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

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Designing for Equity

I was delighted to be a part of the Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms bootcamp organized by NewsCatalyst and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, in partnership with the Google News Initiative. I was even more delighted to be working and presenting with Roxann Stafford, my former colleague at Matter. Her expertise and empathy made a huge impact on me then, and her ideas on designing for equity continue to be transformative for me.

By now, we know that human-centered design for products, services, and ventures is a good idea. Putting empathy at the center of our process, rather than naïve solutionizing based on our own experiences and whims, brings us to places where we're more deeply suppporting people. It's not about scratching our own itches and being the smartest people in the room; it's about talking to the people we're trying to help and letting our deepening understanding of their needs guide us. It's about listening and humility.

Obviously, who you choose to listen to matters. Roxann's observation is that to really serve your community, the people who get to design the process also matter. If a design thinking process is architected by people of privilege, the derived insights will be filtered through that privilege. If only a narrow demographic is performing human-centered tests, only that demographic gets to design hypotheses, and only their questions will be answered. The only way to achieve real equity is to invite people to be co-designers and co-owners of the process, and of the outcomes.

The workshop we co-facilitated was a first taste of these ideas, for an invite-only audience of practitioners from small newsrooms around the world. I'm hoping I'll get to do more of these. And while I was a contributor, these ideas are Roxann's instigation: I hope she'll have a suitable platform to share them more widely.

 

Drawing

I've been drawing a lot again lately. They're just for me - time that's completely my own to make something without any expectation of productivity. It feels really good, and completely different to my tech work or other writing. In some ways, more me.

I've been posting to my Instagram, but it feels wrong to not keep a record on my own site, too.

 

What can we do?

I saw the footage of fascists marching in Washington DC yesterday, chanting "reclaim America". I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling helpless. What can we do, really?

We can do a lot. And we must.

Indivisible has a good page about how to stand against white supremacy. It's a kind of primer for how one might begin to think about the topic. I think one document - Tools for White Guys who are Working for Social Change … and other people socialized in a society based on domination - is particularly strong.

As I write this, I'm in Philadelphia to co-facilitate a workshop on designing for equity with the great Roxann Stafford, who taught me a great deal when we were both working at Matter. Our audience is local newsrooms from around the world. In a world where democracy is threatened by authoritarians who wield xenophobia and nationalism as weapons, we need journalism that addresses the needs, and amplifies the voices, of vulnerable communities more than ever. I'm excited to listen and learn.

The biggest thing we need to do is listen to the people who are affected most - not just in the current moment, but by generations of institutional discrimination. And then we need to stand alongside them, make space for their leadership, and ensure they are heard and empowered everywhere, in every aspect of life.

It sickens me to see racists and nationalists marching on our streets. But if we sit back and do nothing, we're complicit. We've all got to do something.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: January 2020

Every month in 2019, I rounded up the books and notable articles I'd read. This year, I'm expanding that to include the streaming media and apps that I meaningfully engaged with.

As ever, none of the links below are affiliate programs or were added for payment. I just want to recommend stuff I found interesting.

Books

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson. Ruthlessly honest; sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking. A wonderful novel about race, identity, and family, delivered with incredible wit and insight. I couldn't recommend it more.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo. I found this a difficult read, but was immediately kind of ashamed that I hadn't read it earlier. I think all white people should consider picking it up, and really thinking not just about the substance of its arguments, but the way it feels to read them. Powerful, important, but just one step on what has to be a much longer journey.

Apps

Duolingo. We have a league at work, which I fell into accidentally. When I was seven years old, we lived in Austria for a year, and I almost became fluent in German. I've always felt guilty about dropping that ability. Duolingo genuinely makes it easy to learn something new every day, and I've found those language skills coming back. It's a little buggy, but it does the job.

Blinkist. I love reading, but I find business books in particular to be kind of padded out and interminable. Often they could have quite happily been a long-form article. So for those books, I'm experimenting with using these Sparks Notes instead. So far so good. (And I can happily spend more time reading the novels and non-fiction books I want to read, instead of the ones I feel I should. No shame here.)

Streaming

Doctor Who Season 12. Jodie Whitaker is brilliant, and the whole season so far has been one of the best in years. Yes, I'm a lifelong, die-hard Whovian, but this year's stories have made me very very happy. Side note: I'm loving that a bug in Rotten Tomatoes means their description for this season reads as follows: "Alongside Sarah and Harry Sullivan, the Fourth Doctor tries to avert the genesis of the Daleks and in deep space he faces Cybermen, Vogans and the deadly Wirrn!" That Doctor Who Season 12 started its run in 1974. This one is right up there.

Star Trek: Picard. As someone who really hated the JJ Abrams Kelvin timeline movies, I'm pretty excited about Star Trek's renaissance on CBS All Access. (Some fans hated Discovery; I was emphatically not one of them.) This isn't at all Star Trek: The Next Generation, despite sharing some characters. It's something new, very much for adults, that (so far) touches on identity, personal meaning, and tolerance.

The Good Place. The first season was fine; it then evolved into the kind of show that feels comfortable discussing philosophical constructs within the bounds of a 30 minute comedy - and is smart enough to. The finale was outstanding.

Dark: Season 2. If you haven't encountered Dark yet, I'm jealous. This is intricate and literary science fiction. Just don't watch the dubbed version.

Fleabag: Season 2. I finally finished watching it in January. Season 1 was great, but honestly a bit like a smarter Peep Show (which, hey, I also love); the second season is like watching theater, in the best possible way.

The Heart. Revamped and beautiful, the new iteration of this podcast describes itself as "an audio art project about intimacy and humanity". It's edgier and more overtly queer, with a more experimental sound. And its pulse is racing. I'm really glad I kept my subscription, even when the old podcast went dead.

Notable Articles

Politics

Exclusive: Unredacted Ukraine Documents Reveal Extent of Pentagon’s Legal Concerns. “Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.” Just one of the many sets of documents Republicans didn't want the public to see.

Fresh Cambridge Analytica leak ‘shows global manipulation is out of control’.  They worked in 68 countries. “I’m very fearful about what is going to happen in the US election later this year, and I think one of the few ways of protecting ourselves is to get as much information out there as possible.”

Report: Trump Cited GOP Senate Impeachment Pressure As Reason to Kill Soleimani. "This would not mean Trump ordered the strike entirely, or even primarily, in order to placate Senate Republicans. But it does constitute an admission that domestic political considerations influenced his decision. That would, of course, constitute a grave dereliction of duty."

American history textbooks can differ across the country, in ways that are shaded by partisan politics. We're living in different worlds - and the way we teach perpetuates this. The  differences are shocking.

Not a Joke: Trump Is Looking Into Making Bribery Legal. It's hard to know where to look anymore.

Meet the Boy Scouts of the Border Patrol. No unsettling historical analogues here; none at all.

Andrew Yang and the New American Tories. "Yang seems to uniquely attract this kind of person — the recently established and self-regarding. His supporters include Tesla founder Elon Musk, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, rapper and actor Donald Glover, who threw an impromptu concert for Yang in December, Weezer lead singer Rivers Cuomo, and actor Nicolas Cage. They all in one way or another belong to a previous age, in which the pretensions of wealth and talent were given more deference."

Culture & Society

I’ve Talked With Teenage Boys About Sexual Assault for 20 Years. This Is What They Still Don’t Know. "Teenage boys are hungry for practical conversations about sex. They want to know the rules. They want to be the good guy, the stand-up, honorable dude. Their intentions might be good, but their ignorance is dangerous. Our society has begun talking a bit more openly about these issues, but that doesn’t mean teenage boys suddenly have all the information they need."

Installing air filters in classrooms has surprisingly large educational benefits. A $1,000 air filter "can raise a class’s test scores by as much as cutting class size by a third." So we should do this everywhere.

Read all about it – the truth about British colonialism. Britain is really bad at talking about the  horrors of the Empire. I love that these students set out to do something about it, Yes Men style.

The Anti-War, Pro-Animal Rights, Colonialist History of Doctor Dolittle's Creation. "Even though Lofting’s work espoused revolutionary views toward animal rights, it was regressive when it came to issues of race. The original Doctor Dolittle books are rife with racist tropes and colonialism, both in the writing and illustrations. (The Story of Doctor Dolittle features a storyline about a black prince who begs Dolittle to turn him white.)"

The Amish Keep to Themselves. And They’re Hiding a Horrifying Secret. "Over the past year, I’ve interviewed nearly three dozen Amish people, in addition to law enforcement, judges, attorneys, outreach workers, and scholars. I’ve learned that sexual abuse in their communities is an open secret spanning generations."

People are seeing ‘Cats’ while high out of their minds. These are their stories. Honestly, getting high isn't usually my thing, but I wish I'd done this.

Study: Men are more emotional than women at work. Not shocked.

