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

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Here's what I read in September

Books

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers. An analysis of bestselling narratives using NLP, sentiment analysis, and machine learning - but really a discussion of the art of narrative, backed by data. Fascinating.

Lanny, by Max Porter. A tense mystery woven from an impressionist tapestry of exceptionally well-observed rural British life; experimental and spiritual, while also pulse-poundingly real. I couldn’t put it down.

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, by Greta Thunberg. A collection of her compelling, frank, calls to action that makes clear how powerful she is. We need her uncompromising voice.

gods with a little g, by Tupelo Hassman. Its irreverence hooked me; then it reeled me in and took me, my laughter and sobbing facets of its revealed truth. I wish I could write like this. I wish I could read like this forever. Beautiful.

Notable Articles

Can You Write a Novel as a Group? An interesting exploration of writing groups - which, like startups and just about any other group of people I can think of, often fall apart because of preventable human dynamics.

Another Network is Possible. I agree that Indymedia could and should have shown the way. There's still time.

Young people may download news apps, but they spend very little time with them. "No news app (with the exception of Reddit) was within the top 25 apps used by respondents."

I Broke The Official Jeremy Renner App By Posting The Word "Porno" On It. "The second thing you will find upon installing the app—if you have not already installed the official Jeremy Renner app, please feel free to take this parenthetical as an opportunity to do so—is that every push notification you receive through the app looks as though it is coming directly from Mr. Renner himself." What happened next is both terrible and delicious.

MIT Media Lab founder: Taking Jeffrey Epstein’s money was justified. Nicholas Negroponte could not have been more wrong here. And it's a sad indictment of him, the institution he founded, and prevalent attitudes at every institution and ... just about everywhere else. There's so much work to do.

A Shocking Number of Americans Want to 'Just Let Them All Burn'. "The impulse to share hateful rumors "are associated with 'chaotic' motivations to 'burn down' the entire established democratic 'cosmos'... This extreme discontent is associated with motivations to share hostile political rumors, not because such rumors are viewed to be true but because they are believed to mobilize the audience against disliked elites.""

That Assault Weapon Ban? It Really Did Work. Let's stop beating around the bush and reinstate an effective ban.

The Space Crone. Ursula K LeGuin's full, beautiful essay about ageing, the menopause, and facing the unknown.

‘You understand that you might have to shoot a student?’ The realities of arming teachers.

How an Élite University Research Center Concealed Its Relationship with Jeffrey Epstein. The story has moved on, but let's not let this drop.

How to prepare yourself for a good end of life. "In the past three years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have witnessed good deaths and hard ones, and I consulted top experts in end-of-life medicine. This is what I learned about how to get the best from our imperfect health care system and how to prepare for a good end of life." Unfortunately very relevant to my interests right now.

Report reveals play-by-play of first U.S. grid cyberattack. "A first-of-its-kind cyberattack on the U.S. grid created blind spots at a grid control center and several small power generation sites in the western United States, according to a document posted yesterday from the North American Electric Reliability Corp."

Running Restaurants in San Francisco Made Me Rethink Everything I Thought I Knew About Success. "Looking back to when I first started out in the restaurant industry, I had defined success as becoming established, having your restaurants, and being a pillar in your community. Now, success merely means surviving."

‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence. "More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article, opening up—for the first time at an institution so intimately associated with the Falwell family—about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement." I don't think it's meaningful different to the rest of the Christian conservative movement, though, to be honest.

I Was Caroline Calloway. An inside story about exploitation and influencer culture.

The rise of anti-trans “radical” feminists, explained. "The key to understanding why a self-proclaimed radical feminist group would side with conservatives arguing for the right to force cisgender women into skirts at work is to understand who TERFs are and what they’ve been up to for the past 50 years. Because now, under the Trump administration and a conservative-majority Supreme Court, their alliance with these far-right groups could have lasting, widespread consequences for trans civil rights — and for the rights of women in general." I've got nothing nice to say about TERFs.

Jennifer Gunter: ‘Women are being told lies about their bodies’. "When one of Goop’s “medical experts” wrote that Gunter was “strangely confident” in her thoughts on jade eggs, she replied: “I am not strangely confident about vaginal health; I am appropriately confident because I am the expert.” Many of her statements end with similar mic drops. It is a rare moment when a gynaecologist becomes an international celebrity, and it comes on a wave of misinformation, fear and continued attacks on the bodily autonomy of women. One Goop fan called Gunter the “vaginal Antichrist”."

How Paris got a taste for second-hand style from Africa. "Unloved cast-offs sent to Togo's markets by charity shops in Europe are given a second life by a canny vintage dealer in Paris."

How To Lose A Third Of A Million Dollars Without Really Trying. A cautionary tale from the publishing industry, which is likely similar to the music industry, and elsewhere in the arts.

Revealed: catastrophic effects of working as a Facebook moderator. "A group of current and former contractors who worked for years at the social network’s Berlin-based moderation centres has reported witnessing colleagues become “addicted” to graphic content and hoarding ever more extreme examples for a personal collection. They also said others were pushed towards the far right by the amount of hate speech and fake news they read every day."

I have a dream that the powerful take the climate crisis seriously. The time for their fairytales is over. Greta Thunberg is a superhero.

How Slack Got Ahead in Diversity. "For one thing, the company has, since 2015, proactively sought out candidates from outside traditional programmer pipelines like Stanford and MIT, recruiting through all-women’s coding camps like Hackbright, as well as programs that focus on training black and Latino programmers such as Code2040." And in doing so, is outperforming other tech companies. I'm watching this closely. These are things we should all be doing.

Trump: My Crimes Can’t Be Investigated While I’m President. Let's see about that.

Silicon Valley Goes to Therapy. "Silicon Valley is approaching its anxiety the way it knows best. So now there is on-demand therapy. Therapy metrics. Therapy R.O.I. Matching therapists with clients using the tools of online dating." Confession: I used a therapy startup to find the therapist I've been seeing for the last year, and it's been a very positive experience for me.

‘Racist’ Home Office passport system couldn’t recognise black man’s lips. "The Race Equality Foundation said it believes the system was not tested properly to see if it would work for black or ethnic minority people, calling it ‘technological or digital racism’." It's worth considering how many other systems have not been tested in this way, and what the impact of false positives could be on a person's life.

Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns. "What if the banking, asset-management, and insurance industries moved away from fossil fuels?"

This is your phone on feminism. "Our devices are basically gaslighting us. They tell us they work for and care about us, and if we just treat them right then we can learn to trust them. But all the evidence shows the opposite is true."

Maria Ressa: “Facebook Broke Democracy in Many Countries around the World, Including in Mine”. "More than at any other time, political leaders have to define the values they stand for. And they have to come together and let go of the rivalries and the bitterness and the alliances of the past. I think that our opposition politicians [in the Philippines] could’ve done a better job if they understood both the role of democracy and if they stopped looking at it as a game of politics. I see the same with the Democratic Party of the United States; they’re going to self-implode before they even get to elections."

NY Fed: Minimum wage hikes didn't kill jobs. Increasing the minimum wage actually improved job numbers for lower-paid workers. An important finding to counter a common conservative talking point.

Looking back at the Snowden revelations. From a cryptographic perspective. "It might very well be that the NSA has lost a significant portion of its capability since Snowden."

A New Theory of Obesity. "“Ultraprocessed” foods seem to trigger neural signals that make us want more and more calories, unlike other foods in the Western diet."

Building a Mystery: An Oral History of Lilith Fair. "In the mid-1990s, female musicians topped the charts and sold out shows, but were told over and over again that no one would pay to see more than one woman onstage. Sarah McLachlan set out to prove them wrong."

You can’t be ‘impartial’ about racism – an open letter to the BBC on the Naga Munchetty ruling. "The BBC has upheld a complaint against its Breakfast presenter. As British broadcasters and journalists of colour, we demand it reconsiders."

Previously

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

 

 

Some personal news

1. I've joined ForUsAll as Head of Engineering. It's a financial wellness company whose mission is to build a better financial future for everyone. That's important - particularly in a country with no real safety net, no real pension system, and a terrifying gap between the rich and poor. We're starting with retirement savings, and I'm particularly motivated to help people on lower incomes build a stronger future.

2. I'm immediately hiring for two roles. The first is a Front End Engineer who codes in React with Redux and also has a strong understanding and respect for web standards. The second is a DevOps Engineer who can help build and orchestrate our infrastructure, as well as help us with both Continuous Integration and Deployment. Both roles are based on-premise in downtown San Francisco, and come with the major downside that you'll need to work side by side with me every day.

Right now the engineering team is about 50% women, and I want to continue to build an intersectionally diverse group of people who genuinely care about the work they're doing. If that's you, or you know someone, reach out!

 

What’s next?

I think of the internet industry in generations. First, we had the early days of the commercial internet, when Gopher was still a thing and Windows users launched Trumpet Winsock and waited for their modem screech before they connected with the world. Then, the Netscape era; a world dominated by Yahoo and the early days of the social web. There were the corporate years between the dotcom crash and the Great Recession, powered by banner ads. And then, the iPhone and everything that came next.

