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A beautiful day on Colony 12

I can see twelve sailing dinghies out on the bay, tacking and jibing while the twin, hot suns reflect sparkles in the water. For a moment, I have to squint through the glare to see them from the bluff, but my lens corrects for the ambient light quickly. I save a vignette to my vault for posterity. Something to remember this view by.

“Sam!” I hear my mother call to me as if she was right here, but my lens lets me know she’s out on the water. The Aurora, her little blue sailboat, is in the middle of the group, and I can just about make out the shape of her waving to me from the stern. My lens catches me straining and shows me a picture-in-picture zoom of her face. “It’s such a beautiful day!”

At least I won’t have to waste any time looking for her.

“Mom, you need to come back to shore,” I say through our lens channel.

“Why? We’re having a competition out here,” she says. “I’m not winning yet, but I’m getting close!” She dips one hand in the water as her boat tilts with the wind. As spots of seawater spray onto her face, she grins broadly.

We can’t stay. While I stand on the bluff, my shoes dirtied by the marsh, escape pods are being readied.

I was three years old when we came to Colony 12. I dimly remember leaving the dark of the transport out to the sunny patch of dirt where terraforming was already underway. I grew up in the wooden home my parents built on the newly created bay. It’s where I learned to read; where my mother taught me to sail; where my father died from the lingering side effects of faster than light travel. It’s where I took care of my mother once it was just the two of us.

Colony 12’s twin planet follows in a Lagrange point sixty degrees behind its orbit. It was sunrise when it was struck by an asteroid; I was barely into my first cup of coffee. There was no flash. No roar or perceptible change. Just an unobtrusive notification from my lens telling me that the planets would collide within hours.

In less than that, the escape pods will leave. Not to the homeworld – that’s just a memory now – but to the constellation of motherships out beyond orbit. From there, perhaps we’ll join another colony, or find a new planet to inhabit.

It won’t be home.

I stand for a moment, taking in the smell of marsh and salt water I’ve known virtually for my whole life, and watch my mother’s smile. Just her and the wind.

But I have to tell her. I flick a news story about the collision to her lens.

“I’ll read that later, honey,” she says, her smile faltering a little. “I just want to sail right now.”

“We need to leave, Mom,” I tell her. “Right now. It’s dangerous to stay.”

“Nonsense,” Mom says. “It’s such a beautiful day. We’re having such a nice race. I wish you were out here with me, Sam.” In a way, I wish that too.

The Aurora is gaining on another, red sailing dinghy. Its wake cuts through the shimmering waves, returning my mother’s grin to full intensity.

I ask my lens to make sure there’s room reserved on the closest escape pod for both of us. Our places should have been allocated automatically, but I want to confirm. Everything is always taken care of – the lenses react to our conscious and subconscious intentions – but I can check if I want to. In the midst of all this subliminal technology, our waking lives on terraformed colonies aided by intelligent lenses plugged into to our central nervous systems, we’re still human beings.

One space is reserved.

I realize I recognize the pilot of the red dinghy: an old teacher of mine. His hair is lighter and the lines on his skin are more pronounced, but his face is unmistakable.

Glancing at the other sailors, I realize I recognize them all. In a single, terrible instant, I know why my mother won’t come in.

They’re all my mother’s age; all pioneer colonists. Early faster than light travel killed some of its test pilots outright. The others experienced symptoms that medical AI couldn’t diagnose. They all knew there was a risk, but they did it anyway. Our planet was dying. They needed to find a home for their children.

“I love you, Sammy,” my mother says, over the lens. She looks straight at me, eye to eye, over the link. I wish I could hold her hand one last time.

“I love you too, Mom,” I say.

“I’m proud of you,” she says.

“You’re everything I have,” I tell her. “I can’t leave without you.”

“I’ll be with you,” my mother tells me. “But you have to leave now.”

A new lens notification flashes into my peripheral vision. The twin is accelerating towards us. It’ll start interfering with our gravity within moments. We have under an hour left.

Something starts to pull at the treetops like an invisible hand.

“You need to go,” she says. “You don’t need me. Just picture me right now, out on the bay, with the wind in my sails. I'll be here.”

“Please,” I tell her.

“It’s a beautiful day,” my mother says, and the video link is cut.

I stand on the bluff, alone for the first time, watching the distant specks of boats float across the bay. This beautiful landscape, the smells, the mud on the bluff – it’s all her work. All for me.

I turn to leave. As I look back one last time, I think I can see the boats start to rise up from the water as the trees pull upwards. My mother’s face is turned with them, pointed at the sky.

 

What I read and watched in February 2021

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

Books

We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice, by adrienne maree brown. The centerpiece of this short book is an argument for compassionate transformative justice that doesn’t erase the experiences of survivors, and recognizes the desire of infiltrators to derail movements. It’s an important read, although I wish the book was longer, and that there were more concrete takeaways. Still, I found it thought-provoking, and more than that, it’s solid emotional backup for anyone called towards radical transformative justice. I’m deeply glad adrienne maree brown exists in the world.

Girlchild, by Tupelo Hassman. A searing portrait of a young girl’s life in an America that is rarely described. At once impressionistic and precise in its naturalistic detail, Tupelo Hassman’s writing walks a tightrope between heartbreaking and darkly comic. Or maybe it’s not a tightrope at all: throughout the bleakness of their trailer park context, her characters find ways to live with brightness and energy, never more than when they’re trying to break free.

A History of My Brief Body, by Billy-Ray Belcourt. “They hate our freedom, so only freedom matters.” Uncompromising in its honesty, this deep dive into the author’s lived experience at the intersection of queerness, NDN heritage, and white Canadian racism is beautifully written and unforgettably frank in its heartfelt call for joy, art, and poetry as acts of resistance. This patchwork collection of essays name-checks like-minded artists and lays intimacies bare in order to paint a portrait of life under oppression that rings with uncomfortable truth.

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. Fiction rooted in appalling historical tragedy. In some ways the plot proceeds in a straightforward way, but in doing so, it reveals truths about America that land harder for the author’s unsensational approach. These places existed. These things happened. These boys, though perhaps not with these exact names and these exact lives, really existed. And there are still real people who would prefer these stories remain untold.

Streaming

Judas and the Black Messiah. An absolute must-see. Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, and Dominique Fishback all put in standout performances. This is a story that needs to be understood widely, told with vision, clarity, and deep humanity.

Notable Articles

Business

The Best-Case Outcomes Are Statistical Outliers. “Knowing that the future is probably not going to be all sunshine and roses allows you to prepare for a variety of more likely outcomes, including some of the bad ones. Sometimes, too, when the worst-case scenario happens, it’s actually a huge relief. We realize it’s not all bad, we didn’t die, and we can manage if it happens again. Preparation and knowing you can handle a wide spectrum of possible challenges is how you get the peace of mind to be unsurprised by anything in between the worst and the best.”

Finally, a private stock exchange. There are half as many public companies as there were twenty years ago. Efforts like this make sense to me - and they also help level the playing field between public companies like Google, which give public stock grants to their employees, and smaller firms that haven’t gone public yet.

How to be an angel investor in early stage startups when you don’t have any money. “Because angel investing has done so much for me and people often ask me how to get started, I wrote this guide on how to put time and energy into the startup scene to make the benefits of angel investing more accessible. Putting money into ETFs is super outdated advice because you don’t learn shit, it doesn’t do anything for your career and you’re not going to make enough money to catapult you across class boundaries. Meanwhile angel investing can help you learn new things, develop skills, build a reputation, have fun, and (potentially) create long-term returns.”

The Great Unbundling. This is a really thought provoking presentation about the state of the internet in 2021. Worth your time.

Social media sentiment ETF to launch in wake of Reddit rebellion. “The Buzz index aggregates investment-related content from social media sites such as Twitter and StockTwits, blogs and news articles.” Absolutely yikes, but also I bet it’ll make a ton of money.

