Skip to main content
 

On the anniversary of a failed fascist coup

It’s only been a year since the attempted fascist coup by a coalition of the stupid. I don’t know how long it’ll be until the next time someone tries this.

Two things are particularly remarkable to me. The first is that it’s only been a year; it seems like decades ago, maybe, like something that happened in another era of human civilization. Were there rotary phones back then? Did people travel by zeppelin? So much has happened since then.

The second, of course, is that the right wing - press and political party, all wrapped up in a hateful, thick-headed bolus - is so adamant that this wasn’t an attempted coup, that there’s nothing to see here. That’s not what virtually any of them said on the day, but their political base is so far gone that the only thing they can do is go along with it. What does it say about our society when huge swathes of people can’t call a coup a coup? What does it say when some of those people are backed by millions of dollars in advertising or PACs?

The Donald Trump era isn’t over. The man himself probably is: a self-absorbed icon of cheap reality television who spent his time in the White House pushing a button for soda like a rat in a psychology experiment. But he was just the fake-tanned face for a movement that had already been growing and still lies malignantly under the surface of American society. Just this week, a technology executive in Utah was revealed to have sent an email around to his network claiming that vaccines were an extermination plot by the Jews. It sounds absurd; like something from a bad satire. Its obvious, wretched idiocy is matched only by the implications of its reality. There are millions of people who think like him, waiting for a leader to represent them.

Just as racism isn’t limited to people who use the n-word, this fascism is creeping and initially innocuous. Yes, it sits in the minds of people who wear Holocaust t-shirts and dress up in horns and furs to invade Congress. But it also sits in the minds of people who are unsettled with those who are different to them; who fear change; who believe we should all follow the same template of norms and roles; who are unsettled by the existence of trans people or Black Lives Matter or marriage equality. (The opposite of fascism is diversity.) Critical race theory is terrifying to them because it asks us to re-evaluate the American ubermensch; to them, the fact that our view of America’s founding was shaped by white supremacist values is best left unexamined.

The politicians and journalists who stoke this fear aren’t doing it out of some deep-seated conviction. They’re cheap opportunists, out to make a profit. They’re empty souls who will do anything to chase money and validation. They see a market and will take advantage of it.

“Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.” ~ Hannah Arendt

The soul-defying emptiness that defines American capitalism in this era is going to lead us to some very dark, very unpleasant places. My biggest worry is that the events of January 6, 2021 are a kind of foreshadowing. It’s not just that this was a terrible event, which it clearly was; it’s also that it was a terrible hint of what we can expect in our future if we’re not vigilant, if we’re not outspoken, and if we don’t change course significantly.

In the world we find ourselves in, there’s no space for silence; silence is, in effect, acquiescence. It says that there’s nothing worth speaking out or being impolite about. (Nice people made the best Nazis.) Alarm is justified. Proactivity is justified. Speaking out about the ludicrous events of last year is justified. It’s imperative for all of us that this movement is stopped in its tracks.

 

Photo by Blink O'fanaye, released under a CC license

 

What's possible

It’s really easy to be cynical about upcoming technology.

Blockchain? Environmentally disastrous, full of terrible libertarians, NFTs are being used to launder money in huge numbers.

VR? You have to wear a giant thing on your face, it gives people motion sickness and nausea, all the commentary on the metaverse is nonsensical.

I believe each of those points! But I’m also worried about being overly conservative: everything has to change, and will continue changing. It’s important to understand the underlying trends if you’re going to participate in any way - which, as a technology professional, both want and have to. We can yell about the web in 2004 all we like, but it’s 2022, and the world has moved on.

I feel like I’ve written enough about blockchain, but there are silver linings: particularly in popular acceptance of decentralization and federated trust. I found this Twitter thread to be a good, nuanced take on the subject.

On VR: the technology is getting exponentially better. Yes, virtual reality demos have been laughable. But what if there was something here? What if the headsets reached the kind of quality and lightness that removed the screen door effect? What if they overcame the motion sickness problem? What if mixed reality and virtual reality became indistinguishable? Of course we won’t see the world that maximalists suggest, but that’s not to say there won’t be a bunch of good and interesting applications.

There’s a lot to tear down, and as always, there are a bunch of charlatans in tech. Criticism certainly has its place, and the tech press in particular has historically not been critical enough. But as technologists we need to imagine what might be possible.

Sure, these visions for the future aren’t right. But that’s not enough. The real work is to imagine what could be right, and what could be made possible, while staying true to our values and ethics. That’s a lot harder, but if we get it right, it’s a lot more rewarding. If we get to a point where the only people doing innovation on the internet are the people whose values we dislike, we’re in trouble.

 

The perfomative demonstration of education

I spent a lot of my early career in educational technology. My work “origin story”, such as it is, is that I started to work on virtual learning environments in 2002, realized that everyone involved (teachers, administrators, learners, potentially the developers) absolutely despised them, then applied the principles of the nascent social web to the space.