We have some contenders for the next great wave - blockchain, intelligent assistants - but no definites, yet. Blockchain is still lost in its own consensus and the myth that technology built before a specific human need can still change the world. (Thank you, Unlock, for keeping real humans in mind.) Intelligent assistants have been caught by the business models of their corporate parents and are simultaneously too closed and too freaky to become real platforms. So instead, this has been the era when startups retreated into the enterprise world and made money through bringing data insights - and data-driven influence - to business interests.

When I say data, let me be clear: I mean our data. Some businesses call it Personally Identifiable Information, or PII. But it's the intimate details of our lives, taken in aggregate. Our beliefs, predictions about our intentions, and a granular record of our past actions are stored in schemas that people who have never met us believe can build a psychometric profile which will accurately foretell our future actions.

It's an inherently asymmetric state of affairs: while these companies aggregate millions or billions of profiles that predict how we'll act, we don't have a hope of profiling them. Profiling requires near-constant surveillance and combining thousands of different data sources in sophisticated ways, which can then be abused by governments or political parties that want to influence our political decisions. We don't have a hope of surveilling them.

Corporate power has traditionally been counterbalanced by a few different measures. The first is government, which is supposed to look out for the well-being of its citizens. Let's set that one to the side and hopefully come back to it sometime in the future. Another is unions: when employers had outsized influence over the lives of their employees, the labor movement organized itself in order to create better routes for advocacy. The result of the original labor movements was that we were introduced to innovations like the weekend and the eight hour day. In the modern era, they continue to advocate for stronger benefits and better pay. Not every union is great, but the idea of unions is important and generally good.

I believe the next great wave on the internet is agency. Or to put it differently: I believe the tech industry is finally finding a soul.

As individuals, our privacy has been violated, our data has been aggregated, and we've been reduced to faceless consumers at best, chum for the enterprise data machine at worst. Social media makes us unhappy and destabilizes the communities we live in. Freedom of speech - which is essential for democracy to function - is being undermined by the chilling effect of constant surveillance. (To be clear, this is different to "freedom of speech" in the Gab and Breitbart sense, which is the modern equivalent of armchair racists complaining that they can't use the N-word anymore.) Crucially, the startups that have been growing as fast as possible without regard for human well-being are beginning to fail, and fail hard. Meanwhile, the influence of high net worth negative influences like the Kochs, the Mercers, and pervasive creeps like Jeffrey Epstein are beginning to fade.

The top down trends (the influence of hateful money, the financial fortunes of some of the fastest growing startups) are combining with the bottom up trends (our own dissatisfaction with technology, a growing unease with giant tech companies) to create the conditions for more ethical startups to emerge and thrive. We're worried about the climate crisis; we're worried about our own health; we're worried about what the hell has happened to our politics; we're worried about our futures and the futures of our families and friends.

These are trends that companies like Apple have already identified and capitalized on, but we're still only at the beginning stages. The ventures that emerge will be more ethical, will protect our health, will give us agency over our data, and will once again empower us by counterbalancing corporate aggregation. This isn't a technical development - it's a social one. But I'm convinced these innovations will change the world.

 

TV subscription fatigue

During its announcement event yesterday, Apple announced that its TV+ subscription service is going to cost $4.99 a month, which is lower than I expected. A year-long free trial will come with new devices, which is something only Apple can really do; it will be interesting to see what conversions look like once the trial period is over.

That price is fascinating to me. We're being saturated with streaming video services. Between Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, CBS All Access and BritBox, I'm paying close to $50 a month for streaming video - before any extra money I spend on iTunes movies. I've also got a Spotify family plan for music. If I cared about sports, I might be paying for YouTube TV, and very quickly it's all added up to close to a hundred dollars a month on top of my broadband internet subscription (which are in themselves incredibly expensive in the US).

That's all well and good on a tech company salary, if still a bit eye-watering, but the average US monthly after-tax take-home pay is around $3,000. After more important expenses, there's no way these are acceptable costs for most Americans.

I think the first obvious thing that'll happen is account sharing: families or communities are likely to go in together and share account credentials between groups. The second is bundling. Mobile networks like T-Mobile already provide Netflix for free. While home broadband in the US is controlled by effective monopolies - it's very difficult in practice to find an alternative provider in any geographic area - the mobile market isn't subject to these restrictions. So I can easily imagine them competing with each other by bundling more and more content subscriptions as a differentiator. (As mobile bandwidth improves, I can also see mobile providers killing off wired broadband for most customers, which honestly isn't terrible news. Sorry / not sorry, Comcast.)

This isn't much different to the cable TV market of old, either in price or substance. There is a difference in content: American live TV is excrutiating to watch, and we seem to have killed the 30-second commercial in the process, which is joyful news. But ultimately, consumers will be paying huge monthly sums and subject to the bundling deals of whichever network they choose to be connected by, albeit with the ability to pay a la carte for additional subscriptions on top of our bundles. We'll swap one set of gatekeepers with another set of gatekeepers.

All of which makes me nostalgic for Freeview, the UK's free-to-air digital television service, which allows people with compatible devices to pick up on 70 TV channels and 30 radio stations for nothing. Yes, it's live, commercial-supported television, but the ultimate cost for consumers is very little (beyond the device and the UK's mandatory annual $190 license fee). That's not a situation we seem to be anywhere near to approaching in the US.

 

To nationalize or not to nationalize

In the wake of CNN's climate town halls - which, by the way, I found harder than it should have been to find and watch on my TV, but that's something for a different post - I found myself finally examining one of the real policy differences between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and trying to decide how I feel about it.

It comes down to this: Sanders wants to nationalize the US energy sector, and Warren doesn't. On Democracy Now, the journalist Kate Aronoff took issue with Warren's stance as follows:

I think the problem, which I would argue with what she said, is that it’s not just that these companies are doing harm because they’re allowed to create externalities in the world that aren’t being taxed properly or that there aren’t the right rules and regulations in place; it’s that they have a business model that actually is incompatible with solving this crisis.

It's hard to disagree with this. Yes, as Warren said in the town hall, these companies create externalities that effectively force society to pay for and clean up the impacts of their businesses. But it's also true that the core business models of the energy sector are tied very deeply into the exact forces that are destroying the planet. Those companies aren't just continuing to pollute and further global warming; they're spending vast sums to smear and undermine organizations that seek to move us away from fossil fuels.

So in that sense, I can see a strong argument for nationalization. And I'm not afraid of it: American conservatives like to bring up Venezuela as a scary story to tell about socialism, but it's a pretty disingenuous tale. Most of Europe, which offers a higher quality of life to its citizens than the United States, tells a very different story. (The story I like to tell is that I owe my career in large part to going to university for free and subsequently enjoying socialized healthcare while I founded my first startup.)

But of course, Europe doesn't actually have a fully nationalized energy sector, and is progressing on some fairly aggressive (albeit potentially not aggressive enough) energy targets. It does have some significant nationalization, in the form of government investments into infrastructure, and there are fully-owned companies like France's Électricité de France, which was the world's largest producer of electricity not too long ago. Beyond electricity, nobody could argue that the Swiss or German railways are anything but efficient and well-maintained - and state ownership ensures that their prices and schedules benefit the whole economy, rather than their own bottom lines.

On the other hand, in my time in the US, I've begun to share the general population's distrust of government. This is less to do with the general concept of government, and much more to do with the fact that American politicians are terrifying, with a prevalent membership of death cults and a surprising prediliction for voting against the interests of their citizens in favor of sociopathic corporate interests. Hopefully this is changing - politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren give me hope - but I've got to admit that giving people like Mitch McConnell more than minimal power over anything at all makes me break out in a sweat (not to mention the unlikely bolus of nerve endings currently occupying the Presidency).

So I genuinely don't know. I'm not afraid of nationalization, and I'm not a subscriber to the religion of the free market (or the increasingly dubious claim that the US has one to begin with). But I also think that Warren's point that it doesn't necessarily get us to where we need to be has merit; strict regulations and targets, without worrying about taking direct control, may be more effective. It's certainly true that their business models are harmful to their core, but perhaps we can encourage them to disappear into the night by promoting forward-facing energy sources and sanctioning pollutants.

I do certainly think that pure capitalist competition will not get us anywhere near where we need to be, and that action needs to be taken quickly. Albert Wenger's alien invasion analogy is useful, and the global warming of oceans represents energy addition to a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb every single second (that's 86,400 atomic bombs a day, or 31.5 million Hiroshimas in a typical year). Having a bias towards action must be our attitude: arguing about how exactly to achieve this to infinity will see us killed. And preservation of life and civilization, rather than our addiction to profit and markets, must be our central principle.

 

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

 

My setup, September 2019

I thought it would be interesting to detail some of my day-to-day setup, Uses This style. This week I'm completely independent, so I'm only using my own hardware and software, which feels like a good time to take stock. This is my stack - I'd love to read yours!

Hardware:

My main machine is a 2016 13" MacBook Pro. Yes, I've had problems with the keyboard, and I have both an external keyboard and trackpad - but the dust has shaken itself out over time, so at this point I rarely use them. I aim to replace my laptops every four years or so, so next year it'll be time to think about a new one (if I decide that this one, or the iPad, isn't serving my needs anymore). For the moment, it works. I prefer the smaller size: a 15" laptop is just that much heavier and bulkier to lug around.