Twitter Mulls Subscription Product, Tipping For Generating Revenue. This is FANTASTIC. More subscription business models, fewer targeted advertising models, please.

Labor & Delivery: Birthing the New Economy. “Like childbirth, there’s no one right way to build a business. We need more guides — doulas — to help us along the path that feels right for each of us.” A new Zebra manifesto - and its perfect.

Amazon’s Great Labor Awakening. “In San Bernardino, roughly 20 miles from the InTech campus, a group of students from Cajon High School recently took classes in the Amazon Logistics and Business Management Pathway, one of eight career tracks offered at the public high school, alongside medicine, human services and building trades. The school’s teenagers are mostly from low- and middle-income families. Many can name friends, family members or neighbors who are or have been employed by Amazon.” Dystopian.

Banking-as-a-service made fintech explode. But as a bigger market awaits, so do new problems. “"A lot of banking-as-a-service providers might end up having the traditional problem middlemen have in highly-fragmented markets," Falvey said. "The structure limits the ability for these providers to increase their margins over time."”

Culture

Blade Runner Director's Cut Was A Historic Film History Mistake. The Director's Cut was so much better than the original theatrical version. It's amazing to me that it was only released because of a simple mistake.

From 'Doctor Who' to 'Outlander': How Fans Craft Reverse Engineer Knits. What a lovely piece of internet culture: fans who love something so much that they reverse engineer it and figure out how to make it themselves. I, for one, would love a hand-knitted Doctor Who scarf.

Silence of the Lambs 30th Anniversary Review: Jodie Foster & Misogyny. "But Clarice is a woman. And The Silence of the Lambs, which is about a serial killer who targets women so that he can craft a suit out of their skin, is very careful to establish that Clarice exists in a world where men—all men, not just the ones who happen to be maniacs—unequivocally have the upper hand."

Dramatic discovery links Stonehenge to its original site – in Wales. Pretty amazing stuff: Stonehenge stood in Wales for some 400 years before being uprooted and brought to England.

movie night. “If you like the kind of movie where the filmmaker states the film’s thesis by having one of the characters recite an Auden poem out loud while nothing else happens ...” I loved this essay about movies, and love, and memory.

Remembering Octavia Butler: Black Sci-Fi Writer Shares Cautionary Tales in Unearthed 2005 Interview. Octavia Butler was a visionary and a genius. I loved this interview.

HE, by Kyle Ross. “He told his parents he was a boy. They told him he couldn’t be.” I enjoyed this flash fiction piece.

Media

Thanks to the Internet Archive, the history of American newspapers is more searchable than ever. "A stroll through the archives of Editor & Publisher shows an industry with moments of glory and shame — and evidence that not all of today’s problems are new." As with all of the Internet Archive's work, this is superb.

Consider the Source. “But the most startling admission in Sheehan’s interview is that he deliberately and repeatedly deceived his source. Ellsberg was reluctant to give Sheehan copies of the Papers. Instead, he let Sheehan review the material and take copious notes, but wouldn’t let him photocopy the documents until he was satisfied the Times was going to do something with them. Sheehan says he agreed to those conditions, but it’s not clear he ever intended to uphold them.”

How To Not Mess Up Online (and How To Apologize If You Do). This is a pretty good guide! I’m bad at following all the rules.

Two ‘Reply All’ Hosts Step Down Amid ‘Test Kitchen’ Fallout. Really disappointing behavior.

What makes for robust local news provision? Looking at the structural correlates of local news coverage for an entire U.S. state, and mapping local news using a new method. Richer areas have more news. A free market is not the model that will get us to a well-informed electorate.

New Cue the music: former Q editors join newsletter publishing boom. Q is one of the magazines of my childhood (or at least, my teenage self). Fascinating that it’s showing up again as a Substack.

PBS' streaming future: online donations, free 24/7 channels. “That's why PBS introduced one-click donations on Amazon's Fire TV platform last fall. Fire TV users can now donate to their local station right from within the PBS app, using the credit card details that Amazon already has on file, and even join to become a sustaining member. The simplicity of this approach seems to be a hit with consumers, with Rubenstein pointing out that it has had a higher conversion rate than any other donation page for local PBS stations. "There's a very strong future for this," he said. "My vision is that we expand that one click to every platform."”

Politics

Off the rails: Inside the craziest meeting of the Trump presidency. An incredible read. What a clown show.

Movie at the Ellipse: A Study in Fascist Propaganda. "The message of the video is clear. America’s glory has been betrayed by treachery and division sown by politicians seeking to undermine and destroy the nation. To save the nation, one must restore Trump’s rule." We need to already bolster ourselves against the risk of a second Trump term - or of a different, more competent fascist.

Donald Trump’s Business Sought A Stake In Parler Before He Would Join. "Talks between members of Trump’s campaign and Parler about Trump’s potential involvement began last summer, and were revisited in November by the Trump Organization after Trump lost the 2020 election to the Democratic nominee and current president, Joe Biden. Documents seen by BuzzFeed News show that Parler offered the Trump Organization a 40% stake in the company. It is unclear as to what extent the former president was involved with the discussions." This seems like it should be incredibly illegal?

The Queen has more power over British law than we ever thought. "The documents uncovered by the Guardian provide remarkable evidence that this process accords the Queen’s advisers a genuine opportunity to negotiate with the government over changes in proposed laws, that they do sometimes secure such changes before giving consent, and that they are even prepared to threaten to withhold consent to secure their policy preferences." That doesn't seem very democratic at all.

Critical Thinking isn't Just a Process. “And perhaps a key point here is that the difference between lies of omission—misleading by skipping relevant information—and lies of commission—outright lying—is not just that the latter is weak, it’s also that it’s harder for the person doing the misleading. It deprives them of their self-respect. And in countries like the United States, it’s not easy for a medical doctor at a respectable institution to be outright lying.” Interesting piece on the Kremlinology of determining how sick Trump actually was.

Science

Fecal transplant turns cancer immunotherapy non-responders into responders. "Researchers at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) demonstrate that changing the gut microbiome can transform patients with advanced melanoma who never responded to immunotherapy--which has a failure rate of 40% for this type of cancer--into patients who do."

Bernese researchers create sophisticated lung-on-chip. “Next to pharmaceutical applications, organs-on-chip are seen as having the potential to be used in precision medicine to test the patient's own cells in order to tailor the best therapy. Furthermore, such systems have the significant potential to reduce animal testing in medical and life-science research.” Super-cool.

California's coronavirus strain looks increasingly dangerous. Really terrible news.

Four causes for ‘Zoom fatigue’ and their solutions. Honestly, I’ll try anything - but these seem like good ideas.

Society

He made sure the bodies of the Muslim dead faced Mecca. COVID-19 claimed his life. “For over 30 years, Alshilleh helped to bury a generation of Southern Californian Muslims. The Riverside resident washed and shrouded the corpses of men per Islamic customs and drove the bodies of men and women to cemeteries from Rosamond to Victorville, San Diego to Orange County.” All for free.

A Journal of the Plague Week 46. "What do you do when you look out the window and see your neighbors being rounded up and taken away? Perhaps you look on impassively, or even with approval, telling yourself that they must have done something to deserve it, or maybe that it’s just easier for everyone if they’re out of the picture. Perhaps you lean out of your window and watch it happen, then close the window and go about your day. Perhaps you want to intervene, even knowing that it’s futile, that your neighbors will be deported anyway while you’ll be arrested, or worse. Perhaps you’re compelled to send some signal of solidarity to the people outside, knowing that this is equally dangerous and futile. Perhaps you look on with pity or sympathy, but then turn away and get on with your life, because what else can you do?" Heartbreaking thoughts about a remarkable photograph.

