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The notable list: September 2023

A woman wearing a VR headset under an LED lace curtain

This is my monthly roundup of the links, books, and media I found interesting. Do you have suggestions? Let me know!

Apps + Websites


iA Presenter. I’ve been really enjoying this. It does have the unfortunate effect of reducing the time you spend faffing with slide design and font choices, which means you actually have to write the substance of your presentation. Curses! Still, despite its attempts to thwart my procrastination, it’s beautifully designed and perfect for the way I think.


404 Media. A new, independent, worker-owned venture by ex-Motherboard journalists. I’m a subscriber.

Center for News, Technology & Innovation. I would love to contribute to something like this.


Educational Sensational Inspirational Foundational. A really great list of foundational and/or influential writing about how to build the web, starting with Tim Berners-Lee’s Cool URIs Don’t Change post from 1998.

Datasette Cloud. Simon Willison’s Datasette now has a SaaS version that saves you having to install or set anything up. This is perfect for smaller newsrooms and orgs that are technically stretched but want to analyze data. I’m excited to see where he goes with it.

StreetPass for Mastodon. Genuinely brilliant. StreetPass finds the Mastodon accounts of people whose websites you browse, allowing you to check out their accounts and follow if you’re interested. I love it.



Yellowface, by R. F. Kuang. This tale from a deeply unreliable, envy-driven narrator is more of a sharp satire of liberal racism than its publishing industry setting. It’s at its least compelling when discussing Twitter drama, but there’s ample snark just underneath each turn of phrase, and more than enough ratcheting tension to have kept me turning the pages.

Foundry, by Eliot Peper. A knockabout spy adventure that takes a few unexpected turns and sticks a landing that had me cheering. Truly a lot of fun - I inhaled it in one sitting. As always, it’s deeply researched, but the detail only ever adds to the entertainment. (Without spoiling anything, I’m very familiar with some of the settings and cultural overtones, and they rang completely true.) There are knowing callbacks to some of Eliot’s earlier work, but this stands alone - and could be the start of a new series that I would gladly read the hell out of.


Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six, by Maya Payne Smart. In turns reassuring and helpful, this was a great primer on what to do to provide a foundation to help my child eventually learn to read. If only all parenting books could be as human and equity-minded as this one is.

Notable Articles


US Copyright Office wants to hear what people think about AI and copyright. I certainly have some thoughts that I will share. Imagine if you could allow an AI agent to create copyrighted works at scale with no human involvement. It would allow for an incredible intellectual property land grab.

The A.I. Surveillance Tool DHS Uses to Detect ‘Sentiment and Emotion’. Customs and Border Protection is using sentiment analysis on inbound and outbound travelers who “may threaten public safety, national security, or lawful trade and travel”. That’s dystopian enough in itself, but there’s no way they could limit the trawl to those people, and claims made about what the software can do are dubious at best.

This AI Watches Millions Of Cars And Tells Cops If You’re Driving Like A Criminal. A good rule of thumb is that if technology makes something feasible, someone will do it regardless of the ethics. Here, AI makes it easy to perform warrantless surveillance at scale - so someone has turned it into a product and police are buying it.

New York Times considers legal action against OpenAI as copyright tensions swirl. Whether this comes to fruition with the NYT vs OpenAI or another publisher vs another LLM vendor, there will be a court case like this, and it will set important precedent for the industry. My money’s on the publishers.

School district uses ChatGPT to help remove library books. Probably inevitable, but it nonetheless made my jaw drop. What an incredibly wrong-headed use of an LLM.

New York Times: Don't use our content to train AI systems. The NYT’s new terms disallow use of its content to develop any new software application, including machine learning and AI systems. It’s a shame that this has to be explicit, rather than a blanket right afforded to publishers by default, but it’s a sensible clause that many more will be including.

We need a Weizenbaum test for AI. “Weizenbaum’s questions, though they seem simple—Is it good? Do we need it?—are difficult ones for computer science to answer. They could be asked of any proposed technology, but the speed, scope, and stakes of innovation in AI make their consideration more urgent.”

AI social media videos depict missing, dead children narrating their stories. Utterly ghoulish.

Google says AI systems should be able to mine publishers’ work unless companies opt out. I strongly disagree with this stance. Allowing your work to be mined by AI models should be opt-in only - otherwise there is no possible way for a publisher or author to apply a license or grant rights.

AI language models are rife with political biases. Different AI models have different political biases. Google’s tend to be more socially conservative - possibly in part because they were trained on books rather than the wider internet. Regardless of the cause, this is proof, again, that AI models are not objective.

In every reported case where police mistakenly arrested someone using facial recognition, that person has been Black. Black faces are overrepresented in databases used to train AI for law enforcement - and some facial recognition software used in this context fails 96% of the time. This practice is an accelerant for already deeply harmful inequities. Time to ban it.

Catching up on the weird world of LLMs. This is a really comprehensive history and overview of LLMs. Simon has been bringing the goods, and this talk is no exception.


Is Big Oil Turning on Big Auto? It makes sense that oil companies would try to frame driving a gas car as freedom. As an EV driver, I can tell you that it is not. I would prefer if we all had great, integrated public transit - but for the moment, at least, it has been an improvement in every way for me as a driver. I’ll never go back.

The true cost of climate pollution? 44% of corporate profits. I’m surprised that mandatory disclosure of carbon emissions isn’t widespread - it does seem like the prerequisite to making any change. And yeah, these companies should pay. And be forced to reduce their emissions. And be fined heavily, and prosecuted, when they don’t.

Neoclassical economists are the last people to listen to on climate change. Interesting commentary on “economic theories that have led to government by markets, fuelling financial and other shocks, and the rise of authoritarian, and even neo-fascist regimes promising citizens ‘protection’ from ‘globalised’ markets.”

Climate change is death by a thousand cuts. “Whenever someone says, “we’ll adapt to climate change,” 100% of the time it’s a rich person. Poor people never say “we’ll adapt” because they know they can’t afford it. For them, adaptation = suffering.” That’s the pull-quote for me: this won’t affect everyone equally. As always, the most vulnerable, the people who are already struggling the most, will suffer the worst of it.


Being Black in a Small Town. “When popular culture thinks of Blackness, rarely does somebody think of a tiny little town or a mountainside and the Black person who’s there. I want to be a part of revealing that this thread—that Black skin—can be even on the side of a mountain.”

How to Uphold the Status Quo: The Problem With Small Town Witch Romances. I see this as less of a problem in cozy witch fiction - which, I must be clear, I have read zero of - and more of an issue in American fiction as a whole, across all media. These books (probably) aren’t actively laundering racist ideas; they’re perpetuating cultural discrimination that is under the surface everywhere. Still, it’s incumbent on authors to understand and be accountable to the tropes they’re building with.

thoughts on the suicidal mind. This resonated with me a lot. What I’ll say is: I’m glad Winnie is in the world. I know these feelings, intimately. I don’t have much definitive to say about that. I haven’t drawn any conclusions. It’s a journey, daily.

Turn-On Found. None of this looks like it comes from 1969. Although some of the content is outdated today, the style is far more modern - this feels like something straight from the internet era. Fascinating and relentless (I couldn’t watch the whole thing).


Supreme Risk: An Interactive Guide to Rights the Supreme Court Could Take Away. “An interactive guide to rights the Supreme Court has established — and could take away.” Published a few months ago, but completely relevant, on-point reporting (served as a fully-static web page).

Americans Rate Dallas and Boston Safest of 16 U.S. Cities. Republicans think cities are much less safe than Democrats do. San Francisco and Philadelphia (my old neighborhood and new one) are notable here: Democrats agree that they’re pretty safe, whereas Republicans seem to think they’re war zones. I think we can solidly blame conservative media propaganda for this.

Just 23% Of Americans Know The U.S. Has Failed To Pass An Internet-Era Privacy Law. Less than a quarter of Americans know they don’t have meaningful privacy protections on the internet. The first step to changing this fact might be to change this number.

The Shocking Voter Purge Crisis of Democracy Revealed. Always a good sign when a democratic movement wants to win through the will of the people rather than through obstructive election fraud.

House GOP adds dozens of anti-LGBTQ+ provisions to must-pass bills. Smuggling naked bigotry through bills that must pass to keep the government working is a deeply underhanded tactic. It’s hard to see the modern Republican Party as anything other than a party of exclusion, catering to the dregs of the twentieth century who desperately don’t want to see the world change around them.


Most students haven’t learned about LGBTQ+ issues in school, survey shows. Why the internet - as well as more traditional media like books - are a lifeline for kids hungry to learn about queer history. Of course, I’m sure the usual suspects will come for those too.

International Chess Org: Trans Women Have "No Right To Participate" In Women's Chess. This stance by the International Chess Federation is so transparently bigoted that it helps clarify other anti-trans measures happening across competitive sports. There’s nothing here about fairness; it’s all to do with conservative division and hatred.

Henrietta Lacks family to get compensation for use of her cell taken decades ago without consent. Late as it is, it’s good to see this to some kind of resolution. I hope the posthumous recognition Lacks receives includes the story of how it happened in the first place.


'Horribly Unethical': Startup Experimented on Suicidal Teens on Social Media With Chatbot. Taking lean startup research techniques that were developed for basic social networks or, say, 3D avatars and transposing them to real-world domains with real consequences seems to be an ongoing trend. It’s a misunderstanding of the startup playbook that causes real harm. This is obviously unethical; it is nowhere near as “nuanced” as this CEO says it is.


Remote workers' connection to companies' missions hits record low. Remote workers feel less connected to company missions, but the big message here is that nobody really feels all that connected. There are no superficial answers here: the real differentiators are better company cultures where people feel truly valued, much stronger communication, and better missions.

NLRB Says Companies That Union-Bust Must Recognize Busted Union. A neat rule: union-busters must recognize the unions they’re trying to undermine. The union rebound continues.

Why the Hollywood strike matters to all of us. On the wage threat of AI: “Hollywood is showing us how best to take that stand: by unionizing our workplaces, and fighting for strong contracts. Now’s the time to form a union with your coworkers, and discuss what protections you’ll need to face this moment.”

Negative Space. A perfect piece on where we’re at in time. Personally, I’m not going back to the office, and I applaud greater worker power. We need to move forward.

We're now finding out the damaging results of the mandated return to the office–and it's worse than we thought. Return to Office mandates are counterproductive and destroy morale. They also make your team less productive. They’re worker-hostile and work-hostile. So why do them?


Medium is for human storytelling, not AI-generated writing. Medium has made it clear that it is not a home for AI-driven content. And it’s experiencing record growth now that its recommendation engine has been re-tuned for substance, as decided by humans. This is all great news: for Medium and as an example for everyone on the web.

How We Create Custom Graphics at The Markup. I like this approach to building graphics for journalism. Management of these kinds of static assets feels like a cumulative problem, but lightweight HTML / CSS / JS is pretty portable and sandboxable. And ACF is the hidden hero behind journalism’s WordPress sites.


My Caste. “Allow me to introduce you to one of the largest population groups in India, as recognized by the constitution of India: Other Backward Classes. I belong to OBC Category. […] I was, however, not ready to publicly declare it until I received tenure as it seemed too risky.”

Police departments pull school officers due to Minnesota restraint law. It says a lot that in areas where officers aren’t allowed to put schoolchildren in holds that restrict breathing or their ability to speak, departments take officers out of schools in protest. These laws should be in place everywhere, and police officers should not be in schools.

She Just Had a Baby. Soon She'll Start 7th Grade. There are so many stories like this one. There should never be another. And yet, we’ve rolled back the clock at the behest of religious extremists, so there will be many more. This cannot go on.

FAU Study: Perils of Not Being Attractive or Athletic in Middle School. Hey, sounds like my middle school experience! This is important for me to understand as a parent, and it’s important for schools to adapt to as de facto caregivers. These dynamics should be corrected for, not accepted.

