, it’s one of the places in the US with saner politics, better weather, and despite soaring prices, a really beautiful independent culture of artists, writers, and musicians.
  3. But it’s incredibly, prohibitively expensive.
  4. A small two bedroom home will easily set you back over a million dollars to buy. To rent a two bedroom apartment, you’re likely talking three or four thousand dollars a month.
  5. The “low income” threshold for a family of four in San Francisco is an annual take-home of $117,400.
  6. The result is that even though tech salaries are so high as to be a cause of inequality throughout the area, it’s non-trivial for someone earning a quarter of a million dollars a year to own their own home.
  7. Which means families either need to earn astronomically more, or move out to somewhere cheaper.
  8. It also means that creative technologists who aren’t independently wealthy and don’t want to work for a larger company need to move out somewhere cheaper.
  9. Which also means that if you want to hire people who have families or have built a non-traditional career, you probably need to cast your net further afield.
  10. The good news is that investors are casting their nets further afield. There’s no need to live in San Francisco or Silicon Valley to raise money anymore.
  11. The Silicon Valley community is becoming more diffuse. I know of people moving all over the country. It’s no longer about being where everyone else is, because there is no one place.
  12. Everyone’s used to remote working after the pandemic.
  13. Paying Silicon Valley salaries to everyone at your company, regardless of location, is the right thing to do - but a startup can still reduce costs in other ways, like office space, and hire a greater diversity of people.
  14. So why not live in a place where you can afford a home with a garden, and give your company a greater chance of success in the process?

Actions

  1. I’ve been helping to clean out the house we’ve been staying in since the summer. There’s a lot still to do, but we’ve made good progress. I’ve got a lot of scrubbing and packing ahead of me.
  2. I’ve been working on a huge project, and the social aspects are proving harder than the technical ones. I need to spend time consciously researching tactics to make some of these interactions more productive.
  3. On a similar note, I want to do more internal blogging this week. I find it to be a really good way to asynchronously share thinking.
 

Fairness Friday: Trans Rights in the UK

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 Friday, I’ve chosen to donate to two organizations that support trans rights in the UK, where I grew up.

 

Gendered intelligence is “a registered charity that exists to increase understandings of gender diversity and improve trans people's quality of life.”.

Based in London, it describes its mission as follows:

Gendered Intelligence, established in 2008, is a registered charity that works to increase understandings of gender diversity and improve the lives of trans people.

Our vision is of a world where diverse gender expressions are visible and valued and where trans, non-binary, gender diverse and gender questioning people live healthy, safe and fulfilled lives.

We are a trans-led and trans-involving grass roots organisation with a wealth of lived experience, community connections of many kinds, and a depth and breadth of trans community knowledge that is second to none. The team has a variety of professional and academic specialisms and qualifications including training and facilitation, youth work, policy, the arts, and doctorates in trans related studies.

Its work includes professional services (including staff training work to help counsellors), youth and community support (including mentorship and therapy), and public engagement (providing much-needed trans perspectives).

I donated. If you have the means, please join me here.

 

Mermaids “has been supporting transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children, young people, and their families since 1995.”

Based in Leeds, it describes its mission as follows:

Mermaids supports transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children and young people until their 20th birthday, as well as their families and professionals involved in their care. We also currently offer web chat support to students up to the age of 25.

Transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children and teens need support and understanding, as well as the freedom to explore their gender identity. Whatever the outcome, Mermaids is committed to helping families navigate the challenges they may face.

Its services include a helpline, training on LGBTQIA+ inclusivity, local support groups, and equality and human rights law.

I donated. If you have the means, please join me here.

 

On COP26

As world leaders leave the COP26 climate summit and negotiations begin, I’m not feeling hopeful.

I’d love to think that this is a problem we can solve using incremental changes within the existing system, but the evidence so far is scant. Headlines about lack of aid to the global south and a dependence on pledges made by the financial industry leave me worried that nothing will really change. We don’t need big words wielded in service of elevating share prices; we need urgent action.