20,000 honey bees took over a tech office during Covid-19. Bzzzness.

There’s a Reason You Feel Numb Right Now. It’s been ten years since I moved to California for very stressful reasons. Those reasons have not let up. So this piece might as well be a user’s manual for me.

Employer-Tied Health Care Is Also a Tech Accountability Issue. “When individuals expose themselves to retaliation, doxing, and harassment from the legal teams of big tech companies in order to share information that benefits all of us, we must make sure that access to their therapist and primary care doctor is not one more thing they have to give up.” I continue to fail to see any upside to private healthcare as a system.

‘I Miss My Mom’: Children Of QAnon Believers Are Desperately Trying To Deradicalize Their Own Parents. “Elaina, a 28-year-old graphic designer from Missouri, has struggled to watch as her mom’s obsession with QAnon damages her life in potentially irreparable ways. She’s sinking deeper and deeper into debt, convinced that it will all soon be forgiven under a new financial system called NESARA — a bogus theory, revived by QAnon, that stems from a set of economic reforms that were proposed in the 1990s but never introduced before Congress. After Elaina and her husband bought a house last year, her mother told them to skip their mortgage payments.” These stories are heartbreaking.

The Best Time I Pretended I Hadn’t Heard of Slavoj Žižek. “Find someone who is crazy about Morrissey, and pretend you have no idea who that is. It drives people nuts. I don’t know why, but it does. Just kidding, I know exactly why, because I myself have been on the receiving end of the Žižek Maneuver. This girl I had a bit of a crush on told me she had never watched “Twin Peaks,” and it damn near killed me. The reason I had a crush on her in the first place is because we liked so many of the same books, and movies, and music. How could she have never watched “Twin Peaks?” Was she messing with me? How? It did not for a second occur to me that she just hadn’t got round to it. My immediate response was to believe that she had deliberately not watched it in order to get on my nerves. When she told me later that of course she had watched “Twin Peaks,” my eye started twitching.”

Malcolm X's family releases letter alleging FBI, police role in his death. It would be nice to have the truth come out.

Concierge Care Provider One Medical Gave COVID-19 Vaccine To Ineligible People. Not great. That said, I can’t wait until we all can get the vaccine.

Comparative suffering, judgment, and more. “How do you both cut people some slack as so many people are low-functioning right now, and also see that people’s true colors come out in times of crisis?”

Technology

Breaking Tech Open: Why Social Platforms Should Work More Like Email. “What would it look like if social platforms were required to integrate with an interoperable social infrastructure, or even used email itself as this standard? We could imagine new interfaces that mix and match social messages, ride-hailing, room rentals, or classifieds. The wealth of all of our social interactions would be multiplied and combined across platforms, resulting in a better experience for everyone.” It’s so refreshing to see this discourse hit the mainstream. Let’s do this.

Golems, smart objects, and the file metaphor. “The file made sense for desktop computers and bytes stored on disk. What could the file be now, in the era of the cloud and smart devices?” This is a lovely exploration of what turns out to be a complicated, nuanced idea.

“We need to do something to stop these conversations from happening.” Facebook’s data scientists warned that extremists were gathering in its Groups. “The re­searchers told ex­ec­u­tives that “en­thu­si­as­tic calls for vi­o­lence every day” filled one 58,000-mem­ber Group, ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­nal pre­sen­ta­tion. An­other top Group claimed it was set up by fans of Don­ald Trump but it was ac­tu­ally run by “fi­nan­cially mo­ti­vated Al­ba­ni­ans” di­rect­ing a mil­lion views daily to fake news sto­ries and other provoca­tive con­tent.”

Parler CEO Is Fired After 'Constant Resistance' Inside The Conservative-Friendly Site. “In an interview with NPR, Matze claimed that there was a dispute with Mercer over just how far Parler would take its openness to free speech. He said that if the company wanted to succeed, Parler would have crack down on domestic terrorists and any groups that incite violence, including the Trump-supporting conspiracy theory QAnon.” The board is committed to not doing that.

This is the Democrats’ plan to limit Section 230. For better or worse, these changes will be a major accelerant for decentralization. Protocols don't host.

Facebook and the Surveillance Society: The Other Coup. "To understand the economics of epistemic chaos, it’s important to know that surveillance capitalism’s operations have no formal interest in facts. All data is welcomed as equivalent, though not all of it is equal. Extraction operations proceed with the discipline of the Cyclops, voraciously consuming everything it can see and radically indifferent to meaning, facts and truth."

Signal ignores proxy censorship vulnerability, bans researchers. I’m a big proponent of Signal and, honestly, this seems very bad.

In Myanmar, one blackout ends, another begins. Governments arbitrarily turning the internet off and on to suit their needs - as they did in Myanmar - will just become more common. If we’re serious about decentralization, we need to also reduce our dependence on the internet backbone itself.

Medium Workers Union (MWU). I’m so proud of my friends and former colleagues at Medium. Solidarity.

Zuckerberg told staff: 'We need to inflict pain' on Apple. Quite the opposite.

Designing Inclusive Content Models. “If we’re building worlds, we should build worlds that let in as many people as possible. To do this, our discussions of content modeling need to include an expanded range of metaphors that go beyond just mirroring what we find in the world. We should also, when needed, filter out structures that are harmful or exclusionary.”

The New API for Wikipedia. Neat!

How Koo became India’s Hindu nationalist–approved Twitter alternative. “Radhakrishna and his platform are in a curious position. The founder insists he’s apolitical — he’s appeared in both left-leaning and right-wing outlets in the days since Koo has found the limelight — but is happily embracing the sudden rush to his app: Koo crossed 3 million users this month, fueled in large part by Modi’s party.”

Fintech companies must balance the pursuit of profit against ethical data usage. “While Big Tech collects consumer data to support their advertising revenue, banks can win the hearts of consumers by collecting data to drive personalization and superior UXs. This is especially true for local community banks and credit unions, as their high-touch approach to services has always been their core differentiator. By delivering personalized interactions while ensuring the data collection is secure and transparent, banks can regain market share and win the hearts of customers again.” Yes please.

Open source projects should run office hours. Really smart. I do this internally at my company, but I haven’t done it for open source projects I continue to maintain (like Known). I’m in.

The road to electric is filled with tiny cars. Absolutely fascinating.

Mailchimp employees have complained about inequality for years — is anyone listening?. Absolutely outrageous stories. Any company that acts like this does not deserve to have employees. I have friends at MailChimp, and who used to be there, including Kelly Ellis, who is quoted in the story. I moved my mailing list away after learning about her experience.

The Future of Web Software Is HTML-over-WebSockets. Interesting. I’m not sure I buy it yet - but I love the idea.

Amazon rainforest plots sold via Facebook Marketplace ads. File under, “are you serious?”

The problem of CryptoArt. “It turns out my release of 6 CryptoArt works consumed in 10 seconds more electricity than the entire studio over the past 2 years.”

 

On writing in public

We get better at what we practice.

Although I would never claim to be a perfect blogger, this kind of writing comes easily to me: I've been writing blog posts since 1998, and can track almost every career progression to something I wrote online. I love sharing my thoughts in this way, and I wish more people would do it. My feed reader is usually my first digital stop of the day.

My personal project is to get better at writing fiction. Here, I'm far more awkward: I wrote widely when I was much younger, but I haven't been doing it for over a decade. I'm in awe of people like Eliot Peper and Cory Doctorow, who have been able to bridge a career in technology with careers as prolific novelists. And I have examples closer to home: my cousins Sarah Dessen and Jonathan Neale are both prolific authors. Sarah in particular has very kindly egged me on over the years, and I haven't quite followed through.

