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Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy.
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2020 California ballot initiatives

In California, anyone can put an initiative on the ballot that amends the state constitution, proposes a bond measure, or even changes legislation - as long as you acquire the minimum number of signatures of support. As a result, there are always an eclectic set of propositions on every California statewide ballot. This year, there are twelve.

Particularly because there are a few ballot initiatives this year that touch on my areas of expertise, I thought it might be useful to discuss how I'm thinking about each one in public. This is one progressive technologist's voter guide; if you have alternative opinions, I'd love to hear them.

Proposition 14 - Yes

A "yes" vote authorizes $5.5 billion in bonds earmarked for stem cell research in the state, extending previous funding that was created by an initiative in 2004.

Critics say that the original initiative was created when there was a ban on federal stem cell research, and this has now outlived its usefulness. I disagree. The existing funding was mostly used across UC campuses, including UCSF, and has funded ground-breaking research and treatments, including for spina bifida and Parkinson's disease.

UCSF is one of the most important medical research institutions in the world, and I believe we should continue to allow this funding.

Proposition 15 - Yes

A "yes" vote increases funding for schools, public colleges, and local government services by increasing taxes on certain kinds of commercial and industrial property. The taxes are limited in scope and will mostly be paid by large, wealthy corporations, while providing tax exemptions for small businesses. This seems like a broadly positive amendment.

Proposition 16 - Yes

In 1996, affirmative action when hiring for public employment, public education, and public contracting was banned through another state proposition. This ballot initiative repeals that rule and allows diversity to be considered in the hiring process.

If this proposition passes, the state will be clear to start enacting affirmative action and diversity-based hiring initiatives, helping to make public positions more representative of the population.

Proposition 17 - Yes

Currently, people on parole for felony convictions don't have the right to vote. This constitutional amendment would give them that ability by restoring the right to vote once their prison term has been completed.

Felony disenfranchisement is one of the most shameful aspects of criminal justice in the United States, which disproportionately affects marginalized people. The right to vote is a crucial part of any democracy. 19 other states return this right once a prison sentence is completed; we should do the same.

Proposition 18 - Yes

If you're going to be 18 at the time of an election, and therefore can vote in it, but you're only 17 at the time of the primary, this amendment would let you vote in the primary.

Without this amendment, 18 year olds effectively only get to participate in half of the election. I'm in favor.

Proposition 19 - No

This amendment would allow residents over 55, with disabilities, or who had to flee natural disasters to transfer their property tax assessments to more expensive properties three times. It also prevents these beneficial tax assessments from being carried over to inherited properties (either from parents or grandparents) when the inheritor doesn't use it as their primary residence.

On one hand, I'm in favor of closing the inheritance loophole, which disproportionately benefits wealthy families. I also want to help the over 55s, people with disabilities, and victims of natural disasters.

On the other, it's sponsored by realtor associations. For them, it's a cash windfall. It has the side effect of persisting existing inequalities. As the Los Angeles Times editorial board says: "Proposition 19 would just expand the inequities in California’s property tax system. It would grossly benefit those who were lucky enough to buy a home years ago and hold onto it as values skyrocketed. It would give them a huge tax break and greater buying power in an already expensive real estate market. It would skew tax breaks further away from people who don’t own a home or who may be struggling to buy one."

On balance, I'm voting "no".

Proposition 20 - No

This state statute adds crimes to the list for which early parole is restricted - and removes the incentive to join rehabilitation programs, which is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. My vote is a hard "no".

Proposition 21 - Yes

This would allow local government to impose rent control on buildings that were first occupied 15 years ago, except when it's owned by a landlord that owns no more than two buildings in total. In other words, small, independent landlords are not affected; large private sector builders are.

Contrary to a recently-popular narrative, rent control works. It doesn't constrain housing supply and it helps keep rents low, allowing a significant percentage of families to remain in their homes where it is enacted. It protects lower-income people. And it makes our cities more diverse.

Proposition 22 - No

Uber has spent $50 million to promote this statute; Lyft has spent $48 million; DoorDash $47 million; Instacart $27 million; Postmates $10 million. Allowing their gig workers to be classified as private contractors protects their businesses.

That's because their businesses heavily depend on paying gig workers poverty pay with no benefits.

Labor rights were hard-won. At a time when more people are struggling, it's absurd to allow this kind of backslide. In addition to removing protections that these workers are entitled to by law, proposition 22 would also remove their right to organize.

If a business can only succeed because it treats people badly, it's a bad business. Hard pass.

Proposition 23 - No

If this statute passes, dialysis clinics will need to have an attending physician or nurse practitioner. They will also need to report information about infections, and won't be able to turn people away based on type of insurance.

I care deeply about the state of dialysis centers. Three times a week, my mother spends half her day in one. She reports that the staff want to unionize, but are afraid to. They're underpaid and overworked. One of her dialysis technicians lives in a tent.

And yet.

I heavily support unionization of dialysis centers. I would support a statute that mandated reporting of infection data. I support not being able to turn people away because of insurance. But I can't back the physician requirement. Despite sounding good, it wouldn't actually result in a meaningful increase to the quality of care.

Worse than that, it appears to be a tactic by the healthcare workers' union to blackmail dialysis companies into accepting unionization. Unionization is important and could really help these workers! But using the state initiative system as a pressure tactic is an unfortunate tactic. I'm voting "no".