My phone is an iPhone XS Max. I'm on the upgrade program, which I realize makes next to no financial sense, but I kind of enjoy getting to use a new device every year. I like to kid myself that I need to understand the new capabilities for work, but honestly, it's just kind of fun. I'm on T-Mobile One Plus, which gives me really decent tethering and passable mobile bandwidth worldwide for no extra cost. Lots of people complain about T-Mobile on lower tiers, but it's been great for me on this one.

My iPhone has become my go-to camera, but I'm thinking about getting another DSLR. I've got a now-ancient 2007 Nikon D40 and accompanying telephoto lens, which still works, but even twelve years ago it was kind of entry-level. I love taking photographs, and I'd love to experiment with some more professional kit.

This year, I also bought myself an 11" iPad Pro with a new Pencil and Smart Keyboard. I was using my personal laptop for work, and I wanted to own a machine that was just for personal creative stuff. I've enjoyed drawing and writing on it even more than I thought I would, but with some regret I've also realized that it's the best email machine I own. C'est la vie.

And finally, I love my AirPods. These are my second pair (the latest generation with more battery life made a real difference), but I'm aware of the environmental impact and probably won't buy any more.

Although I may seem pretty bought in, I'm seriously considering moving away from the Mac ecosystem - I don't enjoy being locked in, and I don't think either the build or software quality are what they used to be. I was a Windows user pre-2011, and I think I could do well with a Linux machine these days. On the other hand, I do like how all the Apple devices work together, and clipboard sharing in particular genuinely feels like magic. And I don't even slightly trust Android, despite it being open source. So we'll see.

Software:

My main browser is Firefox, always and forever. The only plugin I really use is Pocket: rather than a to-read list, it's a way for me to bookmark articles I found particularly interesting. (That's what drives my month in review posts.)

The first two things I install on any new computer are Alfred and 1Password. I also use Authy for 2-factor authentication after a nasty experience with Google Authenticator. (If I can avoid it, I never use SMS-based 2fa, which is wildly insecure.)

I've got monthly subscriptions to both the Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Cloud ecosystems. I'd love to use open source equivalents, but iteroperability - particularly with Word's track changes and Acrobat's signing for legal documents - has been a hard requirement for me. It's nice to have video and audio editing ready to go if I need them, but I've basically stopped using Photoshop entirely.

I've tried a bunch of code editors and IDEs that other people love, like Sublime Text and Visual Studio Code, and I prefer Webstorm (in fact, I use PhpStorm, which is WebStorm + a PHP interpreter). It thinks how I think, and in particular, I find its autocompletion, branch comparison, and deep code navigation to be incredibly intuitive. I use iTerm 2 as my terminal, and obviously I'm all over git and hub. No surprise that I'm a heavy Homebrew user.

I've got a local development environment set up with Apache and virtual hosts, which I mostly use for PHP projects. I've also got Node installed, and have been building some personal projects with that and React (with Next, after using it at Unlock).

I write fiction with iA Writer, which I love for its distraction-free environment (and have used Scrivener to pull work together in the past - I hate its editor but its organizational tools are lovely). I draw with Procreate, which I couldn't recommend more highly.

Etc:

I just switched over to a Peak Design Everyday Backpack at Jonathan LaCour's recommendation, and it's stunning. Super-useful, and for an essentially disorganized person like me, its filing system has already been a godsend. I use the top compartment for whichever books I'm reading at the moment, and then chargers etc are stored further down. I even permanently keep a small GorillaPod handy.

Finally, although it's kind of off-topic here, I was very pleasantly surprised by Atoms. I walk a lot, and wear through shoes very quickly; the Allbirds I bought last year are a mess, and I managed to wear a hole straight through my beloved Merrells. I wear size 14, so buying off the shelf often isn't possible. But for mail order shoes, these seem like a really great solution. I love them so far.

 

California's privacy protections are important. Let's keep them.

Last year, California adopted the California Consumer Privacy Act, which restricts how data gathered about a person may be sold, and requires tech companies to keep it safe. Unsurprisingly, many big tech companies (and particularly the Internet Association, a lobbyist group run by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter) would like to see it neutered:

The Internet Association, for example, has continued to push legislators to make what it’s called an “ads fix.” [...] The change would exempt much of the ad industry’s pervasive online tracking from California’s rules requiring companies to obtain consumers’ permission when their data is sold, according to privacy advocates who oppose such an exemption.

Such a "fix" would undermine one of the main protections in the law. Targeted advertising, beyond being the original sin of the internet, encourages widespread surveillance across the internet and beyond, providing a financial incentive to build ever more detailed profiles about users in order to sell more highly-targeted ads that don't even offer a significant benefit to publishers. They also put service providers in opposition to their users: rather than providing direct user value, services are incentivized to make their products addictive so that their users will see as many ads as possible. Meanwhile, more and more users are adopting privacy and ad blockers.

There's a general reluctance in Silicon Valley to accept legislative restrictions. Some of this is ideological: much of the web was built on a kind of techno-libertarianism that is still prevalent today. Some of it, at this point, is simply big business lobbying. In a world busily being eaten by software, we have to accept that hackers aren't cultural underdogs any longer. Tech is part of the prevailing culture, and the effects of its products and business models can be felt everywhere. The industry has proven itself to be poor at reigning in its worst impulses: from Cambridge Analytica to Palantir's direct involvement in deportations to Amazon fighting an investor resolution to prevent its facial recognition technology from being used in human rights violations, to the surprisingly widespread opinion that tech monopolies are good, actually, it has become painfully clear that some external guidance is badly needed.

It's true that lawmakers have also proven themselves to be poor at understanding technology. That doesn't mean they shouldn't seek to legislate around it: it just means they need to get smarter. They should seek out subject matter experts and advisors. In the case of the CCPA, that's what happened: it was the result of years of research and consultation. Yes, it has the potential to harm the businesses of companies like Uber and Google. That's not what it should be concerned with: it is a fundamental privacy protection for consumers. If businesses are harmed by privacy rules, that's a strong sign that they are profiting from our personal information. It's okay to say that this shouldn't be allowed.

Hopefully, the CCPA will inspire other, similar bills in other states, and eventually a set of nationwide rules. What happens in the California legislature will have a profound impact on surveillance throughout the world. It's not fair to say that all of Silicon Valley is against it; it's also not fair to allow Silicon Valley to dictate the human rights of millions of California citizens, and billions of internet users around the world.

As the Washington Post reports:

McAlister, the group’s top lobbyist in California, said tech giants, online publications, Web retailers and others rely on the exchange of this information to make ads work, which they don’t see as a sale. “We have pushed from last year to this year,” he said, and “we’re going to continue to seek clarification.”

I cannot imagine a more disingenuous argument. And I hope that California legislators remain firm. We need these protections - and more.

 

Here's what I read in August

Books

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell. A profoundly intelligent, intersectional analysis of addictive surveillance capitalism; ultimately a call for radical noticing and the intentional dismantling of harmful structures. Far meatier and more rewarding than the title might imply. It's becoming clear that the books which have really spoken to me this year are ones that discuss moving beyond the templates and enforced demographics of modern capitalism and finding happiness on our own terms. This book certainly joins them.

Air: Flying Machine, by G Willow Wilson and MK Perker. A riveting adventure story wrapped around a deepening exploration of how the symbols we use affect our culture and the way we experience reality. I couldn't wait to read volume 3.

Air: Pureland, by G Willow Wilson and MK Perker. Literally and figuratively beautiful, this volume disappeared into the symbology of our own past and the stories we tell about ourselves, and of religion itself. And was also ludicrously fun - exactly what I needed during a stressful time.

Once again, I hit a stressful month: my mother was admitted into hospital several times, and I also found myself looking for a new job. I find it hard to focus during these periods, so I didn't quite hit my reading goals - but I'm very glad for having at least read these.

Notable Articles

Meet ‘Bob Smith,’ The Fake Facebook Profile Memphis Police Allegedly Used To Spy On Black Activists. This is disappointing but not surprising: police spying on progressive activists is nothing new, and famously the Nixon administration's war on drugs was motivated by a fear of black and anti-war activists. This story is confirmation, alongside others like it, that this kind of targeting continues to this day.

Why Stripping U.S. Citizens of Their Passports Is a Precursor to Genocide. "Denying people their citizenship is a clear way to indicate that they should no longer expect to receive the rights of citizens. The right to a fair trial? They shouldn’t expect that. Not being investigated without just cause? Forget about it." This administration's cruelty continues at a rapid pace. I don't see this as "Trump Derangement Syndrome": it's real concern about policies with harmful effects that will be felt for generations.

Gigantic, mysterious radiation leak traced to facility in Russia. The timing was weird: it's almost like an HBO Chernobyl tie-in. But nuclear experiments are continuing, and the effects continue to be covered up. Here in the US, my father was forced to watch nuclear explosions while in the army; it wouldn't surprise me if we were still performing these kinds of experiments, too.

Three mass shootings this year began with a hateful screed on 8chan. Its founder calls it a terrorist refuge in plain sight. "Joan Donovan, the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, said posting to 8chan before a mass shooting has become a “tactical” way for attackers to gain attention and amplify their message." And Jim Watkins, a pig farmer who currently owns the site, is unrepentant.