What I only began to appreciate more recently is how important enterprise education is: particularly when it comes to the certifications required to do business in well-regulated industries. For example, to get SOC 2 certified on an ongoing basis, you really have to run frequent security training for every employee, and do deeper training for every engineer. Keeping a record of who has taken and passed those training modules has a lot of value to a business who might be audited.

Informal learning doesn’t really fit into this model. Yes, you learn better from your peers, and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that immersive, holistic teaching is more valuable educationally, but that’s not why companies run the training. They run the training to de-risk themselves, but more than that, to prove that they have de-risked themselves. Quantifiable grades, scores, and access records are mandatory in this context. They’re the product more than the actual education is.

The trouble is, that’s how we tend to think about education in a wider context, too. Ultimately, we don’t care so much about actually educating people. We care about showing that we have educated people. It’s not about holistically helping to give people the tools to really succeed in life - or, God forbid, furthering human knowledge - but much more about showing that we’ve hit our Key Performance Indicators for society and de-risked our communities. Stats and analytics are performance; it’s about covering your ass by showing you did your due diligence, the actual effect of your work be damned.

Goodhart’s Law goes as follows: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure. When our goal is to have a certain percentage of A grades instead of to fully and comprehensively educate, our methods change accordingly. We let people slip through the cracks and we start to build systemic, one-size-fits-all approaches. On the other hand, if our goal is to educate, we might well find that a measure or approach that works for one student doesn’t work for another.

A mistake I made in my early career was thinking that people who made the financial decisions generally wanted to educate rather than engage in a performative demonstration of having educated. While the former is usually, gratifyingly true of actual educators, the people who control the purse-strings very often want the latter. I was naive and over-idealistic, and just didn’t get it.

Understanding that would have helped me put better tools in the hands of educators, as well as build a stronger non-profit or business to supply them sustainably. Maybe ironically, I didn’t know enough to do that. C’est la vie.

 

Taking on advisory roles

This year I’m interested in taking on some advisory roles. These could look like informal advisor relationships, or, for the right organizations, they could look like more formal board positions.

I have a demanding day job, but I like the idea of helping a wider set of companies - and particularly those that have the potential to make the world more equal and informed.

I’ve been on several sides of the startup table:

I was a founder twice, and CEO once (so far).

I’ve been the technical and product lead multiple times.

I was the west coast Director of Investments at Matter Ventures, an early-stage accelerator and VC firm.

Some of my favorite meetings at Matter started out as investment or product strategy sessions, and wound up as discussions about database optimization. I’m able to bring both technical and business experience to bear - and I’d love to.

Although I’ve had formal advisors in the past, and currently sit on a board, I don’t know how to go about making myself available in this way. So I thought I’d just put it out there.

If you’re interested, get in touch: ben@benwerd.com.

 

Thoughts and actions for the week of January 3

Thoughts

  1. I can’t believe that CES is still happening in person.
  2. In November, I drove back to California from the east coast with my sister: a risky move during a pandemic. We took precautions and managed not to contract anything nasty. But the diciest part of our trip, by far, was Las Vegas.
  3. It’s not a classy place, but I’ve sometimes enjoyed Vegas. During the pandemic it’s pretty close to hell on Earth. There are crowds of people. Worse, there are crowds of people who don’t mind being in crowds.
  4. CES is tied with SXSW for me as an event I don’t want to attend again if I can possibly help it. The crowds; the commercialism; the soullessness. In a resurgence of the pandemic, I couldn’t imagine contemplating it.
  5. What a thing to do in honor of crappy new gadgets and TVs that can display NFTs.
  6. What a perfect example of the risks people are asked to endure in the name of making money. Capitalism over life.
  7. Every time I’ve sent someone wishes for the new year, or they’ve sent wishes to me, it’s included an end to the pandemic. Truth be told, I’ve not had a terrible time of it (at least, not because of covid), but it’s still trying. I want to see my friends and family. I want to travel back to the country I grew up in. I want to see new places.
  8. I have two bucket list items when the pandemic finally lifts. I want to visit Japan, because I’ve never been - all over the country, ideally, traveling on its marvelous trains. And I want to visit Indonesia, where my father was born, ideally with him.
  9. I want to see more.
  10. I do not want to go to fucking CES.

Actions

  1. I’m back on the exercise train. Today is my first real run of the year after some brisk hikes. I’m thinking about adding weights to the mix.
  2. It’s time to really throw myself into the project I’ve been working on so we can release it. It’s been a journey, and I’m excited for people to use it.
  3. After buying a house in Philadelphia, I’m planning some trips over there to get everything in order. I find it really exciting, but also daunting.
 

Everyone should blog

Matt Mullenweg asks people to blog for his birthday. It’s a lovely idea! And I might as well use his post to discuss one of my resolutions for the new year.

