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Comments are hard

Building a comments system is really hard. I tried to build one for Known, which powers my website, but found that spammers circumvented it surprisingly easily. You can flag spam using Akismet (which was built for WordPress but works across platforms), but this process tends to require you to pre-screen comments and make them public after the fact. That’s a fair amount of work and a fair amount of unnecessary friction for building community.

If you have a blog - you do have a blog, don’t you? - you can post a response to one of my posts and send a webmention. But not everybody has their own website, and the barrier to entry for sending webmentions is pretty high.

So I’ve been looking for something else.

Fred Wilson gave up on comments and asks people to discuss on Twitter. That works pretty well, but I’m not really into forcing people to use a particular service. That’s also why I’m not particularly into using Disqus embeds, which also unnecessarily track you across sites. Finally, I was using Cactus Comments, which is based on the decentralized Matrix network for a while, but it occasionally seemed to break in ways that were disconcerting for site visitors. (It’s still a very cool project.)

I love comments, and I guess that means I’m writing my own system again. To do so means getting into an arms race with spammers, which I’m not very excited about, but I don’t see an alternative that I’m completely happy about.

Do you run a blog with comments? How do you deal with these issues? I’d love to learn from you.

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Do we really need private schools?

One of my most controversial opinions is that private schools should not be allowed. Quite how controversial is always a surprise to me: from my perspective it feels very straightforward.

In a nutshell, my argument comes down to the following complementary ideas:

  1. Every child deserves to have an equal start in life.
  2. As a society, we are better off if people from different backgrounds mix, interact, and get to know each other as early as possible.
  3. Every system of inequality is built around disenfranchisement and blocking access to resources. Giving everyone access to the same education and the connections that inevitably develop while attending an institution helps dismantle these systems.
  4. If the rich are forced to use the same system as the poor, the overall standard of education will rise for everyone.
  5. Education is a human right.

Does this fly in the face of American individualism? Sure, probably. Will it result in a society that is both culturally and financially richer? I think so.

As far as I can tell, the arguments for private education come down to the perceived right to perpetuate inequality by gating a special education system for people with wealth, a defense of American individualism at the expense of community, and sometimes the adjoining right to perpetuate exclusionary values systems. I’m not particularly interested in protecting any of those things.

It’s certainly true that public education needs more funding, more resources, and stronger frameworks around (for example) special needs education. I don’t think the answer to these problems is private alternatives: instead, I think we solve them by providing stronger support for public infrastructure. And one of the ways we guarantee this support is by forcing people with wealth and resources to use the same infrastructure as everybody else.

 

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

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Rethinking notable links

I’m thinking about splitting off my notable links into a new newsletter.

For the record, you can always follow them from this page on my site (which also has an RSS feed); I’ve also started to post them consistently to my Twitter feed. But I might move the collated bookmarks to a weekly post (or even daily!), and that might be a bit much for regular subscribers of my non-link posts.

I’d love to hear what you think.

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Building an inclusive, independent, open newsroom

I didn’t make a big announcement about it, but for the last few months I’ve been working as the CTO at The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom that reports on stories at the intersection of gender, politics, and policy.

It was a necessary move for me: I needed stronger work/life balance for my own health, and I also wanted to feel like I was helping in the midst of a very tumultuous social and political climate. It was also a move back into the core ideas my career has been built on.

The 19th was launched in January 2020 by veterans of the Texas Tribune and ProPublica who understood the need to report stories from a more diverse perspective than is normally offered by an industry still dominated by white men. I’ve been following it from the beginning as a prominent subscription in my RSS reader, and was deeply impressed by the detailed, empathetic, unsensational reporting.

The 19th’s technical platform is largely based on self-hosted WordPress, with some interesting theme modifications that allow for visualizations and in-page interactivity. (Did I immediately add simple microformats support to articles as soon as I arrived? Yes, I did.) Importantly for me, the team cares about the same privacy issues I do: particularly in an environment where abortion-related surveillance is becoming a safety issue, dealing with audience data intentionally is crucial.

Openness is core to what The 19th is. Its financial backers are published in full, so you know exactly whose is bankrolling the non-profit. Since the beginning, the newsroom has also made its content available via a Creative Commons license that allows anyone else to republish it for free. Those partners have included the Guardian, USA Today, Teen Vogue, PBS NewsHour, Ms. Magazine, RawStory, and many more. It could be you, too, if you wanted to: you can find the full HTML source to republish on every article page. Because The 19th’s newsroom is more diverse, every republished article furthers its mission of improving representation in the news media overall.

It’s an obvious extension to this strategy to make our technology available as well, via a permissive open source license. That’s my ambition: to package up some of our supporting tools and make them available in a way that other newsrooms can take advantage of. If they have the technical capability to collaborate on building them, great; if not, they can still pick up the technology and use them. Open source itself has a giant diversity problem, and if we can apply an equity lens to building our technical community in the same way we build our journalistic ecosystem, perhaps we can be a part of the solution there, too.

I’ve long been a member of the indieweb community, which encourages everyone to own and control their own website and domain. Both technically and ideologically, the overlaps with news are obvious: every newsroom must own its relationship with its audience in order to build trust, understand their needs, and above all to build community. Trends on the web have been in the opposite direction for most of the last decade: social media platforms like Facebook seek to intermediate and monetize that relationship, stripping newsrooms of resources and undermining the ability of voters to receive information in the process. Building an independent website for representative news content and community, and then helping others to do the same, is an important mission.

Right now it’s a very small team: Abby Blachman and me. I’m looking for a third member of the technology team to help with everything I’ve discussed.

And so far, it’s been joyful. Abby is amazing; everyone is. I’ve never been part of an organization - least of all a remote team - that understands the need for a supportive culture so clearly. As an organization, it continues to listen and evolve. The people team - led by Jayo Miko Macasaquit - has put procedures and benefits in place that I haven’t seen in organizations ten times the size. To build representative, empathetic news, you first need to build a representative, empathetic organization, and that’s what’s happening here. I hope they do more to tell their story and share what they’re doing, because it’s genuinely phenomenal.

I can’t believe my luck; it’s a real privilege to be on this team. I want to be a good ambassador: although I knew about the journalism, which should always be front and center, I wasn’t as familiar with the organization’s ecosystem and openness chops before I joined. It was the nicest of surprises, and I want to tell you more about it. We don’t have an internal blog right now, so from time to time I’ll discuss what we’ve been working on over here.

I’m also working on building some tools of my own to support my management process; the first is all about building a consistent culture of transparent feedback. More on that when I’m ready.

In the meantime, if you have any questions, I’d love to answer them. And if you happen to be interested in our technology position, you should definitely apply.

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Reading, watching, playing, using: July, 2022

This is my monthly roundup of the articles I found interesting. Here's my list for July, 2022.

Notable Articles

Business

Bank of America Memo: “We Hope” Worker Power Worsens. “A Bank of America executive stated that “we hope” working Americans will lose leverage in the labor market in a recent private memo obtained by The Intercept. Making predictions for clients about the U.S. economy over the next several years, the memo also noted that changes in the percentage of Americans seeking jobs “should help push up the unemployment rate.””

Amazon to Acquire One Medical Clinics in Latest Push Into Health Care. “One Medical, which is based in San Francisco, operates a network of primary care providers that offer in-office and virtual medical services, and is one of the leading competitors to a similar but smaller service Amazon had started to offer.” Exercise for the reader: should end-user healthcare provision be a place where you can make a lot of profit?

Climate

Is accepting the end of humanity the key to climate action? This scholar thinks so. “Accepting that human civilization is finite, he says, will challenge us to change our priorities, from worshiping extraction and growth to uplifting the most marginalized in society.”

Wildfires Are Setting Off 100-Year-Old Bombs on WWI Battlefields. “The area where the fire rages was the site of 12 battles during World War I. More than 200,000 people died and untold numbers of explosives were used. It’s a major problem across Europe that lingers to this day. The Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Force dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Europe during World War II alone. Seventy years later, those bombs are still killing people.”

NOAA introduces heat.gov as climate change worsens.Heat.gov is geared toward a wide range of decision makers, from companies to local governments to individuals, Spinrad told Protocol, “whether it’s a mom trying to decide whether it’s safe for kids to play outside, or a construction foreman trying to decide if it’s OK for their workers to be out on the job, or a public works manager trying to figure out when road repairs can be undertaken.””

Carbon removal trade group launches with ‘Hippocratic oath’ for the industry. “The statement is brief, just 15 sentences, and commits signatories to abstract ideals like acting with humility and honesty, being guided by science, and recognizing the value of “including voices from all backgrounds in conversations” about carbon removal.”

North Carolina Republicans Push Bill Forcing Towns To Destroy Electric Car Chargers. “In North Carolina, Trump GOP lawmaker Ben Moss has pushed forward a ridiculous bill (HB 1049) that would require towns and cities use up to $50,000 in taxpayer funds to destroy free electric vehicle stations on public land, if local authorities don’t build free gas and diesel pumps alongside them. There’s, of course, no provision included in the bill that works in the opposite direction.”

Covid

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. “While there is insufficient evidence to define upstream events, and exact circumstances remain obscure, our analyses indicate that the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 occurred via the live wildlife trade in China, and show that the Huanan market was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

COVID cases and deaths are spiking in nursing homes, AARP data shows. “One in 35 nursing home residents tested positive for COVID-19 in June, a 27 percent increase from the previous month. The death rate from COVID between May and June of this year nearly doubled, from 0.04 deaths per hundred residents to 0.07 deaths per hundred residents.”

Crypto

Web3: The hope for protocols over platforms. “Let’s experiment in ways that let us slowly deconstruct platforms, by replacing some of the core primitives that they own with open protocols that are collectively owned and governed by their own communities.”

The Consequences of Silence. On the Celsius freeze: “My entire business is secured and backed by these funds. If they are not returned, my business would go bankrupt, my 15 employees would be let go, and 14 years of my life’s work lost and at the age of 49 years old, I would have to start over with nothing.” “Having my funds frozen has been devastating to me and my family both financially, mentally, and physically. I cannot sleep most nights and am over-whelmed with worry and dread for my family’s future. I have two small children. A 3-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. I am the sole bread winner for my family, and I pride myself on making smart financial and parental decisions for them to provide a better life and a bright/positive future.”