Staring at Giant Pieces of Sulphur. The oral history of Look Around You, one of the greatest comedies ever made. Thanks, ants. Thants.

Being basic as a virtue. "Being basic is part of the same family as being mediocre or degenerate, but I think the latter two still require some degree of self-awareness. Mediocrity is about making an active choice to say “screw it, good enough”: the decision to keep moving forward instead of trying to get that last 10%. Degeneracy carries a flavor of bird-flipping showmanship: you know what other people would think, and that’s exactly why it’s fun."

No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear. The late Toni Morrison on finding beauty and meaning in the face of chaos. "No! This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal." Amen.

Portland’s Antifascists Punch White Supremacists. Are They Also Helping Trump? I take issue with the headline, but this is an important portrait of a half dozen antifa activists, which dives into why they do what they do. It's worth saying that since this piece, Andy Ngo, the "journalist" who is referenced in it, has been revealed to be a collaborator with Patriot Prayer, a far right group.

Elizabeth Warren’s Classroom Strategy. A deep dive into my favorite Presidential candidate's pedagogy - she was an award-winning teacher - and how it ties into her life and her rhetoric on the road.

Schoolchildren in China work overnight to produce Amazon Alexa devices. Are we really building the future if we're letting children build our devices? The tech industry must contend with this kind of rampant exploitation - and put an end to it.

The Long and Surprising History of Roller Derby. A lot of my friends play roller derby; it's frenetic and fun to watch. But it has a long history even before its (awesome) feminist resurrection in Austin that I was completely unaware of.

When Open Source Software Comes With a Few Catches. "Smaller open source developers are fighting back against tech giants like Amazon using their code in commercial services." About time. While this goes against the principles of free software as we know them, I love the idea of building social contracts into open software licensing. It feels like an idea whose time has come.

How YouTube Radicalized Brazil. "Members of the nation’s newly empowered far right — from grass-roots organizers to federal lawmakers — say their movement would not have risen so far, so fast, without YouTube’s recommendation engine." The code we write - particularly for giant, global services like YouTube - can have profound implications for the entire world. It's not just about algorithms anymore. Maybe our teams should reflect this?

How a 'NULL' License Plate Landed One Hacker in Ticket Hell. Little Bobby Tables strikes again.

The end times are here, and I am at Target. "We’re just trying to get through the next day or week as we suffer through the early throes of our collective demise, hoping that we might be wrong about the whole thing." Nothing less than the American experience in 2019.

As summer camps turn on facial recognition, parents demand: More smiles, please. Call it surveillance parenting?

Venture capital funds led by people of color face more bias the better they perform, Stanford researchers find. "When a black-led venture capital firm has an impressive track record, it encounters more bias from professional investors, according to new research by Stanford scholars." The piece also notes that "fewer than 1.3 percent of the $69.1 trillion in global assets under the four major asset classes – mutual funds, hedge funds, real estate and private equity – are managed by women and people of color".

Actually, Gender-Neutral Pronouns Can Change a Culture. A hopeful story: Sweden's introduction of hen, a nongendered pronoun, has made a real impact on the country's culture. While it turns out that the singular they is widely assumed to be masculine in English, maybe we can do the same?

WeWork IPO Shows It’s the Most Magical Unicorn. WeWork's IPO filing reads like a work of satire. And it's complicated: "This is a company whose intricate relationships with its chief executive requires 10 pages of disclosures." Yikes.

Art Spiegelman: golden age superheroes were shaped by the rise of fascism. The Maus author's essay was removed from a Marvel Comics collection after its publisher, Ike Perlmutter, a friend of Trump, tried to remove a reference to the "Orange Skull": "when asked to kill a relatively anodyne reference to an Orange Skull I realised that perhaps it had been irresponsible to be playful about the dire existential threat we now live with, and I withdrew my introduction."

The Moochers of Middle America. "So if you really believe that Americans with higher incomes shouldn’t pay for benefits provided to those with lower incomes, you should be calling on “donor” states like New Jersey and New York to cut off places like Kentucky and let their economies collapse. And if that’s what you mean, you should let Mitch McConnell’s constituents know about it."

Beyond First Amendment Lochnerism: A Political Process Approach. "Today, however, the First Amendment’s role in the American political process has changed decisively. It can longer be described as a law that protects unpopular speakers or other politically weak actors in the Carolene Products sense. If the First Amendment could once be described as a remedy for defects in the political process, it has now as often become the cause of such defects. For today’s First Amendment is regularly deployed not to promote or facilitate political debate but to end it."

To Learn About the Far Right, Start With the ‘Manosphere’. "The idea that feminism is decadent, and is destroying Western civilization; the idea that women’s natural role is to have children, and to be subservient to men; the idea that strong men are needed to save the world through violence—all of these arguments are found across extremist websites, and in the words of shooters themselves. Anti-feminist rhetoric is a powerful gateway to violent white nationalism, and it is calculated to appeal to the demographic overwhelmingly responsible for mass shootings: young white men."

The New American Homeless. Housing insecurity is a crisis, and official statistics far underreport the extent. "Outrageous rents would be less alarming if wages were increasing at a comparable rate. But the opposite is true. Nationwide, the hourly earnings of high-wage workers rose 41 percent between 1979 and 2013; those of middle-wage workers grew only 6 percent. The pay for low-wage workers, meanwhile, decreased by 5 percent. Contrast these figures to the 138 percent annual wage growth among the top 1 percent of earners." And a disproportionate 40% of the resulting homeless are African Americans.

A new poll shows what really interests 'pro-lifers': controlling women. Are you shocked?

Jeffrey Epstein, My Very, Very Sick Pal. Probably the strangest interview you'll read this year. "I know it’s very interesting, but I’m just realizing something. I have just gotten myself into terrible trouble and everyone who knows is going to be mad at me—why the hell did I pick up the phone?"

Megan Greenwell, Like The Oakland A's Every Year, Makes An Early Exit. The editor of G/O Media's Deadspin sports blog abruptly left; this is a series of goodbyes from her current and former colleagues. Together, they paint a strong picture of a scrappy newsroom, and of the private equity firm that purchased it.

NASA Astronaut Anne McClain Accused by Spouse of Crime in Space. Potentially the first crime to have been committed in space! And weirdly, it's identity theft.

Let’s Meet Again in Five Years. "They thought college was too soon for lifelong love, so they scheduled their next date for a little later — 60 months." Beautiful, and more than a little bit Before Sunrise.

The solitary life and death of a homeless man and his dog near the 520 bridge. He lived with his dog in a tarped rowboat under a bridge. It took eight months before they found his body.

New Protest Tactics in Hong Kong. How protesters are using technology to evade the authorities and organize. Movements closer to home could learn a lot from them - and it's interesting to see them gathered in one place.

My Time at Google and After. "David was (and is) a powerful executive. His “personal life” (which apparently didn’t include his son) was off limits and since I was no longer his “personal life” it was time for me to shut up, fall in line and stop bothering him with the nuisances or demands of raising a child." David Drummond was Google's general counsel at the time, which explains a lot about its apparent attitudes towards the treatment of women.

The Misogyny of Climate Deniers. "In 2014, Jonas Anshelm and Martin Hultman of Chalmers published a paper analyzing the language of a focus group of climate skeptics. The common themes in the group, they said, were striking: “for climate skeptics … it was not the environment that was threatened, it was a certain kind of modern industrial society built and dominated by their form of masculinity.”" As a man, I want to make clear that I want nothing to do with this form of masculinity, and that women like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are the future.

'Where do I go?' EU citizens face legal limbo after decades in Britain. This would have been me, had I stayed. The idea that I can't easily ever move back still smarts.

The Plan to Use Fitbit Data to Stop Mass Shootings Is One of the Scariest Proposals Yet. To say that surveillance and Minority Report style machine learning predications are not the answer is an understatement. It's appalling enough coming from the Republicans; it's shocking to see it coming from the mouths of some Democrats.

A Week With No Tear Gas. "I can’t bear to stay and watch the fight. We came so close to a conflict-free weekend, but now it looks like it will end in violence, and be exploited by the authorities as proof that the protesters are out of control. People on Twitter have been counting down to midnight, incredulous at the idea of a weekend with no tear gas, the first since the protests started." A first-hand account of the protests in Hong Kong.

Previously

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

 

Brexit, climate change, and the rise of the far right

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (four words that demonstrate just how far we've descended) announced an undemocratic five-week shutdown of Parliament today in order to force through a no-deal Brexit. It's a coup.

A no-deal Brexit drops the UK out of the single market and customs union without any arrangements. It also removes the Irish "backstop" - an arrangement designed to avoid a border division between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is important because a border would likely ignite violence between unionists and nationalists. It's hard to remember, but the UK, and particularly Northern Ireland, were subject to frequent, bloody acts of terrorism and atrocities by the British armed forces alike. Nobody should want to return to those times.

Just as there's been some talk of a "virtual wall" in the US, there's been talk of a technology-based solution in Northern Ireland. In both cases, technology would be used to track peoples' movements and allow people who had outstayed their welcome to be pinpointed. What that would necessitate, of course, is near-ubiquitous surveillance. And this still doesn't overcome the need for physical inspections of goods.