How the Bay Was Built. I'm new to this: "a community archive of documents about the Bay Area, focused on race and housing" that Alexis Madrigal published last year. It's a fascinating look at the history of the Bay Area.

How 17 Outsize Portraits Rattled a Small Southern Town. The amazing, very human story of an art project that celebrated inclusion, and how it affected the residents in a small, Trump-leaning town.

Higher minimum wages are linked to lower suicide rates. People need more support, end of story.

Tech

Citizen journalism platform uses Bluetooth to bring news to media dark villages in India. This is a super-cool project in every way. I wish there was more funding and support available for these kinds of endeavors.

Students Are Campaigning to Ban Facial Recognition From College Campuses. "Students should not have to trade their right to privacy for an education, and no one should be forced to unwittingly participate in a surveillance program which will likely include problematic elements of law enforcement." Power to them. This kind of use of face recognition should be heavily regulated at the very least.

Meet The Viral Icons Of Twitter. Joke Twitter (and its close cousin, Weird Twitter) is a pretty  wonderful internet subculture that reminds me of the old-school web.

Helen Leigh: “Art shouldn’t be only for those who can afford to make it”. I'm so proud of my friend Helen. Completely inspiring.

The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication. "How do we keep everyone in the loop without everyone getting tangled in everyone else's business? It's all in here." Some really great principles for intra-company communication. I'm in too many meetings; I don't believe that it's the same as being productive. This list appeals to me a lot.

Opera: Phantom of the Turnaround – 70% Downside. Opera (the browser company) has started making money through predatory lending. A surreal and sad result of a bad acquisition.

The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It. Dystopian but inevitable. Everyone who works on this kind of software should be ashamed. And our legislature needs to catch up to our technological reality.

The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure. I very strongly think this needs to happen. Public service digital media is an important counterbalance to the exponential capitalism we see dominating the internet today.

Exclusive: Apple dropped plan for encrypting backups after FBI complained - sources. When I posted this on Twitter I got some backlash, but no, this is a silent change to their stated policy. And it makes me trust Apple significantly less.

United States of Surveillance. "The patchwork of U.S. surveillance laws has proven ineffective at countering terrorism, instead turning citizens into suspects." A really great, in-depth overview of its history and implications.

You Are Now Remotely Controlled. "In the absence of new declarations of epistemic rights and legislation, surveillance capitalism threatens to remake society as it unmakes democracy. From below, it undermines human agency, usurping privacy, diminishing autonomy and depriving individuals of the right to combat. From above, epistemic inequality and injustice are fundamentally incompatible with the aspirations of a democratic people."

Health-Records Company Pushed Opioids to Doctors in Secret Deal With Drugmaker. Practice Fusion made a deal with a company that looks like Purdue to push a drug that looks like it was OxyContin. Imagine being the entrepreneurs or the coders who built this. They need to go to jail.

Rich people can't build social networks. Bad headline (they can and do), but an important story about a really dumb-looking new network called Column, from some Thiel associates, and a guy who is chummy with the founder of the Proud Boys. With its focus on celebrities, it's like an online Fyre Festival. MIT Technology Review has a more journalistic take on the story.

 

Brexit and me

This will probably be my last post about Brexit.

I'll lose the ability to live in the country I grew up in three hours from the moment I'm sat at my desk writing this. You'll probably read this after it has happened. I'm doing fine and have the privilege of being able to live in a lot of places. But I can’t say it doesn't feel like a tragedy. I feel great sadness at the loss.

Brexit is a misguided act of self-sabotage. It was fueled by xenophobia and nationalism. It’s infuriating. But for right now, I miss my friends just a little bit more.

Could I have become a British citizen? Yes, but not without losing a nationality. I chose not to do that. I accept that I had that ability, and didn't use it. But in my defense, during my decades in the UK I honestly didn't think a referendum like 2016's was possible, or that a day like today would come to pass.

I'm sad, too, for the idea of a multicultural society with global horizons. I do think that's where the world is going. We're all becoming a bit more mixed; steadily a bit more diverse. I think that's to everyone's benefit. But today is undeniably a setback, and the rise of nationalism worldwide is also a setback.

I don't think there is any merit in nationalism, or the bigotry that inevitably accompanies it. There are no saving graces in small island mentalities. We're all citizens of the world, whether we like it or not. And I believe - strongly - in a world where everyone gets to feel the benefit of that.

We'll get there. But not today.

 

The worst mistake startups make

I co-founded two startups (once as CTO, and once as CEO). I was the first employee at two more (CTO and VP of Product Development). I’ve helped to source and invest in 24 more startups, and have advised 75. Right now I’m the Head of Engineering at ForUsAll, a Series B fintech company. Throughout this journey, I’ve made the same mistake multiple times - and seen far more founders follow suit.

Unlock to read more ...

 

Trying something new

I'm running an experiment with Julien Genestoux, CEO of Unlock. You might remember that I was the VP of Product Development there until last August - I'm very proud of the technology we worked on, and I'm excited about what the team has worked on since.

Starting with my next post, one long-form piece a week will be locked for members. It will always be a piece about the intersection of technology and democracy, breaking down a part of the market and discussing the implications. Meanwhile, Julien is locking his posts too - so by unlocking membership on one site, you'll have access to both. Access to all locked posts on both sites, as well as locked posts on anyone else's site who joins the bundle in the future, will cost $5 a year.

Unlock is a decentralized protocol that allows anyone to monetize their site without going through a third-party platform. It's as distributed as the web itself. And it's more flexible than most solutions - which is why it's incredibly easy for Julien and I to bundle our content together, even though we're running completely independent sites on two different platforms. You can either pay using a credit card or with cryptocurrency (using either Ethereum or something called a stablecoin, which is equivalent to a stable dollar value).

We're using it as a paywall, but you can use it to build any kind of monetization strategy or test, including patronage, mailing lists, tickets to real-world or virtual events, and more. It's worth taking a closer look.

Or just wait for my next post to see how easy it is.

 

After the debate

I'm still hopeful for a progressive candidate. There are two to choose from. I'm still planning on voting for Warren in the primary.

America is a fundamentally conservative country by policy, but I don't believe this is the case by population. There's a reason why Bernie Sanders is America's most popular serving politician (according to 11 polls in a row). The electoral college and our weird post-civil-war systems of representation have created a tyranny of the minority.

Beyond the obviousness of the Trump administration's deficiencies, I find American conservative values to be completely unacceptable. I'd love to find someone on the Republican side who I share any ground at all with, but I haven't been able to. Consistently, it's the party of corruption, racism, bigotry, fundamentalist religion, and abusing the poor. There's nothing there for me.

Similarly, the center path. Centrists in America are far to the right of centrists in most countries. Perhaps they're more balanced between the two ends of the spectrum, but those two ends are not equally weighted. The systemic injustices in this country are so pronounced and ingrained that accepting their continued existence is bigotry in itself. And American nationalism is so rancid that it demands a strong rejection.

Anyone who's lived in any other developed nation for any length of time - and if you have the means, everyone should - can see through the common lies. I know what living with universal healthcare looks and feels like, and I know that it enabled my entrepreneurial career. (I could not care less about turfing people off their existing plans; a universal plan will be better.) I know what free university looks and feels like, and I know that living without significant student debt allowed me to make riskier decisions that created millions of dollars in value. And I know that America is not the only, or even the most, democratically free country in the world.

We don't lose freedoms by having stronger social infrastructure: we make the majority of Americans more free. These protections will create jobs, enable entrepreneurship, and build a stronger economy. The only thing we curtail is the right of the very wealthy to build their wealth in a way that harms the majority. As Warren rightly puts it: capitalism without rules is theft. And it's time we built an environment where the rules serve the people of this country. We don't have that today - but it's within our grasp.

I roll my eyes at flag-waving bullshit, but I believe that a truly progressive America really would be the best country in the world. But we have to build it. And we can.

 

On the Plaid acquisition

Yesterday, Plaid announced it was being acquired by Visa for $5.3 billion ($4.9 billion in cash, and $400 million in retention equity). It took me by surprise: I expected Plaid to continue to grow as an independent platform. Still, given that its Series C put it at roughly a $2.65 billion valuation, it represents a decent (if not spectacular) return for its investors.

Plaid is an integration platform for fintech: it makes it significantly easier for platforms to connect to banking institutions. As Ben Thompson wrote in Stratechery, this is a really big deal:

Many banks in the U.S. do not have APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that offer a programmatic means of accessing a particular account; those that do are not consistent with each other in either implementation or in features. Plaid gets around this by effectively acting as a deputy for consumers: the latter give Plaid their username and password for their bank account, and Plaid utilizes that to basically log in to a bank’s website on the user’s behalf.

Nearly 25% of US banking customers have stored their banking credentials with Plaid, whether they realize it or not. It's what powers banking connections for Venmo, Coinbase, Acorns, and other major fintech apps.