We need to treat the climate crisis like a world war: it’s something we all need to work on together like our lives depend on it. As individuals, we need to radically change the way we live and work. As companies, communities, and nations, we need to prioritize our ongoing survival.

I also think there isn’t a technology innovation solution that can take center stage here. Yes, we should divest ourselves of fossil fuels, but electric transport isn’t yet within reach of most people. Yes, we should use renewable energy, but a lot of people are stuck on the grid. Yes, we should eat less meat, but have you met America (and its food supply chains for people on lower incomes)? I’m not in any way saying that these individual actions don’t have a place, but they’re the preserve of the wealthy. We can’t base our future on the whims of rich people or the business models of corporations. The right choices may well not be profitable or in the immediate interests of the people who control the most resources.

Social solutions - mass transit, better energy solutions for all, ways to make the most sustainable solution the cheapest and most convenient at the point of purchase - are vital. I believe only a collective, community-orientated approach can achieve this. Markets cannot save civilization.

And that’s important. It’s not about profit, or making it work within the bounds of business. It’s about saving human civilization. Let’s act like it.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: October, 2021

This is my monthly roundup of the books, articles, and streaming media I found interesting. Here's my list for October, 2021.

Books

The Girl with All the Gifts, by M. R. Carey. I wasn’t prepared for the visceral gore, but beyond the zombie shenanigans, this is a complex tale of comparative morality. It definitely hits differently after the pandemic - there are obvious parallels that the author couldn’t have foreseen. I found it relevant and gripping in equal measure; the first time in a long time that I’ve wanted to hide behind the sofa from a book.

Reparations Now!, by Ashley M. Jones. Honest, direct poetry that bursts from the page and speaks out loud with a distinctive voice that demands to be heard. This is truly great writing - truly great art - that intimately illuminates a particular lived experience while cutting to the core of what America is.

Notable Articles

Business

The New Anti-Remote Propaganda Wants To Gaslight You Back To The Office. “This is the next front of this fight - the executive sect has realized that simply telling people that remote work is terrible using the flimsiest arguments possible won’t work. Thus they’ve moved on to scaring the workers themselves. Remote workers are “short-changed,” and too much remote work is “bad for your career.” It’s bad for younger employees, and will have you “leaning out of your career.” The Wall Street Journal worries that jobs won’t be able to keep things fair, and researchers say that it’s bad for most employees.” And remote workers - the Times worries - may get left behind in the hybrid office.”

Paying influencers? The FTC has a warning for you. “While both the existence and use of social media “influencers” are a relatively recent phenomenon, the FTC said it found previously that such actions violate the prohibition on “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” A company that knows about these determinations and flouts them can face fines under the Federal Trade Commission Act — hence the notices warning these firms.” I will not cry if influencer culture has to endure a crackdown.

Amazon copied products and rigged search results, documents show. “A trove of internal Amazon documents reveals how the e-commerce giant ran a systematic campaign of creating knockoff goods and manipulating search results to boost its own product lines in India - practices it has denied engaging in. And at least two top Amazon executives reviewed the strategy.” It’s almost as if all-encompassing global monopolies are always harmful?

How Slack and Discord became tools for tech worker organizing. “Many companies are not willing to talk about how workers are using their tools to accumulate power. Slack, Discord and Reddit are all open about their platform’s ability to bring people closer together, particularly those with similar interests, or those who want to vent about work. These kinds of interactions can be important first steps in building a larger movement in the workplace.” Unions are a force for good and the push for unionization in tech is a positive, progressive change.

My employee wasn't respectful enough after the company messed up her paycheck. “I’m getting tired of the respect gap I’m seeing with younger staff. I think Jane would be better suited in a different department. I’m not comfortable having her on my team since it’s obvious she doesn’t understand she’s entry-level and not in charge. Should I wait a while before suggesting she transfer to a different department?”