For me, Brexit is still personal. Although I have a British accent, I'm not a British citizen; I grew up there but lived on a European passport. The effect of Brexit is that I would be legally barred from returning to live in the country I grew up in. While there are many immigrants whose experience is far worse, with the potential for families to be split up, and the economic impact even for British citizens will be serious, I nonetheless feel a surreal kind of disenfranchisement. I'll forever be a tourist in the place that feels most like home.

I harbor a conspiracy theory about the rise of far-right nationalism across the world, of which Brexit is undoubtedly a part. And it's this: it's all about climate change. There's some backlash against inclusivity and "globalism", to be sure, and racist groups certainly have been emboldened. But these are all useful idiots in service to the real goal, which is to walk back environmental regulations that are creating unprecedented financial risk for certain kinds of global industry.

Take Bolsonaro in Brazil, who we now know sought to actively sabotage conservation efforts in the Amazon. (His first act upon achieving power was to pave the way for increased logging.) Or you could look at our very own President Trump, who has rolled back over 80 environmental regulations since lurching into the Oval Office.

A no-deal Brexit would also shut down any environmental pacts Britain had with Europe. It's already dropping its carbon price. And we're hearing a lot about a quick US trade deal, which may not mitigate the economic impact on the country, but is likely to have provisions that also carry an environmental impact.

To reiterate, this is mostly a conspiracy theory. But it makes sense that in a world with rapidly-diminishing resources (we're only at the foothills of this trend, but the effects are already serious), wealthy supranational groups that depend on those resources will want to make land grabs. Authoritarian, less-liberal regimes would allow those groups to maintain stronger control. Of course, climate change will also create more refugees, and there's a lot to gain by keeping the direct human impact of their industrial activities at arm's length.

If there's even a hint of truth in this, then the battle over Brexit - alongside Trump, Bolsonaro, and the rise of the far-right globally - is more important than immigration and the future of liberal democracy, which was already a life and death for many people. It's about who gets to survive.

We need to be on the streets. We need to divest from environmentally disastrous corporations. We need to vote in progressive, inclusive politicians who will put stronger controls on corporations who would sacrifice the environment for their bottom lines. And we need to make it clear that we will not accept this hyper-capitalist coup against democracy.

 

Silos

I’ve never been to Burning Man, and I’m definitely Burning Man curious, but I’m also more than uneasy with the ostentatious displays of wealth. It’s not just the entry fee; the time and money required to build giant works of art seem like something that only privileged people would have access to (and I sincerely do not want to spend a week surrounded by tech people of privilege). I could be completely wrong. People say it’s transformative. I should really go one year, to see it for myself.

I’ve been thinking about a year-long film festival. Every month, there would be at least one double-bill screening: one film with incredible reviews that received a very limited release, from anywhere in the world. And another that was thematically related, whether by cast and crew, or by the story or location itself. Sometimes there would be talks and interviews. Every screening would end with a mixer and live music - ideally from a group that was also related. In one version, there would be a low monthly subscription fee; in another, there would be sponsorship or arts funding that would make the festival available to everyone. I don’t know if the latter is possible, but it would be better. Exclusivity sucks.

My sister participates in the Bushwick Book Club. Every season, a collection of musicians read the same book and write a song about it. Ideally, the audience reads the book too. Then there’s a show where everyone performs their song. The diversity of artistic reactions is fascinating, and each song is beautiful in itself. Her friend Dibbs helped to organize the original, in Bushwick itself, and apparently was part of the NYC anti-folk scene (the one that produced, among others, the Moldy Peaches and Regina Spektor). I’m awestruck, frankly.

My friend Taylor runs the Bay Area Arts Mixer, which takes place at the East Bay Community Space in Oakland every few months. Local bands take the stage; on the sides, local artists make new art in their chosen media, and share work they’ve previously produced. One month, I was the writer in residence, which was incredibly flattering. I sat above the stage and wrote on an old typewriter, poems and stories inspired by the pace of the music below.

My friend Dani has a band, Sapphire Lung, which plays “chamber slime”. It’s music from the soul, untemplated and mesmerizing. It’s hard to describe, but it’s beautiful. I’m impressed by their artistry, and I’m impressed by their bravery, and I’m impressed by the way listening to their hypnotic work makes me feel.

So much of life is templated, and so few of those templates are created for our benefit. We’re sliced into demographic groups for marketing purposes, siloed into pigeonholes for our careers, and we’re told strong stories about what life should look like; moved into metaphorical and literal three bedroom houses in the suburbs, with a car parked just outside. But there’s so much beyond this; so much constrained humanity just waiting to spill out. We can find the signposts in art, until the art itself is pigeonholed and demographied and siloed. We owe it to ourselves to break down the silos where we find them and let humanity exist in all its creative, imperfect, beautiful diversity.

 

I need more blogs

I’m back in the habit of reading my feed subscriptions at the beginning of every day. I love blogs: posts are typically more longform and thoughtful, and less led by trending topics on social media sites. It’s usually “here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately,” which is lovely. As Kevin Marks says, I can read your thoughts, if you write them down first.

I use NewsBlur with the Reeder app. NewsBlur is a really solid subscriptions engine, with nice features like the ability to import mailing lists. I find it useful to automatically forward mailing lists to NewsBlur and archive them out of my inbox. This is particularly great for Substack mailing lists - I pay to subscribe to a few, but the place where I send people messages is not the place where I want to be reading articles. And then Reeder is a beautiful interface that syncs my subscriptions across devices (I flip between an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Pro) and automatically grabs articles for offline reading.

The only trouble is, there isn’t enough. Whereas Twitter and Facebook are unstoppable firehoses that constantly have new content, I can get through my feeds for the day in twenty minutes in the morning.

So I have two requests:

You should start a blog, if you don’t have one already. There’s nothing better for organizing your thoughts and socializing ideas. You don’t have to labor for days over a post; blogs are often better when they’re off the cuff. Writing in an interface away from the hustle of social media often allows you to express yourself more calmly (I certainly find this to be the case). And I would love to read your thoughts.

And: if you already have a blog, or you really love someone else’s, I’d really like to know about it. I want to subscribe. In another, parallel universe it would have been as easy to share OPML subscription lists as it is to share Twitter lists, but that’s not the one we live in. So email me, or send me a webmention, and let me know who I should be reading.

I really appreciate it!

 

Moving on to my next adventure

I’ve always believed in the power of an open web. It’s hard to remember now, but we came from a world where only a small number of people could publish and be heard. Those people were chosen by an even smaller set of gatekeepers: predominantly white men who got to decide whose voice mattered. The promise of the web - something we have to work and fight for - is that anyone’s voice can find an audience, without gatekeepers or middlemen.

My work has always been mission-driven. I started by co-founding a white-label social networking platform that was used to teach, to train aid workers at non-profits like Oxfam, and for knowledge sharing inside governments. I was CTO of a startup that allowed video footage to be quickly sent back to newsrooms from some of the most connectivity-challenged environments on Earth, empowering reporting from Syria and the top of Everest. I built a way for anyone to own their own social profile. And I was privileged, as the west coast Director of Investments at Matter Ventures, to support diverse entrepreneurs at 73 startups with the potential to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society.



I started as an engineer, then became a product lead, a startup founder, a human-centered designer, a strategic advisor, and an investor.

It was this work that led me to Unlock: a protocol and platform that allows anyone to make money from their work on the web, independently, without having to ask for permission. Its CEO, Julien Genestoux, believes in the same principles of the open web that I do, and the New York based team we built is one of the best I’ve ever worked with.



My mother is terminally ill, and I need to be in the San Francisco Bay Area to support my parents. While he had originally wanted to build an entirely in-person NYC team, Julien was open to my working remotely. Unfortunately, we’ve come to the conclusion that the team really does need to be all in one place, and that it’s time for me to move on. I continue to be a strong believer in Unlock’s mission, and in particular in Julien and the rest of the team. I’m hopeful that I’ll continue to be able to help wherever I can.

So I’m open. I’m looking for a new role, either in San Francisco or remotely, with a team that shares my ambition to use technology in a way that positively impacts society. But I’ll be honest: I’m not sure what that looks like yet, and I’m not willing to rule anything out. Maybe I’ll wind up founding a new venture; maybe I’ll join an existing team that is doing amazing things; maybe I’ll help a company in another industry, like news or education, with their innovation needs; maybe I’ll cross back over the table and join another investment firm. What I do know is that it’s all about the values and mission of the people I’ll be working with, and about making a positive impact in the world.

If you’d like to chat with me, shoot me an email: I’m at ben@benwerd.com. You can also text or Signal me at +1 (510) 283-3321.

 

On vendor lock-in and golden handcuffs

Doug Belshaw wrote a post the other day about the effects of vendor lock-in on wages and retention:

But going one step further, if you’re making more profit through vendor lock-in, you can pay higher wages to your staff. In fact, you might have to do this, because your product isn’t well-liked by end users. People end up mainly joining your company because of the salary and perks.

I think there are some common assumptions here that need to be challenged.

Fundamentally, I don't agree with the idea that ethical ventures are inherently less profitable, or that people who work on them should expect to be paid less. In fact, I think it's important to show that ventures that operate on ethical principles can be every bit as profitable, and that people who work on them can expect to make a good living.