Right-Wing Writer Richard Hanania's Racist Past Exposed. A prominent writer platformed by the New York Times and Washington Post, and championed by major figures in tech, including by Marc Andreessen and the CEO of Substack, turns out to be an actual white supremacist.

A beautiful, broken America: what I learned on a 2,800-mile bus ride from Detroit to LA. I’ve traveled across America four times: three by car and one by train. I’ve never done it by Greyhound, and I probably never will. This country’s infrastructure is falling apart and being eaten by wolves.


The State of Seed Stage Funding to Underrepresented Founders. “White women founded companies comprise 79% of reported early-stage VC dollars going to underrepresented founders and 64% of investments made into companies with underrepresented founders by deal count. Ecosystem-wide, we need to up our game by investing seed money into a broader spectrum of founders of color.”

letter to a friend who is thinking of starting something new. These are the right questions to ask.


In Europe, a regulatory vise tightens around big tech. Good overview. I think European tech regulations have been broadly good, establishing the anti-competitive and pro-privacy rules that US legislators have failed to enact. If we could only all be so protected.

Web Scraping for Me, But Not for Thee. Good commentary on the dissonance between vendors like Microsoft banning scraping of their platforms while simultaneously releasing products that depend on scraping other peoples’ data. Some sort of commons agreement would go a long way here, but it won’t happen while platforms can get away with this one-sided relationship.

Introducing the 100-Year Plan: Secure Your Online Legacy for a Century. I’d love to understand what prompted Automattic to offer a hosting plan for $38K. On one level, I love it - it lasts for 100 years! and I love Automattic! - but I can’t justify this, and I’m not quite sure who it’s for? If this is marketing, what are the goals?

Changes to UK Surveillance Regime May Violate International Law. The UK seems to want to break international law to retain its ability to mass surveil by forcing software vendors to break their protections for users everywhere. It’s an anti-democratic approach that puts journalists and vulnerable populations at risk. It also counter-productively undermines the UK’s own technology sector.

'We're Winning': Apple Formally Endorses Right to Repair Legislation After Spending Millions Fighting It.I’m a little bit suspicious that Apple is suddenly into right-to-repair, but broadly this is good. I just wish it was a nationwide law instead of one that is limited to California. Hopefully the idea can expand to the federal level.

The Secret Weapon Hackers Can Use to Dox Nearly Anyone in America for $15. It costs $15 to uncover an American’s personally identifiable information illegally for potentially violent purposes. But also consider the number of entities that have access to this information legally, without any oversight. None of it should be allowable.

RSS Zero isn’t the path to RSS Joy. “RSS is not email. You don’t have to get to inbox zero!” is a correct take, in my opinion; that’s certainly how I approach my feed reader. But also, I’ve got bad news about my email inbox.

Thousands of scientists are cutting back on Twitter, seeding angst and uncertainty. Scientists are fleeing X for Mastodon, citing far-right science denialism - and far-right hate in general. I don’t exactly know what Musk thinks he’s going to be left with after all this.

An Opinionated Guide To Alt-text. A great, short guide to writing alt text to support data visualization from Jasmine Mithani.

Lamborghini teases first fully electric supercar ahead of official reveal August 18th. OK, good for them, but I’m far less excited by an electric Lambo than an electric car for $20K. Or, you know, zero-emissions buses that work as part of a functional integrated public transit system. You’re right, that does sound like science fiction.

Elon Musk's Twitter throttles links to Threads, Blue Sky and New York Times. Really, truly: there is no good reason for any media company or publisher to still be posting on X.

Announcing the Tor University Challenge. This is a worthwhile project, and would be a major win for freedom of expression and freedom from surveillance. I’d love to see more of my higher education friends take part.

How to verify your Threads account using your Mastodon profile. It’s truly beautiful to see Threads begin to embrace indieweb and federated social web protocols. This is a first step; true federation is, I’ve been assured, coming.

Why Sam Altman wants to scan two billion eyes. We’ve seen the United Nations share their biometric registration of Rohingya refugees with the Myanmar government without their consent. A private company that subcontracts services in other countries makes accountability very difficult when there are rights violations.”

Raku: A Language for Gremlins. That’s a giant “nope” from me, but your mileage may vary.

PIE failed. But it’s a failure worth celebrating and learning from. It’s very painful to see accelerators that are also vibrant community hubs shut down because of business dynamics. I’ve lived that. What I can see here is someone who cares about his community. I was never a part of PIE, but I know Rick did it for the right reasons. And I know from Matter that the community continues long after the thing itself has disappeared. The legacy is long lasting. Congratulations, Rick - on to the next thing.

How I make annotated presentations. It’s been a long time since I’ve given any talks (the pandemic put a stop to that) but I really like this approach, and I’ll do something similar in the future.

Just normal web things. Yes to all of this. These are basic functions that the web gives you almost by default. Everything on the web should let you do them.

The open source licensing war is over. I broadly agree with this rallying cry against dogmatism in open source. I think dogmatism is harmful in all parts of tech; divisive and often a kind of gatekeeping. Let authors build and release according to their needs.

How to Search for a Better Deal on Broadband. The broadband situation in America is surprisingly bad - so I love that there’s a new version of the National Broadband Map. The Markup has done a public service by taking us through it.

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We lost my beloved cousin Noah this week.

I don’t have the words yet. But Noah, you were wonderful, and we all loved you so much.

Ma used to say that she liked to think of everyone who was gone having a picnic on the beach and looking down at us. I would like to imagine you there, too, arriving after sailing across the bay. I bet they all greeted you with open arms.

Even as he was getting sick, Noah wanted to find ways to be helpful. If I asked you over the last year about places where a lawyer with technical skills might help with human rights or civil engagement, it was for him.

He made his career helping defendants with hard immigration and criminal justice cases. His former colleagues at Koehler Law have posted a memorial to him. I feel like anything I post here will always be inadequate — there’s no way to cover him adequately. He was a sweet, smart man who was an important part of all of our lives. We had so much in common; so many shared points of reference. I will miss him very much.

His immediate family is asking, in lieu of flowers, to donate to the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. I made a donation; I would love for you to join me.

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The Online Journalism Awards and why non-profit news is awesome

I was pleased to attend the Online Journalism Awards on Saturday night. Some winning highlights included:

The 19th won a Breaking News award for its coverage of the Dobbs decision, including some really great data journalism. I’m proud of, and very happy for, my friends there. By the way, you should subscribe to data visuals reporter Jasmine Mithani’s great newsletter, data + feelings.

ProPublica won a few awards for its journalism, including on the proliferation of junk science in the justice system and on how viruses transmit from animals to people.

The Marshall Project won two awards for its work covering the American criminal justice system. Stories included a two-year investigation into abuses by correctional officers in New York State and a three-year story about mitigation specialists who help death penalty defendants by documenting their childhood traumas.

The Markup won an Excellence in Technology Reporting award for its reporting on broadband pricing across the US. I loved this reporting and directly used it to help a family member get a better broadband deal.

Every one of these finalists and winners is worth checking out. This is why I’m finding working in product and technology for non-profit news to be so rewarding: you get to support journalists who are genuinely making the world a better, more democratic place by shedding light on stories we need to know about.

News media in the US gets a lot of flak, and some of it is deserved. But the non-profit news industry in particular is doing incredible work, sometimes reporting stories for years on end, and putting every story out there for the public to read without a paywall in sight. These non-profit organizations deserve our personal and institutional support. They make our democracy better.

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Technology isn't something that just happens to your newsroom

I’ve come away from the Online News Association conference with a really familiar feeling: somewhere between unsettled and frustrated. Not at journalists, I hasten to add, who are doing important, democratic work despite shrinking budgets and adverse conditions. But a little bit at the business sides of their organizations, and certainly at the ecosystem of vendors and evangelists that circle them.

Some quick observations:

Work on inclusion in the newsroom has stagnated in most organizations, despite the very real impacts this has on audiences and communities who depend on newsrooms to tell their stories and speak truth to power on their behalf. There is lip service here and there, but not a lot of true equity-sharing.

A few people on stage and elsewhere expressed the opinion that it doesn’t matter if journalists stay on X or not, despite the steep rise in hate on the platform. They might not be comfortable with Elon Musk, but the platform would chug along whether they were participating or not, so they might as well be there if they got something out of it.

AI vendors are out in force, expressing ways in which their software can speed up newsroom tasks, with little time being spent on the functional realities of their products or the issues this can create.

More newsrooms than I would expect are spending time writing and maintaining their own content management systems rather than leveraging existing open source software and collaborating with other organizations.

The feeling it’s left me with is similar to the one I felt when I co-founded Elgg in higher education. At least at the time, there was very little diversity in higher education decision-making; meanwhile, the software tools being deployed made it harder to learn, were inaccessible to many people, locked teaching and learning behind exploitative license agreements, and were being sold for seven figure sums. It didn’t feel right that something as fundamentally important to society as education was being locked down to a narrow demographic of decision-makers and strip-mined for value by rent-seekers. (It must be acknowledged that while accessible open source tools in education are now commonplace, rent-seekers like Blackboard still do a lot of business.)

To briefly return to each of those observations in turn:

You need diverse points of view in a newsroom (both in editorial and management) in order to be able to reflect the communities you’re both covering and trying to reach. A diverse team is more resilient; diverse teams are smarter and do better work.

Journalists have outsize power with regards to a platform like X. They create much of the content that will be shared and discovered on the platform. Their actions matter, and they can effect change in the tech industry. I think this speaks to how disempowered newsrooms have felt at the hands of technology changes over the last decade or two — but it need not be the case.

AI seems like magic but is more like a magic trick. Meredith Broussard’s discussion on recognizing inequalities in artificial intelligence is arguably vital for anyone considering adopting AI. There are genuine use cases for the technology, but her definition of techno-chauvinism — the assumption that technical solutions are better than human ones — rings true in this case.

And development teams should spend most of their time working on projects that add value to their newsroom. Working to maintain commodity technology (as in, maintaining the exact same thing hundreds of other teams are building, like a CMS) more than about 20% of the time is a waste of very scant resources. Generally, development teams should be spending their time building differentiated technology.

Every newsroom needs nuanced technical advice, but not every newsroom can afford to hire a CTO. A few organizations offer platforms, technical and business advice, and fractional technical leadership as a service for newsrooms. They’re a vital part of the ecosystem — and the truth is that some larger newsrooms need something similar. It’s all too easy to fall prey to the hype cycle, and to continue to believe that the internet is something that happens to you rather than something newsrooms can help shape and change according to their needs.

As I’ve written before, I would like to see a kind of tech union for newsrooms that would provide technical advice and commodity technology under an open source license, and then represent newsrooms in technical forums like the W3C. If the internet is a network of people, then journalism is a way for their stories to be told, and for the truth about abuses of power and systemic imbalances to come to light. It should be a virtuous relationship, and I believe it can be. I also believe it is far from this right now.

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The mugshot

I think it’s important to prefix this post with the obvious: I am not a fan or apologist for Donald Trump. I think he’s nakedly undermined the workings of democracy, and has used the authoritarian playbook to build a movement that is, at its heart, anti-immigrant, anti-inclusion, and anti-progress, and shares at least some DNA with fascist movements of the past.

But I don’t like the mugshot.

I understand the glee that some people greeted it with. Of course I do; the catharsis is real. But let me lay out my disquiet:

The first is the principle. A mugshot is not a conviction. Many news organizations stopped the practice of publishing mugshots because, even if the person is exonerated, they tend to last online. As the Marshall Project wrote a few years ago:

Publishing mugshots can disproportionately impact people of color by feeding into negative stereotypes and undermining the presumption of innocence, said Johnny Perez, a formerly incarcerated New Yorker who is currently director of U.S. prison programs for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

Clearly Trump isn’t a vulnerable person, nor a person of color. But publishing the mugshot normalizes the practice of publishing mugshots, which is in totality more harmful than it is healthy.