Proposition 24 - No

Privacy is core to a free society. We have accidentally built a global surveillance apparatus as part of building business models that depend on building detailed profiles on each one of us. In the wake of Europe's GDPR, which forced tech companies worldwide to change their practices, California passed the CCPA. It's a great step forward that will be joined by other state laws, and ultimately form the basis of federal protections.

In contrast, this statute is fundamentally disingenuous. In the guise of increasing protections, it actually makes exemptions and cuts out requirements for companies like Facebook. It creates a loophole for credit agencies. It allows for digital redlining, allowing credit agencies and assessors to penalize people of color. And it allows privacy to be demoted to an add-on paid-for service tier, rather than a core right that everyone can enjoy.

For me, perhaps the most important changes are jurisdictional. Currently, the CCPA applies to any Californian resident, wherever they happen to be. Proposition 24 erodes this protection and allows privacy to be violated as soon as the resident physically leaves the state. It also removes the ability for you to tell your web browser to let every site know not to sell your data; under Prop 24, you would need to manually let every site know.

I can't endorse it or vote for it.

Proposition 25 - No

Cash bail is discriminatory. American judges are set higher bail amounts for Black individuals, despite their being more likely to come from lower-income backgrounds, meaning they are far more likely to serve pretrial time. Cash bail must go.

Unfortunately, it's just one symptom of a system that is, in itself, discriminatory. It's not enough to remove cash bail; we also have to make sure it's replaced by a system that also removes the underlying systemic discrimination. The cash requirement is a problem, but our racist criminal justice system is the underlying tragedy.

For people who don't understand it, software can seem like a magically unbiased system. It's a computer, after all, which doesn't hold its own opinions. How can it possibly be biased?

Of course, software is written by people, and is a reflection of their biases, beliefs, and blind spots. Additionally, machine learning as popularly implemented is an algorithm that depends on an enormous corpus of information about choices that humans have made in the past. The machine simply extrapolates and makes new decisions based on those choices. It's as biased as the data is - and if that data comes from our criminal justice system, it's very biased indeed.

So replacing cash bail with a predictive algorithm isn't just a bad idea - it's a spectacularly harmful one that entrenches racist biases in a way that makes them beyond reproach.

Software must never make judicial decisions. The truth is, it can't: the decisions are instead made with impunity by the people who write it, often unscrutinized, and by the people who are responsible for the underlying data.

Proposition 25 must not be allowed to pass, and all measures and legislation like it must be soundly defeated.

 

Photo by Tiffany Tertipes on Unsplash

 

What I’m doing now

I was starting to write this post when we were evacuated from the fire. Miraculously, after a really rough week, we were able to move back in on Friday. The house is still intact, the electricity is back on, and although the air is toxic, air purifiers allow the inside to be comfortable. I feel awful for the thousands of families who were not so lucky.

I'm now finishing and publishing this post as a way of adding some final punctuation to this terrible week. As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted ...

In the spirit of Derek Sivers, I thought I'd write a quick update about what I'm doing these days. It's not quite a "now" page in the Sivers model, but it'll do .. for now.

Where I work:

I'm Head of Engineering and Sponsor Product at ForUsAll. Understanding what ForUsAll does, and therefore what I do, requires a little bit of explanation: in the US, rather than traditional pensions, workers tend to get something called a 401(k) plan (memorably named after its tax code). A part of your pre-tax pay is sent to a fund that invests on your behalf; many employers match your contribution up to a certain level. At retirement you get to withdraw those funds; the hope is that your investments have grown in value in the interim.

They tend to be jargon-laden, badly-run, and offer web interfaces that look like they were built in Microsoft Frontpage in 1998. And that's if you even have access to one: most American workers at smaller businesses don't, and therefore have limited access to decent ways to save for retirement. ForUsAll's web platform makes it cheaper and less time-consuming for employers to run (or "sponsor") a plan. And we're working on other ways for regular people to build financial stability for themselves, even before retirement. It's not about employees at well-funded startups or Fortune 500 companies; it's everyone else.

So my role is to run the engineering team, as well as product for the employer side of the experience. It's my first fintech company, but that's not why I'm doing it - my personal mission statement continues to be to work on projects that make the world more equal, informed, and inclusive, and this fits the bill.

I'm bringing a few things to the table here: my experience building products from both an engineering and product strategy perspective, but also my design thinking and cultural development background. I'm finding that those instincts are coming in very useful, and my big self-development project is to second-guess myself less than I often have in the past. I've been given a large role in determining the future strategy of the company, and I'm trying to bring my all to it.

By the way, I'm hiring front-end engineers.

Also:

I continue to sit on the board at Latakoo, the media startup where I was the CTO and first employee. Its technology - which I helped design and build - allows networks like NBC News to easily plan stories and transmit video from the field using commodity internet connections.

Latakoo is profitable. Its cloud service is used by many of the news organizations you can think of, and its on-premise servers have found homes in their editing suites. I'm really proud to have been a part of it, and to still be able to help where I can.

