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Engineer, startup founder, investor, and writer

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

[email protected]

werd.eth

 

Vaccinated

I’m fully-vaccinated today: I got my second Pfizer jab two weeks ago. According to new guidance from the CDC, I can go without a mask in most situations. The official CDC page is really clear, and reporting has been generally good. I feel safe - but like many people, I will still choose to wear one, even in situations where I am not required to, for a while.

A lot of people aren’t so lucky. In India, where I have friends and coworkers, everyone I speak to seems to have lost a friend or relative. The official numbers woefully undercount the dead: conservative estimates put it at twice the official number, and I’ve heard as high as ten times.

Broken medical supply chains have left families to source oxygen for themselves; even empty oxygen canisters, which can be refilled, are in short supply. My friend Padmini Ray Murray has set up a COVID-19 and oxygen supply resource page for Bangalore, and is helping to crowdsource oxygen availability in the region.

Meanwhile, the United States has been hoarding vaccines, while countries like India may not get vaccinated until 2023. COVAX, a global vaccine initiative, has been underfunded, and rich countries didn’t arm it with the vaccine supplies it needed. Manufacturing capacity is bottlenecked. And even though some countries (including, to its credit, the US) have agreed to waive vaccine patent rights, the tests and technology transfers involved are also bottlenecked. More help is needed, and quickly; without meaningful assistance, vaccine waivers and COVAX pledges start to look more like PR for rich countries than an actual effort to vaccinate the world.

Some have argued that vaccine patent waivers should not be issued, because of the effect on innovation. I, and others, think this falls squarely into the bucket of solvable problems: information sharing mechanisms and economic incentives can be provided in other ways. The focus right now must be on saving lives, not saving capitalism.

It’s also common in a global crisis for the burden to be placed on individuals: in this case, there are plenty of community fundraisers for COVAX. I’ve donated and, if you have the means, I recommend that you do too: buying a single dose for someone in need costs $7. But the focus should be on governments and large corporations to donate and help as much as they can; our focus should be at least as much on pressuring them to do the right thing as convincing our friends and neighbors to put some money in.

I have both friends and family who still don’t believe that COVID-19 is a real threat; who don’t trust the vaccine; who don’t believe in the science or the reporting. In the midst of a genuinely global crisis, not having the real-world effect of watching your friends and family succumbing to the disease is a kind of privilege. Elsewhere, they would not have the luxury of being so ignorant.

And I wouldn’t have the luxury of feeling the freedom I do today. I’m excited to be able to see my friends again; to travel; to eat at a restaurant; to gather and share and be social. I hope the whole world is able to share in this freedom. We are no more deserving than they are.

 

Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash

 

Disrespect for the hustle

My favorite working environments have all been like liberal arts colleges: spaces where people were trying to do their best work, often quietly, with a great deal of introspection. Here, people asked questions about how they could do meaningful work that uplifted and empowered communities.

The worst - multiple startups - have been aggressively confrontational, where the emphasis was on hustling to get people in the door by any means necessary.

My friend Roxann Stafford introduced me to this great quote from the labor organizer General Baker:

You keep asking how do we get the people here? I say, what will we do when they get here?

While it’s true that the Field of Dreams user acquisition strategy doesn’t work - even if you build it, they won’t necessarily come, so you’d better figure out how to reach out to the right people - it can only be a fragment of the product strategy. If you let hustle culture take over the entire business, you run the risk of spending all your time on how to get people there, and comparatively little on what you’ll do when they arrive. At best, you’ll end up with a superficial product; at worst, a disingenuous one. You might find yourself accidentally creating a culture where it’s okay to say just about anything to get people in the door.

The thing is, when you’re running out of money, or when you don’t have any to begin with, getting more is an imperative. As much as money is a pain in the ass, it’s necessary to keep the lights on, and to grow.

Newsrooms used to have a way to deal with this: a firewall between editorial and advertising departments. Because the value of a news publication is in the information it provides, regardless of financial influence, the need to make money has been kept siloed away. When, latterly, some newsrooms began to remove this firewall and allow financial considerations to affect the content of their coverage, the quality of their reporting (and public trust thereof) noticeably declined.

The same is true in software. When hustle culture becomes the product, the incentive to provide real, deep value to your community of users is undermined. You’ll deliver worse products. That isn’t to say that sales and marketing are not valuable: they’re absolutely vital. But a startup (or a project, or a traditional business) can’t let sales and marketing drive the ship. It’s the product team’s job to build something that deeply serves a need, including by identifying the first community of people to understand, co-design with, and serve.

Marketing, in the traditional sense, is the act of understanding that market and positioning a product to reach it (although it’s often reductively conflated with advertising). The sales folks - the hustlers - close the deals. These things are important parts of a complete, delicious breakfast, but they can’t be the whole breakfast.

Nothing absolves you from building a meaningful product, obsessing over every detail, and taking care in its craft and design. It’s hard to do that if your whole focus is on leads. Why do you exist? Who are you helping? How? These questions can’t just be a story you tell - they have to be your deeply-held reason for existing.

You keep asking how do we get the people here? I say, what will we do when they get here?

That’s the question that matters.

 

Photo by Garrhet Sampson on Unsplash

 

Press Freedom Day

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day. I’d planned to publish this post then, but my mother was in the in ER. (She's out now; the rollercoaster continues.)

A functional, free press is a vital part of the foundation of democracy, right alongside free and open elections. It's impossible to have an educated voting populace without it - and you can't have a democracy without educated voters. It's incredibly important to have people out there dedicated to uncovering the truth and speaking truth to power.

According to Reporters Without Borders, the US ranks 44th in the world for press freedom. During Trump's last year in office, nearly 400 journalists were assaulted on the job, and over 130 were detained. Only 40% of Americans trust the media; among conservatives, the figure is considerably worse.

To control a populace, authoritarians first seek to undermine the press. The Nazi-era term for this was Lügenpresse, which literally translates to lying press. The Trump-era term was lifted almost verbatim: fake news. It continues to do harm.

As well as in the broader societal sphere, this discourse extends to industry: in tech, we’ve had our own anti-press movements that seek to undermine free and fair reporting. It’s always abhorrent.

Which isn’t to say that the press shouldn’t be criticized: oversight of journalism is also journalism, and conversations about the nature of reporting are important. No institution can be unassailable, and no journalist can be above reproach. I particularly welcome conversations about diversity and equity in newsrooms and how the demographics of reporting staff affect the stories they produce. Journalists are imperfect, because everyone is imperfect; regardless, they should have unfettered access to information and receive protection under the law. The work they do makes freedom and democracy possible.

Similarly, whistleblowers. We depend on people who are willing to call out wrongdoing. Daniel Ellsberg revealing the Pentagon Papers allowed Americans to understand the full scope of the Vietnam War for the first time. Edward Snowden allowed Americans to understand that they were the subjects of illegal mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning allowed Americans to understand war crimes that were committed in their names. Each of them faced severe repercussions; each of them allowed American voters to better understand the actions of their government.