How Crypto Is Evolving the Future of Books and Publishing. ““Imagine when all of an author’s readers can suddenly make money as well,” says Margarita Guerrero, head of partner and publishing relations at the publishing startup Readl. “How much more would they be engaged?”” Seems like a complete misunderstanding of why people like books to me.

Lost at OpenSea. “Like social audio, NFTs were a pandemic fad. This fad, however, was aimed at allowing kids who were too young to buy bitcoin when it first launched to pretend to be savvy investors. The results, when the market crashes further, will be catastrophic.”

The sinking of Voyager. “I have no problem with a hedge fund lending only to seven counterparties, if it is lending its own funds or those of professional investors who understand the risks they are taking. But Voyager marketed high-risk investments to retail depositors with promises of safety and (non-existent) insurance. To my mind, this isn’t just bad, it is criminal. But crypto is an unregulated, borderless space. Even if Voyager has lied to its customers and embezzled their funds, it is unclear what if any power national authorities have to hold it to account. And even though there will undoubtedly be a forest of lawsuits, the money is gone.”

Crypto collapse reverberates widely among black American investors. “A quarter of black American investors owned cryptocurrencies at the start of the year, compared with only 15 per cent of white investors, according to a survey by Ariel Investments and Charles Schwab. Black Americans were more than twice as likely to purchase cryptocurrency as their first investment. The value of those investments has imploded. The total market capitalisation of cryptocurrencies has plunged below $1tn from more than $3.2tn last year. The fall in digital assets comes alongside a bear market in US stocks.”

Culture

Aboard the World's First Hot-Air Balloon Restaurant. “During the flight, Schmeinck serves wine and gives more information about her dishes. Standing-room only encourages interactions between the chef, pilot, and other diners as the balloon sails above the countryside, taking in the view from a cruising altitude that ranges 500 to 2,500 feet. “Sometimes when the clouds are low, we can go right through them,” says Schmeinck. “It’s a little bit misty. Then we’re above the clouds and see the sun shining. That moment is unforgettable. It’s amazing for me, after all these years.”” Bucket list.

For Centuries, English Bakers' Biggest Customers Were Horses. “But in pre-industrial England, horse bread carried the taste of shame. The dark bran bread sat at the bottom of a hierarchy that gave brown bread to farmers and servants and reserved white bread for the elite. Indeed, Englishpeople turned to horse bread during times of strife, and the abject poor likely ate it year round. And since horse bread was fed to laboring animals, humans who ate it were looked upon with disdain.”

After 37 Years, the Sunny World of ‘Neighbours’ Comes to an End. “At that time, the world of “Neighbours” offered an antidote to the contentious impact of conservative, Thatcherite legislation in Britain, Carr said, which supported “do it yourself” economic policies that its opponents said widened inequality. “Neighbours” offered “a different, wildly positive vision of what a community could be,” Carr said. “Everyone tends to work together rather than be adversarial.”” As a kid, I loved it.

Announcing the Shortlist for the Inaugural Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction. “The nine shortlisted books will be considered by a panel of five jurors—adrienne maree brown, Becky Chambers, Molly Gloss, David Mitchell, and Luis Alberto Urrea. The winner will be announced later this year on October 21st, 2022, Ursula K. Le Guin’s birthday.”

Erotica Author Chuck Tingle Has Some of the Best Writing Advice. “Having spent the last few days with Tingle’s voice in my head, the only way I can describe the experience is that it feels like the sun has come out after days of rain. To have a voice that is relentlessly upbeat and positive, telling me I can do anything I try to, and that my best efforts will be enough? It’s like my brain was just, I don’t know, pressure washed?”

All [White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy] is Local. Words of warning from Librarian Shipwreck: “What about books banned for depicting people of color and queers in a positive light, providing accurate information about health and sexuality, or for acknowledging the truth about American history? Bills (that thankfully didn’t pass) to fine and jail librarians for “obscene” (read: queer, comprehensive sex education, anatomy) books? Or librarians being told they can’t help patrons find information about abortion, or even say the word?”

James Beard Awards 2022: Cristina Martinez brings the best Mid-Atlantic chef prize to Philadelphia. “Chef Cristina Martinez, an advocate for immigrants’ rights and an undocumented immigrant herself, was named the best chef for the Mid-Atlantic region Monday by the James Beard Foundation, in its first black-tie ceremony since 2019.” I just ate at South Philly Barbacoa and it was fantastic.

representation matters. Winnie Lim’s blog is one of the best things I read. This is a great example of why.

Netflix criticised for shooting Stranger Things in Nazi prison and marketing it as hotel. “Internet streaming giant Netflix and hit show Stranger Things are facing criticism for shooting part of its new season in an infamous Lithuanian concentration camp and making plans to convert the site into a hotel in collaboration with Airbnb.” Combined with it resharing photos of serial number tattoos fans are getting on their wrists, it’s not a great look, to say the least.

Unknown Number by Azure. A beautifully-written story told through text messages and published as a Twitter thread. Now nominated for a Hugo.

Hell Yeah, Tom Cruise. “So, 45 seconds in, I realized what Top Gun really was: propaganda. Never again tell me you can’t make a conservative movie in Hollywood. After its release there was a 500 percent increase in applications to the Navy’s flight program.”

Democracy

San Francisco Mayor Wants PD To Be Able To Commandeer Cameras Owned By Residents Because Reasons. “Having dumped its “progressive” District Attorney, Chesa Boudin, the city of San Francisco has decided it’s going to be far more Dirty Harry in the future. The alleged justification is (perhaps temporary and anomalous) increases in crime. It’s time to run roughshod over constitutional rights again.”

A radical attack on the First Amendment. “Prohibited topics include endorsing the concepts of white privilege or male privilege. Specifically, employers cannot conduct trainings that state an individual can be “privileged” or “oppressed” due to their “race, color, sex, or national origin.” Further, trainings cannot suggest that anyone should “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the individual played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, sex, or national origin.””

The billionaires buying the midterm elections. “The largest donor to the main Republican super PACs is billionaire Ken Griffin, owner of Citadel, a hedge fund. Griffin donated $28.5 million to the SLF and CLF through the end of March. In a 2012 interview, Griffin was asked if “the ultrawealthy have an inordinate or inappropriate amount of influence on the political process.” “I think they actually have an insufficient influence,” he replied.”

‘There are a lot of people who don’t want to know the truth’: Why an Arizona election official is leaving her job. “The impact of lies about America’s most secure election is still taking shape around the country but has included harassment and threats of violence aimed at a women-led workforce. A survey of election workers conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice earlier this year showed 30 percent of poll respondents said they knew of one or more elec­tion work­ers who had left their jobs at least in part because of fear for their safety, increased threats or intim­id­a­tion. Twenty percent said they planned to leave before the 2024 elec­tion.”

Correction director: Arizona cities would collapse without prison labor. “There are services that this department provides to city, county, local jurisdictions, that simply can’t be quantified at a rate that most jurisdictions could ever afford. If you were to remove these folks from that equation, things would collapse in many of your counties, for your constituents.” The 13th Amendment abolished slavery except for people convicted of crimes. And here we are.

The City Where Investigations of Police Take So Long, Officers Kill Again Before Reviews Are Done. “Now, Open Vallejo and ProPublica have looked at what happens inside the department after those killings occur, examining more than 15,000 pages of police, forensic, and court files related to the city’s 17 fatal police shootings since 2011. Based on records that emerged after dozens of public records requests and two lawsuits filed by Open Vallejo, the news organizations found a pattern of delayed and incomplete investigations, with dire consequences.” Remarkable reporting.

Indiana doctor performed abortion for a 10-year-old girl, document shows. “For the past two weeks, the veracity of a story of a 10-year-old girl who was raped and got an abortion has been debated in the media. But a document reviewed by The 19th shows that the Indiana physician who performed the abortion submitted record of it to the Indiana Department of Health and the Department of Child Services.”

Pharmacies can’t deny prescription birth control or emergency contraception, HHS says. “Pharmacists cannot deny people prescribed medication — including hormonal birth control or emergency contraception — because those people are pregnant or might become pregnant, per new guidance from the Biden administration.”

Republican-backed measure to restrict filming of police officers passes Senate committee. ““We believe that this bill stacks the deck against the public check on officer misconduct,” Timothy Sparling, a lawyer and legislative advocate for Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.”

Biden Team Rejected Emergency Declaration Over Roe Decision. “The Biden administration considered declaring a public health emergency to preserve broad access to abortion services following the US Supreme Court’s decision last month to overturn Roe v. Wade, but officials ultimately decided against the move, according to people familiar with the matter.”

Biden to sign executive order on abortion access, legal backing, privacy. “The executive order will direct the White House counsel and the U.S. attorney general to coordinate volunteer lawyers who will defend patients and medical providers facing state-based charges for “lawfully seeking or offering reproductive health care services throughout the country.” Those lawyers could, the White House suggested, defend people who are prosecuted for traveling from a state that has banned abortion to one where it remains legal.”

‘They are preparing for war’: An expert on civil wars discusses where political extremists are taking this country. “That’s when I started to follow the data. And then, watching what happened to the Republican Party really was the bigger surprise — that, wow, they’re doubling down on this almost white supremacist strategy. That’s a losing strategy in a democracy. So why would they do that? Okay, it’s worked for them since the ’60s and ’70s, but you can’t turn back demographics. And then I was like, Oh my gosh. The only way this is a winning strategy is if you begin to weaken the institutions; this is the pattern we see in other countries. And, as an American citizen I’m like, These two factors are emerging here, and people don’t know.”

Supreme Court Justices 'Prayed With' Anti-Roe Activist Before Ruling. “At an evangelical victory party in front of the Supreme Court to celebrate the downfall of Roe v. Wade last week, a prominent Capitol Hill religious leader was caught on a hot mic making a bombshell claim: that she prays with sitting justices inside the high court. “We’re the only people who do that,” Peggy Nienaber said. […] In other words: Sitting Supreme Court justices have prayed together with evangelical leaders whose bosses were bringing cases and arguments before the high court.”

Christian Nationalists Are Excited About What Comes Next. “It is also a mistake to imagine that Christian nationalism is a social movement arising from the grassroots and aiming to satisfy the real needs of its base. It isn’t. This is a leader-driven movement. The leaders set the agenda, and their main goals are power and access to public money. They aren’t serving the interests of their base; they are exploiting their base as a means of exploiting the rest of us.”