I’m going to post reflections on my own site at least once a day. As I’ve mentioned before, email subscribers will still receive updates every other day as a digest; RSS feed subscribers will get them in real time. They also post in real time to my Facebook page, my Twitter autoposting account, and micro.blog.

I love blogging and I wish more of you would do it. Sharing my reflections lets me put them in order, which in itself is valuable to me, but I love reading your replies and other peoples’ reflections. This earliest form of social media is, for me, the deepest and most interesting: a decentralized sphere of diverse voices, all publishing on the same playing field. It’s what the internet is all about.

A blog is just a journal: a web log of what you’re thinking and doing. You can keep a log about anything you like; it doesn’t have to be professional or money-making. In fact, in my opinion, the best blogs are personal. There’s no such thing as writing too much: your voice is important, your perspective is different, and you should put it out there.

And then, please, let me know about it.

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: December, 2021

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

Books

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. This was a groundbreaking, genre-defining book when it was written, and some of the ideas remain outstanding. Reading it this year was an exercise in uncovering paelofuture: interesting in historical context, but almost completely lacking in the human context I need to really dig into a story. I’m going to alienate a bunch of science fiction fans by saying so, but I didn’t enjoy it at all.

All about Love: New Visions, by bell hooks. A complicated book. On one hand, it’s full of really important insights into the nature of loving that I think every adult should read and understand. (You should read it!) On the other, she’s sometimes too emphatic about ideas that need challenging: in particular, I was struck by her reductive opinions about Monica Lewinsky and her putting the onus on her gay sister to deal with their parents’ homophobia. Her insistence that religion is a required moral authority also doesn’t land with me. Regardless, when this book rings true, it does so deeply, in a way that permeates the soul.

Pemmican Wars, by Katherena Vermette, Donovan Yaciuk, and Scott B. Henderson. Shades of Kindred here: a graphic novel about a fostered Métis teen girl who slips through time to Canada’s colonial past during a history lesson. It’s slight, but the art and writing are evocative. I wish there was more character development, but perhaps that will come in later volumes. This volume plants the seeds for a story to come.

Red River Resistance, by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk. The story being drawn here is important and needs to be told. I wish there were more pages: at times the book feels like a series of impressionistic vignettes rather than continuous plot. But I’m still hooked, and I’m curious to see where this is going. There’s not enough about Echo in the mix for me; we learn about Canada’s sordid past with respect to its indigenous peoples, but not enough about how that connects to the present. I assume that’s coming in future volumes.

Northwest Resistance, by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk. It’s all starting to come together, with an almost Quantum Leap style twist. The narrative is less impressionistic, too: there’s more detail here than in previous volumes, and we’re learning more about Echo. Intriguing, magical, and instructive about Canada’s genocidal past.

Road Allowance Era, by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk. Easily the best of the series. The narrative comes together, and Echo realizes she can control her time travel ability, as well as the poignant source of her ability. The atrocities continue, too, and the book does a great job of contextualizing them both emotionally and historically. The central conceit works really well throughout, in the same way it did for Octavia Butler in Kindred.

Streaming Media

Don’t Look Up. A genuinely great movie about climate change, without ever really being about climate change. Hilarious, sobering, deeply affecting, cynical, and smart. I loved every moment.

Notable Articles

Business

Playing Startup Versus Building a Company. “Figuring out how to build and run a business isn’t easy—and a lot of the moves you need to make aren’t intuitive. However, too many people approach it by just copying what it seems like everyone else is doing without taking a hard look at what your actual goals are and really learning how to go about the job of Founder and CEO. They’re “playing startup” as opposed to actually building a company.”

Google will fire unvaccinated employees. “Workers who haven’t complied with the vaccine mandate — by either sending in proof of vaccination or qualifying for a religious or medical exemption from Google — will go on paid leave for 30 days starting Jan. 18. They had until Dec. 3 to send proof of vaccination or to apply for an exemption. Google won’t accept testing as an alternative to vaccination, according to a company memo cited by CNBC.”

Covid

Pro-Trump counties now have far higher COVID death rates. “Since May 2021, people living in counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump during the last presidential election have been nearly three times as likely to die from COVID-19 as those who live in areas that went for now-President Biden. That’s according to a new analysis by NPR that examines how political polarization and misinformation are driving a significant share of the deaths in the pandemic.”

Secret Investigation Documents Reveal How The CDC’s First COVID Test Failed In The Pandemic’s Early Days. “In the US, the responsibility for developing a test fell to the CDC. [...] The team tasked with developing the nation’s first test was in the tiny RVD lab, which included four smaller procedure rooms, all located on the seventh floor of Building 18 at the CDC headquarters. In January 2020, the RVD lab was staffed by nine people — only three of whom were full-time employees.”

When COVID patients get new lungs, sould vaccine status matter? “About one in 10 lung transplants in the United States now go to COVID-19 patients, according to data from the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS. The trend is raising questions about the ethics of allocating a scarce resource to people who have chosen not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.” Healthcare should save everybody’s life, regardless of choices. But this is such a frustrating trend.

