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Reading, watching, playing, using: October, 2021

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

Books

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

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

Notable Articles

Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crypto

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

Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics

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

Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Introducing Untitled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fairness Friday: Rogue Retreat

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

This week I’m donating to Rogue Retreat. Based in Medford, OR, Rogue Retreat offers support and housing for the homeless in its local area, including a pioneering community of local homes. It describes its mission as follows:

Rogue Retreat provides affordable housing/shelter and case management to homeless individuals and families in Jackson and Josephine Counties, Oregon, to teach them the skills they need to live independently.

I was struck and moved to donate by this piece on police criticism of its facilities on NPR last year:

"It is just another enabling mechanism for the homeless, the transients and the displaced people here," [Police Chief] Johnson told the board in February 2019. "When you create something and enable people, you're going to attract more."

Johnson goes on to say that there’s another solution for people who are struggling with mental health and drug addiction: incarceration. I can’t imagine a more counter-productive, harmful attitude for someone in his position to have (color me disappointed but not surprised), which makes me even more appreciative of the work being done.

I donated. If you have the means, I encourage you to do the same.

 

What is the metaverse?

Facebook is reportedly betting the future of the company on the metaverse, changing the name of its umbrella company in the process. Meanwhile, supposedly NFTs are the revenue model for the metaverse, making $2.6bn in sales in the first six months of 2021 alone.

This is all well and good, but what the hell is the metaverse?

The complicated answer is: it depends on who you're talking to.

The metaverse as most people are talking about it right now is something to do with an interconnected set of virtual worlds, which may or may not be accessible via virtual reality (hence Facebook’s interest: after all, they own Oculus). The idea is that they’d be interoperable to the point where these worlds can lead to each other, and where you can bring objects from space to space - theoretically represented via NFTs.

This particular vision of the metaverse is probably not accurate. It depends on a few different important prerequisites: virtual reality becoming not just mainstream but near-ubiquitous for more than just games (when this is far from true even for games today), NFTs evolving to become truly powerful object primitives for interoperability rather than cartoon pictures of apes that are sometimes used for money laundering, and enough people buying into this new version of the internet that they build worlds, objects, and applications with wild abandon.

Another version of the metaverse is a “digital overlay for our reality” - or as I’ve often described social media, a backchannel for real life. Here, rather than interconnected worlds, we’re maybe talking about something closer to digital platforms that add value to reality. This fits a little closer to Facebook, which could already be thought of in this way.

The thing is, none of these platforms exist. It’s a wishful, top-down version of a future internet that is little more than vaporware today. Moreover, although some of the technologies in play this time round are novel, the overall vision has been around for a long time. It’s a bit like a flying car: something we’ve been promised forever but has never quite come to fruition.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a completely fruitless endeavor. There are lots of good things that could come out of a push for the metaverse. The most obvious of them is interoperability: while internet platforms have operated as silos to date, an interconnected metaverse depends on true interoperability. Those worlds have to work together, and those objects have to be moveable from place to place. The financial incentives also have to be aligned with keeping the platform open. That means building real, open technologies to allow those things to happen, which may well enable other kinds of applications that we haven’t conceived of yet.

Still, when people talk about the metaverse online right now, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t exist. Unlike the web, say, it’s not a thing. Facebook is clearly serious about it, and lots of money has been thrown at projects like Decentraland. But it’s highly likely that if you ask twelve people to define what the metaverse is, you’ll get twelve different definitions. In that sense, the metaverse is science fiction: the stuff of aspiration.

I’d put money on the actual future of the internet being something that nobody really predicted, emerging from an unexpected place. That’s part of why the internet is such an empowering platform to work on. But again - there’s a lot of value in plugging away at a mission, even if it turns out that most of that value is in the journey rather than the end result. I don’t think the metaverse is a real outcome - frankly, it just smells too much of BS to me - but the protocols, communities, and business models it leads to may be.

I’m fascinated to find out what Facebook’s definition of the metaverse is. I’m also interested to see which challengers enter into the market with a strong, competing vision. Most of all, of course, I’m interested to see what actually happens, and what the future of the platform we all use turns out to be.

 

Driving the M1

I got mine well before the new batch of redesigned MacBook Pros, but my 13” M1 machine is by far the best computer I’ve ever owned. It’s responsive, the keyboard is great, and the battery life is long enough that I sometimes forget the thing has a battery at all.

As an engineer, I wish it leaned a little heavier on the Pro side. In particular, the lack of adequate virtualization means it’s not a suitable device for some kinds of development. That’s a real bummer!

I’m sure it’s not a permanent situation: the stacks we used virtualization to test and code on will be replaced by something that’s more ARM-compatible. For now, though, it’s a blocker. There are times when I can’t test directly in the cloud - right now, for example, I’m publishing this on in-flight WiFi - and spinning up a local environment is the only real choice.