DeSantis signs bill requiring Florida students, professors to register political views with state. “Public universities in Florida will be required to survey both faculty and students on their political beliefs and viewpoints, with the institutions at risk of losing their funding if the responses are not satisfactory to the state’s Republican-led legislature. […] Based on the bill’s language, survey responses will not necessarily be anonymous — sparking worries among many professors and other university staff that they may be targeted, held back in their careers or even fired for their beliefs.”

Mitt Romney: America Is In Denial. “I hope for a president who can rise above the din to unite us behind the truth. Several contenders with experience and smarts stand in the wings.” I wonder who he means.

Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill isn't the only anti-LGBTQ+ bill taking effect today. “Collectively, the bills build toward an atmosphere of silence around LGBTQ+ people and restrict how LGBTQ+ youth can learn about themselves and participate at school, advocates say.”

‘It’s Scary’: Students Fear Going to College in Red States After Roe. “After the overturning of Roe, millions of college students found themselves attending institutions where they would no longer have access to certain types of reproductive healthcare. Now, students who had committed to attending colleges or universities in majority conservative states are rethinking their decisions. Meanwhile, rising high school seniors say they now have something new to consider when compiling their lists of prospective schools: the access and right to an abortion.”

Media

Meta officially cuts funding for U.S. news publishers. “As the company moves forward with sweeping changes to the Facebook experience, news has become less of a priority.”

How Florence Nightingale Changed Data Visualization Forever. “Recognizing that few people actually read statistical tables, Nightingale and her team designed graphics to attract attention and engage readers in ways that other media could not. Their diagram designs evolved over two batches of publications, giving them opportunities to react to the efforts of other parties also jockeying for influence. […] The reforms Nightingale fought for […] would be driving forces—along with the development of vaccines that conferred immunity to diseases and artificial fertilizer that boosted crop yields—in doubling the average human life span during the following century.”

Edinburgh is the Best City in the World in 2022, According to Time Out Index. “The Scottish capital scored high across the board, and performed exceptionally high for walkability (93 percent) and being ‘easy to express who you are’ (88 percent) – better than basically everywhere else in the world. It also scored 95 percent for being beautiful – and with an ancient castle slap-bang in the city centre and loads of green space, it’s hard to argue with that.” I miss it!

Influencers take to TikTok for abortion-related paid partnerships. “The company decided to use its entire influencer marketing budget for May 15 to July 15 on sponsored content on TikTok, asking influencers and micro-influencers on the platform to talk about what overturning Roe could mean for people’s access to health care. Favor declined to share the total dollar amount spent on influencer marketing during this period.”

The Knight Foundation is Betraying its Mission. “By sponsoring a journalism event featuring Tucker Carlson, the philanthropy is mistaking openness for strengthening democracy.”

Wisconsin School District Bans Book on Japanese-American WWII Internment. “Ann Zielke, a parent of a student in the district, told NBC News that School Board Vice President Terri Boyer claimed the book offered an “unbalanced” account of historical events. “What she said to me was that we actually need an ‘American’ perspective,’” Zielke said, adding that the people in the internment camps were Americans.”

When truth is another casualty: Why Ukraine is losing ground in the war by not telling the whole story. “John Mair, co-editor of the book, says we should not confuse the proximity of this war with ease of access to information, saying: “The challenge for British journalists… is not just safety but keeping the right side of the so far invisible Ukrainian censorship machine.””

Science

Two decades of Alzheimer's research may be based on deliberate fraud that has cost millions of lives. “[…] it looks like the original paper that established the amyloid plaque model as the foundation of Alzheimer’s research over the last 16 years might not just be wrong, but a deliberate fraud.”

Habitual use of GPS negatively impacts spatial memory during self-guided navigation . “Although the longitudinal sample was small, we observed an important effect of GPS use over time, whereby greater GPS use since initial testing was associated with a steeper decline in hippocampal-dependent spatial memory.” Using GPS regularly makes you worse at finding your own way to places shocker.

Society

Vice President Kamala Harris was criticized for using visual descriptors. Why? “The ongoing dustup over Vice President Kamala Harris describing herself during a meeting with disability rights leaders this week is much ado about an increasingly common practice and a distraction from the substance of the gathering, advocates say.”

Should class snobbery be banned under the Equality Act? “One experiment cited in the report found teachers “give grades according to class”, explained Rickett. “When the pieces of work were identical, they’d give lower marks to children perceived to be working class.””

Hyundai subsidiary has used child labor at Alabama factory. “A subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Co has used child labor at a plant that supplies parts for the Korean carmaker’s assembly line in nearby Montgomery, Alabama, according to area police, the family of three underage workers, and eight former and current employees of the factory.”

Dr. Caitlin Bernard Was Meant to Write This With Me Before She Was Attacked for Doing Her Job. “On Wednesday night, our state’s attorney general said his office would be investigating Dr. Bernard. So I’m writing this essay myself, not only to bring attention to the chilling effect on medicine we’re seeing at this moment — but also because I’m terrified that I or any one of our colleagues could soon face what Dr. Bernard is going through after delivering care to our patients.”

Philadelphia created American obstetrics. Black women were exploited from the start. “America’s maternal mortality crisis traces back to Philadelphia, home to the nation’s first delivery wards. From the start, Black people received unequal treatment and were exploited for science.”

Pet Rent Is the Newest Tool of Housing Discrimination. “To no one’s surprise, the burden falls heaviest on those least able to bear it. In a recent paper, “Pet Friendly For Whom?” Jennifer W. Applebaum, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Florida and data researcher Kevin Horecka, Ph.D., reported the results of their survey of pet friendly housing across Texas. The conclusion was stark: “Low-income communities and communities of color were more likely than higher income and predominantly white communities to pay disproportionately higher fees to keep pets in their homes.””

Security director: Suspect in July 4 Highland Park shooting was ‘sizing up’ synagogue. “Authorities have not yet attributed a motive to the shooting that killed seven and injured dozens at a Fourth of July parade. Highland Park has a significant Jewish population and is home to several other synagogues and Jewish institutions.”

Abuse, discrimination, exclusion: Transgender men explain domino effect of losing reproductive care post-Roe. “The 2015 U.S. Trans Survey found that nonbinary people and trans men report being sexually assaulted at a higher rate than other LGBTQ+ people. Fifty-one percent of trans men and 55 percent of nonbinary people out of over 27,000 respondents said they had been assaulted in their lifetime. […] “It’s just become a pure rape culture out there for trans men in particular. This law will be horrific.””

Akron Police Officers Placed on Leave After Fatal Shooting of Jayland Walker. “A lawyer for the family of Mr. Walker said the footage shows that he was running away, unarmed, when police officers fired at him more than 90 times. The lawyer, Bobby DiCello, reviewed footage of the shooting on Thursday. His legal team also visited the medical examiner’s office on Friday and reviewed the autopsy, which has not been finalized. Mr. DiCello said it showed that Mr. Walker had been struck at least 60 times.”

California late start law aims to make school less of a yawn. “Beginning this fall high schools in the nation’s most populous state can’t start before 8:30 a.m. and middle schools can’t start before 8 a.m. under a 2019 first-in-the-nation law forbidding earlier start times. Similar proposals are before lawmakers in New Jersey and Massachusetts.” This is a big deal. I can’t believe they were making teenagers go to school before 8am.

Technology

Who Is Collecting Data from Your Car? “The Markup has identified 37 companies that are part of the rapidly growing connected vehicle data industry that seeks to monetize such data in an environment with few regulations governing its sale or use.”

Abortion rights supporters are trying to reduce barriers to access through search keywords. “Anti-abortion activists have long dominated the online search strategy game, driving traffic to crisis pregnancy centers. Post-Roe, that’s starting to change.”

Open-Source Security: How Digital Infrastructure Is Built on a House of Cards. “As is characteristic of public goods, market participants lack incentives to correct this inefficiency. Companies can profit from open source without expending any resources to improve it. Psychologists call this the bystander effect. When multiple parties have the capacity to solve a problem, each individual party feels less responsibility to take action. Although securing this public good is in every company’s self-interest, very few companies want to be the ones to take on that burden. There is little reason to think the market will correct itself without intervention.”

Facebook's TikTok-like redesign marks sunset of social networking era. “The leadership of Meta and Facebook now views the entire machine of Facebook’s social network as a legacy operation. They aim to keep cranking it to generate the cash they need to subsidize their decade-long plan to build the metaverse — where, maybe, social networking will be reborn in a 3D interface.”

The entire world is about to get a lesson in Revlon. “I claim no insight into the personal feelings of the board members, their fears, their hopes, their dreams, but their legal obligation here is to maximize stockholder wealth, and though they could, consistent with those duties, decide that in the long term Twitter is more valuable as a standalone company than the $44 billion Musk agreed to pay right now, that seems … unlikely … and so their legal obligation is to pursue that $44 billion. And if investors can win in a courtroom, there is absolutely a benefit to fighting with Musk about it. The $1 billion dollar break fee won’t begin to compensate the company for the damage Musk has done, but more importantly, $1 billion is less than $44 billion.”

Today I learned Amazon has a form so police can get my data without permission or a warrant. “Here is something I didn’t know when I purchased Amazon Ring cameras and Amazon Echo Dots: there is a webpage where law enforcement can fill out a form, say there’s a life-threatening emergency, and get access to your data without your consent, a court order, or any kind of warrant. There’s nothing in the Terms of Service about this, and the company has maintained for years that it helps police get consent first, but it’s happening anyhow.”

“We’re just fucking illegal”: Uber Files reveal a pattern of shady behavior around the world. “The documents lay out how the company’s deep pockets during this era — Uber’s lobbying and PR budget was $90 million in 2016 alone — was used to secretly influence politicians, oligarchs, and regulators around the world, and even sometimes break local laws. Dozens of stories about the contents of the leak have been published since the documents surfaced. Rest of World compiled the most glaring findings from the leak concerning Uber’s operations in non-Western countries, including South Africa, India, Nigeria, and Russia.”

Microsoft Mapped Broadband Affordability Gaps Because The U.S. Government Couldn’t Be Bothered To. “The FCC’s maps historically also haven’t been willing to map broadband prices and affordability. To that end, the NTIA has been doing some good work trying to illustrate broadband affordability gaps, again caused by regional monopolization. As has Microsoft, which, last week, offered an updated look at digital equity, a measurement that heavily integrates broadband availability and affordability.” Click through to the dashboard, which is illuminating.

