Skip to main content

Co-founder of Elgg and Known; former investor at Matter;
CTO at The 19th.

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

19thnews.org

 

Indiepeople

I’ve long been a member of the indieweb, a community based around encouraging people to own their spaces on the web rather than trusting their content to centralized services that may spy on them, use their content for their own ends, or randomly go out of business. Indieweb technologies do a good job of undercutting supplier power over identity online without imposing a single technological approach, business model, or product.

I believe strongly in the indieweb principles of distributed ownership, control, and independence. For me, the important thing is that this is how we get to a diverse web. A web where everyone can define not just what they write but how they present is by definition far more expressive, diverse, and interesting than one where most online content and identities must be squished into templates created by a handful of companies based on their financial needs. In other words, the open web is far superior to a medium controlled by corporations in order to sell ads. The former encourages expression; the latter encourages consumerist conformity.

Of course, these same dynamics aren’t limited to the web, and this conflict didn’t originate there. Yes, a website that you control for your own purposes has far more possibilities than one controlled by corporations for their financial gain. A web full of diverse content and identities is richer and fuller. But you can just as easily swap out the word “website” for “life”: a life that you control for your own purposes has far more possibilities than one controlled by corporations for their financial gain, too. A world full of diverse people is richer and fuller.

Consider identity. There are a set of norms, established over centuries, over how we describe ourselves; we’re expected to fit into boxes around gender, religion, orientation, and so on. But these boxes necessarily don’t describe people in full, and depending on your true identity, may be uncomfortably inaccurate. So these days, it’s becoming more acceptable to define your own gender (and accompanying descriptive pronouns), orientation, personality, etc - and rightly so. Once again it comes down to the expressive self vs the templated self. There’s no need to keep ourselves to the template, so if it doesn’t fit, why not shed it? Who wrote these templates anyway? (The answer, of course, is the people who they fit most cleanly, and who would benefit the most from broad adherence.) People talk about “identity politics”, but they’re the politics of who gets to define who you are. You should.

I’ve been thinking a lot about radicalism lately. While there have been protests over the last few years over racial inequality, systemic injustices, reproductive rights, and the rise of Christian nationalism, most people have been relatively docile. These are changes that either affect you today or will affect you soon, so the relative quiet has seemed strange to me. But the answer is obvious: I mean, who has the time? Really, who?

The most pervasive templates going are the ones that seek to define how people create a life for themselves, enforced by a context that makes it impossible to do just about anything else. Millions upon millions of people get up at the crack of dawn to go to work, commute in their cars for an hour a day, put in their hours, potentially go to a second job and do the same, and then go to bed to do it all again the next day. It’s sold as the right way to do things, but when the pay you take home barely covers your costs, and when you’re forced to work until you die, there’s very little life left. It’s an exploitative culture that enforces conformity, and in doing so is inherently undemocratic. A thriving democracy is one where citizens can express themselves, protest for what they think is right, and enact change through building community - which is impossible if everyone has no time to do anything but work, and is too scared that they will lose their jobs to break conformity. This way of living isn’t for us; in the same way that the web is templated to the decisions made by big corporations like Facebook so they can sell more ads, the way we live is templated to the needs of large financial interests, too.

Who should get to choose how you live? You should. But just as many people argue for the conformist vision of identity, there are scores of people ready to argue that the exploitative version of labor is the right one.

Let’s continue to use the web as an analogy. It’s an open platform, run in the public interest by a changing group of people, on which we can build our own identities, profiles, content, tools, and businesses. Standards are established through a kind of social contract between entities. This is the way I see government, too: contrary to, say, a libertarian view of the world, I think we need a common infrastructure to build on top of. Representative democratic government is (assuming an engaged electorate and free and open elections) an expression of the will of the people. More than that, it’s infrastructure for us to build on: a common layer built in the public interest, upon which we can grow and build. A platform.

What’s a part of that platform has a direct relationship to what can be built. If the web didn’t define links, we’d spend all our time thinking of new ways to build them. But the web does define links, and we can spend our time building much more advanced interfaces and specifications because we don’t have to worry about them. If government didn’t provide roads, we’d have to spend our time worrying about what basic transit links looked like; the same goes for public transport, education, or healthcare. We can reach for the stars and be far more ambitious when our basic needs are taken care of. But those needs must be open and in the public interest, rather than proprietary and designed for profit. (What would the web look like if link tags had been owned by AOL rather than by the commons?)

Perhaps it’s a tortured analogy, but in a way it’s not an analogy at all: the way the web evolved is a reflection of the larger societal dynamics around it. We can create an indieweb movement, and our websites may be free and open. But the real work is to create a free and open culture that serves everyone, where everyone has the right and freedom to be themselves, and where we can all reach for the stars together.

The principles of openness, collaboration, independence, expression, and distributed ownership are not just about software. Really they’re not about software at all. At their best, they’re a glimpse at what a different kind of life might look like. One where everyone can be free.

 

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

· Posts

 

Pet Door Show

My sister Hannah Werdmuller hosts a new music show, Pet Door Show, on Shady Pines Radio every Thursday from 2-4pm (5-7pm ET, 10pm-midnight UK time). She describes it as “a unique, cross-genre playlist of new music by independent, under-the-radar artists from all over the world” - and Hannah’s eye for equity really shines through. All the music is new and underheard, and it’s all beautiful.

She puts a ton of work into it: it reminds me of John Peel’s old BBC show in both form and quality. There’s lots of really excellent new music I definitely never would have heard otherwise.

The best way to listen is live on shadypinesradio.com, but there’s a collection of old shows over on Mixcloud. It’s all fully-licensed, so musicians are compensated appropriately.

I mean it: it’s really, really great. Worried you’ll miss it? Click here to add it to your calendar. If you download the Shady Pines Radio app from shadypinesradio.com and subscribe to Pet Door Show, you can also receive a mobile notification when it’s on.

· Posts

 

Generating genre novels with OpenAI

I asked OpenAI to write me outlines for some genres of novels, all set in the same post-apocalyptic commune in California. Here they are, verbatim. Prompts in bold are mine; the AI wrote everything else.

 

Write an outline for a horror novel set in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

The Last Resort

A group of survivors band together in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse, vowing to start anew in a remote commune in California.

But as they settle into their new life, they realize that the outside world is not as dead as they thought.

Strangers begin to show up at their doorstep, seeking shelter from the harsh conditions.

At first the newcomers are welcomed, but as their numbers grow, the commune members start to realize that they might not be the only ones left alive.

And as supplies start to run low, the group must decide whether to open their doors to the outside world… or close them for good.

As tensions mount, the commune is forced to confront the dark secrets hiding in their own ranks.

And when they finally come face to face with the true nature of the outside world, they realize that the real horror is only just beginning.

 

Write an outline for a zombie novel set in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

The novel opens with the protagonist, a young woman named Scout, waking up from a dream in which she is being chased by a horde of zombies.

Scout lives in a post-apocalyptic commune in California that is slowly being overrun by zombies.

The commune's leader, a man named Elias, is Scout's lover and the father of her child.

Elias is a cold and distant man who is more interested in the survival of the commune than in the people who live there.

Scout is torn between her love for Elias and her desire to protect her child from the dangers of the outside world.

When the commune is finally overrun by zombies, Scout is forced to flee with her child.

They are pursued by zombies and Elias, who is determined to get his hands on the child.

Scout and her child eventually find refuge in a safe haven, but not before Elias catches up to them.

In the final confrontation, Elias is killed and Scout and her child are left to rebuild their lives in the safety of the haven.

 

Write an outline for a young adult novel set in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

The novel follows a group of teens who have grown up in a post-apocalyptic commune in California. The commune is a safe haven for survivors of a nuclear war that wiped out most of the world. The teens have never known anything else, and they are content with their lives. However, when a group of newcomers arrives at the commune, the teens start to question everything they know. The newcomers are from a different part of the world and they have a different way of life. The teens are intrigued and start to explore the new ways of life. They soon realize that the world is much bigger than they thought, and that there is more to life than just surviving.

 

Write an outline for a literary fiction novel set in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

The novel follows the story of a group of survivors who band together in the aftermath of a global apocalypse. They set up a commune in the California desert, where they struggle to build a new society while battling the elements and fighting off raiders. Through their trials and tribulations, they come to realize that the world is not what it once was, and that they must work together if they want to survive.

 

Write an outline for a romantic novel set in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

In the wake of a devastating global war, a small group of survivors band together to create a commune in the remains of California. Through hard work and determination, they are able to create a self-sustaining society, but not without cost. The commune is constantly under threat from raiders and other groups seeking to take what they have built. But the biggest threat to their way of life comes from within, as tensions begin to rise between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who yearn for something more.

As the commune begins to unravel, two people emerge as the leaders of the two factions. On one side is Sarah, a young woman who believes that the commune can be a force for good in the world and that they should reach out to other survivors. On the other side is Aaron, a man who is convinced that the only way to protect the commune is to cut themselves off from the outside world.

As the two sides clash, Sarah and Aaron find themselves drawn to each other, even as they realize that their relationship could tear the commune apart. But with the commune on the brink of collapse, they must choose whether to save it or follow their hearts.

 

Write an outline for a humorous novel set in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

The world has ended, but a group of Californians have survived and formed a commune.

They are a self-sufficient community, but they are also bizarre and quirky.

They have to deal with the everyday challenges of post-apocalyptic life, but they also have to deal with the fact that they are living in close quarters with a bunch of weirdos.

They manage to get by, but just barely. And they do it all with a sense of humor.

 

Write an outline for a crime fiction novel set in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

Life in the commune is hard, but it's the only life Kate knows. She's never known anything else.

The commune is run by a ruthless leader who will do anything to keep everyone in line.

There are rumors of a rebellion brewing, and Kate finds herself at the center of it.

She's not sure if she wants to be a part of the rebellion, or if she just wants to stay alive.

With the commune's leader on one side and the rebels on the other, Kate has to choose sides.

She's not sure who to trust, but she knows she has to make a choice.

Kate has to decide whether to fight for the life she knows, or risk everything for a chance at something better.

 

Write an outline for a children's novel set in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

The novel follows a group of children who live in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

The commune is a safe haven for the children, who are able to live and work together in harmony.

However, when the outside world begins to intrude on their peaceful existence, the children must band together to protect their way of life.

Along the way, they learn about the value of cooperation, teamwork, and self-sacrifice.

In the end, the children are able to triumph over the forces that threaten their commune, and they emerge stronger and more united than ever before.

 

Write an outline for a magical fantasy novel set in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

In a post-apocalyptic world, a group of survivors come together to form a commune in California.

The commune is a magical place, where the residents can use their powers to help the community thrive.

However, not everyone is happy with the commune. Some people want to exploit its power for their own gain, while others believe that the commune is a sign of the end times.

As the commune faces challenges from both within and without, the residents must band together to protect their home.

Along the way, they will discover new powers, make new friends, and battle enemies old and new.

Ultimately, the commune will face its biggest challenge when a group of powerful outsiders threatens to destroy it.

But with the power of magic on their side, the residents of the commune will fight back and prove that they can build a new world from the ashes of the old one.

 

Write an outline for a Russian novel set in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

The novel opens with the protagonist, a young woman, waking up in a post-apocalyptic commune in California.

She has no memories of her life before the apocalypse, and is taken in by the commune's leader, a woman known as The Mother.