The mechanism that Ben described is literally scraping: Plaid uses a programmable "headless" browser to pretend to be a user, log in, and perform actions on the Plaid user's behalf. These connections are inherently flaky and tricky to keep up to date: if a bank's user interface changes, the integration is likely to need to be rewritten. Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of institutions that don't have APIs, and it's a significant, full-time undertaking. Rather them than me.

"Rather them than me" for valuable tasks is a pretty good basis for a platform business.

These institutions often, for very good security reasons, do their best to block scrapers, usig services like Distil Networks. That means that anyone who wants to build a scraping integration will need to be whitelisted. And it's far less likely for Joe Schmo and his new, unknown fintech startup to get whitelisted than Plaid. When I spoke to Plaid on the phone recently, they told me that around 85% of its integrations had underlying relationships. Which implies that up to around 15% don't - an incredible statistic in itself, which is indicative of the technological state of the US financial industry.

As Ben points out, that inertia is possibly understandable from the point of view of the banks:

As long as it is hard to move money around, the more likely it is that that money will stay in the bank, collecting minuscule interest; or, if customers need value-added services, the path of lowest resistance will be simply getting them from their bank.

An API-based world where data sharing is possible changes that situation dramatically, and allows for a new wave of innovation in financial technology, where anyone can build services around anyone's bank account. And at the center will be Visa, taking a cut and doubtless learning from everyone's financial connections.

By lowering the friction to integrating with existing institutions, Plaid also entrenches the legacy banking system. The easier it is for fintech startups to work with traditional banking, the less likely they are to move to truly alternative systems. In a way, it allows them to protect against any threat posed by peer to peer currencies and the emerging decentralized ecosystem. In a world where Visa controls connectivity to fintech applications, any crypto network or alternative network who wants to reach those apps will need to make a deal with them and abide by their rules.

It's a good buy for them, although I wish we could see a world where Plaid continued to run as a completely independent company, free from the strings associated with legacy financial institutions.

If you're interested, the whole Visa / Plaid deck is worth a read.

 

41 Things

One. Today is my birthday. I’m forty-one years old. That one’s for free, phishers.

Two. My first memory is walking down a street in Amsterdam with my parents. A cobbler’s sign with wooden clogs hangs high above us. On street level, I loop and soar my red plastic aeroplane. A bigger kid with round, Dutch cheeks snatches it out of my hands and runs off with it. I haven’t yet begun to speak, and I watch as he disappears, unable to tell my parents what has happened.

Three. I like “two truths and a lie”. It’s a party game. You declare three “facts” about you, two of which are true, and the other people playing the game have to guess the lie. I always include this: when I was a small child, Albanian seamstresses lined up to pinch my cheeks, while my parents stood helplessly despite my tears, unwilling to cause an international incident. That one’s true.

Four. When I was eleven years old, my family spent the year in Durham, North Carolina. We house-swapped with an abortion doctor - a beautiful home, which would sometimes be egged, backing onto a lake full of catfish. We weren’t allowed to hang out in the front rooms of the house, just in case.

Five. We lived in Vienna when I was seven, which was also the year that Chernobyl blew. The weather forecast included rain and fallout numbers. Austria’s radioactivity was always mysteriously lower than the countries around it. We ate a lot of food imported from countries that were further away, like canned tuna and kiwi juice.

Six. I realized the other day that I’ve lived in the United States continuously for longer than I’ve continuously lived anywhere at any other time in my life. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Seven. I’m lying. I know exactly how I feel about that. It’s weird.

Eight. I don’t want to feel tethered down. But not wanting to feel tethered down is its own kind of ideological prison. Does that make sense?

Nine. I’ve learned to hate the question “where are you from?”. I always hedge and say something like: “it’s complicated, but I grew up in England.” Even that isn’t completely true. I used to say “I’m from the internet” as both a joke and a deflection, but the internet is tainted now. There’s no accepted answer because I don’t fit into any of those boxes.

Ten. Where am I from? I’m from the experiences that made me. The relationships and joy and struggle of being human. I’m not from a place. The place is irrelevant. You might as well ask me where I last bought a sandwich.

Eleven. I have a piece of paper that tells me I’m an American, among other things. Administratively, that’s true.

Twelve. I don’t know if I qualify as a real third culture kid. TCKs are people who grew up in a culture that was not theirs nor either of their parents. The definition technically fits. But often, third culture kids grew up in military families or were the children of international businesspeople, moving throughout their entire childhoods. My parents were perpetual students, but we didn’t move all that much in comparison.

Thirteen. Still, the culture I grew up in was my family’s, not my country’s (or any country’s). I don’t know how different that is to everyone else. Maybe it’s not really any different at all. But some people seem to feel rooted in what they consider to be their country of origin. They’re proud of it, even.

Fourteen. For me, home is people. It’s not a place.

Fifteen. I last bought a sandwich in downtown San Francisco, near where I work, in the pouring rain. I took it back and ate it at my desk, against all my own advice, scooping crumbs from my desk as my jeans slowly dried.

Sixteen. I’ve decided not to celebrate my birthday this year. Last year I threw a big party: live bands and an open bar in downtown Oakland. A lot more people came than I was expecting. It carried me through most of the year. I realized I have a lot of people in my life who I care about, and who care about me. That’s a good feeling: a deep affirmation. But it’s also deeply vulnerable, in a way.

Seventeen. My sandwich was the same order I used to get in Oxford, and in Edinburgh, and in Berkeley. Roast turkey with salad, mayo, mustard. It’s not the same sandwich, but it is. The idea of the sandwich is the same, even if the ingredients are drawn from different places and assembled in different ways. It’s identifiably the same turkey sandwich I always get, but my order has been reflected through the context of my current location and the experiences of the person making it. It’s an expression of my memory, sculpted through my present, and it’s an expression of the constellation of people who made the ingredients and assembled it.

Eighteen. I may be overthinking my lunch. Bear with me.

Nineteen. People are home, but life is a journey. The people you meet and know change as your life changes. The intersection of context and experience is in flux. Home isn’t a static idea. It’s always moving.

Twenty. They say that the human body refreshes itself roughly every seven years. Old cells die; new cells replace them. In reality, every part of your body is on a different cycle. In some parts of the body, it’s a day or two. Others last as long as a decade. And some cells stay with you your entire life. You’re a changing combination of old and new cells every living moment of every day, but your old body is never completely gone.

Twenty-one. The chromosomes in a cell are protected by their tips, which are called telomeres. Every time a cell divides, your telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell enters a state called senescence, in which it can no longer divide. Eventually it stops functioning. 

Twenty-two. The ribonucleoprotein telomerase helps to protect your telomeres as your cells divide. In people with conditions that affect production of telomerase, their telomeres aren’t protected, and parts of their body where the cells refresh faster enter senescence sooner.

Twenty-three. Like, for example, my mother’s lungs.

Twenty-four. Most of my cells were made since I moved to California. Most of the body I had when I lived my life in England, and in Scotland, is gone.

Twenty-five. But some of it was with me when that boy stole my plane on the streets of Amsterdam, and when Chernobyl melted down, and when I had my first meaningful kiss, and when I thought I was going to die young.

Twenty-six. I’d say I’m not going to die young, but who really knows? The medical science today doesn’t think so. They have a theory about a genetic variant, which I was tested for, and don’t have. But the medical science tomorrow might disagree. 

Twenty-seven. And at any rate, there’s nothing to say that I won’t be hit by a bus, or contract a different terminal disease, or be caught in a freak accident. These things happen all the time. It would be wrong to cower in fear worrying about them, but it would also be wrong to put off all the joy and beauty of living until later. What I’ve learned is: you don’t know what’s going to happen. So while you can, live.

Twenty-eight. Deciding how to live is hard. There is more than one kind of sandwich.

Twenty-nine. What does it mean to live? People talk about living up to your potential, but how do you know what your potential is? Why do you have just one potential, instead of a galaxy of parallel potentials, or none? And who says you have to live up to any of them? It seems like a kind of trap: try and realize an externally-imposed vision of your life, in the process ignoring your own happiness and the beautiful serendipity of being human.

Thirty. I don’t want to adhere to someone else’s expectations of who I should be. I don’t want to put those same kinds of expectations on anyone else.

Thirty-one. I was never good at joining things. My friends were part of the Sea Scouts, and I didn’t want to be a part of it because they all wore a uniform, literally and figuratively. Another friend’s dad ran a children’s theater group, which I should have loved, but I was scared of it. In retrospect, I think I was scared of not fitting in, and of people laughing at me because I was different. There was precedent.

Thirty-two. Sometimes we do terrible things to each other, whether we want to or not. The best we can do is to be mindful, and to resist.

Thirty-three. I wish I could be braver, sometimes. I’m trying.