The week the open web won. “I want to address a few suggestions that have been made to me implying that my recent blogging had been the final shove which yeeted this Bill over the edge. […] I’m just…well, me. A random and rapidly ageing Scottish woman with a vegetable garden, albeit a woman who has been Extremely Online since 1994 and Extremely Perturbed by this Bill since 2019, blogging in a personal capacity, in my spare time, 400 miles away from the centre of power.”

A New Attack Can Unmask Anonymous Users on Any Major Browser. “When you visit a website, the page can capture your IP address, but this doesn’t necessarily give the site owner enough information to individually identify you. Instead, the hack analyzes subtle features of a potential target’s browser activity to determine whether they are logged into an account for an array of services, from YouTube and Dropbox to Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, and more. Plus the attacks work against every major browser, including the anonymity-focused Tor Browser.”

Europe faces Facebook blackout. “The Irish Data Protection Commission on Thursday informed its counterparts in Europe that it will block Facebook-owner Meta from sending user data from Europe to the U.S.”

How China uses search engines to spread propaganda. “[…] as authoritarian states like China increasingly use online platforms to disseminate narratives aimed at weakening their democratic competitors, these search engines represent a crucial battleground in their information war with rivals. For Beijing, search engines represent a key—and underappreciated vector—to spread propaganda to audiences around the world.”

Vast Cache of Chinese Police Files Offered for Sale in Alleged Hack. “A vast trove of data on Chinese citizens allegedly siphoned from a police database, some of which checks out as legitimate, is being offered for sale by an anonymous hacker or hacking group. If confirmed, it would mark one of history’s largest leaks of personal data.”

Facebook Asks Judge to 'Crack the Whip' in Attempt to Silence a Black Whistleblower. “He was fired by Facebook’s outsourcing partner, Sama, in 2019 after he led more than 100 of his colleagues in a unionization effort for better pay and working conditions. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his work, and is now suing both Meta and Sama in a Nairobi court, alleging that he and his former colleagues are victims of forced labor, human trafficking and union-busting.”

Google will start auto-deleting health clinic location data. “Jen Fitzpatrick, SVP of Core Systems at Google, wrote in a blog post that the company will start deleting visit data from facilities like abortion clinics, fertility centers, counseling centers, domestic violence shelters, addiction treatment facilities and weight loss clinics “soon after” the visits take place when its system identifies that a visit has taken place.”

Social Media Can Be Reimagined for the Good of Society. “Yet what well-meaning regulatory proposals lack is a vision of social media that could be good for society. At best, these regulatory approaches seek to make existing social media less awful. But an emerging movement that we might call “the Good Web” envisions the possibility of social media that has a salutary role in a public sphere. What’s less clear is which of several dueling visions of the Good Web might lead us to a healthy social media environment.”

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Inputs

I’ve started to host my feed subscriptions on GitHub. If you have an RSS reader, you can import the OPML file at that link to take a look at the sources I start my day with.

I’m thinking about building a simple headline reader on my site that will take posts from feeds I subscribe to and display them in reverse-chronological order. I think it’s a good way to stay transparent about the kinds of things I’m interested in - in addition to the links I highlight on my blog and end-of-month roundups.

Unlike most OPML files, this one contains links to the newsletters I subscribe to, too. It’s probably best used with NewsBlur, but OPML is an open standard that should work everywhere.

How about you? What are you subscribed to? I’d love to discover more blogs in particular.

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Building a mobile subscription button

Last week, I built a small floating subscription button for The 19th. It’s pretty simple, and the design had been floating around since long before I got there:

The button only displays on mobile browsers. There were a few nuances to getting it working in mobile Safari in particular.

My first attempt, where the button’s position was based on browser height percentage, had the button jumping around the page when the URL bar appeared and disappeared. Distracting and gross!

It turns out that Safari alters the height of the page when you refer to it in percentage terms, but doesn’t alter the height of the viewport. So as soon as I specified the height using vh increments, the problem went away.

Then I was left with a new problem. Although the button was happily static, it was partially obscured by the URL bar (by design) until the bar went away. That’s fine - but it was taking a long time to repaint, so you’d see half a button for a couple of seconds before the browser caught up.

The solution to this is to apply a CSS transformation that does nothing visible at all:

transform: translateZ(0);

The effect of this hack is to tell the browser to use hardware acceleration for this layer. With this in place, it takes no time at all to repaint, and my weird visual glitch was gone.

The code for the button took less than a day, but as always in web development, there are nuances to look out for. (I won’t get into tracking Google Analytics event clicks on a fully SVG button, which is also harder than it should be.)

The result should be more mobile clickthroughs to subscribe to the daily newsletter, giving more people the opportunity to connect to our community. It’s the kind of small feature that can have an outsize impact - and, hopefully, make the audience team happy. Which, in turn, makes me happy too.

 

By the way, we’re hiring! Our web applications engineer position is open for applications.

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Body image post-covid

Content warning: discussion of body dysmorphia, weight loss.

I stopped testing positive for covid a while ago, but I’ve still been feeling very low-energy. I measure my activity on my Apple Watch - yes, I’m that person - and I haven’t managed to close my activity rings for weeks. Correspondingly, I’m pretty sure I’ve been gaining weight.

I’ve never felt very comfortable with my body: I’ve been much bigger than most of the people around me for most of my life. I’m 6’4” tall and, unlike many tall people, look like I’ve been proportionally enlarged in Photoshop. Over the last few years, thanks in no small part to the trauma surrounding caring for my mother and her subsequent loss, as well as the unfortunate effects of aging, those proportions have been softening.

I wish I could be smaller. Getting fitter and losing weight is at least somewhat within my control, but the overall proportions of my body - that height, the bigness of me - is something I have to live with. I don’t enjoy it. When I was much younger, I wanted to hurt myself over it. Now it’s more of a background discomfort, which sometimes comes into the foreground when I have to go shopping for clothes or catch myself in a full-length mirror. I move awkwardly and look awkward.

Should I be more comfortable in my own skin now that I’m rapidly approaching my mid-forties? Probably. It’s not a place I’ve ever managed to get to. It particularly doesn’t feel great after a long period of illness-related inactivity, but I’m digging deep to try and get over my discomfort and concentrate on the bits that relate to my health.

Covid really sucks; I hope to never get it again. I’m still wearing an N95 mask indoors, and I hope you are too. I’ve checked in with a few friends who are also recovering from it, and most of them are also still in this low-energy phase. Our brains aren’t completely back up and running, but we’re grateful to at least be breathing easily. I certainly feel that it pushed me off-track in a way that I’ll be feeling for months.

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Schema information for open houses

We’ve had a ton of interest in the house - more than I could have reasonably hoped for - and although I can’t say for sure if the website helped, I don’t think it could possibly have hurt.

There’s an open house today (Sunday July 17), and another one on Tuesday (July 19). If you’re in the area, you should check it out.

I added some more schema data to the site to emphasize the two open houses (and the offer price). This will allow the open houses to display directly on search results pages, and in other spots.

Each one needs its own code block, which looks something like this:

{
  "@type":"Event",
  "@context":"http://schema.org",
  "startDate":"2022-07-19T10:00:00",
  "endDate":"2022-07-19T12:00:00",
  "name":"Open House: 10:00am - 12:00pm",
  "description":"Open House",
  "url":"https://www.coldwellbankerhomes.com/ca/santa-rosa/5405-spain-ave/pid_47847622/",
  "location":{
    "@type":"Place",
    "@context":"http://schema.org",
    "name":"5405 Spain Ave",
    "address":{
      "@type":"PostalAddress",
      "@context":"http://schema.org",
      "streetAddress":"5405 Spain Ave",
      "postalCode":"95409",
      "addressLocality":"Santa Rosa",
      "addressRegion":"CA"
    }
  },
  "image":"https://5405spainave.com/images/hero-2000.jpg",
  "offers":{
    "@type":"Offer",
    "price":849000,
    "priceCurrency":"USD",
    "availability":"http://schema.org/InStock",
    "url":"https://5405spainave.com/"
  },
  "performer":"Coldwell Banker Realty"
}

While the “product” (the home) links to my homepage, I haven’t implemented a contact form on my site, so I deliberately pointed the events to our agent’s website for more details.

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Looking for a web applications engineer

As part of my role leading technology for The 19th, I’m hiring a web applications engineer:

‌In this role, you will work closely with a cross-functional group of journalists, designers, product managers and engineers to advance our mission to empower those we serve — particularly women, women of color and the LGBTQ+ community — with the information, resources and community they need to be equal participants in our democracy. You will work most closely with our CTO and product engineer to continue to develop our WordPress-based web platform, kickstart our open-source strategy, support decentralized republishing of our content and build tools to support our newsroom.

This is the most equity-minded team I’ve ever worked on, and it’s a joyful, empathetic, kind place to be. If you’re interested, please apply.

If you have any questions, you can email me at ben@benwerd.com, or feel free to book a short phone call.

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A new CEO for Medium

So, Medium has a new CEO, who happens to be someone I like very much.

I worked at Medium in the publications group for a year. It was a pretty daunting experience: my first time working with the kind of budget Medium enjoyed, and with people who were veterans of all the products I knew and loved. I was used to being an outsider, and found myself on a world-class team trying to build something that promoted positive discourse. Honestly, although I had to level up in all kinds of ways, my biggest challenge there was managing the anxiety of working around so many people I looked up to. Happily, a lot of the people I worked with remain very good friends; if I hadn’t been asked to join Matter as Director of Investments, an opportunity I couldn’t say no to, I would have stayed for a lot longer.

My first real interaction with Ev while I was there centered around the open web. Coming from an indieweb context, I was a bit guarded: I didn’t think Medium probably had exactly my priorities, and I was a little worried that the indieweb community might think I’d sold out. The jury’s out on the indieweb community (I don’t think mostly anyone cared), but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ev cares deeply about the web, was interested in deep interoperability, and believes in the health of the ecosystem as well as the discourse on it.