In the midst of the “fake news” culture war, there’s been a lot of talk about how to battle misinformation. One of those tactics has sometimes been to promote certain, trusted publications. The intention is noble: there’s no doubt in my mind that the New York Times is more trustworthy than InfoWars, for example. But the unintended effect is to shut out new publications that haven’t managed to build a reputation yet - and in particular, new publications that might be run by people of color, who are underrepresented in establishment media. It also has the effect of potentially discrediting whistleblower accounts that can’t find purchase in mainstream publications, creating an “approved news” that can unintentionally obscure important facts.

Instead, I’m more excited - albeit with some reservations - by software projects that add context on a story by showing how other outlets have reported it. I’m committed to an open web that allows anyone to publish, even if that means tolerating the InfoWars and Epoch Times dumpster fires alongside more legitimate sources. Context and critical reasoning are key.

The press isn’t glamorous; it’s not always convenient or comfortable. But it’s absolutely crucial for a functional democracy and a free society. Because power is at stake, there will always be people who want to undermine or control journalism - and our job as democratic citizens is to refuse to allow them.

I’m grateful for the press. I’m grateful for democracy. Let’s be vigilant.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: April, 2021

This is my monthly roundup of the media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for April, 2021.

Books

Captain America Vol. 1: Winter In America, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. To be honest, I was expecting more. Ta-Nehisi Coates is such a brilliant writer, but this volume felt minimalist to the point of being abstracted away from the drama. It does set up the story for a little more, but not enough more. Still, it felt good to read a comic book again - it’s been quite a while.

Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon. I read it in one sitting, mesmerized by the writing and the articulation of a recognizable kind of sadness. This is the kind of book I would write if I was brave enough: almost certainly not as skillfully, but with an intention to gather the dark corners of solitude and weaving it into poetry. The translation is superb; I wish I could read it in its original French.

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart. Immersive and real. I could smell Glasgow in every page. The desperation of these well-rounded characters trying to survive through post-industrial poverty, and the moments of human beauty despite it all, ring true. The writing is excellent; the heart at the center of it all beats strong.

Streaming

Nomadland. Naturalistic to the point that fiction and reality are blurred. Frances McDormand gives an impressive performance as always, but what really stands out are the real-life characters drawn into the story. Their lives are written across their faces; tragic but defiant.

The Father. Anchored by kaleidoscopic writing and nuanced performances, we see one man’s dementia play out from all sides. The set is a character in itself, reflecting slips of memory and a rapidly unraveling relationship with time. Watching it from the context of my own parents’ - albeit very different - failing health was tough. One of those films where quiet recognition leaves you cathartically weeping alone in the dark.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines. I guffawed. A lot. Packed full of in-jokes, this has everything you’d expect from the people who made Into the Spider-Verse and The LEGO Movie. A+, five stars.

Notable Articles

Business

The Mysterious Case of the F*cking Good Pizza. “Suddenly, I was seized by a need to get to the bottom of a matter that felt like a glitch in the fabric of my humdrum pandemic existence: Where did these clickbait restaurant brands come from, even if they didn’t seem to technically exist? And why did delivery marketplaces across the U.S., and countries around the world, suddenly seem to be flooded with them?”

The Wrong Kind of Splash. Om on Unsplash: “I was a fan up until last evening when I got an email announcing that the company was being acquired by none other than Getty Images. Hearing this was like a red hot spike through the eyes. A startup whose raison d’être was to upend draconian and amoral companies like Getty Images was going to now be part of Getty. Even after I have had time to process it, the news isn’t sitting well with me.”

Let Your Employees Ask Questions. “But you also have to recognize that as a founder, you’re empowered to fuck things up. If you spend three months chasing a market that turns outs to be a dead end, nobody is going to fire you. You own the place. If someone does that at a large company, they’re maybe getting fired. And your employees will bring that reticence to your startup. So, early on, plan on providing feedback and answering a lot of questions about how you want things to get done.”

Investing in Firefly Health. This announcement caught my attention for this: “Health insurance is undergoing a rapid cycle of unbundling and repackaging. Vertically-integrated “payviders” (groups that both pay for services, like an insurer would, and administer those services, like a provider would) are emerging as a new standard, and provider networks are being recontoured as virtual-first care models take root.” I have some thoughts on what the ultimate “payvider” would be - but I wonder if these sorts of services will help get America more comfortable with the idea of a real healthcare system.

How Index Funds May Hurt the Economy. "In recent decades, the whole economy has gone on autopilot. Index-fund investment is hyperconcentrated. So is online retail. So are pharmaceuticals. So is broadband. Name an industry, and it is likely dominated by a handful of giant players. That has led to all sorts of deleterious downstream effects: suppressing workers’ wages, raising consumer prices, stifling innovation, stoking inequality, and suffocating business creation. The problem is not just the indexers. It is the public markets they reflect, where more chaos, more speculation, more risk, more innovation, and more competition are desperately needed."

If You Love Us, Pay Us: A letter from Sean Combs to Corporate America. "Corporations like General Motors have exploited our culture, undermined our power, and excluded Black entrepreneurs from participating in the value created by Black consumers. In 2019, brands spent $239 billion on advertising. Less than 1% of that was invested in Black-owned media companies. Out of the roughly $3 billion General Motors spent on advertising, we estimate only $10 million was invested in Black-owned media. Only $10 million out of $3 billion! Like the rest of Corporate America, General Motors is telling us to sit down, shut up and be happy with what we get."

Amazon Workers Defeat Union Effort in Alabama. "The company’s decisive victory deals a crushing blow to organized labor, which had hoped the time was ripe to start making inroads." Pretty disappointing.

Why Can’t American Workers Just Relax?. “Alarmed by the toll of increasingly nonexistent boundaries between work and home during the pandemic, a growing number of nations want to help their citizens unplug when they’re done with work. In the last few months, several governments, including Canada, the E.U., Ireland, and even Japan—which invented the word karoshi, for death by overwork—announced they’re considering “right to disconnect” laws. Similar laws are already on the books in Argentina, Belgium, Chile, France, Ireland, Italy, the Philippines, and Spain.” Some great links to movements for better working conditions here.

Personal Reflection: Empathy In The Workplace. "The best empathetic leaders are frequently grounded in authentic emotional connectivity with those on their team and beyond. Empathy in this context conveys sincere optimism about how “we can make it through life’s challenges together” and gives others the sense of “team” at a time when they feel most vulnerable and alone. Positive corporate culture creates this emotional support in the organization that goes well beyond tackling corporate objectives."

Six fun remote team building activities. Range is leading the way on organizational culture. This is so great. I bought a SnackMagic box for my team.

Changes at Basecamp. This is a shockingly regressive move from Basecamp, a company that literally wrote the book on building team culture. While "paternalistic benefits" like gym memberships are arguable, not being able to discuss societal context or give feedback to your peers in a structured way paves the way for a monoculture that excludes entire demographics of people. Basecamp's workers should unionize. This is the exact opposite of what an inclusive, empathetic company should be doing.