I think the first step is to get over the fear of starting something new - and move from the sinkhole of talking about writing to just doing it. Which is what I've been doing: over the last six months I've taken a handful of courses, which have forced me to produce work, and got to the final round of a fiction competition. These experiences have been positive: in particular, they've told me that I shouldn't throw in the towel, but also that I need to practice and improve. Being able to string a paragraph together is not the same skill as stringing a plot together.

One of the things I find addictive and compelling about blogging is you: it's a way to connect with people very immediately. These days it's rare for me to post something that doesn't generate a follow-on conversation. In contrast, writing creative work feels very isolated and time-delayed: you write something and iterate on it by yourself, maybe work with an editor, then submit it for publication or evaluation, which might come months later. That's the scary thing about it for me: unlike everything else I've ever done on the internet, the feedback loop is really offset and broken.

At the same time, your perceived worth as an author is still dependent on gatekeepers: while self-publishing has become more common, it remains important to be able to say "I've been published here, and here, and here." This is true throughout the creative world for forms that originated in legacy media: having a web series distributed by Netflix is markedly different to uploading it somewhere yourself, for example. Content forms that didn't originate in legacy media - TikTok clips, for example - have very different rules. But rules that have been established for decades or centuries are very hard to break through. Social norms are hard to change.

Ultimately, a reader doesn't want to have their time wasted, and I think the perception is that well-known publishers (or distributors) will protect their brands by standing for a certain level of quality. While self-published work can certainly be of the same or higher quality, it's a crapshoot. So finding a publisher for your work is important, and not a million miles away from finding a venture capitalist for your startup: you need to be able to find a coherent story for why your product will sell, and why they should bet on you. In the same way that many VCs only take warm introductions, many publishers will only accept work through an agent they already trust. Which, in turn, probably means establishing relationships.

For now, much of this is a problem for future me. Present me's problem is getting over the fear of sharing work, and finding ways to establish a productive feedback loop that will allow me to improve. (If you're a writer, I'd love to understand: how do you achieve this? Is it just that you're much braver than I am?)

I thought about creating a new community of beta readers, or establishing a new mailing list. I actually did create a mailing list some years ago for design fiction, but was never quite able to find a way to get it off the ground, perhaps because I'd defined its goals too formally, but perhaps also because I was scared that the work wasn't good enough to stand on its own in that way.

I think, instead, I'm going to use this space: I don't want to commit to a cadence or a particular style of work. But I want to have a place to put my experiments. It's categorically out of my comfort zone, and there's certainly a part of me that's worried I'll jettison all my subscribers. But this is a place I want to go, and I work better in the open, so that's how it's going to be.

Starting in March, expect regular fiction in this space. I find that idea really, really scary. But please do let me know what you think; you help me with your honesty.

 

I'm hiring engineers and product managers

Brass tacks: I have three roles at my company that I need to fill immediately. In each case, you'll be working with me directly.

The first is a Senior Product Manager. I'm looking for someone who is comfortable leading sprints, writing stories, and working in an interdisciplinary way across teams, but particularly with the engineering and design teams. You've got to be hands on; you've got to have direct experience as a Product Manager at a startup; it's preferable that you have Fintech experience. Apply here.

The second is a Senior Ruby on Rails Engineer. This is an open role on my team. You'll be helping to build back-end systems and integrations that will allow regular people to save for retirement using the tools, assets, and advice normally reserved for the wealthy. You've worked at a few startups at a high level and have been an engineering lead. Apply here.

The third is a Mid-Level Ruby on Rails Engineer. This is a similar role to the previous, but you don't need to have been an engineering lead. Apply here.

To be very clear: you will not be filtered based on where you went to school, your identity, or where you came from. I do care deeply about whether you're hands-on and empathetic, with a bias towards action. I'd love to work with you.

If you'd like to have a quick chat about these positions, I'd love to jump on the phone. Click here to set up a meeting.

In all cases, I'm able to hire anywhere in the United States. (Unfortunately if you're not in the US, I have to rule you out for now.)

 

The Green New Deal

I'm terrified for the future and not sure where to begin.

I have a young, teenage cousin who has apparently been having panic attacks; not because of school or generalized anxiety, but because he has a real sense that the world will have disintegrated in his lifetime. The signs of climate change and our less than inadequate response to it are all around us.

I'm not scared because it's happening. We have to act swiftly, but I believe we can act. I'm scared because I don't think we will.

There are three distinct groups that I think are problematic. The first are the people directly making money from outdated technologies like fossil fuels, who will sabotage attempts to move us to more intelligent, renewable energy. The second are the people who refuse to believe that climate change exists, or who spread the lie that it's nothing to worry about. And the third are the people who are so addicted to capital that they can't imagine solving the problem outside of the markets.

I'm a proponent of the Green New Deal, which advocates a program of divestment from fossil fuels, government investments in renewable energy, and robust creation of public jobs to create sustainable infrastructure. Its comparison to the original New Deal is apt; the challenge we face is easily comparable to the devastating context of a world war.

It's a sensible and much-needed solution, but it's under attack from conservatives and centrists alike. Even Joe Biden said he didn't support it during the Presidential debates. The reason is simply that it upsets existing structures of power. A Green New Deal necessitates, in part, a redistribution of equity.

As Naomi Klein wrote recently, that doesn't go down well with free marketeers, despite the horrors we've seen in places like Texas:

The horrors currently unfolding in Texas expose both the reality of the climate crisis and the extreme vulnerability of fossil fuel infrastructure in the face of that crisis. So of course the Green New Deal finds itself under fierce attack.

Another cousin, the writer Jonathan Neale, has published a new book, Fight the Fire, which describes the Green New Deal in accessible terms. In some ways it's the antithesis of the market-driven approach espoused by businessmen like Bill Gates; it's also a realistic approach, endorsed by climate scientists and academics around the world. You can download it for free from The Ecologist (no registration required). It's worth reading - particularly if you're a skeptic, or looking for a way to share these ideas.

There are still a lot of reasons to hope. The activist Greta Thunberg is one of my heroes: both for her rhetoric and her ability to galvanize an entire generation. In a lot of ways, my young cousin's reaction is also positive; it shows an awareness of the problem, and is certainly more realistic than those who seek to gloss over it.

But we have to act; we have to act now; and we've got to do a lot more than just wait for the market to respond. The invisible hand of the market will see us all killed.

 

42 admissions

One. So here's the deal: I didn't get to do a birthday post this year because it was the day after the attempted coup, and it just didn't feel right at the time. We're still in the aftermath - it's been a little bit over a month, and the impeachment trial is winding down - but I feel like there's been enough room now.

The thing is, "42 things I've learned" feels like a thinkpiece, and that's not really what this space is about. There's a gaping chasm between "here's what I'm thinking about" and "I! Am! A! Thought! Leader!", and I don't want to intentionally be in the second camp.

Instead, I like the idea of admissions: things I got wrong, or feel uncomfortable about, or that wouldn't ordinarily be something that most people would want to tell other people. It feels human. In the midst of the pandemic and all these other things, being human - creating community by dropping our masks and sharing more of ourselves - is all we've got.

Two. Lately I've started to tune out of long Zoom meetings, and I'm beginning to wonder if people mostly just want to have them because they're lonely.

Three. I sometimes wonder if I should be intentionally trying to build a personal brand. Some people are incredibly disciplined with how they show up online: their social media personalities entwine with their websites and mailing lists as a product; a version of themselves that they're putting out there as a way to get the right kind of jobs or to sell something later on.

That's not what I'm doing. I'm putting myself out there for connection: as one human looking for like-minded humans. That's what the promise of the internet and social media always was for me. It's not a way to sell; it's a way to build community. We have an incredible network that links the majority of people on the planet together so they can learn from each other. Using that to make a buck, while certainly possible, seems like squandering its potential. We all have to make a buck, or most of us do. But there's so much more.