The protagonist quickly learns that the commune is a safe haven for survivors of the apocalypse, and that they are constantly under threat from raiders.

The commune is self-sufficient, with a garden, livestock, and a small store of supplies.

The protagonist begins to settle into life at the commune, making friends and helping with the daily tasks.

However, the peace is shattered when the commune is attacked by raiders.

The Mother is killed and the commune is destroyed.

The protagonist is captured by the raiders and taken to their base.

The raiders are a group of survivors who have banded together and live by raiding other communities.

The protagonist is forced to work for the raiders, and soon becomes one of their deadliest members.

The novel ends with the protagonist leading a raid on her former commune, killing all of the survivors.

· Posts

 

Your 401(k) hates you

This is an edited version of a piece I wrote a few years ago elsewhere, which I’m now updating and publishing here. At the time, I was working on understanding what might be an interesting evolution of retirement plans.

The 401(k) was created by accident as a result of tax reform in the late seventies. Section 401(k) of the 1978 Revenue Act allowed employees to defer bonus or stock option compensation without incurring taxes. An enterprising benefits consultant suggested that this could be a good way for companies to provide a retirement savings account — essentially a hack on top of the Revenue Act clause — and the rest is history. When the IRS declared that ongoing salary deductions could be put into these savings accounts a couple of years later, the race was on.

By the mid eighties, over half of all the large firms in America offered a 401(k). Today, the 401(k) is simply how retirement plans are done.

There was a simple reason for the change. Even though the returns for employees were less certain than a traditional pension plan, they were far cheaper and more predictable for employers. This was a double-edged sword: on one hand, employees didn’t have the security they had previously enjoyed. On the other, more employers could provide retirement plans at all.

The net effect, however, is that employees are essentially bribed to take part in the stock market in the name of protecting their retirements. As we’ve seen, the dynamics of the stock market are not necessarily in their favor — and as it turns, out, most people saving for retirement don’t get to choose where their money goes.

In practice, the 401(k) is a support plan for fossil fuels, arms companies, and all kinds of heinous shit.

Clearly, retirement plans need regulation in order to protect the ordinary people who are trusting their futures to them. But the legislation that governs 401(k)s, ERISA, actually makes it hard for providers to let people invest in anything other than that default basket of heinous goods. ESGs — Environmental, Social, and Governance investments — are difficult to add to a retirement plan’s lineup. The Trump administration made it even harder for a retirement plan to add them.

Care about climate change? You’re shit out of luck.

Don’t want to invest in arms? You’re shit out of luck.

Private prisons? You get the idea.

If you want to save for retirement based on your values in a 401(k) plan, you’ll more than likely find you can’t. And most of the traditional target date funds contain companies that you’d probably be upset to know you were investing in. Some plans let you open a brokerage window and pick your own investments instead of the default funds, but it’ll cost you more.

The total AUM in these retirement plans is north of $28 trillion, while the total US stock market value is somewhere around $85 trillion. In other words, a third of the markets are invested in by people who don’t have full control over their investments. While, clearly, segments like private prisons are a small portion of an individual’s retirement investments, in aggregate these allocations represent enormous sums. Investments on the public markets prop up the share price of these companies, incentivizing investments in harmful industries. Investment advisors are financially incentivized to keep you within this system, perpetuating the harm. And even when these plans work, they only work for the relatively wealthy people who have the financial access and means to contribute to their maximum levels.

What’s the solution? If we have to move forward with 401(k)s and similar products, we need to allow more sustainable investments to be part of a lineup, while maintaining strong consumer protections. Eventually, we need to move to a world where everyone can invest directly into their communities instead, through public means, in an inclusive way. That will take real change, and real will. I’m not sure if that’s a place we’ll get to, but it’s something I’d love to see.

 

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

· Posts

 

A small website redesign

I’ve changed my website around to reflect that, at least for the time being, I’m doing more bookmark-saving and posting of short notes than long-form writing.

I was actually inspired, of all things, by The Verge redesigning its website to be more blog-like. I’m constantly sharing links to stuff I find interesting, but they’ve been buried on my site until my end-of-month roundup posts. This change makes them much more prominent. Honestly, the essence of the web is really about linking out to what you find useful or interesting, so this is kind of a return to web basics.

As a technical by-product, RSS subscribers will also receive these link posts as they’re published. Hopefully that’s not too disruptive.

I spent a couple of hours making an adjustment to the stock Known template Market Street (which I’ve used on my site for years) in order to allow for more compact posting of notes, links, and photos. The new one’s called Cornmarket Street, after the main shopping street in my hometown, and I like it more than I thought I would. I can easily imagine adding more content types over time: I’ve never posted links to hardware I like, for example, but I’m an unabashed tech nerd, so there might be a place for that. Lately I’ve been loving the Fujifilm X-T4, after my friend Jesse Vincent suggested that I wouldn’t regret getting a new camera to capture photos of my baby. He was super-right, as usual.

On that subject, I’m also wondering what to do with my parenting content. Should I keep posting them here? I’m sort of feeling shy to, although there’s a lot I could write about. Is the same site that hosts my thought about web business models really the place I also want to write about disastrous midnight diaper changes? I’m still thinking about it.

Anyway, it’s the first time I’ve changed my site up for a few years, and I like it. Let me know what you think.

· Posts

 

State of the nation

My colleagues at The 19th just launched our first nationwide poll:

In the weeks leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, The 19th and SurveyMonkey teamed up to conduct a poll to find out what women, particularly women of color, and LGBTQ+ people think about politics, politicians and policy.

It’s an important survey, and there were some interesting findings.

For example, 70% of Americans don’t trust politicians to make abortion policy:

That distrust spans the political aisle: 70 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats said politicians were insufficiently informed about abortion. It was also consistent across men, women and gender-nonconforming Americans.

LGBTQ+ Americans are more likely to experience healthcare discrimination:

Twenty-four percent of LGBTQ+ Americans said they had been blamed for their health problems while visiting a health care provider, compared with 9 percent of non-LGBTQ+ people. For LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming people, or those who said their gender was not male or female in addition to being LGBTQ+, that number jumped to 40 percent.

There’s significantly more to explore. You can read more over on the 19th News/SurveyMonkey poll homepage. And the full data is available to explore over on SurveyMonkey’s site.

· Posts

 

The world is not designed for equitable parenting

So far, I’ve been the primary nappy-changer in my child’s world. That’s not virtue signaling or trying to make a point: it simply seems fair that, given that I’m biologically incapable of breastfeeding or carrying a child to term, I help out where I can.

Aaron Hoyland’s tweet the other day is exactly how I feel:

Putting baby change stations in the women’s washroom (and maybe the family washroom if there is one) but not the men’s washroom sends a very clear message about whose responsibility you think raising children is, and frankly, I hate it.

The world isn’t set up for equitable co-parenting. Bathrooms are one example. Don’t click through to the tweet if you’d like to skip being angry for a morning: the comments are dominated by people making excuses for dads not changing their children, or trying to argue that it’s women’s work like we’re back in the forties. A mother’s sacred duty, apparently, is to be the sole person cleaning their child.

I’m completely on board with having changing tables in every men’s bathroom. I intend to use them; please give them to me. In return, I will spend money in your establishment.

Unfortunately, this chauvanistic design mentality doesn’t stop at bathrooms. They’re everywhere. I call them “mommy defaults”.

I’ve discovered that a lot of the parenting apps we use - primarily Huckleberry, which allows us to track events like diaper changes and different kinds of feedings - don’t provide for more than one parental user account. If both parents want to track events and gain access to the log, they need to share a password. We’re not logging frivolously (our child needed to go to the ER for dehydration on their first night home), and it’s crucial that we both have access to this data.

Even the Snoo, our expensive and overtly high-tech smart bassinet, only allows for one account. If we want to track sleeping and adjust settings, we once again have to share passwords. It’s not incredibly difficult to use a shared 1Password vault, but I expect most parents default to using something easily memorable, and therefore easily hackable.

Finally, the biggest, most irritating version of this is that every provider - starting with hospitals and pediatricians - wants to have a single parental contact number. Go visit parenting forums and you’ll find message after message complaining about this, for good reason. The assumption that there’s one primary carer in parenting is deeply baked into institutional service design, and perpetuates inequality every time it arises. As the dad, I really want to take on my fair share of making appointments, dealing with administration, and otherwise caring for my child.

You can take the boy out of startups, but you can’t take startups out of the boy, apparently. My solution has been to treat our baby like a call center and set up a 24/7 virtual support line using a tool designed for that purpose. Now, we can provide a single number for text messages and calls, but we’re both essentially baby support agents. Whoever picks up first takes the call. It’s not the cheapest, but I couldn’t find an app or other solution that would allow us both to effectively be primary carers in someone’s database. Our own contact details are abstracted away.

The nice thing about this solution is that it also allows for additional caregivers. For example, I have to wonder how my friend David Jay - who is an adoptive third parent - deals with these design defaults. Families come in lots of shapes. Many people also care for children in a communal, village-like environment. Creating a baby call center allows you to bring anyone into that circle, even temporarily. Obviously, I’ve been using tools for business sales and support to achieve this, but maybe there’s a genuine startup here?

There are real cultural headwinds to overcome: just go back to those replies to Aaron’s tweet. Lots of people have lots to say about the place of fathers vs mothers, using language that isn’t far off from “a women’s place is in the kitchen”. They must be overcome, and they will be.

If you’re designing a parenting app or service, I implore you: dads are carers too. Please let us be by giving us full access to services designed to support our child. We’ll reward you with our loyalty. The dads are ready.

 

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

· Posts

 

A letter to my mother on the event of my child's birth

Dear Ma,

My child was born last Friday. I wish you could meet them.

The first time I saw their face in person (strikingly similar to their 3D ultrasound, but here, not an echo of a person but a real-life human being in front of me), they couldn’t breathe. The doctors whisked them away to a table, and I followed quickly, dumbly, the delirium from sleeplessness and from the surrealism of it all instantly snapping into pure, adrenaline-fueled presence. They put a mask on their face and applied pressure to their lungs, asking each other why they weren’t crying. Finally, there was a sound, like a tiny grunt. And then a little sigh. Finally, they opened up into a small cry; then, another, louder one. The smallest little human I’ve ever seen, finally arrived. I fell in love immediately.

The last time I saw you, just over a year ago, you were in a bed in the same institution, your donated lungs breathing fainter and fainter. I kissed you on the forehead and told you I loved you. You’d told me that what you wanted to hear was us talking amongst ourselves; to know that we’d continue without you. In the end, that’s what happened. But I miss you terribly: I feel the grief of losing you every day, and never more than when my child was born.

They’re so incredibly cute. I just want you to see.

I’ve been thinking about the cassette tape recording we have of when I was born. “It’s a baby!” you exclaimed, and we’ve always thought it was funny, because what else would it be? But I now understand that the enormity of that moment is stunning: a potential human made up of ideas and imagination, that we can only guess about, turns into a real-life human being. It’s a baby. Holy shit. Everything suddenly changes. Everything.

(I want to digitize that recording. Tapes degrade. It might even be gone already.)