First, I think it's important to call out that people who do ethical jobs do tend to be paid less across society. For example, teachers and nurses don't make salaries that are in any way proportional to the importance of the work they do. It's not by accident that these jobs were historically were often considered to be womens' work. The effects of sexism are endemic and generational, and feminism is an important force for good that benefits everybody. And it's certainly not right or fair that people within the tech industry get paid more (ditto bankers, etc). This could be the subject of another post, or a book, or a lifetime's body of work.

If we zoom in and consider just the tech industry as an ecosystem in and of itself, we can consider some ventures to be more ethical than others. Doug highlights vendor lock-in: the idea that once you purchase a company's service, it is very hard to move away. The service is designed like a trap that lures you in easily, but then keeps you subscribing not because the service itself provides immense value, but because you would lose something important of yours if you left. For example, you might lose data.

I would add (and I suspect Doug would agree) a commitment to privacy, concrete steps to ensure inclusion, opposition to tracking, and a resistance to fake markets. For example, Uber can't be an ethical company because it allows employees to see your data, its treatment of women has been appalling, it has undermined employment rights for the people who drive for it, and it's engaged in predatory pricing.

It's incredibly valid that we should be looking for the services we use and work for to do better. But I would argue that services that don't do those things should not be expected to be less profitable, or to pay their employees less well. In fact, I think it's really important to build ethical businesses that are every bit as profitable as an Uber.

Okay, bad example. Every bit as profitable as a WeWork?

Hmm. As a ... a Docusign?

No? Wow. Okay.

Look, the point is, ethical businesses should be good investments. In fact, because so many unethical businesses have engaged in predatory strategies that depend on being buoyed by investment dollars that aren't guaranteed to continue, they should be better investments. As the economy changes and we begin to see more regulation around privacy and anti-trust, we should see that ethical businesses that earn profit "fairly" are actually more robust investments, in the same way that investing in fossil fuels will be a losing endeavor over time.

We can't expect these businesses to pay their employees less.

People aren't really motivated by money, past a certain threshold; instead, it's about making good progress on meaningful work. But in an employment market like San Francisco, it's also about the salary and benefits you can offer. Potential employees aren't looking for one or the other - they're looking for both. If a company makes a product that really sucks, morale will be through the floor and people will leave in droves, even if they're paying above-market rates. If a company makes an amazing product but the people who work on it can't afford to make rent, they'll leave too.

It's also an inclusion issue. Who can afford to take below-market rates to work on ethical problems? Mostly people who otherwise have strong safety nets and come from wealthier backgrounds - who, it turns out, are disproportionately white. If we care about diversity of our teams, we need to make sure that people who build software get paid well for it.

I'm not necessarily capitalism's greatest cheerleader, but in our current reality, money matters. If we care about an ethical industry that treats people well, we've got to build ethical companies that do well while doing good - and allow their employees to do the same.

 

Pull requests and the templated self

The modern software development process is aruably centered around something called a pull request. Here's a simplified version of how it works:

  • All source code is stored in a source repository (there are many types, but git is the most popular).
  • The main source code that everyone references is stored in a master branch.
  • When a developer wants to make a change, they take a copy of the master branch and work on the copy.
  • When they're finished, they submit their changes using a pull request. This
  • Other developers on the project review the changes, and either request further changes, or accept the review (often with a simple "LG" or "LGTM": "Looks Good To Me").
  • The changes can then be merged in to the master branch. The developer's changed copy is typically deleted; if they want to make more changes, they take a new copy.

This methodology ensures that every change has oversight, and while there's plenty of room for team dysfunction - reviewers wield a lot of power here - it typically makes for more stable code. On GitHub, the dominant platform for hosting code repositories, these kinds of code reviews can be set to be mandatory. It's rare to find an engineering team that doesn't use them.

At this point, it feels like pull requests are just part of the fabric of software development. But they were popularized by GitHub, and its version of the functionality has influenced how they work everywhere.

GitHub, in turn, was acquired by Microsoft for $7.5 billion last year. Microsoft's design decisions now influence how almost all software is made.

It would be easy - and lazy - to accept the pull request as it stands as the most optimal interaction for software development. After all, it seems to more or less work for code. But software is eating the world, and in a world where every aspect of society is influenced in some way by source code, we have a responsibility to examine the processes that are used to make it. We talk a lot, rightly, about the demographics of software teams and the power dynamics of funding, but it's also important to re-examine the core activities involved in building code itself.

The design of the platforms we use matters. The boxes we type into - whether on Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere - influence the content we create.

Pull requests, in their current form, encourage teams to take a code-first approach without considering the human impact or social context of their work.

Every software project is built to help someone achieve some kind of goal. Understanding who that is, and how the software will be effective for them, is key to successful software: you can't just build something and hope it will be useful to someone. Maybe it will, and maybe it won't; you're leaving it up to luck. Adopting a human-centered development philosophy allows you to build an effective product (and if you're a startup, find product/market fit) far more quickly and cheaply than you could otherwise.

We also live in a world where the societal implications of the software we build are serious. One of the most eye-opening conversations in my working life was with Chelsea Manning. We were discussing a set of software projects I had been working to support, and I asked her what she thought. Some, she liked; but she pointed out that the technology involved in others could be used to harm. "[This project] could be used to target drones", she pointed out. I hadn't even considered it, and she was right.

A key question to building any software in the modern age is: "In the wrong hands, who could this harm?"

Decades ago, software seemed harmless. In 2019, when facial recognition is used to deport refugees and data provided by online services have been used to jail journalists, understanding who you're building for, and who your software could harm, are vital. These are ideas that need to be incorporated not just into the strategies of our companies and the design processes of our product managers, but the daily development processes of our engineers. These are questions that need to be asked over and over again.

It's no longer enough to build with rough consensus and running code. Empathy and humanity need to be first-class skills for every team - and the tools we use should reflect this.

 

Ban the guns.

If your argument is that people need guns for self-defense, you're horribly misinformed. See the El Paso shooting: 22 people dead, in an open carry state. Or, any forensic pathologist will tell you that owning or carrying a gun just increases the risk that you yourself will be shot with it. The stats back this up.

If your argument is that more guns don't lead to more violence, you're horribly misinformed. Gun violence tracks linearly with gun ownership. Worldwide. In every US state. The more guns that exist, the more murders are committed with them. The stats back this up.

If your argument is that someone with the intent to shoot people will buy a gun by any means necessary, so banning them won't help, you're horribly misinformed. States with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun-related deaths. Controlling the sale of guns directly leads to fewer deaths. The stats back this up.

If your argument is that the second amendment guarantees the limitless right to bear arms, you're horribly misinformed. It was interpreted this way not in 1787, but in 2008, and then only in the context of a single handgun for self-defense as part of a Supreme Court decision. I'd prefer to ban all guns, but sure, keep your handgun.

Buying and selling automatic weapons is indefensible. These are weapons of war, designed to be wielded by trained military servicepeople. We don't need them on our streets. It's not about mental health; it's not about drugs; it's not about videogames. It's not about prayer in schools. It's about limiting access to instruments of death.

 

Here's what I read in July

Books

Border Districts, by Gerald Murnane. A treatise on memories and imagery from the perspective of the end of a man’s life; in particular on the changing meaning of the images we carry with us over time, and the properties thereof. Hypnotic.

A Fire Story, by Brian Fies. An emotionally-written, boldly-drawn graphic novel account of the author losing his Santa Rosa home. It cuts very close for me: the fire came very close to my parents, too. And it's beautifully done.

Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor. This built on the inclusivity of the first story in unexpected ways; the result is a beautifully-written, mind-expanding journey into the meaning of identity with the addictive pace of a thriller.

Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, by Noam Chomsky. Written decades ago but very much applicable today; a searing criticism of the War on Terror and media’s role in manufacturing consent. Inspiring.

Notable Articles

Inside the Secret Border Patrol Facebook Group Where Agents Joke About Migrant Deaths and Post Sexist Memes. This should have been a bigger story in July, although it got some play. It's shocking - but also not surprising. Further proof that today's policies, and the way they are enacted, are rooted in straightforward racism.

He Cyberstalked Teen Girls for Years—Then They Fought Back. A detective story about sextortion and some of the threats teenage girls have to navigate in the internet era.

Google’s Jigsaw Was Supposed to Save the Internet. Behind the Scenes, It Became a Toxic Mess. I don't think any incumbent tech company can or will "save the internet". But these HR problems seem endemic.

The Dominance of the White Male Critic. “It’s 2019 and we are in the middle of a renaissance in black artistic production. And you are telling me the best people to evaluate that are the same ones who basically ignored black artists for decades?”

The Humble Brilliance of Italy’s Moka Coffee Pot. I was scared of these things for years. But they're brilliant, and make outstanding coffee. I can't believe that coffee pods - which are awful on every level - are driving them out of existence.

Tech and the Fake Market tactic. This is vitally important to understand. Really the headline should read "fake marketplaces" - what's described here are services that give the illusion of peer-to-peer marketplaces but actually don't give participants the freedom they would need. The result is a system that benefits the marketplace owner and syphons wealth and value from society.