Laclede County, MO Health Department stops COVID work. “The local health department of a rural southern Missouri county is halting its COVID-19 response efforts after Attorney General Eric Schmitt wrote agencies this week demanding they drop mitigation measures.” It’s like they’re actively trying to kill people.

Trump White House made 'deliberate efforts' to undermine Covid response, report says. “Birx also told the panel that Atlas and other Trump officials “purposely weakened CDC’s coronavirus testing guidance in August 2020 to obscure how rapidly the virus was spreading across the country,” the report said. The altered guidance recommended that asymptomatic people didn’t need to get tested, advice that was “contrary to consensus science-based recommendations,” it said, adding, “Dr. Birx stated that these changes were made specifically to reduce the amount of testing being conducted.”

US Army Creates Single Vaccine Against All COVID & SARS Variants, Researchers Say. “Within weeks, scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research expect to announce that they have developed a vaccine that is effective against COVID-19 and all its variants, even Omicron, as well as from previous SARS-origin viruses that have killed millions of people worldwide.”

Crypto

Is web3 bullshit? “The hazy vision of new decentralized internet, built on the blockchain, to succeed the “Web 2.0″ of Google and Facebook seems to be reaching a threshold of ambient cultural awareness such that non-tech pundits, news-engaged normies, magazine editors, uncles, online attention-seekers etc., feel the need to weigh in on the question.” This is a great round-up of different perspectives on the topic: from enthusiasts to cynics, and everything in between.

Smart Contract Bug Results in $31 Million Loss. “The basic problem is that the code is the ultimate authority — there is no adjudication protocol — so if there’s a vulnerability in the code, there is no recourse. And, of course, there are lots of vulnerabilities in code. To me, this is reason enough never to use smart contracts for anything important. Human-based adjudication systems are not useless pre-Internet human baggage, they’re vital.”

New Study on NFTs Deflates the "Democratic" Potential for the Medium. “Ten percent of NFT buyers and sellers make as many transactions as the remaining 90 percent, it found, suggesting high concentration in the NFT marketplace. This statistic suggests that decentralized marketplaces have given way to more specialized platforms, which have come to occupy similar roles as gallerists and brand names in the non-crypto economy. The study also revealed that the average sale price of three-quarters of NFTs is just $15; meanwhile, only 1% of NFTs sell for over $1,594.” This seems like a pretty standard power law distribution, which I’m not sure why crypto would be exempt from.

How Cryptocurrency Revolutionized the White Supremacist Movement. “Hatewatch identified and compiled over 600 cryptocurrency addresses associated with white supremacists and other prominent far-right extremists for this essay and then probed their transaction histories through blockchain analysis software. What we found is striking: White supremacists such as Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents, race pseudoscience pundit Stefan Molyneux, Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer and Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer, and Don Black of the racist forum Stormfront, all bought into Bitcoin early in its history and turned a substantial profit from it.”

Melania Trump Launches an NFT and Blockchain Venture Based on Solana. “The former first lady of the USA – Melania Trump – will join the cryptocurrency universe by releasing her non-fungible token platform. The first NFTs, called “Melania’s Vision,” will be available to purchase for a limited period around the Christmas holidays.” Oh no.

The Future Is Not Only Useless, It’s Expensive. “It’s tempting to say they suck the way everything sucks now, but it’s more like how one particular strain of American aesthetics has sucked for the last 20 years. NFTs are the human capacity for visual expression as understood by the guy at the vape store.” This piece is so beautifully brutal.

Web3/Crypto: Why Bother? “A blockchain is a worse database. It is slower, requires way more storage and compute, doesn’t have customer support, etc. And yet it has one dimension along which it is radically different. No single entity or small group of entities controls it – something people try to convey, albeit poorly, by saying it is “decentralized.””

Culture

Here's Why Movie Dialogue Has Gotten More Difficult To Understand (And Three Ways To Fix It). In general I don’t agree that movies have become less easy to understand - I have no trouble with Christopher Nolan dialogue, for example, and I don’t get why people can’t understand Tom Hardy - but this is an interesting look into the industry and how the different pieces fit together.

Michael Sheen turns himself into a 'not-for-profit' actor. “But when I came out the other side, I realised I could do this kind of thing and, if I can keep earning money, it’s not going to ruin me.” This is the coolest thing.

‘They were a bit abrasive’: how kids’ TV Clangers secretly swore. “The Clangers were briefly drawn into this combative arena in a special one-off episode called Vote for Froglet, in which Postgate tried to persuade the planet’s residents of the virtues of the two-party system. After a snap election, with the Soup Dragon running on the “free soup for all” ticket, the Clangers were unconvinced and stuck with their enlightened autonomous collective.”

Acclaimed author bell hooks dies at 69 . Rest in power, bell hooks. What an intellectual, moral, literary force. If you haven’t read her work, please do. It’ll change the way you see the world.