I believe deeply in the importance of media in our democracy, and I'm always excited to find opportunities to help support its future. In February I helped run (with my ex-Matter colleague Roxann Stafford) a session on designing for equity as part of a Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms bootcamp organized by NewsCatalyst and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism with the Google News Initiative.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping to wind up Known's incorporated corporate entity - and its hosted service, which is still online - this tax year. This doesn't mean Known itself is winding down: the open source community continues apace, and has been funding future development through Open Collective. The Known copyrights and assets will revert to me once the closure is complete.

Beyond work:

More of my time has been spent helping to care for my mother. It's been a decade since her diagnosis, and my life has been turned completely upside down in the years since (including some time where I thought I probably had the terminal, genetic condition too). Being able to spend time with both my parents is a privilege. But it's also been very easy to put my personal life on pause. I started this year with a determination to unpause - although 2020 has sometimes had other ideas.

I'm about to start a Gotham Writers Workshop course on writing fiction. Writing has always been my first love, and I'm determined to take it more seriously. I took some Stanford writing courses over the summer and found them to be both incredibly useful and motivating. I'd been waitlisted for a two year part-time novel writing certificate, but sadly didn't make the cut. (Who can blame them - who is this tech bro anyway?) No matter; I'm finding other ways to improve my skills and get closer to my goal of actually publishing a long-form fiction book.

I came first in my group in the NYC Midnight flash fiction competition this summer; I'm waiting to see if I got into the third round.

I read a lot more than I write, and I've been trying my best to keep off the social networks. They don't, as a whole, improve my life. But the addiction is strong. I just wholesale quit Facebook and Instagram as a protest against that company's actions, and it felt pretty good.

When I thought I also probably had my mother's dyskeratosis congenita, I gained a lot of weight. I've been trying my best to lose it, through only eating during an eight hour window, improving my diet, and increasing the amount of exercise I do. We bought a treadmill so my mother could walk without having to leave the house (my dad also has mobility issues); I've been using it to regularly run 5Ks. It's nowhere near as impressive as my runner friends, but it's a world away from my last few years. I used to walk 7-8 miles a day in the course of my life in the UK, and my life in California has never worked the same way. I've lost some weight but I've got a very long way to go.

I've been thinking about how I can help mission-driven founders. I was pretty naive when I founded Known, and more so Elgg; I'd love to help people who are genuinely trying to make the world a better place to avoid some of those same mistakes. Time is limited, though. So maybe an online book and/or community is the way to go.

What's next:

In 2021 I want to ...

... finish a fiction book. Whether it gets published or not is out of my hands, but I want to do the best job I can. And then prepare to do it again.

... lose that weight and continue to get healthier.

... re-find the joy in life. It's been a tough year, and I want to find a way to have more time and space that's really mine. Between work and caring it's been hard to carve out room for my own life. I wouldn't change those things for the world, but I'd like to be able to find a healthier balance.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: September 2020

This is my monthly roundup of the tech and media I consumed and found interesting. Here's my list for September.

Books

The City We Became, by NK Jemisen. An effervescent tale about gentrification and the soul of cities, writ large as a fantasy adventure. I listened to this as an audiobook, which transcended its form into something more like a performance.

Streaming

Teenage Bounty Hunters. By rights, nothing with a name like this should be good - but it turns out this series is a beautiful surprise. Sharply funny, particularly after the first episode or two. (Netflix.)

Raised by Wolves. I still don't know if I like it, but this science fiction epic about belief and community is like nothing I've seen before. (HBO Max.)

Notable Articles

Black Lives Matter

White supremacists and militias have infiltrated police across US, report says. "In a timely new analysis, Michael German, a former FBI special agent who has written extensively on the ways that US law enforcement have failed to respond to far-right domestic terror threats, concludes that US law enforcement officials have been tied to racist militant activities in more than a dozen states since 2000, and hundreds of police officers have been caught posting racist and bigoted social media content."

The Inevitable Whitelash Against Racial Justice Has Started. "In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, white people seemingly joined Black people in their calls for justice and change. But that support was always soft. It was entirely predictable that most white people would abandon the movement long before justice was done or change achieved."

Muslim Students Are Leading A New Generation In the Fight to Free Imam Jamil Al-Amin. "Al-Amin’s legacy as a Black revolutionary targeted by state surveillance — who converted to Islam in 1971 after being incarcerated for five years in New York’s Attica Prison — and his position today as a Black Muslim political prisoner is forgotten in many circles. [...] Arshad adds that she never knew Al-Amin was targeted by COINTELPro until preparing for a surveillance workshop for Muslim Student Associations across Texas."

Society and Culture

At 31, I have just weeks to live. Here's what I want to pass on. "A life, if lived well, is long enough."

How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled. "We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn't work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic." Unbearably frustrating.

Comedy Wildlife Awards 2020 finalists. Lovely!

The Off-Kilter History of British Cuisine. "It was the decade of fondue parties, cheese and pineapple chunks on cocktail sticks (considered an exotic indulgence at the time), Black Forest gateau, chicken Kiev, chili con carne, Neapolitan ice cream, and the prawn cocktail. [...] Inexpert and clumsy though it may have been, Britain’s exploration of new foods was indicative of deeper currents, as Britain, its empire definitively dead and buried, re-examined its place in the world."

Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in “anti-intellectual times”. "I am not aware that terf is used as a slur. I wonder what name self-declared feminists who wish to exclude trans women from women's spaces would be called? If they do favour exclusion, why not call them exclusionary? If they understand themselves as belonging to that strain of radical feminism that opposes gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists?"