An Open Letter to Jason and David. "Anyways, it appears your reaction to the pleas and asks to recognize that Basecamp already represents a diversity of experiences and that we want the company’s software and policies to do the same has once again been lacking and disproportionate. But what’s particularly disappointing is the direction of your reaction. The oppressive direction. The silencing direction."

Culture

1984: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A wonderful look back on one of the best games ever made, co-authored by Douglas Adams himself.

Non-Fungible Taylor Swift. “To put it another way, while we used to pay for plastic discs and thought we were paying for songs (or newspapers/writing or cable/TV stars), empowering distribution over creators, today we pay with both money and attention according to the direction of creators, giving them power over everyone. If the creator decides that their NFTs are important, they will have value; if they decide their show is worthless, it will not.”

Media

Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack. “Danny Lavery had just agreed to a two-year, $430,000 contract with the newsletter platform Substack when I met him for coffee last week in Brooklyn, and he was deciding what to do with the money.” Some notable details here about Substack’s behind the scenes deals.

NPR will roll out paid subscriptions to its podcasts. Worth saying that PRX's founder Jake Shapiro now works at Apple on podcasts. This is a good partnership, and I trust Jake to maintain an open ecosystem.

SiriusXM Is Buying ‘99% Invisible,’ and Street Cred in Podcasting. "Under the new arrangement, “99% Invisible” will remain available at no cost on all platforms supported by ads. But the parties may explore exclusive partnerships for some products down the line. In addition to a large catalog of free podcasts that are available on all platforms, Stitcher sells a premium service offering special features from podcasts it has a relationship with — including ad-free listening, early access and bonus content — for $4.99 per month."

Politics

Justice Dept. Inquiry Into Matt Gaetz Said to Be Focused on Cash Paid to Women. “A Justice Department investigation into Representative Matt Gaetz and an indicted Florida politician is focusing on their involvement with multiple women who were recruited online for sex and received cash payments, according to people close to the investigation and text messages and payment receipts reviewed by The New York Times.”

Yellen calls for a global minimum corporate tax rate. I think I'm in favor of this? But it seems difficult to implement in practice.

What Georgia’s Voting Law Really Does. “The New York Times analyzed the state’s new 98-page voting law and identified 16 key provisions that will limit ballot access, potentially confuse voters and give more power to Republican lawmakers.”

Big Tech Is Pushing States to Pass Privacy Laws, and Yes, You Should Be Suspicious. “The Markup reviewed existing and proposed legislation, committee testimony, and lobbying records in more than 20 states and identified 14 states with privacy bills built upon the same industry-backed framework as Virginia’s, or with weaker models. The bills are backed by a who’s who of Big Tech–funded interest groups and are being shepherded through statehouses by waves of company lobbyists.”

Science

COVID was bad for the climate. “To keep global warming under 2°C, we’d need sustained emissions reductions in this range every year for the next 20-30 years. The pandemic has been hugely disruptive, but it’s still temporary, and all signs point to a strong recovery. The drop in emissions was largely caused by lockdown, not persistent structural changes that will persist for decades to come.”

Finding From Particle Research Could Break Known Laws of Physics. “Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle called a muon is disobeying the laws of physics as we thought we knew them, scientists announced on Wednesday.” So exciting!

A Surprising Number Of Sea Monster Sightings Can Be Explained By Whale Erections. Today I learned.

American Honey Is Radioactive From Decades of Nuclear Bomb Testing. "The world’s nuclear powers have detonated more than 500 nukes in the atmosphere. These explosions were tests, shows of force to rival nations, and proof that countries such as Russia, France, and the U.S. had mastered the science of the bomb. The world’s honey has suffered for it. According to a new study published in Nature Communications, honey in the United States is full of fallout lingering from those atmospheric nuclear tests."

Flu Has Disappeared Worldwide during the COVID Pandemic. ““There’s just no flu circulating,” says Greg Poland, who has studied the disease at the Mayo Clinic for decades. The U.S. saw about 600 deaths from influenza during the 2020-2021 flu season. In comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated there were roughly 22,000 deaths in the prior season and 34,000 two seasons ago.”

Society

Estimates and Projections of COVID-19 and Parental Death in the US. "The number of children experiencing a parent dying of COVID-19 is staggering, with an estimated 37,300 to 43,000 already affected. For comparison, the attacks on September 11, 2001, left 3000 children without a parent."

Clearview AI Offered Thousands Of Cops Free Trials. “A controversial facial recognition tool designed for policing has been quietly deployed across the country with little to no public oversight. According to reporting and data reviewed by BuzzFeed News, more than 7,000 individuals from nearly 2,000 public agencies nationwide have used Clearview AI to search through millions of Americans’ faces, looking for people, including Black Lives Matter protesters, Capitol insurrectionists, petty criminals, and their own friends and family members.”

What an analysis of 377 Americans arrested or charged in the Capitol insurrection tells us . "Nor were these insurrectionists typically from deep-red counties. Some 52 percent are from blue counties that Biden comfortably won. But by far the most interesting characteristic common to the insurrectionists’ backgrounds has to do with changes in their local demographics: Counties with the most significant declines in the non-Hispanic White population are the most likely to produce insurrectionists who now face charges."

Reflexive McLuhanism. "To paraphrase Churchill: First we shape X, then X shapes us. If a defining characteristic of humanity is making and using tools, then a defining characteristic of society is being shaped by those same tools."

‘My full name is Tanyaradzwa’: the stars reclaiming their names. "Names are important and they have meaning, said the cultural historian and campaigner Patrick Vernon, whether that is familial significance or the time or day someone was born, for example. “The fact that people still feel they have to change or anglicise their names, and water down their heritage to fit in or succeed within the dominant culture, says we’ve still got a long way to go.”"

My Son, the Organ Donor. "My son’s vital organs saved four lives. His skin and other tissue donations will go on to help countless others. His strong heart now vigorously thumps inside the chest of a teenage boy." Please consider signing up to be a donor.

How to Name Your Black Son in a Racist Country. "And then warn him. Inform your son that he will likely be the only Tyrone in the cohort of 100 Americans and that there will be white people in his cohort who think gentrification is a good thing and who do not read. Let him know that those white people are not worth his time and that he should make a group chat with the six other Black folks in his cohort because he will regret not doing so later."

Get Ready for Blob Girl Summer. "So many people have died this year, millions, and I have survived to take into my body a miraculous shot that is the very flower of medical science, a code written in my genome to lock out the great threat. And I, imbibing this, have the temerity to not even be sexy. If Vaxxed Girl Summer is meant to be a kind of pan-cultural Rumspringa I ought to be someone that transcends schlubhood under its thrilling aegis. And yet."

Technology

NFT Canon. “The a16z NFT Canon is a curated list of readings and resources on all things NFTs, organized from the big picture, what NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are and why they matter... to how to mint, collect, and do more with them -- including how they play into various applications such as art, music, gaming, social tokens, more.”

Asian Americans in tech say they face ‘a unique flavor of oppression’. “Diversity training was "half-assed, whitewashed," she said. No one said the words "white supremacy" or "institutionalized racism."”