I’ve known Tony Stubblebine for longer. He was working on Crowdvine while I was working on Elgg; different products, but playing in a similar-enough space that we often found ourselves at the same meetups and in the same discussions. He’s a thoughtful, kind person who is also very analytical, and has always given me good advice. He built a really strong community with Coach.me, both inside and out, and he’s been a really strong champion of Medium’s own community.

So I couldn’t be more excited about two things: Tony taking over as CEO, and Ev going to investigate new ideas as part of a new holding company. I can’t wait to see what they both do next.

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Reminder: I'm selling my house and you could own it

Do I know these reminders are annoying? Yes. Am I going to keep posting anyway? Also yes.

Our house went on the market yesterday: offers starting at $849K for a three bed, 2.5 bath home in Santa Rosa with a split-level deck and in-ground pool. There are beautiful, hardwood floors throughout (we installed them when we moved in), vaulted ceilings, and I can confirm that being there is very nice. Maybe you’re sick of San Francisco, or Austin, or New York, and you want a relaxing oasis that is also very close to the action? We wrote about our experiences in the house, and there are a lot of nearby amenities. Did I mention the nearby parks, hiking, and bike trails? I should probably write some more about that.

Anyway, here’s the website, and here’s the Zillow profile. Go take a look.

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My indieweb real estate website (part two)

A little earlier this year, I mentioned that I was building an indieweb real estate website.

Preparing a home for sale is more difficult than I’d accounted for. Digging our worldly possessions out of it, and then ensuring that the house was in the best shape it could be, took a lot of time. And in the meantime, a lot of life happened.

Our family home in Santa Rosa is finally going on the market this week. And, although I’ll likely keep working on it, I have my indieweb website ready to go.

When I initially brought up the idea, I set myself two main restrictions. I said it needed to be online in two weeks, and I blew through that by months. But I also said:

It needs to get an A for SEO, site performance, and security.

It does. Here are its core web vitals via web.dev:

And its security rating via Mozilla Observatory:

It helped that I hand-rolled the site.

You might note that performance remains at 97/100, while the other metrics are at 100. There is still a Cumulative Layout Shift at 0.14 seconds, which is almost certainly because there are a lot of images on the page which have dynamic heights and widths depending on the viewport. There’s more I can do there to make those images a predictable size.

There are a handful of non-obvious things I had to do. For example, both MLS and land parcels have a numeric identifier. If you view this on a phone, the mobile browser tries to intelligently turn those into phone numbers, creating unnecessary links. I didn’t want to link out to a third-party site for MLS or land parcels, but it turns out you can suppress automatic phone number linking with the following meta tag:

<meta name="format-detection" content="telephone=no">

Each image is loaded from an image set; I hand-resized them for various reasonable viewport sizes. I also created independently-cropped images for Twitter and Facebook.

To get the highest security rating possible, I made sure there was no inline code (no inline stylesheets or JS), and created a Content Security Policy that I apply via an .htaccess file.

Finally, I said:

It’ll be a hand-rolled static site. No frameworks for the HTML, JS, or CSS, and no pre-set templates: just me, a text editor, and some design tools.

And that’s what I did. I wrote the HTML and CSS from scratch in VS Code, making liberal use of media queries and CSS grids. And I had a lot of fun doing it.

My full code (which is really simple!) is available on GitHub, but the most exciting way to take a look is to view the website itself at 5405spainave.com.

And if you want a beautiful wine country home in Santa Rosa, California, you know who to talk to.

*

Some other ideas that came up:

What about video or virtual reality? We didn’t have a professionally-produced video of the home. We do have professionally-taken photographs, which I’ve used liberally. I took some of the others (eg of wineries and Bodega Bay), and the rest came from Unsplash.

What if we accepted crypto for the home? It’s too difficult to do; agents, escrow, legal frameworks are not set up for this. Also, at least one member of our family makes a particular kind of face whenever crypto is mentioned. It had occurred to me that we could push the selling price for crypto sales a little higher: eg, sure, we’ll take your ETH or BTC, but the dollar equivalent will be $2M. (If you would like to give us two million dollars for our home, please do get in touch.)

What about a blog or regularly-updated content? Home sales in California are incredibly short. We could have written a blog about getting the home ready, but honestly, it was already a stressful enough process. We anticipate a very short sales window for the home itself, so we didn’t do it. I’ll likely add more narrative description in the our experience page.

And analytics? The site doesn’t set any cookies or collect any analytics on the front end. However, I do push it through Cloudflare’s CDN, which gives me some simple stats to gauge success.

It’s a very simple website. Yes. And often, that’s all you need.

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My American thought experiment

I’ve been very open on the internet for as long as it’s been available to consumers. If you search hard enough, you can find my teenage poetry and discussion posts; the journey of supporting my mother through her illness, and then my own grieving process after her loss; my reactions to September 11, the invasion of Iraq, and 30 years of Presidential and Parliamentary elections. It’s all out there: sometimes on a live website, sometimes in the Internet Archive, but nonetheless there to see if you want to find it.

This is an undeniably privileged position. I’m a white-presenting man who has lived in a developed nation during a prosperous, liberal period of history. My freedom of speech has never been in question; I’ve never felt in danger because of my opinions; there’s been no need to withhold. I started posting on the internet early, and it’s never really occurred to me to stop. Mostly, it’s only brought about very good things for me. I’m very lucky.

It hasn’t always been so for my family. My great grandfather fled pogroms in Ukraine; my father is one of the youngest concentration camp survivors. My Oma, my paternal grandmother, had nightmares about the camp every single night for the rest of her life.

I sometimes have run the thought experiment: if we weren’t living in the 21st century, if I’d been born in the Netherlands in the 1930s instead of 1979, if there were white nationalists marching in the streets and rounding up Jews, who would I be able to trust? Who would be the people who would say no to the prevailing cold winds and put themselves in danger to help someone labeled as undesirable, and who would not? Who blindly follows rules and seeks to fit in, and who stands up for what is right?

It’s kind of a messed-up, reductive thought experiment, of course, but it’s also clarifying. Because I’m white-passing and have a British accent, people have felt safe to say all kinds of terrible things around me. People have said terrible things to my face about immigrants (of which I was one), Jews (ditto), and Asians (hello). Not to mention about other ethnicities, about members of LGBTQIA+ communities, about other nationalities and identities. And then there are the small things: not overt bigotry, but the tiny microaggressions that lead to discrimination; HOA jobsworths and country clubs. You would hope that I would find most people to be safe in my twisted little thought experiment; they are not.

It should go without saying that this is nothing compared to what others have experienced. I have all the privileges that come with being a white-passing man with a colonizer’s accent. The experience of women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people in this country is well-documented and oppressive. It’s a country where parents are encouraged to use military-grade encryption to share information about their pregnancies for their own safety. Where where police can shoot an unarmed Black man in the back 90 times as he runs away.

Frederick Douglass delivered What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? 170 years ago. It’s remarkable how little has changed.

Still, my thought experiment has taken on new meaning over the last few years.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that America is at a crossroads. If anything, it’s on a luge. We’re descending ever-faster into a world where contraception and same-sex marriage may not be protected, where scholars are warning that fascism has taken root, and where headlines reference “democracy advocates” as an interest group. It’s a country where mass shooters write screeds about the “great replacement theory” that suggests Jews are bringing in non-white immigrants to replace white voters as part of a political agenda. A country where racists can chant “Jews will not replace us!” on city streets and an outgoing President can abet an invasion of the Capitol by insurrectionists waving the Confederate flag. Where a right enjoyed for half a century can be taken away with a single judicial decision.

Some people have chosen to hide behind the nonsense phrase “this is not who we are”. It’s the equivalent of responding “not all men!” to complaints about endemic sexism. This absolutely is America: a place with a rising tide of vehement Christian nationalism, building on a bedrock that has been intentionally established over a period of decades. And the question has to be: what’s next?

On the two hundred and forty-sixth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the immediate future of democracy in this country - and with it, freedom of speech and freedom of the press - doesn’t look particularly rosy.

I find myself revisiting the wisdom of my open remarks on the internet over the last thirty years, published for the world to see. Realistically, I can’t take them back. But from a Christian nationalist worldview, there’s plenty out there to incriminate me. Regardless of what I’ve said, there’s plenty inherent to my identity that someone of that persuasion might react to. And, again, I’ve got it far easier than many.

And I find myself revisiting my thought experiment.

If someone chooses to have an abortion under this new nationalism, who can be trusted to help and protect them? If an organization refuses entry to a person because of their sexuality, gender, or the color of their skin, who will stand up to them? If the police are targeting a Black man, who can be trusted to give him aid? If immigration raids threaten to tear families apart and break up communities, who will warn them and give them shelter? Who will speak up for their liberty and justice? And if we continue down this road, following ICE detention camps, forced rendition, and seemingly-endless police shootings, what then? If someone in government - perhaps one of the many nationalist-aligned candidates up for election - decides to agree with the Christian nationalists that Jews are, indeed, a threat? Who will stand up for freedom and who will fulfill the historical observation that nice people - people who kept their heads down, who didn’t get involved in politics - made the best Nazis?

The people who do stand up? The irony is that we’ve always been told those are American values. That America, the one stories are told about, is worth standing behind. An America that believes in equality; an America that is a pinnacle of democracy; an America free from bigotry; one that stands for liberty and justice for all. It’s just not the one we happen to find ourselves living in.

 

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

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My text editors

A text editor is just a text editor, right? Well, not really - and it turns out I use a variety of text editors for different purposes.

iA Writer is how I draft and publish my blog posts and short stories. It’s a beautiful, minimalist markdown editor that knows when to get out of my way. And it supports Micropub, which lets me publish pieces directly to my website.

BBEdit is a professional text editor. I use it as my scratchpad; features like regular expression search and replace and smart syntax highlighting make it an easy place for me to inspect and adjust text files.

Ulysses is a long-form writing app. I’m writing a novel in it, and have a few abandoned starts to other long-form fiction. I haven’t used its grammar checker or editing tools (in general, I hate and distrust grammar checkers), but I know they may come in handy later on.

Obsidian is becoming my outboard brain. Some of those thoughts are public; you can find them at werd.cloud. I love that it’s completely cross-platform.

VSCode is my Integrated Development Environment of choice; if you’re a programmer, it’s a good chance it’s yours, too. If you’d told the me ten years ago that I’d be regularly using a product with “Visual Studio” in the name, I would have laughed at you - but here we are. It’s a testament to how much Microsoft has grown and changed.