The more of us we share, the more of us there is to connect to.

Four. Somehow I have all these monthly costs that I didn't have when I was younger. They just grow and grow; I feel like I'm Katamari-ing things I have to pay for. Each bill is like a tiny rope, tying me down. Everyone wants money.

Five. I took forensic medicine in my second year of university. My Director of Studies thought it was a terrible idea: I was a Computer Science student, and for reasons that I don't think stand up to sense of reason, the British system discourages breadth of knowledge. He was this fierce, Greek man who yelled at me on a number of occasions, once because I dared to arrange an appointment with him, which made me anything but more inclined to listen to his advice.

Anyway, despite his objections, I took forensic medicine for a semester. The truth was, I still wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to be a computer scientist, and I figured it would be useful knowledge for some future detective novel. (That's how I chose a lot of my formative experiences: is this something I can write about?) The class gathered several times a week in old, Victorian lecture halls, where the Edinburgh Seven had sat over a century before and learned about how to piece together the facts of a crime from the evidence found in its aftermath.

The most important thing I learned in forensic medicine was Locard's exchange principle: every contact leaves a trace. In the context of a crime, the criminal will bring something to the crime scene and leave it there; they will also take something away with them. However small, both scene and actor will be changed.

Years later I would read another version of this in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, which starts with the epigraph: All that you touch you change / All that you change changes you. The root of the idea is the same. Nobody comes out of an interaction unchanged by the experience.

That's the promise of the internet for me: every contact leaves a trace. All that you touch, you change. The internet is people, the internet is community, the internet is change itself.

Six. I spent my adolescence online. I got my start on the internet on a usenet newsgroup, uk.people.teens, where you can still find my teenage posts if you search hard enough. We used to meet up all over the country, hopping on public transport to go sit in a park in Northampton, Manchester, or London.

I met my first long-term girlfriend, who is still one of my dearest friends, through this group. Even now, thousands of miles away, I talk to these people every single day. I'm lucky to know them, and it shaped me inexorably.

Virtually, I also met Terri DiSisto, the alter ego of a middle-aged assistant principal in Long Island who solicited minors for tickling videos who later became the subject of the documentary Tickled (which I still haven't seen). And decades later, I learned that there had been a pedophile stalker in the group. I guess, on balance, I was just lucky.

Seven. I sometimes lie in bed and think, "I have no idea how I got here." I mean, I have all the memories; I can recount my path; I intellectually can tell you exactly how I got here. Of course I can. But I don't always feel like I had autonomy. I feel like I've been subject to the ebbs and flows of currents. I'm just doing the best I can given the part of the vortex I find myself in today.

Eight. While I was at university, I accidentally started a satirical website that received over a million pageviews a day.

Online personality tests were beginning to spread around blogs and Livejournals. They ran the gamut from the kind of thing that might have run in Cosmopolitan (What kind of lover are you) to the purely asinine (Which Care Bear are You?). So one evening, before heading off to visit my girlfriend, I decided to write Which Horrible Affliction Are You?. It was like lobbing a Molotov cocktail into the internet and wandering away without waiting to see what happened next. By the end of the weekend, something like a quarter of a million people had taken it.

So I followed it up and roped in my friends. We slapped on some banner ads, with no real thought to how we might make money from it. MySpace approached me with a buy offer at one point, and I brushed it off as someone's practical joke.

The tests were fluff; a friend, quite fairly, accused me of being one of the people that was making the internet worse for everyone. The thing that was meaningful, though, was the forum. I slapped on a phpBB installation, and discovered that people were chatting by the end of the same evening. Once again, friendships flourished; we all met people who would stick with us for the rest of our lives. We all cut our teeth seriously debating politics - it was the post-9/11 Bush era - as well as more frivolous, studenty topics like food and dating.

There was a guy who claimed to be based out in Redding, California, who was really into Ayn Rand, presumably as a consequence of his own incredible selfishness. Another guy (who IP logs told me logged on from Arlington, Virginia) we constantly trying to turn people over to conservatism. While the former was just kind of a dick, I came to think the latter was there as part of a bigger purpose. Our little forum was on one of the 1,000 most popular sites on the internet, after all. I still quietly think some organization wanted to seed a particular ideology through internet communities, although I have no way to prove it.

All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. Every contact leaves a trace.

What if someone intentionally designs the contact and the trace?

Nine. I feel like I'm constantly living in playlists of musicians I used to enjoy, without meaningfully adding to them. What's new? What will pull me in new directions? What should I care about but don't know about yet? I don't know how to look effectively. I do know that the curated playlists, the ones created by brands looking for engagement, are probably not the way to discover what people really like.

My sister is much better at this (and many things) than me: her radio show, The Pet Door Show on Shady Pines Radio is full of new music. In this and lots of ways, I wish I could be more like her.

Ten. Despite everything, I still hold onto this really utopian view of what the internet could be. Whenever people from different contexts interact, they learn from each other. The net effect of all this learning, all these interactions, could be a powerful force for peace.

It's quixotic, because it just hasn't played out that way. At least, not always. The internet empowered genocides and hateful movements; it memed a fascist President into power and convinced millions of people that Democrats are pedophiles. It made a set of people incredibly wealthy who aren't meaningfully different to the generations of wealthy people who came before them.

The thing is, even with all this in mind, I'm not willing to let go of its promise. I don't want to let go of open communities. I fundamentally want someone in the global south to be able to log on and chat with someone in Missouri. I fundamentally want someone who is homeless to be able to log on at their local library and keep a blog or jump on Twitter. I want those voices to be heard, and I think if equity is shared and those voices really are heard, the entire world is better off for it.

The alternative is to be exclusionary: wealthy Americans talking to other wealthy Americans, and so on. It's socially regressive, but more than that, it's completely boring. The same old, same old. I want to meet people who are nothing like me. We all should.

We need to embrace the openness of the internet, but we need to do it with platforms that are designed with community health and diversity in mind, not the sort of engagement that prioritizes outrage.

I'm not sure how we do that. It will be hard. But I'm also sure that it can be done.

Eleven. I know of at least two separate people who secretly lived at the accelerator while they were going through the program because they were homeless at the time. I don't know what that says about hope and possibilities, but it says something.

Twelve. The rhetoric about misinformation and disinformation - "fake news" - scares me more than it seems to scare most people. I'm worried, with some grounds, that people will try and use this to establish "approved sources" that are automatically trusted, and that by default other sources will not be. The end result is Orwellian.

That's not to say that some speech isn't harmful and that some lies can't be weaponized. Clearly that's true. But it would be a mistake to back ourselves into a situation where certain publications - which in the US are dominated by wealthy, white, coastal men - are allowed to represent truth. What would that have looked like in the civil rights era of the fifties and sixties? Or the McCarthy era? Or during the AIDS epidemic?

The envelope of truth is always being pushed. It needs to be. The world is constantly changing, and constantly changing us.

I think the solution is better critical skills, and it could be for the platforms to present more context. Links to Fox News and OANN and disinformation sites in Macedonia absolutely need to come with surrounding discussion. Just, please, let's not lock out anyone who doesn't happen to be in the mainstream.

Words are dangerous: they can change the world. There will always be people who want to change the world for the worse. And there will always be people who want to prevent us from hearing other peoples' words because they would change the world for the better.

Thirteen. When I was in high school, I had a crush on this one girl, Lisa, who was in my theater studies class. I thought she was amazing, and I really wanted to impress her. I imagined going out with her. In retrospect, I think she might have liked me too; she would often linger to talk to me, and find innocuous ways to touch me on the shoulder as we were saying goodbye. Maybe she didn't like me like that; I wouldn't like to say for sure.