Love Actually Child Star Labels Festive Romcom Cheesy And Sexist: 'I Think It's A S*** Film'. “I think it’s aged badly. All the women in it are sort of passive objects. I think that there was an article describing them as passive objects to be acquired.”

Coldplay will stop making music in 2025, lead singer Chris Martin announces. Why wait?

Betty White, a TV Fixture for Seven Decades, Is Dead at 99. Such a loss; such a life.

Media

Nobel winner: ‘We journalists are the defence line between dictatorship and war’. “Ressa has spent much of the last four years trying to point out that none of this is happening in isolation and that the “assault on truth” is doing the same to western democracies as it has done to her country. Muratov is even more gloomy. “It’s terrifying that countries that have been living in a democracy for so many years are rolling towards a dictatorship. That’s just a terrifying thought.””

Number of journalists behind bars reaches global high. “It’s been an especially bleak year for defenders of press freedom. CPJ’s 2021 prison census found that the number of reporters jailed for their work hit a new global record of 293, up from a revised total of 280 in 2020. At least 24 journalists were killed because of their coverage so far this year; 18 others died in circumstances too murky to determine whether they were specific targets. China remains the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the third year in a row, with 50 behind bars. Myanmar soared to the second slot after the media crackdown that followed its February 1 military coup. Egypt, Vietnam, and Belarus, respectively, rounded out the top five.”

Politics

Trump social media company claims to raise $1bn from investors. “Donald Trump’s new social media company and its special purpose acquisition company partner said on Saturday the partner had agreements for $1bn in capital from institutional investors.” I don’t believe them.

How Donald Trump Could Subvert the 2024 Election. “Only one meaningful correlation emerged. Other things being equal, insurgents were much more likely to come from a county where the white share of the population was in decline. For every one-point drop in a county’s percentage of non-Hispanic whites from 2015 to 2019, the likelihood of an insurgent hailing from that county increased by 25 percent. This was a strong link, and it held up in every state.” A well-reported, frankly terrifying story.

Trump called aides hours before Capitol riot to discuss how to stop Biden victory. “Trump’s remarks reveal a direct line from the White House and the command center at the Willard. The conversations also show Trump’s thoughts appear to be in line with the motivations of the pro-Trump mob that carried out the Capitol attack and halted Biden’s certification, until it was later ratified by Congress.”

Kanye West publicist pressed Georgia election worker to confess to bogus fraud charges. “Weeks after the 2020 election, a Chicago publicist for hip-hop artist Kanye West traveled to the suburban home of Ruby Freeman, a frightened Georgia election worker who was facing death threats after being falsely accused by former President Donald Trump of manipulating votes. [...] She said she was sent by a “high-profile individual,” whom she didn’t identify, to give Freeman an urgent message: confess to Trump’s voter-fraud allegations, or people would come to her home in 48 hours, and she’d go to jail.”

Kanye West’s 'Independent' Campaign Was Secretly Run by GOP Elites. “The Kanye 2020 campaign committee did not even report paying some of these advisers, and used an odd abbreviation for another—moves which campaign finance experts say appear designed to mask the association between known GOP operatives and the campaign, and could constitute a violation of federal laws.” Kanye believe it?

Society

Man donated his body to science; company sold $500 tickets to his dissection. “But instead of being delivered to a research facility, David Saunders’ body ended up in a Marriott Hotel ballroom in Portland, Oregon, where http://deathscience.org/ held an “Oddities and Curiosities Expo.” At the October 17 event, members of the public sat ringside from 9 am to 4 pm—with a break for lunch—to watch David Saunders’ body be carefully dissected. Tickets for the dissection sold for up to $500 per person.” Horrifying.

“This Is Blackface”: White Actors Are Playing Black Characters In Virtual Reality Diversity Training. “One employee described the use of white actors in Black roles as “a really tough thing for a lot of us to stomach.” Two raised concerns about white actors mimicking Black dialect while acting as Black characters. Three independently described an incident in which a white simulation specialist used the n-word while acting as an avatar of color. That actor now trains other simulation specialists. Employees also raised concerns about the visual creation of Mursion’s avatars, citing lack of variation in the skin tone, hair, and facial features of their characters of color, and about the company’s failure to promote and support women employees of color.”

Women may soon qualify for the draft. Here’s what you need to know. ″“This overall lack of strong support, though, illustrates what we call benevolent sexism, which is a sexism that rests on paternalistic beliefs: ‘Women need protection, and their skills are nurturers, not fighters. We need to protect them from war so as to not corrupt their virtue and purity and inhibit them from fulfilling their duties as wives and mothers,’” Chod said. “This was the same argument made in the 19th and early-20th centuries to bar women from voting.””

New Zealand plans to make it illegal for kids to buy cigarettes — for life. “People aged 14 and under in 2027 will never be allowed to purchase cigarettes in the Pacific country of five million, part of proposals unveiled on Thursday that will also curb the number of retailers authorized to sell tobacco and cut nicotine levels in all products.” Wait, we can do this?