Revealed: This Is Palantir’s Top-Secret User Manual for Cops. I don't understand how people who work for Palantir can sleep at night. These are people whose work is used to deport and harm entire communities.

U.K. Parliament Workers Face ‘Unacceptable’ Abuse, Report Says. Just one more way that British government is a trash fire. "A study found that sexual harassment was considered a “necessary evil” for young, ambitious workers in the Houses of Parliament and that the atmosphere was “stressful and hostile.”"

A Father, a Daughter, and the Attempt to Change the Census. The amazing story of how Stephanie Hofeller uncovered the evidence of racism that eventually undermined the citizenship question on the census.

With ICE Raids Looming, Immigrants Worry: ‘Every Time Someone Knocks, You Get Scared’. Tragic, visceral, terrifying. Every American citizen is complicit in the horrors that these families are going through.

Transgender Opera Singers Find Their Voices. A fascinating window into the lives of transitioning opera singers and their relationships with their voices.

The Nordic Model May Be the Best Cushion Against Capitalism. Can It Survive Immigration? Spoiler alert: yes. But there sure are a lot of voices in the US who would like to show that the Nordic model doesn't work.

Crab-picking is a treat, if you don’t mind slicing open your fingers while eviscerating a stinking carcass. It's one of my mother's very favorite things in the world - and it's been a part of my entire life.

Sixteen and Evangelical. A completely different universe to my own, in so many ways. This seems like such a common observation: "Looking back on teachings about sexual purity now—the conversations about modesty, about saving oneself for marriage—I am struck that we never, not once, had a conversation about consent. It was reasonable for a boy to suggest that he was “tempted” by a girl wearing skimpy clothes, but the blame was always placed on the girl for dressing that way."

Andrew Yang is promising to revitalize America. His nonprofit tried, too, but couldn’t. Save only for Joe Biden, John Delaney, and maybe Marianne Williamson, I find Andrew Yang to be the least enticing of all the Democratic nominees. I like UBI; I just have a lot of problems with his approach and ideas like replacing 20% of the federal workforce with management consultants. This article underlines some of my worries.

A Teen Girl Found Refuge Online — Then Her Murder Went Viral. Horrifying. And ultimately, yet another story of a man (or in this case, a boy) trying to take ownership of a woman.

Instagram ‘tag cleaners’ are fighting against digital vandalism. Another angle on the story above - what happened on the internet after the murder is a window into the culture that led to it.

The Best Algorithms Struggle to Recognize Black Faces Equally. Which in turn leads to false positives and the potential for serious injustice with people of color once again more at risk than the general population. Technology is sold as infallable and objective, but it's quite the opposite; merely a product of the (mostly white, male, myopic) people who make it.

A Peculiarly Dutch Summer Rite: Children Let Loose in the Night Woods. I love everything about this. I would have loved to do it as a kid. I think modern American parenting is very often about oversubscribing kids to activities and being overprotective. I'm not sure why that is (cars? the fear of others that seems to sit as subtext behind everything?), but I've found it to be a real cultural difference. I feel like this particular activity might be illegal here. But free range parenting, and this kind of trust, seems like it's so much better.

Ilhan Omar: It Is Not Enough to Condemn Trump’s Racism. A fantastic op-ed by a representative who has had to endure far more than she should. "His efforts to pit religious minorities against one another stem from the same playbook. If working Americans are too busy fighting with one another, we will never address the very real and deep problems our country faces — from climate change to soaring inequality to lack of quality affordable health care." I agree.

The Museum is the Master’s House: An Open Letter to Tristram Hunt. On museums, the brutal history of British imperialism, and literal cultural appropriation. British culture is very bad at acknowledging how racist it actually is.

U.S. cybersecurity agency uses pineapple pizza to demonstrate vulnerability to foreign influence. I love this analogy.

You know who was into Karl Marx? No, not AOC. Abraham Lincoln. "“Labor is prior to and independent of capital,” the country’s 16th president said. “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”"

Why We’re Moving Forward With Impeachment. Impeachment scares me. Unfortunately, I don't think being a racist trash fire is probably an impeachable offence (given how many Presidents, even in the modern era, have been overtly racist). And even if it sticks on an obstruction of justice charge, an impeachment - or worse, a failed one - could embolden his base and get him re-elected. Maybe I'm wrong. I hope I am.

Amazon Told Police It Has Partnered With 200 Law Enforcement Agencies. We're building a very unpleasant surveillance society. Willingly, for profit. I continue to boycott Amazon, and I hope you'll join me.

Previously

Here's what I read in June, May, April, March, February, and January.

 

Adding, not echoing

In a lot of ways I'm still getting over spending time in the hospital with my mother. I'm very tired, and concentration comes in fits and starts. I'm certain that I'll remember how she looked when we walked into the recovery room right after her operation, when they weren't sure if she was going to make it, until the day I die. It was a stressful, hard time.

Through this lens, Twitter now feels like opening a box of the ghosts of dead salesman; disembodied heads screeching at the void in order to promote their personal brands. On a day like today, when Boris Johnson has just become Prime Minister and Robert Mueller is testifying before Congress, it's particularly intolerable. Yes, I care about these things, but existentially, I'm tired. All of human experience isn't limited to these conversations. There's so much more.

In some ways, the same goes for technology. My love of tech has always been deeply tied to my love of people. Technology isn't interesting for technology's sake: it's interesting because it elevates the human experiences and lets people do things they couldn't do before. It has the potential to make the world more educated, more inclusive, and more peaceful. It's certainly not interesting because it makes money for people. Building wealth is the emptiest of empty goals, particularly in comparison to building happiness or building community. Every technology project I've ever professionally worked on has been mission-driven for exactly this reason. There are ethics to what I do that I think are important, but there's a limit to the number of times I can talk about building software respectfully or limiting centralization of corporate power.

For the time being, I don't really have anything to add. And I think it's important to be additive, rather than just echo the prevailing conversations. So for a month or so, I'm going to take a hard left turn.

During August, instead of talking about tech or the things that are happening in my life, my site and social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) are going to be entirely driven by creative output. No links to news stories, no links to blog posts on software architecture, politics, etc etc. If I'm making something public, it's because I've written a short story or made new art.

There are two exceptions: I will write as part of my work at Unlock, and I will publish my monthly "here are the books I read" round-up. The rest will be creative.

This isn't what anyone is following me for, I realize, but I consider this recovery time. It's necessary for me to use my brain a little differently, and to breathe. And maybe it'll lead to something new.

 

Doing well while doing good

I've always had a complicated relationship with revenue. Back when we were working on the fully-managed version of Elgg in 2006 or so, competing as a bootstrapped company with Ning and its $100M in funding, we differentiated ourselves by charging for our services so we could be more sustainable. A few years later, Dave Tosh and I laughed at our naïvety: "choose us, because we have a business model!"

The point, of course, is that users didn't care if we had a business model. To them, we were a service that charged money in competition with a service that didn't. Where we had won customers, it was where we had provided something unique that users needed.

It's not that revenue isn't the right path to create a sustainable business. I strongly believe that it is. It aligns services with their users and creates incentives that don't promote surveillance, predatory business practices, or monopoly strategies. The entire web - and the world - would be better if more services were revenue-bound. It's one of the major reasons I've chosen to work at Unlock.

But we have to accept that most users don't care. If there's one thing I've learned from three open source startups, it's that you can't sell on ideology. It's not that they need education on the issues. It's that everyone has things going on in their lives, and you can't expect people to care about the same things as you. There will always be a community of early adopters and enthusiasts that will be on the same page as you, but the only way to truly derisk your venture is to build something that real people actually need.

Back in the Elgg days, we were doing a lot of work with higher education, which was just beginning to discover social media. Educators were integrating Twitter into their classes - sometimes at the grade school level - and encouraging their students to sign up for commercial services. We were appalled by this, for ideological reasons: those services were free, and making money from user data. Making them a required part of a syllabus was akin to forcing students to participate in surveillance. But our pleas, and the pleas of a small number of others, fell on deaf ears.

Over a decade later, that trade-off has become much more obvious. The New York Times reported recently that facial recognition databases have been trained on the user photos uploaded to a range of free services:

The databases are pulled together with images from social networks, photo websites, dating services like OkCupid and cameras placed in restaurants and on college quads. While there is no precise count of the data sets, privacy activists have pinpointed repositories that were built by Microsoft, Stanford University and others, with one holding over 10 million images while another had more than two million.

As reported in the story, at least one database, innocuously trained on CCTV footage from a cafe in San Francisco, was then used for facial recognition technology used by the Chinese military to monitor Uighurs, an oppressed minority group who are being imprisoned in concentration camps. Of course, other facial recognition technology, notably Amazon's Rekognition database, is being used by ICE to target and deport immigrants.

Every educator who made commercial social media a part of their curriculum is culpable in adding their students to this kind of training database. Nobody who studies the space can plausibly claim ignorance of this potential. But the ideological imperative was outweighed by other pragmatic decisions.

These kinds of decisions are made every day. Do you make sure that the chocolate you buy isn't picked by child slaves? It seems like a pretty imperative idea when laid out as a blunt question like this, but I bet you don't. It would be lovely if we could rely on people to make ethical consumer decisions, but generally they won't. So the solution has to be to build ethically and to meet a user's need in the most direct way possible. Build something that people really want, and do it ethically, while not making the ethics the differentiator. You'll capture some early adopters through the ethics of your work, but you'll get the bulk of your customers by serving their self-interest.