Thirty-four. Someone once told me that not wanting to be like everybody else was arrogance. By rejecting conformity, I was saying that those values weren’t good enough for me, and that I was saying I was better than people who chose to assimilate. I think about that a lot. I think about it differently: I just don’t think I’m very good at assimilation. And I don’t think anyone should have to be.

Thirty-five. I’m drawn to people who are unafraid to be themselves. Often they’re LGBTQIA+ and conformity would mean denying a fundamental truth about who they are. Or they’re a third culture kid who’s trying to find their own way. There are many other boxes to not fit into. It always takes bravery. It shouldn’t have to. But like I said, sometimes we do terrible things to each other.

Thirty-six. I value allyship more than anything. Home is people. Safe spaces are people, too. Not all people. But the right ones.

Thirty-seven. Just as cells divide, our lives and the essence of who we are are driven by change and flux. Just as my cells from a decade ago have been replaced, I’m a different person. My experiences, fears, loves, and values have refreshed, even if the core of me has been there my entire life.

Thirty-eight. We’re asked to make money, to collect material goods, to assimilate. Who is that in the interests of?

Thirty-nine. Home and safety are love are not to be found in your potential, or in conformity to what other people say you should aspire to. And we are not the same as the people in our memories. Telomerase protects cells as they refresh. Community - your family, your friends, your allies - protect the essence of who you are. 

Forty. Condos and Teslas and conspicuous consumption aren’t success. Wealth isn’t success. Safety is success, but more than that, success is happiness in your own skin, embracing life’s constant change and flux, and having a community that inspires and encourages you even when times are hard. As I turn forty-one, I’m grateful to have those things.

Forty-one. I love life. I love you. Onwards.

 

Predictions for journalism 2020

NiemanLab is publishing its annual predictions for journalism. They're all worth reading, but here are a few highlights:

Jennifer Brandel imagines a letter from 2073:

What’s interesting is that, back then, people thought of news as something that was produced and distributed out of a place. That’s why they called it a news “room.” They used to conceive of it as containable, in a single brand or physical location where a set group of people worked to pull information in from the outside and then redistribute it elsewhere, often to whoever could afford to pay for it.

Joanne McNeil suggests that blogs will have a resurgence:

Blogs offer the potential to broadcast, but not too broadly. We might even see a breakdown where newsletters begin to focus more on individual personal stories and daily digests, while blogs will fill in the gaps of all that might be written about otherwise.

Jake Shapiro describes how podcasts will build community:

Podcasting may seem like a reach medium — with significant audiences for the biggest shows — but it really shines as a depth medium. The most valuable quality is listeners’ deep connection to the voices and stories in their ears.

Heather Bryant suggests that not all journalism is worth saving:

The question of how we save journalism (meaning newsrooms) will begin to shift to how do we save journalism (meaning the process). How we answer that question will have a profound impact on the management of newsrooms, the business models we develop, the processes we adapt, and the service we provide.

Kourtney Bitterly believes transparency is the key to regaining trust:

In order to build trust, news organizations must let people in on the processes and people that bring stories to life.

Cristina Kim describes how important it is to define audiences beyond "everybody":

The truth is that when we make audio news and content — both in public radio and beyond — for an imagined “everybody,” we’re just making it for white, cisgender, heterosexual audiences of a particular class and education, and centering their experience and perspectives.

And finally, this guy suggests it's time to stop looking to tech companies (or any other kind of magic spell) to save journalism:

Here’s the bad news: No one is coming to save you. No business is going to swoop in and provide sustainable funding for newsrooms. No new technology is going to transform the way journalism supports itself forever. No big, incredible deal is going to build a strong foundation for the news. There isn’t a single magic bullet that will work for everyone. Even producing groundbreaking journalism isn’t going to suddenly turn your fortunes around.

You can read the full list here.

 

We all deserve freedom from surveillance

I came across this video from Skylark Labs today: automated identification of suspicious activity in a crowd via drone. Of course, neither the drone nor the system is really thinking: it's simply drawing on an existing corpus of data in order to draw conclusions. We already know that machine learning algorithms are often biased against black people; there is nothing to suggest that anything will be different here.

But even if these systems were completely accurate, their presence should be unwelcome to all of us.

As granular, algorithmic surveillance becomes more popular, it’s going to become more dangerous to act in a way that sits outside the expectations of dumb machine learning algorithms. You’ll attract more scrutiny from people we can’t expect to have nuance or compassion.

Even if you trust the administrators of algorithmic surveillance to be just, which based on the activities of law enforcement as we know it is a stretch, every person should have the right to an unobserved life. Without freedom from surveillance, we are not free.

People who build surveillance technologies for any purpose - whether law enforcement or advertising - are complicit in building tyranny. In 2020, we’ve got to get serious about forcing technology to protect our freedoms, through technical, social, and legislative means.

 

Here's what I read in December

Books

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood. A sequel to The Handmaid's Tale that deepens the story and modernizes some of its themes. Deeply feminist, utterly gripping, absolutely essential. One of the best books I read this year.

We the Corporations, by Adam Winkler. The history of corporate rights in America (and earlier), and how those rights have been used to allow corporations to resist regulation. Honestly, I found it a depressing read, but it's a well-written, important story that cuts to the core of American society.

Notable Articles

Best science fiction and fantasy books of 2019. AKA my to-read list.

A Better Internet Is Waiting for Us. "The legacy of social media will be a world thirsty for new kinds of public experiences. To rebuild the public sphere, we’ll need to use what we’ve learned from billion-dollar social experiments like Facebook, and marginalized communities like Black Twitter. We’ll have to carve out genuinely private spaces too, curated by people we know and trust."

After an Amazon Worker Was Crushed to Death by a Forklift, Regulators Helped Cover It Up. "After Amazon appealed citations and fines for the incident, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb quietly overturned those citations to lure Amazon's second headquarters to Indiana." Unforgivable.

Grinding. In startups, slow and steady wins the race - and there's almost never a magical deal or a silver bullet strategy change that will turn everything around.

Facebook Gives Workers a Chatbot to Appease That Prying Uncle. Facebook wrote a bot to help its employees figure out what to say to family members who were concerned about its activities. I'd say this is a pretty good sign it's time to take a step back and re-assess their choices.

TikTok prevented disabled users’ videos from showing up in feeds. Allegedly the policy was to protect users who had a high risk of bullying - but it seems pretty clear that there was more going on here. At any rate, the effect was alarmingly discriminatory.

McKinsey & Company: Capital’s Willing Executioners. "The firm’s willingness to work with despotic governments and corrupt business empires is the logical conclusion of seeking profit at all costs. Its advocacy of the primacy of the market has made governments more like businesses and businesses more like vampires. By claiming that they solve the world’s hardest problems, McKinsey shrinks the solution space to only those that preserve the status quo. And it is through this claim that the firm attracts thousands of “the best and the brightest” away from careers that actually serve the public."

How McKinsey Helped the Trump Administration Carry Out Its Immigration Policies. Savings measures McKinsey identified were sometimes seen as being too harsh on immigrants by ICE staff.

Lawyers and Scholars to LexisNexis, Thomson Reuters: Stop Helping ICE Deport People. "Lawyers, students, and scholars called on legal database providers to end their contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security, and private surveillance contractor Palantir, saying the arrangements put universities and immigration lawyers in the untenable position of feeding money and even information into systems that facilitate deportation."

We ran the numbers, and there really is a pipeline problem in eng hiring. "As you can see, it’s not possible to hit our goals, whether or not we’re biased against women at any point in the hiring process. [...] Outside of alternative education programs, the most obvious thing we can do to increase the supply of qualified women engineers is to expand our pipeline to include strong engineers who don’t hail from top schools or top companies." My first act when I took my current Head of Engineering position was to burn the hiring process.

Antitrust Revival, a Reading List. Tim Wu's list of books and articles on anti-trust reform. I believe the current anti-trust movement is one of the most important forces for equality and democracy.

Does Who You Are at 7 Determine Who You Are at 63? I'm excited to see 63 Up. Arguably there's never been a more ambitious documentary film series.

A letter from Larry and Sergey. Their farewell is really just a continuation of a long-term process, but it's fascinating to have followed their journey more or less from the beginning.

A Private Report Alerts Swiss Banks and Their Billionaire Customers About a Warren Presidency. Good. I really hope she gets to be President.

What the C.I.A.’s Torture Program Looked Like to the Tortured. These drawings should be studied by every American. This is what our country is, whether we like it or not. And we shouldn't like it at all.

Anguish and Anger From the Navy SEALs Who Turned In Edward Gallagher. "“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, said in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, told the investigators."

Emotional baggage. "Away’s founders sold a vision of travel and inclusion, but former employees say it masked a toxic work environment." As it turned out, this story was carefully timed to coincide with the announcement of the new CEO shortly afterwards.

Splintered Isle: A Journey Through Brexit Britain. This was eye-opening for me. Both a beautiful, human portrait, and an explanation of how unregulated capitalism paved the way for Brexit. Nationalism and xenophobia are never the answer. But this piece goes some way to better explaining how vulnerable communities could be led down that path.