Why introverts excelled at working from home. “While the transition to remote work in early 2020 was abrupt for everyone, some found themselves thriving more than others – in many cases, thanks to their personality type. Many introverted workers found working from a distraction-free environment preferable. Client needs also changed in ways that benefited introverts’ skillsets, while virtual communication offered introverts more opportunities to share their thoughts. For ‘quiet deliverers’ who may once have flown under the radar, remote work offered not only a less taxing day-to-day, but also an opportunity to combine that extra energy with new ways of working – and really stand out.”

Tesla's market value tops $1T after Hertz orders 100K cars. “Hertz said in its announcement that it will complete its purchases of the Tesla Model 3 small cars by the end of 2022. It also said it will establish its own electric vehicle charging network as it strives to produce the largest rental fleet of electric vehicles in North America.” Most importantly, this is a major step towards mainstreaming electric cars in the US.

Crypto

Cryptocurrency's Carbon Footprint Underestimated. “This could mean that in the worst case the top 5 cryptocurrencies had a carbon footprint of between 1100 and 2770 MtCO2/yr, or between Japan (~1074) and the EU (~2637).”

Culture

I'm Fine I'm Fine Just Understand, by ND Stevenson. Just beautiful. What a wonderful use of the newsletter form.

Hannah Gadsby Calls Out Netflix Over Its Defense of Dave Chappelle. ″“Hey Ted Sarandos!” Ms. Gadsby wrote. “Just a quick note to let you know that I would prefer if you didn’t drag my name into your mess. Now I have to deal with even more of the hate and anger that Dave Chappelle’s fans like to unleash on me every time Dave gets 20 million dollars to process his emotionally stunted partial world view.””

Netflix just fired the organizer of the trans employee walkout. “The employee was terminated on suspicion of leaking metrics to the press related to the Dave Chappelle special. Those metrics — about how much Netflix paid for The Closer and how many people it reached — subsequently ended up in a report on Bloomberg. While the employee had shared the metrics internally, they spoke out against the leaks to colleagues, worried they might hurt the walkout movement.”

Superman Drops 'American Way': 'Truth, Justice and a Better Tomorrow'. I don’t really care for Superman these days, but this seems like a much better motto.

What I Learned About My Writing By Seeing Only The Punctuation. A lovely little web tool for revealing the hidden, underlying structure in your writing.

The Power of Dave Chappelle’s Comedy. “Onstage, he refers to himself as the man who walked away from fifty million dollars, but the credibility he derived from that act sixteen years ago is now being deployed defensively and cynically, as if to place above suspicion any possible motive for telling denigrating jokes about trans people. He is also the man who walked into a reported sixty-million-dollar Netflix deal.”

James Bond and Doctor Who got smaller as they become fantasy. I really feel this. I’d prefer to feel like these stories are happening in another layer to the world; spooky goings-on just out of eyeshot.

Media

The Taliban are using private messaging apps to threaten Afghan journalists. “Journalists who spoke to Rest of World also said the Taliban often use apps like WhatsApp and Telegram because they know journalists typically turn off DMs on Twitter and change Facebook Messenger settings to avoid this type of harassment.”

New Report Shows Black Media's Critical Role in Covering Issues Affecting Black Communities. “The report, “Why Black Media Matters Now,” analyzed the coverage of nearly 100 Black-owned news outlets over 15 momentous months between March 2020 and May 2021. In general, it found that Black media publishes as much as six times more coverage than mainstream outlets on issues of importance to Black communities, including racism, health disparities, and voting access.”

Netflix suspends trans employee who tweeted about Dave Chappelle special. “The tweet thread went viral, quickly spiraling into a conversation about free speech and cancel culture. Netflix then suspended Field along with two other employees for trying to attend a director-level meeting they weren’t invited to. Another trans employee is quitting the company over how the special — and Field’s comments — were handled.”

Alden Global Capital, the Hedge Fund Killing Newspapers. ″“They call Alden a vulture hedge fund, and I think that’s honestly a misnomer,” Johnson said. “A vulture doesn’t hold a wounded animal’s head underwater. This is predatory.””