The Rise of the 3-Parent Family. My friend David Jay, who founded the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, on his journey as a third parent. He inspires me in so many ways.

America in 2020

Deadly Terror Networks And Drug Cartels Use Huge Banks To Finance Their Crimes. These Secret Documents Show How The Banks Profit. This is the global financial system working as designed. Revealing it is an important work of journalism that has unfortunately mostly been lost under the weight of the election. The BBC has a good overview.

We Don’t Know How to Warn You Any Harder. America is Dying. "Take it from us survivors and scholars of authoritarianism. This is exactly how it happens. The situation could not — could not — be any worse. The odds are now very much against American democracy surviving."

Biden campaign launches official Animal Crossing: New Horizons yard signs. I ... am not positive this is what's going to make the difference.

Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’. The Trump camp has denied it, of course.

saw the perfect wildfire today. A beautifully-written account of seeing the Oregon wildfires. At the time I read this, I didn't understand that I would shortly have my own experience.

A Doctor Went to His Own Employer for a COVID-19 Antibody Test. It Cost $10,984. Outrageous but unfortunately not surprising.

QAnon is a Nazi Cult, Rebranded. Only lightly rebranded, mind. QAnon's relationship to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an old, racist conspiracy theory, is incredibly alarming, but also just one of the many incredibly alarming things about it.

‘We’re No. 28! And Dropping!’. "out of 163 countries assessed worldwide, the United States, Brazil and Hungary are the only ones in which people are worse off than when the index began in 2011. And the declines in Brazil and Hungary were smaller than America’s."

Nothing to see here, folks. "News outlets continue to ignore climate change in articles about California's record-breaking weather." I decided to give a newspaper interview about my fire experience today for exactly this reason. I'm curious to see if my statements about climate change - which were deliberate and repeated - will make it in.

Effective Political Giving. "With less than two months left before the election, this is an explainer for the politically panicked. You're anxious, you feel the need to do something, and you have a little money to spare. Who should you give it to?"

‘Like an Experimental Concentration Camp’: Whistleblower Complaint Alleges Mass Hysterectomies at ICE Detention Center. "Several legal advocacy groups on Monday filed a whistleblower complaint on behalf of a nurse at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center documenting “jarring medical neglect” within the facility, including a refusal to test detainees for the novel coronavirus and an exorbitant rate of hysterectomies being performed on immigrant women." Will they deport these witnesses too?

New Climate Maps Show a Transformed United States. Speaks for itself. Really well-done; really terrifying.

Understanding PurpleAir vs. AirNow.gov Measurements of Wood Smoke Pollution. File under: new skills we all need to have now.

‘We were shocked’: RAND study uncovers massive income shift to the top 1%. "RAND found that full-time, prime-age workers in the 25th percentile of the U.S. income distribution would be making $61,000 instead of $33,000 had everyone’s earnings from 1975 to 2018 expanded roughly in line with gross domestic product, as they did during the 1950s and ’60s." Shouldn't have been too shocked.

Nearly two-thirds of US adults unaware 6m Jews killed in the Holocaust. WTF.

Federal Agencies Tapped Protesters’ Phones in Portland. What's old is new again.

Trump 2016 campaign 'targeted 3.5m black Americans to deter them from voting'. Using our good friend Facebook, which eagerly helped the campaign.

I Lived Through Collapse. America Is Already There. "I lived through the end of a civil war — I moved back to Sri Lanka in my twenties, just as the ceasefire fell apart. Do you know what it was like for me? Quite normal. I went to work, I went out, I dated. This is what Americans don’t understand. They’re waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky. That’s not how it happens." Although where I'm typing this, ash is literally falling from the sky.

The FBI Is Secretly Using A $2 Billion Company For Global Travel Surveillance — The US Could Do The Same To Track Covid-19. Not completely my takeaway from this.

New York Police Planned Assault on Bronx Protesters. "New York City police planned the assault and mass arrests of peaceful protesters in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx on June 4, 2020, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The crackdown, led by the department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer, was among the most aggressive police responses to protests across the United States following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and could cost New York City taxpayers several million dollars in misconduct complaints and lawsuits."

Technology and Business

The Entire Universe Might Be a Neural Network. Maybe one that was fed some really, really stupid data.

NSA surveillance exposed by Snowden was illegal, court rules seven years on. About time.

Harassers are nice to me, and probably to you. "Simply put, if you’re in a position of power at work, you’re unlikely to see workplace harassment in front of you. That’s because harassment and bullying are attempts to exert power over people with less of it. People who behave improperly don’t tend to do so with people they perceive as having power already."

Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. "Results from two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention—as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones—the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity. Moreover, these cognitive costs are highest for those highest in smartphone dependence."

Remote Work Doesn’t Have to Mean All-Day Video Calls. Tell me more ...

Amazon Drivers Are Hanging Smartphones in Trees to Get More Work. "Someone places several devices in a tree located close to the station where deliveries originate. Drivers in on the plot then sync their own phones with the ones in the tree and wait nearby for an order pickup. The reason for the odd placement [is] to get a split-second jump on competing drivers."