Lovers in Auschwitz, Reunited 72 Years Later. He Had One Question. "Was she the reason he was alive today?" A tale of lost love reunited, questions answered, and a horror that will continue to echo for generations.

At war with the truth. "U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress [in the war in Afghanistan]. They were not, and they knew it, an exclusive Post investigation found. [...] A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable." Echoes of Vietnam. This is not just one article, but 2,000 pages of interviews and much more. This was a crime, and it's shocking that more hasn't been made of it.

How William Gibson Keeps His Science Fiction Real. "“With each set of three books, I’ve commenced with a sort of deep reading of the fuckedness quotient of the day,” he explained. “I then have to adjust my fiction in relation to how fucked and how far out the present actually is.”"

Still Asleep at the Wheel. "According to our analysis, 37% of the charter schools that were funded by CSP during those years either never opened (11%) or opened and then closed (26%). That figure is the result of our confirmation of the status of nearly 5000 charter schools that received funds from CSP." Charter schools are a distraction. Let's build a better public school system instead.

Made in America: White House veterans helped Gulf monarchy build secret surveillance unit. "Between 2012 and 2015, individual teams were tasked with hacking into entire rival governments, as the program’s focus shifted from counterterrorism to espionage against geopolitical foes, documents show."

Greta Thunberg Is TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year. And rightly so.

Men and white people believe the news is less reliable now than it was in the past. Women and people of color think it’s gotten more reliable. Hopefully this points to better representation.

The blood of poor Americans is now a leading export, bigger than corn or soy. " One study found that the typical blood-seller derives a third of their income from selling blood. Princeton's Kathryn Edin called the commercial blood industry the lifeblood of the $2 a day poor." People need help and we're not giving it to them.

How I Get By: A Week in the Life of a McDonald’s Cashier. "The bus was late today, and it reminds me to get back to saving for a car. I used to have one, but I couldn’t keep up with my car note or insurance with my McDonald’s paycheck. I’ve been trying to save towards a car, but every time I save money, I have to use it. It feels like I'm not getting anywhere. I figure I need at least a $1,000 down payment. I had about $300 saved, but I had to use it to get groceries, pay my phone bill, and get back, and forth to work. So I’m back at zero. I’m thinking about this while I deliver meal trays to patients."

Unmasking the secret landlords buying up America. "America’s cities are being bought up, bit by bit, by anonymous shell companies using piles of cash. Modest single-family homes, owned for generations by families, now are held by corporate vehicles with names that appear to be little more than jumbles of letters and punctuation – such as SC-TUSCA LLC, CNS1975 LLC – registered to law offices and post office boxes miles away. New glittering towers filled with owned but empty condos look down over our cities, as residents below struggle to find any available housing."

How a cheap, brutally efficient grocery chain is upending America's supermarkets. I'm actually a pretty big fan of this model - particularly in a world where many Americans struggle to buy food.

How Racism Ripples Through Rural California’s Pipes. The communities where black farmworkers settled decades ago are still marked by terrible infrastructure.

Nobody Knows How Many Kids Die From Maltreatment and Abuse in the U.S. "We got around 7,000 records in response, a number that’s already slightly higher and much more detailed than the information available to the public from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System — the main source of this data since the 1980s — over the same period. But experts agree that it’s still a substantial undercount and that child fatalities may be three times higher."

A Child’s Forehead Partially Removed, Four Deaths, The Wrong Medicine — A Secret Report Exposes Health Care For Jailed Immigrants. "Immigrants held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails around the US received medical care so bad it resulted in two preventable surgeries, including an 8-year-old boy who had to have part of his forehead removed, and contributed to four deaths, according to an internal complaint from an agency whistleblower." Again: this is who we are.

It’s a Vast, Invisible Climate Menace. We Made It Visible. A pretty impressive New York Times report on vast quantities of methane gas escaping from oil and gas sites nationwide. It's invisible, so the newspaper built a camera: "To create images of methane emissions in the Permian Basin, The Times used a custom-built FLIR camera that converts infrared energy into an electronic signal to create moving pictures. The camera’s filter allows infrared wavelengths between 3.2 to 3.4 micrometers on the electromagnetic spectrum to pass through to the sensor. To visualize gas, the camera uses helium to cool down the sensor to the temperature of liquid nitrogen, around minus 200 degrees Celsius. Unlike traditional photography lenses, which are glass, the infrared images were created using metal lenses made from germanium, which is transparent at infrared wavelengths."

Why Trump’s path to reelection is totally plausible. "First, the campaign intends to repackage Trump, albeit within the narrow limits possible for a politician whose public image is already indelibly cast. The message: Sure, Trump is wild, but a disruptive character is precisely what’s needed to disrupt a failed status quo and force change. Second, the campaign will use its overwhelming financial advantage to repackage — i.e., viciously demolish — the public image of whoever becomes the Democratic nominee." I hope Trump and everything he stands for fades away quickly. But I think it's likely we get four more years of this.

Trump adviser: Expect more aggressive poll watching in 2020. "One of President Donald Trump’s top reelection advisers told influential Republicans in swing state Wisconsin that the party has “traditionally” relied on voter suppression to compete in battleground states, according to an audio recording of a private event obtained by The Associated Press."

Guess Who’s Behind Facebook’s Political Ad Policy. "Peter Thiel has reportedly been lobbying Mark Zuckerberg to refrain from fact checking political ads on the platform." Thiel is a scumbag.

New disclosures to our archive of state-backed information operations. "Today, we are sharing comprehensive data about 5,929 accounts which we have removed for violating our platform manipulation policies. Rigorous investigations by our Site Integrity team have allowed us to attribute these accounts to a significant state-backed information operation on Twitter originating in Saudi Arabia."

‘Star Wars’ Fans Are Angry and Polarized. Like All Americans. "And a recent study by Morten Bay, a University of Southern California digital media researcher, revealed that over 50 percent of the venom directed on Twitter at Rian Johnson, director of “The Last Jedi,” came from the same sources as Russian election meddling."

India’s Internet shutdown in Kashmir is the longest ever in a democracy. I'm certain we'll begin to see National Internets before too long. Russia has been testing exactly this.

The Decade the Internet Lost Its Joy. "What began as cheerful anarchy was devoured by vulture capital and ruthless consolidation." I don't want to go backwards, but maybe we can find an inclusive, empathetic version of that anarchy. I hope we can. Otherwise, really, what's the point?

How Your Phone Betrays Democracy. "It is not difficult, in other words, to imagine a system of social control arising from infrastructure built for advertising. That’s why regulation is critical."

Is it Time for the U.S. Government to Drag Tech Jobs out of Silicon Valley and Into the Heartland? I'm not against it - and I do think it requires government involvement.

Predictions for Journalism 2020: Saying no to more good ideas. "I’ve yet to meet a team in a news organization that suffers from a shortage of good ideas. But I have met teams that have clogged up their roadmaps with lots of good ideas that, cumulatively, have little impact."

Predictions for Journalism 2020: Some kinds of journalism aren’t worth saving. "The question of how we save journalism (meaning newsrooms) will begin to shift to how do we save journalism (meaning the process)."

Building tools to bring data-driven reporting to more newsrooms. Simon Willison's JSK Fellowship project to empower data-driven journalism is inspiring. More of this, please.

Federal study confirms racial bias of many facial-recognition systems, casts doubt on their expanding use. "Facial-recognition systems misidentified people of color more often than white people, a landmark federal study released Thursday shows, casting new doubts on a rapidly expanding investigative technique widely used by law enforcement across the United States." Ban its use by law enforcement.

Washington Legislator Matt Shea Accused Of 'Domestic Terrorism,' Report Finds. "According to investigators, Shea visited the Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville for a couple of days. While there, he "developed a strategy for leadership over future Patriot Movement armed resistance against the federal government by creating" a coalition of western state leaders from Idaho, Washington, Arizona and Nevada." I would not be at all surprised to learn that this is more prevalent in the GOP than we had previously thought.

A Conversation With Rudy Giuliani Over Bloody Marys at the Mark Hotel. "As he spoke, he fixed his gaze straight ahead, rarely turning to make eye contact. When his mouth closed, saliva leaked from the corner and crawled down his face through the valley of a wrinkle. He didn’t notice, and it fell onto his sweater." Completely bizarre.

What Happens When Your Career Becomes Your Whole Identity. "Psychologists use the term “enmeshment” to describe a situation where the boundaries between people become blurred, and individual identities lose importance. Enmeshment prevents the development of a stable, independent sense of self. Dan — like many in high-pressure jobs — had become enmeshed not with another person, but with his career." Speaking from first-hand experience, it's a horrible trap.

We've spent the decade letting our tech define us. It's out of control. So let's take it back.