The second is that I believe his base will love it. Here is this outsider leader of their movement that the libs hate so much that they’ll try and throw him in jail. The image far eclipses the real, extensive crimes that he’s been accused of. As Jesse Watters from Fox News said: “he looks good and he looks hard.” It’s real collateral for the 2024 election.

And last but not least: I’m just so fucking tired of seeing his face. It just gives him and his movement oxygen. He thrives on attention, like a vampire that sucks on primetime TV audiences. If he is found guilty, as I believe he will be, I would like him to sit out his time in jail without any more eyes, any more attention. I’d love to move on.

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AI in the newsroom: the hard sell

A robot hand reaching out. Friend or foe?

It’s been fascinating to watch AI vendors like Microsoft try to sell their emerging products to industries like news publishing. Having come from tech startup-land, with both feet now firmly planted in nonprofit-news-land, I find myself wondering if I have a unique perspective, or if everyone is quietly thinking the same things I am while not saying them out loud.

It’s a strong, hard sell that reminds me a little of the fast-talking traveling salesman from The Music Man, trying to get the neighborhood to buy instruments and band uniforms before he skips town to avoid fulfilling his promise to give lessons. It makes sense: they have billions of dollars of investment to justify. But in the case of news publishing it feels like kicking an industry that is already struggling.

Four things that are particularly of note:

As always, they call it “AI”, bringing to mind science fiction and superhero movies, rather than anchoring their products factually in their actual capabilities. It’s fun to think about C3PO and Data; it’s less exciting to think of it in terms of a modern upgrade to Clippy.

Vendors are telling publishers that they’ve been late to adopt AI. They’re trying to create FOMO in the industry, but the truth is that these products as currently advertised, whether as end-user products or back-end APIs, are still not widespread in most industries. There are other, much older, forms of AI that newsrooms absolutely are using, as part of the same everyday products as everyone else.

Very little thought has been put into the kinds of systemic biases that people like Dr Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru have warned about. These are real issues that would have the potential to have a material impact on how stories are reported if these technologies did find their way deeply into newsrooms. But it’s clear that, at least publicly, vendors have little to say about it.

Vendors want to focus newsrooms on what AI can do for them, and not how they might cover AI’s wider societal impacts. The 19th’s publisher Amanda Zamora dove into this in an X thread yesterday, following a presentation on AI at the Online News Association conference that turned out to be more of a Microsoft sales event than a true discussion.

It’s not that there aren’t uses for these technologies, or that they can’t or won’t improve. Autocomplete is very useful, and there are some mundane tasks that LLMs can, indeed, speed up (as long as their user takes care to carefully check their work afterwards). If vendors truly internalize and systematize concerns raised by organizations like the Algorithmic Justice League, and if the teams underlying AI system production become more diverse and inclusive themselves, biases may be able to be at least reduced if not fully overcome.

But with any technology that appears at first glance to be magic, we must use a skeptical lens. How does it work? What are the real dangers? What are the advantages vs the drawbacks? What must a newsroom do to ethically use these products — and how might it cover them and their wider intersectional impact?

A sales pitch is not going to help with those things. Neither will FOMO, or a one-size-fits-all approach. When so much is at stake, as it is with true journalistic reporting, newsrooms must tread carefully and use all their powers of nuance, investigation, and thoughtfulness to determine what is the best path for them.

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Silhouette of a man looking over a dusk horizon

Lately I’ve found myself feeling profoundly homesick. It’s come and gone for the twelve years I’ve lived in the US full-time, but this week I’ve been feeling it pretty much as intensely as I ever have.

But perhaps homesickness isn’t quite the right word. If you pushed me, I’d have to admit that it’s not the place that I’m homesick for. There are trappings it that I certainly miss: specific old haunts and routines that used to mean something to me when they were more than just echoes in the back of my long-term memory. I’d go back and smell the hoppy Edinburgh air as I emerge from the train at Waverley, or take in the centuries-old stink of stalls in Oxford’s Covered Market, in a heartbeat. Still, what I really miss is a feeling: a place and time in my life when the way I felt about the world was radically different.

I was speaking to a friend this morning about trauma. He put it to me that seismic life events tend to split life into two parts: the BC and AD. This resonates with me; I’ve always thought of it as if the laws of physics have subtly shifted, as if I’ve fallen into a parallel universe. Everything looks more or less the same, but the underlying rules of the universe have changed just enough that the meaning of everything is different. The old routines and patterns of life feel like going through the motions, like you’re play-acting an echo of who you were before. You have to figure out who you are in this new universe; figure out what you need. All the while, the cognitive load of just existing has gone way up, and you’re flooded. Basic functions like empathy don’t come as easy as they did before. And you’re over the threshold: there’s no way to get back to the universe you came from, as much as you might want to claw yourself there.

I will never get my mother back. I will never be that person again. I will never have that life again.

I miss the feeling of existing in the pre-trauma universe; the one I lived in back before I’d moved continents because my mother was dying, and certainly back before her condition developed more fully. I have no regrets about moving or being on that journey with her, or about the wonderful people I have in my life today that I otherwise wouldn’t have met. (Our son!) But I miss the feeling of living in that other world where I felt like I had more agency over my decisions, and where the stakes of those decisions were far lower.

Some of those contextual reasons are obvious. We spent over ten years caring for Ma, and medical issues, surgeries, and new problems to solve often came out of the blue. I was very glad to be there, but by necessity, life had to be reactive and flexible. You never knew what was going to happen next. One moment things were fine; the next, I was getting kicked out of the ICU because I refused to leave her side.

My mother fought to live with gusto and energy and intelligence and heart. She told us, again and again, that she wasn’t ready to say goodbye. And yet, on a Sunday night in a hospital room with big, picture frame windows that looked over San Francisco, we had to.

Perhaps less obviously, the whole American context is also a weight. Whereas the National Health Service took care of me without so much as a co-pay at the point of use, the American healthcare system forces you into finding a salaried position if you want to have decent coverage that isn’t ruinously expensive. Whereas I was used to buses that came every 5 minutes and went wherever I wanted to go, now I had to own and maintain a car. Whereas I felt safe everywhere I went, now I was concerned about people carrying guns, animals carrying rabies, poisonous spiders, religious fanatics, free-market libertarians, and so on. Whereas I could exist on a relatively low budget, the cost of rent, owning a cellphone, and having a fast internet connection all quadrupled. Even buying decent, healthy food at the supermarket was more expensive than I was used to (but I could buy as much poor-quality bread with sugar in it as I wanted).

Then, one year, on my mother’s birthday, someone walked into Erin’s work with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and started shooting. I picked her up from the hotel down the street where she and a few other people had barricaded themselves in. This isn’t something that happens in most places. This isn’t something we should have to live with at all.

In the midst of all of this, it became easier to make bad decisions, to feel flooded, and to pass the trauma forward.

All of those things are pieces of a trap. It’s hard to maintain control of your life if you’re constantly trying to make ends meet; particularly if basic human rights like healthcare also come with a hefty price tag or a de facto requirement to work for someone else. Contrary to expectations, I’ve felt the least freedom of my life in America.

That’s what I’m homesick for: freedom. That’s not something that’s got anything to do with a specific place. The country I grew up in has declined so rapidly that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was run by Elon Musk. I don’t actually have a desire to go back and live in Britain again (although I’d love to visit often); I do have a desire to be in a headspace where I feel like I can go anywhere, have the space to be creative and live how I want to live, proactively plan my life based on my values, and be safe and supported in doing so. Post-Brexit Britain isn’t a place I can feel homesickness for. It’s not a feeling to me; it’s just a place. The feeling is what matters.

Post-covid, I think most of us are reconsidering the shape and meaning of our lives. In Ling Ma’s excellent book Severance, presciently written before the pandemic, a fungal plague finds people mindlessly repeating old habits, unable to break the spell of nostalgia. It’s the severed universe again: trauma has split all of our lives into pre and post. We can call for people to go back to the office or shed their masks all we want, but it’ll never be anything more than the mindless rote repetition of prior routine. There is no “back to normal”; the laws underlying the universe have changed. We’ve moved over the threshold and can’t get back. Nostalgia is a vice, not an answer.

So how can I create the conditions to reproduce the feelings I’m homesick for? The honest truth is, I don’t know that it’s possible, or even healthy. Even those feelings may be a nostalgic crutch. I think it’s important to think about how the context I’m in could be better, both proximally (here in the house, in the direct patterns of my life) and more widely (in American societies, in the industries I work in). I don’t think there’s much good to be gained from just trying to accept life as it is; there’s a lot of learning and growth inherent in even the act of trying.

Four friends, hugging on the beach

As part of my managerial work, I think a lot about how people burn out as part of a team. Usually it comes down to a lack of ability to influence the conditions that affect the work you do: the culture of your company, the processes that dictate how you do your work, the goals of the team or the company as a whole. If you feel like your concerns or priorities aren’t being heard, or if they’re not being taken seriously, the friction can create an emotional overhead that makes it hard to get any work done. I wonder if that’s true in life too: if part of the way we burn out in our lives is if we feel like our values and ideas aren’t being heard or understood.

I think shared understanding is most likely to be found in communities of like-minded people. (Maybe that’s a tautology: people with shared values have shared values.) Part of the stress of American life is knowing that there are so many people who don’t share your concerns about what constitutes a problem. Not just in small, little ways — those don’t really matter, and are probably good — but in radically divergent ways that can make you wonder if you’re out of alignment with the rest of the world. There are people out there who think it’s fine that everyone drives everywhere, or that it’s okay for poor people to not have healthcare, or that unions are bad, or that a six-week abortion ban is great even if it kills women, or that it’s a completely fine and reasonable thing for people to just carry guns around.

Differences of opinion are part of the foundation of democracy. At the same time, every society has basic, fundamental agreements: murder is bad, and so on. Some societies agree that a feeling of security through social support is important. I wish this one did too.

Failing that, sometimes you also need to feel heard and understood, and feel enough kinship to not have to litigate the basics. I think it’s healthy for people to argue about the role of unionization in society, for example; I just don’t always want to be arguing about it whenever it comes up. I think it’s reasonable to discuss the role of guns in a country where they’re mentioned in the national Constitution; I also don’t want to always have to worry about being in proximity to them. I think we can talk about how to pay for high-speed rail; I also just want to spend time with people who think it’s as awesome as I do.

The most important version of this, for me, is identity. I’m a third culture kid with no well-defined national identity. Some of my ancestors were Ukrainian Jews. Some were Indonesians. I’m descended from concentration camp survivors and people who fought in the resistance. I don’t ever want to be in a place where people question my right to exist, or the right of my relatives to exist. I don’t want to have to explain that there are many valid ways to live a life. I don’t want to be exposed to xenophobia, nationalism, parochialism, or the petty racism of small-minded people who don’t like to hear people with foreign accents at the other end of a phone. I have no need to expose myself to peoples’ distrust of people who are different. Those things make me feel less safe; less accepted.

I think the feeling I’m homesick for is community and a sense of belonging. I want to spend more time around people who share my values, and I want to share more of myself with them. That felt easier in the country I grew up in because I’d had these close friendships for all of my life; we were comfortable around each other. Because my time in America has mostly been tethered to traumatic events in my life, I haven’t had the chance to properly nurture and develop the friendships with the truly amazing people that I’ve met since I’ve been here.

So maybe there’s a way to cross the threshold after all. Maybe the main thing to find is real connection: to prioritize nurturing friendships and reaching out to people who make me feel like I belong. To advocate for change, yes, but also to find the other people who advocate for those same values.

When all is said and done, perhaps the real problem to solve is how to feel less alone. And to that end, perhaps part of the solution is to reach out and embrace the people and relationships of all sorts that I already have in my life, wherever they are in the world.