Peter Thiel’s Free Speech for Race Science Crusade at Cambridge University Revealed . “Their common concern was the increasing threat from the advancement of a ‘liberal’ agenda to traditional Christian religious and theological beliefs – including an unnerving fascination with race science.” Lots to digest here.

The Anti-Abortion Movement Could Reduce Abortions if It Wanted To. “Why would groups that want to end abortion not support the most efficient way to make abortions less common? The answer is that their mission extends beyond abortion and into the regulation of sex, gender roles and the family. Contraception and abortion are tied together because both offer women the freedom to have sex for pleasure in or outside of marriage, and both allow women greater control over their lives and futures. The “pro-life” goal isn’t an end to abortion. It’s to establish another means of controlling women.”

About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated. I’m one of them, and it’s still weird to me to be in a minority (vs the UK, where some polls have over 50% of respondents not identifying with any faith). There’s nothing wrong with being religious, but there’s nothing wrong with not being religious, too. I’d love to have better representation of that in this country.

FDA permanently allows medication abortion pills through mail. “The Thursday announcement upholds a decision from April to temporarily suspend federal requirements that had previously required in-person purchase of abortion pills from a clinic, hospital or medical office.” Trump challenged it; I’m glad this has gone through.

Technology

Crime Prediction Software Promised to Be Free of Biases. New Data Shows It Perpetuates Them. “Millions of crime predictions left on an unsecured server show PredPol mostly avoided Whiter neighborhoods, targeted Black and Latino neighborhoods. [...] “No one has done the work you guys are doing, which is looking at the data,” said Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at American University who is a national expert on predictive policing. “This isn’t a continuation of research. This is actually the first time anyone has done this, which is striking because people have been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for this technology for a decade.””

US rejects calls for regulating or banning ‘killer robots’. “Speaking at a meeting in Geneva focused on finding common ground on the use of such so-called lethal autonomous weapons, a US official balked at the idea of regulating their use through a “legally-binding instrument”.” It may seem laughable now, but technology improvements will make this feasible very shortly. Internationally agreed upon protections would be smart.

Hackers Are Spamming Businesses’ Receipt Printers With ‘Antiwork’ Manifestos. ““Someone is using a similar technique as ‘mass scanning’ to massively blast raw TCP data directly to printer services across the internet,” Morris told Motherboard in an online chat. “Basically to every single device that has port TCP 9100 open and print a pre-written document that references /r/antiwork with some workers rights/counter capitalist messaging.”” I love this.

The Popular Family Safety App Life360 Is Selling Precise Location Data on Its Tens of Millions of Users. “Life360, a popular family safety app used by 33 million people worldwide, has been marketed as a great way for parents to track their children’s movements using their cellphones. The Markup has learned, however, that the app is selling data on kids’ and families’ whereabouts to approximately a dozen data brokers who have sold data to virtually anyone who wants to buy it.” This should be illegal.

This Swiss Firm Exec Is Said To Have Operated A Secret Surveillance Operation. “The co-founder of a company that has been trusted by technology giants including Google and Twitter to deliver sensitive passwords to millions of their customers also operated a service that ultimately helped governments secretly surveil and track mobile phones, according to former employees and clients.”

A mysterious threat actor is running hundreds of malicious Tor relays. “Since at least 2017, a mysterious threat actor has run thousands of malicious servers in entry, middle, and exit positions of the Tor network in what a security researcher has described as an attempt to deanonymize Tor users. [...] at one point, there was a 16% chance that a Tor user would connect to the Tor network through one of KAX17’s servers, a 35% chance they would pass through one of its middle relays, and up to 5% chance to exit through one.”

An Open Letter to Mr. Mark Zuckerberg: A Global Call to Act Now on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Science. “We do not believe that the methodologies seen so far meet the high scientific standards required to responsibly investigate the mental health of children and adolescents. Although nothing in the leaks suggests that social media causes suicide, self-harm, or mental illness, these are serious research topics. This work, and the tools you are using should not be developed without independent oversight. Sound science must come before firm conclusions are drawn or new tools are launched. You and your organisations have an ethical and moral obligation to align your internal research on children and adolescents with established standards for evidence in mental health science.”

Kickstarter plans to move its crowdfunding platform to the blockchain. “Crowdfunding platform Kickstarter is making a big bet on the blockchain, announcing plans to create an open source protocol “that will essentially create a decentralized version of Kickstarter’s core functionality.” The company says the goal is for multiple platforms to embrace the protocol, including, eventually, http://kickstarter.com/.” The word “eventually” is doing a lot of work here! But it’s a way more and more startups will try and expand - by creating a bigger pie and being the owners of the way their market business is conducted. They get to stay clear of antitrust regulations while literally owning the market. Will it take years for this to happen? Yes. Is it near-inevitable? Also yes.