Facebook Moves to Limit Election Chaos in November. "The social network said it would block new political ads in late October, among other measures, to reduce misinformation and interference." Utterly meaningless.

“I Have Blood On My Hands”: A Whistleblower Says Facebook Ignored Global Political Manipulation. “In the three years I’ve spent at Facebook, I’ve found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions.” For example, in Ethopia.

Former Facebook manager: “We took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook”. "Allowing for misinformation, conspiracy theories, and fake news to flourish were like Big Tobacco's bronchodilators, which allowed the cigarette smoke to cover more surface area of the lungs. But that incendiary content alone wasn't enough. To continue to grow the user base and in particular, the amount of time and attention users would surrender to Facebook, they needed more."

Gig Economy Company Launches Uber, But for Evicting People. One of the most shamelessly violent business ideas I've ever seen.

Poynter now offers six months paid parental leave. Here’s how it happened. I really think everyone should offer a year of equalized maternal and paternal leave, but what do I know.

Build terrible things: an edict for mid-level engineers. "Start optimizing for decision-making ability. Take on projects where you get to choose what your stack will be, what tools you’ll use, how you’re going to solve problems that come up, how much tech debt you’re going to accrue, what you’re going to build and when. You’ll do it all wrong at first, but your instincts will get better at a rate that will surprise you. You’ll fix mistakes where you can, and live with them where you can’t."

Options, Not Roadmaps. "Without a roadmap, without a stated plan, we can completely change course without paying a penalty. We don’t set any expectations internally or externally that these things are actually going to happen." A more little-a agile approach.

AVIF has landed. A pretty amazing new audio/video standard.

The Cloud. This is very how it used to be.

 

Don’t look away

I'm sleep-deprived because I had to evacuate my parents from their home last night, but adrenaline is keeping me awake. We drove away as the fiery glow appeared over the hill, and a stream of fire engines, sirens blazing, sped in the other direction. The Safeway at the corner where I sometimes sneak off and buy deli counter chicken tenders is now the fire staging area. The street where I go for walks to hit my daily active calorie count has been bulldozed to try and make a barrier to stop the spread.

The ash on my car this morning was like a layer of sand; each grain, a fragment of something destroyed. The smoke hangs in the air and turns everything red. It falls in chunks, like snow.

"Fire season" is a phrase we say now. I guess there was always a prime season for wildfires, which ran from May to October, roughly, but it's only really been a part of the lexicon since the Tubbs fire tore through Santa Rosa in 2017. The air was thick with smoke then, too. We used to worry about earthquakes - "the big one" - and now we worry about heat and wind.

My mother is sitting in a chair at a chain dialysis center, receiving treatment for the side effects of drugs she takes to manage a double lung transplant she received seven years ago. She never drank or smoked; always ate right; always exercised. Genetics got her in the end, as it did my grandmother and my aunt. She listens to books and browses the web on the iPad I bought her while a refrigerator-sized machine cleans her blood. The patients sit in rows while the machines churn blood around their coils. It looks like a gothic datacenter. She sits through it with surprisingly good humor, just as she sits through her hospital visits. Last week, she was in the ER. This week, she needed a blood transfusion. Whenever some politician talks about removing protections for pre-existing conditions, dropping it into a speech because it tests well with a certain kind of conservative, I wonder how I'm supposed to keep my mother alive.

When we knew we had to get out, I booked a hotel near the dialysis center. I feel privileged to have both the means and ability to do this; it meant we could pack up, drive out, and know where we were going. The evacuation site at the Sonoma County fairgrounds, and a few others, filled up and stopped taking people late in the night. The hotel lobby began to fill with people who hadn't booked, and hoped there would be a vacancy. Elderly people in masks, often holding dogs or cats under their arms, milled about in the lobby hoping a no-show would free up a room.

The style motif of the hotel is brown. The furniture is brown; the walls are brown; the curtains are brown; the light from outside is brown. The upholstery has been designed to hide spills and dirt. Irregular brown patterns draw your eye away from what you're not supposed to see.

I spent my morning frantically trying to find food that my mother could eat before dialysis. She can't tolerate much, but her feeding tube doesn't provide enough nutrition to last through a day. Ordinarily, we find ways to cook for her, but that requires a kitchen. Takeout food, which would be my first choice in this situation, is too salty for her, or has ingredients she can't digest. The WalMart next door had been ransacked by fire evacuees; the only edible food items left were PopTarts, which aren't on my mother's menu. At Raley's, further away, we found microwaveable oatmeal and some strawberries. As I loaded the car with food, I tried my best to prevent the ash from sliding through the open doors.

We packed my mother off to dialysis, rearranging the back of my car so that her wheelchair would fit without removing the foot pedals. I bought a coffee from the Starbucks in the hotel parking lot (brown) and sat in my room, finally immersed in peaceful silence except for the 1970s hum of the air conditioner. Finally, for the first time since we rushed out of the house, I took a shower.

Logging into social media again felt as if I had peeled open a wormhole into an alternate reality. "Blockchain is what happens after Silicon Valley," read one tweet. It turns out what will really happen after Silicon Valley is scorched earth and ash from the sky. The importance of politics has escalated from differences of opinions about how we organize the economy into something closer to life and death. The tendrils of the climate emergency are snaking closer and closer to our homes. There is an out-of-control pandemic taking our loved ones. There are concentration camps on the borders and immigration raids in our communities. And there is undisguised authoritarian racism coming from the White House.