But she was far cooler than I was, and when I spoke to her, I would clam up completely, in the same way that I'd clam up completely when I spoke to anyone I liked. I'd lose my cool and start trying to nervously make jokes. By the end of high school, the shine had clearly come off, and it was very obvious that Lisa didn't like me at all. There was nothing really wrong with me, but my anxiety made me into someone worse than I was.

I was so scared that she wouldn't like me that I became someone she wouldn't like. It wasn't a fear of rejection; it was an outright assumption that she wouldn't like me in that way, because why would someone? And that assumption became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Throughout my life, anyone who liked me practically had to knock me over the head and drag me back to their cave. My history is of being completely oblivious, or scared, or both, and sometimes changing into something I'm not because I nervously think that this is something other people want.

Fourteen. This is true on its face, but it's also a parable.

Fifteen. Another girl I used to like, and knew it, explained to me that she wanted to date someone else because his house was nicer. Later, her dad told me, about where my family lived, "you'd have to be crazy to live there."

For a long time - decades - I wanted to be richer, better. I know those things are not the same. But I wanted so badly to be someone I wasn't.

Sixteen. Talking about the past is a vulnerable thing to do. Talking about people who I used to like is a particularly vulnerable thing to do. And I need to acknowledge the imbalance here, speaking as a man. In a patriarchal society, I have a power that, while I didn't ask for it, I nonetheless can't avoid, or shouldn't pretend doesn't exist.

All I can say is: I genuinely wish nothing but the best for both of them.

The reason I bring up these stories is this: I wish I hadn't spent all that time and energy wishing I was someone else. And we all have our motivations; the chips on our shoulders that drive us.

Seventeen. My utopian ideal for the internet - or rather, my utopian ideal for people, enabled by the internet - led to me founding two open source projects, which became two startups. The first, Elgg, was a community platform. The second, Idno (which became Known), was a way to self-host a feed of any kind of content authored by any number of authors.

I genuinely don't know if I did it right. Or, to put it another way, it's not a given that I got it wrong.

I'm not a born fundraiser. I didn't set out to make money, and it's pretty much my least favorite thing to try and do. What I love is learning about people and making things for them, and then watching them use those things to great effect. I want to keep doing that, and I want anything I make to keep existing, so I want to raise money. But it's hard and painful, and I don't really know if investors buy into what I'm saying or if they think I'm an idiot.

What you need to do, I've realized, is put as much of yourself out there as possible and hope that they see value in that. Trying to turn yourself into something people see value in backfires. Even when it works, you get trapped into being a version of yourself that isn't true.

Eighteen. I left Elgg because the relationship with my co-founder had become completely toxic.

"It's funny we're co-founders," he would tell people, "because we would never be friends." True enough.

Nineteen. When I left Elgg, I had a pretty ambitious idea for a way to create crowdsourced, geographic databases. You could create forms that would record geodata as well as anything else you wanted to capture, so you could send people out in the field with their smartphones to do species counts, or record light pollution, coffee shops with free WiFi, fox sightings, or anything else you wanted to do. The web had just added the JavaScript geolocation API, and iPhones had GPS for relatively accurate location recording, and overall it seemed like a pretty cool idea.

Elgg and its investors threatened to sue me for building "social software". I got a pretty nasty letter from their lawyers. So I stopped and made almost no money for over a year.

Twenty. On my very last day working for Known, I went to have a meeting with the British CEO of a well-known academia startup in San Francisco. At one point, I made a remark about our shared history with Oxford, my hometown. "Yes," he said, "but I went to the university."

Twenty-one. So you see, it's sometimes easy to wonder if you should be someone else. But it's a trap. It's always a trap.

Twenty-two. Every contact leaves a trace. I remember the interaction with that CEO like it was yesterday. I remember those conversations with my co-founder. I remember the investor who told me Known was a shit idea and I needed to stop doing it right now. I remember the guy at Medium who made fun of my code when he thought I was out of earshot.

I used to say: "I'm sorry I'm not good enough." And I used to mean it.

Twenty-three. I think I can pinpoint exactly when the switch flipped in my head. When I stopped caring so much.

For a little while, I thought I was probably going to die of a terminal disease. It wasn't hyperbole: my mother had it, my aunt died of it, and my cousin, just seven years older than me, had just died of it. We knew the genetic marker. And we knew that there was a 75% chance that either my sister or I would get it.

Of course, we both hoped that the other would be the one who wouldn't get it. When the genetic counselor told us that, against the odds, neither of us had the marker, we cried openly in her office.

I've still been spending most of my time helping to be a carer for my mother, who is dying. Maybe I broke my emotional starter motor; I might just be numb. But forgive me if I no longer give a shit about what you think of me.

Twenty-four. I don't begrudge anyone who wants to work on the internet to get rich, at least if they don't already come from money, but I don't think it's the way we make anything better for anyone.

If you want to get rich, go join Google or Facebook or one of those companies that will pay you half a million dollars a year in total compensation and feed you three times a day. But don't lie to yourself and say you're going to change the world.

Twenty-five. I've come to realize that none of the really major changes that the internet has brought about have come from startups. It's certainly true that startups have come along later and brought them to market, but the seismic changes have all either come from researchers at larger institutions (Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, for example), from individuals (Ward Cunningham and the wiki, Linus Torvalds and Linux, all the individuals who kicked off blogging and therefore social media), or from big tech companies with the resources to incubate something really new (Apple and the iPhone).

Twenty-six. That's not to say that startups don't have a place. Twitter was a startup. Facebook was a startup. So were Salesforce and Netflix and Apple and Microsoft. I've removed myself from anything Facebook owns, but I use the others just about every day. So maybe I'm being unfair, or more precisely, unfair because I'm jaded from some of my own experiences.

90% of startups fail. Some of it is luck; not all of it, however.

Twenty-seven. I wonder if changing the world is too narcissistic an ideal; part of the overstated importance that founders and technologists place in themselves. Being able to weave a virtual machine out of discrete logical notation and the right set of words can give you a false sense of importance.

Or worse, and most plausibly, it's just marketing.

Twenty-eight. Here are the things that I think will cause a startup to fail:

Culture. 65% of startups fail because of preventable human dynamics. A lot of it comes down to communication. Everything needs to be clear; nothing can linger; resentments can't fester. Because so much in a startup is ambiguous, communication internally needs to be unambiguous and out in the open. Everyone on a founding team needs to be a really strong communicator, and be able to face conflict head-on in the way that you would hope an adult should.

Hubris. Being so sure that you're going to succeed that you don't examine why you might fail - or don't even bother to find out if you're building something anyone might want.

Being the wrong people. It's not enough to want to build something. And so many people want to be entrepreneurs these days because they think it's cool. But everyone on a founding team has to bring real, hard skills to the table, and be strong on the "soft" people skills that make a community tick. You can't play at being a founder. And beware the people who want to be the boss.

Buying the bullshit. Hustle porn is everywhere, and it's wrong, in the sense that it's demonstrably factually incorrect. I guess this is a part of being the wrong people: the wrong people have excess hubris, don't communicate, and buy the bullshit.

Twenty-nine. If you're not the right person, that doesn't mean who you are isn't right. At all. But it might mean you should find something to do that fits you better. Don't bend yourself to fit the world.

Thirty. When my great grandfather arrived at Ellis Island after fleeing the White Army in Ukraine, which had torched his village and killed so many of his family, he shortened his last name to erase his Jewishness. He chose to raise a secular family.

When his son, my grandfather, was captured by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, he lied about his Jewishness to save his own life.

Sometimes wanting to be someone you're not is a small thing, like wishing someone would see value in you. Sometimes it's a big thing, like wishing someone would see value in your life.

Thirty-one. I actually really like being a part of startups. There's something beautiful about trying to create something from nothing. But in understanding myself better, I've had to create spaces that help nurture what I'm good at.