Behind SmartNews, the $2 billion unicorn trying to fix the news algorithm. ″“I don’t know what you can do to convince an audience member to challenge their own political beliefs through news consumption. I don’t think that conversion happens easily or quickly,” said Jeremy Gilbert, a professor of digital media strategy at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, to Rest of World. He gave SmartNews credit for building its app with these social issues in mind, but asked, “But what does it mean to tell ‘real news,’ if it doesn’t fit what their notion of that already is?””

Spotify and Pandora lead US in audio listeners. “Additionally, Spotify will overtake Apple in podcast listeners for the first time to become the new leader in the category. We expect Apple podcast listeners to plateau and Spotify listeners to keep increasing throughout our forecast period.” Spotify is fast becoming the Facebook of audio.

These competitors joined forces to allow readers to use a single login across their news sites. “The founding media partners all agreed, however, that having more first-party data and increasing the share of registered visitors would allow them to build better relationships with readers and more relevant news products. Their collective first step has been OneLog, a single sign-on system being used across a variety of news sites owned by Swiss Digital Alliance members TX Group and Ringier.” Now imagine if authentication was built into the browser.

Medill Launches Groundbreaking Subscriber Engagement Tool. ″“The benchmarking data is one of the things that makes the index so valuable,” Franklin said. “It’s not just ‘How am I doing?’ It’s ‘How am I doing compared to other similarly sized news organizations across companies around the country?’ Several publishers have mentioned how valuable the benchmarking data is to them.”” Seems like a useful way to let small newsrooms collaborate to share data that affects their bottom line. I’d love to see more projects along these lines.

Prominent PR firm spreading disinformation ahead of Honduran elections. “The political group is using a network of Facebook pages and websites made to appear as legitimate news outlets.”

Politics

Jan. 6 Protest Organizers Say They Participated in ‘Dozens’ of Planning Meetings With Members of Congress and White House Staff. “Rolling Stone separately confirmed a third person involved in the main Jan. 6 rally in D.C. has communicated with the committee. This is the first report that the committee is hearing major new allegations from potential cooperating witnesses. While there have been prior indications that members of Congress were involved, this is also the first account detailing their purported role and its scope. The two sources also claim they interacted with members of Trump’s team, including former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who they describe as having had an opportunity to prevent the violence.”

Science

First Malaria Vaccine Approved by W.H.O. “Malaria kills about half a million people each year, nearly all of them in sub-Saharan Africa — including 260,000 children under 5. The new vaccine, made by GlaxoSmithKline, rouses a child’s immune system to thwart Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest of five malaria pathogens and the most prevalent in Africa.”

When You Go to the Loo, a Bat Might Go Boo. ″“I’ve had the soft, leathery caress of a bat’s wing against my buttocks while having a poo,” said Leejiah Dorward, a postdoctoral researcher at Bangor University in Wales.”

Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness drops after 6 months, study shows. “The effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine in preventing infection by the coronavirus dropped to 47% from 88% six months after the second dose, according to data published on Monday that U.S. health agencies considered when deciding on the need for booster shots.” Man :(

Costs of IQ Loss from Leaded Aviation Gasoline Emissions. It turns out small aircraft can still use leaded fuel, and the impact of the resulting IQ loss in these highly-trafficked routes is significant. “We find that aircraft-attributable lead contributes to $1.06 billion 2006 USD ($0.01–$11.6) in annual damages from lifetime earnings reductions, and that dynamic economy-wide methods result in damage estimates that are 54% larger.”

Elephants have evolved to be tuskless because of ivory poaching, a study finds. ““When we think about natural selection, we think about it happening over hundreds, or thousands, of years,” said Samuel Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington, who was not involved in the research. “The fact that this dramatic selection for tusklessness happened over 15 years is one of the most astonishing findings.””