Previously

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

 

My favorite movies of 2019

As much as I've made of reading this year - and the novels I've read this year have been one of the most rewarding parts of my life over the last twelve months - I love movies. I really love movies.

For some spectacle films, the act of going to the cinema still has a lot of appeal. To be honest, though, in a world of 50+ inch OLED displays and 4K streaming, it's become pretty hard to beat sitting on the sofa under a blanket with my own refreshments. The content is every bit as heart-stopping; the setting is just that little bit more comfortable. For me, the exception is the Alamo Drafthouse, which is kind of an event in itself, or something like a Dolby or an IMAX theater. I saw a few films in each, but the vast majority were at home. I don't see that changing over time. And for someone with a film habit like mine (even in my low budget student days, I was known to drop $250 on film festival tickets), paying for all these streaming services still represents a discount.

It's first and foremost about the content (whether it's art or not is sometimes debatable, although I always lean towards yes).

Here were my favorite films released this year (in order of release). What were yours?

 

The Hole in the Ground
Dir: Lee Cronin

One of those claustrophic, quiet little horror films that speaks to deeper insecurities - here about parenting, but also about the vulnerability inherent in any family bond.

Rural Ireland is used well here, and like many good horror movies, local folk myths are spun into quiet nightmares. The writing, direction, and performances are just so: understated but exact, which ratchets up the tension when something truly horrifying happens. And it does.

I vastly prefer intelligent, psychological horror built on human relationships to cheap gore and jump scares. This is that and more.

 

Captain Marvel
Dir: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Yes, yes, I know. At the end of 2019, I feel absolutely burned-out on superhero movies, and even though Marvel films are at least good-humored and slightly anarchic, I think I'm done with them, too.

But Captain Marvel brought a few things together for me. Most importantly: it shouldn't feel refreshing to see a woman superhero in 2019, but it absolutely does. There's a twist in the middle that immediately washed away my worries that this was going to be a militaristic, gung-ho adventure, and I appreciated the compassionate subversion (and the analogy). And I'm a sucker for nineties nostalgia.

Also, the cat is pretty cool. You'll see.

 

Us
Dir: Jordan Peele

Get Out was a masterpiece. Here, the societal connotations are less on the nose, but there are undeniable echoes: of Othering, and the way in which the lives of the wealthy are only made possible through the suffering of vulnerable people.

Hung on some remarkable performances, particularly by Lupita Nyong'o, no detail is spared. I appreciated the Lost Boys reference, for sure, but also the resonant imagery pulled from a kaleidoscope of sources, from The Goonies through Ray Bradbury and the Bible. And throughout all of it, Jordan Peele kept my pulse pounding.

Bottom line: Us is a masterpiece too.

 

Knock Down the House
Dir: Rachel Lears

Everything about this documentary is grassroots: it was funded on Kickstarter and follows four women candidates running for Congress for the first time. None of them are career politicians; all of them are supported by their communities as they reach to do more.

Spoiler alert: one of them is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And she is every bit as impressive as you would expect.

However you feel about their politics (although, to be clear, I couldn't be more of an AOC fan), their stories are inspirational, gripping, and sometimes heartbreaking. I'm hoping for hundreds and hundreds more candidates like them.

 

Booksmart
Dir: Olivia Wilde

I was a sucker for those John Hughes high school comedies. Booksmart follows in that tradition, while dropping the sexism and male gaze of its eighties forebears. Actually, I take that back: this is way smarter than any of those movies.

I love it for its uncompromising voice and for the brilliance of its leads. Its jokes hit home but are always connected to real emotional subtext. And it's just fun. A lot of fun.

It underperformed at the box office, but that's got more to do with bad decisions by its distributor than anything in the film itself. If I had to pick just my top three movies of the year, this would be on the list somehwere.

 

Late Night
Dir: Nisha Ganatra

An unpretentious comedy that is unabashedly about whose voices get to be heard, and whose faces get to be seen. It's not completely perfect, but Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson are both a joy, and Kaling's script doesn't always go where you think it will. (Thompson was also excellent in this year's Years and Years on BBC One / HBO, which was easily the best thing I saw on TV.)

It's like a warm hug; a glimpse of the kind of world I'd like to see more glimpses of, while also being a funny and comforting night's entertainment.

 

I Am Mother
Dir: Grant Sputore

An ambitious parable about parenthood tucked into a science fiction movie about the apocalypse. One twist is obvious from the setup, but it's an act of misdirection: there are many far more important turns that you don't see coming, right up until the final moment of the film.

Some of the setting feels necessarily low budget, but the overarching themes transcend any shortcomings. It's like an episode of Black Mirror that has a lot more to say. And often, a lot more to say than you think it does.

 

Midsommar
Dir: Ari Aster

The final shot of this movie still lingers with me. Not because it's a frightening image in itself (it's not), but for how uplifting it ultimately is, and what that means.

I'm becoming aware that the films that have really spoken to me this year have often been a certain kind of well-made psychological horror. (Well, except for one horror film. Hang on for that one.) It's not because those are the films I've mostly seen, but the ones that have made this list are set in a kind of rootless uncertainty; that's true of Booksmart too, and some later titles like The Farewell, even if it's expressed in a different way.

There's hokiness here, and a kind of very American xenophobia too, but they're as much here on purpose as the thoughtless awfulness of the protagonist's boyfriend. It's all a cage. But one that, eventually, may burn down.

 

The Farewell
Dir: Lulu Wang

My sister and I went to see this movie while our mother was in hospital, at a time where we knew we wouldn't be able to see her for five hours or so. I still can't decide if it was the perfect film for that context, or the worst possible.

It's a film about grief, and about grief-to-be, when the person is still with you but you know what has to come next. And in that situation it's about finding the beauty and the humor, and giving that person the gift of love while you take the pain on for yourself.

Awkwafina is perfect, as is almost everyone in the cast. I cried and cried, and when we finally found our way to the hospital, it was with a renewed sense of what was important.

 

Ready or Not
Dir: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett

I wasn't expecting to freaking love this so much. It was meant to be a cheesy late night watch. But it's kind of perfect.

I can't tell you what happens at the end but I really want to. It's satisfying and gross.

What I can tell you is that although it's kind of a macabre comedy thriller bordering on horror that has a lot to say about the class system. I laughed; I watched through my hands; I rooted for the hunted bride and against the rich dynasty (and selfish husband) chasing her down. And the payoff was delightful.

Also, for bonus points: I think we're all ready for an Andie MacDowell renaissance, right?

 

Marriage Story
Dir: Noah Baumbach

Both leads have lately passed through the Disney machine (Scarlett Johansson is a core part of the Avengers movies, while Adam Driver is the big bad in the latest Star Wars trilogy). Their acting in this small but ambitious family drama is nothing less than searing: not just potentially both of their best work, but the most immediate, truthful, and heartbreaking acting I saw in any film this year.

It's a beautiful film, both visually and in every other possible way; in turn hard to watch and impossible to look away from. Remarkable, poignant, and unmissable.

 

A new decade

As arbitrary as they are, these transitions provide a kind of useful punctuation - a spot to stop and breathe.

For me, I think it might be useful to reflect on where I was at the start of the previous decade, where I am now, and where I'd like to be ten years from now.

Ten years ago

I lived in Oxford, as much my hometown as anywhere is, living in the house I'd grown up in long after my family had emigrated to California. Every year, I'd head out for Christmas, saving a little time to hang out in San Francisco.

I'd just had a turbulent year: In April, I had finally left Elgg after working on it for seven years, and had been surprised to find myself at the receiving end of threats from our investors after I tried to start a new social platform with a completely different purpose. This significantly limited my options - all non-infrastructure internet software is at least a little bit social - and although I'm pretty sure I would have won a court decision, my pockets were exponentially less deep than theirs. I returned to my roots and buckled down doing work in local media instead.

Nevertheless, I had just given a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School on user-centered design, was consulting with some former television journalists who wanted to save media through entrepreneurship, and I flew out to Washington DC to work with the American Association of Colleges and Universities. All of these events were small hints of what was to come.

My mother was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. We didn't know what lay ahead; for now, it was just a persistent cough.

Today

Eight years ago, my mother phoned me to warn me that I shouldn't be shocked to see her using oxygen tanks over Christmas. It took me approximately thirty seconds to decide that I needed to move to California; practically, it took me five months. I arrived with two suitcases and the assumption that I would be here temporarily. Writing this now, I know I'm here for the long run.

She had given up her career in internet business analysis and become a middle school science teacher. Every day she went to work wearing oxygen on her back, looking a little bit like a Ghostbuster, until she couldn't anymore.

Six years ago, she had a double lung transplant. I was with my parents at their home in the central valley when they got the call, a little after midnight; they drove straight to the hospital, while I drove to Oakland to pick up my sister. I tried to raise my girlfriend on the phone, but couldn't. It was the loneliest two hours of my life.