I work best when I have time to be introspective. I think better when I'm writing than when I'm on my feet in a meeting. That's not to say that I can't contribute well in meetings, but being able to sit down, write, and reflect is a force multiplier for me. I can organize my thoughts better when I have time to do that.

I also can't context switch rapidly. I secretly think that anyone who claims to do this must be lying, but I'm open to the possibility that some people are amazing context-switchers. What I know for certain is that I'm not one. I need time and space. If I don't have either, I'm not going to do my best work, and I'm not going to have a good time doing it.

Engineering ways to work well and be yourself at work is a good way to be kind to yourself, and to show up better for others. My suspicion is that burnout at work is, at least in part, an outcome of pretending to be someone else.

Thirty-two. If I start another company, I already know what it will do. I also know that it will intentionally be a small business, not a startup. Not for lack of ambition, but because always worrying about how you're going to get to exponential growth is exhausting, too.

Thirty-three. Although I intend to see the startup I'm currently at through to an exit, I also know it's not an "if". There will be another company, mostly because I'm addicted to making something new, and in need of a way to make a new way of working for myself.

Thirty-four. A company is a community and a movement. Software is one way a community can build a movement and connect with the world. It's a way of reaching out.

The counterculture is always more interesting than the mainstream. Always, by definition. Mainstream culture is not just the status quo, but the lowest common denominator of the status quo; the parts of the status quo that the majority of people with power can get behind without argument. Mainstream culture is Starbucks and American Idol. It's the norms of conformity. The counterculture offers an entirely new way to live, and beyond that, freedom from conformity.

Conformity is safe, if you happen to be someone who fits neatly into the pigeonhole templates of mainstream culture. If you don't, it can be a death sentence, whether literally or figuratively. Burnout is an outcome of pretending to be someone else.

The most interesting technology, companies, platforms, and movements are the ones that give power to people who have been disenfranchised by mainstream culture. That's how you change the world: distribute equity and amplification.

Every contact leaves a trace. Maximize contact; connect people.

Thirty-five. I've been teaching a Designing for Equity workshop with my friend Roxann Stafford for the last year. She's a vastly more experienced facilitator than me, and frankly is also vastly smarter. I've learned at least as much from her as our workshop participants have.

I've been talking about human-centered design since I left Elgg, and about design thinking since I left Matter. Roxann helped me understand how those ideas are rooted in a sort of colonialist worldview: the idea that a team of privileged people can enter someone else's context, do some cursory learning about their lived experiences, and build a better solution for their problems than they could build for themselves. The idea inherently diminishes their own agency and intelligence, but more than that, it strip mines the communities you're helping of value. It's the team that makes the money once the product is built - from the people they're trying to help, and based on the experiences they've shared.

Roxann has helped me learn that distributed equity is the thing. You've got to share ownership. You've got to share value. The people you're trying to help have to be a part of the process, and they need to have a share of the outcome.

Thirty-six. A lot of people are lonely. A lot of communities have been strip mined. I don't yet fully understand how to build a company that builds something together and does not do this. I wonder if capitalism always leads to this kind of transfer of value. How can it not?

Thirty-seven. This isn't a rhetorical question. How can it not?

If I want to sustain myself by doing work that I love that makes the world at least a little bit better, how can I do that?

What's the version of this that de-centers me? If I can make the world a little bit better, how can I do that?

Thirty-eight. A couple of years ago, Chelsea Manning came to a demo day at the accelerator I worked at. She was on the board of advisors for one of our startups - an anarchist collective that was developing a secure email service as a commercial endeavor to fund its activities. I was proud of having invested in them, and I was excited to speak with her.

As I expected, Chelsea was incredibly smart, and didn't mince words. She liked the project she was a part of, and a few others, but she thought I was naive about the impact of the market on some of the others. Patiently but bluntly, she took me through how each of them could be used for ill. Despite having had all the good intentions in the world, I felt like I had failed.

I would like to be a better activist and ally than I am.

Thirty-nine. I sometimes lie in bed and wonder how I got here. We all do, I think. But just because we're in a place, doesn't mean that place is the right one, or that the shape of the structures and processes we participate in are right. We have agency to change them. Particularly if we build movements and work together.

If the culture is oppressive - and for so many people, it is - the counterculture is imperative.

If we're pretending to be people we're not, finding ways to make space for us to be ourselves, and to help the people around us to do the same, is imperative. We all have to breathe.

Change is imperative. And change is collaborative.

Forty. I think, for now, that I am a cheerleader and an amplifier for people who make change. I think this is where I should be. I would rather de-center myself and support women and people of color who are doing the work. I want to be additive to their movements.

It's not obvious to me that I can be additive, beyond amplifying and supporting from the outside. It's not clear to me that I need to take up space or that I'd do anything but get in their way. I would like to be involved more deeply, but that doesn't mean I should be.

One of the most important things I can do is to learn and grow; not pretend to be someone I'm not, but listen to people who are leading these movements and understand what they need. Can I build those skills? Can I authentically become that person? I don't know, but I'd like to try.

Forty-one. I feel inadequate, but I need to lean into the discomfort. The cowardly thing to do would be to let inadequacy lead to paralysis.

Forty-two. In the startup realm, I'm particularly drawn to the Zebra movement. Jenn Brandel kindly asked me to read the first version of their manifesto when we were sharing space in the Matter garage; she, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Schultz, and Aniyia Williams have turned it into a movement since then.

It's a countercultural movement of a kind: in this case a community convened to manifest a new kind of collaborative entrepreneurship that bucks the trend for venture capital funding that demands exponential growth.

I'm inspired by thinkers like Ruha Benjamin and Joy Buolamwini, who are shining a light on how the tools and algorithms we use can be instruments of oppression, which in turn points to how we can build software that is not. I'm appalled by Google's treatment of Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, members of its ethical AI team who were fired after Google asked for a paper on the ethics of large language processing models to be retracted. And I'm dismayed by the exclusionary discourse on platforms like Clubhouse that are implicitly set up as safe spaces for the oppressive mainstream.

Giving people who are working for real change as much of a platform as possible is important. Building platforms that could be used for movement-building is important. Building ways for people to create and connect and find community that transcends the ways they are oppressed and the places where they are oppressed is important. Building ways to share equity is important.

And in all of this, building ways for all of us to connect and learn from each other, and particularly from voices who are not a part of the traditional mainstream, is important.

All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. Every contact leaves a trace.

This is the promise of the internet: one of community, shared equity, and equality. Through those those things, I still hope we may better understand each other, and through that, find peace.

 

The stagnant browser

Remember before web browsers had tabs?

A lesser-known browser called SimulBrowse was the first one to do it, although Opera subsequently popularized the idea: you could keep a whole set of websites open at once, so you could keep them up in parallel and multitask from one to the other. Before then, you needed to have multiple windows open, and most people confined themselves to the browser as a single porthole onto the web.

Once tabs became mainstream, they changed the way people surfed. I still clean my tabs out every day, but some people keep hundreds of the things running, as if this somehow makes them more organized. On average, desktop web browsers have around 10-20 tabs open; mobile browsers, which encourage you to keep them lingering in the background, have more.

Tabs were introduced in the nineties. Although the iPhone has since changed where we browse from, there haven't really been many changes to the browsing paradigm itself since then. Whether it's on a four inch window in your hand or on a twenty inch window in your office, we're all still browsing through the same tabbed porthole with the same rough request-result interaction model.

Websites themselves have changed a great deal since the nineties. I remember when colored backgrounds became possible; these days websites are more often interactive and frequently-updated than not, with layers of data and personalization that we could barely have dreamed of. The web of today is an entirely different medium. Browser vendors have adjusted their security models in response, but not their interaction models.