Still, it’s generally superb, and I’m looking forward to using mine for many years to come. (I’m not even that jealous of the new machines with a selection of actual ports.) Highly recommended and worth the money.

 

Thoughts and actions for the week of October 18, 2021

Thoughts

  1. I remember on my very first startup, my co-founder (the CEO) worried that we weren’t cool enough. We were building a white label community platform that was beginning to be used inside large organizations to share information: what would become a multi-billion dollar business. And we were doing it in a way that would allow companies to keep their internal information secure. But at the time, consumer social web startups were cool, and we lost focus by trying to chase that dream. The worry was more about the image of being a startup than creating something financially viable and doing it the right way.
  2. The startup community is absolutely chock full of posturing bullshit. A lot of this is the fault of VC hustle porn: raising money is celebrated. Having a great launch on Product Hunt seems awesome. Being able to tell regular people about your startup and having them recognize your brand is a milestone.
  3. But none of these things are the same as building an actually-successful business. Marketing and sales are important, of course, but if your entire effort is blustering and creating the right kind of external-facing energy, you’ll lose. There are plenty of those kinds of companies, but they’re not real: instead they’re sort of play-acting being a startup.
  4. You’ve got to ship. That means knowing how to build software that solves real problems and doing it, again and again and again, without losing focus.
  5. Another symptom of play-acting is just talking about what you’ll do instead of doing it, as if brainstorming or strategizing is as valuable a task as the act of making.
  6. Brainstorming and strategizing set the stage for the real work. They are not the real work.
  7. If you’re more worried about how you appear than the substance of what you do, you’ll want to spend most of your time on talk. Often founders like this will outsource the act of making as an afterthought, devaluing the skill and action of making in the culture of their organization. They want to be the ones who dictate what gets done without doing any of it.
  8. And of course, the people who make are on the hook for actually producing in this environment, and will receive the flak when it doesn’t happen, with little of the kudos when it does.
  9. This is what we call an abusive relationship.
  10. Not every maker can be a founder, but every founder should have a maker’s mindset.

Actions

  1. I’m in the process of shutting down a bunch of my cloud services (or at least, reducing them to their free tiers) and replacing them with home-spun alternatives. I used csvskit to take my large AirTable databases and turn them into local tables, saving me hundreds of dollars a month. More of this to come.
  2. I’m heading back to the west coast for a wedding. The trip is going to be a bit complicated, and I’m still trying to figure out the logistics.
  3. I’m also closing out my time in Cape Cod at the end of the month. I’ve been here since early August, in the house my great grandparents built. It’s been cathartic and wonderful to be here, but real life calls. I need to start packing up and preparing.
  4. We got here by road-tripping east; while my dad is going to fly back, my sister and I are planning to road-trip west. It’ll be a completely different kind of trip, and I can’t wait. Exactly when we do this, I’m still not sure, so there’s planning to be done. But it will happen.
 

How I think about giving

I was asked to go into a little more detail around how I think about my Fairness Fridays posts.

They were originally inspired by Fred Wilson’s Funding Fridays, which highlights a new crowdfunding campaign. I actually really like those: it’s a fun way to discover new projects that are getting off the ground. But while there’s a lot of focus on new businesses in my circles, and particularly new startups, there’s much less on groups on the ground who are working hard for equal rights and the dignity of vulnerable people. Although I’m not rich, I’ve been lucky enough to earn an above average technology sector salary. So this is a small thing I can do: contribute weekly to organizations in a way that’s within my means, and compound that by encouraging others to do the same.

My mission in work is to build things that have the potential to make the world more equal. That’s my philosophy towards giving, too. Most of the organizations I highlight are providing services that should really be provided by government but aren’t: I’m a strong believer in social safety nets as infrastructure. In a perfect world, giving and philanthropy of any kind wouldn’t need to exist, and the well-being of vulnerable people wouldn’t depend on the whims and attention of people who are wealthier. But here we are, and the people who do this advocacy and support work are hugely unsung heroes.

I typically don’t give to religious organizations, because I’m not religious, and I think any kind of proselytizing in the course of providing community services is immoral. (It should go without saying that I’m also not interested in conservative-leaning organizations: supporting the vulnerable means supporting an identity-positive, pro-choice future with a focus on distributing equity.) That said, I know that not every religious organization does this, and they do provide vital work in many communities, so I’ve made exceptions (particularly at the border). I also prefer to give to smaller, community organizations rather than larger nationwide endeavors, on the grounds that the former are likely more in need of funds - but again, I’ve sometimes made exceptions.

I often privately ask for recommendations, and I’d love any recommendations that you’re willing to share. If you know of a great local community organization that has the potential to help vulnerable people gain equity through advocacy and direct support, I’d love to hear about them.

