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My American thought experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I find myself revisiting my thought experiment.

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

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

 

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

 

My text editors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your text editors of choice?

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: June, 2022

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

Books

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

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

Notable Articles

Business

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

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

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

Climate

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

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

Covid

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

Crypto

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

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

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

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

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

Culture

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

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

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

Media

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

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

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

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science

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

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

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

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

Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I’ve still got it

I’ve still got it! Covid, that is.

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

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

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

On we go.

 

The startupification of education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Was marveling that we used to have webisodes and everything on TV is a webisode now, and then I realized that webisodes were like 15 years ago and, once again, I'm far older than I think I am.

 

Still isolating

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

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

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

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

 

Friday

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

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

 

Infosec for abortion-seekers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo by Manny Becerra on Unsplash

 

FIDO passkeys are an existential threat to fintech startups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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