Most crucially, if you're building something that has intrinsic value to your users, you can charge money for it and make money in a way that is in line with your values.

By now, the adage that "if you're not the customer, you're the product being sold" is pretty old hat. But it remains the case that everyone has to eat and pay for a roof over their heads, and that businesses need to make a profit. Software isn't made by magical elves who can live without being paid. Nothing is actually free. If a service isn't making enough money up-front, they have to make up the difference through other means, whether it's by placing invasive advertising, selling user datasets, making "data partnerships", or all of the above.

Arguably revenue won't be enough to stop them in itself: where profit can be made, it will be. We need strong legislative consumer protections to prevent this kind of user betrayal. But once the industry has cleaned up its act, sustainable revenue practices will need to be in place to support the services we use every day.

 

Being there

I remember standing in the pulpit of an Oxford church, reading a passage from the New Testament in my 9 year-old voice, while my classmates laughed as I mispronounced the names and stumbled over the places. I had never really read the Bible, although I'd had little pieces of it read to me at school. I was gamely trying, but intention was worthless. I wasn't a part of the club. I didn't go to church every Sunday; I didn't learn Bible stories at home; and worst of all, I didn't believe.

Unlike the US, where separation of church and state is enshrined in law, Britain is still a Christian country. Some of the schools - in fact, for most of my school career, the best schools - are cofunded with the Church of England. Anybody from any faith (or in my case, no faith) can attend for free, just as they can at a secular state school. But make no mistake: hymns will be sung and Bible lessons will be told.

In truth, I found it kind of fun. They're fascinating stories, after all. Somewhere there's footage of me singing in a choir as part of Songs of Praise, the BBC's weekly celebration of Christian faith. I can also report that at my school they took great care to teach us about all major faiths without prejudice, and we visited mosques, synagogues, and temples.

Of course, it was Christianity, rather than any other religion, that we were surrounded with every day. To this day, I can probably recite six or seven childrens' songs about Jesus, and in doing so, recall the smell of the varnished wood in the school hall and the feeling of my crossed legs slowly going numb. I remember coming home and earnestly telling my mother that "the Bible isn't just one book; it's a whole library". There was certainly a division between the kids who went to church in their own time - who were actually a part of the culture imparted by the school - and those of us who were tourists.

I don't believe it did me harm - nor did I actually realize until I was a much older child that people believed these stories were true - but I also don't think these schools should exist. I have nothing against religion or people who believe in it, but I do believe in the American idea that church and state should not mix. Should I have children, I would not bring them up in a religious context at all.

Still, I would make sure they understood religion, and could make their own decisions for themselves when they were older. I came away with a real appreciation for the community that people build through faith. It provides a kind of social glue, and a safety net. I'm not a believer, and I have serious problems with religion's imperative to unquestioningly accept what you're told, but I appreciate and envy those things. I can also see that there's great comfort in the concept of an afterlife.

For me, there's nothing after you die. Consciousness fades to black, your body decomposes, and its component chemicals find its way back into the ground. Ashes to ashes; dust to dust; a transient sentience returned to the whole of the earth except as memories held by the transiently sentient beings whose lives you were lucky enough to touch.

My sister, who is cut from the same ideological cloth but with far greater creativity, turned this idea into a song. Our mother has asked that it be played at her funeral.

For the last month, I've spent a lot of my time at the hospital, at my mother's side. It's serious. I've been privilege to be able to be there and spend time with her; we've all come together to support her, which I think says wonderful things about my immediate family. There have been operations and blood transfusions and scary, touch-and-go moments. And there have been stories and laughter and shared memories.

It's hard for me to think of much else. My concentration is shot. I can feel the cortisol in my limbs. It's been one of the hardest periods of my life.

And I find myself wishing that I believed. For the comforting idea of the afterlife, sure, but also for the community that belief can bring you. A sense of belonging outside of a family structure. A sense that someone is looking out for you.

Those things aren't enough for me to believe in themselves: there's no deity or magic in my worldview. And I'm fully aware that for many people, particularly in vulnerable communities, a church is not at all a comforting space, and organized religion can often be a safe haven for bigotry. So I'm not missing a church as such. But I do feel a need for more connectedness, and for some kind of safety.

Really, I wish I could wave a magic wand and have everyone I love be healthy again, and have life go back to normal, and enjoy their company forever, and go about doing all the things that normal people do. I wish I could call on a supernatural power to fix everything. Instead, all I can do - the very most that's in my power - is be present, try to comfort, and remember.

 

Trump's social media summit and me

Today, President Trump is hosting a social media summit at the White House. Rather than inviting actual social media platforms and experts to have a substantive conversation about the real problems inherent to the medium and how we might fix them, he has chosen to gather a collection of extremists. Among them is a site called Minds - in fact the only social networking platform invited to the summit.

One of the dangers of building an open source networking platform is that anyone can use it for anything. Elgg, an open source social networking platform made by my first startup, was used for all kinds of things: we knew it was going to be a success when non-profits in Colombia began to use it to share between themselves. It's named after the small village in Switzerland that my dad's family comes from - the Werdmuller von Elggs - and I poured my heart and soul into it. Generally, I have been very proud of the things it has been used for: when learned that Oxfam was using it to train aid workers, my heart swelled.

A few years ago, Bill Ottman reached out to me because he was using it as the basis of his new social network, Minds. By that time, Elgg was long in the tooth, and a lot of changes need to be made. (It wouldn't surprise me if, today, most of the Elgg code was gone. And honestly, that would make me feel a little better.) Nonetheless, it helped them get off the ground. Last year, Minds raised a $6M Series A round from one investor, the venture arm of Overstock.com.

Yesterday, Vice reported this:

A previous Motherboard investigation found that miliant neo-Nazi groups connected to Atomwaffen Division—a violent American hate group connected to several murders—was using Minds as a platform for recruiting and spreading propaganda.

To be clear, I don't believe that Bill is a white supremacist. But it's also clear that deliberately lax moderation allows neo-Nazis to thrive on the platform and use it for recruitment. Minds describes itself as a platform for free speech: in other words, within the bounds of US law, anything goes.

Today there are concentration camps on the border. Children are dying. In the midst of this, Trump's approval ratings are at the highest point of his Presidency. This is a dangerous point in history - although, of course, not one without precedent, as groups like Never Again Action are right to point out. "The Jews will not replace us" is a common chant at right-wing marches, based on the idea that immigration is a Jewish conspiracy to replace white people.

My great grandfather fled Ukraine to avoid the White Army, which was burning Jewish villages and enacting mass killings in the region. My grandfather was captured by the Nazis. My dad and his entire immediate family were held in Japanese concentration camps, and my grandmother wailed through her nightmares every single night until the day she died.

This isn't principle; it's personal. It's personal for me, and for my friends who have been doxxed and received death threats for being feminists. It's personal for my friends who have been subject to the rapid increase in hate crimes. It's personal for my trans friends.

There's a word for people who aid Nazis: collaborators. There is nothing virtuous about standing up for the free speech of people who wish to see entire demographics of people murdered. To argue that it's "just speech" is disingenuous: words and stories have enormous power to persuade and to lead. To argue that the best way to defeat speech with more speech is similarly so: it inherently gives both sides a level platform, elevating extremism and giving it more integrity than it deserves. Scratch the surface even briefly and the subtext emerges: if inclusion and equal rights are really so great, the argument goes, surely it can defeat the opposition in debate?

These people, my argument goes, can go fuck themselves.

Recently, the white supremacist social network Gab decided to fork Mastodon, forcing that platform to release a strong statement decrying their values. I believe this was the right move. If Known or Unlock were used for hate, I would do the same. Even though it's a full ten years since I left the Elgg project, I'm finding myself writing this blog post.

I am deeply ashamed to have even a mild association with Minds. I think the free speech argument it uses is deeply flawed. I am also thinking hard about another set of principles: namely, the free software ideals that allowed Gab and Minds to adopt existing platforms in the first place.

In the same way that Minds shrugging its shoulders at the presence of hate on its platform is woefully inadequate, an open source social network shrugging its shoulders at its use by extremists is worthy of disdain. It is not enough, to say the least. If we're talking about abstract principles, the principles of human life, inclusion, and equality obviously override the principle of being able to share and freely distribute source code. Code is never more important than life. Genocide is always a bigger problem than software distribution licenses. Hopefully this is obvious.

While I accept that it runs counter to the stated principles of the free software movement, I believe we need a new set of licenses that explicitly forbid using software to facilitate hate or hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as "an organization that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics", which is in line with the FBI's definition.

I don't want software I write to be used by these groups. Ever. For any reason. I don't want to help them even accidentally, ever again. And I think that principle - the principle of never causing harm or facilitating hate - significantly outweighs every other one.

The saddest thing to me is that this is probably a controversial idea. But I would much rather be a part of the anti-fascist software community than the libertarian free market community if the latter absolves itself of its culpability in the spread of white supremacy.

 

Update: I fixed Bill's name. It's Bill Ottman. Apologies for the earlier error.