These posts aren’t the only giving I do. I also donate on a monthly basis to many of the organizations you would expect, including the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center. These nationwide organizations do deeply important work, and my omission in this series does not imply a lack of support.

 

Fairness Friday: the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women

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

This week I’m donating to the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. Based in Albuquerque, CSVANW advocates for social change in the communities it supports to prevent violence against Native women and children.

It describes its mission as follows:

Organized in 1996 by three founding Native women, Peggy Bird (Kewa), Darlene Correa (Laguna Pueblo) and Genne James (Navajo), the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women (CSVANW) was created to provide support to other Native advocates working in domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, stalking and sex trafficking in New Mexico’s tribal communities. Their single goal: to eliminate violence against Native women and children.

[…] CSVANW is an award winning organization at the forefront to a dynamic approach to the tribal domestic and sexual violence fields that is demonstrating the most effective, creative and innovative ways to address and prevent the cycle of violence within tribal communities.

Its activities include training, technical assistance, advocacy, and direct support. It also sits on statewide taskforces in order to further its justice objectives.

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

 

The twin sadnesses

As Ben Werdmuller awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into …

Stress has been a major part of my life this year, for obvious reasons. I’m no longer at the point in the year where I can claim to be ruled by grief with any real conviction, but it’s always there. Call me a high-functioning griever.

But the unhappiness I feel isn’t entirely the effect of losing my mother. It’s hard to compare, because it’s not fair to say there’s something deeper - that grief is already as deep as it gets, a sinkhole to oblivion just behind my eyes. It’s more that there’s another sadness that sits alongside it. They’re two different flavors, or two different entities that sit in two different universes with two different laws of physics. One is grief; the other is depression.

The manifestation of both of these sadnesses is that the world feels fundamentally wrong. In my grief, this is because my universe has lost its most important character, who I continue to reach for, make jokes with, and ask for advice like a kind of phantom limb until I remember. In my depression, it’s because I feel dissatisfied with the rhythms and timbre of my life. I can’t point to anything and say “this is wrong”, but in totality, wrongness pervades everything. There’s nothing to be fixed in either case because, in the case of grief, I can’t bring her back from the dead; in the case of depression, it’s hard to know where to begin.

My dissatisfactions go something like this:

One: my mother is gone, stolen by a terrible illness, which is an unfairness in the universe so profound that nothing is redeemable.

Two: I’ve been forced to play a game that I don’t particularly care for, knowing that the alternative is worse. The templated pattern of participating in regular society feels empty to me. Maybe this is because I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to be raised in a household that didn’t follow these norms. My parents didn’t have regular jobs; we didn’t settle in a single place; one year we traveled so much that I attended less than two thirds of the school year. We didn’t have money, and that was in part by my parents’ choice: my mother came from an upper middle-class family and my dad had a PhD in economics, and a comfortable life would have been easy for them. They opted out of the regular patterns and chose life experiences over wealth and stability, and knowing that there was an abundance of comfort and happiness in this, I don’t know that I can be content doing anything else. I honestly don’t know whether I’ve been ruined or freed.

Wealth is an empty goal. The people who chase it spend their lives gardening a number. What’s meaningful is choosing life: finding the things that spark and inspire you and following them. People talk about there not being reward without risk, but usually they mean in the sense of financial investments. Fine, but it works for life too: to be truly happy and truly yourself, you need to slip off the rails that have been set out for you. By definition, they’re not your rails. They’re someone else’s route: an aspiration that someone else has for the direction of your life.

I quietly admire the people who can feel comfortable following the regular path. Find a stable job, buy a house, start a family, get a dog, etc etc. And don’t get me wrong: I’d love to have a house, a family, a dog, and everything the etc etc implies. I want to do those things. And I think describing them in this way does them a disservice: starting a family, for example, is much more about - or at least, should be much more about - establishing a deep, mutually supportive partnership that becomes the emotional and practical bedrock of your life. I’ve always seen partnerships as being akin to being allies in an adverse world, and there’s nothing superficial about that. (A dog is just a dog, but dogs are great, so.) Still, something is missing, and I admire the people who don’t have that niggling dissatisfaction eating away at the core of them. They can just get on with it.

I wonder if it’s partially this: the traditional path is a deal that asks you to normalize yourself to a mainstream ideal in exchange for financial reward. You are asked to become a piece of a larger machine (both in terms of a business and mainstream society). The extent to which your natural self deviates from the shape of that piece, combined with the proportion of your life spent playing this part, is inversely proportional to your satisfaction in doing so. The more integral the piece you’re willing to play the part of is considered to be by the people who control the reward, the higher that reward will be, but your deviance from that norm remains the biggest deciding factor in how satisfied you are to play it, and therefore how sustainable playing it is for you in the long term.