Reimagining projections for the interactive maps era. “We have put a lot of thought into making this feature feel seamless and natural, so that our customers could adopt it on all kinds of map apps by adding one line of code. Let’s take a deep dive into why we did it, and how it works under the hood.” Superb work from the Mapbox team.

I blew $720 on 100 notebooks from Alibaba and started a Paper Website business. “TLDR; I started a business that lets you build websites using pen & paper. In the process I went viral on Twitter, made $1,000 in two days, and blew $720 on 100 paper notebooks from Alibaba.”

The Asymmetry of Open Source. “With the recent revival of the discussion about sustaining open source spurred on by multiple severe CVEs in a popular logging library, and with so many hot takes clamoring for more funding—some calling on companies, others on maintainers—I wanted to write about the problem and its solutions more holistically, as I have spent many years thinking about this from my own experience with both failing and succeeding… a perspective that I hope some of you will find helpful.” An excellent list of open source funding techniques.

Reporter likely to be charged for using "view source" feature on web browser. “The reporter discovered that the source code of the website contained Social Security numbers of educators. The reporter alerted the state about the social security numbers. After the state removed the numbers from the web page, the Post-Dispatch reported the vulnerability. Soon after, Governor Parson, “who has often tangled with news outlets over reports he doesn’t like, announced a criminal investigation into the reporter and the Post-Dispatch.”” Idiocy.

 

Fairness Friday: Bread and Roses Community Fund

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

This week I’m donating to Bread and Roses Community Fund. Based in Philadelphia, the fund is “a multiracial and cross-class community of donors, community organizers, and other allies of movements for change coming together around a shared goal of radically transforming individuals and society.”

It describes its mission as follows:

Bread & Roses believes in change, not charity. We organize donors at all levels to support community-based groups in building movements for racial, social, and economic justice. We support movements and their leaders through fundraising, grantmaking, capacity building, and convening.

‌We believe that a better world is possible. Since 1977, Bread & Roses has inspired people to take collective action and create real change in their communities, the Philadelphia region, and beyond. We raise money through donations of all sizes and make grants using a democratic, community-led decision-making process. Our grants go to local groups working for good schools, fewer prisons, better jobs, a safe environment, quality health care, and more.

Its work includes funds for racial and economic justice fund, environmental justice, criminal justice reform, opportunities, equitable public spaces, and equitable neighborhood recovery from the pandemic.

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

 

Hopes for 2022

I don’t know that any of us need a review of the year. I’m also not up for making predictions for next year: I just don’t know what’s going to happen.

So instead, here are some hopes I have for 2022. I don’t think they’re a sure thing by any stretch, but they’re not outside the realm of plausibility. And it’s nice to hope.

I’ve separated them into topics: Society and the World, Technology, Culture, and Personal. I’d love to read yours.

Society and the World

The end of lockdown. I think we all want this. I hope we’re able to get to a place where we can gather with our friends, spend time with our families, and live our lives without worrying about contracting or spreading a disease. To get there, we’ll need to continue to vaccinate the entire world, and hope that we don’t encounter ever more virulent strains. I don’t mind wearing a mask, but I look forward to not; I don’t mind presenting proof of vaccination, but I look forward to not.

A defense of women’s rights. The Supreme Court has the potential to effectively overturn Roe v Wade next year. Instead of that obvious step backwards, I’d love for the court to see sense (or, failing that, deliver a verdict with limited reach). Then I’d like to see us pass legislation to make sure we are never in danger of this again.

Progress on climate change. That could be (and needs to be) on multiple fronts. I’d love to see investment into viable public transport in the US: high speed rail, integrated transport, and other viable mass transit alternatives to cars and planes. But I’d also love to see more legislation - with real teeth - that forcibly curbs emissions. I’d love to see more and better renewable energy infrastructure. And it would be great to see carbon credits and trading replaced with hard limits for every business.

Technology

The decentralized web produces a non-financial killer app. I’d love to see a decentralized app that’s obviously better for regular people than a centralized equivalent. I’ve been thinking a lot about groups and discussion forums lately. In the old days, we had usenet; what would a modern, open, decentralized and peer-to-peer version of discussion threads look like? How could you incentivize multiple client apps with radically different user experiences? (If it’s not obvious already: I want to work on this.)

Technology-enabled unions. If employers want to put a stop to the great resignation, they might want to give their employees more of a voice. Unions as a concept are good for both businesses and workers. I’d love to see technology platforms that radically empower new union formation, and for business owners to embrace collective bargaining by their workforces.

The web becomes fun again. One of the things that I’ve noticed about people innovating on the blockchain is - no matter what you think about the technology - they’re having fun. I’d love to see that sense of fun return to web development as a whole. One of the problems is that a lot of our frameworks and tooling have been optimized for big, centralized businesses, and what works for Facebook probably doesn’t work for someone coding in their bedroom without the goal of building a startup. I’d love to see more easy-to-use libraries and frameworks, and for peer-to-peer style decentralization to become more prevalent through those libraries.