Nano is the editor I use inside my terminal window. I prefer it to vi and vim; I just do.

Slab is how I write documentation to share with teams. It’s dramatically better than Confluence, which I’d used previously, for this purpose: lightning fast, with features that allow you to ensure documentation is current.

Apple Notes (in concert with Reminders) has become my place to keep track of work notes. It’s not perfect, but it’s steadily improving, and it’s always there, across my devices. The Quick Note feature is really neat, and I love that I can write in longhand with my Apple Pencil.

Google Docs is how I collaborate on documentation with other people. It’s easy, real-time, and cross-platform.

Microsoft Word is how I talk to lawyers and format fiction manuscripts.

What are your text editors of choice?

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Reading, watching, playing, using: June, 2022

This is my monthly roundup of the books, articles, and streaming media I found interesting. Here's my list for April, 2022.

Books

Reap3r, by Eliot Peper. A page-turner set in a very familiar world to me - I had fun recognizing the scenery, the interpersonal dynamics, the cultural references. There was adventure, plausible near-future science fiction scenarios mined for tension; I had trouble putting it down, and that’s exactly what I wanted from it. Worth a read.

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St John Mandel. Her writing style takes a lot of getting used to: not so much plot as collage. I spent the first third to a half wondering where we were going. Still, there’s an interesting story here, and well-drawn characters. The themes take some teasing out but are rewarding.

Notable Articles

Business

Starbucks Threatens Loss of Trans Benefits in Anti-Union Push, Staff Say. “Starbucks Corp. managers in several states have told baristas that its vaunted transgender-inclusive health-care benefits could go away if they unionize, employees alleged in interviews and a new complaint filed with the US labor board.”

Microsoft Announces It Will Include Pay Ranges In All U.S. Job Postings. Experts Predict It Will Be The First Of Many. “Changes may not ripple through big companies immediately. Many employers don’t relish sharing pay data that’s long been kept secret. Laws in some other jurisdictions that require disclosure of pay ranges—there are now six, including New York City—don’t go into effect for months, and employers have already pushed to postpone the practice there.” But when it happens - and it will - it will be a great step forward, in particular for communities that have systemically been underpaid.

Microsoft adopts principles for employee organizing and engagement with labor organizations. “We recognize that employees have a legal right to choose whether to form or join a union. We respect this right and do not believe that our employees or the company’s other stakeholders benefit by resisting lawful employee efforts to participate in protected activities, including forming or joining a union.” Major statement from Microsoft, breaking rank with most of the rest of the industry.

Climate

The US Supreme Court just gutted federal climate policy. ““Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day,’” the decision reads. “But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.””

The US is pushing EVs while sending its polluting gas-guzzlers abroad. “But what’s missing from that agenda is any plan for how to deal with the diesel and gas-guzzling vehicles being exported in increasingly large numbers to low-income countries around the world. That essentially offshores carbon and air pollution, but in the case of the climate and public health, out of sight isn’t out of mind. That missing piece could wind up derailing the very purpose of Biden’s clean transportation plan and global climate goals.”

Covid

COVID vaccines saved 20M lives in 1st year, scientists say. “The researchers used data from 185 countries to estimate that vaccines prevented 4.2 million COVID-19 deaths in India, 1.9 million in the United States, 1 million in Brazil, 631,000 in France and 507,000 in the United Kingdom.”

Crypto

Cryptocurrency Titan Coinbase Providing “Geo Tracking Data” to ICE. “Coinbase, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in the United States, is selling Immigrations and Customs Enforcement a suite of features used to track and identify cryptocurrency users, according to contract documents shared with The Intercept.”

Bitcoin fell below $20,000 — and why it has further to go. “Of course, everyone is asking, why did bitcoin plunge so quickly Saturday night? What pushed it below $20,000 so suddenly? Somebody is selling. Who needs to sell?”

Why the crypto crash hits different in Latin America. “As the Venezuelan economist Aarón Olmos of the Institute of Higher Administrative Studies (IESA) told Rest of World, people in Latin America began turning to crypto as a way to circumvent their unstable or stagnant economies. He said that in surveys he ran with crypto users in Venezuela, the most common response was, “I would rather have a digital asset whose price goes up and down than a currency whose only real trend is down, thanks to the political economy.””

Inside a Corporate Culture War Stoked by a Crypto C.E.O. “He also questioned their use of preferred pronouns and led a discussion about “who can refer to another person as the N word.” And he told workers that questions about women’s intelligence and risk appetite compared with men’s were “not as settled as one might have initially thought.”” Reprehensible.

There's an Interesting Theory About Why Anthony Hopkins Is Suddenly Shilling NFTs. “Since Hopkins’ public turn towards blockchain, Twitter users have been quick to point out that CAA is an investor in the OpenSea NFT market, and others still suggested that the agency is pushing its talent to shill NFTs because of this investment.”

Culture

Nate. “I made this comic to explain things to my family, but you can have it too.” This is delightful.

A half star review of Top Gun: Maverick (2022). “Even if one can ignore the rabidly bloodthirsty nature of this movie, it is still absolute garbage. The morals of this story are, and I am not exaggerating in the slightest: soldiers should ignore orders to stand down, and you should take actions without thinking about them. Our heroes follow these lessons throughout the story and are constantly rewarded for it. It is a child’s understanding of bravery and honor, coated in thick layers of some of the most painfully sentimental slime that Hollywood has ever produced.”

Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Phoebe Waller-Bridge heralds 'new dawn' in major shake-up to win over locals and 'red card' rogue venue operators. “The Fringe Society has pledged to “eradicate” exploitative, unsafe and unfair work practices by introducing a new three-stage system, which will see event organisers banned from using the official programme, website and box office if they fall foul of official guidelines for a third time.” Good to see.

Media

Twitter is the go-to social media site for U.S. journalists, but not for the public. “More than nine-in-ten journalists in the United States (94%) use social media for their jobs, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey of reporters, editors and others working in the news industry. But the sites that journalists use most frequently differ from those that the public turns to for news.”

Every week, two more newspapers close — and ‘news deserts’ grow larger. “Already, some 2,500 dailies and weeklies have shuttered since 2005; there are fewer than 6,500 left. Every week, two more disappear. And although many digital-only news sites have cropped up around the nation, most communities that lost a local newspaper will not get a print or digital replacement.”

Fox Corp. Loses Bid to Toss Dominion Defamation Lawsuit Over Vote-Rigging Claims. “Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis on Tuesday denied Fox Corp.’s motion to dismiss the suit, saying Dominion Voting Systems had shown that the Murdochs may have been on notice that the conspiracy theory that rigged voting machines tilted the vote was false but let Fox News broadcast it anyway. Dominion cited in its suit a report that Rupert Murdoch spoke with Trump a few days after the election “and informed him that he had lost,” the judge noted.”

Politics

The fall of Roe v. Wade is the culmination of the Democratic establishment’s failures. “The overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the underwhelming reaction from senior Democratic leaders to that huge defeat, make the case even clearer that the party’s too-long-in-power leaders — including President Biden — need to move aside. On their watch, a radicalized Republican Party has gained so much power that it’s on the verge of ending American democracy as we know it.”

The Philosophy that Underpins the Right: It's Not What You Think. A notable piece from a venture capital investor: “After the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade, I was chatting with someone who grew up in another country and hadn’t spent a lot of time in and around American politics. They were trying to understand the inherent contradictions between a theoretically conservative right that expands the government to legislate over personal decisions like the healthcare around a pregnancy.”

Pride sponsors also donate to lawmakers behind anti-LGBTQ+ bills. “At least seven companies and their employee-led PACs tracked by Data for Progress continued campaign donations for the 2022 election cycle to politicians backing anti-LGBTQ+ legislation after signing a pledge against such bills from the Human Rights Campaign and Freedom for All Americans.”

Overturning Roe v. Wade could drive voter turnout, poll finds. “A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 64 percent of U.S adults say they do not want abortion rights to be overturned, with 37 percent of voters saying a Roe reversal would make them more motivated to vote.”

Living With The Far-Right Insurgency In Idaho. “A lot has been written about both the radicalization of the Republican Party and the decline of democracy in the U.S. — about the country being at a precipice. It’s maybe easy for those warnings to become background noise, or to dismiss them as doom-mongering pieces of clickbait. But in Idaho, the nightmare scenario is crossing into reality, as an authoritarian GOP sets about to create a whiter, Christian nation.”

Christian nationalism on the rise in some GOP campaigns. “According to a recent survey by the institute, white evangelical Christians were among the strongest supporters of the assertion that God intended America as a “promised land” for European Christians. Those who backed that idea were far more likely to agree that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence ... to save our country.””

Science

Dyslexia Actually Grants Special Powers, Researchers Say. “A team of Cambridge scientists published research in the journal Frontiers of Psychology earlier today that raises the possibility that dyslexia, which affects an estimated one in five people worldwide, could actually help the human species adapt and ensure future success.”

‘Fluffy’ crab that wears a sponge as a hat discovered in Western Australia. “Hosie said it wasn’t clear why Lamarckdromia beagle was so fluffy.” But I’m glad that it is.

Why Is This Tiny Frog So Awful At Jumping? “The pumpkin toadlet, which is a frog but not a toad, is so terrible at landing its jumps that its sheer incompetence has become a subject of scientific inquiry. A team of researchers from the United States and Brazil that includes Confetti and Singh say they have an answer: The miniaturized toadlets are so tiny that the fluid-filled chambers in their inner ears which control their balance function rather ineffectively, dooming the valiant little jumpers to a lifetime of crash landings.”

Asteroid samples contain 'clues to origin of life': Japan scientists. “Scientists have been questioning how organic matter -- including amino acids -- was created or where it came from, and the fact that amino acids were discovered in the sample offers a reason to think that amino acids were brought to Earth from outer space.”

Society

Texas educator group proposes referring to slavery as “involuntary relocation” in second grade curriculum. “This group proposing second grade curriculum revisions was given a copy of Senate Bill 3, Texas’ law that dictates how slavery and race is taught in Texas. In it, the law states that slavery can’t be taught as a true founding of the United States and that slavery was nothing more than a deviation from American values.”