It's fun to think about what a reinvented browser would look like. It would be centered on HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, of course: the building blocks of the web. But I suspect its temporal model in particular would be different. Rather than request-response, you might be able to aggregate updates from frequently-updated sites, and see a unified timeline that incorporated information from every website you had an account on. You also might be able to do more than read: the browser itself could have verbs like "reply" and "like" built right into it, in the same way you can bookmark a page today.

We've spent a lot of energy thinking about decentralized social networks and platforms, but I have to wonder if we've been concentrating on the wrong part of the stack. What if the browser was the aggregator? What if it was an active participant on the application web on our behalf? What if we didn't need to build all these complicated protocols for decentralization if the browser could keep track of all of our data, accounts, and updates for us, on-device?

A new generation of browsers, led by Brave, are beginning to head in that direction. In particular, Brave incorporates elements of web3 - the decentralized, blockchain-reliant web. But it's worth noticing that it (like Puma Browser, for example) focuses on ad-free privacy rather than interactivity. Privacy is an important human right that is worth protecting, but much more is possible.

A browser can keep track of everything we're interacting with on the web, while deriving insights from our browsing habits and keeping track of what we're interested in on-device. It can tell us when webpages we use update and present us with that content (including public sites like blogs and auth-protected sites like newspapers and communities, or our Facebook and Twitter feeds). It can remind us to perform certain frequent actions. And with the understanding that the web has turned from a publishing medium into a global conversation, it can help us to reach out to the people behind decentralized web pages and have better conversations.

Browsers have evolved before. Remember before they had tabs? They can, and should, evolve again.

 

The task ahead

As you drive down any highway in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can see them under overpasses and bridges: small conglomerates of tents, surrounded by increasingly-complex infrastructure for electricity and water. Not so much shantytowns as distributed shanty-hamlets: communities of people huddling together and conserving resources as best they can.

The feeding frenzy for GameStop stock, Dogecoin, and all the rest of them shouldn't come as a surprise. People are desperate. All over the country, they're willing to grasp at any straw if it looks like it might lead to a rent check or a paid bill. It's not greed; it's survival.

There are people here in the Bay Area, as there are everywhere, who just want the homeless to go away. Perhaps misled by the great lie of the American dream - that anyone can achieve anything, if they just try hard enough - they seem to think that people who have landed on hard times are bad people, and they should simply be cleared away in the night as if they were piles of old leaves. But there's no safety net in American society, and almost all of the hundreds of millions of people who live here are just a few missed paychecks away from the same fate. Some of the inhabitants of those highway-side tents are the victims of generational injustices of one kind or another; some are just unlucky. For every person visibly struggling, there are nine more that we can't see, doing what they can to make ends meet.

Crime is rising. Who's surprised? People do what they have to.

As I write this, I can see the silhouette of the Salesforce Tower looming over San Francisco. You can see it from most of the city; from the condos downtown, and from the homeless shelters. At its top, a great screen shows video at night - waves crashing, for example, or dancers - like something out of a Blade Runner future. There is enormous wealth here, as in many cities. And there is enormous suffering.

Most of the great CEOs - the billionaires - have a philanthropic vehicle they use to give back. Non-profit organizations are dependent on these wealthy benefactors to support them, and in the absence of real safety, these organizations are what passes for a net. The help that gets provided is, in large part, a function of what the rich are interested in. I'm aware of at least one billionaire who very quietly gives to causes that support the creation of a real welfare system for people who slip through the cracks, but it remains very few. For the most part, the cruel netless trapeze act of American life is perpetuated.

When I first arrived in California, a decade ago, I was advised by a family friend to keep my politics to myself. My parents had met at Berkeley and been activists; my father, a veteran, organized protests against the Vietnam War. But things had changed, and libertarian politics were prevailing. It was better to keep your head down.

But I think keeping your head down is the same thing an endorsement. It's collaboration with a system that's killing people.

We've managed to remove a fascist from office, which feels like a very low baseline for a functional democracy. Those people living in tents shouldn't be there - not because they should be cleared away, but because everyone should have safe housing. Those people desperate to make ends meet shouldn't be staking their futures on Robinhood investments - not because they should be blocked from doing so, but because they shouldn't be desperate to begin with. Those organizations on the ground shouldn't be beholden to billionaire donors to help people in need - not because they shouldn't ask for the money, but because there should be plenty of public funding to help.

There's so much work to do. This is a cruel society, made crueler by the aftermath of a dystopian government and a still-raging global pandemic. It's hard to know where to even start. But we can create, and we deserve to have, a better country than the one we inhabit.

 

Buy my heart

I'm selling my frozen heart.

Or at least a representation of it. Five representations, to be specific. Five copies of my frozen heart illustration were released as non-fungible tokens, available to be purchased on OpenSea. All you need is a wallet like Metamask and a few ETH.

Credit to my friends at DADA, who dove head-first into crypto-art a few years ago. I'll admit that I was skeptical then, and they were right. It's absolutely fascinating to see how the NFT art market has exploded.

You can also make an offer on my piece Greenwashing.

 

Working on the weekends

A company is little more than a community of people pulling together in an organized way to achieve the same mission and vision. Like many communities, there are leaders who adjudicate and set direction, and there are norms to follow. Underlying it all, there is the culture of the community: the cues that dictate how it behaves, what its true goals are, and which norms are adhered to as the community grows.

In startups, there's often a cultural belief that if you're not burning the candle at both ends - if you're not pulling 18 hour days and working on the weekends - you're not trying hard enough. "All the high performers here work late," someone once told me in my first week at one startup. It was the reddest of red flags.

Most knowledge workers can muster up to 4 to 6 hours of really productive work a day. After that, you get into make-work; the going through the motions, non-reflective phoning-it-in work that isn't going to rock anybody's world. Likewise, constant interruptions, eg on Slack, through random calls, or half hour meetings sprinkled throughout the day, interrupt flow state and dramatically drop productivity and well-being.

With more free time between working hours and more room for reaching a flow state when they're at work, these workers have more time for reflection, introspection, and rest. We all do better work when we have more time to think about it; we all do better work when we're well-rested.

Beyond these matters of productivity, it's important to consider what kind of community culture you're building: one focused on building the right things and moving forward, or one focused on performatively keeping seats warm. Even more importantly: it's worth asking what kind of person you're optimizing for.

Remote working during the pandemic has amplified biases against working mothers. Only 8% of companies have revised their productivity expectations to account for the challenges of parenting at home during lockdown. Women still tend to carry the heaviest load of parenting; women are more likely to be carers; women are judged more harshly on their productivity. As the Brookings Institution concisely described the problem, "COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up.."

Zebra co-founder Mara Zepeda observed this effect in the startup communities she's a part of:

In the last year, it's men that magically have the time to keep showing up for the meetings, working late on that proposal. The selection bias of who has the time, and how easy it is to just shrug this new reality off...I see how easy it is to become blind to who's being left out.

Setting a norm of longer working hours isn't just bad management: it's a literal dick move, ensuring that your startup and your community will be dominated by mostly younger, predominantly white dudes with few personal ties outside of work.

If you're still wondering why that matters - if the advantages aren't obvious - you don't have a company or a community that I'm interested in taking part in. But, sure, if you need to have the benefits of being welcoming to 51% of the global population, let's spell them out: more gender-diverse companies are more profitable, more collaborative, and better at employee retention. And it's easier to hire if you're welcoming to more people.

Women need to be well-represented at all levels, but it's still relatively rare to have a gender-diverse board of directors, or even C-suite. Which is exactly why we still see people making the mistake of focusing on performative productivity instead of creating a culture to support the collaborative work that really matters.

As a manager, I want to see the work get done - collaboratively, in a non-toxic environment that supports people in doing their best work. I want there to be room for creativity and reflection. I want a diversity of contexts to be well-represented. I want people who will push back on each other's blind spots. And I want to share ownership. It's not just the right thing to do; it's also the path to success.