Social Attention: a modest prototype in shared presence. “My take is that the web could feel warmer and more lively than it is. Visiting a webpage could feel a little more like visiting a park and watching the world go by. Visiting my homepage could feel just a tiny bit like stopping by my home.” Nice proof of concept.

Google wins copyright clash with Oracle over computer code. “In siding with Google, Breyer wrote that, assuming for the sake of argument that the lines of code can be copyrighted, Google’s copying is nonetheless fair use. The fair-use doctrine permits unauthorized use of copyrighted material in some circumstances, including when the copying “transforms” the original material to create something new.” An important win in for Google at the Supreme Court.

Target CIO Mike McNamara makes a cloud declaration of independence. It makes sense that Target would want to move away from AWS, and their approach avoids lock-in to any cloud provider. All of this is made possible by free and open source software tools.

At Dynamicland, The Building Is The Computer. "Instead of simulating things like paper and pencils inside a computer, Realtalk grants computational value to everyday objects in the world. The building is the computer. Space is a first-class entity — a building block of computation. Digital projectors, cameras, and computers are inconspicuously attached to the ceiling rafters, creating space on tables and walls for projects and collaboration. Most of the software is printed on paper and runs on paper. But the deeper idea is that when the system recognizes any physical object, it becomes a computational object." Magical.

Signal adopts MobileCoin, a crypto project linked to its own creator Moxie Marlinspike. "Security expert Bruce Schneier thinks it’s an incredibly bad idea that “muddies the morality of the product, and invites all sorts of government investigative and regulatory meddling: by the IRS, the SEC, FinCEN, and probably the FBI.” He thinks the two apps—crypto and secure communications—should remain separate. In his mind, this is going to ruin Signal for everyone."

After Working at Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again. "After I quit, I promised myself to never love a job again. Not in the way I loved Google. Not with the devotion businesses wish to inspire when they provide for employees’ most basic needs like food and health care and belonging. No publicly traded company is a family. I fell for the fantasy that it could be."

Revealed: the Facebook loophole that lets world leaders deceive and harass their citizens. “The investigation shows how Facebook has allowed major abuses of its platform in poor, small and non-western countries in order to prioritize addressing abuses that attract media attention or affect the US and other wealthy countries. The company acted quickly to address political manipulation affecting countries such as the US, Taiwan, South Korea and Poland, while moving slowly or not at all on cases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mongolia, Mexico, and much of Latin America.”

DoJ used court order to thwart hundreds of Microsoft Exchange web shells. “In an unprecedented move, the Department of Justice used a court order to dismantle ‘hundreds’ of web shells installed using Exchange Server vulnerabilities patched by Microsoft six weeks ago.” A court order that allowed the FBI to go in and pre-emptively patch compromised systems. Fascinating.

Australian firm Azimuth unlocked the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone for the FBI. “Azimuth specialized in finding significant vulnerabilities. Dowd, a former IBM X-Force researcher whom one peer called “the Mozart of exploit design,” had found one in open-source code from Mozilla that Apple used to permit accessories to be plugged into an iPhone’s lightning port, according to the person.”

Exploiting vulnerabilities in Cellebrite UFED and Physical Analyzer from an app's perspective. "Cellebrite makes software to automate physically extracting and indexing data from mobile devices. They exist within the grey – where enterprise branding joins together with the larcenous to be called “digital intelligence.” Their customer list has included authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Russia, Venezuela, and China; death squads in Bangladesh; military juntas in Myanmar; and those seeking to abuse and oppress in Turkey, UAE, and elsewhere. A few months ago, they announced that they added Signal support to their software." This is a genuinely incredible blog post.

Why not faster computation via evolution and diffracted light. "What is the ultimate limit of computational operations per gram of the cosmos, and why don’t we have compilers that are targeting that as a substrate? I would like to know that multiple." Inspiring and mind-bending in that way that many genuinely new ideas are: connecting multiple existing ideas to create something fresh. A really great blog post.

University duo thought it would be cool to sneak bad code into Linux as an experiment. Of course, it absolutely backfired. "Computer scientists at the University of Minnesota theorized they could sneak vulnerabilities into open-source software – but when they tried subverting the Linux kernel, it backfired spectacularly."

Read Facebook's Internal Report About Its Role In The Capitol Insurrection. "From the earliest Groups, we saw high levels of Hate, VNI, and delegitimization, combined with meteoric growth rates — almost all of the fastest growing FB Groups were Stop the Steal during their peak growth. Because we were looking at each entity individually, rather than as a cohesive movement, we were only able to take down individual Groups and Pages once they exceeded a violation threshold. We were not able to act on simple objects like posts and comments because they individually tended not to violate, even if they were surrounded by hate, violence, and misinformation. After the Capitol Insurrection and a wave of Storm the Capitol events across the country, we realized that the individual delegitimizing Groups, Pages, and slogans did constitute a cohesive movement."

 

The DEI rollback

Yesterday, Jason Fried, Basecamp’s CEO, shared an internal memo he’d written about changes at the company. In it, he details how political discussions are no longer acceptable at work, and how benefits he considers to be “paternalistic” - like gym memberships and farmer’s market shares - are being removed.

It’s weird to me that this is coming from a company that literally wrote the book on culture. I’ve always thought of Basecamp (and its predecessor, 37 Signals) as being the yardstick for how to run a great company. This blog post completely blew that out of the water.

Conor Muirhead, a designer at Basecamp, later noted that political discussion was limited to two opt-in spaces: a space called “Civil Solace”, and a recently-formed DEI council. He notes that it was rare for these discussions to spill out of those spaces, although they did when, for example, “folks shared thoughts on how mocking people’s non-anglo names is a stepping stone towards racism”.

As Annalee Flower Horne rightly pointed out, “here's a thing about banning political discussions from a space because they're divisive: that does not resolve the division. It just says if you feel marginalized or unsafe here, keep it to yourself, we don't want to hear it.” Indeed, the predominantly white, male discourse - the one that is still dominant - is not usually considered to be “political”, while equity for marginalized people usually is. The effect is to further marginalize people of color in particular.

Regarding “paternalistic benefits”, Fred Wilson points out that “If you care about the mental and physical well-being of your team, I believe it makes sense to support them by investing in that. Companies can do that tax efficiently and employees cannot. Paying employees more so that they can then make these investments personally sounds rational but I don’t believe it will be as effective as company-funded programs that employees can opt into or not.” Because these benefits enjoy a special tax status, removing them disproportionately affects lower paid workers.

Something must have happened behind the scenes at Basecamp to force this change. The smart money’s on management becoming uncomfortable with changes requested, and power gathered, by the DEI council. But if you don’t want to make those changes, why have the council to begin with, except as a superficial gesture?

Basecamp was emboldened by Coinbase, which previously enacted a similar policy. It’s a regressive trend that more tech companies, led by men who are already predisposed to this narrower worldview, are likely to follow. This is particularly true in the post-Trump era, when the stakes (from a privileged perspective) seem lower.