1955 warrant in Emmett Till case found, family seeks arrest. “A team searching a Mississippi courthouse basement for evidence about the lynching of Black teenager Emmett Till has found the unserved warrant charging a white woman in his 1955 kidnapping, and relatives of the victim want authorities to finally arrest her nearly 70 years later.” All this terrible history is so close.

Patients in Texas abortion clinic waiting rooms were turned away as Roe fell. “Those turned away were patients who were now outside an already small window: In September, Texas banned abortion past six weeks of pregnancy. That law was the first in a series of abortion restrictions passed in states across the country in the last year that served as a preview of life after Roe.”

Liberal Supreme Court justices detail post-Roe America in furious abortion dissent. ““Those responsible for the original Constitution, including the Fourteenth Amendment, did not perceive women as equals, and did not recognize women’s rights,” Breyer continued, adding that the court may as well rely on standards from the Dark Ages, and that this “consigns women to second-class citizenship.””

Ohio Makes It Easier for Teachers to Carry Guns at School. “A new law requires educators and other school staff members who want to carry a weapon to undergo no more than 24 hours of training — compared with more than 700 hours previously.” What could possibly go wrong?

Young women are leading the movement to stop the next school shooting. ““People often forget that women are the backbone of most of our progressive movements in this country,” Eastmond said. “So, I have noticed a lot of women involved [in gun reform], but that’s not something out of the ordinary that we haven’t seen before. I think women just naturally end up involved in progressive change.””

A Year in Photos of Gender Expansive Youth Across U.S. “The photographer Annie Flanagan spent a year documenting gender-expansive young people across the U.S. as they experience adolescence at a fraught political and cultural time. Flanagan’s subjects are supporting one another, thriving, and finding joy. They’re getting ready for summer vacation. They’re hanging out with their friends. They’re maneuvering the social dynamics of prom. They’re walking across the stage at high school graduation and getting their diplomas, looking to the future, and planning for better days. These moments send their own message.”

It’s Been 50 Years. I Am Not ‘Napalm Girl’ Anymore. “I cannot speak for the families in Uvalde, Texas, but I think that showing the world what the aftermath of a gun rampage truly looks like can deliver the awful reality. We must face this violence head-on, and the first step is to look at it.”

Ethiopia’s Invisible Ethnic Cleansing. “For more than a year and a half, a largely invisible campaign of ethnic cleansing has played out in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray. Older people, women, and children have been loaded onto trucks and forced out of their villages and hometowns. Men have been herded into overcrowded detention sites, where  many have died of disease, starvation, or torture. In total, several hundred thousand Tigrayans have been forcibly uprooted because of their ethnicity.”

Technology

Instagram and Facebook remove posts offering abortion pills. “The Facebook account was immediately put on a “warning” status for the post, which Facebook said violated its standards on “guns, animals and other regulated goods.” Yet, when the AP reporter made the same exact post but swapped out the words “abortion pills” for “a gun,” the post remained untouched. A post with the same exact offer to mail “weed” was also left up and not considered a violation.”

Section 230 Is a Last Line of Defense for Abortion Speech Online. “Section 230 is the last line of defense keeping reproductive health care support, information, and fundraising online. Under Section 230, internet platforms that host and moderate user-generated content cannot generally be sued for that content. Section 230 is not absolute. It does not provide immunity if the platform develops or creates the content, and it does not provide immunity from the enforcement of federal criminal laws. But, crucially, it does protect against criminal liability from state laws.”

They Live and the secret history of the Mozilla logo. “So that was the time that I somehow convinced a multi-billion dollar corporation to give away the source code to their flagship product and re-brand it using propaganda art by the world’s most notorious graffiti artist.”

W3C to become a public-interest non-profit organization. “We need a structure where we meet at a faster pace the demands of new web capabilities and address the urgent problems of the web. The W3C Team is small, bounded in size, and the Hosted model hinders rapid development and acquisition of skills in new fields.”

Amazon Shows Off Alexa Speaking in the Voice of a Dead Relative. “In a video demo shown at the event, a young boy says, “Alexa, can Grandma finish reading me ‘The Wizard of Oz’?” — whereupon a synthesized voice of the grandmother emanates from an Amazon Echo Dot smart speaker.” That’s a hard no from me.

Facebook and Anti-Abortion Clinics Are Collecting Highly Sensitive Info on Would-Be Patients. “More than a third of the websites sent data to Facebook when someone made an appointment for an “abortion consultation” or “pre-termination screening.” And at least 39 sites sent Facebook details such as the person’s name, email address, or phone number.”

Facebook Is Receiving Sensitive Medical Information from Hospital Websites. “A tracking tool installed on many hospitals’ websites has been collecting patients’ sensitive health information—including details about their medical conditions, prescriptions, and doctor’s appointments—and sending it to Facebook.”

Tesla Accused of Shutting Off Autopilot Moments Before Impact. “In the report, the NHTSA spotlights 16 separate crashes, each involving a Tesla vehicle plowing into stopped first responders and highway maintenance vehicles. In the crashes, it claims, records show that the self-driving feature had “aborted vehicle control less than one second prior to the first impact” — a finding that calls supposedly-exonerating crash reports, which Musk himself has a pension for circulating, into question.”

Firefox Rolls Out Total Cookie Protection By Default To All Users. Really good work.

Salesforce to employees: We're not going to stop working with the NRA. “Salesforce employees have asked the company to end its relationship with the National Rifle Association. But during an all-hands Wednesday, co-CEOs Bret Taylor and Marc Benioff said that the company wouldn’t bar specific customers from using its services, according to a recording obtained by Protocol.”

Smartphones Blur the Line Between Civilian and Combatant. This seems to be laying some dangerous ground: “The principle of distinction between the two roles is a critical cornerstone of international humanitarian law—the law of armed conflict, codified by decades of customs and laws such as the Geneva Conventions. Those considered civilians and civilian targets are not to be attacked by military forces; as they are not combatants, they should be spared. At the same time, they also should not act as combatants—if they do, they may lose this status.”

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I’ve still got it

I’ve still got it! Covid, that is.

Today was a bit of a backslide: I feel worse, and I’m having a little trouble catching my breath. My pulse oximeter (actually my mother’s pulse oximeter, which I’d like to think she’d be happy I was using, but also sad I was using) reads 98, which isn’t bad.

And I’m just exhausted all of the time, which is getting really old. I’m trying not to think about how much weight I might be gaining being completely stationary, or what recovery will look like once the virus finally subsides, but I linger there sometimes.

I’m up to date on Ms. Marvel, which is really good. I had to bail from Obi-Wan Kenobi, which did not hold my attention. I am noticeably less good at Wordle.

On we go.

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The startupification of education

Something in Anne-Marie Scott’s post about losing her love of what she does struck a chord with me. Not because I’ve lost the love of what I do - on the contrary, I’m lucky enough to have re-found it. But the way she describes the startupification of education sounds very familiar:

Access is a problem of scale at one level and I am committed to working on that but I increasingly hear reductive views of digital learning limited to students navigating personalised pathways through high-end content and teachers interpreting that learning through analytics. This seems devoid of any kind of good relations and community.

The need for high scale is a crater that has been dug in the fabric of civic life.

For a startup to be venture fundable, it must demonstrate that it is scalable: in other words, it can plausibly grow to be a billion dollar company without linearly increasing the size of its team. Or to put it a lot more simply: it has the potential to make exponential profit. Mint money. Make everyone involved incredibly rich.

And many of them have! Google and Facebook rule the world (figuratively speaking). A lot of founders and a lot of investors have become wealthy by turning startups into scalable flywheels. Venture funding isn’t the only way to fund a startup, but it’s certainly the way that’s caught the public’s and the industry’s imagination, and the result is that the notion of scalability has, too.

But not everything has to be scalable; not everything has to be venture scale. There are a lot of public services, technologies in the public interest, and fully-profitable businesses that benefit by not trying to reach scale. Relationships are the building blocks of society; eradicating those in favor of analytics, in education of all places, is counter-productive, to put it charitably.

The thing to understand about scale is that it’s the antithesis of intimacy. It’s possible to build a service that hits 10 people or 10 million people with the same team; it comes down to different design choices. But it’s not possible to build a service that serves those 10 million people with the same richness of understanding that the one for 10 people has the potential to reach. You can’t get to know each person; you can’t build up a real relationship of trust and 1:1 knowledge. The best you can achieve is a kind of rat-maze simulation of intimacy. How can you possibly hope to respond to a learner’s needs in that environment? And if the educational institution isn’t meeting a learner’s needs, that means someone else has to be - meaning that education at scale can only possibly serve learners who are privileged enough to have individual support at home.

It’s also used in public services under the mistaken assumption that running them like businesses will make them more efficient. Public services *aren’t* businesses, by definition. By making the bottom line a key performance indicator, rather than long-term learner outcomes across a range of inclusive lenses, school authorities are incentivized to trade 1:1 quality  off in favor of cost-effectiveness. That’s not how you get to an educated, creative society. And surely that’s the goal?

It’s been a while since I worked in education. The platform I co-founded, Elgg, was originally intended to support the kind of informal learning that happened in hallways and study groups, but remotely. I always said that if I thought it was going to replace or reduce in-person teaching, I’d shut it down tomorrow. I wish more EdTech projects would consider the same approach.

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Still isolating

Covid kicked my ass for approximately four and a half days, and it’s still kicking my ass, but now at least I can read more than half a paragraph of text and string something approaching a complete sentence together. I’m still isolating, still contagious, still feeling like someone has come and sucked the energy from my body with a straw in one of the short windows at night when I’ve actually managed to get some sleep, but I feel a great deal more like me than I did. How I feel tomorrow depends greatly on how much sleep I manage to get tonight.

I’m lucky, of course: I have friends who have had narrow escapes from the ICU, and I know plenty of people who have lost loved ones. It’s a privilege to be able to claw my way online and complain about how much it sucks.

In a weird way, it’s been nice to have contemplative time, after a year that has felt like a whirlwind (which followed another year that felt like a whirlwind). It would have been better to have contemplative time where it didn’t feel like my body was disintegrating around me, so that’s a wake-up call that I need to build more solitary, quiet space into my life. That’s when I’m at my most creative, and I would like nothing more than more time doing more creative, self-driven work. I need more time by myself - and really, I haven’t had much of any over the last year or two - so I’ll find a way to make it.