I have persistent flashbacks of my mother sitting on a gurney outside the double doors leading to anesthesiology, telling me to be patient with my father and to look after him. We spent the night in the hospital, sleeping in the waiting room on makeshift beds made of teal vinyl-covered chairs. It wasn't clear that we would ever see her again. She emerged at 4pm the next day, unable to speak and in unfathomable pain. Eventually, I passed out in the ICU next to her, and the nurses told me to go home.

Pulmonary fibrosis is a symptom, not a disease. Your lungs scar progressively until you can't breathe. There's no cure. We didn't know what caused it, but my grandmother died of it when I was six years old, so we knew it was familial. My aunt was diagnosed too, and had lung transplants, before the side effects of immunosuppression were too much for her. Then my cousin, just a few years older than me, who left us suddenly. It was unimaginably sad.

And it was scary. It hung over all of us. I felt it acutely. A few years earlier, I had asked my girlfriend to marry me; she had deferred for a year before telling me no. Around the same time, I had ripped my life up to move to California. The country I grew up in voted to reject Europeans like me, ensuring (assuming Brexit eventually comes to pass) that I could never go back. The country I lived in elected a populist fascist as President. And it was becoming clear that I might only have a few years left. I felt destabilized and terrified. More than that, I felt worthless. I hadn't been able to build the life I wanted. I was damaged. And soon, I might be gone.

I gained a lot of weight and let my anxiety build. It was rare that I'd sleep through the night. All the while, my mother continued on her adventure, through a rollercoaster of medical crises and procedures. Often, it was like watching someone you love be systematically tortured.

Cutting-edge medical research finally caught up with my family, and we discovered that the pulmonary fibrosis was the symptom of a genetic condition called dyskeratosis congenita. At least, it probably was; we were at the edge of medical science. But the research offered hope, and I took it with both hands.

In particular, a genetic condition could be tested. The genetic counsellor warned that an adverse result could affect our insurance, our ability to buy a house; our entire futures. But my sister and I had Europe as a safety net. We had the privilege of just going back to a place with saner, more compassionate laws. And more importantly, we were told there was a 75% chance that one or both of us would have it. We had to know.

When, a year and a half ago, the genetic test came back showing that neither of us had the genetic variant, we burst into tears in the examination room. We called our parents, who also burst into tears. For my mother, the burden of knowing that she might have passed down her condition was lifted. And suddenly, I had a life ahead of me again. That same week, I had my first therapy session, and I began to rebuild.

In the midst of all of this, I had a professional adventure.

I became the hands-on CTO and first employee of Latakoo, which is still the way that NBC News sends recorded footage back to its newsrooms over commodity internet connections. (It's also the source of my only software patent.) I was the Geek in Residence at the Edinburgh Festivals Innovation Lab, serving the world's largest arts festival. I wrote a technical book on HTML5 geolocation. I co-founded Known, found investment, and did right by my investors by going to work as a senior engineer at Medium. I was a heavy participant and sometime organizer in the Indieweb community. My work showed up in the New York Times and in other people's books. I was west coast Director of Investments at Matter, a mission-driven accelerator and venture fund (going to the pub with Chelsea Manning as part of this will always be one of my favorite professional moments). I became VP of Product at Unlock, helping independent creators to make money from their work. And as I write this, I'm Head of Engineering at ForUsAll, which is trying to help people on lower incomes to build retirement savings. I'm far from being even a fraction of a millionaire, but I've had the privilege to do well, and hopefully do some good in the process.

And I've rebuilt a life in California. I have amazing people in my life - many of whom came through the Matter and Indieweb communities, for which I'm endlessly grateful. I still have my amazing friends from the UK, even if we're distant. My family is close and bound by love. It continues to suffer medical hardships. But through it all, I've been lucky.

Ten years from now

So what's next?

Thanks to the last decade's medical adventures, I'm a late bloomer. But I want to have a family, with a strong relationship built on mutual trust and intimacy at its center. If I'm really lucky, my future children will get to meet my parents; if not, I will carry their spirit and do my best to represent the best of who they were. I want a family life drawn from first principles based on creativity and love, rather than one built on established societal expectations: a progressive life created to support us as a partnership, rather than one built to make other people happy by painting by numbers.

My future children will be multi-national, as I am. Many passports, many points of view. And that's just from one side of the partnership. We'll be a mix of cultures, backgrounds, and contexts - ripe soil to grow something new.

I don't have any desire to be wealthy. I do want to be safe and comfortable. That probably means leaving the Bay Area and finding somewhere with a better quality of life to cost of living ratio. Edinburgh is the best place I've ever lived for this, but unless Scotland becomes independent and rejoins the EU, it's not somewhere I could easily go back to. Still, there's a big, wide world out there.

I want to do work that makes the world more equal, more compassionate, and more peaceful. What that means in practice is TBD, but I expect to co-found one more startup - not yet, but eventually. Almost certainly, it'll be bootstrapped and partially open source: a zebra internet / media business built with the goal of indefinite sustainability. If I'm lucky, I'll work with some of my former colleagues to make it happen.

I want to write a book. There is at least one novel in me. There is at least one non-fiction book about people working to make an impact using the internet. Ideally, I want to do this in the next year or two.

I'll also deepen my political volunteering. I began to give heavily to progressive causes, as well as canvass and campaign, over the last decade. My politics continue to be progressive as I get older, and I want to back my opinions with real, on the ground work. The current era demands it.

And I want to build a strong foundation for the rest of my life. I want to do meaningful work as part of living a meaningful life based on happiness and kindness. I want to leave the world better than I found it by showing up as well as I can through emergent strategy. At the end of it all, whether that's a few years from now or fifty, I want to look back without regret and know that I did well by the people whose lives I passed through, as well as people who I'll never meet or know. It's not about wealth; it's not about self-interest; it's about finding meaning through service, and happiness through connection.

It's been a tough decade for me. It has been for many of us. But I'm hopeful for the next one.

 

The morning after

So, that's it, then.

My prediction is that Brexit will happen as planned in 2020, and that later in the year, unless the progressive movement achieves the impossible, Donald Trump will be re-elected as President.

If you work for a company like Facebook, this is on you. If you could have voted but didn't, this is on you. If you fell for disinformation and shared it, this is on you. If you let the noxious message that nationalism is a viable future for any country go uncriticized, this is on you. If you chose personal gain over care for the most vulnerable people in society, this is on you.

In other words, it's on virtually all of us.

So let's achieve the impossible. Together.

It's going to be about collective action. It's going to be about unity. It's going to be about the quality of life of working people. And it's going to be about building an inclusive movement that incorporates diverse voices.

It's not too late. It must not be: the fascists are in the building.

 

Big politics day

I'm crossing my fingers, but am not hopeful, that the Conservatives won't have a majority in the UK election today. It's a morally bankrupt party that has strip-mined the country and is steering it to economic ruin, fueled by half-brained jingoism and a nationalistic shame that half the world isn't still under the thumb of its brutal empire.

Nationalism is evil. Patrotism, as Samuel Johnson noted, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I believe in a global world with equal opportunity for all. Membership of a nation, particularly in a world where we can communicate and share with anyone on earth, is utterly arbitrary. Maybe it's because I hold more than one passport and don't feel particularly strongly about any of them, but to me, being proud of your country is like being proud of your T-shirt brand.

Under the Conservatives, people are dying. Institutions are being undone. Vital infrastructure is being sold off. Social protections for the vulnerable are evaporating.

I'm not British, but I sound like I am. That means plenty of people over the years have felt safe sharing their opinions of Europeans with me. To be clear, if Brexit comes to pass, I will not be allowed to live there again. And to be clear, there are many, many closet xenophobes: people who know their views are archaic, and as such don't share them in public, but hold them anyway.

Which also explains the rise of Donald Trump's brand of racist, corrupt politics for the rich. I'm still reeling from his declaring Jewishness as a nationality: an executive action drawn directly from white nationalism. (American Jews are Americans; end of story.) I'm still reeling from the shamelessness of his Republican defenders. I've been listening to the impeachment hearings and the disingenuousness of their arguments is astonishing.

We have people locked in cages in concentration camps on the border. ICE is a modern day SS, violating the human rights and safety of entire communities who should be receiving our support.

I want both Trump and Johnson to go down. But in my heart of hearts, I know they won't. I know we're going to see more of this rancid modern nationalism. And I know there are much darker days to come.

It's a big politics day.

 

Edited to add: What a blow.

 

Twitter's Project Bluesky

This morning, Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter would be funding an independent group that would develop an open standard for decentralized social networking, with the expectation that the company would use it.

I've been involved in decentralized social networking since 2004, when I released the first version of Elgg, the open source social networking platform. As I said in an interview with ZDNet in 2006:

I think in the future, networks or meta-networks won't be an issue: the network will be decentralised. What I'd like to see is a set of open protocols that mean you can connect to anyone, anywhere, no matter which site they happen to be using.