You were always so good with children. Famously so. Babies loved you; children loved you. Every photo I have of you with a child is of you looking delightedly at each other, fully present in a joyful interaction. When you did your career about-face and became a schoolteacher, it was the most natural thing in the world, because it just made official what you’d always done. Of course, I saw the benefit of that care and love, too. I wish they were able to feel it directly. As it is, in this worse universe that doesn’t have you in it, I’ve been intentionally trying to channel you. I’ve been trying to imagine how you would have shown up with them, and what your advice for me would have been. I’ve been trying to convey that good-humored warmth I always felt. You made me feel safe: physically, yes, but more than that, emotionally. I want to make them feel safe, too: to be who they really are.

They have the privilege of a tightly-knit family. I can’t wait to introduce them to my dad, and to my sister, who are the best people I know. I want them to be deeply involved in their life. You will be too, through us, but I wish it could be through a hug or smiles or belly-kisses.

I guarantee you would have loved them. I guarantee they would have loved you.

Erin’s quickly turned into such a good mother, Ma. She really is; you’d love it. She’s so attentive, and smart, and worried about them, and prepared in all kinds of ways that I would never think to be. So far, we’ve made a pretty good parenting team. There’s so much to learn, so much to get better at, so much to worry about. But she’s good. It’s fun to think of them having fond memories of her in the same way I have fond memories of you.

It’s also weird to think of them thinking fondly of me in the same way I love my dad. Those bonds are strong. I have trouble thinking about anyone loving me deeply, but I know I love deeply, and my dad is one of the people I love the most, so the possibility is there. I hope I can live up to that for them. It’s scary to think about.

I remember, very early on, going on a protest march with you. As a child, I inherited your buttons and proudly wore messages to ban the bomb and embrace renewable energy. (Those slogans seem like ancient history now, but also still so relevant.) Progressive values and the value of protest were normalized for me. Living in Oxford, we were surrounded by university, and you were both life-long students, so I was raised in an environment of debate and deep thought. Because I had parents who talked about the world, both around me and to me, I had a better sense of my place in it. I want that for them, too.

We seem to be backsliding into a world where nationalism is a respected value, and where fierce individualism trumps all, even as we plunge deeper into a climate crisis whose only real solution is for us all to work together. We have to think globally, as one people, and we have to care for people on the other side of the globe as if they were our neighbor. We have to call out our own governments when they oppress others, at home or abroad, and we have to be forces for equitable, inclusive, collaborative kindness in a world that is dominated by competition and profit. We seem to have forgotten the importance of community, and of acting collectively - or, worse, rejected it, as if being an actively participative part of a fabric of interconnected souls somehow impedes our individuality. On the contrary, I think it uplifts us. In a world where we all have a duty of care for each other, we can more truly be ourselves.

I got that from you.

I wish those ideas were a given, but they’re going to have to fight for it. We’re constantly re-litigating the same arguments about religion, bodily autonomy, the climate, when we could be building on what we’ve learned to climb ever higher. Their world will have fewer resources, constrained by a heating planet. If it also continues to have widening inequality and an addiction to wealth hoarding, it will also have more conflict. It will be a worse place to live: more dangerous, more authoritarian, more brutal. “Building a better world for our children” is no longer an abstract sentiment for me, and my fear is that they will have this realization one day too: they may find himself wondering how to show up to make a safer, kinder world for their child.

We need to make more progress.

You described yourself as having been radicalized. That word means so many things: to me, your values were never radical. They were simply common sense. We need to take care of each other; we need to love our neighbors, and understand that everyone is our neighbor; we need to undo systems of oppression and inequality. You worked for affirmative action and stood up in court to establish and protect the rights of tenants over landlords. You marched and donated to causes and let your worldview be known. You were a force of light in the universe, not just for how you acted towards everyone who knew you, but how you showed up in the context of wider systems. If you were radicalized, I guess I hope I am too.

You had no time for people who didn’t care about others: hardcore conservatives, neo-reactionaries, libertarians, and fascists. You cared about fairness and inequality. You were an ardent feminist. You were an anticapitalist. You believed in true representative democracy. You continued to learn and evolve your understanding of systems of oppression. I love all of those things about you - just a fraction of all the things I love about you. I want to model that way of thinking and acting for my child.

I want them to have broad horizons, and to understand that all of this - everything - can be changed for the better. Change is inevitable; how we change is up for grabs.

You were always so flexible: so up for the adventure. You traveled thousands of miles to have me in Europe. By the time I was three years old, I’d lived in four cities. As time goes by, I’m more and more impressed by your ability and willingness to just up and leave and try something new. My life has been much better off for it. I think your life was much better off for it.

Remember living in Oxford? You had that upstairs office above Daily Information, where you’d work on predictions for the telecoms industry - you predicted the rise of cellphones, home internet, ubiquitous broadband - while our Jack Russell terrier, Tessie, would patiently sit in her bed. At noon precisely, she would walk over to you to let you know it was time to take a break, and you’d take her on a walk to Port Meadow. Both you and my dad took classes when you wanted to, often just to improve your knowledge for its own sake; you didn’t have to worry about return on investment, or healthcare or education costs for your family. It all just worked, so simply. I miss that lifestyle. I miss the peace of it all: the lack of fear that comes from real support.

So I’m now faced with a similar question to the one you must have been considering. The US is such a big country, and it contains so much, but it’s also so isolated, and by extension, so isolationist. Save for tribal nations, you can drive for thousands of miles without hitting another country. It would be easy to grow up here and have a very insular worldview: look at all the people who swear blind that “America is the best country on earth” but have never lived or spent much time anywhere else, and who consider blind patriotism to be a virtue rather than the cult-like ignorance it is.

When we build software, we learn that the settings we choose to be the defaults are incredibly impactful: those defaults permanently affect how someone will use the product you’ve made. It seems to me that this is even more true in life. Regardless of the choices they make later in life, the defaults I give my child will permanently affect their worldview. By traveling around and seeing the way different people live, not on a tour bus but immersively over time, we learn that there are lots of valid alternatives; we meet and get to know lots of ways of being, and understand that ours is not better than theirs. If we don’t, I’m worried that the way the community around us lives becomes the default, and that the rest of the world becomes a little scary. My child has multiple passports to draw on; they will have the ability to live in, or at least visit, so many places. It would be such a missed opportunity to not give them that perspective. The more easily we can all relate to people from different nations, the easier it will be to have a globally-minded, kinder world.

Make no mistake: I know you would want me to make sure they see alternatives to living like we do here, and I will make sure that I do. So much is wrong. Every school shooting is shocking, but the safety drills they make children do are almost as terrifying; the ideas that are traded as normal are so brutal. Violence is ingrained everywhere. What kind of country watches little bodies be slaughtered and refuses to take any kind of meaningful action? We still kill prisoners. The police commit murder. And we call this civilization? I don’t want my child to grow up thinking any of this is normal. They need to see that it’s a uniquely American problem by spending a lot of time outside of America.

But for all they can learn from it, international travel itself has a climate impact that is worsening the conditions that will make life harder for them over the coming decades. I don’t know how to reconcile that: I don’t think the world is better if people don’t travel. You often told stories of the times you lived in Italy, or Israel, or the UK before I was born. Your parents visited countries all over the world and often took you with them. We traveled often around Europe in particular. Maybe it’s because I inherited that background, or because our own relocations made my sense of place less tethered, but I think the ability to see the world face-to-face should be as accessible as possible.

I think you’d have a smart way to think about that, or to look at it from another angle. You might, I think rightly, point out that the bulk of the climate crisis lies in the hands of corporations and industry. That they spend time and dollars on casting the blame elsewhere. But you’d also care and worry about your own contribution: you wanted an electric car before most, you wanted solar, you supported renewable energy and the politicians who supported it.

As I write you this, my child is fast asleep, lying skin-to-skin on his mother. His face is unbothered by any stress or worry. He hardly cries. When he wakes up, I’ll check his nappy, keep him clean, and we’ll feed him. We’ll talk to him, and play with him, and sing and tell him we love him, and let him drift back off into slumber.

There are people in the world who would wish this sweetest human harm. They’re part-Jewish; they’re from more than one place; they are not being raised to believe in a religion; they are going to be raised to be in opposition to wealth hoarders and rent-seekers and nationalists, in a culture of broad, inclusive love. These would-be-objectionable traits are all the products of dead-end mindsets that should have withered away in the 20th century. With a small amount of luck they’ll live to see the first decades of the 22nd century, and I imagine those ideas still be with us then. But I hope they will be fringe by then, and I hope my child has a part to play in their demise. They do not deserve to define what the rest of us do.

I grew up knowing that my father and his family lived through a concentration camp when he was just a toddler; that my maternal grandfather was captured by the Nazis and thought dead; that my great grandfather escaped White Army pogroms in Ukraine. I heard my grandmother screaming through the walls every night as her dreams took her back. Through my family and the ripples trauma leaves across generations, I understand the consequences of hate. And I understand that the definition of “fascist” isn’t predicated on death camps and goose-stepping; it isn’t set in the early 20th century. It’s a mindset rooted in nationalism, tribalism, and the noxious idea that some people are inherently better than others. It’s an idea that did not go away at the close of the Second World War, is not limited to any nation (of course Americans can be fascist), and is so pernicious that my child and their children will both need to be aware of its toxicity, long into the future.

The period we’re living through now may be just the very beginning stages of a world with fewer resources controlled by ever-fewer people, who will use increasingly-authoriarian methods and appeals to existing divisions to try and maintain their holdings at the expense of others. Ma, the only way I can see through this is by living how you did: with kindness, by not holding back our opinions, and by active work to make everything better.

You showed me the way. I’ll try and do my best.

I love you. I miss you. I wish you were here.

· Posts

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: August, 2022

Happy Labor Day to everyone who celebrates the organized labor movement today in the US. This is my monthly roundup of the books, articles, and streaming media I found interesting. Here's my list for August, 2022.

A note: it’s taken me a while to hit publish on this post because our son was born on September 2nd. We instantly fell in love. More on that soon. For now, please understand if my posting frequency plummets for a little while.

Books

Fiction

The School for Good Mothers, by Jessamine Chan. A ton of ideas about parenting, society, and the present moment, crammed into an emotional near-future science fiction story. I wish the protagonist had been more sympathetic - but the future it paints is alarmingly plausible.

Notable Articles

Business

Workplace Productivity: Are You Being Tracked? “Two years ago, her employer started requiring chaplains to accrue more of what it called “productivity points.” A visit to the dying: as little as one point. Participating in a funeral: one and three-quarters points. A phone call to grieving relatives: one-quarter point.”

The organized labor movement has a new ally: venture capitalists. “White’s solution is to plan an “exit to community.” Once the company starts earning income, it plans to buy out its investors and give their equity to the unions it helped organize, effectively transitioning corporate control to the customer base.”

American Express' platinum-level duplicity. “American Express’ decision to begin donating to Republican objectors reflects the desire of some in the business community to put the events of January 6, 2021, behind them. That, according to an open letter recently signed by former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and other prominent business leaders, is a big mistake.”

Varo layoffs are a sign of neobanks’ struggle to break even. ““Most American neobanks cater to lower-income customers, who previously may have incurred overdraft, [non-sufficient fund fees] and maintenance fees at big establishment banks,” Mikula told Protocol. “But these consumers also tend to be higher credit risk, making it challenging to lend to them. No U.S. neobank has built a meaningful lending business.””