For many of them, it’s an intentional roll back of the clock. Code2040 CEO Emeritus Karla Monterroso shared that “I will never forget a Latinx VP at a big tech company telling me that one of their VC’s (big name) told him at a board meeting that they had become an inhospitable place for white men and they needed to fix that.”

The solution, for now, is to call it out, and for those of us with privilege to pledge never to work for (or start) an organization with these policies. Diversity and inclusion is more important than ever. And leaders who care about the culture of their companies should once again take note of the Basecamp team: this time as a lesson in what not to do.

 

The user's journey

I’ve been lucky to get some productive, actionable criticism on my short stories, both from writing classes I’ve been a part of and journals I’ve submitted to.

The most common criticism goes something like this: “your line to line writing is solid, but you let the idea become the story”. In other words, rather than letting the story stand on its own feet, I fall into the trap of treating it like a kind of argument with a point I want to drive home.

I’m pretty sure I’ve developed this habit from 23 years of opinionated blogging: I write regular posts that try and argue for a particular worldview, or a way of doing things. Even if you’re a newcomer, you’ve probably noticed that I talk quite a bit about decentralization, data ownership, and the dangers of centralized data silos as a means to build concentrated wealth. I care about those things, and I’d love for more people to join me.

It’s served me pretty well as a way to write on my website, but it doesn’t really work for stories. The underlying idea can certainly inform how the story is written - and it should - but the narrative needs to be driven by its characters. Stories are about telling “true lies” that shine a light on some aspect of being human. In genre fiction that will often be accompanied by an exploration of an overt idea, but if, for example, a science fiction story is just about the science and not about how real human characters live and breathe in a world where that science is true, the story will suck.

It’s a trap and I’m learning to get over it.

Here’s the thing: I’ve realized that I fall into the exact same trap in my technology work, too. I’m often so wrapped up in an idea I care about - scroll up for a list of some of them - that I let it subsume the most important thing about any technology project. Just as a story needs to be driven by human characters (or proxies for human characters; I’m not arguing against Redwall here), technology products need to be driven by the people who use them. It’s not about your story as a creator; it’s about their story as a user.

It’s an ego thing, in a way. In both cases, I become so excited by the idea that I let myself become the character: the person expressing the idea, either in prose or code. The trick, the real art of it, is to inform the story with your ideas, but to center the character. Their journey is the all-important thing, and if an idea doesn’t fit with that journey, it doesn’t belong there.

Like I said: it’s a trap and I’m learning to get over it. And I strongly suspect I’m not alone.

You serve the reader by telling a human story; you serve the user by serving their story. It’s not about educating them, or forcing them around to your point of view. Whether you’re shining a light on the human condition or making a tool to make a part of it easier, it’s about service. Our goal should be to disappear and let the work speak for itself.

 

The return of the decentralized web

I’ve been having a lot of really inspiring conversations about decentralization lately. Decentralization doesn’t require the blockchain - and pre-dates it - but the rise of blockchain technologies have allowed more people to become comfortable with the idea and why it’s valuable.

Decentralized platforms have been part of virtually my entire career. I left my first job out of university to start Elgg, a platform that allowed anyone to make an online space for their communities on their own terms. It started in education and developed an ecosystem there, before expanding to far wider use cases. Across it all, the guiding principle was that one size didn’t fit all: every community should be able to dictate not just its own features, but its own community dynamics. We were heavily involved in interoperability and federation conversations, and my biggest regret is that we didn’t push our nascent Open Data Definition forward into an ActivityStreams-like data format. To this day, though, people are using Elgg to support disparate communities across the web. Although they use Elgg’s software, the Elgg Foundation doesn’t strip-mine those communities: all value (financial and otherwise) stays with them.

Known was built on a similar principle, albeit for a world of ubiquitous connectivity where web-capable devices sit in everyone’s pocket. I use it every day (for example, to power this article), as many others do.

Much later, I was the first employee at Julien Genestoux’s Unlock, which is a decentralized protocol for access control built on top of the Ethereum blockchain. Here, a piece of content is “locked” with an NFT, and you can sell or share access via keys. If a user connects to content (which could be anything from a written piece to a real-life physical event) with a key for the lock, they gain access. Because it’s an open protocol, one size once again doesn’t fit all: anyone can use the underlying lock/key mechanism to build something new. Because it’s decentralized, the owner of the content keeps all the value.

Contrast that principle with Facebook, which has been the flag-bearer for the strip-mining of communities across the web for well over a decade now. Its business model means that it’s super-easy to create a community space, which it then monetizes for all it’s worth: you even have to pay to effectively reach the people you connected with to begin with. We’ve all become familiar with the societal harms of its targeted model, but even beyond that, centralization has inherent harms. When every online interaction and discussion is templated to the same team’s design decisions (and both the incentives and assumptions behind those decisions), those interactions are inevitably shaped by those templates. It leads to what Amber Case calls the templated self. Each of those conversations consequently occurs in a form that serves Facebook (or Twitter, etc) rather than the community itself.

It’s easy to discount blockchain; I did, for many years. (It was actually DADA, one of our investments at Matter, who showed me the way.) And there’s certainly a lot that can be said about the environmental impact and more. We should talk about them now: it’s important to apply pressure to change to proof of stake and other models beyond. The climate crisis can’t be brushed aside. But we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater: blockchain platforms have created value in decentralization, and provided a meaningful alternative to invasive, centralized silos for the first time in a generation. Those things are impermanent; we won’t be talking about harmful, slow proof of work algorithms in a few years, in the same way we don’t talk about HTML 1 today.

What does it look like to build an ethical, decentralized platform for community and discourse that is also self-sustaining, using these ideas? How can we distribute equity among participants of the community rather than sucking it up into a centralized megacorporation or institutional investors? That question has been giving me energy. And there are more and more people thinking along similar lines.

Animated GIF NFTs and crypto speculation aren’t very interesting at best (at least to me), and at worst are a reflection of a kind of reductive greed that has seriously negative societal effects. But looking beyond the gold rush, the conversations I’m having remind me of the conversations I used to have about the original web. The idea of decentralization is empowering. The idea of a community supporting itself organically is empowering. The idea of communities led by peer-to-peer self-governance is empowering. The idea of movement leaders being organically supported in their work is empowering. And we’re now in a position where if we pull those threads a little more, it’s not obvious that these ideas will fail. That’s an exciting place to be.

 

Trying out live discussion

I'm experimenting with adding live discussion to every post.

Comments are powered by Cactus, which in turn is powered by the decentralized Matrix project: they're not monetized or tracked, and you can choose to take part using the Matrix client of your choice instead of on my website. Comments are pseudonymous by default, but you can create a Matrix profile (or log in if you already have one) to attach your identity.

I love the idea of posts on my site as a starting point for wider discussion. It'll allow me to pose questions more effectively, and for all of you to meet each other. The internet is about community, not one-way broadcasts; I'm excited to see how this goes.

 

The door

Daniel found the door to another world the day his father died.