I still fundamentally believe in this vision. My second attempt at an open source platform, Known, uses indieweb standards to a user of a Known site to interact with any other user of any other indieweb-compatible site. Decentralization was something I looked at carefully when I was west coast Director of Investments at Matter Ventures. And it was core to the work I did with the Unlock Protocol.

There have been many other attempts. My friend Evan Prodromou created StatusNet and then the ActivityPub protocol; the latter underlies the Mastodon "fediverse" of federated social networking platforms. (Known has committed to also joining the fediverse.)

Twitter's announcement today builds on many of these efforts in spirit, but it goes its own way. I think this is probably right: whereas all of the aforementioned projects were created by hobbyists, Twitter as a company and a worldwide platform has different needs. If the goal is to run over 126 million daily active users on a decentralized platform, and for the associated platform companies to make money in the process, something new is needed.

I don't believe that this new project will come out of lengthy committee deliberations. So while it might rile long-term open standards collaborators, I think this tweet from Twitter's CTO, Parag Agrawal, bodes well:

The key will be rapid iteration in the public interest, repeatedly testing not just the feasibility of such a protocol (whether you can build and maintain it at scale), but also its desirability (user risk) and viability (business risk). In other words, it's not enough to make something work. It also has to be able to win user trust, serve as the foundation of an ecosystem, and allow businesses built on the platform to become valuable. As yet, open standards processes have not shown themselves to be capable of this kind of product development.

To be clear, this kind of leadership can and does still lead to open projects released under open source licenses. That's what Twitter will need to do here.

For Twitter, there are many obvious business benefits as champion of this platform. Particularly in a world where anti-trust reform and regulation of social networks are becoming more prominent topics, getting ahead of the trend and locking in decentralized openness is smart. It could also disrupt other social networking platforms who aren't, or can't be, so forward-thinking.

Building it on a blockchain - not Ethereum, but a new, faster, purpose-built chain - may also make sense as a way to lock in both openness and the ability to build value. One interesting property of blockchains is that nodes typically have to process the whole chain; that means that as the traffic on the new protocol increases, the difficulty of processing the chain increases and the number of entities capable of processing it decreases. The value of being an entry point that processes on behalf of others increases. So there's a business in providing an easy access point for developers. But more importantly, designing the protocol from scratch allows a mutually beneficial business model to be baked in. It's not about hoarding the riches for Twitter: it's about baking an ever-increasing pie that everyone can have a slice of.

There are lots of very reasonable arguments that open communty advocates will make for this being something to be wary of. But while this move is very, very late in community terms (we've been talking about decentralization for decades), it's very early in corporate terms. The time is right for tech companies to make the shift into open protocols, in a way that allows businesses to make money, users to own their data, and a thousand new social networking interfaces to bloom. And I think that's a progressive move for the web.

 

Photo by Anthony Cantin on Unsplash

 

About Known

In 2013, my mother had a double lung transplant. The rules for recovery post-transplantation are that you can't have a bridge between you and the hospital; they don't want you to be stuck in traffic if you need emergency attention. So we rented an apartment in the Inner Sunset, where we all sat with Ma while she recovered. My Dad was there all the time as her primary carer, but nonetheless, sometimes I slept overnight on an air mattress.

As her speech returned to her and her energy increased, she told me that she wished she had a place to speak to other people who had been through the same ordeal. But at the same time, she wasn't comfortable sharing that kind of personal information on a platform like Facebook.

She was asleep a lot of the time. So in the evenings and weekends, I started to write that new platform for her. I gave it what I thought was a quirky but friendly name - idno - which spoke to identity and the id, but I also thought sounded friendly in a slightly foreign-to-everyone kind of way.

At the same time, I became involved in the IndieWeb community through Tantek Çelik and Kevin Marks. And I realized that this platform could easily be modified to work with the microformats standards at the root of that movement. I built decentralized replies and commenting into the platform. That summer, I flew to IndieWebCamp Portland, and demonstrated the community's first decentralized event RSVPs. There, I met Erin Richey, and we began to collaborate on designs for the platform.

I had previously met Corey Ford, co-founder of Matter, and it turned out he was looking for startups as part of Matter's third cohort, which would begin in May 2014. Erin and I decided to collaborate (with the encouragement of Corey and Benjamin Evans, now the leader of AirBnb's anti-discrimination team) on turning Idno into a real startup. Here's the real pitch deck we used for our meeting (PDF link). The idea was to follow in WordPress's footsteps by creating a great centralized service as well as an open source, self-hosted platform for people that wanted it. For the business, the self-hosted platform would act as a marketing channel for the service; for the open source community, the business would fund development.

We were accepted into the third cohort, and quickly incorporated so we could take investment. Erin in particular felt that Idno was a crappy name, and undertook her own research on a shortlist of new ones. Her process involved figuring out which names were easily understandable if you just heard the name, and which could be easily spelled, using a battery of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers. Known was the very clear winner.

Everyone's favorite part of building a startup is choosing the logo. Here are a few I built that we rejected:

I think I thought the "kn-own" wordplay was cleverer than it was.

In the end, we went with this logo that Erin drew:

 

 

"It looks like the Circle K," my mother said. Still, we went with it, not least because the K in itself would work well as an icon.

I've written a lot over the years about the Matter process: suffice to say that it changed the way I think about products and startups forever, as well as, in many ways, my entire life.

While the open source community continued to grow, the startup itself didn't work as well as I had hoped, both as a business and as a high-functioning product team in its own right. Over the course of the five month program we chose to double down on individual websites over building communities, and then we decided to start with education as a go-to market. I don't think either of these things were the right decisions for a startup in retrospect, and as we presented at demo day on the stage of the Paley Center in New York, I could see disappointment written on a few faces. Here's that full pitch. If you read the initial pitch deck, you'll know that a lot changed - both for good and bad.

Known was half-acquired by Medium in a way that saw a return for Matter. (Because of Known's social media syndication capabilities, Medium did not want to acquire the software, and did not legally acquire the corporation.) One important role of a founder, which I learned from Evan Prodromou, is to be a good steward of investor value. In this case, it was important to me to also be a good steward of community value, and the deal with Medium allowed the community to continue to exist. Erin became acting CEO of the corporation and continued to work on the project. Eventually, I left Medium and joined Matter as its west coast Director of Investments. The work I did there encompasses the proudest moments of my professional career.

Fast forward to the end of the 2019, and Marcus Povey (a friend and frequent collaborator of mine, who also worked on Elgg) has picked up the community baton. Thanks to him, Known just released version 1.0. The community continues to grow. I just put together a draft roadmap for two further releases: one this summer, and one for the end of the year. These releases are free from any attempt to become a commercial entity or achieve sustainability; they're entirely designed to serve the community. They're all about strengthening the core platform, as well as increasing compatibility with the indieweb and the fediverse.

For me, the collaborative group functionality is still something I think about, but it won't be the focus of Known going forward. I'm considering an entirely new, simpler group platform (third time's a charm). Known is about creating a single stream of social content, in a way that you control, with your design and domain name. Its journey hasn't been a straight line. But I'm excited to see what the next year holds for it.

 

Get out and talk to people

The Lean Startup has a lot to answer for: a generation of project, startup, and business leaders think they can get the answers they need by running ad experiments, building fake doors, and running A/B tests. Perhaps it's introversion; perhaps it's an over-belief in the power of data. What it certainly leads to is a lack of insight into who your users really are and what their lives look like.

The most important question when you're building a new product or service is why. It's not enough to know that people seem interested in the thing you want to build. Why are they interested? What are the stories behind their frustrations or their curiosity? If you're trying to improve an existing process, why do they do it in the way they do it right now? Why do they need something better?

The trap that most people fall into is to intellectualize an answer to this question. Perhaps they think they're smart and can just make up the answer using a combination of creativity and inference. Or perhaps they've constructed an artificial persona from a few data points - which, in reality, is the exact same thing as making up the answer from creativity and inference. In both cases, any surprising insights you learn about your users actually come from your imagination, rather than reality. But you might think they're real, and use them as the basis of a strategy you have no idea is misinformed.

Most people, particularly when they're starting out, don't have the kinds of participant numbers that would make quantitative research statistically significant. But even with those numbers, surveys and experiments rarely get to the why.

There's no alternative to getting out and talking to people: understanding their lives, and learning the stories behind their work. It's about undertaking a project with humility and understanding that you probably don't know all the answers. It's also about finding the surprising insights that nobody else knows - something you can only figure out by talking to people.

Qualitative research is incredibly powerful. For introverts, it can be uncomfortable - but the results outweigh a little discomfort. Making your project truly human-centered by always going back to the user can help you avoid building the wrong thing, and create genuine innovations that really help people in a way that statistical research (or worse, just building without any understanding) simply can't.