Climate

California to Ban the Sale of New Gasoline Cars. “The rule, issued by the California Air Resources Board, will require that all new cars sold in the state by 2035 be free of greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide. The rule also sets interim targets, requiring that 35 percent of new passenger vehicles sold by 2026 produce zero emissions. That requirement climbs to 68 percent by 2030.”

The temperature threshold the human body can't survive. “When the wet bulb temperature gets above 95 degrees F, our bodies lose their ability to cool down, and the consequences can be deadly. Until recently, scientists didn’t think we’d cross that threshold outside of doomsday climate change scenarios. But a 2020 study looking at detailed weather records around the world found we’ve already crossed the threshold at least 14 times in the last 40 years.”

Women are working to make the clean energy transition more equitable. “Women are disproportionately facing the impacts of the climate crisis: They are more likely to be displaced by climate disasters, and due to lower-paid jobs, caregiving responsibilities and the wage gap, they have less economic means to recover and adapt to a changing climate.”

Crypto

More Than Half Of All Bitcoin Trades Are Fake. “More than half of all reported trading volume is likely to be fake or non-economic. Forbes estimates the global daily bitcoin volume for the industry was $128 billion on June 14. That is 51% less than the $262 billion one would get by taking the sum of self-reported volume from multiple sources.”

Insider Trading in Cryptocurrency Markets. “We find evidence of systematic insider trading in cryptocurrency markets, where individuals use private information to buy coins prior to exchange listing announcements. Our analysis shows significant price run-ups before official listing announcements, similar to prosecuted cases of insider trading in stock markets.”

Feds Blacklist Tornado Cash, Ban Ethereum Mixing Tool in US. “In a Monday announcement, the body added the Tornado Cash website and a long list of Ethereum addresses to its Specially Designated Nationals list, banning American citizens from using the tool or transacting with these addresses.”

Pearson Sees NFT, Blockchain Helping Making Money From E-Books Sales. “The chief executive officer of Pearson Plc, one of the world’s largest textbook publishers, said he hopes technology like non-fungible tokens and the blockchain could help the company take a cut from secondhand sales of its materials as more books go online.”

Culture

Queer YA books are selling in record numbers despite bans targeting them. “Of the close to 5 million units of LGBTQ+ books sold in 2021, the biggest absolute gains in this market came from LGBTQ+ YA books, which saw an increase in sales of 1.3 million units from the previous year. Queer YA is more popular than ever — no longer a niche category, but redefining what is mainstream for teen readers.”

As list of banned books in schools grows, ‘soft’ censorship is spreading. “Free speech advocates say these practices are as troubling as bans — particularly when the books singled out overwhelmingly have themes related to race, gender and sexuality and are written by authors who are women, LGBTQ+ and/or people of color.”

Billy Bragg on the difference between the backlash to Salman Rushdie and Jerry Sadowitz. “Over the past decade or so, Rushdie has sought to return to some sort of a normal life, despite the threat hanging over him. The fact that he continued to take the stage at literary events is a tribute to his belief in freedom of expression and he has been rightly commended for his bravery.”

Doctor Who casting director: "We’re casting more disabled actors". “It’s more interesting. Also, if you can’t cast diversely on Doctor Who, what show can you do it on? It goes everywhere, on this planet and others, and you don’t want to see the same kind of people all the time. You don’t want it to be exclusively middle-class white people speaking with RP accents.”

on leading a purposeless life. “Maybe it is okay to not pursue potential and just be okay with being. Why must there be a reason for everything?” Beautiful.

Author Salman Rushdie attacked on lecture stage in New York. “He has said he is proud of his fight for freedom of expression, saying in a 2012 talk in New York that terrorism is really the art of fear.”

Interview: Jake Novak on His Infamous SNL TikTok Video. “Honestly, as horrible as the internet has been to me in the past six weeks, I have really enjoyed this hiatus. I’m getting to see my friends more and just have more meaningful experiences in real life.”

Democracy

Why I Changed My Mind on Student Debt Forgiveness. “It is simply impossible for students to work their way through college in the way previous generations could. And at the same time, states have reduced funding to their public colleges that historically allowed schools to charge low tuition prices.”

We reject the free speech-trampling rules set by J.D. Vance and Ron DeSantis for covering their rally. “Think about what they were doing here. They were staging an event to rally people to vote for Vance while instituting the kinds of policies you’d see in a fascist regime.”

John Mackey: Whole Foods CEO says ‘socialists are taking over’ schools and gun control debate. ““My concern is that I feel like socialists are taking over,” the multi-millionaire organic grocery magnate said. “They’re marching through the institutions. They’re… taking over education. It looks like they’ve taken over a lot of the corporations. It looks like they’ve taken over the military. And it’s just continuing.””

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff leans in to being a voice for gender equity. “Emhoff is the first second gentleman to the first woman vice president, and for him, tackling gender inequality in ways big and small felt like a natural, and critical, component of creating this role. He is actively attempting to model for others what it means to be an ally in actions, not just words.”

It's Manly Man Summer at the Claremont Institute. “In a piece titled “Men and the Future of America,” Klingenstein praises senator Josh Hawley for a speech trumpeting the “masculine virtues.” And what are those? They are, according to Klingenstein, “stoicism, competitiveness, conquest, achievement and aggression.” These are qualities to be managed, not repressed, because repressing them turns them toxic, into “dysfunctional behaviors—crime, drugs, pornography, and the like.”” I find this ideology so repulsive, so baffling.

How the Claremont Institute, home to Trump lawyer John Eastman, rose and fell. “Lewis said he agreed with Claremont leaders that the country is locked in a cold civil war. “Our country is upside down,” he said. “It’s unrecognizable.” He praised the program and its focus on “the myth of systemic police racism.” […] “They’re trying to train people to take a kind of extreme populist right-wing ideology back with them to Washington.”“

After slow response, Biden administration ramps up abortion access protections. “Helen Silverstein, head of the government and law department at Lafayette College, said that the administration’s actions this week were notable because they sent a clear — if delayed — signal to the Democratic base that the executive branch is taking access to reproductive health care seriously.”

Orbán gets warm CPAC reception after 'mixed race' speech blowback. “The reaction to Orbán’s “mixed-race” remarks was “a little bit overblown,” Ede Vessey said, maintaining that the prime minister was referring to a stark clash of cultures that has taken place in some Western European countries that have accepted refugees from predominantly Muslim countries.”

Senate Judiciary holds hearing on threats to election workers. “Election officials from both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as nonpartisan officials, testified at the hearing on election workers, a workforce that has received more attention after former President Donald Trump lied about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. As Trump considers another run for office in 2024, he has repeated unfounded claims about election security that election administrators say has made their work more difficult.”

Justice Department sues Idaho over abortion ban, citing ‘medical emergency’ violation. ““The law thus places medical professionals in an impossible situation,” Gupta said. “They must either withhold stabilizing treatment required by EMTALA or risk felony prosecution and license revocation. In so doing, the law will chill providers’ willingness to perform abortions in emergency situations and will hurt patients.””

ShotSpotter Asks Court To Hold It In Contempt Rather Than Turn Over Information To Defense Lawyer. “It’s tough to say what a judge will find admissible, but ShotSpotter’s past history suggests it is willing in some cases to alter reports to justify arrests that have already occurred. If the PD contacted ShotSpotter post-arrest to get a report altered, it may show officers had no reasonable suspicion to stop the arrestee — a stop that resulted in his arrest.”

Sen. Tiara Mack says twerking video response has led to harassment, threats. ““It’s been a whirlwind. Anywhere from misogynistic comments, racist comments, classist comments,” she said. “I’ve received death threats. I’ve received emails and phone calls of people calling me the n-word. I’ve received fatphobic comments. Just everything under the sun.””

Republican candidates are changing how they handle abortion after Roe v. Wade. “Multiple Republican midterm candidates have removed from their campaign sites references to particularly strict anti-abortion stances, a shift from primary campaigning to the approaching general election and an indication of growing concern in the Republican Party over how to handle abortion policy post-Roe v. Wade.”

Health

U.S. life expectancy drops sharply, the second consecutive decline. “American Indian and Alaskan Native people have experienced a particularly precipitous drop in life expectancy since 2019, going from 71.8 to 65.2 years. This kind of loss is similar to the plunge seen for all Americans after the Spanish Flu.”

Kids Born Near Fracking Sites More Likely to Have Leukemia, Study Says. “Children who are born near fracking sites are as much as three times more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia later on, according to new Yale research.”

For years, Black trans women have been told their life expectancy is 35 years. That’s false. “Willis says the statistic once communicated an urgency in the community. Today, she thinks trans people need more complicated stories.”

Experts debunk monkeypox myths as misinformation spreads. “Can monkeypox spread on the subway? Can it kill like COVID-19? Experts respond to monkeypox myths and misconceptions.”

Just because some people can pretend COVID is over, doesn’t mean it actually is. “People are still dying of COVID and even more people are getting long COVID (which we’re seeing develop into myalgic encephalomyelitis for many long haulers, and trust me, you don’t want it). The CDC and Food and Drug Administration have mostly abdicated their responsibility to prevent infections, focusing only on serious illness and death, while ignoring long COVID and the impact of the virus on disabled people.”

Media

Person-Centered Terms Encourage Stigmatized Groups’ Trust in News. “Participants trusted articles that used person-centered terms for their group more than articles that used stigmatizing terms.” Understandably.

People of color at 'New York Times' get lower ratings in job reviews, union says. “While there were some fluctuation — on average, the performance of Black employees rose over the intervening years, while it declined for Latinos at the organization — white workers were consistently assessed as outperforming their peers.”

Healing Polarized Communities. “We cannot begin bridging communities beyond our newsrooms without building — and supporting — more diverse communities within our newsrooms.” So proud to work here.

Choose Your Own Literary Adventure. “The colorful recommendation chart, one of many that have rippled through the Twitter and Instagram feeds of book lovers, came from a small bookstore in Madison, Wis., called A Room of One’s Own. […] The charts seem to speak the internet’s language, one that meets people where they are by acknowledging that literature can be overwhelming, and people often don’t know where to start.”

A luxury magazine photo hid relics Cambodia says could be stolen. For me the lede here is: Architectural Digest appears to have deliberately run a photo altered to hide the fact that an article’s subject owns stolen Cambodian artifacts.

After Roe v. Wade Reversal, Readers Flock to Publications Aimed at Women. “Alexandra Smith, the audience director of The 19th, which was founded in 2020, said growth in traffic had been “exponential.” She said an increase in search traffic had continued well after the June 24 court decision, with readers now looking for information on how the decision could impact access to Plan B and IUDs. They were also looking to read about the impacts on other civil rights, such as marriage equality.” Hey, I get to work there!

Alex Jones must pay $50m for Sandy Hook hoax claim. “Despite retracting his claims about Sandy Hook, Jones has continued to use his media platform to argue the case was rigged against him and claimed that members of the jury pool “don’t know what planet they’re on”. His Infowars website depicted the judge being consumed by flames.”

Science

How a theory about transgender contagion went viral. “The problem: Overwhelming evidence shows that your child almost certainly hasn’t been duped. Although some people do reconsider or reverse their transition, once a person starts identifying as trans, it’s quite unlikely they’ll change their mind. No matter how strongly you believe that the internet, social contagion, and positive representations of transgender people turned your child trans, chances are your child disagrees.”