While I was offline, a company called Coinbase, where I have spent a fair amount of money over the years, made a statement about its "mission focus". It is the worst kind of bullshit. It's a disingenuous, hollow statement against placing inclusion and morality at the heart of business. It's an argument not just for the status quo, but for going backwards in time to find the old status quo. It paints Coinbase, and companies that support a similar stance, as safe places for the broey, exclusionary, overwhelmingly white masculinity that still permeates any space with money and power. It would be a hard pill to swallow at any time. It just so happens that right now, the sky is on fire and the world is succumbing to fascism. The timing is, in itself, a tell.

We learned that the 2016 Trump campaign used Facebook to actively attempt to deter 3.5 million Black Americans from voting. It doesn't matter if the ads were effective, although I would be surprised if they weren't; what matters is that the campaign had the intention, and the Facebook platform presented itself as a way to get it down. There is no way to work at Facebook without being complicit. Nor for Trump: perhaps coincidentally, Brad Parscale, the digital advisor for the 2016 campaign, was taken into custody after threatening to take his own life.

As always, there are tweets and hot takes and memes. Irregular patterns draw your eye away from what you're not supposed to see. But we can choose to focus.

The surrealism of this year invites us to not take it seriously. The horror is dream-like in its absurdity. The facts and implications are so outside the parameters of ordinary life that they seem outlandish. But the sky really is red with flame, over two hundred thousand Americans alone really are dead from the pandemic, there really are unmarked federal soldiers in our cities, people really are being swept up by ICE in the dead of night and kept in concentration camps, and the worst really may be yet to come.

We can choose to look away. That option is always available to us. But to do so is to accept our fate, and to acquiesce to those who would harm us to make a profit. Today, watching the ash continue to fall and wondering if my mother will make it through another dialysis, I'm not at all prepared to do that.

 

Photo by James Todd on Unsplash.

 

Caught in the Shady Fire

We evacuated on Sunday night.

I had a whole other blog post drafted, about what I've been doing lately. Perhaps I should have known it was tempting fate, because just as I was getting it ready to publish, we realized the fire was going to come over the hill and into the neighborhood.

I've been spending most of my quarantine with my parents in Santa Rosa. My mother's health has been failing badly, and I want to help; more than that, I want to be there with my parents. The pandemic's silver lining has been that I can work remotely and therefore spend more time with them. I've sat on my mother's bed while we've sung lullabies; I've stroked her head while she suffered through stomach pains; I've flushed her feeding tubes; I've listened to podcasts and watched TV with her.

The fire got incredibly close, and at the time of writing has taken quite a few homes in the neighborhood. I took this photo from the back door just as we were about to leave:

I'm glad everyone is safe, but I'm worried about the irreplaceable things. We have so many photographs, books, objects with sentimental value. I deeply hope the fire spares them.

This year has been a shock. I also don't think it'll be the last year like it. The climate emergency is here for all of us; it's just not evenly distributed yet. Wherever you are, please consider voting in a candidate that will help reverse the damage.

 

School should be free for everyone

I appreciated Fred Wilson's post today about USV's thesis on expanding access to knowledge, wellness, and capital. He also talks about universal basic income as a way to get there. It's a useful lens to think about the future, although perhaps inevitably, I see it a slightly different way.

Despite being a natural born American citizen, I grew up in a European context, went to state schools, and went to university for free. (I was actually part of the last cohort of university students to do so; the year afterwards, universities started to charge a whopping £1300 per year, except in Scotland.) I understand that free college does not entrench existing income disparities; my fellow students came from a very broad range of backgrounds and contexts.

Coming from that context, I don't see government services as monopolies in the business sense. They're services in the civil sense: social infrastructure for all. For example, I'm not sure we would want to have multiple police forces competing for business in a capitalist market (however we feel about our current ones). Or take healthcare: every time I walk into a doctor's office in the US I miss the simplicity and safety of the NHS.

So I go the other way. I strongly believe that private schools shouldn't exist, which is an alien idea to some. Every child should have the same opportunities. Every college should be free. Private schools, and private colleges, entrench existing power networks. Why shouldn't a kid who happened to be born poor, or in the wrong neighborhood, have access to them? It's not like rich people don't have a thousand other ways to convey privilege to their offspring - but at least access to the same institutions would give everyone else a fighting chance.

"School choice" has a racist history, and a racist present. It's not something we should knowingly advocate for without understanding and actively fighting to undermine its foundation in segregation.

Similarly, universal basic income that doesn't sit alongside other mechanisms for economic justice and support is just a way to undermine those kinds of programs. It's not either/or: all schools should be free and everyone should have access to a basic income. College should be available to all and a monthly stipend would have great ROI for the economy. We don't get to absolve ourselves of providing opportunities throughout society by simply cutting a check. In a vacuum, UBI is that most American idea: discrimination in the guise of equity.

With state support, we will still have a great market economy: one where everyone can start a business or participate in one. In fact, it'll be better, because more people will have access to networks and training. Providing social infrastructure isn't an anti-capitalist idea; it's an anti-racist, anti-discrimination one. It allows more people to access the resources they need to participate, rather than disproportionately shutting out people of color and people from poorer backgrounds. And if you don't think that's where we should be heading, I'm not sure we have much to say to each other.