Our hearts and brains are so tightly connected, studies have found, that when we hear the same story, our heart rates sync up. “The novel find­ing is that heart rate cor­re­la­tion be­tween sub­jects does not re­quire them to ac­tu­ally be in­ter­act­ing, or even be in the same place. They can be lis­ten­ing to sto­ries all alone at home, and their heart rate fluc­tu­a­tions will align with the story, and thus cor­re­late with other lis­ten­ers. It’s not the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween peo­ple but the story it­self that does the trick.”

Are We on the Verge of Chatting with Whales? “If Bronstein’s idea works, it is quite realistic to develop a system analogous to human language models that generates grammatically correct whale utterances. The next step would be an interactive chatbot that tries to engage in a dialogue with free-living whales. Of course, no one can say today whether the animals would accept it as a conversational partner. “Maybe they would just reply, ‘Stop talking such garbage!’” says Bronstein.”

Society

Pandora Papers: An offshore data tsunami. “The Pandora Papers investigation is the world’s largest-ever journalistic collaboration, involving more than 600 journalists from 150 media outlets in 117 countries. The investigation is based on a leak of confidential records of 14 offshore service providers that give professional services to wealthy individuals and corporations seeking to incorporate shell companies, trusts, foundations and other entities in low- or no-tax jurisdictions. The entities enable owners to conceal their identities from the public and sometimes from regulators. Often, the providers help them open bank accounts in countries with light financial regulation.”

The New Deal devalued home care workers. Advocates hope new legislation can undo that. “The low pay and lack of benefits is a legacy of racism baked into President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which left farm and domestic workers — many of them women, many people of color — out of the job and financial protections it offered. As Congress debates President Joe Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion Build Back Better legislation, which includes funds for home care and provisions that would make it easier for care workers to organize, advocates for caregivers say it’s a chance for the country to show new respect for their work and move toward compensating it fairly.”

Black Children Were Jailed for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Almost Nothing Happened to the Adults in Charge. “They would eventually estimate that kids had been wrongly arrested 500 times. And that was just for kids arrested by the sheriff’s office. This estimate didn’t account for other law enforcement agencies in the county that followed Davenport’s “process.” As for how many times the juvenile detention center had improperly locked up kids through its “filter system,” the lawyers estimated that number at 1,500.” A completely horrifying story that is entirely representative of America.

Indigenous Peoples' Day, as explained by Native Americans. “Indigenous Peoples’ Day advocates say the recognition helps correct a “whitewashed” American history that has glorified Europeans like Italian explorer Christopher Columbus who have committed violence against Indigenous communities. Native Americans have long criticized the inaccuracies and harmful narratives of Columbus’ legacy that credited him with his “discovery” of the Americas when Indigenous people were there first.” This is the first time the President has recognized it: a significant change.

Southlake school leader tells teachers to balance Holocaust books with 'opposing' views. “A top administrator with the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake advised teachers last week that if they have a book about the Holocaust in their classroom, they should also offer students access to a book from an “opposing” perspective, according to an audio recording obtained by NBC News.” The opposing perspective being ...?

The “Phone Disaster”. “For young Uyghurs like Qeyser, at first it seemed as though the People’s War would have nothing to do with him. But in the fall of 2014, administrators in Qeyser’s school called a general assembly and asked all the students to turn over their phones. Since he had shared a news article on WeChat about Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur intellectual who was sentenced to life in prison because he had published policy recommendations critical of the Chinese colonization of the Uyghur homeland, Qeyser was terrified. “I just pretended to be so calm. But my heart was beating through my chest. Fortunately the teacher who checked my WeChat did not look closely. But another friend was detained. He spent nine months in a detention center.””

Holiday Shopping 2021: Poorer Americans Plan Not to Spend This Season. “The survey, released Wednesday, shows that 11.5% of U.S. holiday shoppers say they plan not to spend anything on gifts and services this holiday. That’s up from 4.9% in 2020 and 2.9% the previous year. It’s the highest in at least 10 years.” Reflective of a giant, terrifying gap between rich and poor.