French Scientist's Photo of ‘Distant Star’ Was Actually Chorizo. “But a few days later, Klein revealed that the photo he tweeted was not the work of the world’s most powerful space telescope, as he had in fact tweeted a slice of chorizo sausage.”

Society

Capitalism Gives Me the Freedom to Pursue as Many Side Gigs as I Want to Pay Off My Increasing Bills And Loans. “I like to think of myself as an independent contractor who threw out his nine-to-five job for about five to nine different jobs over the course of a year, a contractor with significantly less of the legal protections established in the past hundred years or so by Congress and the Supreme Court.”

Ask Damon: I want to redistribute my slave-owning ancestor's wealth. “Anyway, if you’re sincere in your desire to attempt to right your family’s wrongs, find those descendants, show them the money and then hand it to them.”

Happiness Is Two Scales. “Instead, happiness and unhappiness are two separate, independent scales. A good life requires tackling each one separately.”

Period poverty: Scotland first in world to make period products free. “It will be for the country’s 32 councils to decide what practical arrangements are put in place, but they must give “anyone who needs them” access to different types of period products “reasonably easily” and with “reasonable dignity”.”

Why a Life-Threatening Pregnancy Complication Is on the Rise. “For African American women, simply the stress of living in America increases the risk of preeclampsia.”

Lionsgate Will Mandate Abortion Safety Protocols, CEO Says in Memo. “Thank you, Lionsgate, for being the only studio who treated this issue with the respect and urgency it deserves. There’s still work to be done, but this is a step in the right direction.”

Races are finally making room for nonbinary runners. “More races across the United States are creating divisions for nonbinary runners to compete, and in some cases, to win awards. The New York City Marathon introduced a nonbinary category last year. The Chicago Marathon also quietly added a nonbinary registration category this year, one runner said. The Boston Marathon will include a nonbinary category in 2023, though athletes say the race needs to flesh out its policy before nonbinary runners can be fully included.”

NJ police used baby DNA to investigate crimes, lawsuit claims. “The blood samples are not directly shared with law enforcement agencies. But if police are able to reliably obtain the samples through subpoena, then effectively, the disease screening process is entering all babies born in the state into a DNA database with no ability to opt out.”

Economic consequences of major tax cuts for the rich. “We find tax cuts for the rich lead to higher income inequality in both the short- and medium-term. In contrast, such reforms do not have any significant effect on economic growth or unemployment.”

The Dangerous Ideas of “Longtermism” and “Existential Risk”. “By reducing morality to an abstract numbers game, and by declaring that what’s most important is fulfilling “our potential” by becoming simulated posthumans among the stars, longtermists not only trivialize past atrocities like WWII (and the Holocaust) but give themselves a “moral excuse” to dismiss or minimize comparable atrocities in the future. This is one reason that I’ve come to see longtermism as an immensely dangerous ideology. It is, indeed, akin to a secular religion built around the worship of “future value,” complete with its own “secularised doctrine of salvation.””

Facial recognition smartwatches to be used to monitor foreign offenders in UK. “Through their opaque technologies and algorithms, they facilitate government discrimination and human rights abuses without any accountability. No other country in Europe has deployed this dehumanising and invasive technology against migrants.”

Federal Judge Places County Jail Into Receivership After County Fails To Comply With Consent Decree. Mind-blowing: “A-Pod is one of four “pods” the prison is divided into. […] Because the inmates have free run of the pod, they can access the roof and escape. For whatever reason, they rarely actually escape. Instead, they leave the prison and return with contraband. No one is assigned to work A-pod because it cannot be controlled in its current state.”

Vast New Study Shows a Key to Reducing Poverty: More Friendships Between Rich and Poor. “The findings show the limitations of many attempts to increase diversity — like school busing, multifamily zoning and affirmative action. Bringing people together is not enough on its own to increase opportunity, the study suggests. Whether they form relationships matters just as much.”

Technology

Opening the Pandora's Box of AI Art. “I’ve never felt so conflicted using an emerging technology as DALL-E 2, which feels like borderline magic in what it’s capable of conjuring, but raises so many ethical questions, it’s hard to keep track of them all.”

Listen up: Podcasts are coming to Twitter. What’s Odeo is new again.

Bay Area tech startup Sanas wants people to sound whiter. “Experts who spoke to SFGATE were troubled by Sanas’ emphasis on people in the Global South making themselves understood to Americans, as opposed to Americans accepting other accented voices.” Indeed.

Whistleblower: Twitter misled investors, FTC and underplayed spam issues. “Twitter is grossly negligent in several areas of information security. If these problems are not corrected, regulators, media and users of the platform will be shocked when they inevitably learn about Twitter’s severe lack of security basics.”

Class action against Oracle's worldwide surveillance machine. “Oracle’s dossiers about people include names, home addresses, emails, purchases online and in the real world, physical movements in the real world, income, interests and political views, and a detailed account of online activity.”

A Dad Took Photos of His Naked Toddler for the Doctor. Google Flagged Him as a Criminal. ““This is precisely the nightmare that we are all concerned about,” Mr. Callas said. “They’re going to scan my family album, and then I’m going to get into trouble.””

Mozilla Foundation - In Post Roe v. Wade Era, Mozilla Labels 18 of 25 Popular Period and Pregnancy Tracking Tech With *Privacy Not Included Warning. “Eighteen out of 25 reproductive health apps and wearable devices that Mozilla investigated for privacy and security practices received a *Privacy Not Included warning label. These findings raise concerns in the post-Roe landscape that data could be used by authorities to determine if users are pregnant, seeking abortion information or services, or crossing state lines to obtain an abortion.”

A new jailbreak for John Deere tractors rides the right-to-repair wave. “Farmers around the world have turned to tractor hacking so they can bypass the digital locks that manufacturers impose on their vehicles. Like insulin pump “looping” and iPhone jailbreaking, this allows farmers to modify and repair the expensive equipment that’s vital to their work, the way they could with analog tractors.”

This Is the Data Facebook Gave Police to Prosecute a Teenager for Abortion. “Facebook gave police a teenager’s private chats about her abortion. Cops then used those chats to seize her phone and computer.”

OnlyFans Accused of Paying Bribes to Put Enemies on Terrorist Watchlist. “According to the suit filed earlier this year by Evans and fellow porn content creator Kelly Pierce, OnlyFans reportedly bribed Facebook employees to wrongfully place the actresses — who used OnlyFans competitor sites to sell their content — on a terrorism watchlist run by a consortium of internet companies, resulting in them being “shadowbanned” on Instagram and other social networks integral to the promotion of their content.”

Teens, Social Media and Technology 2022. “The share of teens using Facebook has declined sharply in the past decade. Today, 32% of teens report ever using Facebook, down 39 points since 2014-15, when 71% said they ever used the platform.”

Who could write protocol fiction for speculative infrastructure? “But we don’t need just design fictions. We need business model fictions, engineering feasibility study fictions, interop protocol specification fictions, investment return fictions.”

Gmail is now officially allowed to spam-proof politicians’ emails. “It’s sad that instead of simply stopping sending spam emails, Republicans engaged in a bad-faith pressure campaign — and it’s even more unfortunate that Google bought it.”

iOS Privacy: Instagram and Facebook can track anything you do on any website in their in-app browser. “With 1 Billion active Instagram users, the amount of data Instagram can collect by injecting the tracking code into every third party website opened from the Instagram & Facebook app is a staggering amount.”

Ex-Twitter employee found guilty of spying on Saudi dissidents. “Abouammo was found to have used his position at Twitter to find personal details identifying critics of the Saudi monarchy who had been posting under anonymous Twitter handles, and then supplying the information to Prince Mohammed’s aide Bader al-Asaker.”

Silicon Valley engineers are quitting for climate change. “Big Tech is no longer the young upstart, and there’s a new kid in town luring away smart people looking for purpose and willing to take a chance on something new: climate tech.”

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting. ““We are not trying to make human beings. That is not what we are trying to do.” says Hanna. “To call a day-40 embryo a mini-me is just not true.””

The Metaverse Is Not a Place. “But what if, instead of thinking of the metaverse as a set of interconnected virtual places, we think of it as a communications medium? Using this metaphor, we see the metaverse as a continuation of a line that passes through messaging and email to “rendezvous”-type social apps like Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and, for wide broadcast, Twitch + Discord. […] The interactions are not place based but happening in the ether between two or more connected people. The occasion is more the point than the place.”

Joel Kaplan’s Policy Team Sways Big Facebook Decisions Like Alex Jones Ban. “The company could have acted much earlier, one Facebook researcher wrote on the internal message board when they quit in August. The note came with a warning: “Integrity teams are facing increasing barriers to building safeguards.” They wrote of how proposed platform improvements that were backed by strong research and data had been “prematurely stifled or severely constrained … often based on fears of public and policy stakeholder responses.””

· Posts

 

Soon

It’s late in the evening and we’re in the hospital while our son slowly makes his way to birth. I’m a sea of emotions, but one of the biggest is the feeling of uselessness: just as I couldn’t carry the baby, I can’t help take on the pain of contractions or the exertion of birth itself. I’m here to help in any way I can, but sometimes there isn’t any way to do that. I’m a supporter, standing by, and doing so in awe.

Everything is about to change. Everyone says that and I can intellectualize it, but it’s not the same as actually experiencing that seismic shift in what it means to be alive. It’s so weird to be on the cusp of the unknown in a profound way. Tomorrow, it all looks different.

I feel so unready. We haven’t finalized a name. We haven’t figured out how really anything will work. But it’s happening, and I’m not sure anyone can really feel ready for this, even if they think they are.

Will I show up well for him? Will I be the person he needs me to be? I hope so. My friend Jessica Want says that you have to parent yourself while you’re parenting a child, and that makes sense to me. There’s so much learning and growing I need to do. I need to be a better person in so many ways so that I can be the person I want to be for him.

I know this: he will be better than me. I’m excited for that. I’m excited to be there to help and support him, and to be the wind at his back as he grows and comes into his own, even while I feel utterly unequipped to do so.

For now, I’ve hooked up the hospital TV to a rotation between the ISS live feed and a live feed from a cat rescue in LA. And we wait, one person in increasing discomfort, one hoping he’s doing everything he can to help, one waiting to reveal himself to the world.

· Posts

 

Paying for the web

My opinions on web business models have changed over time.

I agree that advertising was one of the web’s original sins, although at this point in its cultural life I’m not sure I’m prepared to say that it was the only original sin. At the same time, I’m not sure if the web would be the web without it: I wonder if it would have been as big or as ubiquitous if it had been harder for platforms to make money on it. Secure web payments weren’t a thing, so online subscriptions were difficult to achieve - and even if they hadn’t been, content with a price tag is by definition exclusionary, with a far narrower potential audience. Ads, for all their evils, kept the web open to all.

It may seem obvious, but money was, and will continue to be, important for the web. While I’d love to live in a post-capitalist, post-money society, we don’t. Asking web creators to build and share for the love of it negates their need to put roofs over their heads and pay for food. And while it’s clear that internet companies grew to be very large and amass a lot more money than an individual creator requires, the advertising these behemoth engines generated arguably fueled the web’s growth and subsequent popularity. I’m not here to defend any tech giant, and I think there’s a great deal wrong with the wealth hoarding they practice and the liberties they often take with human rights, but I don’t think we’d be having the same kind of conversation if they hadn’t existed.