It sat behind the ugly painting of a hillside in France that his dad bought at a second hand shop a few years ago; he hung it proudly in his bedroom, despite Daniel’s mother’s protests. It was hanging at an angle when Daniel came to check on the house. When he straightened it, he caught a glimpse of shiny, red wood: a small square door sealed with a brass latch.

He pulled the latch and found it opened easily. Golden sunlight illuminated the dusty room; through the frame, he saw a cloudless, shimmering blue sky. Spirals of brightly-colored birds he had never seen before flew between trees. A warm breeze ran through his hair.

He shut the door with a start.

Surely he was imagining things?

Gently, he opened it again; just a crack. Again, he felt the breeze against his skin and heard the call of unfamiliar birds. It was the dead of winter, but the room was again lit in summery gold.

His heart pounded in his ears. He backed away slowly, and he kept backing away until he was locking the door, then mounting his bicycle, and finally racing home as fast as he could.

He had no idea how to process what he’d seen.

He wished there was someone he could ask about it. But his father was gone.

*

“Did you go over?” Daisy asked, wrapping her husband in a hug as soon as he walked in through the kitchen door. She had a spaghetti bolognese going on the stovetop; half-grated cheese sat on a wooden chopping board on the countertop. Simple comfort food for the end of a terrible day.

Daniel nodded wordlessly.

“How are you holding up?”

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet, to be honest,” Daniel said, after a moment. “I feel numb. He was a miserable man in some ways, and we never had a very warm relationship, but he was my Dad. Now he’s gone, there are so many things I want to ask him, and I can’t.”

Daisy kissed his forehead. Her blonde hair brushed against his face. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“I should tell Mum,” he said.

Daisy looked at him with concern. “Do you think she needs to know tonight? Will it make a difference to her?”

“No,” Daniel said, “but it’ll make a difference to me. I don’t want it hanging over everything. I need to tell her.”

Daisy pulled him in tighter. “She won’t know what you’re saying,” she said, quietly, as kindly as she could. “She’ll forget it as soon as you walk out through the door.” It felt blunt; cruel, even. But Daniel had been through enough for one day. He needed to rest.

“I’ll go tomorrow,” he told her, finally.

“I love you,” she said.

He loved her too, and told her so. He didn’t mention the door.

*

Daniel’s mother lived in a a memory care facility next to the John Radcliffe hospital, just off the ring road in east Oxford. In contrast to the hospital’s modern steel and glass, the facility’s pebble-dash walls were painted over with thick beige paint that came off in chunks at the corners. The morning sky cast the street in a dim grey, and as he walked up to the building, he shivered underneath his coat.

“I’m so sorry to hear about your Da,” Amy said after he’d signed in at the front desk. She had been the head nurse since his mother was first checked in. In some ways she was like family now: not Nurse Walsh, but Amy, the woman who had been by Daniel’s side when he first signed the forms, and when his mother’s memory had gone so far that she barely remembered who he was. His Dad hated it there, and had barely ever set foot in the building.

“Thank you,” Daniel said.

His mother sat in a big, institutional armchair upholstered in brown, wipe-clean vinyl. She was watching some daytime TV show about house-hunting in Europe on the communal flat-screen. Over the institutional smell of cleaning fluid, he could smell roses. Her perfume. Even now, with her memory mostly gone and the fabric of who she used to be torn apart by disease, she insisted on wearing it.

“Hi Mum,” he said, gently, taking care not to startle her.

She looked at him blankly.

“It’s your son,” he said. “Daniel.”

His mother smiled, but it was hard to tell if it was out of recognition.

“It’s nice to see you,” he said, smiling. She didn’t respond, and turned back to the television.

“How have you been, Mum?” He asked, sitting on a vinyl ottoman in front of her.

“I’ve been buying a house in Spain,” she said, turning back to him. Her voice carried a touch of a Russian accent; a fragment of the community of Jewish immigrants she’d grown up with in London. “It’s beautiful.”

“That’s lovely,” Daniel said.

“Yes, it makes a very nice change. I will go there with Peter in the summer.”

“That sounds nice,” Daniel said. He swallowed hard. “Mum, that’s why I’m here. I need to talk to you about Dad. About Peter.”

“My husband,” she said, smiling.

“Yes,” Daniel said, reaching out to touch her hand. “He died, Mum.”

“That cannot be. I spoke to him this morning.”

Daniel wondered if she’d really seen him in years. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “but Dad’s gone.”

She looked at him, but said nothing. He thought he could see her eyes grow wider, just slightly, but he couldn’t say for sure.

“He had a heart attack,” he said. “They couldn’t save him. They tried everything.”

She remained motionless, and the two of them sat there in complete silence. After a minute or two had passed, she said, abruptly: “I think you should go.”

“Okay, Mum,” Daniel said. There was no sense in arguing. “I love you.”

She turned back to the television, soaking herself in the sunny images of southern Spain. As she watched and the conversation with her son faded into the background, a smile began to curl back onto her face.

Daniel picked himself up off the ottoman. He took a long look at his mother, took in the smell of her perfume, and noticed the way her happiness didn’t quite seem to reach her eyes.

He turned towards the exit and waved a half-hearted thank you to Amy. She nodded and gave him a sympathetic smile.

He was just about to push the door open out into the reception when his mother turned back to him and asked: “Have you found the door yet?”

*

Daniel’s father had been an academic at the university, although he had given up most of his teaching duties long ago. He sat in a small office lined with Russian literature, peering into his computer screen and slowly hunting and pecking articles for research journals. The university let him stay partially out of kindness, and partially because he had become a relatively well-known name in the field. His translation of The Brothers Karamazov had long since fallen out of fashion, but in the seventies you could buy it in any bookstore.

Now that he was dead, the university made it clear that his office needed to be cleared out within the week.

Daniel and Daisy piled his books into open boxes. When one was full, they sealed it with brown packing tape and wrote a short description across the top. Dad’s books: a completely inadequate label for a life’s work. But there was nothing else they could write; neither one of them knew much about Russian literature. The stories and traditions that he had spent his life immersed in were an unknown.

The room smelled of dusty pages, and of him.

“So what did she say?” Daisy asked, packing a heavy-looking book bound in a burgundy dust jacket.

“She told me to leave,” Daniel said.

“So she knows what happened. She understands.”

Daniel sealed up a box and piled it on top of the others. There were seven of them now, towering in one corner. “I think so,” he said, “but these days it’s hard to tell for sure.”

“Did she say anything else?”

Daniel folded together a new, empty box, and sealed up the bottom with tape. “She turned back to the television. She literally wouldn’t talk to me anymore. And that was that.”

They turned their attention back to their work, boxing up the books and the hopelessly out-of-date computer that sat on his desk. In his desk drawers, they found a handful of Rubles - bright green notes with the remains of columns illustrated across them - and a cheap, plastic compass with a loop for tying to your wrist. Beside them was a quote, scrawled in his father’s handwriting on a white notecard: “For some a prologue, for some an epilogue”.

Before long, the room was empty. Daniel knew it would be scrubbed down soon, ready for the next academic to fill it with their work, wiped clear of the memory and the smell and the spirit of his father.