In-N-Out Burger isn't only opposed to vaccine mandates. It also supports anti-LGBTQ politics. “But for anyone who’s paid attention to the ins and outs of In-N-Out over the years, news that the fast-food chain refused to do the vaccine checks required by both counties should not have been a shock. Nor should its petulant response: “We refuse to become the vaccination police for any government.” The LGBTQ community has long been wary of the company, and with good reason.” I’ve been to In N Out for the last time.

Lawyer Who Won $9.5 Billion Settlement Against Chevron Reports to Prison. “In July, Judge Preska found Mr. Donziger guilty of all charges. On Oct. 1, Mr. Donziger was sentenced to six months in prison, a day after he asked the court to consider an opinion by independent United Nations experts that found his court-ordered home confinement of more than two years a violation of international human rights law.” This is a pretty outrageous sentence, and the details about the case are almost - but sadly not quite - unbelievable.

A C-Shaped Recovery? “This seems to me like a very important and very under-appreciated fact about the past two years. This is not just the first recession in which household income didn’t fall. It’s the first recession — in modern times, if not ever — that hit higher income families harder than low-income ones. So far, it looks less like a K-shaped recovery than a C-shaped one.”

Technology

Facebook released (and criticized) its research on how teens experience Instagram . “Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety, is scheduled to testify in front of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Thursday. The company is clearly worried about how it’s going to go. Worried enough, in fact, that it published two slide decks showing internal research on how teens experience Instagram, some of which informed the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files investigation.”

Being a tech whistleblower is dangerous and expensive. Now there’s a guide to the risks. “Pinterest whistleblower Ifeoma Ozoma, alongside whistleblower support agencies including Lioness, the Signals Network, Elite Strategy Global and the Whistleblowing International Network, launched a website intended to serve as a guide to helping workers across the tech industry decide if they want to speak publicly about an issue or story, and, if they do, plan strategies like Haugen’s.”

Banks and fintechs agree: It’s time for screen scraping to go. So what’s next? “Banks have complained that startups were essentially hacking into their systems to grab their customers’ data through screen scraping, while fintechs accused banks of selfishly restricting access to information that legally belongs to account holders.” The tech underlying the US financial system is absurd, and if it doesn’t terrify you, it should. It’s an accident waiting to happen. Stronger standards will lead to stronger security and a much better consumer experience.

Facebook banned me for life because I created the tool Unfollow Everything. “I still remember the feeling of unfollowing everything for the first time. It was near-miraculous. I had lost nothing, since I could still see my favorite friends and groups by going to them directly. But I had gained a staggering amount of control. I was no longer tempted to scroll down an infinite feed of content. The time I spent on Facebook decreased dramatically. Overnight, my Facebook addiction became manageable.”

How Facebook Hides How Terrible It Is With Hate Speech. “In public, Facebook seems to claim that it removes more than 90 percent of hate speech on its platform, but in private internal communications the company says the figure is only an atrocious 3 to 5 percent. Facebook wants us to believe that almost all hate speech is taken down, when in reality almost all of it remains on the platform.”

UX design has a dirty secret. “This confusion over the breadth and scope of user experience design can be seen in the misapplication of concepts and methodologies like Design Thinking. Design Thinking was developed as a consulting tool to help management take a more deliberate approach in innovating on new services and products. The model includes five steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. At face value, this seems like a robust approach, however Design Thinking is often adopted as a substitute for actual user-centered design, with activities being led internally and without users, ultimately resulting in UX Theatre.”

Software developers have stopped caring about reliability. “It’s hard to overstate just how much software developers have given the finger to reliability in the past 10 years or so. It’s for the simplest, silliest reasons, too, like those web forms. My web browser has been perfectly competent at submitting HTML forms for the past 28 years, but for some stupid reason some asshole developer decided to reimplement all of the form semantics in JavaScript, and now I can’t pay my electricity bill without opening up the dev tools. Imagine what it’s like to not know how to do that. Imagine if you were blind.”