Anyway, It’s a moot point, because ads were everywhere on the web, they were how it grew, and they did create the world’s largest warrantless surveillance network in the process. They weren’t the only thing: centralized web analytics and detailed customer profiling aren’t intrinsically tied to ads. But targeted advertising opened the floodgates for ubiquitous tracking across the free websites that represent most ongoing web activity.

The question isn’t “what would have been better”, but “where do we go from here”. So what now?

For a time it seemed like subscriptions, paywalls, and micropayments might be the answer. But I’ve laid the clues for why they’re not necessarily so above: they intrinsically exclude the majority of a site’s potential audience from being able to see and consume its information. And rather than precluding tracking, taking direct payment still incentivizes websites to tailor a commercial call to action.

Simply put, if you know where a potential customer has spent money on before, and what on, you’re more likely to know what could entice them to spend money with you once they’ve landed on your website or in your app. These customer insights necessitate tracking. And at the same time, not every ad needs to be targeted: advertising does not require tracking to work, and publishers tend not make more money from targeted ads.

I do think shifting to methods of direct support to the web has the potential to be part of a solution, but not inherently to itself. Paying for content and services obviously has its place, but at the same time, business models can’t possibly be one-size-fits-all. Sometimes excluding users who can’t pay is too much friction, or is converse to the mission you’re following, or is even societally harmful - imagine, for example, if the journalism required for voters to make smart democratic decisions all lay behind a paywall. Every business, every creator, everyone who wants to build community has to know what their mission is and who their audience is, and must tailor their approach accordingly.

I’ve come to really appreciate patronage models. You can see this most readily on sites like The Guardian and Wikipedia: great content served as part of a well-made product, with a clear, well-constructed ask that is hard to ignore but also easily dismissable. Neither site, to the best of my knowledge, does anything to subvert user privacy; neither site makes any limitations on who can access their pages. If you don’t have the means or the inclination to pay, you can just close the box and carry on with your day. But if you can, it’s equally as easy to throw them some money. You don’t get much in return (although there may be some tote bag style benefits) aside from the warm glow of knowing that you’ve kept a public resource online.

Here the politics of privacy turn on their head. Whereas nobody wants an ad company to know who they are or to be able to follow them around, people who purchase patronage may want to be recognized. For some, being publicly associated with a creator or community you love may be an incentive in itself. Because it’s a more direct relationship, a site may also feel that it’s in its interests to list its patrons’ names, so that community members can understand who is paying for all this. (In full disclosure, my employer, The 19th, does this.)

I’d love to see an open source patronage widget that uses a built-in web payments protocol to allow anyone with a website to be able to easily take patronage payments without going through a centralized service that could track them, optionally with a requirement to record a patron’s identity for display. This is the kind of thing I know the Unlock Protocol team, which I spent some time on, is working on.

As discussed, though, this is not a problem with a purely technological solution. I’d love to find ways to build a stronger culture of patronage across the web, which I think is tied directly up with finding ways to build stronger community. My hunch is that people with a strong, bidirectional relationship to a content creator or service will be more likely to support it.

Finally, I don’t think we get away with eradicating surveillance capitalism without legislation. Just as every market needs some rules to protect consumers and ensure companies play fair, the internet needs to be governed by real privacy laws. We’re at the foothills of a movement here: the GDPR and CCPA are two examples of what will hopefully become an international agreement about what constitutes real privacy. Because it’s much harder to build a web service that carves out privacy legislation compliance for users in a geography than just to build a service that complies for everyone, these laws have an outsized impact. We’ve seen that a free-for-all open market does not result in an environment that protects consumers from warrantless surveillance; it’s past time that these regulations became mainstream everywhere.

Brought together, I think that’s the future of paying for content and services on the web that I’d like to see:

  • Robust privacy protections, worldwide
  • A flexible, web-native model that leans heavily on patronage for consumer web content and services
  • A way to keep content and services free at the point of use for most users
  • Easy-to-use tools and protocols that allow web creators and consumer service providers to collect funds without having to engage with centralized services that could track customers

It’s clear that alignments have to change to make this a reality. For example, while it might be relatively easy to think of content that you might want to patronize, services might be a little tougher. What would Twitter or Facebook have to do to make you want to be a patron?

As a start, they would need to deliver exceptional value: not as a delivery mechanism for ads, but as communities that you’re excited for people to be a part of because they make the world better. Doesn’t that seem like a much more enlightened model than today’s engagement machines that encourage discord in order to show you more ads?

Yes, it’s a tall order, but so was the web. I believe we can reclaim the commons and build something that’s more nurturing and supportive for all of us - and that allows creators and people who build services to make a living at the same time. In fact, I think the future of the web as a medium may depend on it.

 

Photo by Chris Yang on Unsplash

· Posts

 

Some principles

Open, collaborative protocols > centralized services.

Impact on people > impact on capital.

Impact on communities > impact on individuals.

Human rights > capital rights.

Distributed equity > limited ownership.

Distributing equity > adding value to exclusionary systems.

Sustainability > get-rich-quick.

Building value > building wealth.

Serving underlying human needs > prescriptiveness for one particular approach, business model, financing strategy, or underlying technology.

Listening, building, and testing > talking.

The best listeners in the room > the smartest people in the room.

Radical inclusion and empathy > radical individualism.

· Posts

 

The baby stack

In the spirit of Uses This, here’s what the baby stack looks like right now, a week or two before birth:

Hardware

Uppababy Cruz. An adaptable folding stroller. What’s super-cool about it is that it supports a bassinet as well as a seat, and can also support an infant snug-seat for very little ones. Theoretically, then, the stroller can last for years, as the baby grows bigger. Although I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try it with a real life baby (soon!), it seems stunningly well-designed in a way that a lot of technology hardware isn’t. Buttons do what you think they should do, and folding it up for storage is one very simple, quick motion.

Uppababy Mesa. A car seat that was shockingly easy to install in my car. Even better, it clicks out of its base really simply, and can actually click into the Uppababy Cruz stroller. It all just works seamlessly, like an Apple ecosystem for babies. I have memories of my parents struggling with belts and braces for car seats, and that doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore. Good.

Happiest Baby SNOO. A smart bassinet. It looks and sounds like something out of a dystopian science fiction novel: it automatically soothes the baby and helps them sleep, like something aliens might do if they were raising humans on a farm. I still don’t know how I feel about it, honestly, but I’ll form a better opinion later on. If it turns out everyone hates the smart features, it also just looks like a well-made baby bed.

Hatch Rest. A combination night light and natural-sound white noise machine. I don’t know about baby, but it helps me sleep.

We have some baby wraps and carriers, but I feel like a three year old learning to put on a sweater. I get lost and I’ve got no idea which ones are good yet; I won’t until later.

Etc

Maven workshops have generally been pretty good, although I really wish there’d been more in-person time.

UCSF are, as (almost) always, brilliant.

We’ve been reading him A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the womb. Beatrix Potter, too. I’m one of those people now.

But also singing! And telling stories! And saying hello! It’s the organic, offline, really human stuff that I think is going to make a real difference.

I don’t know that any of these devices are going to be particularly all that. I’m the least excited about the SNOO and probably the most impressed by the Uppababy ecosystem. Most of all, I’ve got no idea what will happen and how it will actually be - and I’m clinging onto anything that will help me feel like I’m not completely lost.

We’ll see what happens!

 

Photo by Steven Abraham on Unsplash

· Posts

 

Creeping American fascism

As America becomes more diverse, and as a direct consequence more inclusive, it unfortunately makes sense that more people will come out of the woodwork suggesting that people who aren’t white and male be disenfranchised. This is a racist country, after all. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

Take this radio host, name redacted. I think this messaging is unthinkably chilling:

I didn’t sign up to be part of a fight for the basics of representative democracy, but I’ve got a growing feeling that’s what we’ll all be drawn into. Christian nationalist rhetoric in particular is escalating quickly, and there’s no middle ground to be found with people who want to deny others’ right to exist with the same rights and terms as them. It would be irresponsible to downplay the risks.

How can we turn this back? And particularly given our context of diminishing resources, rapidly-progressing climate change, and off-the-charts inequality, what will life even look like five or ten years down the road?

· Posts

 

Taste

The best part of traveling is the food.

You can learn so much from how and what people eat. The way they gather, the smell of the spices, the sizzle of oil in great pans, the delicacies that only come from the sorts of hole-in-the-wall places that locals protect with their lives.

I’ve never been a fussy eater. I explore new places like a toddler: taste buds first, every nerve in my mouth feeling out a new experience. There’s so much joy and humanity to be found in food - and in particular in the kinds of food that are cheap and accessible. Fancy restaurants are all very well (I’m not knocking the skill and artistry involved in a Michelin-starred meal) but the kind of place that can become someone’s regular joint is beguiling. The food is the basis of a relationship that forms over time.

I drove across the US twice last year. Heading east, we went the northern route, through Glacier National Park and the Montana plains. Heading west some months later, we traveled south. Every time we tried one of the headline places to eat - the tourist traps, in other words - the food paled in comparison to the places where locals went. In New Orleans, Cafe du Monde is a fun experience, but the food doesn’t compare to unpretentious spots like Stuph’D.

And just as food is tied deeply into the identity of a place, so is it tied to the identity of a person. We all have the dishes we love, which make up the fabric of us; the ingredients we enjoy, how and when we cook, if we cook at all, the smells we produce in the kitchen and the smells that attract us at the table. Whether our cooking is a whole thing or if it’s something we do regularly, it’s part of our self-image and the image we project. We need food to survive, and our relationship with it reflects us.

When people ask me where I’m from, I sometimes joke and say, “I come from the internet”. In some ways that’s true, but the joke stops here: I’m in no way from the place that produced pink sauce and baked feta pasta. Food, more than anything, links me to the places I came from.

I really learned to cook from my Oma, who brought her Indonesian dishes to California when my dad’s family emigrated in the sixties and adapted them for locally-available ingredients. She loved cooking for her family, but began to lose strength. So she gave me instructions: sayur lodeh and nasi goreng under her direction were my first adventures in mixing spices and building flavors. I grew up with these meals, regular weekday occurrences rather than exotic events, but no less delicious for it; I was pleased to learn how to reproduce them.

We ate a lot of Italian and French food, common to many American families of any origin (despite being in England): lasagna, quiches, homemade pizzas, spaghetti. But my mother’s Ukrainian Jewish ancestry led us to eat piroshki and borscht on special occasions; matzo ball soup; latkes; challah. Our meals were hearty. “Do you eat foreign food every day?!” one school friend memorable said when he came over. It wasn’t foreign to us; it was ours. “Eat, eat,” my great grandfather used to say, “it’s good for you.” Grandpa Dave was PA Joint Board manager of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union of America; here’s a story about a holiday complex he helped build for union workers.

Despite living in England, at no point did we eat English food, which I was left to discover as an adult. I didn’t have so much as a Sunday roast until I was in my twenties: it just wasn’t part of our culinary milieu. Of course, then I leapt on it, and writing this in California I find myself missing Yorkshire puddings and pork pies.