 

We still need to unlock the web

Email newsletters are only succeeding because RSS failed.

I just subscribed to Casey Newton's new tech journalism newsletter, Platformer. I appreciate his journalism, and I'm sure it'll become a regular must-read for me in the same way that Ben Thompson's Stratechery is. The tech industry needs more analytical journalism, and I'm pleased to support it.

There's an interesting platform difference between the two. When you sign up and pay for Stratechery, you can certainly opt in to receiving daily emails - and I'm sure this is how most of his subscribers read his work. But you can also get access to a private RSS feed that you can plug into your reader.

My feed reader is an important part of my morning routine, but it also serves another purpose: to keep regular subscription content out of my inbox. I have enough trouble keeping on top of my email; I'm terrible at it. Adding more messages will not help me. But I also really want to subscribe! So having all my regular subscription content in one place, away from the desolation of my inbox, is useful. (Hundreds of you are reading this post in your inbox. I'm assuming you're all better at email than me! If not, you can always subscribe to my blog via a feed reader.)

In contrast to Stratechery, Platformer uses Substack, which has made starting and subscribing to paid newsletters incredibly easy. As a subscriber, I plug in my email, hit the Apple Pay button, and I'm subscribed. It's kind of a brilliant way to support independent writers. Like RSS feeds, authors don't need to rely on social media for distribution; they have a more direct relationship with the reader. Unlike RSS feeds, it all piles into my horror show inbox.

My feed reader of choice is NewsBlur (together with the beautiful Reeder apps), in part because it allows me to forward email newsletters to an address it provides. Feedbin and a few others do this too. I have a blanket filter that removes every Substack newsletter from my inbox and sends the messages to my feed reader, where they show up alongside the blogs I subscribe to. It works for me: I get to read all of my subscriptions in one place, and leave my inbox for all of those other messages that I'll get to eventually.

It's worth imagining another world, where the string and blu tack solution I made for myself is easy for everyone. What if everyone had an easy-to-use place to read their subscription content, away from the hustle and bustle of their regular emails? What if feed subscriptions had become mainstream, and payments had become an integral part of the specification? What if every author had the ability to use the platform that Ben Thompson had to build for himself, allowing each of them to make a living from their work as easily as publishing to the web?

The technology isn't there right now, but could it be?

Every journalist, artist, app builder, musician, author, podcaster, etc, should be able to make money independently on the web. And the web should help them do that.

Of course, RSS feeds haven't failed. The entire podcasting ecosystem heavily depends on them - an $11 billion market, all depending on open feeds. Even for written content, there are millions of people like me who use them every day. People in tech love to talk about the death of Google Reader, but nobody killed RSS.

For a year, I worked with Julien Genestoux, who had previously built the Superfeedr feed subscription and distribution engine, on Unlock, a protocol for independent, decentralized payments on the web. The startup didn't quite work out, but the open source protocol continues to find use. Most importantly, I think the idea (anyone should be able to take payments from their own website without a middleman) is very strong, even if the Ethereum blockchain it depended on turned out to not quite be ready for primetime. Not to mention the ability for payments to supplant harmful targeted advertising.

I believe that Substack, the Stratechery platform, and Patreon's subscription model are all evidence of a need for a decentralized marketplace of content, monetized through easy, recurring payments that don't require a content silo. By using the same feed ecosystem that powers the whole podcasting ecosystem (and my morning content routine), adding a payments layer on top of the RSS specification itself, and then making it insanely easy to read and subscribe, we could empower a new generation of creators, readers, and reader apps.

Some technical work has been done. PodPass is a proposal for an identity layer on top of RSS for podcasts. Work is being done at the W3C on web payments. Identity and payment mechanisms are both crucial parts of providing subscriptions as a first-class layer on the web. But there's a great deal more to do technically - and a huge amount more in terms of building a coherent user experience, particularly around payments.

Here's my final "what if". What if subscription payments were built into the browser or reader, with the vendor itself taking a small cut (in the same way that Apple takes 0.15% of Apple Pay purchases)?

For example: let's say I browse to a website using Mozilla Firefox. That website has some metadata in its HTML which indicates that (1) a feed is available, and (2) there are payment tiers.

Firefox lets me know that I can subscribe to that website's content with an unobtrusive icon or notification. When I click, it shows me the tiers available. When I hit subscribe, Firefox starts to pull feed content in a built-in reader. When it pulls feeds, it identifies me in the HTTP header with a pseudonymous hash code. For the purposes of this conversation, I'm user 123456 (the same combination I have on my luggage).

When I pay, funds are sent directly to the website owner, with a small cut going to Mozilla itself, and another small cut going to WordPress, which powers the site. Funds are transferred behind the scenes in stablecoins (probably), with Mozilla providing a credit card interface to me so I don't have to know or care about crypto. It tells the website owner that I'm user 123456, and that I've paid. The website verifies the payment, and next time a feed is requested for user 123456, it adds in any paid content. Unlock did this provably, using the blockchain: anyone can build an API which verifies independently that user A has access to paid content from user B.