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Actually writing

I’m over halfway through writing my book. It’s not, technically speaking, my first — I published a technical guide to the browser geolocation API a long time ago, and self-published a short novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo — but it is my first really serious attempt at a novel. As I’ve mentioned before, while I believe there’s a market for it, I don’t have representation or publishing lined up, and I don’t know how it will be received. It’s a shot in the dark in the same way a startup is a shot in the dark.

Just as a startup can be de-risked, I believe aspects of a novel can be de-risked. So much is involved in the quality of execution — whether it’s writing words or building software — but there are ways to know if you’re on the right track. In startups, the worst thing is to spend a long time creating something and then release it to the world without ever doing any research. In writing, the journey is also valuable: the process is important in itself. And because it’s unlikely that anyone’s sunk $1.5M into your writing venture (at least for your first time out), you haven’t really lost anything if it doesn’t work out. That gives you freedom to creatively experiment.

Still, it’s very much worth knowing who you’re writing for, and whether you’re creating something they’d actually like to read. Part of that is in the craft of writing itself and the vibrancy of your imagination. Part of it is just in doing some research and understanding what people like. And part of it is in speaking to experts and getting their feedback.

I’m trying to do all three, while making sure my center of gravity is firmly on the act of actually writing. I’m lucky enough to be chatting with a mentor in science fiction publishing; I’m doing audience research; I’m working on every aspect of the craft of fiction writing.

Some days that comes easily. Some days, not so much. My daily word count varies between around 250 and 1500 words, depending on how much sleep I’ve had and whatever else is going on. Our son is about to be a year old, and has all the energy and inquisitiveness of a toddler. This week, for example, childcare fell apart, so the time I have to do anything — writing, working, taking a shower — has diminished. (Not that I’m complaining: these are hours, weeks, and years with him that I’ll never get back.)

This work also represents an interesting break for me. Normally I write and publish blog posts very quickly, or post on social media almost reflexively. I’ve rarely seen an online text box I didn’t like. On the other hand, this is a long-form story with a very long gestational period — and I’m *terrified* to eventually share it. That’s another reason to make sure it goes through rounds of editing, refinement, and feedback before a larger group gets to see it. There’s something so raw and vulnerable about this that I’m simply not used to. Perhaps that’s one reason why I’ve never got this far before. But I’ve come too far now to not see what’s on the other side.

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Reconsidering my website and newsletter

I’m thinking about diverging my website and newsletter.

Today, if you sign up to the newsletter, you get every blog post via email (although sometimes I wait until there have been several small blog posts and send them together as a digest). That means you can follow along on the web, using a feed reader, or via email, depending on what’s best for you.

These are different media, even if I don’t treat them as such. I don’t think short posts work well via email, and I’m not always convinced that longer posts work well on the blog. I think splitting them might also help with my own incentives to write: the newsletter would become more of a focused publication, whereas my website has always been a stream of consciousness of what I’m thinking about and reading right now.

What do you think?

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Publishers on social media are between a rock and a hard place

Publishers are between a rock and a hard place as they try and figure out where to devote their time and energy. The options are:

Mastodon: My favorite network to use, but not a good fit for publishers’ existing audience models. Mastodon has no effective cross-network search and blocks browser referral data, which means audience teams have no idea how many of their readers are coming from the network. It’s big and thriving, but opaque. And the nature of the way the network software work means that if you do go viral, your servers may effectively be DDoSed.

Threads: Meta’s soon-to-be-Mastodon-compatible Twitter-a-like. There are a lot of non-technical users on the network, but again, there are problems. Referrals show up as Instagram, which once again means nobody knows how many people are clicking through. At the time of writing, Threads has no API and no web or desktop version, which means audience teams have to manually post using their phones and hope for the best.

Bluesky and ‌T2: Still invitation only and very, very small.

Post and ‌Nostr: not invitation only, but also very, very small. Post is incredibly insular to publishing folks and Nostr is largely Bitcoiners at this point.

Reddit: Not to be discounted, but there’s no way for a publisher to own a Reddit page or community. Instead, they can be active participants, helping to shepherd conversations this way and that way. Self-promoting your own posts is frowned upon.

Twitter / X: In a rapid decline and full of far-right hate speech, but still a contender. For now, its referral traffic still outweighs all of the above by an order of magnitude (potentially except for Reddit), which means publishers are having trouble giving it up despite the hate speech.

Facebook: Obviously huge and ubiquitous but pay to play if you want any volume of readers to actually see your posts.

Instagram: Heavily used but links are dependent on the Uber-awkward “link in bio” design pattern. There’s no good way to just let people click through to a story on your own website.

TikTok: Celebrated as the way Gen Z is getting its news and content. I’m skeptical — because TikTok also needs to use a “link in bio” pattern, users rarely leave the app, and publishers must rely on TikTok’s own statistics for engagement. We’ve seen this play out before.

YouTube: Heavily used and near-ubiquitous, but requires a lot of up-front investment to produce content for. Publishers effectively have to create broadcast-level TV studios to participate. It’s not an option for most smaller organizations.

This is a far more fragmented landscape than publishers had to deal with a year ago. Save perhaps for X (a situation I can’t say I’m happy about), Mastodon and Threads represent the networks with the highest ROI, but in their current incarnations provide serious barriers for most publishers.

There are, of course, two more options:

Newsletters: A newsletter, in effect, is a direct relationship between a publisher and a reader. Newsletters have the advantage that no other platform is trying to arbitrate that relationship (although a third party platform like Mailchimp may be involved). They also allow publishers to know exactly who is reading, which may allow them to build a deeper relationship over time. For example, active newsletter readers may be more likely to convert into donors to a non-profit newsroom.

RSS: It’s not dead! Lots of people use RSS, whether through stand-alone feed readers or services like Flipboard and Substack Reader. Publishers will never know exactly how many people are reading, but users tend to have a newsletter-like loyalty to their feeds. It’s also usually a free, default part of a CMS.

Finally, perhaps obviously but also for some publishers not obviously enough, a publisher should always prioritize its own website as a destination. When you own your own website, there’s never a middleman. Newsletters and RSS can both help; social media can be an on-ramp for readers to discover your site. Establishing direct relationships that can’t be destabilized by, say, some billionaire deciding to slow access to links he doesn’t like is a business imperative — and has never been more so than this year.

Syndicated to IndieNews.

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My Taylor Swift eras

It’s fun to think of the work I’ve done in terms of Taylor Swift style eras. Hey, I might not have the musical talent, good looks, or legions of fans, but the work I’ve done has required a series of overlapping re-inventions.

So, why not. In roughly reverse-chronological order, here are my Taylor Swift eras; what are yours?

Super-serious journalism supporter.

Ben Werdmuller in his super-serious journalism eraDistinctive look: open button-down shirt
Distinctive food: Austin-style breakfast taco
Distinctive activity: karaoke

I got into media through a lucky encounter with the founders of what became Latakoo, who attended a talk I gave about user-centered social network design at Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2009. We collectively designed Latakoo to be an easy way for broadcast journalists to get their footage back to their newsrooms using commodity internet connections, in the video format the newsroom needed. It’s the way organizations like NBC News send much of their recorded video today.

I was the first CTO at The 19th, a non-profit newsroom reporting on gender, politics, and policy, and was an active participant in its Senior Leadership Team across all areas of organizational strategy. I’ve also contracted with other non-profit newsrooms to provide tech leadership support.

At Matter, I invested in media startups — but the cool thing about Matter’s fund structure was that the LPs were all media organizations like PRX, KQED, the Knight Foundation, the New York Times, the Associated Press, McClatchy, Tamedia, CNHI, and, yes, tronc. I got to regularly meet with teams from those organizations and (as part of the Matter team) help them through innovation problems they were encountering using a design thinking led approach. I also got to participate in their own internal innovation processes, like giving feedback as part of the KQED Lab internal accelerator.

Startup bro.

Ben Werdmuller in his startup bro eraDistinctive look: branded hoodie over a t-shirt that was also branded; socks were also often branded; third wave coffee mug also featured logo
Distinctive food: kombucha on tap and espresso using the imported Italian machine
Distinctive activity: offsites

I was the Head of Engineering at ForUsAll, which was my only foray into fintech. I was drawn to it because of its original mission to help increase access to retirement savings for more people. There was a lot of pressure to raise subsequent rounds of funding, and a major culture shift as the in-person company moved to a remote-first company during the pandemic. This allowed me to hire people I ordinarily never could have, in every US timezone.

I was also a Senior Engineer at Medium on its publications team. It was my first experience working at a company that had, frankly, so much money, sometimes alongside people I’d been following for years. I got to work alongside people who had previously built fundamental tools like Gmail as well as core pieces of web technology. The change in context meant I started off terrified: everyone was so completely on top of their respective games, and I had the biggest imposter syndrome of my life. It was also, for reasons I still don’t completely understand, the most fashionably stylish team I’d ever worked with.

Open source utopian.

Distinctive look: the jeans-tshirt-and-blazer look, because we were trying to look fancy and legitimate
Distinctive food: poké, for some reason
Distinctive activity: long, long walks, sometimes to save money on transit fares

I worked with Julien Genestoux on his Unlock Protocol: a way to help independent creators make money on their own terms without a middleman. Fully open source and decentralized, the protocol has taken advantage of various blockchains as they’ve become available, allowing the protocol to become as fast and cost effective as possible. Julien and I are both open-web-first evangelists, and this attitude shows through in the project.

With Erin Richey, I built Known: a kind of social news feed that you host yourself. Any number of people can publish to a Known feed (my site is a news feed of one, but some have had hundreds or thousands). We built an award-winning site with KQED and people around the world are still using it to power their websites. For a while, Known allowed you to directly syndicate your content to third-party websites, which saw us get coverage in Wired, among other places.

With Dave Tosh, I built Elgg: an open source social networking platform that was used by the Canadian national government, Fortune 500 companies, and organizations like Greenpeace and Oxfam. It was, in retrospect, one of the first private social networks and social intranets. We built the first social network ever run at a university, and I’m particularly proud of the social movements that used it. For example, the Spanish Movimiento 15-M anti-austerity movement used Elgg to organize. We also built the first open data definition for social networks, which helped inform the subsequent design of ActivityPub.

Institutional web developer.

Distinctive look: ironed shirt and trousers
Distinctive food: university canteen food (I was kicked out of the Edinburgh MALTS canteen after hacking the menu)
Distinctive activity: inventing acronyms for things

I ran the web properties at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. The coolest thing about this job was getting to know the faculty and students; it wasn’t long before they realized that I knew a lot more about startups and web tech than a random guy in an IT department probably should. I ended up meeting visiting dignitaries and participating in MBA round-tables. They were very kind to me, and in turn, I believe I pushed the IT department forward in its relationship to the web.

And first, perhaps most improbably, I ran the web properties for what is now the St Leonard’s Land Pool at the University of Edinburgh: an Olympic-sized swimming pool set up with underwater cameras to analyze and improve the strokes and techniques of elite athletes. I started being loaned out to the Edinburgh University Media and Learning Technology Service, which is where I met Dave and started cooking up Elgg.


Distinctive look: baggy sweatshirt, jeans, oversized glasses, leather jacket for some reason
Distinctive food: chips
Distinctive activity: putting 486 computers together

I helped build the first website for Daily Information, a local one-sheet newspaper for Oxford that included classified ads (it was possibly the first classified ad website in the world, pre-dating Craigslist) and reviews for local restaurants, movies, gigs, and theater. Before it became a website, I came on as its first BBS SysOp — my first ever job.