Locard’s exchange principle dictates that every contact leaves a trace. Although it was developed for forensic investigations, it’s equally applicable to people and migration: the places we’ve been all rub off on us, and we rub off on them. I’m a Ukrainian-Jewish-Indonesian-Swiss-Dutch-American who lived in both England and Scotland for decades. Each of those places left some trace on me, directly or via my family, and my descendants will find that they have rubbed off on them too, even if each of those ingredients has a slightly different potency to mine. They will have their own distinct identities, while also reflecting what and who came before them.

And of course, the same is true of everyone. Each of those chefs in the hole-in-the-wall joints serving food to their regulars has their own combination of ingredients that led to them. We’re all constantly leaving traces on each other, part of a tremendous, delicious mix. The more we mix and ebb and flow, the greater the tastes we may experience. To be fussy and reject new tastes, or to demand it be anglicized or made pristine, is to reject new people and other ways of life.

Taste is part of life. It’s one of the best parts of living. We are, literally and metaphorically, what we eat.

 

Photo by Miquel Parera on Unsplash

· Posts

 

Farewell, house

Well, we sold the house. A new family gets to enjoy the space, and the incredible surrounds. It’s the start of a new chapter for us, too.

I was there over the weekend, and the memories were overwhelming: the four walls of my parents’ former bedroom held newly-staged furniture for show, but I could hear the laughter, remember talking to my mother at the end of the day, could hear her feeding tube apparatus rolling across the floor. So much happened there. It’s sad to see it go, but the memories stay with us. All we’re really leaving behind is wood, stone, and plaster.

Throughout the sale, our agent Florence Sheffer was wonderful. She held our hands through the whole process, and was as fun to work with as she was knowledgable and connected. She consistently went above and beyond to help us. I’d recommend her to anyone who wants to buy or sell a home in Santa Rosa and the surrounding area.

I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing with the indieweb website that I made for the house. Probably I’ll just let the domain expire. Here it is, archived for posterity on the Internet Archive.

· Posts

 

A home on the web, revisited

I’ve been thinking a lot about redesigning my website, or even moving platforms. That’s a bit of an emotional decision, because my website runs on Known, a codebase I mostly wrote myself, and started while I was taking care of my mother post-lung-transplant. It’s the reason I’m connected to the indieweb community, and the Matter community, and a lot of people I care deeply about. All those things are separable from this codebase now, but it got me there, and I’m hugely grateful for that.

The design is looking a little long in the tooth: I can make tweaks, and would commit them upstream into the open source project for other people to use, but I think there’s something to be said for starting again completely, knowing what I know now.

If I had unlimited time and energy - which, sadly isn’t my situation; time and energy are both in very short supply right now - I’d rebuild Known in something like Node, with a cleaner codebase. For now, I think I’ll live with it, and clean what I can.

Incidentally, I also cleaned up my public Obsidian site at werd.cloud. I intend to do more with non-linear, unbloggy writing there.

· Posts

 

What is a man?

What is a man?

The only answer I really care about is “whatever you want it to be”. Like all men, I’ve spent my life in a context of weirdly reductive, gender essentialist expectations - a man is physically strong, competitive, aggressive, stoic - that I couldn’t live up to because, generally speaking, that’s not what I am. Am I less of a man because I’m not aggressive, and because I prefer collaboration to competition? I don’t think so, but there are certainly plenty of people who do.

The reason this matters for me now is not my own experience. I’ve found my way to a kind of self-acceptance, although my teenage years and most of my twenties were pretty rough: a mix of hating my body and receiving hate for not being what people expected me to be. I definitely have some pretty strong character flaws (non-confrontation and people-pleasing among them), which I’m trying to work on. But I feel some degree of pride about who I am, what I’ve managed to do, and the effect I have on the communities I’m a part of. Honestly? I’m glad I don’t adhere to the gender stereotype, even if it’s also true that I couldn’t if I wanted to.

But now I’m going to have a son (or at least, a baby who will be assigned male at birth), who will be subject to all of the same pressures and expectations, even in his first few years. There will be people who will be upset if he plays with dolls; there will be people who want to direct his interests to sports and trucks and whatever-else boys are supposed to like. There’s a fine line to walk here, because if he comes to those interests naturally, there’s nothing wrong with them! And those interests shouldn’t be gendered in the first place! I don’t want to dissuade any of his interests. But I worry about him getting there through external pressure, both explicitly and implicitly. The pressure to conform to someone else’s standard can only lead to anxiety and unhappiness; not to mention the impact it has on perpetuating gender inequality, and how he shows up for other people later in life.

To be clear, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not an expert in gender, or parenting, or really anything else. But I want to show up well as a parent, and I want him to show up well in the world (which are two expressions of the same thing). I just want him to be whoever he is, without regard for who other people expect him to be. That goes for every aspect of his (or her! or their!) identity. And I want the experience of that self-expression to be better than mine was, and better than so many people’s are, without fear or friction or conflict.

I guess what I’m really saying is, I don’t care what a man is, or what a boy is. I care who my child is. And that’s all that matters.

 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

· Posts

 

Neumann Owns

This morning, Andreessen Horowitz announced that it had invested $350M into Adam “WeWork” Neumann’s new startup, Flow. Whereas WeWork revolutionized the commercial real estate business and made ad-hoc office space easier for startups, Flow attempts to do the same for residential real estate.

A lot of ink has been spilled on whether it’s okay for A16Z to have invested this money given Neumann’s well-documented, disastrous track record with WeWork, in an environment where lots of other people find it hard to raise even a tiny fraction of this amount. I agree with these comments in the sense that it’s obviously unfair: a sign of an unequal system. It just is.

But for a moment, look at it from a mercenary venture capitalist’s perspective. WeWork is everywhere, which happened under Neumann’s watch - and although Neumann is not the one doing it, it’s finally approaching profitability.

And then there’s housing, which is in need of major reform. I’m not going to shed any tears at the loss of today’s batch of rental agencies and real estate management firms, which have helped hike rents up to astronomical levels, and have often lobbied for preferential legislation that hurts ordinary renters. At the same time, investment properties leave many homes completely vacant in the middle of a housing crisis that is leaving millions experiencing housing insecurity.

The trouble is, Flow is highly unlikely to help with any of that. Marc Andreessen’s announcement hints at as much:

Many people are voting with their feet and moving away from traditional economic hub cities to different cities, towns, or rural areas, with no diminishment of economic opportunity. […] The residential real estate world needs to address these changing dynamics. And yet virtually no aspect of the modern housing market is ready for these changes.

Based on these words, Flow is gentrification as a service: a way for the technorati to rent cushy spaces in lower-cost parts of the country and build community with each other without having to engage with the people who are already there. It’s not a stretch to see what the racial and socioeconomic dynamics might be here, and the effect it might have on local economies. Low-cost housing for people who need it this is not.

“Our nation has a housing crisis,” Andreessen says. But he also said this, as reported by Jerusalem Demsas over in the Atlantic:

I am writing this letter to communicate our IMMENSE objection to the creation of multifamily overlay zones in Atherton … Please IMMEDIATELY REMOVE all multifamily overlay zoning projects from the Housing Element which will be submitted to the state in July. They will MASSIVELY decrease our home values, the quality of life of ourselves and our neighbors and IMMENSELY increase the noise pollution and traffic.

He doesn’t care about the housing crisis. What he does care about is making money, and in Neumann, he likely sees someone who already knows the real estate market well and has the ability to grow a business in the space very quickly. I’m sure we’ll see Flow communities all over the country within the next few years.

Where will he start? We can look at public records. The New York Times points out that he’s now going to donate substantial real estate holdings to Flow. Back in January, the Wall Street Journal reported that he’d bought over a billion dollars of apartments in the South:

Entities tied to Mr. Neumann have been quietly acquiring majority stakes in more than 4,000 apartments valued at more than $1 billion in Miami, Atlanta, Nashville, Tenn., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and other U.S. cities.

Quoted in the same article, his family office made this statement:

“Since the spring of 2020, we have been excited about multifamily apartment living in vibrant cities where a new generation of young people increasingly are choosing to live, the kind of cities that are redefining the future of living. We’re excited to play a role in that future.”

None of this dissuades me from my original suspicion: this is a place to live for the people who WeWork was originally built for. It’s for young, affluent knowledge workers who want to live somewhere cheaper but don’t care to actually know their communities. It’ll transform residential real estate in the sense that it’ll out-compete all those cookie cutter apartment buildings set up for that same market.

Andreessen is likely to make a fortune.

And what about the actual housing crisis? The one that’s making people housing-insecure?

At best it does nothing for them. At worst, it helps hike up rents in parts of the country that remain affordable. Those people, the ordinary people who make up most of the country, who are struggling to keep a roof over the heads, don’t even make it into the pitch deck.

 

PHOTOGRAPH BY STUART ISETT/Fortune Brainstorm TECH

· Posts

 

Finding ethical eyewear

I ordered new glasses recently. At some point over the last few months, I accidentally slept on my main pair and bent them out of shape; although I tried my best to put them back, they’ve been a little bit crooked ever since.

I’ve been a die-hard Zenni Optical customer for years, because their frames are affordable, relatively well-made, and can be engraved with my website address. (Yes, I’ve been wearing “werd.io” on my face for the best part of a decade.) But this adherence means I’ve been wearing the same black frames forever, and hey, why not change it up?

I wish Genusee made prescription glasses: they’re made from water bottles in Flint, Michigan, and can be recycled back into the same material stream. I like everything about their mission - but unfortunately, I need prescription glasses to see.

Sunglasses by Pala Eyewear fund eye care across Africa, but is based in the UK, so I’d need to order pairs from overseas.

Solo makes its sunglasses from repurposed wood, bamboo, cellulose acetate and recycled plastic. Great, but while they mention that their frames are prescription-ready, they don’t actually seem to offer prescriptions.

Reader, I gave up and followed the stereotypical Silicon Valley path into Warby Parker. They felt well-made, which turns out to be all I can ask for. But I’m still looking for the right place to get prescription sunglasses.

Perhaps the most sustainable route would be to get laser eye surgery and dispense with the need for glasses at all. I’ve thought about it, but to be honest, despite my understanding of the low risk involved, the idea of lasers cutting away at my eyeballs doesn’t have me running towards a surgeon with money in hand.

If you wear prescription glasses and care about the ethics of the products you buy, have you found an adequate solution? I’d love to learn from you.

 

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

· Posts

 

10 things I'm worrying about on the verge of new parenthood

One. Is it even ethical to bring a child into the world right now? During their lifetime we’ll see water scarcity and an increase in global conflict as a result of climate change. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. How, in good conscience, can I bring a new human into that?

It’s an imperfect answer, but I’ve arrived at this: what would the world look like if only the people who didn’t believe in climate change had children? Yes, they’re going to need to be part of the solution, because everyone will need to be. It’s a tough ask for a human who didn’t ask to be born. But I’m confident they’ll be an asset to the future.

Two. What does nationality look like? It’s important to me, but why, exactly?

I’m a third culture kid: living in the US is the first time I’ve spent an extended time in a place where I was a citizen. I’ve written before about how I consider myself to have no nationality and no religion.

The thing is, that’s not quite right: I am a product of all the nationalities and cultures that led up to me. That I don’t exactly identify with any of them doesn’t mean that they don’t belong to me.

But that’s just me: Erin, as the mother, carries a full half of their context, and has a different background to me. How do you honor both backgrounds and contexts, while also downplaying the importance of nationality and patriotism overall?