Integrated media. I want to read a book in bed. If I’m driving, I want to listen to the audio of that book in a way that picks up where I left off. Then when I pick up a book to read again, it picks up where the audio left off. Give me that for everything: what matters to me is the content, not the medium.

Sustainable, repairable devices. Maybe enforced by legislation. We should all have a right to repair; every manufacturer should be urged to find more sustainable process and material sourcing.

Facebook / Meta gets broken up. Facebook, Oculus, Instagram, and WhatsApp need to be separate companies. In general, I hope to see redefined antitrust, and better enforcement of it. The industry, the media, and society will be better off for it.

Culture

More weird TV. More weird art. If I’m going to be stuck inside in lockdown, I want to watch television that takes risks. Now is the time for production companies to invest in new voices and radical stories. No more beige, sanded-down entertainment designed for mainstream audiences. The same goes for art of any kind. Bring on the outsider artists and people who put their full selves into their work.

The continued death of the mainstream. We’re all weird now, and sick of manufactured popularity that seeks to shepherd us into fitting into pre-defined consumer pigeonholes. Let’s just call it. Our interests are nuanced and varied; we’re all different. And that’s great. What’s not great? Being asked to conform to some median ideal, or enjoy things that have been produced for people who do over more nuanced work. This is a trend that’s been underway for some time; I’d love to see it accelerate.

Doctor Who returns with a woman Doctor and a regular cadence. Now the door has been opened by Jodie Whitaker, I don’t think it would be right to shut it. At the same time, I’d love for Who to finally get back to a twelve or thirteen episode annual run. I don’t think it’s been able to do this consistently since Russell T Davies’s original era as showrunner.

Personal

Rest. I spent a lot of this year wishing I could just disappear for six months. I came by it honestly. Next year I don’t want to be burned out; I want to be able to show up well for the people in my life, and work on projects with energy and creativity.

Authenticity. There’s no sense in trying to perform someone else’s version of you. It’s easy to fall into that trap in every aspect of life, and I sometimes have, but it’s a recipe for unhappiness. I want to do better at upholding myself and saying no to other people’s projections and expectations when they don’t align with mine.

Space to play. I want to have the space to work on my own projects. That’s been hard to come by for the last few years, for reasons I don’t regret: primarily, helping to care for my mother. But I want to spend more time writing, and I want to spend more time working on technology projects independent from trying to make money from them. (Quite a few people have messaged me about finishing Untitled, and I promise I will.)

Community. Somehow, I need to do better at connecting with people. That’s hard to do in a pandemic. But I miss my friends, and having grown up thousands of miles away, I’ve never been particularly great at keeping up with my extended family. Everyone needs friends; everyone needs family. This dovetails with authenticity: everyone needs a community of people who mutually like and support them for them, with no agenda or projection. I really value the people in my life I can truly be myself with.

Home. I deeply hope I can go back to the country I grew up in and see my friends and hometown before the end of the year. Let’s see.

 

Upgrading my avatar

For a while now, I've been using this drawing of me by Hallie Bateman as my avatar:

I love it, particularly because I'm a big fan of Hallie's work. But it's also not quite me, exactly: you get the same whimsical drawing no matter the topic.

I used to be a big Livejournal user. Based on the kind of writing I post here, you can probably guess that it was pretty confessional stuff: I'd share all kinds of details about my life as long-form posts. (Most of the people I was sharing with were my real-life friends.)

LJ pioneered a bunch of really great features - per-item access permissions, for one - but one of the best was the ability to change your avatar based on your mood. If you were a paying user, you could upload a whole palette of images and choose which one would represent you based on however you felt at the time.

Since then, avatars have become fixed representations of ourselves in online space, like a brand. You can expect the same image to follow someone everywhere; you immediately know who it is based on visual recognition.

But what if we don't want that? What if we want our identity to be more nuanced and faceted? What if we want our profiles to evolve as our lives do - not just our avatars but our descriptions, locations, and every nuance, up to and including our preferences? Updating every single service sounds like hard work, and it's not like most services use something like a Gravatar.

Really, everything should pull from a central digital identity, whether it's your website or some other core address. (Of course, anyone should be able to have any number of digital identities, so as to have the freedom to keep various aspects of their lives apart.) That's not how it works today; everything is siloed. Although there are all kinds of decentralized identity protocols, digital identity in the mainstream hasn't evolved far from the Bulletin Board Systems of the 1980s.

Imagine if you could choose an identity and present it everywhere you needed to. Online services would keep your avatar and contact details up to date; restaurants and airlines could automatically know your allergies and food preferences. You could withdraw and restrict data at any time.

All this is what the self-sovereign identity movement is all about. It's never really been made mainstream, but that doesn't mean it won't be. The first usable version won't be particularly fully-featured; it'll be simple and fun to use. And I'd love to give it a try.

In the meantime, maybe I should start using photographs of my actual face again?