I ran a hypertext magazine called Spire, which I built in Windows Help Format because its capabilities at the time outstripped HTML. (We did move to the web later on.) I got to interview celebrities-to-me like Roger Ebert and Nicholas Negroponte. Distribution was via BBS initially, and then we started to be carried on the cover CDs of more professional print computer magazines (something I achieved by faxing them all in turn with a proposal, which blows my mind now). I was 15.

And I ran Rum and Monkey, a website that regularly got millions of pageviews a day and taught me all about social virality (this was 2002). I’ve written extensively about that over here.

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Removing my home information from the internet

I’ve used DeleteMe to remove my personal information from search engines and information hubs, but it hadn’t occurred to me until recently that I needed to also remove information about my home from listings sites. It turns out there are full photos, including video walkthroughs, just about everywhere. Particularly with a baby in the house, we felt uneasy about leaving these up.

USA Today has a quick guide to removing your home photos on the most popular sites, but it turns out there’s no public way to remove listing photos from MLS, the listings database that realtors use behind the scenes. You have to ask your agent nicely to do it on your behalf, which I didn’t know to do when I bought the house.

The selling agent also uploaded videos to YouTube — and there’s no defined process to remove those. I’ve had to send a nice email and hope that he has the time and inclination to remove. It would be nice if there was an automated way to remove my information there, too. (Updated to add: he very kindly removed it incredibly quickly.)

I post a lot, but keeping your personal data footprint on the internet clean is really difficult even if you don’t keep a blog or post to social media. Although other people shouldn’t post your personal information — it’s not legal, for a start — there’s no unified way to prevent them from doing so. There’s the threat of data leaks, of course, but there’s also the threat of intentional disclosure by someone who thinks what they’re doing is benign. In that way, it’s somewhere between an arms race and a losing battle: you can’t ever be sure that someone you’re dealing with in some capacity isn’t sharing more than they should about you on the web.

Searching for yourself and your other identifying information is a good way to figure out what’s out there, although the act of searching leaves its own insecure footprint. Zuckerberg was morally wrong when he said that the era of privacy is dead, but I wonder if he was, on a very practical level, correct.

I’m not a particularly vulnerable person. In contrast, for some people, these disclosures are life and death. Revealing an address or a home walkthrough has real implications for a journalist reporting on political corruption or someone fleeing their abusive partner.

We can build all the tools we want, but as I mentioned, it’s an arms race: there will always be more disclosures. Eventually this all comes down to establishing strong legal protections, and more importantly social norms, around privacy. The design of our internet tools and social networks, our standard patterns of use, and the way we think about organizing the data underlying the ways we search and share online are all organized around the principle of public-by-default. What if that all changed? How might it? And are the collateral losses — less sharing on the internet overall, fewer services around certain kinds of personal data — worth it?

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Don't personally guarantee your startup

One of the newsletters I subscribe to ran a sponsored post for Paintbrush, a firm that gives idea-stage founders a $50,000 loan to prove out their idea. The pitch on the front page is, “No rich aunt or uncle? No worries.”

My initial reaction was positive: I do think access to capital for founders from non-wealthy backgrounds is important. We’re missing out on so many important businesses by perpetuating an ecosystem that works best for people with deep pockets (who, in turn, tend to come from a narrow set of demographics). But the more I dug in, the more I think this is a bad deal, and I wanted to talk about why.

Based on their literature, Paintbrush provides a $50,000 loan with a very low-friction application and a fast decision. But the total repayment amount can be as much as $75,000, tied to a personal founder guarantee. That means that if your startup doesn’t work, you as a founder are required to pay that amount back at an amount pegged at 15% of your pre-tax income. For example, if your total income was $150,000, you would pay back $22,500 a year. That amounts to around 22% of what your post-tax takehome pay would be before payments like health insurance and rent.

Investor and founder Erik Severinghaus, in a piece entitled Never, Ever Personally Guarantee Your Startup:

Remember that 75 percent of even venture backed startups fail. Behind every one of those failures is a story of heartbroken entrepreneurs trying valiantly to extricate themselves from a challenging situation while retaining some modicum of dignity. Putting the money aside, that emotional hell is one that you don't want to live through, and it's exponentially worse if your creditors can come after your personal assets in addition to the corporate ones.

Not only that, but if you want to follow the VC path — or, for example, take part in an accelerator — you should know that investors take a close look at debt that you might have on the books. At an earlier stage startup, debt is a higher percentage of a startup’s total value, so early investors may take a particularly unkind view of it.

I expect that the founders of Paintbrush are trying to do the right thing. And in some cases, it may well still be a good solution! But I’d warn entrepreneurs to think about it very carefully before plunging in. Even if they provide a quick answer about your “funding”, you need to take your time and consider your options — and particularly the consequences if, like 90% of startups, yours fails. A fast process can lead to emotional decision-making where you’re all signed up before you consider the consequences. There may be better routes forward.

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Open feedback as a gift

Someone writing on six Post It notes

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to build high-performing teams: specifically, teams that build great products that I would also enjoy to be a part of. An incredibly productive team that also happens to be full of jerks is not something I’m particularly interested in replicating; I care about building meaningful things well in a resilient, nurturing environment. As well as being nicer places to work overall, these kinds of teams tend to have lower churn (people tend to stay for longer) and higher quality end products (the people who build things really care about what they’re building).

One of the most important things I learned working for Corey Ford at Matter Ventures was that a culture of open feedback is a core part of building a supportive culture. If people are to do their best work, they have to receive constructive feedback from their colleagues well; they also have to be able to give it openly. A team that’s stewing about friction they’re encountering without being able to talk about it in a way that might lead to resolution is one that’s highly likely to burn out.

One of the tools we used at Matter, which I believe was inspired by the famous Interpersonal Dynamics class at Stanford Business School, was a simple way to give and receive feedback on a regular cadence. I’ll describe the Matter version, which was face-to-face, and then discuss how I’ve adapted it for remote working.

By the way, Corey is an expert at this; he now runs Columbia University’s Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program for news executives, which is a giant opportunity if you’re in the industry. Regardless of the kind of organization you work in, you want him to help with your organizational culture.

In-person feedback.
Time to complete: 30 mins

Two people — Person A and Person B — sit opposite each other. Each has twelve square Post-It notes of a particular color; Person A might have twelve yellow Post-Its while Person B might have twelve blue Post-Its.

They set a timer and spend roughly fifteen minutes writing privately:

  • Three Post-Its giving themselves positive feedback. What’s something that went well?
  • Two Post-Its giving themselves deltas: what’s something they wish they could change?
  • One Post-It describing how they’re feeling about their work overall.
  • Another six giving the other person feedback in the same pattern: three positive, two deltas, and one that describes their overall feeling about their working relationship with that person.

Post-Its should always be written in a thick pen like a Sharpie, which forces brevity. Each one should be as simple as a headline, with the author’s name in the bottom corner.

Then the participants take turns to reveal their Post-Its.

  • If Person A starts, they start with their feedback to themself first, revealing each Post-It one by one, and describing it a little bit more than is written in the headline.
  • Then they continue onto their feedback for Person B, revealing and explaining each Post-It one at a time. Person B must remain silent except to ask clarifying questions.
  • At the end of Person A’s Post-Its, Person B just says “thank you”. No rebuttals are allowed.
  • Then you swap: Person B presents their Post-Its in the same way, and Person A says “thank you” at the end.
  • Each person takes the feedback Post-Its that the other person has written for them.

There are a few obvious pitfalls, which should be explicitly called out at the beginning of explaining this kind of session for the first time:

  • Don’t go “over the net”. This means don’t make assumptions about someone’s motivations or causation for a particular event. It’s totally fine to say, “when you did X it made me feel Y”; it’s not okay to say, for example, “you did X because you don’t care about Z”.
  • Be aware of other common cognitive biases.
  • Don’t interrupt the presenter.
  • Nothing leaves the room. No feedback should be discussed with anyone else.

Most importantly, when someone is giving you feedback, they’re giving you the gift of their inner mind: they’re speaking what might otherwise be unsaid, so that you can become aware of other peoples’ reactions and learn from them. The process should be taken and received in the spirit of gift-giving.

Therefore, protecting a safe space is vital. Crucially, managers should be prepared to receive honest feedback as well as give it, in the same spirit of gift-giving. If there is ever any blowback from feedback from a manager, or an adverse reaction, the space is no longer safe and the feedback is not effective.

This also can’t be a one-off, because comfort with giving and receiving feedback builds over time. So it’s best if everyone has a one-on-one feedback session with all the people they directly work with at least every few weeks.

Remote feedback.

Obviously, there are no Post-Its directly in a Zoom call, and collaborative whiteboarding services tend not to have a function that allows you to write in private and then reveal your sticky notes one at a time. It’s also awkward as hell to write on a paper Post-It and hold it up to the camera as you speak.

I’ve experimented with a shared Google Doc or a whiteboard space, and I think the best version of this that I’ve come up with works as follows:

  • Each person starts in their own document. I prefer sticky notes a whiteboard space, but a Google Doc works pretty much as well with a little set up. You’ll want to make sure that positive feedback, deltas, and the summary notes are each well marked, perhaps with a “+”, “Δ”, and line respectively.
  • There is also a shared document that both people have open. Rather than screen sharing, each person is looking at this document during the sharing step.
  • Each person copies and pastes a note into the shared document as they are describing it, one at a time.
  • At the end, both people retain access to the document. Next time, a new document is started.

Otherwise, exactly the same rules apply.

This is just one tool. Obviously, establishing a participative, open, supportive culture requires a great many techniques, and is about an overarching mindset more than it is about any one type of meeting. But I’ve found this to be a very helpful part of my toolkit when I’m running teams. I hope you find it useful too.

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Kate McKean describes how she’s writing her novel:

Right now, I am getting up early (6ish, not bonkers early) and leaving my house about 7am to go to a local coffee shop to write for an hour or two before my regular work day. I do this Tuesdays and Thursdays as much as possible.

It’s honestly not a bad plan. I’ve mostly been writing in the evenings once the baby goes to sleep, but not as consistently as I’d like: there are sets of days where I get barely any words down at all. But then again, there are other days when I write thousands, and because I’ve become used to my own ebbs and flows I try not to be too hard on myself.

If I’m writing during the daytime, green tea is my crutch. There’s something about just enough caffeine, without the cortisol boost that coffee gives you, that puts my head into the right spot. I used to depend on to tune out distractions, but I’m lucky enough to have an office with a closing door. The sound of the wind outside — or more commonly lately, a raging thunderstorm — works just fine.

It’s taken a very long time to get this far, but at this pace I expect to have a full first draft ready by the end of September. Obviously, I’m full of self-doubt about being able to do anything with it once I hit that milestone, but getting there will be an achievement in itself.

And that’s all I really want to say about any of this, because talking about something you have written feels much more meaningful than talking about something you will.

Nonetheless: worth mentioning that I’m still at it.

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Cheltenham Township taxes

It turns out that Cheltenham Township, the municipality where I live across the northern Philadelphia border, incurs an extra earned income tax on top of the state and federal taxes that I’m used to paying. This would have been fine if I’d had any idea that such a tax existed, or if it had been automatically deducted from my payroll (everyone I got a paycheck from in 2022 used Justworks), or if Turbotax had let me know that this was something I needed to do. As it turned out, I didn’t have any idea until I got a letter in the mail this morning, it wasn’t deducted from my payroll, and Turbotax gave me the impression that I was done with my taxes, so I was inadvertently delinquent on my taxes until I paid them and the associated late fees tonight.

This isn’t, by the way, a post about being mad about paying tax! I like taxes. I want to pay for great community infrastructure like public schools, community fire departments, integrated public transit, and so on. I want those things to work when I pay for them, but I’m delighted to do so. (Please also let me pay for single-payer healthcare. I’m begging you.)

Also worth saying: I work in a well-paying industry and should pay tax at a higher rate than people who earn less than me. I welcome this with open arms. Tax me well! And then use that money to pay for vital infrastructure for my whole community.