What’s important to me is that they know they’re from multiple places, and they know that the world is their oyster. Rather than patriotism, I want them to feel proud to be human, and to feel connected to all humans. I want them to have broad horizons and an inclusively global mindset. They can do anywhere and do anything they want: the world is awash with possibilities. And at the same time, everyone, everywhere matters, and people who are more local to them do not matter more than people who are more remote. I want my child to have the privilege of openness and connectedness.

Three. I want to keep them healthy and happy. That, in itself, is incredibly daunting. What if I hurt them somehow?

Four. I’ve spent my life in front of screens. I literally learned to write on a Sinclair ZX81, writing stories that incorporated the BASIC shortcuts on its keyboard. Characters would GOTO places a lot; they would RUN; THEN they would do something else. One of my first memories is watching the animated interstitial network announcements on our little TV in Amsterdam.

What should their relationship with devices be? The going advice is that introducing screens too early can interfere with their development. And at the same time, my dad in particular deliberately allowed me to play with everything. I took apart radios; I mucked around with computers with impunity; I developed, early on, a complete lack of fear of technology. And that’s served me very well.

I’ll admit to feeling a bit judgmental of parents of those toddlers out in the world who have iPads in carry-cases. But what right do I have to feel that way? I’ve never had a child, until now. Maybe I’ll feel completely different.

And actually, I feel very strongly about tablets and phones themselves. I didn’t have a device that couldn’t be hacked until I was in my twenties. Everything could be taken apart, programmed for, adjusted. There were no games consoles in our household, and cellphones weren’t really available until I was older. I like that philosophy: open technology only. Teach them early to be a maker, not a consumer.

Five. Should I buy a domain name for them? Reserve a Twitter username? Is that self-indulgent?

Six. It’s important to make sure babies interact with a wide range of people while they’re very little, to allow them to develop an understanding that every type of face is part of their circle. Infants learn about race in their first year; by 9 months old, they recognize faces from their own race better than others. By 6 months old, they may exhibit racial bias. So it’s incredibly important that their circles are diverse.

While this cognitive wiring is established early, developmental changes obviously continue throughout childhood. For these reasons - and also just because they’re better places to live for all kinds of reasons - it’s important to be in a cosmopolitan, diverse, open-minded location. Homogenous towns and cities are not what I want, both as a person, and for my child.

Seven. No, I don’t think ideological diversity is anywhere near as important as actual intersectional diversity. And I have no intention to allow bigotry or small-mindedness to enter their worldview.

Empathy, inclusion, love, understanding, and connectedness must be core values. Change is inevitable and to be embraced. Difference is beautiful. The world is to be explored and embraced.

Eight. I like the idea and philosophy of free-range parenting. Let the child explore and learn on their own terms, for crying out loud. Let them ride bikes in the neighborhood and hang out with their friends and generally live out The Goonies.

But that seems to be out of vogue? There’s a trend of helicopter parents who schedule their child’s every moment? The idea seems repellant to me - doesn’t it mean that they miss out on developing a degree of autonomy? - but am I right to feel that way?

Nine. My parents made friends through pre-natal and baby classes - and that’s where a lot of my early friends came from, too. Everything’s online now because of covid. Where are baby-friends supposed to come from?

Ten. How do we share photos and information with family and friends without compromising on privacy? Social media sites like Instagram and Facebook will be data-mined; email feels insecure because I don’t know who will end up seeing photos and messages. The really private tools and services are too hard to use for a lot of people. What’s the best practice? What does baby infosec look like?

 

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

· Posts

 

Equality on the ballot: a free event with Stacey Abrams

This is one of those times I can’t believe I get to work at The 19th. We’re putting on a free event on voter equality with a roster of very smart speakers headlined by Stacey Abrams, in partnership with Live Nation Women and Teen Vogue, live in Atlanta or free to watch afterwards online.

Go register!

· Posts

 

Newsletter housekeeping

If you’re subscribing via email, heads up that I’m thinking about changing my newsletter engine, possibly to Buttondown. You shouldn’t see anything particularly different - and if you’re subscribing via RSS, nothing will change at all. But, to be honest, I’ll be paying a lot less money for a lot more power.

As always, I really appreciate it when people share around my posts, or let me know if they’ve disagreed with something I’ve written. Your time and attention are limited; thanks for sticking around.

· Posts

 

Performative productivity and building a culture that matters

I recently heard a story about a company that, when determining who would be laid off in a downsizing event, asked team leads to rank their teams based on who would be most likely to work on the weekend.

Mind-blowingly, while it’s obviously (or hopefully obviously) immoral, this practice appears to be legal in the US, which has at-will employment in every state. This is one of the many contrasts between European and US employment law, which were the biggest culture shock for me when I moved to the US eleven years ago. In Europe, employers must ensure that employees don’t work more than 48 hours during a week and the minimum vacation allocation beyond statutory holidays is four weeks. In America, it’s often seen as a badge of honor to work 70 hour weeks, and it’s one of the few countries in the world with 0 mandatory vacation days.

Perhaps my concerns around compassionate employment are irredeemably European, but as I’ve written before, long hours with little rest are counter-productive. Environments that want you to work weekends and evenings in addition to standard office hours tend to value performative productivity over actual results, or adhere to a kind of religious belief around work ethic. If these employers paid attention to the research and data, they wouldn’t do it.

This is perhaps even more of a problem in flexible and work from home settings. In my previous piece, I quoted a French member of Parliament:

“Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails — they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

I heard recently about another company where the CEO regularly shouts at their team, and if a team lead suggests that a goal can’t be reached, retorts that they’ll find a team who can achieve it instead. These companies share a common trait: a fundamental lack of respect for the expertise and the lives of the people they’ve hired. It’s as if there’s some inherent value to this kind of work, and that the exchange of time for money obviates the need for human care.

It’s cultural. “I don’t think you should work while you have covid,” I told someone recently, mindful of the research about recovery times and long covid. “Maybe I learned the wrong lessons from my Dad,” he replied.

As well as being health and quality issues, these kinds of attitudes compound inclusion problems: only certain kinds of people can work all hours. Carers and parents, and particularly people from lower-income backgrounds, are more likely to have other commitments.

All aspects of a company’s culture are really hard to change when it’s already been set in motion. Either you care about creating a place that cares for its employees or you don’t, and these values affect the choices that are made by founders from the very first day. It’s impossible to do it bespoke, too: every aspect of a company has to pull together with the same cultural underpinnings. The entirety of a community has to pull together or resentments and friction build.

The same cultural change problem doesn’t apply in the same way across the country. While this is a uniquely American problem, not every American company behaves this way: to be frank, most of the successful ones don’t. One of the most promising aspects of the organization I’m at, The 19th, is its excellent, intentionally inclusive culture; it’s among the best, but not the first time I’ve felt valued at work. And it doesn’t take a people ops superhero to understand that people who feel valued do better work overall.

While I think these problems are best solved through legislation and unionization, competitive forces can be a useful fallback. Not everyone has the luxury of being discerning about their employer, but each of the companies I’ve mentioned is in the tech sector: a world where knowledge workers often do have the privilege of choice. Again, it doesn’t take an empath to understand that, given the choice between two otherwise similar firms, employees are more likely to choose to work at the one with a more supportive culture. It goes without saying that yelling doesn’t make for a productive workplace, but if you want to hire the best people, you’ve got to be the best place for them to work, and understand that, past a point, people are motivated by meaning, not money.

From a prospective employee standpoint, if you’re looking for a job, it helps to understand that you have every right to ask for and expect a better, more supportive culture. Having strong standards here makes the employment experience better for everyone, and helps even the worst employers understand that they need to change if they want to be successful.

But make no mistake: the onus is not on employees here. Employers - and the legislators that govern them in the United States - need to drag themselves into the twenty-first century and learn that a strong culture of support in turn makes for strong companies, and strong countries.

· Posts

 

The corpus bride

I got my beta invitation to DALL-E 2, which creates art based on text prompts. You’ve probably seen them floating around the internet by now: surrealist, AI-drawn illustrations in a variety of styles.

Another tool, Craiyon (formerly DALL-E Mini), had been doing the rounds as a freely-available toy. It’s fun too, but DALL-E’s fidelity is impressive enough to be almost indistinguishable from magic.

I can’t claim to fully understand its algorithm, but DALL-E is ultimately based on a huge corpus of information: OpenAI created a variation of GPT-3 that follows human-language instructions well enough to sift through collected data and create new works based on what it’s learned. OpenAI claims to have guarded against hateful or infringing use cases, but it can never be perfect at this, and will only ever be as sensitive to these issues as the team that builds it.

These images are attention-grabbing, but the technology has lots of different applications. Some are benign: the team found that AI-generated critiques helped human writers find flaws in their work, for example. GitHub uses OpenAI’s libraries to help engineers write code, using a feature called Copilot. There’s a Figma plugin that will mock up a website based on a text description. But it’s obvious that there are military and intelligence applications for this technology, too.

If I was a science fiction writer - and at night, I am! - I would ask myself what I could create if the corpus was everything. If an AI algorithm was fed with every decision made by every person in the world - our movements via our cellphones, our intentions via our searches, our actions via our purchases and interactions - what might it be able to say about us? Could it predict what we would do next? Could it determine how to influence us to take certain actions?

Yes - but “yes” wouldn’t make for a particularly compelling story in itself. Instead, I’d want to drill a level deeper and remind myself that any technology is a reflection of the people who built it. So even if all those datapoints were loaded into the system, a person who fell outside of the parameters the designers thought to measure or look for might not be as predictable in the system. The designer’s answer, in turn, might be to incentivize people to act within the frameworks they’d built: to make them conform to the data model. (Modern marketing already doesn’t stray too far from this idea.) The people who are not compliant, who resist those incentives, are the only ones who can bring down the system. In the end, only the non-conformists, in this story and in life, are truly free, and are the flag-bearers of freedom for everyone else.

The corpus of images used to power DALL-E 2 is scraped from the internet; the corpus of code for GitHub Copilot is scraped from open source software. There are usage implications here, of course: I did not grant permission for my code, my drawings, or my photographs to form the basis of someone else’s work. But a human artist also draws on everything they’ve encountered, and we tend not to worry about that (unless the re-use becomes undeniably obviously centered on one work in particular). An engineer relies on “best practices” and “patterns” that were developed by others, and we actively encourage that (unless, again, it turns the corner and becomes plagiarism of a single source). Where should we draw the line, legally and conceptually?

I think there is a line, and it’s in part because OpenAI is building a commercial, proprietary platform. The corpus of work translates into profit for them; if OpenAI’s software does wind up powering military applications, or if my mini science fiction story partially becomes true, it could also translate into real harm. The ethical considerations there can’t be brushed away.

What I’m not worried about: I don’t think AI is coming for the jobs of creative people. The corpus requires new art. I do think we will see AI-produced news stories, which are a natural evolution of the content aggregator and cheap reblogging sites we see today, but there will always be a need for deeply-reported journalism. I don’t think we’ll see AI-produced novels and other similar content, although I can imagine writers using them to help with their first drafts before they revise. Mostly, for creatives, this will be a tool rather than a replacement. At least, for another generation or so.

In the meantime, here’s a raccoon in a cowboy hat singing karaoke:

· Posts

Discover more IndieWeb sites
Discover more blogs on Blogroll