It was only when they had driven away that Daniel told her what he’d seen.

*

The two of them held hands in his father’s bedroom, facing the door in the wall. A moment ago, he had opened it for her, and she had seen a beautiful blue sky. It seemed impossible - like a magic trick - but then he did it again, and again. Once he had opened and closed the door for a fourth time, both of them acknowledged that it was real.

“But what is it?” Daisy asked.

“It’s a door,” Daniel said. “To somewhere.”

“But what is it?”

“I have no idea.”

*

They sat around the small dinner table his father had kept in the kitchen, eating slices of frozen pizza and sipping at glasses of the cheap red wine they had found in the

“Well, we can’t sell the house,” Daisy said. “Not with ... that.”

“No, I suppose not,” Daniel said. “But we can’t just keep the house here, sitting empty. It’s not right.”

“I agree. I just don’t know what to do about it. What if someone breaks in and finds it?”

“We don’t know where it goes; where that place is. What if it’s dangerous? What if, when you climb through, you can’t come back? We don’t know anything.”

“Do you think we can move it?” Daisy asked.

“It’s a doorway. How can you move a doorway?”

They finished their wine in silence as the sunlight left them and the room dimmed.

After they had sat in darkness for a while, Daisy said: “we should go through it.”

*

Daniel insisted that he would be the first to climb through. The plan was that he would climb back all the way, and then go through again, to make sure it was possible and that Daisy wouldn’t be trapped there. Then, and only then, she would climb through to follow him. They would leave the door open, with a broom propped against it so that it couldn’t swing shut.

It was small and square and two thirds the way up the wall, so he found that he needed to stand on a chair to have any hope of pulling himself through. Even then, it took more arm strength than he was comfortable exerting. But he found he could grip the sides of the doorframe, and Daisy gave him a small push, which helped. Before long, he felt the sun on his back and found that his feet were planted in the greenest grass he’d ever seen.

On this side, the doorframe floated in mid-air: just a square hanging in space with Daisy inside, and behind her, the gloom of the bedroom.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Daniel said. “It’s actually lovely in here. Out here. Wherever here is.”

“Come back out,” Daisy beckoned.

He pulled himself back through the doorway, awkwardly landing backwards on the chair. “That was pretty good, actually.”

“Okay,” Daisy said, “now back you go, and then I’ll follow you.”

Daniel once again pulled himself through the doorframe, and then gave Daisy a hand and helped her through behind him. Her sneakers landed in the grass.

“Oh,” Daisy said, turning her head towards the sky, “this is magnificent.”

They could see now that they were on a grassy hillside on the edge of a forest. On one side, they could see the birds and the trees. On the other, if they looked back beyond the doorframe, they could see a valley stretch out below them, and beyond it, more rolling hills dotted with trees and shrubs. Flowers sprung up among the grass. There were no signs of civilization anywhere; not so much as a hedgerow. It was wild and beautiful.

“How could your father keep this a secret?” Daisy asked, smiling. She turned to Daniel, but found that he was suddenly still, his face turned ashen.

Then she heard it.

From through the doorframe, somewhere back in the house, she could hear the sound of floorboards creaking under footsteps. As she listened, she realized that each step was getting louder; the person in the house was getting closer.

“Who is it?” Daisy whispered.

“Someone must have broken in,” Daniel whispered back.

“What if they see the door?”

“I don’t think we can avoid it now.”

They crouched below the frame and looked up, hoping to see who had broken into the house without being seen themselves.

“Is he here?” an unfamiliar woman’s voice said, somewhere in the house.

“I don’t see him,” a man’s voice said.

“Fine,” the first voice said. “Find the doorway and let’s sit in wait before he comes to look at the house.”

“Right you are,” the second voice said, noticeably louder. They were getting closer still; coming up the stairs now.

“If you see him, we must use force,” the first voice said. “We know the evil that lurks in his heart. It must be stamped out.”

Daisy clasped her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide in horror. Daniel was so still that she wasn’t sure if he was still breathing.

“Who is that?” Daisy whispered.

“I don’t know,” Daniel whispered.

“I found it! Ya ponyal!” shouted a voice from somewhere behind the doorway, and they heard the sounds of running footsteps.

Suddenly, Daniel stood up, reached through the square frame back into the bedroom, and closed the door behind them. The square of red wood hung in mid-air, impossibly. Behind it, he could hear the knocking and scratching of men, desperate to break through, but for reasons he couldn’t understand, they were barred.

*

The ground was soft but dry underfoot. As they walked down into the valley, they encountered the odd mouse amidst the grass or a bird pecking at something in the ground. The sun was warm, but the air wasn’t too hot or dry. It was the perfect summer’s day, and they were trapped in it.

Daniel had tried to move the doorframe so they could take it with them, but it stayed firm, as if it was cemented in something other than thin air. In the end they decided to leave it and see if they could find civilization. In the best case, there might be another door that could take them somewhere else, back into the real world.

It wasn’t that this place wasn’t the real world - it was just, they didn’t know what it was, or where. Or even when, if they stopped to think about it.

They had been walking for hours when they came across three strange, small cottages. Each of them was built with a wooden frame, with sticks and leaves packed in with clay and covered in a mixture of lime and sand. The roofs leaned up at sheer angles and were covered in bundles of straw. At one end, a small clay chimney jutted out, with a triangular, slate chimney cap.

“Do you think they’ll have water?” Daisy asked. It had been a long, hot walk.

“I think we have to try,” Daniel said. “I hope they’re friendly.”

Nervously, Daniel walked up to the door of the closest cottage and gave it a small, polite knock. There was no answer. After a few moments, he knocked again; when nobody came to the door, he turned back to Daisy and shrugged.

“Let’s try the next one,” she said. She walked to the next-closest cottage and knocked on the door. Again, there was no answer; she waited and tried again, but once more nobody came to the door.

They were about to walk up to the door of the third cottage when it opened with a bang. A small, old woman wearing a red handkerchief around her head walked out and looked at them with fierce eyes.

Chy mozhu ya vam dopomohty?” the woman asked, sternly, in what sounded like a Russian accent.

Daniel raised his hand in a friendly wave. “Hello,” he said.

*

The three of them sat in the old woman’s one-room cottage, drinking cups of strong, black tea. They didn’t share a common language, but Daisy seemed to have a knack for getting her intentions across through gestures and intonation. The woman’s name was Olena, and she had plenty of tea to share.

The sun outside had begun to dim, and Olena lit a small fire, which crackled in the fireplace and cast shadows that danced across the walls. She told her story as best she could, given the lack of words between them. Her husband, Ananiy, had gone to find a better home, taking her son, Andriy, with him. There was an army, or a mob of some kind - it was hard to tell through the language barrier - that was rampaging over the land and stealing peoples’ homes. Villages were burned to the ground. Entire families were obliterated.

As she spoke, Daniel recognized one word: “pogrom”.

Olena stood up to go outside; she gestured towards the fireplace and made a chopping motion. Firewood. Daniel and Daisy raised their hands and pointed to themselves instead; we’ll gather it for you. She smiled in acceptance, and the two of them left the cottage to find wood to burn.