Here’s what I don’t want: to not pay my taxes because I didn’t know they existed and didn’t know to look for extra earned income taxes. That doesn’t feel good.

What also doesn’t feel good: tax collection in Cheltenham has, for some reason, been outsourced to a private company called Berkheimer Tax Innovations, which has a website that looks like it was built in Microsoft Frontpage in 1998, which you appear to be forced to use to file those taxes if you want to do it online. They also have an app — Berkapp — which lets you e-file by writing out your tax return by hand and then taking a picture of it.

It’s baffling to me that a local government should outsource its tax collection to a private company in this way — particularly one that provides such a bad service at the taxpayer side. Presumably they have a hefty contract with the township, or perhaps even a cut of transmitted funds, which could have been better used on a more open system. Again, I’m not objecting to the taxes themselves, but I’m extremely grumpy about how I was notified, how I had to file them, and the arrangement underlying how they are collected and paid. (I’ve come to understand that the county chooses this arrangement, even though the county itself does not levy these taxes. What?!)

What I’d love to see: a well-designed local government portal that lets me log in, see all my local services and responsibilities, and notifies me of everything I need to know about living here as it comes up. I’d love the software and infrastructure to be owned and developed by the township, or more likely as an open source endeavor by an alliance of townships, rather than outsourced. Give me some Code for America-influenced 21st century public service web software. Let me pay any fees — earned income taxes, trash pickup, whatever — straight from the portal. Let me volunteer from there, too. A real community hub.

Done well, this could be less expensive than private contracts to weird third-party companies with terrible websites. It could be more open and participative, and actually involve civic participation in its code from people who live here. It could drive awareness and ownership and help build local skills.

Instead, we got … whatever the hell this is. It’s incredibly broken. And surely someone at the township has got to know how terrible it is.

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On writing

Today was my best writing day in a while. I’m in awe of writers like Lancali who blithely post about hitting nearly 6000 words in a day. That is not me. That is very far from being me.

If I can hit a four figure word count, I consider it a pretty good writing day. I don’t do it every day. Some days, I stare at the screen and make a bit of a sad face and write 250 at best. But the upshot is that there is forward motion, and I haven’t set the whole thing on fire yet, and those two things are all I really want out of the project right now. All else being equal, I will have produced a full-length manuscript this year — a full-length story — and I can’t ask for more than that.

I don’t have an editor, or an agent, or a publisher, or a publicist, or any of those things. But those aren’t what I need right now. Those things are like drawing the logo before you’ve written the software. The main thing is to write. And that’s what I’m doing.

One day, I hope you’ll read it. But right now, it’s all for me.

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Zoom may be a bad choice for newsrooms

Update: Zoom has clarified its position in a new blog post which makes it clear that AI features are, in fact, opt-in.

Zoom’s terms of service now allow meeting content to be used to train AI, without opt-out:

What raises alarm is the explicit mention of the company's right to use this data for machine learning and artificial intelligence, including training and tuning of algorithms and models. This effectively allows Zoom to train its AI on customer content without providing an opt-out option, a decision that is likely to spark significant debate about user privacy and consent.

Google Meet also appears to train AI on meeting content. I would guess that virtually every newsroom in the country uses a videoconferencing solution that allows the content of customer calls to be used to train AI.

This blanket approval also means that this customer data may be available within a model somewhere (albeit not publicly) to be perused, including sensitive information about ongoing investigations and reporting on abuse of power.

Platforms like Wire may be more secure. At any rate, anyone discussing sensitive information may wish to find a solution beyond the usual suspects.


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As a (relatively) new parent, one of the questions that preoccupies me is: how can we show our son that anything is possible, and that he can be anything he wants to be? More specifically, how can we ensure that he knows that the templates and stereotypes laid out for him by society aren’t the only ways, or the best ways, to live a good life?

I was thinking about this last weekend at the memorial for my cousin Cort, who, among other things, sailed across the Pacific Ocean. The things he did were amazing — true adventures — but he talked about it so matter-of-factly that he made them seem like real things you could do. By simply existing and living his life how he wanted to, he broadened the horizons of the people around him, including me.

I’m grateful for all the people in my life who have lived outside of those set templates.

I remember going round to my childhood friend Clare’s house and learning that her dad had a room where he sat and wrote. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that this was something one could do, but here he was, doing it. (He asked me what I wanted for my birthday once, and I was too shy to ask for a signed copy of one of his Mr Majeika books, which I regret to this day.)

Humphrey Carpenter was the first time I became aware that using your imagination and harnessing your love of writing could be a profession, but writing surrounded me. My grandfather translated Crime and Punishment and Osip Mandelstam’s Journey to Armenia into English. As a young teenager in Oxford, my after-school job turned out to be a hub for interesting characters; for example, an odd man who regularly came in to use the photocopier turned out to be Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse mysteries. And in my adult life, my cousin Sarah has built an amazing career writing young adult novels.

My parents were staunch believers in doing things their own way, including by fighting for what they believed in as Berkeley activists. I’d lived in four countries by the time I was twelve, and knew about our family history across many more. I heard my dad’s stories about being in the US Army and protesting the Vietnam War afterwards, and about his own father’s leading role in the resistance against the Japanese in Indonesia during the Second World War. I learned stories about Ukrainian Jewish villagers coming to America with nothing, Swiss textile merchants, diplomats, and avant garde film directors.

Conformity and parochialism were not on the menu. I’m grateful every day that this is the context I grew up with.

How the fuck do I live up to any of this? Let alone convey the same sense of freedom to our son?

You’d be forgiven for thinking, reading the above, that we were wealthy. We were not. There was a freedom inherent in mindset: if you were clever about it, you could do incredible things with meagre resources. But the world is less forgiving than it used to be towards people who aren’t independently wealthy. America in particular is designed to force people into a life of salaried work at the hands of another employer. Here, both your healthcare and your retirement savings are at the mercy of who you happen to be employed by; yes, you can get insurance and retirement plans independently, but they’re never as good, or as cheap.

If you already have resources, you have opportunity; otherwise, American society pushes you into pouring your labor towards someone else’s profit. Sometimes, people are tricked into a life of non-stop hustle as a way to find escape velocity — only to find that the hustle also is a grift on behalf of someone else’s profit. (Some investors I’ve spoken to speak of founder pedigree as a thing they look for; if you scratch the surface just a little, this resource independence is what it really means. You’re backable if you already have the freedom and network to build something.) Add this to the pervasive fear that sits just under the surface — of guns, of crime, of violence — and modern America seems to be set up to subjugate.

Some people share the white picket fence American dream, and I guess there’s nothing really wrong with it. But I don’t share that dream, and won’t be forced into it myself; I want our son to know, at the very least, that other dreams are available, and that he gets to choose his own adventure. He can settle in the suburbs somewhere in America with a 9-5 job, a two-car garage, and a backyard lawn. He can also live anywhere in the world, do anything he sets his mind to, and be exactly who he wants to be, whatever it happens to be. He could be President of the United States, or a revolutionary artist, or a social entrepreneur, or a spear fisherman off the coast of a small island in the Pacific. There is a multiverse of possibilities. Eleven months in, the world is his.

To really convey that well, I’ve realized, I need to be exactly who I want to be. Which is hard! The last decade was characterized by supporting my mother through a familial terminal illness, including redefining my life and moving continents to do so. We’ve lived through grief after trauma after grief after trauma, and at the same time I had to learn how to build a life and career in the US to be able to stay afloat. It was a constant state of stress and being constantly reactive to whatever was going on that felt like being trapped inside my own life. I made some very poor, harmful decisions while living in this state, as well as some other decisions that were just incredibly dumb. It hasn’t all been stupid, but I certainly haven’t emerged without regrets, and I often haven’t lived up to my own ideals.

But now I’ve got to switch gears and think about being an example for our son. You can’t convey a set of ideals without living up to them; it rings false. If I think that an untemplated life is more fulfilling (and I do!) then how can I do better to embody that and show that it’s a real possibility? How can I be Humphrey in his writing room or Corty sailing across the Pacific or my dad protesting the war in Vietnam?

If the possibilities available to you are informed by the ones you’ve been exposed to, how can I expose him to more? If the mindsets available to you are informed by the ones you’ve been exposed to, how can I show him that there isn’t one way to think or be?

Knowing that I’ll inevitably fail to live up to my ideals, what can I do to set him up well to live an amazing life?

Like I said, this is a question that preoccupies me. I don’t know what the answer is, or even if there is an answer. I hope the exploration will be enough.

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Engineering principles

Code is cumulative overhead. The more you write, the more you have to maintain over time.

Self-hosted infrastructure is cumulative overhead. The more you configure and run, the more you have to maintain over time.

Always watch your overhead and keep it as light as possible.

The only code you should ever build yourself is that which adds to your core value proposition.

The only infrastructure you should ever build yourself is that which adds to your core value proposition.

Given a choice where building something yourself or buying it off the shelf will both meet your needs, buy it off the shelf.

Given a choice where building something yourself or using an existing library will both meet your needs, use the existing library.

Given a choice where building something and not building something will both meet your needs, don’t build the thing.

Don’t let highly skilled developers build things that your team will then have to maintain, even if it looks like they can do so quickly, if a viable ready-made alternative is available.

Never build or run something yourself to save nominal amounts of money. You’ll easily outspend that amount in the time you take to build and maintain it.

Always know your core needs.

Always know your core value proposition.

Do less.

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Brain fog

I’ve been absolutely laid out with a cold all this week. It feels pretty awful, not unlike how I felt when I had covid, but a million negative tests have let me know it’s not that.

Getting sick happens so rarely now (maybe once a year) that it comes with a wallop. As always, my prevailing feeling is, “I wish I could have my brain back.” I hate the brain fog most of all. There’s so much I want to do!

But for now, life is about drinking more tea, and getting through the day.

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The notable list: August 2023

The San Francisco skyline imposed upon a blood red sky

This is my monthly roundup of the links, books, and media I found interesting. Do you have suggestions? Let me know!



Ripe, by Sarah Rose Etter. Fuck yes. A heartstoppingly relentless, bold, knife attack of a book that cuts to the heart of the emptiness of living in Silicon Valley and everywhere. Every few pages I wanted to yell, “this, this, this.” I couldn’t put it down.


Dancing at the Pity Party, by Tyler Feder. The thing about this kind of grief is that nobody knows what it’s like until it happens. The sadness becomes a permanent a part of you, lurking just under the surface, and nobody understands. The feeling of being seen is extraordinarily rare. This book made me feel seen, and gave me space to feel the sadness. I’m not OK. But I’m not the only one.

Gentle Writing Advice: How to Be a Writer Without Destroying Yourself, by Chuck Wendig. A sort of call to arms for writers, but here the arms reach out in a warm embrace and tell you to be yourself. It’s not about being published; it’s not about following other peoples’ rules; it’s about telling the stories that make your heart sing in a way that’s true to you. The advice here is rooted in kindness and written with such warmth, wit, and charm that I came away feeling like I had a true ally. Thanks, Chuck.

Notable Articles


Media Startups Draw Less Backing, But AI Is A Bright Spot. I don’t know that it’s fair to count AI startups as media startups. Given the (justified) labor disputes going on right now, I’d offer that they’re closer to anti-media, and I’m not sure that I’d think of them as a bright spot. There’s plenty of room for AI to assist creatives, but of course the real money is in replacing them or devaluing their work.

AP strikes deal with OpenAI. This caught my eye: an example of OpenAI licensing content from a publisher in order to make its models better. Other publishers should now know that they can make similar deals rather than letting their work be scraped up for free.

The AI Dividend. I respect Bruce Schneier a great deal, but I hate this proposal. For one thing, what about people outside the US whose data was used? On the internet, the public is global. Wherever the tools are used, the rights infringed by AI tools are everyone’s, from everywhere. Paying at the point of use rather than at the point of scraping cannot be the way.

OpenAI and Microsoft Sued for $3 Billion Over Alleged ChatGPT 'Privacy Violations'. It’s important that lawsuits like this center on the use, not the act of scraping itself - the latter does need to be protected. One to watch.

Google Says It'll Scrape Everything You Post Online for AI. I think this is a legal challenge waiting to happen. While people who publish publicly online have a reasonable expectation that anyone can read their content, they don’t have a similar expectation about content being modeled and analyzed. There’s no de facto license to do this.

Language Is a Poor Heuristic for Intelligence. ““Language skill indicates intelligence,” and its logical inverse, “lack of language skill indicates non-intelligence,” is a common heuristic with a long history. It is also a terrible one, inaccurate in a way that ruinously injures disabled people. Now, with recent advances in computing technology, we’re watching this heuristic fail in ways that will harm almost everyone.”


Phoenix’s record streak of temperatures above 110F ends after 31 days. 31 straight days of 110°F / 43°C heat. And then only a short reprieve before more of it. Ocean surface temperatures at over 90°F / 32°C. And still there are people who deny we’re in a crisis. Spoiler alert: it gets worse from here.

Banks vote to limit accounting of emissions in bond and stock sales. The single biggest way large entities seem to be reducing their carbon emissions is through accounting. Not by taking action to diminish the impact of the climate crisis before it’s too late; by changing some numbers on a spreadsheet. We’ve crafted an imaginary cage for ourselves where the physical world is secondary to our modeling of it.

This women-led philanthropy is redirecting climate funding. Directing funding from self-interested billionaire philanthropy to grassroots environmental justice organizations is wonderful to see. They’re so much more likely to actually have an impact that will matter. And they need so much more support.

Extreme heat prompts first-ever Amazon delivery driver strike. Climate change comes for package deliveries - not because of the flights, but because of the trucks. The back of Amazon trucks can reach 135 degrees, with no cooling system. These are the same drivers who have trouble stopping for water or bathroom breaks.

‘Double agents’: fossil-fuel lobbyists work for US groups trying to fight climate crisis. Greenwashing goes deep. Environmentally outspoken organizations should not hire fossil fuels lobbyists. There should be a list loudly calling out those that do. Otherwise it’s all just words.

Monday was hottest day for global average temperature on record, as climate crisis bites. And it will just keep coming. (The next day was hotter still.)

'Environment is burning', warns UN rights chief. Plenty of people argue that the climate crisis is overblown. I think they’re wrong. If anything, we need to be screaming about this more - and, I agree, calling out the deniers and green-washers. Billions of people will starve. Entire nations will become uninhabitable. It’s not some kind of conspiracy; it’s a call to action.

Eigg Electric. This seems like what a part of the future looks like: the island of Eigg has its own power, generated by renewable energy. Members of the community are trained and paid to maintain it. A power grid is not a bad thing for resiliency (see Texas), but I can imagine a world where community sources are federated, rather than run through a central power company.


“Write With Love” and Other Advice From Chuck Tingle. “How can I make this like me?” is something I’m striving to do better at in my creative work and my life as a whole. Words to live (and write) by.

Roald Dahl Museum Calls Author’s Racism ‘Undeniable and Indelible’. This is something we’re going to contend with as our son gets a little older. Roald Dahl is an influential children’s author (who lived where I grew up) who was also, unmistakably, a bigot with a deeply cruel streak. Some of these books are strikingly not okay.

Bigger influence on the inside. A lovely, personal reflection on (in my opinion) the best TV show ever made.

A Teenage Girl Is a Funhouse Mirror. I love this kind of short story: small, personal, revelatory. I wish I could write like this.


Influencers Starting To Realize How The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) Will Do Real Damage. This bill will censor LGBTQ+ voices and far more. It’s a way to heavily restrict the internet not just with respect to harmful content, but also “controversial” content. It also mandates identity verification if you’re interacting with that content. It’s a deeply regressive way of looking at publishing. There’s still time to read up about it and tell your representative that you don’t want it passed.

A Black Man Was Elected Mayor in Rural Alabama, but the White Town Leaders Won’t Let Him Serve. How many American cities operate like this, either explicitly or in spirit? The answer is not going to be a small number.

Texas resigns from ERIC, a national program that keeps voter rolls updated. For a group of people that talks a lot about voter fraud, the Republican Party do seem to enjoy setting up the conditions to commit it.

Houston Chronicle reports Texas DPS trooper witnessing 'inhumane' implementations against migrant families crossing Rio Grande. Every American needs to know that these kinds of sick harms are being done to people, including small children, in their names. And every American needs to understand that some of their fellow citizens actually support it. We continue to be in a very dark place.

The opposition to Starmer has to begin now. I’m homesick like crazy, but between the Conservatives and the unabashed Thatcherism of supposed opposition leader Keir Starmer, British politics look pretty bleak. The plan outlined here is one (long-shot) path forward.

Immigration policies don’t deter migrants from coming to the US -- Title 42 and the border rules replacing it only make the process longer and more difficult. The only reason to make immigration more difficult, particularly for people who are seeking asylum from terrible conditions, is because you hate immigrants and want to hurt them. As it turns out, these stupid rules don’t even do what they claim to.

U.S. destroys last of its declared chemical weapons, closing a deadly chapter dating to World War I. The key word, of course, is “declared”.

Child marriage is still prevalent in the U.S. Here’s why. People against child marriage restrictions say they will infringe on religious liberty. 86% of children who are married are girls. So, let’s be clear: if you want this, fuck your religious liberty.

For Emmett Till's family, national monument proclamation cements his inclusion in the American story. An important designation that should never have been necessary at all. Notable that a memorial sign for Emmett Till was repeatedly stolen and shot. The sickness is ongoing.


I am dying of squamous cell carcinoma, and the treatments that might save me are just out of reach.Utterly heartbreaking.

America Is Wrapped in Miles of Toxic Lead Cables. It’s not really mentioned in this article, but lead sheathing isn’t just used in old phone cabling. It’s in some modern cabling too, including underground and undersea cables used to provide internet. And the health risks are real.


UPS reaches deal with union Teamsters to avert strike. An example of why unions are great: a better wage secured for a large workforce, with better conditions. They weren’t asking for anything crazy: reasonable pay, guaranteed vacations, and air conditioning in the trucks. It’s just unfortunate that they didn’t have these things before.

UPS pilots won’t fly if Teamsters strike. Really interesting to see people from across industries and disciplines fight for better conditions at the same time. I’d say it’s promising; even hopeful. I would like to see them all succeed, and for more to follow.

Adam Pickets Everything. Adam Conover’s activism has been refreshing to see during the writer’s strike: not just picketing the studios but educating the public about what a union does and how a strike works at the same time. It’s also fun to hear about other entertainers I admire working hard to support the picket lines.

Life before cellphones: The barely believable after-work activities of young people in 2002. It’s probably not too controversial to say that ubiquitous internet has hurt everyone’s work-life balance. To see what should be normal life reflected in a “remember when ...” nostalgia piece is jarring. I remember this world!

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right. Exactly this. What this piece calls People Theory, I call motivation over metrics. It’s the same idea: there are no cheat codes for people. You’ve actually got to use empathy with each other and build a community made of three dimensional human beings.

Hollywood Studios Anticipate Writers Strike Lasting Until October. This feels like a good opportunity for a studio to become pro-union and scoop up every amazing writer in the business.


I'm never going to trust your news organization. Heather Bryant is spot on as usual here: trust is a facet of human relationships and not something you place in an organization, company, or product. Using a more appropriate framing will help you figure out how to build the relationships your newsroom needs.

Merchant: How Silicon Valley mind-set begat Hollywood's strike. It’s an interesting grift in a way: VC-subsidized startups changed an incumbent industry enough that its existing companies began to think that these new ideas were good business. But they never were, and it ate them from the inside.

Bryan Goldberg: Why audience for online news is declining. I don’t think the web is dying, but it’s certainly not novel anymore - and you can’t depend on its breadth alone to gain an audience. This is yet another call for “niche” publications - i.e., outlets that know who they’re publishing for and go deep instead of wide.

Vox Media stops using Chorus, proprietary CMS, for its own websites. Honestly, every media company should get out of the CMS business and just use WordPress or another open source alternative. This is not your core value or competitive advantage. Build tools that support your journalism (and then open source those, too).

Local TV stations form new coalition to urge streaming reform. There’s the potential here to upend niche sports coverage on live streaming services, which in part work through local broadcasting. And the legal ramifications of designating live TV streaming services as TV providers would be interesting.

Media Is at a Unique Inflection Point. The subtext here is simple: to survive, media companies must know their audiences well (not just in aggregate) and serve their unmet needs directly. This has been true for a long time, but economics have sharpened the point.

Twitter Is Dying. Is it Time for News Subscriptions to Follow? Paywalls are not it - for the news business or for society. I personally think there’s a lot of mileage to be gained from patronage models, which have worked very well for both non-profit and commercial newsrooms - if their journalism really does provide a strong public service.

Threads isn’t for news and politics, says Instagram’s boss. To put it another way: Meta doesn’t want to have to worry about throwing an election. Meta wants us to focus on “sports, music, fashion, beauty, entertainment.” Newsrooms, be advised.

You (Yes, You) Should Start a Mailing List. If you own your relationships with your community, you’ll never be locked into any platform. Start a blog, start a mailing list - get out of the algorithmic content game. This is even more important if you make a living from your work. Parker is right on the money here.

Policing misinformation. “In general though, I think we should tread lightly.” This piece captures my opinion on the subject well.

How I’ve defied labels and enlisted the help of others to create my value proposition. A lovely conversation with my friend Roxann Stafford, who has inspired and taught me so much.


Readme.Txt: A Memoir, by Chelsea Manning. A vivid, clear-eyed account of a series of lived experiences that nobody should have had to endure. As well as the story of her leaks and their aftermath, Chelsea discusses what it’s like to work in military intelligence in gut-wrenching detail. This memoir is one of those historical documents that reveal so much about their era. More than that, and most importantly, it tells the truth. An important book written by a brave, fiercely intelligent, and fundamentally principled human being.


The truth about the women this Florida board says benefited from slavery. The idea that these women - or any enslaved people - benefitted from the degrading atrocity of slavery is disgusting. That a government is peddling this lie perpetuates the deep harm that was committed. The blind cruelty is unfathomable.

The world’s last internet cafes. A fascinating look into something that, for a little while, was a vital part of the global internet. They remain community hubs, even becoming de facto daycare centers, but smartphones and ubiquitous connectivity have left them struggling.

Schools Usually Call Moms. Disappoint but unsurprising data around gender inequality in parenting. I find the fact that schools are more likely to call mothers infuriating, to the point that I’ve experimented with creating a virtual call center number for both parents to share.

Connecting Europe by train: 10 EU pilot services to boost cross-border rail. Europe knows what’s up. I wish we could do this in the US - but there are so many obstacles.

View of 'man as hunter, woman as gatherer' upended by new study. So much of gender essentialism is self-feeding: the idea that men are born to be aggressive hunters was conducted by men who made assumptions based on contemporary societal sexism. Of course women hunted. Of course grandmothers hunted. There’s so much value in re-examining the prejudiced assumptions of the past.

King of the Netherlands apologizes for country's role in slavery on 150th anniversary of abolition. “King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands apologized Saturday for his country’s role in slavery and asked for forgiveness during a historic speech greeted by cheers and whoops at an event to commemorate the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Dutch colonies.” Now do Zwarte Piet.


The BBC on Mastodon: experimenting with distributed and decentralised social media. The fediverse is how every major new social network will be built for the next decade, and every media company will need to have a presence. Welcome to the BBC.

Mastodon is easy and fun except when it isn’t. An enormously useful piece of informal research. Some folks will disregard this for the same reason they disregard why some people use Macs instead of Linux, and whatever. But if Mastodon wants to be an accessible network, these are all problems to solve.

Data Futures Lab Infrastructure Fund. This seems great: funding projects to create a fairer, more just data ecosystem, with a focus on teams who themselves come from impacted communities. I’m excited to see what comes out of it.

Tesla’s secret team to suppress thousands of driving range complaints. The more I learn about Elon Musk, the more I think he’s exactly the kind of entrepreneur that laws and regulations are there to protect us from. This seems like something Tesla owners could take real action on.

Esther Crawford on Twitter and X. Esther clearly comes from a different perspective and worldview to me, but her take on Twitter and X is uniquely notable given how tied up in the story she’s been. I honestly don’t know what to think, but this is interesting background.

Watch Out, Fediverse Users: The FBI Can Seize a Mastodon Server. This unfortunately stands to reason: the Mastodon instance where you make your home has the potential to be seized as part of an investigation. This is a downside of federation vs peer-to-peer, and is a reason why I have my own single-user instance. (Generally, though, it’s worth saying that I’d expect data to be subpoenaed rather than having the server itself be physically seized.)

Vision for W3C. “Our vision is for a World Wide Web that is more inclusive, and more respectful of its users: a Web that supports truth over falsehood, people over profits, humanity over hate.” I like this sentiment a lot but it also has the potential to cause accidental harms. Who defines truth? W3C members? Someone else?

The Arc browser is now available for all iOS and Mac users to download. Oh, hey, open release! I’ve been using Arc as my primary browser all year, and I truly love it. It’s a huge step forward in browser UX and while I don’t use every feature, I can’t see myself going back to the 1990s-style paradigm.

TETRA Radio Code Encryption Has a Flaw: A Backdoor. One reason of many why open sourced protocols are more secure: backdoors can’t be kept hidden and abused by manufacturers and state actors. This was a serious breach and had the potential to destabilize nations. Secret and proprietary never means more secure.

As Twitter destroys its brand by renaming itself X, Mastodon user numbers are again soaring. Every time a billionaire makes a boneheaded social media decision, a Mastodon community gets its wings.

Addressing Child Exploitation on Federated Social Media. One of the problems with decentralized networks is that really bad stuff can traverse across them. The fediverse has a child sexual abuse material problem. Filtering it out does not solve the core problem. How can the fediverse be a good actor here?

Apple slams UK surveillance-bill proposals. Stories like this make me wonder if we’ll ever get to a point where governments stop trying to backdoor encryption. Freedom from surveillance is a necessary prerequisite for free speech; observation always creates a chilling effect. These efforts aren’t about fighting crime. This is about power.

Dear Alt-Twitter Designers: It’s about the network! You can have the best tech in the world, or the loftiest ideals, but social media is about people and communities more than anything else. If you don’t have that, and can’t nurture disparate, diverse spaces that grow organically over time, you don’t have a social media platform.

Meta provides Facebook messages in Nebraska abortion case prosecution. Or: why real privacy legislation would also protect women seeking reproductive healthcare. These laws aren’t just a principle; they save lives.

Bluesky is under fire for allowing usernames with racial slurs. A cautionary tale to say the least. The linked PR with slurs removed from a username denylist is rough to see. Real, vulnerable apologies and strong action to correct would go some way, but it might be too late.

The whitening of social media. “To watch the doors that have been opened to so many start to close because of racism in particular is a slap in the face, especially when so many white allies don’t seem to grasp the quieter sides of racism. Racism isn’t always overt and loud. Sometimes it is the cloak of polite exclusion. It’s the whitening of spaces that previously welcomed diversity. It’s rules that stifle people of color under the guise of “fairness.” Fairness to whom?”

Threads Adopting ActivityPub Makes Sense, but Won't Be Easy. I agree that ActivityPub is the right choice for Meta and any company wanting to follow a similar strategy, for the reasons laid out here. I’ve been thinking about tools that might make adoption easier for startups and hobbyists.

Meta-provided Facebook chats led a woman to plead guilty to abortion-related charges. One of my nightmares is that something I helped to build would be used in this kind of prosecution. There’s an expectation of privacy built into the design of direct messaging apps, and designers have a responsibility to protect their users. They failed here.

How to Identify “Truthy” Tech Trends. I love Amber Case’s framing of “truthy” tech: hype-driven technologies that promise too much too soon, are driven by FOMO, and are intriguing because of their depictions in popular culture. There are plenty of examples to choose from right now, and this is a great guide to spotting them.

Permission. An interesting thought experiment: do we need Google, or does Google need us? At what point does the center of gravity change enough for us to consider it worthwhile to block Googlebot and come out better for having done so? Until recently this would have been unthinkable.

Lessons From the Catastrophic Failure of the Metaverse. Worth considering the number of grifters who swore blind that the metaverse would be a thing. Of course it wasn’t a thing. It was a fever dream embraced by people who have clearly never watched anyone actually use technology: a corporate boondoggle at best.

Meta unspools Threads. A lot of people in the fediverse are rightly worried about what the arrival of Threads (which is Mastodon-compatible) will bring. I think it’s probably a positive addition for most people, and Casey Newton’s writeup here does a good job of explaining why.

Fairphone 4—the repairable, sustainable smartphone—is coming to the US. The Fairphone is more properly referred to as a fairer phone - there’s still work to do to really make it equitable - but it’s great to see it being launched in the US. More products that have this focus on repairability and owner control, please.

CJEU ruling on Meta referral could close the chapter on surveillance capitalism. The impact of legislation like GDPR goes far beyond their jurisdictions, because it’s hard to segment a data architecture for just some users. This ruling that Meta must provide its service to users who do not consent to tracking and processing of their personal data is potentially seismic.

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More on the ActivityPub API project

A few days ago I shared around an idea for an ActivityPub API product. The response was enormous! Here's the link again.

If you're potentially interested in building on the fediverse using this tool, I'd love to know a little bit more. If you have 3 minutes, could you please give me some quick feedback?

If you’re a developer who is interested in building on the fediverse using this kind of API platform, I’d really love to talk to you. Enter your email in the form above and I’ll get in touch. If we have a conversation about this, I’ll send you a $50 gift certificate as a token of my appreciation.

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How to disable the web's most annoying feature

Website notifications are a blight. I never want a website to be able to notify me about updates; these messages are interruptive, and like the vast majority of app notifications, they tend to be part of some marketing team’s growth strategy rather than a conduit to actually useful information. (Product teams: if your notifications are there to drive traffic to a new feature or a promotion, you’re making the web worse. Stop it.)

Every browser allows you to prevent these notifications from showing up at all, but not all of them make it easy. For example, my primary browser is Arc; I love it, but it doesn’t expose notification preferences in its Settings panel.

Luckily, every browser engine allows you to go straight to its full, advanced settings panel. Here’s how to do it:

In a Chromium-based browser (Chrome, Arc, Opera, Microsoft Edge):

Enter about:settings in the browser address bar.


Search for notifications and click on site settings.

Finding notifications in Chromium's settings panel

Scroll down to Notifications and click through.

The notifications menu item in Chromium's settings bar

Then change the settings to the one you’d prefer.

Notifications in Chromium's settings panel


In Firefox:

Firefox does surface notifications in its settings panel.

Once you’re there, search for notifications and then hit the settings button next to the Notifications heading.

Notifications in Firefox's settings panel

Then check the box that says Block new requests asking to allow notifications.

Firefox settings panel showing how to block all web notifications

Et voila! No more annoying pop-up messages. Take that, marketing departments.

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just pouring one out for my twittr

The letter X, lit in neon colors.

When I was fifteen, I ran a little “e-zine” called Spire that was distributed on the cover CDs of various real, paper magazines. I thought it was pretty cool, and that nobody could possibly have known that it was run by a fifteen-year-old. (In retrospect, it was pretty obvious.) I interviewed people like Nicholas Negroponte and Roger Ebert; I opined about tech in a very nineties, use-a-dollar-sign-to-spell-Micro$oft sort of way; I explored hypertext as a format.

Somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that the ninth issue would be the epitome of what I was trying to do. I decided to rebrand. I went for dark mode, putting everything on a black background with white and neon-highlight text. Instead of the colorful, friendly logo, I used a chrome rendering of the all-lowercase word “spire”. And I numbered each release like an event. Instead of issue 1, issue 2, etc., the new product would be called Spire One, Spire Two, and so on. And the first, coolest version of this would be Spire Nine.

I was fixated on this name and the whole vibe of what I was making. Spire Nine. I’d say it under my breath sometimes. Spire Nine. Even now, I get a funny feeling in my chest when I say it, probably because it’s just so cool. Spire Nine.

It’s a lame name.

I bet Elon Musk says “X” under his breath sometimes.

It’s a measure of how beloved Twitter was that so many people are emotionally invested in its rebranding to X. It was such a deep part of so many people’s lives — it was the backchannel to reality for a lot of people — that removing it feels like a wound. Or, at least, that’s one way to look at it. Let’s be real: it was a multi billion dollar public company, not a beloved community public square. It supported itself through advertising dollars made possible by optimizing for and monetizing our attention. If it hurts, it’s because we bought the product.

Long before it was sold, it was already tarnished goods: an imperfect place with timid management where women and people of color were regularly subjected to abuse, that was used by grifters of all political shades to exponentially grow their followings with a comparative lack of scrutiny. But it was also a place where genuinely positive movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo could grow and thrive; where new writers and artists could find new audiences; where people from wildly different contexts and perspectives could meet.

Its sale solved a problem for its owners, who took Musk to court to complete the $44 billion transaction. It was already tanking. Not anywhere as fast as it has under his ownership, but the graphs were not going up and to the right.

And now the sale is long since done. Elon Musk, as Twitter’s sole proprietor and purchaser, is free to do as he wishes with it. Which, apparently, is to give it a name he thinks is cooler, repurpose its userbase to kickstart a completely different app modeled after China’s WeChat, give the hard right what appears to be free reign, and intentionally lose brand equity with the academics, activists, journalists, and artists who called it their home on the internet.

If you squint a bit, you could surmise that Musk decided he could use the sale to buy himself a few hundred million users with the app pre-installed on their phones in order to kickstart the thing he really wanted to build; his Spire Nine. (Spire Nine.) His original name for PayPal was X (Spire Nine) and he’s been sitting on the domain for years. This is a shortcut to getting to the equivalent of his teenage bedroom startup vision. That’s the kind of thing you can do if you’re a billionaire.

Of course, people have been leaving Twitter all over the place all year: nobody has to use Twitter, after all, and both Mastodon and Threads are providing a readily usable alternative for people who are sick of Musk’s apparently ego-driven changes.

It’s also possible that it’s a big tax write-off scheme, or that he’s high on his own supply (or just high) and is no longer capable of making rational business decisions, or that he’s trying to shake off his underwriters, or any number of other plausible and semi-plausible explanations. It’s hard to say for sure.

What we do know is that Twitter is gone, and each and every one of you reading this will be better off using a fediverse network like Mastodon or Threads instead. Or just posting to the web on your own website and reading other peoples’ updates using RSS. Or going outside and touching grass.

I’ve given Musk plenty of oxygen online, and I think I have to stop. The previous Twitter product was hyper-corporate and already broken and harmful. The new one is essentially irrelevant to my life. There are a lot of really good new things being made, and a lot of people doing great things, and a lot of good planning is happening in my own work, and I think it’s more productive to move forward than bog myself down in nostalgia for the past, let alone preoccupy myself with some billionaire’s teen-level ego trip.

So I’ll say it again: join me on the fediverse. Follow my updates on my own site. Subscribe to the newsletter. Start your own one of each of these things because I want to read them. And let’s forget about that other place.

(Spire Nine.)

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