Only the very lucky can find a place for themselves in the larger machine that is close to their actual shape. Everyone else must contort themselves into the available gaps.

And here’s where grief comes back into play: stress and sadness make you less malleable, less able to contort into the shape you need to be. Breathing requires exhalation into your full form. If you’re hurting, you’ve got to be yourself, whether that full self is considered to be valuable or not (financially and emotionally).

Everyone has expectations for me, in work and in life. The weight of fulfilling those feels heavier than it otherwise might. Mostly this is grief, but my dissatisfaction pre-dates this year’s crisis. I don’t enjoy disappointing people, but if their conception of me is of a high-earning engineer who is eager to follow the mainstream path, it’s wrong. I want to build a life from first principles following my ideals for what’s meaningful and good - fairness, equality, expression of one’s inner self and identity. It’s not clear to me that this is even possible, let alone desirable. (It’s desirable to me, but you’ve got to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. How do you do that well while deviating from the established path? Do I have anything of value to offer?)

And therein lies the true dissatisfaction. It’s inconvenient to other people for me to grieve, but too bad: I’m grieving. It’s inconvenient for me to not be the person other people want me to be, but too bad: that’s who I am. If I can’t have the space to be myself and to breathe in the way I need to, particularly in this moment, give everything that’s happened, then it’s the wrong life. But it’s not clear that I can provide enough value with who I actually am in order to make life sustainable. Am I valuable?

It becomes clear that community is the most important thing. Finding people who value you for you - not financially, but emotionally, and in the context of mutual respect and support. People in startup-land talk about finding smart, successful people to spend your time around, but that isn’t it at all. It’s not about cynically using people to gain points as part of some game. It’s about finding comfort and care. The goal isn’t to be rich. The goal is to find your people in a mutualistic way where you’re their people, too. Finding your place not in a machine but in a group where your true self is valued and welcomed.

These are the things I’ve been thinking about lately, while nurturing my sadnesses, and waking up from vivid dreams.

 

Thoughts and actions for the week of October 11, 2021

Thoughts

  1. I recognize today as Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day: it’s a marker of the importance of the people who were here before Europeans arrived, and their resilience in the face of genocide and generations of oppression. For the first time, the President recognized it too: a major progressive step. I’ve heard some people of European descent make fun of it, which is nothing but ugly.
  2. One of America’s biggest exports these days is technology. The actual hardware we use is largely made in China, but most of the software that connects us is made Stateside. Apple is based in Cupertino; Facebook is based in Menlo Park; Microsoft is based in Redmond. Yes, they have offices all over the world, but the core of their strategy is defined in these places.
  3. The way we build the software that connects us matters. If it’s largely built by affluent white dudes in expensive neighborhoods, no matter the intentions of those people, it will disproportionately reflect their worldview. The lens through which they see the world becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  4. There are methodologies which attempt to correct for this worldview. Design thinking, for example, can be seen as a way to de-risk your product idea by testing with the people who you want to build it for. The lean startup process is a way of doing this that leans more heavily on quantitative, rather than qualitative, analysis.
  5. Notice the conceptual separation between the people you want to build it for and the people doing the building? These methodologies sit somewhere between a colonialist mindset and white saviordom. If you’re experimenting on communities in order to sell something to them more effectively and those communities are not themselves the owners of both the process and solution, you’re strip-mining them of value.
  6. You can most obviously see this in Facebook’s global outreach, including a disastrously self-serving attempt to provide free internet in India that just happened to shape local connectivity around its own services, and its use to promote genocide in Myanmar. These were headline-grabbing stories, but for every one of these, there are likely hundreds more that didn’t receive global scrutiny.
  7. The same goes for American foreign policy, which seeks to export US values without truly working with local communities. It’s nothing short of imperialism that strip-mines other nations of useful value. Companies like Facebook are an example of this ideology, not its limit.
  8. Whether you’re building software or global diplomacy, the only way to ethically build for a community is to build with them in every possible sense. They must be keepers of the platform, the ownership, the process, and the proceeds.

Actions

  1. As always, there’s a lot to do at work - mostly on the process side.
  2. I’m determined to hit my exercise goals every day this week. It’s crazy to me that I hit them for five months in a row at the beginning of this year and that I then let them drop so precipitously. I mean, it’s also easily been the worst year of my life, so it’s not that crazy, but I’d like to get back on the wagon to round out the year.
  3. I ordered a Dyer Dhow a few months ago, and it still hasn’t shown up. Where is it? I need to chase it down and maybe postpone the order until next year. I’m still on Cape Cod, but I won’t be here forever.
  4. As the year comes to a close, I need to do a little financial planning and trimming. Sadly, services like AirTable, which I used to depend on, probably won’t make the cut.