City worker saw homeless people lined up to get $5 gift card for face scan uploaded to Google. “A new photo obtained by the Daily News shows another view of the line of homeless people who gathered in an Atlanta park last May to get $5 gift cards in exchange for 3-D facial scans uploaded to Google.” Article is from a couple of years ago, but is notable because this is part of the dataset being used to improve photography and recognition of people of color on the new Pixel devices.

What we can learn from "_why" the long lost open source developer. “Perhaps most importantly, he taught countless people the joy of programming. _why showed veteran coders and n00bs alike a curious, adventurous, and creative side of programming. He demonstrated that code could be more than just a form of technical problem solving: it could be a form of self-expression and of art.”

Trump’s site Truth Social broke software rules, says copyleft group. It turns out they forked Mastodon but are lying about it and aren’t complying with the AGPL: “Truth Social doesn’t comply with that license and, in fact, refers to its service as “proprietary.” Its developers apparently attempted to scrub references that would make the Mastodon connection clear — at one point listing a “sighting” of the Mastodon logo as a bug — but included direct references to Mastodon in the site’s underlying HTML alongside obvious visual similarities.”

Photoshop's journey to the web. “Over the last three years, Chrome has been working to empower web applications that want to push the boundaries of what’s possible in the browser. One such web application has been Photoshop. The idea of running software as complex as Photoshop directly in the browser would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago. However, by using various new standardized web technologies, Adobe has now brought a public beta of Photoshop to the web.” It’s amazing to me that this is possible - and I honestly question whether it’s really necessary. But I get that it makes a ton of sense for Chrome OS users in particular.

Facebook Papers: ‘History Will Not Judge Us Kindly’. “Facebook employees have long understood that their company undermines democratic norms and restraints in America and across the globe. Facebook’s hypocrisies, and its hunger for power and market domination, are not secret. Nor is the company’s conflation of free speech and algorithmic amplification. But the events of January 6 proved for many people—including many in Facebook’s workforce—to be a breaking point.”

Facebook prioritized ‘angry’ emoji reaction posts in news feeds. “Behind the scenes, Facebook programmed the algorithm that decides what people see in their news feeds to use the reaction emoji as signals to push more emotional and provocative content — including content likely to make them angry. Starting in 2017, Facebook’s ranking algorithm treated emoji reactions as five times more valuable than “likes,” internal documents reveal. The theory was simple: Posts that prompted lots of reaction emoji tended to keep users more engaged, and keeping users engaged was the key to Facebook’s business.” Much later, they turned the value of angry responses to zero - with no effect on Facebook’s engagement.

 

Introducing Untitled

This year, in conjunction with National Novel Writing Month, I’m kicking off my own writing project, Untitled.

Untitled is a serial novel that will be written to coincide with NaNoWriMo’s goals, but is likely to carry on beyond that limit. It’s also designed in such a way that it’s not the end of the world if I don’t hit 50,000 words in November. I’d rather explore ideas than chug frantically towards an arbitrary word goal.

I designed a simple site around it. I can write new chapters in markdown, and they’ll be rendered in the website with full navigation, as well as added to an RSS feed. Additionally, the RSS feed powers a mailing list, in case anyone wants to follow along via email.

The site framework is written in Next.js, which allows you to easily write server-side React-based sites. That also allowed me to use Node projects like marked and feed to easily spin up site components. You can check out how I’ve strung it together over on GitHub.

The site is hosted on Vercel’s free tier, which will rebuild and deploy the site every time I merge a commit to the main branch. So once I start writing, all I need to do is commit and save (which I could even do using GitHub’s web interface), and the new chapters will be public. In common with my blog, I use iA Writer to write all my markdown pieces.

Finally, as always, my feed-to-email pipeline is powered by ConvertKit. Unlike my blog, entries will be emailed to subscribers 30 minutes after publication.

And that’s it. What is the story? How will it progress? You’ll just have to follow along and see.