“Did you hear her?” Daniel asked in a hushed whisper. As they walked around the cottage, they found a small pile of dry wood in a clay hut. “Pogroms. She was talking about pogroms.”

“I think she’s speaking Russian,” Daisy said.

“Is this —?”

Daisy nodded. “It seems insane, but I think we’re in the past. Like, over a hundred years ago in the past. It’s crazy, but at the same time, it must be. The pogroms in Russia were during the revolution. The White Army murdered Jews and spread propaganda that they were communists.”

“I think you’re right, but it’s more than that,” Daniel said.

“More than that?”

“It’s a lot, but yeah,” Daniel said, “more than that. I think Ananiy was my great grandfather. Ananiy and Olena were my great grandparents.”

Daisy gave him a quick hug; then, they gathered as much firewood as each of them could carry under each arm, and went back inside.

Olena laid out some woolen blankets on the floor for them to sleep under (“spaty,” she said, while gesturing emphatically towards them). She slept on a small, wooden bed in the corner under another set of blankets. The fire slowed and turned to embers, and before long they could hear the old woman’s gentle snoring.

*

In the darkness, Daisy turned to face Daniel. “How do we get back?” she whispered.

“I think we have to find our way back to the door,” Daniel said. “It seems like there’s only one way back.”

“What about Olena? What if the White Army comes to find her?”

“If she really is my great grandmother, they won’t. My great grandmother survived the pogroms and fled to join Ananiy and Andriy in London. She’ll be okay.”

“And if she isn’t?”

“I don’t know,” Daniel admitted. “I don’t think we can risk bringing her home. Into the future, I mean.”

Daisy nodded and thought for a minute. “This is all so surreal. I don’t know how we got here or how this even exists. But there’s one more thing I’ve been thinking. It’s going to sound strange, but I don’t think it can be stranger than anything else that’s happened today.”

“I think I know who the people in the house were,” Daisy whispered. “I think, somehow, it was the White Army. Or, perhaps, the ghosts of the White Army, or their descendants. The way they were talking - we know the evil that lurks in his heart. It’s such a strange thing to say. And they were speaking in Russian when they found the door. It seems so strange, but I’m scared that what I’m saying might actually be true, and they might be waiting for us whenever we go back.”

“How much time do you think has passed?” Daniel asked.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s night-time now, right? Here? And it was evening when we climbed through the door back home. If time moves at the same speed here as there - which it must do, because we heard people through the doorway - then it’s got to be early morning there by now.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying it’s time to go.”

*

“The door?” Daniel sat himself back down on the vinyl ottoman in front of his mother. “What do you know about that?”

She smiled at him like she used to, back before her illness dragged her away from the world; a smile of recognition and love. “I know all about it,” she said. “It followed him. It followed us. From where we came from, where our parents came from, and their parents, too, all the way up to us sitting here now. And it will follow you, and your children, and their children.”

“It seems so impossible,” Daniel said.

“When something bad happens, it ripples outwards. When someone is hurt, their children are hurt too, and so, too, their children. We all carry the past with us. That is what the door is. The things that hurt us follow us forever.”

“That sounds like a curse.”

“It is,” his mother said. “And it is a curse that is ten times worse if you pretend it’s not there. You will feel tired and not know why you are tired. It will pull at you and make you crazy with a thousand tiny hooks, and you will blame yourself. Trauma you inherit has no cause other than what comes through your family; you are confronted by ghosts that aren’t yours. The only way to stop the cycle - the waves of hurt that flow from generation to generation - is to face it. And that’s what the door is.”

“So I have to go through it?”

“Yes,” she said. “That won’t stop the hurt its tracks. But it will give you the power to fight it, as knowledge always does. It will give it a name, and a form.”

“I don’t understand what this means.”

“You will. I can tell you no more.”

Daniel got up and hugged his mother. “I love you, Mum,” he said.

“I love you too,” she said, turning back to the television. “Now leave me with my home in Spain.”

*

They stood, once again, in front of the door, which hung against nothingness in the dead of the night. They had folded the blankets as neatly as they could, left Olena sleeping in her bed, and made the long journey up out of the valley.

“I don’t know what’s behind this door,” Daniel said. “They might still be there. It might be dangerous. You didn’t ask for this; this isn’t a part of your family history. I’m sorry.”

“It isn’t, and it is,” Daisy said. “It’s part of my family history now because you’re my family. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t come to me from my parents; it comes to me from love. I accept it because I accept you. It’s not my family history; it’s my family future. And knowing it helps me know you a little better.”

“Are you sure?”

“I am.”

They embraced each other, then, in the night.

“Let’s do this,” Daisy said.

Daniel pushed the door open and it swung out into his father’s bedroom. His face glowed as the morning light shone through the frame. He turned to face Daisy and smiled; then, with one swift movement, he swung himself through the square and out into the room.

A moment later, she followed him. Her feet dropped back onto the beige carpet with a thud.

They were back in the present day. Dust floated in rays of sunlight. The ugly painting sat on the floor, balanced against the wall.

The house was silent and empty, but it sang with the life of Daniel’s parents: their history; the history they brought with them; the stories they left behind.

“What now?” Daisy asked.

Wordlessly, Daniel moved forward.

 

 

I just want a computer that works, man

I have a persistent, infuriating problem with typing.

The only laptop I own with a functional keyboard is my iPad Pro - the one device in this form factor that doesn’t actually ship with a keyboard. Even my work laptop suffers from the notorious broken butterfly keyboard problem.

Keys stick. They misfire. They double-type. Hitting the space bar once results in two spaces, which my computer turns into a period. Other keys have lost sensitivity. It's inconsistent.

The thing is, it creeps up on you. When your keyboard is iffy, you’re less likely to open your laptop to hack on something, or to use it to write. When you’re writing anything - blog posts, fiction, source code, documentation, even emails and Slack messages - keys that double-press or don’t fire at all can be catastrophic. It’s led to me writing less, coding less, and getting far less use out of my computers. Which, given what I do for a living, is not great. And considering what I paid for my Macs, it’s outrageous.

My laptop needs to feel like an extension of me. My outboard brain; my reliable toolkit. It can’t fail.

My personal laptop is five years old, which is beyond my usual threshold for upgrading, so I don’t feel horrible about replacing it with a newer model. But as much as I’d love to acquire a new M1 device, I’m not certain I want to give that money to Apple. I like Macs, but I feel burned.

So what might it look like to jump ship and find something else?

I want: a keyboard that works; excellent battery life; speed; a relatively lightweight form factor; privacy.

I’d also like: a low environmental footprint; repairable hardware; openness; a chassis that will last me at least 4-5 years; a default operating system that isn’t Windows.

Is that even a product that’s on the market?

My living depends on computers, so I’m willing to pay a premium for something that checks all the boxes. But in a world / industry where the default is Mac, I don’t even know where to begin.

What’s worked for you? Does this exist? Or should I just sit tight and wait for the new M1 Macs and be done with it?