Meanwhile, it turns out that writing this four-paragraph blog post has completely wiped me out. So I’m closing my laptop again and accepting that I’m not going to do anything productive until I’m much more rid of this virus than I am right now. Time for a dumb movie or something, or just some sleep.

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Friday

Yesterday, the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade, undoing fifty years of the right to an abortion in the United States. Here’s The 19th’s continually-updated list of what abortion laws look like across the country. And here’s what might happen next.

On a personal note, at the end of the day I also tested positive for Covid. It’s frustrating, because all I’ve been doing is clearing out a house to move out of it, and I’ve had little to no contact with other people. I have no idea where or who I got it from. It’s a good reminder that the pandemic is not over, and you should be careful, test often, and isolate yourself immediately if you test positive.

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Infosec for abortion-seekers

We know from a leaked draft decision that over the next few days, it’s likely that the US Supreme Court will issue a ruling in Dobbs vs Jackson that will eliminate federal abortion protections.

Here, from my colleagues at The 19th, is what abortion laws look like across the US right now. Many states have trigger laws on the books that will take effect as soon as federal abortion protections are eliminated. Notably, states like Texas make it illegal to help someone get an abortion, and allow anyone to sue someone for doing so. Abortion travel bans are also looming: untested laws that would prevent someone from traveling to another state to get an abortion.

It’s remarkable that these sorts of restrictions should be placed on a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body in a democracy. It’s more remarkable still to see vigilante laws go into effect, and to see states weigh up legislation that denies people the right to choose whether to travel to a different state where abortion is legal. (These restrictions don’t exist for assisted suicide, for example, after a Constitutional challenge.)

For most people on the internet, their information journey begins with a service like Google or Facebook. On these services, your search history and other activity can be subpoenaed, meaning that if you go to court, perhaps because someone sued you for trying to get an abortion, it can be used against you. Pro-life organizations are already using Facebook to learn more about potential abortion payments. Earlier this year, a data broker was found to be selling data about people who visited Planned Parenthood.

So what happens if you do need an abortion? What kind of security stance should people take?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a guide that sensibly describes compartmentalization, community agreements, and safe browsing. This is really important, smart advice, but it doesn’t go far enough in a world where your cellphone’s location data may reveal that you went to a clinic.

A lot of location data is derived from the apps you use, and it’s usually not obvious which apps send information where. A few years ago, it was discovered that a Muslim prayer app shared information with the US military. It’s not inconceivable that an app wouldn’t, or isn’t, sharing data with law enforcement: although the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement needs a warrant to get wireless carrier location data, it can buy location data from brokers.

Abortion isn’t the last stop for this kind of legislation or approach: gender affirming care and even marriage equality may be on the docket. Even more broadly, we should all consider whether we want to live in a world where our every private action can be tracked and used against us. Miranda rights state that “anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law”; we’ve built a reality where anything we do can, too, whether or not we’ve been made aware.

The most effective protection would be a legislature that is in favor of an individuals’s right to choose and to privacy. A group of Senators is seeking a ban on the sale of health location data, following a letter that was sent to Google CEO Sundar Pichai urging the same. But failing legislative protection, pro-choice advocates need to begin building grassroots infosec skills and tools if they want to prevent this data from being used against abortion-seekers. Today, there is very little out there to help.

A few days ago, I asked the question: Who is doing the best work on infosec for women who may be seeking an abortion? As of now, there are no good answers.

 

Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash

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FIDO passkeys are an existential threat to fintech startups

FIDO is a new authentication technology intended to supersede passwords. Here, passwords are replaced with a biometric input: for example, FaceID or TouchID on Apple devices. iOS, Android, macOS, and Windows are all getting this soon due to an alliance between Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

I think it’s unequivocally great: an open standard that provides better security for end users while simultaneously providing a better user experience. Yay!

But spare a thought for the fintech industry. It’s an open secret that the US financial industry widely uses screen scraping to enable data sharing integrations between entities. As a sector, it’s been incredibly slow to adopt open APIs and other mechanisms that would protect user safety.

Last year, Protocol wrote about screen scraping’s widespread use to integrate payroll systems:

Davis of Atomic said the company has used screen scraping "when user-permissioned APIs are not available." One example is when Atomic needs to connect with state unemployment systems, which typically don't have API connectivity. A Plaid spokesman said the company uses "a combination of API access and screen scraping at the direction of customers."

Technically, it’s not a great solution: by definition, screen scraping requires storing a user’s financial system passwords in clear text. Nonetheless, you can bet that every system that integrates with payroll systems, and almost every system that integrates with banks (at a minimum), uses the technique. The US has badly needed open banking style standards for years.

FIDO is likely to bring an end to this practice: when financial services use FIDO passkeys for authentication, screen scraping becomes impossible. Based on their historical precedent implementing new technologies, it may take years before financial services adopt the standard for authentication. But when they do, it will become impossible for third parties to access those systems without the service provider’s consent.

At this point, one of two things will happen: a set of open APIs for integration will appear and begin to reach adoption, or a whole generation of startups will die. It might be both!

If I was a fintech startup, I’d be establishing a set of open source APIs, forming an alliance with other fintech companies and financial institutions, and doing whatever I could to get traditional financial companies to adopt it before they transition away from password authentication. If I was a fintech investor, I’d be bankrolling this endeavor. If I was the government, I would be enacting strong legislation to force the industry forward (which may require lobbying from companies, investors, and consumers alike). Because otherwise, greater security and a better user experience for consumers looks a lot like an existential threat.

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Tech on Juneteenth

Juneteenth is not the commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation, when President Lincoln declared that all slaves in the Confederacy were free. (Some Union slaves weren’t free until the passage of the 13th Amendment.) Instead, it celebrates the event, two and a half years later, when emancipation finally reached Galveston, Texas. Ending slavery in the US was a long and drawn-out process.

Arguably, though, not every form of slavery ended. The US still employs slave labor through its prison system, which disproportionately incarcerates people of color and forces them to work for rates as low as $0.23 to $1.15 an hour. Some states, like Texas, Georgia, and Florida, don’t pay prisoners at all.

As the End the Exception campaign by Worth Rises describes it:

Passed in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is celebrated for abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. However, to the surprise of many, the Thirteenth Amendment includes an exception clause that has been understood throughout history to allow slavery and involuntary servitude to be used as punishment for crime. During Reconstruction, this understanding encouraged the criminalization, incarceration, and re-enslavement of Black people.

Worth Rises maintains a report of corporations that use slave labor, which was last updated in 2020. As part of the report, you can download a filterable Excel spreadsheet of over 4,100 corporations that take advantage of prison labor.

Here are companies I found in the dataset from the internet / telecoms industry which take advantage of this labor, whether through profit or direct use. While I am not responsible for the dataset, any omissions to this list as I filtered from the main dataset are mine and purely accidental. These are names that jumped out to me; I recommend reviewing the whole dataset. It would also be worth considering which of these companies have advocated for Black Lives Matter and similar racial equity movements that seek to dismantle systems of oppression while continuing to engage in these systems.

Some of these were a complete surprise to me: for example, Adobe, Snap, Zoom, ESRI, Rackspace, and Google. They might surprise you, too.

Accenture
Adobe Systems
Akamai
Amazon
AT&T
Blackberry
Blackstone Technology Group
Blue Tech
BMC
Capgemini
Chainalysis
Charter Communications (dba Spectrum)
Cincinnati Bell
Cisco Systems
Deutsche Telekom [which owns 48.4% of T-Mobile]
Dun & Bradstreet
ESRI
Frontier Communications (formerly Citizens Utilities Company)
Google
IBM
Konica Minolta
Kyocera Group
MTM Technologies
NetApp
Nexcom
NTT Data
Onix
Oracle
Palantir
Polycom
Rackspace Government Solutions
Salesforce
SAP Concur Technologies
Snap
Softlayer
Symantec
T-Mobile
Time Warner Cable (dba Spectrum)
TransUnion
UNICOM Global
Venture Netcomm
Verizon
VMware
Zoom Video Communications

 

Updated to note that these companies may profit from the prison complex rather than use slave labor directly. Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash.

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50 Years of Title IX: a free, streaming event

The 19th, where I now work on technology, is putting on a three-day summit, and you’re invited!

50 Years of Title IX marks 50 years of advances in gender equity in higher education, athletics, the workforce and beyond. The speaker list is genuinely incredible, and includes Elizabeth Warren, Jennifer Doudna (who co-invented CRISPR), Kate Calvin (Chief Scientist and Senior Climate Advisor at NASA), major figures in women’s sports, and representatives across parties.

The whole event streams online, and there’s an in-person day in Washington DC on Friday, June 17 if you’re in the area.

Registration is free, and you should go take a look. It starts today.

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My personal websites - June 2022

Like every web nerd, I’ve got a bunch of domain names (even though I’ve worked hard to reduce their number). I thought it would be fun to enumerate them.

Live

werd.io: The home of my blog since 2013. My old domain name, benwerd.com, also points here.

werd.cloud: My personal wiki, powered by Obsidian. I update it from time to time: I find it a useful way to record non-linear, non-blog-like thoughts and opinions.

werd.dev: My developer domain. I intend to turn this into a real site, but for now it just points to my GitHub profile

werd.work: My work domain. I will turn this into a portfolio, but just like my developer domain, for now it just redirects - in this case, to my LinkedIn profile.

ben.lol: I bought this domain for use with temporary, fun projects. Right now it hosts a work-in-progress text adventure based on my dreams, written in Inform 7. Almost every dream I have is based in a consistent universe with interconnected locations - so I made them into an interactive world. I add to this from time to time.

fatberg.org: Registered and built on a whim during a W3C meeting, this is the enterprise software stack of your dreams.

5405spainave.com: A work-in-progress site for the house we’re selling. Once we’ve got professional photographs and the house is on the market, I’ll bring the site to life and do a lot more linking to it.

On the bench

werd.tips: I think I bought this to host reviews.

werd.press: I think mostly I couldn’t resist the pun?

werdmuller.org: For future family use.

squirming.net: I’ve owned this domain name for nearly 25 years. It made more sense when I was 19. But there’s no way I’m letting go of it now.

humanist.tech: For a future blog that I never had the time to put together. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a space that talks about humanist tech projects?

bookhackers.com: Years ago I helped run an event about the future of publishing. I bought this to coincide with that. Maybe I should do something with it?

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