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

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

19thnews.org

 

Got the new iPhone. 25% more purple. 50% more blobby upstairsy. 33% more “actually I don’t want to see my tasks all the time, please turn off your screen”. Otherwise practically identical as far as I can see.

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Bad reflux baby has bad reflux. Poor little thing.

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A reminder that "woke" just means "awake to and aware of oppression and injustice". It's not something that makes anyone weaker. It's how we all get stronger.

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Indiepeople

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

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What’s the best wryly realistic writing about parenting a baby? I’ve got all the perfect advice and the influencer accounts, but who’s making jokes about projectile poo and embracing their imperfection?

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Really bad night. I feel like I’m failing him with every cry. I’m so sorry, little one.

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I think NPS is a really great measure. Of how willing you are to disrupt your users’ experience in favor of gathering a vanity metric.

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Baby is already pretty sure he needs to seize the means of milk production, which I see as a generally positive sign.

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Who's doing great work building technology (as in, doing the technical architecture and engineering) in non-profit news?

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Shana Tova to everyone who celebrates!

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Tonight I needed to use something called a Windi on my baby, and I might need a whole therapy session just for that.

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Pet Door Show

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

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

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

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

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I’ve 100% become one of those people who just talks about his baby and assumes you’re as interested as he is. Suspect this will get worse, not better, over time.

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A sure sign of a truly toxic culture is badmouthing people behind their backs. When that level of infighting starts, I don't know that it's possible to save a community - particularly if it doesn't see the importance of building something more supportive.

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Came within moments of accidentally pouring the baby a cup of coffee into his bottle this morning, so as you can see, we all had a great night.

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Generating genre novels with OpenAI

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

 

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

The Last Resort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mother is killed and the commune is destroyed.

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

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

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

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

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Wanted: ProductHunt for indie tinkerers and developers outside of a startup context. (I love ProductHunt; I just also want something else.) Does that exist? Could it?

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Your 401(k) hates you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Private prisons? You get the idea.

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

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

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

 

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

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To be honest, when people said that parenting was the hardest thing they’d ever done, I thought they meant emotionally or spiritually.

In unrelated news, will I pass out randomly during the day today? Let’s find out

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TV show pitch: a gritty Golden Girls reboot set 200 years in the future.

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A small website redesign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I put him back to sleep in his bassinet whispering that I’d always be there for him, which is a lie. He’d better outlive me.

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I don't think it's a partisan comment to say that we're still veering towards fascism. The transfer of migrants to Martha's Vineyard - with falsified records so they can't be traced, no less - has me very worried. Where does this escalate to?

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Pet theory: every single horror film is based on some aspect of pregnancy, childbirth, or parenting. It’s the most primal experience we have, and the one most loaded with fear and doubt. And also the most biologically transformative.

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It’s amazing how different baby bottles are. NUK Simply Natural glass bottles are working out really well, after some false starts with other models. They look weird but there’s much less leakage and baby seems to love them.

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