From the user's perspective it looks like this: they can see that a website they're on has content that can be subscribed to. When they hit "subscribe" in the browser, they're prompted to choose a tier if paid tiers exist. And then they can read content and manage their subscriptions in a built-in reader.

For users like me, my existing feed reader can do the same thing: detect paid options, and pay for them if I want. The feed reader vendor gets the cut of the funds.

Cross-device syncing is taken care of by the browser vendor: my Firefox account already keeps my bookmarks and history up to date everywhere I have Firefox installed. Chrome and Safari users have a similar mechanism. Subscriptions would piggyback on these existing accounts.

The end result is a web where any creator can make money from their content and any reader can subscribe to it, without having it further clutter an email inbox that they already resent. Because browsers, feed readers, and content management platforms take a small cut of payments, they're incentivized to innovate around the model and build new products. Browser vendors like Mozilla can stop making most of their money from search engine deals. Nobody is forced to rely on Facebook or Twitter for distribution. Targeted ads die. And the internet is more decentralized and healthier for everyone.

 

We’ve lost an incredible force for good

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a force for good who transformed America for the better. She fought for justice, and particularly the rights of women, for her entire life. She was inspiring and impactful; dedicated and fiercely intelligent; a genuinely good person who single-handed lay became one of the cornerstones of our modern democracy.

"When I'm sometimes asked 'When will there be enough (women on the Supreme Court)?' and my answer is: 'When there are nine.' People are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that."

She was an example for all of us. May she have paved the way for many more women to follow.

It's unfortunate that her many accomplishments and her remarkable legacy are overshadowed by our current political situation. Nonetheless, we are forced to consider what will happen now she's gone. Mitch McConnell, ever the ghoulishly ethics-free opportunist, used his statement on Justice Ginsburg's passing to promise a Republican-appointed replacement. Ignoring the obvious hypocrisy of this idea (compare this to his statement on Garland's nomination in 2016), we have to consider what America will look like after decades of not just a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives, but one dominated by this kind of conservative: nationalist verging on fascist, with a desire to undo women's rights and remake the nation to fit an evangelical model.

If you're an American citizen, please check that you're registered to vote - and then make sure you do so. Our democracy can't take four more years of this.

 

The tech bro whitewash

I'm pretty conflicted about The Social Dilemma.

On one hand, anything that contributes to the discourse around the harms knowingly committed in the name of engagement should be applauded. My friend David Jay works at the Center for Humane Technology as their Head of Mobilization, and was involved in this film; I know the people who work there are coming from a genuine place. I think that is admirable.

On the other hand, I'll confess to some pretty hard reservations about tech bros who make their fortune at companies like Facebook and then issue mea culpas. The harmful impact of platforms like Facebook were knowable; I know because I, and people like me, knew them well. In 2004, when Facebook was just graduating from being a way to rate the relative attractiveness of women on campus, I was building decentralized social platforms with community health in mind. There were many people like me who understood that creating a centralized place controlled by a single corporate entity for most of the world would get their information was incredibly problematic. It was and is antithetical to both the web and democracy itself.

So coders have been working on these problems, but this isn't really about software. Crucially, the people who have been at the receiving end of these harms have not been silent. Women - particularly women of color - have been sounding the alarm about these harms for years. That we're listening to men who worked to build these systems of abuse, rather than the people who have been calling out the problems this whole time, says a lot about who and what we value. It's not a problem we can code our way out of.

These conversations are vital. But let's be clear: they have been happening this whole time. If they're new to you, you've been listening to the wrong people. And we should consider whether we want to allow the tech bros who created this problem to whitewash their past.

 

10 things every founder needs to know in 2020

Being a founder is hard! There are so many things you need to stay on top of. Here are 10 things that every founder, investor, and startup employee needs to know in 2020.

ICE is mass-sterilizing women. "When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp," one detainee told Project South.

It's genocide as defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

... and it's nothing new. The US has forcibly sterilized over 70,000 prisoners. In 2017, one Tennessee judge offered repeat offenders reduced jail time if they had surgery to prevent them from procreating. Just fifty years ago, around 25% of Native American women and 35% of Puerto Rican women were forcibly sterilized.

There is a surge of covid-19 cases in ICE camps. "You can either be a survivor or die."

23% of 18 to 39 year olds in the US think the Holocaust is a myth. And almost two-thirds of them aren't aware that 6 million Jews were killed in it.

White supremacist groups are up 55% since 2017. The number of anti-LGBTQ hate groups increased by 43%.

One-third of active duty troops and over half of minority service members have seen white supremacy in the ranks. It rose from 22% the year before.

The FBI has documented that white supremacist groups they investigate often have active links to law enforcement officials. "Since 2000, law enforcement officials with alleged connections to white supremacist groups or far-right militant activities have been exposed in Alabama, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and elsewhere."

Chad Wolf, who oversees the Department of Homeland Security and therefore ICE, watered down language in a report that warned of the threat from white supremacists. We know this from a whistleblower who was punished for non-compliance: "When Murphy refused to implement the changes as directed, [Deputy Secretary] Cuccinelli and Wolf stopped the report from being finished, the source said."

Changes to immigration won't be fully undone by the next President. "Because of the intense volume and pace of changes the Trump administration enacted while in office, even if we have a new administration, Trump will continue to have had an impact on immigration for years to come."

 

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash